Table of Contents

The Firm

ballot box
Bench Warner

blogging the bible
The Jesus Prophecy

blogging the bible
King David, Extortionist

Can You Really Save the Planet at the Dinner Table?

The Anatomy of Destiny

Bushism of the Day

Bono, Tax Avoider


Not Very Nice

dear prudence
Family, Valued

On the Campaign Trail in Nicaragua

Searching for Borat

The Mobile-Home Candidate

This Is Ford Country?

Tangled Webb

The Most Useful Wine Book Ever

everyday economics
How the Web Prevents Rape

Saturday-Night Democrats

How Gasoline Becomes CO2

Why Can't U.S. Soldiers Marry Iraqis?

fighting words
Rushing for the Exit

What Joy Is Missing

Do As We Say—If You Dare

Root Causes

human nature
Why Girls Sleep Around

in other magazines
Money Matters

in other magazines
The Oracle of Hip Hop

in other magazines
The "Gray" Zone

Pelosi = Amnesty?

medical examiner
Your Health This Month

The Return of Bushenfreude

America Undercover

music box
Take the O Train

"A Moment Ago"

Midterm Elections


Kean Enough

Weak Poll

press box
Democracy for Dummies

Return of the Yellow Dog

Boarding Pass Failure

Raising the Steaks

slate green challenge
Warm Up

summary judgment
Copyright Crackdowns

supreme court dispatches
Up in Smoke

The Colbert Retort

the big idea
Poisoned Politics

the book club
Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope

the breakfast table
The Midterm Elections

the has-been
Get Your Paws Off, Commies!

today's blogs
Don't Blame Rummy

today's blogs
Party of Six Rerun

today's blogs
Military Intelligence

today's blogs

today's papers
How To Build an Atomic Bomb

today's papers
Successful Squeeze

today's papers
2004 Flashback

today's papers
Violent Wave

today's papers
Missing Arms

today's papers
First Enron, Now End Run?

tv club
Breaking Down The Wire

war stories
Hillary Clinton's Small Ideas

The Firm
What Skidmore, Owings & Merrill did for American architecture.
By Witold Rybczynski
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 12:57 PM ET

Click here to read a slide-show essay about architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.





ballot box
Bench Warner
Bush says a Democratic Senate will ruin the federal courts.
By John Dickerson
Friday, November 3, 2006, at 1:02 AM ET

Friday, Nov. 3, 2006

Bench Warner: In the final days of the 2002 campaign, George Bush traveled to states with close Senate races like Arkansas, Missouri, and Minnesota and to battleground House districts like Indiana's 2nd District. His travel schedule was a map of the competitive races. Now, it feels more like a wilderness trail. He stopped in Montana Thursday and will travel to Missouri Friday, where there are key battleground races, but he's staying away from the Senate fights in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia ,and New Jersey. The 2nd District of Nevada where he stopped Thursday hasn't been won by a Democrat since its creation 25 years ago.

Bush is being deployed to places where he has the best chance of turning out the GOP troops. Since he's preaching to stir the faithful, I'll be looking at his speeches over the next six days to see what we can learn about the messages the GOP thinks will move their people out the door on Election Day. Bush will talk about taxes and the war on terror, but what else will he emphasize?

For his first day, the new emphasis was on judges, a favorite for roiling the blood because it hits multiple GOP constituencies. Corporate executives and small-business owners worry that liberal judges will enforce regulations and reward plaintiffs; social conservatives worry that judges will destroy the institution of marriage and give unfair advantages to women and minorities.

Bush didn't talk about specific rulings by activists judges, like the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling on civil unions, but focused instead on the ruin that would follow if Democrats in control of the Senate could determine what kinds of judges sit on federal courts. In both Billings, Mont. and Elko, Nev. he told voters that John Roberts' nomination to a lower court had been blocked when the Senate was in Democratic hands. "I want you to hear this loud and clear: If the Democrats controlled the Senate, John Roberts would not be the Chief Justice today," Bush said.

One last note: The John Kerry piñata has been put away for the moment. In both speeches Thursday ,the president dropped his references to the senator's recent botched joke. Did Bush accept his apology? Doubtful. ...12:54 a.m. (link)

Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006

Which is it? Yesterday in interviews with wire-service reporters, the president defended his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who in the most-recent NBC/WSJ poll only 26 percent of respondents say they view positively, while 49 percent view him negatively. "He's handled all three at the same time (Afghanistan, Iraq, and the military at home)," said Bush. "And I'm pleased with the progress we're making." But in an East Room press conference a week ago, the president said he wasn't pleased with the progress: "I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I'm not satisfied, either." ... 1:16 p.m. (link)

Lock in your punditry. Every race has overblown turning-point moments that may not have any real effect on the races but which live on long after in campaign mythology. They get repeated at Harvard symposia on elections, pundits recycle them, and bloggers grip them like a squirrel with a nut. Howard Dean's scream after losing the Iowa caucus is one such turning-point moment. The conventional wisdom about these turning-point moments plays a big role in the strategy and arguments and plotting in the next race.

The Playboy party ad run against Harold Ford in Tennessee feels like it's going to become one of those moments. Ford is slipping in the polls. In the latest Zogby poll, he now trails Bob Corker by 10 points. Ford is widely viewed as having run a perfect race by minimizing his family baggage, moving to the center, and not letting his opponent and the Republicans paint him as a liberal. So, why is he slipping? Liberal pundits are likely to say it was the ad, which tapped latent racist feelings among Tennessee voters. Other analysts will say that the press outrage over the ad created a backlash that favored Corker.

The ad may also have had no great impact on the race, but just arrived at a natural turning point. Tennessee is a tough state for a Democrat, and the polls might just reflect late-in-the-game tightening. Or, could it be that those push polls running against Ford, which I argued were incredibly lame, were actually effective?

If Ford wins, the ad will be seen as the last gasp of old-style Southern politics, and the conventional wisdom will embrace Bill Clinton's view which he articulated yesterday at a rally for Ford: "You know what it will mean if Harold gets elected on Tuesday. It won't mean what all those columnists and commentators say. It won't mean that it's a victory of race; it will be a victory of going beyond race."

Figure out where you are on these questions now before the wave of punditry locks in conventional wisdom you might not agree with. ... 12:25 p.m. (link)

blogging the bible
The Jesus Prophecy
Does God's promise to David predict the birth of Christ?
By David Plotz
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 12:29 PM ET

From: David Plotz
Subject: Does God's Promise to David Predict the Birth of Christ?

Updated Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 12:29 PM ET

The Book of 2 Samuel

Chapter 1

Did Saul really kill himself? The final chapter of 1 Samuel made a big deal out of Saul's suicide. But the first chapter of 2 Samuel rebuts that story. An Amalekite messenger brings the news of Saul's death to David. When questioned, he says that he knows the king is dead because he killed Saul himself. The wounded king begged the Amalekite to finish him off, so he delivered the blow. You just know it's not going to end well for this regicidal Amalekite. Even though it was a mercy killing, David has the Amalekite executed. No matter what the reason, you're not allowed to murder the Lord's anointed. David is very savvy about protecting his own interest.

Always a good weeper, David cries again for Saul and Jonathan. He feels genuine and profound sorrow. David, let's remember, never touched a hair on Saul's head, even when Saul was trying to kill him. David sings a gorgeous lament about the deaths. (Hey, language mavens! This song is the source of the phrase: "How the mighty are fallen.") David reserves his deepest sorrow for Jonathan, of course: "Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." More speculation, friends?

Chapter 2 and Chapter 3

David gets himself crowned in Hebron—but only as king of Judah. Saul's son Ishbaal rules the other tribes. War soon breaks out between the rival monarchs, with David's generals—notably the brothers Joab and Abishai—getting the best of it.

Ishbaal's top commander is Abner, who had been his father's general, too. But Abner and Ishbaal soon squabble over a concubine, and Abner prepares to defect to David's team. Before that happens, David demands that Ishbaal and Abner return his first wife, Michal, Saul's daughter. When David and Saul had their falling-out, the king had given Michal to another man. In a heartbreaking scene, Michal returns to David, her new husband Paltiel trailing behind her, sobbing.

Let's linger for a moment on this episode. David has an exquisite ability to make other husbands suffer. First he gets Nabal smote by God and marries his widow. Here he's leaving Paltiel heartbroken to retrieve a wife whom, as we'll learn in a few chapters, he doesn't even like. And pretty soon, he'll get Bathsheba's husband killed so he can marry her, too. It's in the nature of sexually voracious men to humiliate rival husbands and boyfriends—that's what happens when you take someone's girlfriend or wife. But David is the world champion of this. His sexual pursuits leave men dead, not merely embarrassed.

Abner has a secret dinner with David and vows to rally the rest of Israel to his side. David's general Joab is infuriated at Abner's ascendance, because Abner murdered one of Joab's brothers. Joab tricks Abner into meeting with him, then stabs him to death. Abner's assassination infuriates David, who asks God to make sure that from now on the men of Joab's family will either a) die violently; b) go hungry; c) catch leprosy; d) have odious "discharges" (don't ask!); or e) be effeminate (the actual words are "hold a spindle"—which means do women's work). Even so, David keeps Joab as his top commander. The man knows how to kill.

I've noticed that the numbers in the Bible are getting less and less incredible. Back in the first five books, armies were of monstrous size—hundreds of thousands of men in a single battle. But as the events described have gotten closer in time to the actual writing of the books, the numbers are shrinking to more realistic figures. It's been particularly noticeable in Samuel: David's entire militia numbers only 600, and the army Saul raises against him has only 3,000 men. Here in the great battle with Ishbaal's army, David's men kill only 360 enemy soldiers, while suffering only 20 casualties themselves. These are believable numbers and lend the stories historical credibility.

Chapter 4

Two gangsters assassinate king Ishbaal and bring his head triumphantly to David. Does David appreciate another regicide? Oh, no—he does not. He executes the assassins and chops off their hands and feet. Get it through your thick heads, Israelites: Don't touch the king—any king!

Chapter 5 and Chapter 6

Thanks to Ishbaal's death, David finally rules all of Israel. He's now 37 years old. David quickly captures Jerusalem from the Jebusites and names it the City of David. Until now, Jerusalem has been a nothing, just another town that the Israelites have had a hard time conquering. Hebron, Bethel, and Shiloh have been far more important to Bible geography. But David turns Jerusalem into the holy metropolis. He settles in there and has a grand palace built from cedar trees sent by the king of Tyre. He rapidly fathers 11 new kids by a variety of concubines and wives.

David collects the ark to bring it to Jerusalem. He dances and sings in front of the ox cart that holds the ark. When the oxen jostle too much, cart-driver Uzzah steadies the ark with his hand. Bad, bad move. God smites him on the spot. David is furious about the Lord's massive retaliation against Uzzah. On the other hand, God has made it pretty darn clear that the ark is as holy as it gets. My question: What if Uzzah hadn't steadied the ark, but instead let it fall to the ground? Would that have been worse or better?

Post-Uzzah, David is so terrified of the ark that he decides not to take it to Jerusalem but instead leave it in the house of Obed-dom the Gittite. Everything goes right for Obed-dom—having the ark is like hitting the God lottery. When David sees Obed-dom's prosperity, he immediately collects the ark and brings it to Jerusalem, dancing all the way. His wife Michal rebukes him as a "vulgar fellow" for cavorting like that in front of servant women. David snaps back that he was dancing for the Lord—the very Lord who chose him to be king instead of Michal's father, Saul. And he says that the maids who saw him dancing would actually "honor" him for his exuberance. It couldn't be any clearer: Dancing and music delight God! This is all very Footloose. How do anti-dancing Christian denominations reconcile their position with God's obvious love of the cha-cha?

(Incidentally, Michal is punished for her dance criticism. She's barren, presumably because David refuses to sleep with her—even though he broke up her other marriage to repossess her.)

Chapter 7

This must be a chapter that's important to Christianity. God is peeved that David gets to live in a lovely cedar palace, while His ark is still stuck in a tent. (Even the Bible is all about real estate!) The Lord sends the prophet Nathan to instruct David to build a temple for the ark. The Lord, speaking through Nathan, offers all kinds of incentives for the king, promising him that He will make a great name for David, and that He will raise up David's descendants. Then God says, either of David or his heirs—it's not quite clear—"He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings."

If I remember correctly from my religion class back at St. Albans, Jesus claims descent from David. Does this verse explain why? This promise to David seems to describe the relationship of Jesus and God and the death of Jesus. Dear Christian readers: Is this an important verse for you?

David, no fool he, thanks God effulgently for the blessings, flatters Him lavishly, and promises, in the purplest possible language, to build Him a house in Jerusalem.

Update, Nov. 2, 2006: Whoops! Several readers have already pointed out that I misread the exchange in Chapter 7. I got confused about who was talking. It's not God who is complaining that He doesn't have a house. It's David expressing how embarrassed he is that he has a palace and the ark doesn't. David wants to build the temple, but the Lord tells him not to, because his descendants will do it. My apologies for the screw-up. I did manage to read that passage about "father" and "son" correctly.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

blogging the bible
The Complete Book of 1 Samuel
What the mafia learned from God's favorite king.
By David Plotz
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 1:47 PM ET

From: David Plotz
Subject: A Bizarre Incident With the Ark of the Covenant. Plus, Why the Bible's Priests Are So Corrupt.

Updated Friday, October 20, 2006, at 7:39 PM ET

Christian readers may be wondering: Why is he skipping the book of Ruth? I'm not! The Jewish and Christian Bibles briefly diverge at the end of Judges. Christians read Ruth, while Jews jump directly from Judges to Samuel and return to Ruth much later. So, I should get to Ruth in, oh, January.

1 Samuel

Chapter 1 through Chapter 3

No wonder priests, ministers, and rabbis have spent so much of the last 3,500 years discouraging regular folks from reading the Bible on their own: It makes clerics look like sleazeballsvenal, greedy, smug, and unholy. As we saw back in Exodus, the priestly caste got off to a very bad start. The first priest was Aaron, the Fredo Corleone of the Sinai. Then Aaron's two sons dissed God so badly that He smote them. The Israelite clergy didn't much improve after that. Here at the beginning of 1 Samuel—"First Samuel," as it's spoken—we meet Eli, Israel's top priest, who gives his profession another black eye. Sitting in the temple one day, he observes the visibly distressed Hannah praying that the Lord give her a son, because she's barren. Eli sees her lips moving, but can't hear her speaking. Does he ask her what's wrong? Offer succor and counsel? Uh, no. He accosts Hannah angrily and says, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine." What a welcoming man of God!

Hannah, rather then telling Eli to stick it you-know-where, apologetically insists that she's not drunk, but "pouring out my soul before the Lord." (What a glorious phrase!a perfect description of deep prayer.) Eli tells her God will grant her prayer for a son, and He does. She gives birth to Samuel and vows he will be, like Samson, a nondrinking, nonhaircutting "nazarite." Hannah takes her devotion a step further: She actually gives Samuel to God, dropping him off at the temple as soon as he's weaned. (This seems a little harsh on both mom and baby, if you ask me. But I'm one of those indulgent, mollycoddling parents.)

Hannah then sings a lovely praise-poem to the Lord. (A small taste: "He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and on them He has set the world.") Here's a question: There are few women in the Bible, yet they sing many, even most, of the book's great songs (Miriam's celebration after the Red Sea crossing, the song of Deborah, Hannah's hymn here). Why would songs and poetry belong to women? And, as a political matter, how did women, whose public lives were so limited in Israelite tribal culture, claim public roles as singers and poets?

Back to the priests, who are getting even worse. Eli and his sons, who are his deputy priests, bring up Samuel. But the sons are "scoundrels." They steal the animal sacrifices, scarfing down the burnt offering themselves. They bully temple-goers and even sexually harass and seduce the temple's girl-assistants. (A Mark Foley-type situation.) Eli, a feckless father, weakly chastises his sons, but doesn't stop their misbehavior. An angel tells Eli that his family will be tossed out of the priesthood; his sons will die on the same day; and a faithful new priest—Samuel, we realizewill take their place.

And, lo, it comes to pass. God begins talking to Samuel. (This is a very sitcom-style incident, because the first three times the Lord calls him, Samuel assumes it is Eli summoning him. Eventually Eli realizes that Samuel is actually hearing God's voice and tells his protégé to listen up.) God and Samuel start talking regularly, and Samuel soon becomes Israel's top prophet.

Chapter 4 through Chapter 7

Raiders of the Lost Ark, the prequel! The Philistines rout the Israelite army, so the Israelites dispatch the ark of the covenant to the battlefield in hopes of harnessing its power for victory. A curious thing occurs: The ark fails the Israelites! (This contradicts everything Steven Spielberg taught me about the ark's absolute power. What kind of world do we live in that you can't even trust Spielberg anymore!) The Philistines, initially terrified of the ark, steel themselves against it. They're much more courageous than the quivering Israelites. They slaughter the Israelites, capture the ark, and kill both of Eli's sons, who were guarding it. (Clearly, the author does not believe the ark has failed; rather, the Israelites lost because they were faithless.) When Eli hears of his son's deaths, he falls backward out of his chair, breaks his neck, and dies. Then Eli's pregnant daughter-in-law hears of her husband's death while she's in labor and dies herself, but not before giving birth to a son named Ichabod, which means, "The glory has departed from Israel." Now that's a name with bad karma.

OK, back to Raiders. The jubilant Philistines bring the captured ark to the temple of their god Dagon. In the morning they find the statue of Dagon face down before the ark. They remount Dagon, but the next morning they find him on the ground again, this time with his head and arms chopped off. And that mighty ark is just getting started harassing the Philistines. It then inflicts hemorrhoids—what's with all the Biblical hemorrhoids?—on the people of Ashdod. (So, Spielberg was also wrong about the ark causing your face to melt. It works its magic on your other end!) The Phils move the ark to Gath, and sure enough, the Gathites are soon itching hemorrhoids, too. Then the ark goes to Ekron, and, yup, it's Preparation H time there as well. (The "H" stands for "Holy.") With Ekronites dying, the Philistines are desperate to return the ark. Their priests advise sending it back with a "guilt offering" to appease God. What's the gift they come up with? Five gold mice and five gold hemorrhoids! What would a gold hemorrhoid even look like? One shudders to think! (According to a quick Google search, scholars debate whether the ark caused "hemorrhoids" or "tumors." Let's face it, hemorrhoids make it a much better story.)

Samuel leads a great religious revival in Israel, persuading his people to cast off their Baal idols and return to the Lord. The result is earthly reward, too: renewed conquest of the Philistines. There's a profound difference between Samuel and the judges in Judges. The judges fought battles and threw off enemy tyrants, but rarely exhorted the Israelites to love and fear God. As a result, their success was very temporary. But Samuel conditions worldly success on faith. The Israelites only thrive insofar as they obey God, and he never stops haranguing them about it. Samuel, unlike the judges, actually does judge his people.

Chapter 8

Yet more bad men of the cloth: Samuel's sons follow him into family business, but they "took bribes and perverted justice." Again the Bible reminds us of the evils of inherited power. The Lord ordained the priesthood as an inherited profession, but that was clearly an error. Every priest with a decent reputation has wretched sons—Aaron, Eli, and now Samuel. The Bible is a refreshingly meritocratic: Again and again it measures the worth of men by their deeds and not their bloodlines. Except for the original patriarchs, none of the great Jewish Bible stars has gotten a leg up through nepotism. Moses is the child of nobodies. Joshua is related to no one. Gideon is the youngest son in the weakest clan of the feeblest tribe. Samson came from nothing—Samuel, too. They are all self-made men. I suspect this is one reason why Americans read the Bible more enthusiastically than, say, Europeans. We are a deeply meritocratic people, and the Bible affirms that equal opportunity is God's plan, too.

Even so, the Israelites still want a king. Sick of war and fearful that Samuel's corrupt sons will succeed him, the Israelites beseech the aging Samuel to appoint a king to govern them. Samuel bristles and gives a brilliant, moving sermon against monarchy: "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots. ... [H]e will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of 50s, and some to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers," etc.

It's totally convincing, yet "the people refused to listen" and demand a king anyway. The Lord tells Samuel: Go ahead, give them their king.

Really, can you blame them for wanting a monarch? We just finished a book, Judges, which is all about what happens when there is no leader—mass murder, gang rape, anarchy, and so forth. The Israelites had lived through that nightmare. Samuel's warnings against kingship ring hollow by comparison. Kings are corrupt and brutal, but are the Israelites so stupid for choosing monarchy over anarchy? I would do the same. (There's an Iraq analogy here, for those who want to pursue it. But that's not my department.)

From: David Plotz
Subject: Why God Picked Such an Incompetent Wretch as the Israelites' First Monarch

Posted Tuesday, October 24, 2006, at 5:21 PM ET

Chapter 9 and Chapter 10

Samuel is keeping his eye peeled for a suitable king. The Lord tells him that His chosen candidate is about to visit. It turns out to be the young man Saul, who has lost a donkey and wants Samuel to help divine its whereabouts. These few details perfectly sum up the character of the future king: Saul's the kind of person who loses the animal he's supposed to watch and then wastes the time of Israel's most powerful man in order to find it. He's at once incompetent, careless, and entitled. But no matter: Saul is the best-looking man in his tribe and the tallest Israelite around, so Samuel anoints him in a private ceremony.

(Incidentally, Saul's anointed after a dinner in which Samuel serves the future king the thigh of lamb, or maybe goat. This is another example of how the thigh is prized—it's the choicest cut during animal sacrifices, as well. Me, I prefer white meat.)

Samuel dispatches the new king to a religious commune called the "Hill of God," where Saul is greeted by a dancing, singing mob of prophets. Saul is transported into a religious euphoria. The spirit of God "gripped him, and he spoke in ecstasy." He becomes "another man." This is the Bible's first description of religious ecstasy. We've seen lots of religious rage—for example, Samson—and plenty of calm revelation—God conversing sedately with a prophet or judge (Gideon, Moses at the burning bush, etc.). But Saul's spiritual abandon is new.

Saul's unusual ecstasy is a reminder of just how rational the Bible tries to be. The Bible makes its appeal in a very logical way. The Israelites aren't supposed to follow God because of a mystical experience, but because they have direct, tangible evidence of His works. Given that He drove back the Red Sea, fed them with manna, and led them to military victory, it makes perfect sense to fear and obey Him. Saul's conversion, by contrast, is purely spiritual and irrational. Unlike so many other Bible leaders, Saul is driven by faith, not reason.

Samuel convenes all the Israelites to name the king. When he announces his choice of Saul, the young man has vanished. A search party discovers him hiding in the luggage. A sympathetic reading of this episode is: Saul is a modest young man, showing proper humility in the face of God's extraordinary demand. A less forgiving reading is: How many warning signs do you need? He's not merely careless and incompetent. He's also deeply phobic! Even Samuel recognizes that Saul isn't qualified to rule. Rather, he merely observes that Saul is very tall: "There is none like him among all the people."

Chapter 11

Vicious King Nahash the Ammonite has decided to gouge out the right eye of everyone in Jabesh, a town he's besieging. He gives them seven days to decide whether to submit to the punishment. Jabesh sends messengers to Saul, who receives the dispatch as he returns from plowing in the fields. Yes, the king of Israel is a plowboy! From this one sentence, we understand that he's been unable to rule, that he's been so ineffective that he's been reduced to farming. But for the first time in his life, Saul rises to the occasion. He raises a gigantic army and easily smashes the Ammonites.

A puzzle: The chapter describes Saul's army this way: "The Israelites numbered 300,000, the men of Judah 30,000." Why is Judah counted separately? Why are the Judahites not Israelites?

Chapter 12

Samuel gives his farewell address. It's a lovely sermon, a stark contrast to the wild threats issued by Moses and Joshua on their deathbeds. Samuel glumly accepts that the Israelites want a king but reminds them that their earthly monarch holds no candle to the only ruler who matters. Saul won't be able to protect them if they disobey the Lord: God will sweep away the king and his people. Rather than worrying about "useless things," Samuel exhorts, they should revere and serve God. Samuel is unlike any Bible figure before him. Unlike the patriarchs, he does not appeal to economic self-interest by talking of covenants and Promised Land. Unlike the judges, he does not seek mere military triumph. And unlike Moses, he is not concerned about codifying laws for an entire people. No, Samuel is focused on individual belief, the unshakeable obligation of each Israelite to love and fear the Lord. More than anyone in the Bible so far, Samuel speaks a modern language of faith.

Chapter 13

Here's a verse that must give biblical literalists fits. It certainly baffles the translators. Verse 1 reads: "Saul was … years old when he became king and he reigned over Israel two years." That ellipsis does not represent a missing English word but rather a missing Hebrew word. Translated literally, the verse would say: "Saul was 1 year old when he became king and that he reigned for two years." Neither of those numbers makes any sense, given what we've been told about Saul and his reign. Other translations try to solve the problem by claiming he was 30 years old and reigned 42 years, but that adds words that may not be in the original text.

Saul starts a war with the Philistines. After Saul's son Jonathan routes an enemy garrison, the Philistines, who now have 30,000 chariots, march against the Israelites. Saul's forces flee into caves, and the king doesn't rise to the occasion. Saul waits for Samuel to come bail him out. (Though Samuel gave his farewell address already, he's alive and well, and keeps reappearing throughout the book.) Saul has the burnt offering brought to him and makes the offering himself. When Samuel arrives, he flies into a rage at Saul's apparent blasphemy. Samuel does not make clear exactly what crime Saul has committed. My guess is that it's a church-state separation problem. The king has secular authority, but the divinely ordained priest class remains, and it's very aggressive about protecting its prerogatives. In handling the burnt offering, Saul is usurping the cleric's job. This is incredibly alarming to Samuel and the priests because it endangers their essential authority. Saul, like a too-greedy president, is trying to undo the separation of powers. Samuel won't stand for it. He strips the king of his legacy, saying, "now your dynasty will not endure." God will find a more obedient king, "a man after His own heart." (Etymologists, lexicographers—please help me out! I presume this is the origin of, "a man after his own heart," since the same phrase also appears in the King James translation.)

There is a bizarre, unexplained detail at the end of the chapter. One reason the Israelites are ill-equipped to fight the Phils is that they have no metal weapons. The chapter says that the Philistines did not permit the Israelites to have blacksmiths, to prevent them from arming themselves. Presumably the Philistines couldn't have barred smiths unless they utterly dominated Israel, which suggests the Israelites were actually vassals of the Philistines, not a competing nation. Is this true? If so, then what was Saul king of?

Chapter 14

Jonathan is the world's first special-ops soldier—the original Ranger. While Saul and his mangy militia hide out, Jonathan and his servant launch a sneak attack on the massive Philistine army. Jonathan and his aide kill 20 of the enemy and throw the Philistines into a panic. Seeing the chaos, Saul sends his troops after the confused enemy and defeats them.

Trust Saul to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Having won in the field, he commits the Jephthah mistake of making a moronic vow. He swears that his men won't eat until the enemy is defeated and lays a curse on anyone who flouts him. Jonathan, not knowing of Dad's oath, takes a bite of honey, which gives him strength to fight harder. Saul's hungry soldiers, by contrast, lack the energy to rout the enemy. Saul discovers that Jonathan had a snack. Jephthah-like, Saul prepares to kill his son for violating the oath. The Israelites, who are much more logical and decent than their increasingly unhinged king, implore him not to kill his son, who led them to their great victory. The people ransom Jonathan from Saul and free him.

Chapter 15

Channeling the Lord, Samuel orders Saul to "utterly destroy" the Amalekites, killing all their men, women, children, and animals. Saul disobeys. He kills everyone except the king, but he spares the best livestock. The Lord and Samuel are furious that Saul has flouted God's direct order. (This puts modern readers in the bizarre position of siding with mercilessness and genocide.) Confronted by Samuel, Saul sputters that he only kept the animals alive so they could be sacrificed to the Lord. (Given Saul's lack of fidelity, this is almost certainly a lie.) Samuel rebukes the king: "Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of lambs."

I am not sure what to make of Samuel's conclusion that obedience trumps anything else, even good intentions. It's a very martial philosophy: You must obey orders, even when you think you have a better idea.

Samuel again disavows Saul as king. Saul begs him to "pardon my sin." Samuel refuses: "You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel." Samuel turns away from Saul.

A dreadful, vivid incident follows. Samuel summons Agag, the Amalek king spared by Saul. Agag cries when he sees Samuel, "Surely this is the bitterness of death." Then Samuel cuts Agag into pieces. Samuel goes home and never sees Saul again. "And the Lord was sorry that He had made Saul king over Israel."

I bet He was sorry. Just as the Israelites are discovering what a pain it is for them to have a king (especially a nutter like Saul), God is discovering what a pain it is for Him to have a king. A king, after all, sets himself outside of God's laws. A king doesn't think the rules apply to him. According to the Bible, there can be only one true king. That's very galling for the king on earth, who will do everything he can to circumvent God's rule. In a sense, the face-off between Saul and Samuel is an encapsulation of the entire history of Western civilization until 1900. God and his priests demand one thing; the king thinks he knows better; the sparks fly upward.

From: David Plotz
Subject: Plus, Why Do Saul's Son and David Kiss So Much?

Posted Wednesday, October 25, 2006, at 5:02 PM ET

Chapter 16

The first king isn't working out so well—what with Saul disobeying God and acting deranged—so the Lord dispatches Samuel to Bethlehem to find a replacement. Samuel ends up at the house of Jesse and his sons. Apparently learning nothing from the Saul fiasco, Samuel starts to choose the tall and handsome eldest son as the anointed one. God interrupts irritably and says, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature … for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."

This is a remarkable virtue of the Bible! In many ancient myths and holy books, heroes are taller and stronger than ordinary men. But the Bible is full of regular guys. Tall Saul is the exception, the only champion of God chosen for his appearance. (And look how that turned out.) Otherwise, the Bible heroes are average Jobs—frail and cowardly Jacob (rather than manly Esau), stuttering Moses, little Gideon.

Samuel rejects Jesse's seven oldest sons. Then, as in Cinderella, he asks if there is another sibling. The youngest, shepherd David, is summoned from the fields. The Lord says he's the one, and Samuel anoints him. (Let me partially retract my comments from the last paragraph. Right after the Lord's moving speech about how He doesn't pay attention to appearances, the Bible ogles David, who "had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.")

It's not clear if this private anointing ceremony actually makes David the king right then and there or whether it just confirms that he will be king someday.

In either case, Saul is in big, big trouble. As soon as David is anointed, the "spirit of the Lord departed" from Saul, and he starts being tormented by an "evil spirit." (Given his symptoms, it sounds like he's suffering from something like schizophrenia, or possibly epilepsy, or perhaps a really nasty depression.) Saul is only soothed by music. By coincidence, Saul hears that David is great on the lyre and summons him to court. David quickly becomes Saul's favorite and calms him with songs whenever the madness descends. This tips us off to David's slyness. He's been anointed king by Samuel, yet he reveals nothing to Saul. The whole episode is very All About Eve.

Chapter 17

David and Goliath—it's just as good as I remember! You know the story. The Philistines and Israelites prepare for war. When the armies assemble, the Phils send out their champion, Goliath. He stands either 9-and-a-half feet tall or 6-and–a-half feet tall, depending on which translation you believe. Let's make him 9-and-a-half feet tall. "The shaft of his spear was like a weaver's beam, and his spear's head weighed 600 shekels." I don't know what that means, but it sure sounds scary! For 40 days, Goliath shouts his challenges at the Israelites, and for 40 days, Saul can't find a willing champion. Jesse sends David from Bethlehem to the battlefield to deliver bread and cheese to his older brothers in the army. David hears Goliath's challenge, and he's furious: "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?" David's oldest brother, Eliab, chastises him for butting in to the affair. David doesn't back down, and he's brought to Saul.

Saul scoffs that David's too young and inexperienced to fight Goliath. David answers that he kills lions and bears while protecting his flock. But Saul doesn't really have any other choice, since his men are cowards, so he names David as his champion. David tries on Saul's armor, but it's too cumbersome. He goes unprotected into battle, carrying only his slingshot. Naked before God, David embodies manly faith. "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied." You know the rest. One rock slung. One dead giant.

I thought this battle of champions was supposed to settle the matter, but it doesn't. Rather than surrendering, the Philistines flee, and the Israelites chase and kill them. When the battle's over, Saul asks David who he is, and David tells him that he's Jesse's son.

Let's not dwell on the fact that the David and Goliath story doesn't make much sense, given what happened in the previous chapter. According to Chapter 16, David was already Saul's armor bearer and dearest servant. So it's unlikely that 1) David would be at home rather than with Saul at the battlefield, and 2) Saul wouldn't know who David is. But, as my friend Sian always says, the Bible is not a book of logic. Also, we can fix this confusion pretty easily. If we assume the Goliath battle occurred, chronologically, in the middle of Chapter 16—after David was anointed, but before he became Saul's musician—then it coheres.

Chapter 18 and Chapter 19

Hmm. "The soul of [Saul's son] Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." Does it mean what I think it means?

David rises to command Saul's army and leads the Israelites to victory after victory. Saul's envy rises when he hears the people singing. "Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands." A bout of madness strikes Saul, and he heaves his spear at David in hopes of murdering him. He misses. Next, he tries to snare David through marriage. David keeps saying that he's unworthy to wed a king's daughter, but Saul cleverly says that David can marry his daughter Michal if he brings Saul the foreskins of 100 Philistines. Saul expects David will die in the attempt. (This, of course, foreshadows David's own crime against Bathsheba's husband.) But the mission is no problem for David, who kills 200 Philistines (100 extra for good measure) and returns with the fleshy bits. (Let's not dwell on how he got them or what Saul did with the present. Remember that "Hill of the Foreskins?")

Saul moves on to plan C. He wants to assassinate David and tells Jonathan of the plan. Jonathan warns David. Then, he talks his dad out of the murder, convincing him that David is innocent. Saul promises he won't try to kill him, and he really seems to mean it. But sure enough, the next time David and Saul are alone together, the king again flings his spear at David, who runs away. Saul sends guards to capture David, but his wife, Michal—Saul's own daughter, you remember—makes a David doll out of the household idol and hides it in the bed while David escapes. (Is this the first recorded use of the fake body in the bed? Hollywood should have to pay back royalties to Michal's heirs! A more serious question: What on earth is a household idol? Given God's countless, crystal-clear prohibitions against idols, why does someone as holy as David keep such a wicked totem in his home?) Saul and his guards keep pursuing David, but Samuel protects the young man. He casts a weird spell over the pursuers, driving them into a religious frenzy—so much so that Saul himself is mistaken for a prophet.

Chapter 20

David and Jonathan get ever more Brokeback. The two are thrown together repeatedly, as Jonathan keeps tipping David off about Saul's plans to kill him. (Saul is enraged that his son has taken David's side and warns him, rightly, that if David lives, Jonathan will never be king.) Jonathan and David sneak off and swear their love for each other. Later, when David knows he has to flee Saul's court for good, they rendezvous in a farm field, kiss and weep, and bid each other goodbye. Again I ask: Does this mean what I think it means?

Chapter 21 to Chapter 25

Having made his final break with Saul, David sets himself up as a rebel guerilla, a freedom fighter at the head of a small, 600-man militia. He's the George Washington of Judea. Saul sinks ever deeper into paranoia. When he hears that some priests saw David and even loaned him a sword, he orders 85 of them murdered and then wipes out the city where they lived. (He has entered that end-stage, homicidal madness that afflicts so many dictators: Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, etc.) One man escapes and finds David, who blames himself for the massacre. He should have known that Saul would retaliate and should have protected the priests.

A lot of you are will bite my head off for saying this, but David reminds me of Bill Clinton (and not for their sexual sins and love of music). Like Clinton, David brilliantly combines two virtues and one vice. He truly loves God. He is profoundly warm and empathetic—he's constantly feeling the pain of others, as with the murdered priests. Yet he cannily exploits his understanding of human nature for his own advantage. He's always gaming people, measuring them, working them over to gain an edge (i.e., he adores Jonathan, yet he flips him against his dad).

David's guerilla army rescues a town from the Philistines. Rather than thanking David for the save, Saul immediately besieges the town to trap David's army inside. David and his men escape to the wilderness. Saul pursues him, and in a brilliantly cinematic moment—you can imagine it, filmed from above by helicopter—the two armies are on opposite sides of the same mountain, David marching right into Saul's trap. Suddenly, Saul is summoned away to repel a Philistine incursion. Saul returns with another huge force. David and his men take shelter in a cave. By coincidence, Saul ducks into the cave "to relieve himself." David's men urge him to kill the king while he's vulnerable, but instead, David sneaks up and clips the corner from Saul's cloak. When Saul leaves the cave, David follows him and confronts him with the torn piece. "See, my father, see the corner of your cloak in my hand; for by the fact that I cut off the corner of your cloak, and did not kill you, you may know for certain that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you are hunting me to take my life."

Ever prone to histrionics, the mad king shouts and weeps. He forgives his protégé and apologizes hysterically. "You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil." Saul recognizes that David will indeed be king and begs him not to wipe out Saul's family when he takes the throne. Saul goes home and leaves David in peace. Saul has already promised forgiveness to David three times before and always reneged. I am betting this amnesty won't last, either. In Saul's defense, he's not calculating in his betrayals of David—he's just so deranged that he can't help it.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

From: David Plotz
Subject: What the Mafia Learned From God's Favorite King

Posted Monday, October 30, 2006, at 12:20 PM ET

Chapter 25

David's always working the angles. Nabal, a "surly and mean" tycoon, is married to the "clever and beautiful" Abigail. David sends 10 of his men to ask Nabal for food. They tell Nabal that they could have stolen his livestock, but they didn't. In exchange for that kindness, they suggest, Nabal should feed David and his militia. Nabal brushes them off, saying, "Why should I feed you rather than my own servants? You've done nothing for me." His rebuff enrages David, who immediately marches his army toward Nabal's farm. Abigail hears that they're coming and thinks fast. She collects huge quantities of provisions and waylays David's men before they reach Nabal. She flings herself at David's feet and begs him not to take vengeance, saying that if he kills Nabal, he will have a guilty conscience. David agrees, but takes all the food. (200 fig cakes! Yum!) Several days later, the Lord smites Nabal. David immediately marries Abigail.

A couple of things about this story:

1) David is such a horndog that he would pick up a widow at a funeral!

2) The first time I read it, I was feeling all warm and fuzzy about David—I've got his name, after all. I enjoyed the meet-cute romance between David and Abigail and shared David's righteous indignation against the miserly Nabal.

But the second time I read it, I was appalled. David is a shakedown artist—this is pure mafia. Look at the facts of the story again: David's men tell Nabal they didn't steal his animals—the obvious threat being: If you don't pay up, we will steal your animals. It's a protection racket! Nabal shouldn't have to feed David's army rather than his own men. David has no claim on his food at all. David marching his army against Nabal is like a capo sending a mob soldier to break a late-payer's knees. Abigail may prevent the violence, but she doesn't stop the extortion. David walks away with all the food he can carry. And Nabal, the victim of this crime, gets smote for his troubles!

Chapter 26

As I predicted, Saul's amnesty didn't last. As soon he hears that David is hiding in the hills (the 1100 B.C. version of the "tribal areas," I guess), he leads an army after him. David and his lieutenant Abishai sneak into Saul's camp at night and walk right up to the sleeping king. It's a repeat of David's encounter with Saul in the cave. Abishai begs to assassinate the king, but David—cannily thinking ahead to when he will wear the crown and malcontents will want to kill him—forbids it: "Who can raise his hand against the Lord's anointed?" Instead, David steals Saul's spear and water jar and tiptoes out of the camp. From a far hilltop, David then taunts Saul's commander Abner for not guarding Saul: "You deserve to die, because you have not kept watch over your lord, the Lord's anointed."

Saul hears David's voice and calls out to him. David begs for peace. Saul immediately apologizes again and implores David to come back. Knowing just how fickle and deranged Saul is, David doesn't accept the invitation, but he does return the spear and water jar, and they part friends. Saul's farewell to David—the final words between them—are these: "Blessed be you, my son David! You will do many things and will succeed in them." Ignore the fortune-cookie second sentence. The first sentence is the benediction of a father to his heir: He blesses him and calls him his son. This further legitimizes David's claim to the throne, right?

Chapter 27

David is sick of the hassle of living in Israel. (I know how he feels: Israelis can be so rude.) So, he defects to the Philistines. This is shocking! It's like Gen. MacArthur moving to China in 1951 or Condi Rice decamping for Tehran today. The Philistines are tyrannical, thuggish, idol-worshipping, chariots-of-mass-destruction-driving villains, and David has been doing little but murdering them for the past 10 chapters—yet they're still better allies than David's own king. David and his 600 men become a bandit gang. They raid against all the neighboring tribes except the Israelites, sacking towns, slaughtering women, and stealing livestock. It's ugly.

Still, let's note what David does not do during his Philistine exile. He does not worship idols. He may not be particularly faithful during this period—his conversations with God certainly decrease in frequency—but he never abandons the Lord.

Philistine King Achish decides to make war against Israel and tells David he must accompany the Philistines. David doesn't hesitate: He eagerly volunteers to serve as Achish's personal bodyguard.

Chapter 28

When the Phils invade Israel, Saul, who's ever-more cuckoo, decides he needs to consult with Samuel. Since Samuel is dead, this is a problem. Saul disguises himself and visits the Witch of Endor. He begs her to conjure the ghost of Samuel. This episode drives home, as if we could have forgotten it, the faithlessness of Saul. He has explicitly banned witchcraft, and the Lord made it abundantly clear back in Leviticus that witchcraft was absolutely, utterly, completely forbidden, an automatic death-penalty offense, do not pass go, do not collect 200 shekels. Yet Saul is so scornful of God that he consults the witch anyway. (Also note that he's so spineless that he can't even make a decision about his war strategy without talking to a ghost.)

Samuel comes when summoned, but he's steamed. He reminds Saul that the Lord "has become your adversary" and that his disobedience has already cost him the kingship. He also mentions the troubling little point that Saul and his sons will die the next day. This plunges Saul into despair, but after a nice steak dinner, he returns to the battlefield.

Chapter 29

Achish's generals distrust David—they fear he'll switch sides during the battle—and they beg the king to send him home. So, David goes home and thus misses Saul's last day.

Chapter 30

A stupendous digression. David returns home to find that the Amalekites have sacked his town and kidnapped his wives. David and his men weep till they can weep no more. (Young men out there, take a lesson from David: He's a warrior, he plays the lyre—the guitar of his day—and he's not afraid of a good cry. Now do you understand why the chicks dig him?) David prays to God, who tells him to pursue the raiders. As he and his men chase the raiders, they encounter an Egyptian boy, the slave of one of the Amalekites. He was sick, so the Amalekites had left him behind to die. David and his men feed and nurse the boy back to health. He leads them to the Amalekite camp, where they rescue David's wives and kill the raiders. The story hinges on the Egyptian slave boy. Here we have the Exodus tables turned: Instead of Egyptians with Israelite slaves, we have Israelites with an Egyptian slave. Do they maltreat him or set him to work, as the Egyptians did to them? No, they feed him, revive him, liberate him. It's a tribute to David's big heart (as well as his strategic brilliance, since he uses the boy to win the battle). The Bible is surprisingly short on acts of mercy, but this one glows on the page.

Let's also pause for a second to appreciate the structural brilliance of 1 Samuel. Here in these final chapters, the book is jumping back and forth between David and Saul. It's a fantastic contrast. In David's chapters, we witness fidelity, mercy, and martial genius. In Saul's, we see degradation, idolatry, and incompetence. The crosscutting heightens the tension of the stories and prepares us for David's coming triumph.

Chapter 31

Back to Saul vs. the Philistines, the Final Chapter. This battle is over before it begins. The Philistines rapidly kill Saul's sons, including David's old favorite, Jonathan. Saul doesn't last much longer. Wounded by an arrow, he begs his servant to finish him off, "so that the uncircumcised may not run me through and make sport of me." The servant refuses, and Saul falls on his sword. The Philistines cut off his head and display it. They also impale his body to a wall. The people of Jabesh—remember that Saul's lone moment of courage occurred when he rescued the Jabeshites from eye gouging back in Chapter 11—hear about the desecration of his corpse. They march to the site where Saul's impaled, reclaim the body, and bury him back in Jabesh. The book ends here. I can't wait to find out what David's going to do as king. A flat tax? Welfare reform? Invasion of Syria?

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Can You Really Save the Planet at the Dinner Table?
An economist's critique of The Omnivore's Dilemma.
By Tyler Cowen
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 3:19 PM ET

In The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, food writer and UC-Berkeley professor Michael Pollan examines three American food supply chains: the industrial, which encompasses factory farming and supermarkets; the organic, which includes family farms and other small-scale producers; and what he calls "the hunter-gatherer" food supply chain, which we experience when scavenging for ourselves.

Pollan explains in satisfying detail how American food production, once sun-based, became fossil-fuel based: Instead of using the sun to grow grass to feed cows, we now use fossil fuels to process corn into feed for pigs and cows—and to process corn into feed for humans. (Corn syrup shows up in everything from ice cream to loaves of bread; other corn derivatives are used as binders, emulsifiers, and sweeteners, typically for canned, frozen, and packaged goods.) As a result, Pollan argues, food is much cheaper and more plentiful than it used to be, but our health, the environment, and animals have suffered.

Pollan's book becomes less satisfying, however, when he sets out to answer the question: How should a responsible person eat in the modern world? He persuasively points out that the obvious solutions—buying organic, shopping at Whole Foods, eating exclusively "free-range" chickens—are insufficient. Organic farming has simply become another branch of the industrial food-distribution system (sure enough, after Pollan's book appeared, Wal-Mart announced that it would sell organic food). And though we feel good about eating "free-range" chickens—and are willing to pay more for them—many of those birds don't fare much better than their peers: They often receive only a few inches of additional space in factory farms and then a few weeks' time to step outside through a tiny door—and most chickens stay inside, having learned a fear of the unknown.

In the book's final chapter, Pollan presents his own model for responsible eating, chronicling his memorable attempt to cook and consume a meal that he had grown and killed himself. He gathers his own mushrooms and then hunts down, cooks, and serves a wild boar. The episode is riveting, even if Pollan does give himself a leg up on our nomadic forbears, using a high-powered rifle to kill the boar and GPS to locate the mushrooms and find his way back.

Pollan argues that the costs and benefits of a meal should be as transparent as possible so that eaters are aware of the impact of their food decisions on the environment; he claims that his pig hunt roughly approximates this standard. But Pollan's hunt is far from transparent. For one, the reader suspects that Pollan created the meal, in part, so he could create a best-selling book. A true accounting of the pig hunt should tally up the petroleum used to ship The Omnivore's Dilemma around the country and send Pollan on a speaker's tour. (We could add the energy consumed by Slate's servers, which of course make it possible to post this piece.) More important, Pollan neglects another cost of his "perfect" meal: Our author's time is gone forever. There are plenty of "cheap" ways to procure food if we do not measure our time and trouble as relevant costs.

The problems with Pollan's "self-financed" meal reflect the major shortcoming of the book: He focuses on what is before his eyes but neglects the macro perspective of the economist. He wants to make the costs of various foods transparent, but this is an unattainable ideal, given the interconnectedness of markets. Often the best ways to solve environmental problems are invisible and not available to the consumer in the supermarket aisle. We can tax or regulate offending activities, such as fertilizer runoff or the bad treatment of animals. But we cannot always tell how much environmental evil any given foodstuff contains.

Pollan makes much of the energy costs incurred by the long food supply chains of American grocery stores. It may look like we are eating Chilean grapes, he argues, but in fact, once we consider transportation costs, we are guzzling petroleum. Economics offers a clearer view of what is going on. We do need to save energy, but it is difficult for a central planner (or for that matter a food commentator) to identify what is waste, relative to the costs of eliminating it. We should rely on higher market prices, if need be with the assistance of taxes, to increase conservation. If fuel becomes more expensive, we'll likely adopt peak-load energy pricing, and drivers may scrap their SUVs for hybrids. But we probably won't plant grapes in our backyards. While we must conserve energy, we cut back where it makes the most sense; grape-shipping is not the place to start. Global trade does involve transportation costs, but it also puts food production where it is cheapest, again saving energy by economizing on costs of labor, irrigation, and fertilization, relative to the alternatives.

Pollan also argues against free trade in agriculture, on the grounds that the economics will bankrupt family farms and destabilize the market; Pollan fears centralization and the industrial mode of production. He does not note, however, that New Zealand has moved to free agricultural markets—virtually no subsidies or tariffs—and its farms, including family farms, have flourished. Nor should we forget that farm protectionism, as practiced in the EU and elsewhere, costs billions and damages economic development in poorer countries that might otherwise ship foodstuffs to the wealthier West.

Although Pollan is knowledgeable and his argument sophisticated, he does not escape a fuzzy nostalgia for the preindustrial past. In Pollan's breakthrough book, his 1991 Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, he considers how man should relate to nature and puts forth a metaphor of man as gardener. Perhaps this construct, which encourages a small-scale and piecemeal view of our food world, explains where he goes wrong.

In Second Nature, Pollan rejects all-or-nothing approaches to the natural world. He argues that we should neither romanticize nature as an untouchable preserve, nor plunder it with abandon. Instead, he says, we should pursue an enlightened self-interest in our relationship with the environment, using it—responsibly and sustainably—to meet our needs. We need to restrain ourselves and thereby allow nature, and our species, to survive.

The ideas are powerful, but the garden is not a useful way to think about food markets. Pollan does not acknowledge how much his garden construct is historically specific. Early crop-growing, circa 5000 B.C. or even 1700 A.D., was no fun. The labor was backbreaking, and whether it rained, or when the frost came, was often a matter of life or death. And proper gardens—as a source of pleasure rather than survival—became widespread only with the appearance of capitalist wealth and leisure time, both results of man's dominion over nature. The English gardening tradition blossomed in the 18th century, along with consumer society and a nascent Industrial Revolution.

In other words, the garden ideal is possible in some spheres only because it is rejected in so many others. It is the cultures of the scientists and engineers that have allowed gardens—and also a regular food supply—to flourish in the modern world.

So, let us not judge food markets by whichever costs we observe on a fact-finding trip. Society uses markets, prices, and formal accounting precisely because a narrative is as likely to mislead us about social costs as not. Markets may require tinkering, but to make that judgment, let us put down that hoe and pick up a price-theory textbook.

The Anatomy of Destiny
Alice Munro, spinner of fates.
By Judith Shulevitz
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 6:22 AM ET

Underneath the calm ease of Alice Munro's prose, its accommodating glide along the contours of the world preserved in her stories—the towns and farms of rural Canada—there has always been a surprising steeliness. "It feels light as silk, but it wears like iron," as a boutique owner says of a fine women's suit in the story "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage," from the collection by that name. To discover how stern Munro can be, you have to contemplate her characters' fates. These, ironic or tragic or implausibly happy, befall the characters like judgments from on high, even when—especially when—the unforeseeable occurs, when their destinies do not appear to be their own doing.

It's not that Munro lacks compassion. As she has shown in 10 story collections and one novel so far, she can be the gentlest possible dissector of souls. More often than not, her protagonists seem grounded in her own experience: Country girls with aspirations and a sharp eye for human folly, they marry men to escape home; they leave those men; they struggle to use their talents; they come to miss the pungent textures they have abandoned. But having sympathy for her creations doesn't stop Munro from disposing of them with an implacable finality. Toward the end of one of her most powerful works, three stories in Runaway that effectively comprise a novella, Juliet, a small-town girl turned classics scholar, then hippie, then television personality—an incisive if at times unforgiving woman—loses her only child, perhaps to a cult, perhaps to something else. The girl never says. She never speaks to her mother again, and Juliet retreats into a devastatingly solitary old age.

Critics have often marveled at the novellike density and sweep of Munro's short stories, at how she manages to create the impression that actions have ripened into consequences in the fullness of time. This, I think, is how she does it: by ending her tales in ways that could not have been anticipated yet feel so right we're forced to read each story again, scouring the text for hints. Munro doesn't drop many. Her style is classical, her presence remote. If we're going to find the solutions to her puzzles, we'll have to find them in the depths of what has happened, not in her rare moments of commentary.

Given this austerity and reserve, it is hard to imagine Munro undertaking anything as showoffy and open-ended as a memoir. And, sure enough, in The View From Castle Rock, a series of stories that takes us through seven generations of Munro's family's history and culminates in her own, she hasn't written one. These tales, she tells us in the foreword, should not be taken as a memoir, even if in writing them "I was doing something closer to what a memoir does—exploring a life, my own life." She put herself in the center, she continues, "and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could." But to "the figures around this self"—her ancestors, relatives, friends, and lovers—she granted a freer existence, basing them on fact to some degree (it is not clear how much) but allowing them "their own life and color" and letting them do things "they had not done in reality."

This may sound trickily postmodern, but the effect is the opposite, perhaps because her confession feels scrupulous rather than playful. This is Munro's most Puritanical book yet. Every story has the force of parable. The View From Castle Rock is, in fact, her family bible, its record of births and deaths. It is also, like the Bible, an effort to reimagine the origins of a family—to figure out how a random handful of patriarchs came to be a nation, this nation, universal in its particularity. After all, families are nations of sorts, united by covenant as well as by blood, with their own peculiar laws, their agreed-upon slant on the world, their method of excluding those who don't share their outlook. Munro's fiction is peopled by characters so distinctively hers, so much a product of her own mythologized backwoods Canada, they might as well be a family. In tracing the evolution of the sensibility of her real family, she seems to be offering insights into her imaginary one, too.

Munro, I should say, isn't trying to do anything as ponderous as emulate holy writ, though she does scatter allusions to the Bible throughout the book in a way that makes us aware of the residual power of the old faith. The Bible serves her as a literary prototype—as a means of giving shape to history. The Bible itself, it turns out, played a crucial role in Munro's family story. It was, not so indirectly, the Scottish Reformation that gave her ancestors the resources to reckon with their past and dream of another future. "Scotland was the country, remember, where John Knox had decided that every child should learn to read and write, in some sort of village school, so everybody could read the Bible," writes Munro. James Hogg emerged from the silence of Ettrick Valley, a Godforsaken place whose insularity would mark the clan long after they had left it, to become a poet. He wrote up the exploits and tall tales of a colorful grandfather in Blackwood's Magazine. Hogg's cousin James Laidlaw dragged his children to America.

The title story of the collection recounts this crossing, and it is a masterpiece. The view from Castle Rock is of America, except that it isn't. It's a mirage, or rather, a joke, the object of a prank. Late one night, as the story begins, James Laidlaw leads some men and his 10-year-old son, Andrew, out of a pub to Edinburgh Castle, where they stumble up a winding staircase. Dawn breaks as they arrive at the top, a piece of rock from which they look west over a width of water and beyond it to "a pale green and grayish-blue land, part in sunlight and part in shadow, a land as light as mist, sucked into the sky." Andrew's father gestures grandly: "America." We are not told what James' drunken companions must have thought, but it will take years for Andrew to understand that what they saw was the Kingdom of Fife, a peninsula just off the coast of Edinburgh. And it will take generations for members of the Laidlaw family to see past Fife, as it were—to see all the way to the new land, with its inconceivable geography, its possibilities, rather than to allow the old one to limit their vision, as immigrants often do.

The journey itself is Shakespearean, a Tempest-like encounter between people not yet free of feudalism and a world whose largeness they can hardly grasp. James has aged into an oppressive superfluity, lamenting the loss of his native land with the same bitter passion he once brought to overpraising America. Andrew has hardened into a grim, incurious patriarch-in-training. His handsome wife, Agnes, who gives birth onboard ship, filters experience through her sexual superiority and a country girl's suspicion of all things new. Walter, the youngest son, is the writer. He transcribes in the bluntest English the wondrous details of the crossing, sneaking into the first-class section of the ship so as to be able to write without being ridiculed. He comes closer than anyone else in the family to grasping the enormity of his new reality. Throughout the book, Munro has incorporated passages from actual Laidlaw documents, of which Walter's journal is one. With typical artistry, Munro transforms this journal into a poignant artifact of Laidlaw self-suppression by positing a poet's depth of vision straining against the plain Protestant prose. Recording how the body of a child (not Agnes') who died at sea was thrown overboard in a canvas shroud with a lump of coal, Walter pauses to think, though not to write:

of the weighted sack falling down through the water. Darker and darker grows the water with the surface high overhead gleaming faintly like the night sky. Would the piece of coal do its job, would the sack fall straight down to the very bottom of the sea? Or would the current of the sea be strong enough to keep lifting it up and letting it fall, pushing it sideways, taking it as far as Greenland or south to the tropical water full of rank weeds, the Sargasso Sea? Or some ferocious fish might come along and rip the sack and make a meal of the body before it had even left the upper waters and the region of light.

The fate of babies is of primary concern to Munro, for it goes to the heart of the question posed by the genealogical narrative, which is, how does it happen that these ones died and these ones lived, so that I who write this book came to be born? Children are dangled over the abyss then rescued or not, just as opportunities may be perceived or lost. Agnes' elder son, an inquisitive 2-year-old whom the family calls Young James, keeps darting away from his minder, and each time he does, she—and we—catches her breath, imagining him tumbling off the side of the boat. In another story, a Laidlaw infant simply vanishes. The babies will be found, they will be fine, except that Young James, as Munro remarks casually in the last line of that story, will die within a month of landing in Quebec, "of some mishap in the busy streets of York, or of a fever, or of dysentery—of any of the ailments, the accidents, that were the common destroyers of little children in his time." The New World can be as arbitrary and harsh as the old one, and the Laidlaw clan responds to that realization not with renewed resilience but by channeling their energies into a dour subsistence. In a later generation, several Laidlaw siblings and cousins become taciturn pioneers, so fearful of social contact they almost never leave home, never marry. "To think what their ancestors did," Munro's father will comment. "The nerve it took, to pick up and cross the ocean. What was it squashed their spirits?" Munro's father, Robert Laidlaw, excels at school and seems poised to move up in the world but drops out to become a trapper, then a breeder of silver foxes whose wife sells their furs to American tourists, then, after the Depression, a janitor in a foundry.

The second half of The View From Castle Rock tells of Alice's coming of age. More conventionally autobiographical than the first, it will also be more familiar to her readers. But these stories show Munro reckoning with her own past more directly than she ever has before, and this head-on approach yields a more explicit understanding of her emotional inheritance. She parses the tension between her father, the reclusive farmer, and her mother, the ambitious saleswoman, as an iteration of the old conflict. There's the Laidlaw stoicism—the acceptance of one's lot, the revulsion against self-aggrandizement. (Munro's family used to speak disdainfully, she says, of "calling attention to yourself. The opposite of which was not exactly modesty but a strenuous dignity and control, a sort of refusal.") And then there's the more American urge to seize chances, make something of oneself. As Alice grows up, she learns to despise her mother's entrepreneurial talents, her grasping after money. The girl is slightly, but only slightly, less embarrassed by her father, and eager to leave the whole mess behind.

Recognizable in this Alice are many of Munro's protagonists, the rebellious students who flee their uncomprehending families, the hypercritical artists who aspire to something beyond their horizons, abandoning husbands and sometimes even children in the process. None of these characters was ever quite as revolutionary or callow as they might have been given the era in which they made their bid for freedom (the 1960s and 1970s), but few of them came to noticeably happy ends, either. In those stories, Munro left the meaning of their fates ours to guess at. Here she comes to terms with herself as the daughter of both parents—the striver with a knack for ingratiating herself, the humble yet uncompromising son of Calvinists—and judges herself for having once judged them. Her sense of shame, she says, has "come full circle, finally being shameful in itself to me."

In Munro's epilogue, however, she resists the allure of the pat summing up. Her tone is elegiac, but there's a rueful quaver that makes us wonder whether this remarkable achievement, this speaking openly about things previously only implied, is something she will also come to regret. She revisits fields not far from where she grew up and finds them empty, almost barren. Fences, houses, orchards, and barns have been removed to make room for industrial-sized farms. But clearing away these obstacles to a broader perspective, she finds, makes "the countryside look smaller, instead of larger—the way the space once occupied by a house looks astonishing small, once you see only the foundations. … As if you could see more then, though now you can see farther."

Bushism of the Day
By Jacob Weisberg
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 2:14 PM ET

"No doubt in my mind, with your help, Dave Lamberti will be the next United States congressman."—Speaking at a campaign rally for Jeff Lamberti, Des Moines, Iowa, Oct. 26, 2006.

For more, see "The Complete Bushisms."

Bono, Tax Avoider
The hypocrisy of U2.
By Timothy Noah
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 6:43 PM ET

A familiar paradox about leftist celebrities in the entertainment industry is that their embrace of progressivism almost never includes a wholehearted embrace of progressive taxation, i.e., the principle that the richer you get, the larger the percentage of your income you ought to pay in taxes. The latest example is U2's Bono, a committed and unusually sophisticated anti-poverty crusader who is taking surprisingly little heat for the decision by his band, U2, to relocate its music-publishing business from Ireland to the Netherlands in order to shelter its songwriting royalties from taxation.

The irony was stated in admirably stark terms by Bloomberg's Fergal O'Brien, who reported on Oct. 16:

Bono, the rock star and campaigner against Third World debt, is asking the Irish government to contribute more to Africa. At the same time, he's reducing tax payments that could help fund that aid.

"Preventing the poorest of the poor from selling their products while we sing the virtues of the free market … that's a justice issue," Bono said at a prayer breakfast attended by President Bush, Jordan's King Abdullah, and various members of Congress earlier this year. Preaching this sort of thing has made Bono a perennial candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. He continued:

Holding children to ransom for the debts of their grandparents ... that's a justice issue. Withholding life-saving medicines out of deference to the Office of Patents ... that's a justice issue.

And relocating your business offshore in order to avoid paying taxes to the Republic of Ireland, where poverty is higher than in almost any other developed nation? Bono's hypocrisy seems even more naked when you consider that Ireland is a tax haven for artists. In June 2005, Bono (who was born in Dublin) told the Belfast Telegraph:

Our publishing, which is about one third of our income, we have tax breaks on, and that's great and that's encouraged us to stay in Ireland and if that changes, it's not going to affect anything for U2. ...

Six months later, Ireland's finance minister announced a ceiling of $319,000 on tax-free incomes, and six months after that, U2 opened its Amsterdam office. The relocation of U2's music publishing will halve taxes on the band's songwriting royalties, which already reportedly total $286 million. Although Bono has declined to comment on the move, the band's lead guitarist, David "the Edge" Evans, said, "Of course we're trying to be tax-efficient. Who doesn't want to be tax-efficient?'" Writing in the Observer, Nick Cohen noted that Evans "sounded as edgy as a plump accountant in the 19th hole."

U2's tax-shelter scheme caused an uproar in Ireland when the story broke there in August. But it's scarcely raised a ripple in the United States. A conservative would argue that's because in this country, we don't begrudge a man the opportunity to keep what he earns off the sweat of his brow (or even off the sweat of someone else's brow ) … even if that man spends half his time trying to goad governments into spending more to alleviate poverty. But a liberal could answer that in the United States, we are so used to seeing rich people avoid taxation that even a wealthy hypocrite who shelters his cash abroad can no longer qualify as news.

Friday, November 3, 2006, at 11:15 AM ET

In the Nov. 1 "Explainer," Daniel Engber wrote that burning gasoline can release nitrous oxide—or N2O. In fact, it releases nitric oxide (NO).

In a sidebar to the Oct. 30 "Music Box," Fred Kaplan originally stated that At the Golden Circle was Coleman's one album on the Blue Note label; in fact, he had two others, New York Is Now and Love Call.

In the Oct. 29 "Today's Papers," M.J. Smith asked, regarding corporations' desire to change regulatory rules, "Why so soon after the new Congress takes office?" However, since the Congress will not be sworn in until January, we changed the question to, "Why so soon after the elections?"

Tim Harford made two mistakes in the Oct. 28 "Undercover Economist," about daylight-saving time. First, the article originally implied that Arizona was in the Pacific time zone during daylight-saving time. Though it keeps the same time as the Pacific states, Arizona officially remains in the Mountain time zone during daylight time. Second, the article reversed the schedule for daylight time. It occurs in the summer months, not in the winter months.

In the Oct. 26 "Gaming" column, Stefan Fatsis incorrectly stated that 57 tiles were unseen when Michael Cresta exchanged two tiles in hopes of drawing a T and a Y. There were 56 unseen tiles at the time. As a result of this error, the probability of Cresta drawing a T and a Y was misstated, both in the original piece and in a previous correction. The correct probability is 1 in 513.

In the Oct. 25 "Chatterbox," Timothy Noah erroneously referred to "Sen. Ben Cardin, D.-Md." Cardin is currently a U.S. representative running for the Senate.

In the Oct. 20 "Movies," Dana Stevens misstated the name of a magic trick. It is called "The Transported Man," not "The Transformed Man."

In the Oct. 17 "Architecture," Witold Rybczysnki originally identified the Californian architectural movement represented by Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, and Craig Ellwood as taking place during the 1960s. It is more accurate to locate it in the 1950s.

Not Very Nice
The Borat movie: They botched the joke.
By Ron Rosenbaum
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 7:49 PM ET

Can't stand to read another word about Borat? Feeling coerced by the crushing weight of the publicity-industrial complex and its you-must-laugh-or-die Borat blitz?

Believe me, I don't blame you, but stick with me a while—I'd like to offer a different if somewhat personal perspective: the Two Borat Theory.

Call me a Borat snob. I was a huge fan of the brilliantly oblivious, appealingly clueless Kazakh "newsman" character when he appeared on segments of Sacha Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show on HBO. So, there's that Borat; let's call him Borat One.

But then there's the heavy-handed, frat-boy, butt-head Borat, the dumbed-down buffoon Borat of Borat the movie. The Jackass Borat. Let's call him Borat Two. Yes, I laughed, you'll laugh, it's stupid-funny. Hey, I don't have anything against stupid-funny. I've written columns in praise of stupid-funny films—Kingpin, Zoolander, even Dude, Where's My Car. I'm down with Harold and Kumar. So, it's no excess of Merchant/Ivoryism that feeds this feeling about Borat Two.

But to me the original Borat segments were more than stupid-funny; they were extremely smart-funny, occasionally even off-handedly profound, as the fake Kazakh newsman "personality" managed to tease out moments of appalling honesty from ordinary Americans with a light touch and brilliant comic timing that made it not about him, about Borat, being a clueless foreigner, but about us being clueless Americans. Not even clueless so much as naively blind to our own implicit smugness.

While Borat One gave you brilliant comic intelligence, Borat Two gives you ass-in-your-face (and I mean that literally) grossness from an aggressively, smugly dumb foreigner. Borat One had at least a touch of the sweetness of Andy Kaufman's Latka, his "Foreign Man," incarnation. Borat Two, alas, is more Yakov Smirnoff hammily exploiting his accent. They botched the joke.

What happened? If you ask me, it was the double-Larry whammy—the heavy hand of director Larry Charles (best known as a Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm director), the guy who managed to turn Bob Dylan's appealingly elusive persona into a leaden, ham-handed, phony-profound parody of itself in the awful Masked and Anonymous. I don't know how much Charles was personally responsible for turning Borat's subtle touch into lead-pipe gag-worthiness (in both senses of the word), but the parallel is suggestive.

And I'm not sure how much that other Larry, Larry David, has influenced the new cruder take on anti-Semitism in Borat Two, but it certainly seems to suffer from something very like it.

To my mind, to an admitted Borat snob's mind, something has been lost. Lost in transition. Lost in turning Borat from the blissfully ignorant naif on HBO who teases out genuinely disturbing elements in American culture, into the slow-witted, ham-handed moron in a film whose main purpose seems to be to look down its nose at America with a Hollywood sneer.

Just to give you an example of the difference, let's consider the most controversial element in the almost unanimously adulatory prerelease press campaign: the treatment of anti-Semitism (always comedy gold) in the Original Borat and in Borat the movie. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League had expressed concern about the movie's treatment of the subject.

Problem was, Foxman was making the wrong complaint: It's not defamation, it's retardation. It's not the presence of the anti-Semitic content in the movie, it's the dimwitted treatment of it. There were moments of anti-Semitic content (or the portrayal of anti-Semitic attitudes) in Borat One, occasionally crude.

But there was one moment in a Borat One segment I thought was one of the most subtle, brilliant, disturbing, chilling, problematic, thought-provoking moments I've seen on stage or screen: the "Throw the Jew Down the Well" episode.

I'm recalling this scene from memory. I only saw it once. I read somewhere it had been withdrawn from rotation in HBO's past episode "on demand" bank. (And there was even some question of whether it would be included in the Borat "album.") And yet it's not unknown (no less than 50,000 Google hits for Borat + "Throw the Jew Down the Well." Big number.)

And people who have seen it can't stop talking about it. It's become popular with anti-Semites and anti-anti-Semites for what it may or may not say. Well, not the song, because the song is pretty unambiguous unless meant to be taken ironically, in which case it is ambiguous. I'm ambiguous about its ambiguity.

I've got the lyrics for your consideration, but I should set the scene first. The actual scene has become a dream or nightmarelike memory. There's Borat in some kind of country-western bar or club where there's live entertainment and the locals are all sitting around being friendly to the grinning foreigner, Borat, in the polyester suit, who says he'd like to sing a traditional folksong from Kazakhstan.

He begins to sing a long folk song whose first verse misleadingly deals with the problem of "transport." But then this is what follows:

In my country there is problem

And the problem is the Jew

They take everybody money

And they will not give back


Throw the Jew down the well

So the country can be free

You must grab him by his horns

And then we'll give a big party

He keeps repeating the chorus and asking the crowd to join in on a hearty "Throw the Jew down the well" chorus reprise.

There is a certain amount of wonder at what the hell he's doing, but the real suspense, the real news, is the reaction of the crowd. At first, they're hesitant, then they all begin to join in the chorus: "Throw the Jew down the well"—all but a very few.

It's one of those moments that raise several possibilities:

1) If you scratch the surface of the average American, you find someone who's capable of encouraging murderous anti-Semitism.

2) Americans are so friendly and nonxenophobic that they'll go out of their way to play along with a foreigner even if they wouldn't in their wildest dreams throw a Jew down a well. They're just being good sports about the kooky outsider so he'll feel at home. Maybe it's anti-Semitism, but it's not deep-seated Streicher/Goebbels anti-Semitism, is it? It's more get-along, go-along anti-Semitism. (Like the anti-Semitism in Roth's The Plot Against America.)

3) Maybe it's get-along, go-along, friendly-to-foreigners anti-Semitism. But under the right circumstances, a substratum of this sort of jovial sing-along anti-Semitism can be transformed into something uglier.

It raises the question of American exceptionalism. When good-natured Americans jovially sing about murdering a Jew, is it different from, say, people jovially singing the same song in Germany or Poland, where Jews were murdered?

Is it true the way certain wary or paranoid uncles would talk at family gatherings: You'll see, it'll happen here, too? I used to resist such arguments—if you could call them that—on the grounds that America was different, a society without the millennia of murder in its history.

I don't have answers to these questions, but they're real questions, worth thinking about and talking about. It's not clear where Borat's creator stands on this. Yes, we've all been told by the 5,000 Borat profiles that have been written as of this writing, Sacha Baron Cohen is a practicing Jew from an Orthodox family. As Ali G. would say, "Respek."

The usual corollary derived from this is that he himself can't be anti-Semitic, but I wonder if there's another corollary: This is a practicing Orthodox Jew's vision of the world, even of the most Jew-friendly nation in the world: "They all hate us even if they try to disguise it, but you can find it right beneath the surface."

It can't quite be said that he's sending up this view, because the footage one sees in Borat One episodes doesn't seem contrived or forced, but rather something true about those people and those words: "Throw the Jew down the well." Although how you define what that truth means may be a matter of contention.

So, must I, a nonpracticing non-Orthodox Jew who nonetheless edited a 500-page anthology on questions of anti-Semitism (Those Who Forget the Past, 2004) take this into account in the way I look at my fellow Americans?

I don't think so, or at least I don't want to think so, but it gave me a deeper understanding of the kind of suspicious feeling expressed by black (and some white) writers who have argued that just because racial discrimination is outlawed by statute doesn't mean racism is no longer a factor to be considered and the playing field of life is all evened out.

In any case, there's a lot of food for thought in one throwaway sketch. Now let's look at the idiotic way anti-Semitism is treated in Borat Two, Borat the movie.

There is one signature scene, the equivalent of Borat One's "Throw the Jew down the well." In Kazakhstan, depicted as a cartoonish fantasy of Jew-hating white trash, Borat boasts of his town holiday, "the running of the Jews," which we are shown.

The "holiday" consists of a Pamplona-style festival in which two giant puppet-headed Jewish caricatures are chased through the streets and bashed about while pursuing the lure of some money. Meanwhile, the female Jew puppethead hatches a giant egg, and the youth of the village are encouraged to destroy the "Jew chick" before it hatches.

There is something sickening about watching the children and teenagers viciously beating the egg with sticks, but what exactly is the take-away from this scene? Is this the true face of the anti-Semitism to be feared in the world, a world in which a near-nuclear nation promises to wipe 5 million Jews off the map? Or does this belittle anti-Semitism as the province of powerless, backward dimwits?

The genuinely troubling and disturbing anti-Semitism of Borat One is transposed to a cloud-cuckoo-land Kazakhstan, where it is caricatured to the point of irrelevance. It doesn't satirize the obviousness of anti-Semites; it implicitly caricatures concern about anti-Semitism. The Larry David influence here, perhaps. I'm not actually sure what the Larry David attitude toward the threat of anti-Semitism is—it could be admirably complex. But it seems as if he's exploring what would happen if a Jew gave the world anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews, like the corrupt organ-donor broker in one episode. A greedy Jew taking money for organ donations is not too far from Shylock.

Borat One takes the question of anti-Semitism seriously even if it plays it for laughs. Borat Two takes it stupidly.

Borat Two does manage to evoke moments of racial and religious bigotry from Americans, but it's a bit more of a strain than the "throw the Jew down the well" sing-along's scary naturalism. They get a car dealer to speak casually about running over Gypsies, a rodeo crowd member to speak approvingly of lynching gays, and a drunken frat boy to start a riff that leads from "whites are a minority" to "Jews are in control." The portrait of America doesn't seem representative but selective, designed with disdain.

But then, everything in this film is dumbed down—both Borat and the ordinary people ridiculed in the movie. Maybe it had to be done to blow up the sketch to feature length, but maybe sometimes not everything needs to be blown up.

Well, for us Borat snobs, there's always the DVD of the HBO show to watch.

dear prudence
Family, Valued
Can you prevent jealousy when one child gives more lavish gifts than the others?
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 6:16 AM ET

Get "Dear Prudence" delivered to your inbox each week; click here to sign up. Please send your questions for publication to (Questions may be edited.)

Dear Prudence,

Ours was a second marriage for both, 25 years ago. At the time, our children (on both sides) were grown. A few years ago, my husband's son, who had struggled to find his way, suddenly became quite successful financially. He started lavishing gifts on us, which we appreciated since we are of modest means and retired, but this caused problems with our other children. When my husband celebrated a significant birthday last year, his son threw him a party. Most of the gifts from the other children were on the order of gift cards; when he opened the card from his son, out fell a set of car keys! In the driveway was the car we had jokingly talked of buying. While my husband teared up, his daughters were visibly upset. We couldn't understand how they could a) not share in our joy, and b) choose to ruin a wonderful birthday celebration. I'm having a significant birthday in a month. I think my stepson realized a repeat performance would not be good, so rather than springing something at the family party, he delivered a new car for me now! This luxury car is worth considerably more than the car he gave his father. My stepson suggested we give our existing car to my daughter (a definite step up for her). I called her about this and she reacted horribly. We have now taken to ensuring that we're gone for the holidays, so that we don't have to deal with any scenes. How can I get the other children to realize that my stepson is just showing his love for us? We love all our children the same and don't compare gifts; we know their situations and what they are able to do for us.

—Baffled and Hurt

Dear Baffled,

Your other children (now all presumably middle-aged) are acting like children over the largesse of your stepson. However, you sound a little disingenuous if you can't understand the psychodynamics at work here. For a refresher course on adult sibling rivalry, flip through the pages of Genesis. Part of the other children's unpleasant reaction could be that your stepson has abandoned the family niche of "struggling to find his way" for "suddenly quite successful," and the others preferred feeling superior to him. There are probably many other reasons for this tale of seething resentment. Does Mr. Suddenly Successful spend lots of time at family gatherings boasting about his wealth? You say you love all your children equally and don't compare their gifts, but you admit it's easier to weep with joy at a BMW than a bathrobe. Of course your stepson is entitled to give you whatever he wants, and you're entitled to enjoy it. But you're experiencing the reality of group interaction when, at family gatherings, one person's gift is a thousand times more valuable than anyone else's. That's why you've taken to fleeing. Since your son enjoys expressing his love financially, and since you sound concerned about your economic future, instead of getting a fleet of cars from him, maybe you should have a discussion about whether he'd be willing to put that money into an account you could draw on in future years. You could tell him doing that would be the best present of all, because he would relieve your worries about someday being a financial burden on all of your children.


Dear Prudence,

I am a successful 42-year-old woman, yet I have one fear that I cannot seem to overcome. I am terrified of driving on highways, especially the L.A. freeways. My husband and I have lived in California for two years. When we first moved here, I used to go on acting auditions, but soon it became apparent that my fear of driving was going to put an end to this. Then I made some friends, but if they lived somewhere I had to access by way of the highway, I'd turn down their invitations to visit. Recently, I realized I was going to miss the entrance to the 101, so to get on it, I nearly ran a trucker off the road. He was enraged and I was traumatized. When I got home, crying and shaking, my dear husband said perhaps L.A. freeways are too dangerous for me. Should I just accept my limitations, or is this a fixable thing? I don't want to end up killing someone or myself.

—Dying To Drive

Dear Dying,

You have a driving phobia, which is fairly common as phobias go, and yes, you can do something about it. Since you're an actress, you need to—even Gloria Swanson's character in Sunset Boulevard couldn't conduct an acting career exclusively from her home. Go to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America Web site and look up therapists in your area. You can even narrow your search to within two miles of your ZIP code, so you don't have to go on the freeway to get help. Take a look at Triumph Over Fear by Jerilyn Ross, a therapist who overcame her own phobia. And it's probably worth it for you to invest in a GPS device. It would be very comforting while you're driving to have an unflappable voice telling you exactly where you need to go.


Dear Prudence,

I have been in a pretty serious exclusive relationship with a woman for a little over three months. We have much in common, such as activities, values, sense of humor, and physical attraction. It's my first serious relationship, so much of this experience is new to me. I want to get married eventually and raise a family, and she has indicated that is her goal, as well. I've found that there are a number of differences that inevitably come up in every relationship. In our case, we are of different religions (Jewish and Catholic) and political beliefs (I'm conservative; she is so far left she's not even on the chart). These issues don't come up often in our wonderful relationship—only when we have discussions about the distant future or academic issues like communism vs. capitalism. How and when should I bring up all these issues? My friends tell me that I should just keep going with the relationship and see what happens, but I also don't want either of us to get too attached if these major issues are deal-breakers that we should discuss now.

—Worried About Deal-Breakers

Dear Worried,

You're at the stage in which the idealized object of your affection starts turning back into a real person. Your friends are right that you should just keep going to see where this leads—especially since you have no experience with a serious relationship. But you are also right in recognizing that the differences between you may preclude a life together. The issues you raise are recurring ones and can't be resolved by drawing up a checklist ("Our future children will alternate the celebrations of Easter and Passover"). When the holidays come up, see how each of you feels about sharing each other's traditions, and imagine what it would be like if this were a regular part of your lives. As for being at different ends of the political spectrum, well, James Carville and Mary Matalin have turned it into a lucrative shtick. Political discussions—especially this time of year—should come up naturally. When they do, you two have to see whether your diverging views result in stimulating debates, agreeing to disagree, or stomping off in a huff. Do consider the fact that while you describe yourself as a conservative, you don't say she's a liberal, but that she's off the chart. Would she agree, or is this your way of saying you find her views ridiculous? While you work through what could pull you apart, do spend most of your time enjoying what's drawing you together.


Dear Prudie,

I have been in a relationship for over two years and we have plans to marry. My problem is his job. He works in a sporting industry and he has given us the option to marry during only three months out of the year (June, July, or August). I've always dreamed of having a fall wedding and have tried to explain this to him, but he keeps saying he can't because of his job. How do I get him to work with me on the date of our upcoming wedding? I think this is something that can be worked out if he would just listen to me.

—No Summer Bride

Dear Summer,

When you were having those autumn wedding fantasies, did it matter who the groom was, or would anyone do as long as the leaves were changing color? Your husband-to-be can't attend your dream wedding because he has to work. If you come to realize it's more important that he show up, instead of what time of year the wedding takes place, you will work this out by working around his schedule. Learning to let go of unrealistic dreams when faced with the realities of life will also be good practice for marriage.


On the Campaign Trail in Nicaragua
Washington's favorite candidate zips through a Managua shantytown.
By Alexandra Starr
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 4:40 PM ET

From: Alexandra Starr
Subject: Daniel Ortega, the Comeback Kid

Posted Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 6:06 PM ET

MANAGUA, Nicaragua—As anyone who has been subjected to political ads this year knows, immigration is one of the most divisive issues in the midterm election. But voters might be surprised to learn that the presence of illegal workers in the United States isn't just a factor in the question of which party will control the U.S. Congress. It could decide who becomes the next president of Nicaragua.

At least that's the hope of a Republican congressman, judging from the Oct. 31 front page of La Prensa, the major Nicaraguan daily. "Ortega could jeopardize remittances" screamed the headline, and the story quoted Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., warning that if former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega regains his old office when voters elect their next chief executive and congressional representatives on Nov. 5, Nicaraguans could find themselves cut off from the money their relatives and friends send from the United States. Rohrabacher evoked the possibility of Nicaragua becoming the Cuba of Central America: The consequences of the U.S. embargo are pretty severe for that island nation, the Californian pointed out, "and that would happen in Nicaragua if the Sandinistas take power."

This is probably a bluff: It's hard to see how the U.S. Congress could suddenly choke off the millions of dollars U.S.-based Nicaraguan workers send home each year. But it's a sign of how potent an issue that flow of cash has become in U.S. foreign policy. Remittances dwarf the foreign aid we give to a country like Nicaragua, and those money transfers are a bread-and-butter issue—in the literal sense—for a lot of Nicaraguans. They depend on the earnings of their U.S.-based family and friends to put food on the table.

Rohrabacher's comments don't just reflect how the presence of millions of Latinos in the United States can affect our relationship with their home countries. It's also an indication of the lengths conservative Republicans are willing to go to keep Ortega from winning this presidential election. It would be quite a resurrection if the now-61-year-old triumphs on Sunday. While most Nicaraguans were euphoric when Ortega drove U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza from office in 1979, they voted overwhelmingly to boot him out of office 11 years later. The rampant violence, quadruple-digit inflation, and political repression that marked Ortega's term had eroded most of his support. Still, he is the front-runner to reclaim the presidency when voters go to the polls on Sunday.

This prospect is driving veterans of the Reagan administration in particular around the bend. Rohrabacher—who served as a speechwriter to the former U.S. president—is merely the most recent of the Reaganite crowd to issue a "don't-you-dare" message to Nicaraguan voters. Oliver North, the retired lieutenant colonel who helped mastermind the Reagan-administration effort to fund the Nicaraguan Contras, the guerrilla group dedicated to dislodging the Sandinistas from office, has weighed in on the election, too. Ostensibly in the Nicaraguan capital to visit friends, North found his way to a TV station in late October, where he told viewers that an Ortega victory would be "the worst thing" for the country.

Not all the people strutting on the Nicaraguan political stage are former Reaganites. The current U.S. ambassador to the country, Paul Trivelli, was a junior foreign-service officer when Ronald Reagan took office, but he's been almost as outspoken as Rohrabacher and North in his criticism of Ortega. Labeling the candidate "undemocratic" and "a tiger who hasn't changed his stripes," the ambassador has hinted that a victory for the Sandinista would prod Uncle Sam to withhold millions of dollars in foreign aid. The pro-Ortega international faction has a new face, too: In the 1980s, the Soviets and Cuban leader Fidel Castro provided financing and counsel to the Sandinistas. Today, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez—whose country has the largest proven oil reserves outside of the Middle East—is playing the Daddy Warbucks role. The helicopter ferrying Ortega around Nicaragua is allegedly a gift from Tío Hugo. Earlier this year, the Venezuelan offered fertilizer and cut-rate oil to Nicaraguans, some of the poorest residents of the Western Hemisphere.

The Venezuelan's eagerness for a Danielista victory is understandable. He has made no secret of his desire to see leftist leaders win elections in Latin America. But aside from Evo Morales' impressive victory in the December 2005 Bolivian presidential vote, Chávez's anointed standard bearers have come up short. Elections in Peru, Mexico, and most recently Ecuador have not gone his way, and his efforts to snag a seat on the U.N. Security Council for Venezuela appears to have ended in ignominy. A victory in Nicaragua would end Chávez's losing streak—and it would bring the added satisfaction of rankling conservative U.S. policymakers.

The blood feud between the GOPers and Ortega can be traced all the way back to the Cold War. High-ranking Reaganites were convinced that the Sandinista government was a Soviet beachhead in Central America, and they built up and bankrolled the Contra forces. It's hard to remember now, but for a period, Nicaragua was as much an obsession for U.S. policymakers as Iraq is today. While times have changed—if Ortega is re-elected, he wouldn't set up a Marxist government intent on exporting communism in Central America—the hatred many old foreign-policy hands have for the Sandinista is visceral and arguably a little irrational.

That's not to say that all the criticisms leveled at Ortega are without merit. By many measures, his tenure in government was an abject failure. Hunger, disease, and crime reached levels far higher than before the revolution. The government occasionally dispatched club-wielding thugs to subdue protestors. Of course, the millions of dollars the U.S. government handed to the paramilitary force dedicated to overthrowing the regime may have doomed Ortega from the moment he landed in Reagan's crosshairs. And the Sandinistas did manage to raise literacy rates and improve health care when they first took over from the grossly corrupt Somoza.

But the revolutionaries weren't above ransacking the state for their own benefit, either. The most-infamous episodes occurred in the months just after the Sandinistas were voted out of power. Party members feverishly stole millions of dollars' worth of property, ranging from homes and farmland to government cutlery and typewriters. (This episode is referred to as "the piñata," drawing a parallel to the tradition in which children whack a papier-mâché toy filled with candy and gifts.) The pillaging didn't just turn a number of high-ranking Sandinistas into wealthy capitalists—it also helped the party secure a base of support that made the Sandinistas a force to be reckoned with even after they were thrown out of office.

Given that track record, how is it that Ortega could be on the verge of becoming Nicaragua's next president? While he wasn't much of a head of state, he is a very effective party boss, and his shrewd backroom dealings have set the stage for his comeback. All the presidents who followed Ortega have had to share power with him in some way. His collusion with former President Arnoldo Alemán—who came to office in 1997 on a virulently anti-Sandinista platform and allegedly proceeded to steal millions of dollars once he was in office—has proved particularly helpful. Part of the horse-trading between the two men involved changing the electoral calculus: A constitutional amendment lowered the threshold for a presidential victory so that a candidate can win in the first round with just 35 percent of the vote, as long as they take 5 percent more votes than the runner-up.

This provision was tailor-made for Ortega. Polls indicate that 60 percent of Nicaraguans oppose him. That stalwart opposition meant the presidency was out of reach when he made bids in 1996 and 2001. But recent polls show him with nearly 35 percent support, and there are three other major candidates, which means the anti-Ortega vote will be divided. What's more, the candidate who may have emerged as the toughest rival to Ortega—former Sandinista minister Herty Lewites—died of a heart attack a few months ago. Still, this mixture of electoral cunning and dumb luck may not be enough to give Ortega a win on Sunday. If he doesn't secure the presidency in this first round of voting, he's doomed; he'd never triumph in a run-off. But it's not hard to see why Reaganites are threatening to cut Nicaraguans off from remittances and firing verbal fusillades at their old nemesis: This is Ortega's best chance for a comeback.

From: Alexandra Starr
Subject: Washington Can't Stop Meddling in Managua

Posted Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 4:40 PM ET

MANAGUA, Nicaragua—Members of the Bush administration haven't been coy about their desire to see Sandinista presidential candidate Daniel Ortega go down in flames when Nicaraguans vote on Sunday. They've also made it no secret that Eduardo Montealegre, a Harvard MBA and former finance minister, is their preferred candidate. If you're guessing that the Anointed One isn't exactly a man of the people, you're correct. The balding and bespectacled Montealegre looks like a guy better suited to giving a PowerPoint presentation than pressing the flesh.

But on Tuesday afternoon, Montealegre did his best impersonation of a glad-handing pol when a campaign truck ferried him into one of Managua's shantytowns. His entrance was very rock 'n' roll: Firecrackers exploded, and about 60 supporters decked out in red and black T-shirts bearing the candidate's name ran to greet him. After Montealegre descended from the truck and pumped his fist a few times, he walked around the neighborhood at a pace that might have left the Road Runner winded. Residents who poured out of the tin shacks that lined the road were greeted with a handshake and occasionally a kiss.

Montealegre didn't actually talk to anyone. Granted, conversation would have been difficult anyway, since the trucks accompanying his excursion were blasting music. (The songs had been specifically recorded for the campaign; one that played over and over proclaimed: "Change is Montealegre. … That is who you'll vote for on Nov. 5.") Still, even if it had been feasible for the candidate to have a heart-to-heart with these potential voters, he didn't seem too keen to do so. You don't move that quickly—and slip away as soon as you can—unless you'd prefer to be somewhere else.

The following morning, the candidate met with the foreign media in a place about 30 minutes away and a world apart from the impoverished neighborhood where he'd done his campaign jog. In the confines of the Inter-Continental Hotel, the most luxurious in the city, you'd never know that Managua is a ramshackle and extremely poor city. As waiters poured coffees and served a two-course breakfast, Montealegre explained how he hoped that Nicaragua could become a country where being born into poverty didn't condemn a person to live in destitution. The solution, he explained, was to create "more and better jobs." (Coincidentally, that's the slogan that screams out from his campaign posters.) This would be accomplished primarily by attracting foreign investment. And he would be the best person to accomplish this—not just because of his background, but because he's not Daniel Ortega.

While Montealegre was most eager to focus attention on his comparative advantages vis-à-vis his main rival, a big chunk of the questions focused on U.S. interference in the election. Here, the candidate attempted to walk a tightrope: He emphasized how disastrous it would be for the country if Washington really did cut off aid and remittances to Nicaragua in the event of an Ortega win. At the same time, he tried to distance himself from the bullying. "About 35 percent of our budget comes from foreign aid," he said. "We need that generosity." Still, the candidate allowed, "No one likes it when someone tells them what to do."

Of course, the United States has a long tradition of telling Nicaraguans what to do. Successive administrations have meddled in the country since the 1800s, often in cahoots with Nicaragua's conservative elite. One of our earliest—and most infamous—incursions occurred in the mid-1800s, when William Walker accepted a bribe from Nicaragua's Liberal Party (paradoxically, to American ears, the conservative faction) to overthrow the government. Walker's ragtag army of 50 or so men managed to pull off that feat, but the Nicaraguans who laid out the welcome mat got more than they'd bargained for. Walker eventually named himself president, legalized slavery, and declared English the nation's official language. After he made noises about taking over five other Central American countries, Walker was executed by a firing squad in 1860.

About four decades later, the United States invaded the country again, when President José Santos Zelaya sent out feelers to Japan and Germany about constructing a canal, after Washington unexpectedly chose Panama as the site of its waterway across the isthmus. Conservative leaders, sensing an opportunity, approached the United States about staging a coup. President William Howard Taft complied and sent in the Marines in 1909.

The United States maintained an intermittent military presence in Managua until 1933, when outgoing President Herbert Hoover withdrew U.S. forces. One of the American mission's last moves—urging the newly elected Nicaraguan president to appoint Anastasio Somoza as head of the National Guard—unwittingly put the Central American country on the path to an almost-half-century dictatorship. Somoza had ingratiated himself with the U.S. expatriate community in Managua, thanks in part to the fluent English he had picked up at a Philadelphia prep school.

The guard was ostensibly nonpolitical, but Somoza quickly seized on his newfound military muscle to consolidate power. Correctly calculating that nationalist hero Augusto César Sandino would be a threat to his burgeoning dictatorship, Somoza had the guerrilla leader assassinated. While the first Somoza met a familiar dictator's fate and was shot to death in 1956, his family remained in control of the country for several more decades: His son Anastasio "Tachito" Somoza ruled until 1979. One of the major factors in the latter Somoza's fall was his reaction to the 1972 earthquake that leveled Managua. His National Guard looted homes and businesses with impunity at a time when 250,000 of the 325,000 Managuans were homeless. The dictator himself pilfered from the relief supplies and foreign aid that poured into the country. Widespread disgust with Somoza's venality eventually helped the Sandinistas to stage their revolution.

In the 1980s, the United States was directly involved in Nicaragua once again, funding and training the Contra rebels. While U.S. meddling has been much more sporadic since Ortega was booted out in 1990, GOP representatives in particular haven't been shy about playing favorites in Nicaraguan elections. In the 2001 election, for example, the U.S. ambassador none-too-subtly passed out bags of rice stamped "USA" at a campaign event for the winning candidate, now-President Enrique Bolaños. (Montealegre served as his finance minister.) This year, U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli has seemed more like a political operative than an impartial foreign representative. In a widely criticized move, he attempted to coax the conservative candidates—Montealgre and Jose Rizo—into a primary, so that just one right-of-center choice would be on Sunday's ballot, reducing Ortega's chances of victory. The candidates didn't bite.

Perhaps the ambassador's actions will add to Montealegre's vote count on Sunday. But a short-term "success" could breed resentment over the long run. Americans have thrown their weight around in Nicaragua for more than a century, and our actions have rarely dovetailed with the interests of the country's poor, who comprise the overwhelming majority of the population. Whether or not the United States manages to keep its old Cold War foe from office, our actions this year have done nothing to help Washington's reputation in this corner of Latin America.

Searching for Borat
Journalists descend upon Kazakhstan; hunt for mustaches, sexism.
By Ilan Greenberg
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 3:05 PM ET

ALMATY, Kazakhstan—"That donkey is brilliant, but it would be better to have a farmer with a big mustache around for the photo," said Dominik Lemanski, a British tabloid reporter, as we bounced around in a wheezing Toyota 4Runner somewhere north of Almaty. The donkey glanced our way, snorted, and continued on briskly in front of us.

Lemanski's quest for a bushy mustache was not his alone. Over the last few weeks, journalists have descended on Kazakhstan. Their news hook: the mega-hyped Nov. 3 opening of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat movie, which stars the comedian as a bumbling Kazakh journalist. Their assignment: Find Borat-like people in Kazakhstan or, failing that, find Borat-like things in Kazakh culture.

Baron Cohen is English, and the U.K. media, in particular, have enthusiastically pursued the Borat-in-Kazakhstan angle. British journalists based in London, Moscow, and even Tel Aviv have jumped on expensive long-haul flights to Almaty, Kazakhstan's leafy commercial center, to evaluate the country's Boratitude.

Kazakhstan is oil-rich but foreign-correspondent-poor. The country is the size of Western Europe, but the total number of full-time foreign reporters here is maybe seven. To those of us who work here year-round, the invasion has been a bit discomfiting.

The other day, stumbling into my favorite Almaty coffee shop, I noticed that several of the seats where Almaty's chattering classes usually perch with their laptops and their lattes were instead occupied by pale Englishmen. One was an English documentary maker who had rushed back from a project on the Aral Sea to film a Borat assignment for Britain's Channel 4. He told me he'd just run into a correspondent for London's Independent. I then took a seat next to a British freelance TV journalist named Inigo Gilmore, who told me he was visiting Almaty to shoot a Borat report for CNN. "My translator said there are 140 ethnicities in Kazakhstan and not one looks like Borat, but I found someone really lovely," Gilmore said defiantly. During a holiday celebration in Almaty's main square, Gilmore reported, he had spotted a man with a mustache, on a horse no less. The man quipped on camera that he treated his horse better than his wife. But then, unfortunately, the man qualified his comment: His wife had been dead for 10 years.

This hunt for a phantom movie character is amusing, but it also strikes a nerve. When I first arrived in Kazakhstan in 2002 to work as a freelance journalist, Almaty really was a dingy backwater. There were so few cars that drivers habitually ignored traffic lights. The Soviet Union had disappeared, but a sour Soviet mentality still held, and the sexual politics were grim: I'll never forget one night in an expensive restaurant, when patrons passively watched as a man erupted in rage and pushed his female companion down a flight of stairs. Today, Almaty is almost unrecognizable. The oil-fueled economy is booming. Traffic is choked with high-end German imports. Everywhere, you see signs of the newly emerging, sophisticated middle class. But Borat resonates in Kazakhstan as a character from the nation's very recent past, which is perhaps why the government finds him so radioactive, last year threatening to sue Baron Cohen for defaming the national character. It may also explain why the busy Kazakhs of Almaty, with their stylish handbags and well-tailored suits, don't have much time for the visiting British journos.

Dominik Lemanski, the tabloid reporter, had gotten my name from a mutual friend, and when he contacted me, I offered to show him around. Just a couple of days before we encountered that donkey on our countryside Borat hunt, Lemanski had been working his London beat, breaking the news that David Hasselhoff had been seen on a boozy weekend bender. Lemanski writes for the Daily Star Sunday, Britain's third-largest tabloid. It specializes in celebrity gossip, human-interest stories, sports coverage, and naked bottoms. Kazakhstan is usually not part of its editorial calendar. But 20th Century Fox, the distributor of the Borat film, offered to pitch in and help send a reporter to Kazakhstan, Lemanski said. Lemanski lost his luggage during his Moscow stopover and got a bit roughed up during a massage at the local baths, but he remained determined to find real Borats.

Lemanski was sure he could locate Borat in some Kazakh place or in some Kazakh person. At a local restaurant, I recommended we order the marinated skewered meat called "shashlyk." "Lovely," Lemanski pronounced his meal when served. "Is this dog, then?" The waiter, taken by surprise, vigorously shook his head. "Could this come in dog?" Lemanski asked hopefully. The waiter looked apoplectic.

When I picked up Lemanski from his hotel soon after his arrival, he had appeared concerned. "These people don't look much like Borat," he said from the back seat of the car, pointing at the Asian faces on the street. But he persevered. Lemanski's two-day search took him to a popular disco where half-naked women dance in cages above riotous clubgoers. While locals drank and danced, Lemanski took furtive snapshots of the caged women, an image Lemanski hoped could back up Borat's jokes about the misogyny of Kazakhstan. At the bustling green market—a must for any visiting journalist looking for an exotic visual—a shy elderly woman with tawny skin selling reptilian-appearing animal carcasses agreed to have her photo taken next to the hanging skeletons. "The camera loves you," Lemanski said.

At a hunter-themed restaurant, Lemanski loosened his tie and ordered a pint of local beer. "Let's have the workers around this table for a photo with me," he directed the waitresses and bar staff, who happily crowded into a booth. Everyone lifted a symbolic glass as I clicked. No, we have never heard of Borat, they told him. No, we don't accuse the Uzbeks of having a bone through their skulls, they laughed.

Lemanski ordered a second beer, sat down again, and shook his head.

"I'd like to capture the weirdest part of Kazakhstan. There has to be some Kazakhs who say absurd things or spend a little too much time mounted on top of their horses. What I'd like to do is go out into the countryside—somewhere where the people are not posh or middle class at all—and play a little gotcha by feeding them some insane questions."

Later, as we moved at a tractor's pace behind the donkey, as wary villagers peered at us from behind walled yards, and as a tall, willowy girl with swaying jet-black hair and a smart school uniform crossed the road ahead of us, Lemanski caught my eye in the rear view mirror. He twisted his shiny blue tie in his hands and grinned. "I must come off to these people as a bit like Borat myself. How fantastic is that!"

The Mobile-Home Candidate
Riding the campaign RV with Missouri Senate contender Claire McCaskill.
By Josh Levin
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 2:23 PM ET

ST. LOUIS—After hopscotching from Tennessee to Missouri, I find myself in the exact same place: a tight, vicious race that could decide the U.S. Senate. Today, Democrat Claire McCaskill—now in a dead heat with Republican incumbent Jim Talent—is launching her sixth and final driving tour of the state. Just after 7 a.m., I climb aboard the campaign's big blue RV (creatively nicknamed "Big Blue") with the candidate, two staffers, and two other reporters.

McCaskill, who looks kind of like a much taller relative of Madeleine Albright, has a nasty-sounding campaign cough but is otherwise on her game. The former state representative, county prosecutor, and state auditor has a charming manner and a sense of humor that sounds like it's not focus-grouped for the trail. When a staffer suggests that the song "All Night Long" might be a good fit for a final-week mix CD, McCaskill deadpans, "I'm very certain that song has nothing to do with campaigning."

This morning's glad-handing seems designed to buttress support among African-American voters. At the Goody Goody Diner in north St. Louis, McCaskill tells an ally, the Rev. B.T. Rice of New Horizon 7th Day Christian Church, that her "favorite thing on the campaign is to go to black churches. How can you not get lifted up?" Later, McCaskill insists that the African-American vote is "not something I'm fretting about at night. [Black voters] understand Sen. Talent's voting record and they reject it." Still, the most animated she gets all day is when she fields a phone call from Lacy Clay Jr., a congressional representative from St. Louis. Clay, a black Democrat, recently told U.S. News that Sen. Talent is "really trying to address some issues near and dear to the African community. … I don't hear the same drumbeat from the McCaskill camp." Clay is apparently calling to tell McCaskill his side of the story. McCaskill, though she acts a bit cagey in front of the reporters, seems pissed.

When she's actually trying to get into reporters' notebooks, McCaskill talks a lot about the other side's negativity. She blames the GOP's national political directors, particularly Karl Rove, for ads that call her husband a nursing-home profiteer and label her a tax cheat. "This is really not Jim Talent," she says. "I've known this man for 20 years. We served together in Jefferson City. He doesn't believe I'm unethical, he doesn't believe I'm dishonest." McCaskill insists that she doesn't attack Talent or his family, that she only goes after his voting record—like calling him a "rubber stamp" for the president.

At a lunchtime meeting with seniors, McCaskill tailors her message well. She talks about her 78-year-old mother's frustrating experience with Medicare Part D, and explicates how Talent's ties to Big Pharma contributed to the elderly getting a raw deal on prescription drugs. Eventually, she gets back around to Republican meanness. The gist: When the Republicans aren't screwing you on prescriptions, they're conjuring ways to tar and feather me. The Talent people should "just say that Claire is Satan's sister and get it over with," she says impishly. In a lilting voice, she announces that her mom wants to clock Rove if they're ever in the same room together. Everyone titters.

McCaskill gets a lot of mileage out of her victimization by GOP operatives, but she's the one who sponsored the campaign's most notorious attack ad. That's the pro-stem-cell spot in which a dyskinesic Michael J. Fox says McCaskill "shares my hope for cures," while Jim Talent "wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope."

Adrianne Marsh, McCaskill's spokeswoman, says it's frustrating that the national media thinks this race is only about Amendment 2, the ballot initiative that would protect the legality of stem-cell research. Missourians care about Iraq and health care and all manner of other things, Marsh says. She might be right, but I'm pretty sure I overheard this snippet of conversation on the street today: "Stem cells. Stem cells, stem cells, stem cells. Stem. Cells. Stem cells, stem cells, stem cells, stem cells, stem cells." People here are still talking about the ad and still debating the ballot proposition. If the national media's obsessed with this stuff, then so is the Show-Me State.

Besides, it's pretty clear that the McCaskill camp is doing its part to keep the conversation going. That makes a lot of sense—the latest St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll shows that 51 percent of voters favor Amendment 2 and only 35 percent oppose it. Today, McCaskill talks about stem cells in a stand-up with CNN, in a cell-phone interview with Fox News, and with the folks at the senior center. She talks about Rush Limbaugh's comments that Michael J. Fox was "acting" in the commercial. ("I hope that Rush Limbaugh is praying about that, because I think he needs to.") And she talks with the seniors about how she respects people who disagree with her on this issue, but that she's on the side of science and hope. Translation: If you don't agree with me on this issue, there's no way in hell I was getting your vote anyway.

This Is Ford Country?
Can Ford's Democrats counter the get-out-the-vote skills of Corker's Republicans?
By Josh Levin
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 2:29 PM ET

From: Josh Levin
Subject: The Final Debate in the Sizzling Hot Tennessee Senate Race.

Posted Sunday, October 29, 2006, at 5:27 PM ET

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—For the Democrats to seize the Senate, they have to win in Tennessee. Early voting started 10 days ago, and reports are that turnout's up 44 percent from the 2002 midterm elections. Those numbers might have something to do with an amendment that's on the ballot to make gay marriage unconstitutional. But according to my unscientific exit polling outside Nashville's Green Hills Library, voters are most fired up about the Senate race between Democrat Harold Ford Jr. and Republican Bob Corker.

An unsurprising early voting discovery: If you identify yourself as a close, personal friend of Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., you will most likely vote for Bob Corker. Also: If you claim that the soon-to-retire Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., suffers from "demonic possession," you will most likely vote for Harold Ford Jr. Now, for the possibly instructive anecdotal evidence. Nashville resident Lee Marsden, 56, says that, though he'd call himself a Frist supporter, he's voting for Ford. The infamous Playboy ad "was a low blow," he thinks, and he's "tired of the Republicans." On the other hand, Tim Morgan, a 30-year-old architect, says he wants the Democrats to take over the Senate. Even though "Ford is depending on me to vote for him," Morgan says, he can't pull the trigger—he thinks Ford's family history is shady, and he finds him a little too packaged. He voted for Corker.

For those who still haven't picked their horse, Saturday night's debate is the last chance to see the candidates square off. Corker and Ford have a nearly impossible task. For the second time in three debates, they have to convince voters to watch them instead of a University of Tennessee football game. With the Vols playing South Carolina on ESPN, the state's undecideds are probably more focused on mortal rivals Phillip Fulmer and Steve Spurrier.

Since Tennessee voters are a bit distracted, this final debate feels like a set piece for the national and international press—there are reporters here from the BBC, the Netherlands, Germany, and Japan. Corker probably has a better than even chance to win this race, but as far as the press corps is concerned, his name is "opponent." When Ford enters the spin room, you can feel his gravitational pull. The notepads and cameras run away from the white-haired Corker and stampede to Ford's side of the room. The foreigners all want to know what he thinks about the possibility of becoming the first black senator elected from the South since Reconstruction. Ford's response: A lot of people "grossly underestimate the goodness and decency" of those who live below the Mason-Dixon Line.

I gird myself for the debate by watching some local television. In under an hour, I see around 20 Corker and Ford commercials. The Corker camp is counting on its ability to sell Ford's charisma as empty calories—all frosting and no cake. That Playboy-party ad is no longer airing. The new, omnipresent Corker spot chides Ford for his "smooth talk," even as he "took cash from Hollywood's top X-rated porn moguls" and "wants to give the abortion pill to our schoolchildren." Ford's fighting dirty, too. His latest commercial suggests Corker will let the terrorists win because lots of 911 calls went unanswered when he was the mayor of Chattanooga.

After listening to these guys play rock 'em, sock 'em, it's a surprise the debate is so mellow. Ford and Corker mostly stick to their talking points on health care, immigration, and terrorism. The testiest it gets is when Ford says Corker never lowered taxes during his mayoral tenure. "My opponent takes a lot of liberties with facts," Corker responds robotically.

What of the negative ads? Ford, who's taken to closing his commercials with scolding pronouncements like "I won't let them make me something I'm not," now does his best impression of Mark "I'm not here to talk about the past" McGwire. Rather than discussing "smut and slime during family time," he wants to "strike a better, a more hopeful, and more positive note." John G. Geer, an attack-ad expert furnished to the media by Vanderbilt University, tells me Ford's self-congratulatory announcement made his opponent look sleazy. Indeed, when Corker says, "As far as the negative ads, I don't like them either," the crowd (admittedly peppered with Ford supporters) laughs at him.

Corker spends much of the debate persuading voters that he's running for local office. "I've lived a Tennessee life," he says in his opening statement, sprinkling his sentences with "Nash-VUHLs" and "GUV-ments." He adds, "I want to bring that to Washington." While Corker's stump speech wouldn't seem out of place in a race for county sheriff, Ford sounds like he's running for U.N. secretary-general—he namedrops Dick Lugar and Joe Biden as he trumpets his support for energy independence, bilateral talks with North Korea, and a plan to partition Iraq into three regions. The charge that Ford has "Hollywood values" is substanceless. It would make a lot more sense to say that his head's already inside the Beltway, far from the Tennessee Valley.

From: Josh Levin
Subject: Can Ford's Democrats Counter the Get-Out-the-Vote Skills of Corker's Republicans?

Updated Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 2:29 PM ET

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The other day I wrote that it's ridiculous to say that Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. has "Hollywood values." But today, I'm at a "Women for Ford" event moderated by longtime Tennessee resident and political activist Ashley Judd. Also on the stage: Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a conservative, religious Southern Democrat whom Ford is clearly trying to emulate politically. The value of the Double Jeopardy star to the Ford campaign is not so clear. "All of you male reporters," the beautiful Ford announces, "I know you're jealous of me right now." (Given the recent campaign brouhaha over Ford's supposed eye for the ladies, this is a joke he could have skipped.)

Ford's rhetoric is seductive, even once you realize that his answers tend to veer off-topic. In response to a question about teacher pay, he makes the point that Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates need to donate their time and expertise to helping our troops defuse IEDs in Iraq. Judd and Landrieu praise his far-sighted approach to domestic policy issues. Later, I ask Landrieu what Ford's candidacy has taught Democrats about what it takes to win in the South. Along with his moderate record, she singles out his energy as a campaigner. On this night, he shakes every hand in the room.

Bob Corker, meanwhile, spends his afternoon meeting and greeting outside LP Field, the home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans. I had heard that he wasn't much of a retail politician, but the compact, white-haired pol seems totally at ease among the seamheads. When a guy in a Vince Young jersey comes up and says he's pissed about illegal immigration, Corker points out that it's a very important issue for him, too. In fact, he'd just been talking about it with the guy in the Keith Bulluck jersey.

The folksy Corker moved the needle in the last few weeks, thanks perhaps to the RNC's Playboy party ad. Now, his camp is trying to fan the embers of a Ford sound bite into a charge that the Jesus-loving congressman said Democrats love God more than Republicans. This manufactured controversy is designed solely to inflame a GOP base that hasn't had much to cheer about recently.

But that Republican base is easy to find in these parts. In 2004, 72 percent of voters in the exceptionally wealthy, exceptionally fast-growing, exurban Williamson County sided with George W. Bush. The 36,000-vote margin in Williamson more than made up for the GOP's 25,000-vote deficit in neighboring Davidson County, home to Nashville proper. The key for Tennessee Republicans in 2006 is to get a repeat of their remarkable ground game in redder-than-red counties like Williamson.

Doug Grindstaff, the chairman of the Williamson County Republican Party, is sure his county won't vote for Harold Ford Jr. He's worried, though, that they won't vote at all. "My concern is that Republicans have been pummeled with a lot of bad news, a lot of stress, and a lot of them are just fatigued and tired with the political process," he says. In 2004, the voter turnout in Williamson was 80 percent. For this off-year election, Grindstaff thinks it's reasonable to shoot for 50 percent.

How have the Republicans become the party that knows how to get out the vote? Grindstaff theorizes that while the Democrats used to have the advantage by being able to tap organized labor, there are now a greater number of Republicans who are willing to sacrifice time and money to rally the troops. His precinct captains don't have to work very hard going door-to-door in certain neighborhoods, Grindstaff says, because GOP women's groups have already been doing that work for months.

And how are the Democrats playing catch-up? Mark Brown, the spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party, says it's not fair to criticize the Dems' 2004 get-out-the-vote operation in Tennessee, considering that they got stiffed by the Kerry campaign and the national party, which figured Tennessee was a lost cause and didn't campaign here. Now, the state's got as much help as it wants. Cash is pouring in from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Bill Clinton recorded a pro-Ford phone call that's going out to voters starting today.

Brown says the Dems are focused on early voting. This year, he expects that for the first time more people will vote in the two-week early voting period than will vote on Tuesday, Nov. 7. One consequence of early voting is that it generates data that can be acted upon the next day. If the party gets reports that "Area X is kind of down, maybe we do a few more phone calls," Brown says. Also, canvassers have no need to wait until Election Day to cajole people to polling places. The hope for the Democrats is that the early voting window will allow them to goose turnout in places like Memphis' Shelby County—Ford's stronghold—to levels usually seen in presidential elections.

Tangled Webb
James Webb's fiction wins accolades, but his speeches suck.
By Dahlia Lithwick
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 7:21 PM ET

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—They should teach political-science courses on this. Every time a Democrat gets slimed between the eyes with a Karl Rove Swift Boat special, the same litany of questions and complaints surges up from the left: Is it better to respond or not? Is it good for Harold Ford that the Playboy ads are being aired nationally? Is it even thinkable that triple amputee Vietnam veteran Max Cleland was likened to a terrorist for opposing the war?

So, what is the appropriate response to a sliming, anyhow?

Virginia Senate candidate Jim Webb has to figure out a response to the sidesplitting new George Allen attacks last week. And he has to do it fast. Allen now claims that passages from Webb's fiction are evidence of a candidate "demeaning" to women and children. My first reaction to these Allen-campaign efforts was that they were a parody. But then, I also thought Rush Limbaugh's attacks last week on Michael J. Fox were a parody. That's the trick, you see: These attacks are real and effective, in the same way a sucker punch is always effective. It takes away your breath. And into that empty space, elections seem to tumble.

At a rally today at the University of Virginia's Newcomb Hall, Webb shares the stage with Cleland, but the two veterans—who refer to one another as "brothers"—could not be more different: Cleland, the decorated Vietnam vet and former U.S. senator from Georgia who was unseated after GOP commercials accused him of being unpatriotic, seems almost to have located the humor in the situation. While the ugliness of the attacks on him can still numb the moral brain, his comments this afternoon suggest that he knows it's all a dirty game. After Webb pushes his wheelchair onto the stage, Cleland waves and grins. He cracks the obligatory Cheney duck-hunting joke to explain his triple-amputee status ("At least someone in the Bush Administration has combat status"), and then he launches into a spirited and moving defense of the soldier's pledge not to "lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do."

He notes wryly that the Allen campaign has "attacked Jim for being obscene." He pauses. "I will tell you what's obscene. Going to war with no strategy to win is obscene. Obscene is sending Americans into war without proper equipment." Cleland speaks without notes, and—doubly poignant coming from a man without legs—he devotes most of his imagery to the contrast between Webb's boots (the candidate wears his son's combat boots to honor him as he serves) and Allen's cowboy boots (in a place where "there are no cowboys"). He charges the crowd to use their boots to pound the pavement for Webb. Although Cleland's war injuries were more brutal and his swift-boating more vicious, he is sufficiently recovered from them both to be passionate and funny and wry.

But Jim Webb, with his Dick Tracy features and his ramrod military posture, is just not there yet. After Cleland's introduction, Webb steps stiffly forward and awkwardly embraces him. Then he begins, again stiffly, to speak. And juxtaposed against Cleland's ambling Southern charm, Webb comes across as so formal and literary that it's hard to believe he was ever a Republican. He sounds like he's tumbled out of Al Gore's pocket.

Webb almost immediately makes the mistake of engaging with Allen's moronic attack. Instead of exploding the whole bizarre smear campaign with one devastating line, he pulls from his pocket a list of his novels' reviews and begins to read: His novels are required reading in the Marine Corps. They were required reading for college courses on Vietnam. He quotes the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post and the Washington Times. Everyone agrees his novels were important works on the ravages of war. It goes on too long, and he's clearly upset. But why is he dwelling on this?

He then tries to laugh it off: "I never believed when I ran for the Senate I'd be reading reviews of my novels." But he says he wants to make two points here: "I've lived a literary life, and I'm proud of it." More important still: "I have lived in the real world and reported on the real world."

And then he finally says the only sentence he needed to say about this whole pathetic episode of swift-boating by close literary reading: "If you've been in the Senate for six years and the best you can do is dissect your opponent's novels, you don't have much to bring to the table." The crowd roars, relieved.

There is a good turnout at today's UVA event, and the audience members are primed and ready to pound the pavement for Webb. They are angry about the war and sickened by the current Congress and president. But they also seem to see the latest Allen efforts for the lame distraction that they are. Webb isn't there yet. He's pissed off, and he's entitled to be. But the only folks who benefit when he angrily reads his critical literary reviews at campaign rallies are Karl Rove and the moral Cirque du Soleil performers who orchestrate these campaigns.

They sucker-punched you, Jim. It sucks. Now catch your breath, tell a joke, and move on.

The Most Useful Wine Book Ever
The Oxford Companion to Wine.
By Mike Steinberger
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 6:14 AM ET

As a general rule, I prefer drinking wine to talking or reading about it. Forced to choose between a $30 bottle of wine and a $30 book about wine, I'll almost always take the former. But it never hurts to have a good reference manual in close proximity to the corkscrew. The Washington Post once described The Oxford Companion to Wine as "the greatest wine book ever published." That's a reasonable claim; it is without question the most useful wine book ever published. The third edition of the OCW has just landed here; if you have a more-than-casual interest in wine and don't own either of the previous editions, this is one instance in which your wine money—$65 of it, anyway—will be best spent on something to read.

Totaling just over 800 pages and weighing nearly as many pounds, the OCW is the magnum opus of Jancis Robinson—Oxonian, Master of Wine, OBE (that would be Officer of the Order of the British Empire), wine columnist for the Financial Times, and almost surely the world's most popular and prolific wine writer. (Jancis is also a friend of mine.) Robinson edited the original OCW, which took five years to produce and was published in 1994. She described this hellish undertaking in her memoir, Tasting Pleasure, in which she referred to the OCW simply as "The Work." Robinson has since edited two follow-up editions (the second appeared in 1999), and although she had an assistant editor for this latest one, fellow Master of Wine Julia Harding, and enlisted the services of 167 contributors worldwide, the OCW is still very much her work; she wrote more than a third of the nearly 4,000 entries.

Much has changed, for both Robinson and the OCW, in the seven years since the second edition was published. In that time, she has supplanted the equally prolific Hugh Johnson, author of The Story of Wine and The World Atlas of Wine, as the face of British wine journalism, a role that automatically makes her, in the eyes of some Robert Parker loyalists, the anti-Parker. (Parker and the Brits have been trading spitballs for several years now.) The Parkerati have had Robinson in their cross hairs ever since she trashed the 2003 Château Pavie, a Bordeaux that Parker (and several other major critics) adored. Her dissenting view brought a tetchy rebuke from him and convinced his most ardent followers that she was jealous of his influence and motivated chiefly by a desire to knock the emperor of wine off his throne (as if an OBE would even contemplate regicide). But it's never been my sense that Robinson is striving to unseat Parker. Why would she? She's built a nice throne of her own—in addition to the weekly FT column and her endless run of book deals, she's a wine consultant for British Airways, has numerous speaking engagements around the world, and operates a Web site that now has 5,500 paid subscribers.

The OCW's lengthy entry on Parker (largely unchanged, it should be noted, from the second edition) will probably rile his more rabid fans. The biographical material is straightforward, but the discussion concludes with a tart observation about Parker's "dangerous" degree of influence over the wine market and the growing tendency of winemakers to cater to his palate. Parker is among just a handful of individuals given entries in the book. Being left out of the first edition caused at least one wine luminary a minor conniption, but Robinson told me via e-mail that the barriers to inclusion are high— the main criteria being "a long track record" and "global significance." Michel Rolland, the French consulting enologist who now has projects on five continents, made the cut; Helen Turley, who is California's most sought-after consulting enologist, but whose work and influence are largely confined to Napa and Sonoma, did not.

Of course, the point of purchasing the OCW isn't to read about personalities or industry scuttlebutt; it is to have a single, compendious source of wine information at your disposal, and the OCW serves this function brilliantly. While there are certainly some fine introductory texts on the market—The New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia, written by Tom Stevenson, is particularly good—there is simply no book that comes close to matching the breadth and depth of the OCW. Every wine-related topic imaginable is covered in erudite, meticulous detail. Need a primer on oak? Over three pages are devoted to the subject, addressing everything from the differences among various European species of oak to the chemistry behind the oak-imparted aromas and flavors in wines. Looking for a good summary of those arcane German wine laws? In eight simple, meaty paragraphs, the OCW tells you everything you'll ever need (or want) to know about the development and application of the complex regulations governing German winemaking. And it is not just the comprehensiveness that sets the OCW apart; no other wine book draws on such a deep reservoir of expertise. Contributors include the hugely influential Australian viticulturist Richard Smart, the celebrated French enologist Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon, the aforementioned Hugh Johnson, and dozens of other first-rate scholars and writers with specialized wine knowledge. It is a remarkable roster.

The OCW does take a fairly expansive view of what qualifies as wine-related material. It was a bit surprising, for instance, to find Mikhail Gorbachev, never known to be an enophile, included in the third edition. (The reason he's there: The campaign he initiated against alcohol abuse had dire consequences for the Soviet wine industry and for wine producers in several Eastern Bloc countries.) But if some entries are a stretch, other slightly offbeat items evince a certain English quirkiness and give the book considerable charm. There is, for example, a learned and wryly entertaining discussion of wine in English literature, from Chaucer to Ian Fleming. (Robinson tried to get her friend and drinking buddy, the novelist Julian Barnes, to write this entry for the first OCW. He passed, and the task fell to wine merchant Bill Baker, who has done it with aplomb.)

The OCW is not just a great resource; it is a great artifact, whose contents tell the story of wine today. One part of that story is the growing deployment of technology in vineyards and cellars, and the book discusses at length many of the new and often controversial techniques and devices now being used by winemakers, such as micro-oxygenation and reverse osmosis. Another part of that story is globalization, a term that makes its OCW debut in the third edition; its profound impact on the world wine market is given a detailed, dispassionate assessment. Two byproducts of wine's globalization are also first-time entries: Yellow Tail, the Australian wine that has conquered much of the English-speaking world, gets a paragraph, and so does la crise viticole, as it is called—the wine crisis presently roiling much of France.

I have but one, shallow gripe with the third edition—I prefer the more sober look of the second edition. Its text was purely black-and-white; in the third edition, by contrast, the entry titles are off-red, and cross-references and page numbers are highlighted in pink. I find it a bit too bright and chirpy. On the other hand, no copy of the OCW would be complete without a few wine stains, and at least now they won't be quite so obvious.

everyday economics
How the Web Prevents Rape
All that Internet porn reduces sex crimes. Really.
By Steven E. Landsburg
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 2:22 PM ET

Does pornography breed rape? Do violent movies breed violent crime? Quite the opposite, it seems.

First, porn. What happens when more people view more of it? The rise of the Internet offers a gigantic natural experiment. Better yet, because Internet usage caught on at different times in different states, it offers 50 natural experiments.

The bottom line on these experiments is, "More Net access, less rape." A 10 percent increase in Net access yields about a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes. States that adopted the Internet quickly saw the biggest declines. And, according to Clemson professor Todd Kendall, the effects remain even after you control for all of the obvious confounding variables, such as alcohol consumption, police presence, poverty and unemployment rates, population density, and so forth.

OK, so we can at least tentatively conclude that Net access reduces rape. But that's a far cry from proving that porn access reduces rape. Maybe rape is down because the rapists are all indoors reading Slate or vandalizing Wikipedia. But professor Kendall points out that there is no similar effect of Internet access on homicide. It's hard to see how Wikipedia can deter rape without deterring other violent crimes at the same time. On the other hand, it's easy to imagine how porn might serve as a substitute for rape.

If not Wikipedia, then what? Maybe rape is down because former rapists have found their true loves on But professor Kendall points out that the effects are strongest among 15-year-old to 19-year-old perpetrators—the group least likely to use such dating services.

Moreover, professor Kendall argues that those teenagers are precisely the group that (presumably) relies most heavily on the Internet for access to porn. When you're living with your parents, it's a lot easier to close your browser in a hurry than to hide a stash of magazines. So, the auxiliary evidence is all consistent with the hypothesis that Net access reduces rape because Net access makes it easy to find porn.

Next, violence. What happens when a particularly violent movie is released? Answer: Violent crime rates fall. Instantly. Here again, we have a lot of natural experiments: The number of violent movie releases changes a lot from week to week. One weekend, 12 million people watch Hannibal, and another weekend, 12 million watch Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

University of California professors Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna compared what happens on those weekends. The bottom line: More violence on the screen means less violence in the streets. Probably that's because violent criminals prefer violent movies, and as long as they're at the movies, they're not out causing mischief. They'd rather see Hannibal than rob you, but they'd rather rob you than sit through Wallace & Gromit.

I say that's the most probable explanation, because the biggest drop in crime (about a 2 percent drop for every million people watching violent movies) occurs between 6 p.m. and midnight—the prime moviegoing hours. And what happens when the theaters close? Answer: Crime stays down, though not by quite as much. Dahl and DellaVigna speculate that this is because two hours at the movies means two hours of drinking Coke instead of beer, with sobering effects that persist right on through till morning. Speaking of morning, after 6 a.m., crime returns to its original level.

What about those experiments you learned about in freshman psych, where subjects exposed to violent images were more willing to turn up the voltage on actors who they believed were receiving painful electric shocks? Those experiments demonstrate, perhaps, that most people become more violent after viewing violent images. But that's the wrong question here. The right question is: Do the sort of people who commit violent crimes commit more crimes when they watch violence? And the answer appears to be no, for the simple reason that they can't commit crimes and watch movies simultaneously.

Similarly, psychologists have found that male subjects, immediately after watching pornography, are more likely to express misogynistic attitudes. But as professor Kendall points out, we need to be clear on what those experiments are testing: They are testing the effects of watching pornography in a controlled laboratory setting under the eyes of a researcher. The experience of viewing porn on the Internet, in the privacy of one's own room, typically culminates in a slightly messier but far more satisfying experience—an experience that could plausibly tamp down some of the same aggressions that the pornus interruptus of the laboratory tends to stir up.

In other words, if you want to understand the effects of on-screen sex and violence outside the laboratory, psych experiments don't tell you very much. Sooner or later, you've got to look at the data.

Saturday-Night Democrats
Are weekend polling numbers really skewed?
By Daniel Engber
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 6:16 PM ET

Democrat Jim Webb has taken the lead over Sen. George Allen of Virginia, according to a pre-election poll released on Tuesday. Allen's polling consultant rejected the latest results: "Any survey conducted Fridays and Saturdays, everybody knows they're skewed toward Democrats." Similar claims have surfaced in news reports about polling data since at least as far back as 2000. What's so suspicious about weekend polls?

It's harder to get people on the phone on Friday and Saturday nights. Pollsters try to collect a fair sample of potential voters by dialing phone numbers selected at random. But the people who are most likely to answer their phones may not be representative of all Americans. For example, the poll samples could have a bias toward the older people who are more likely to be at home on any given night.

Pollsters don't want to skip anyone with an active social life, so they try to call back when people don't pick up the first time. A typical opinion poll might be conducted over five school nights, from Sunday to Thursday, with up to 10 calls made to each number. (They keep calling—during the day and at night—until they get through.)

As an election approaches, pollsters try to gather data more quickly. They might run a two-day poll instead of a five-day poll, and they might conduct it over weekend nights instead of during the week. (Some magazines, like Newsweek, time their polls to coincide with a weekend publication deadline.) In theory, younger people are more likely to be out on Friday and Saturday nights, which would make them less likely to be included in the sample.

What would that mean for the results of a given study? Weekend polling would skew the sample away from the young and active types and toward the oldsters who sit at home. That doesn't mean the weekend poll gives more credence to the elderly vote. It might mean just the opposite: Pollsters can correct for having too many old people by giving extra weight to everyone else. In that case, the opinions of the few young people who are in the sample would count extra.

That means one possible source of bias in a weekend poll comes from the young voters who happen to be staying in on Friday and Saturday nights. If they happened to vote more Democratic than their more socially active cohorts, the poll will skew toward the Democrats.

While it's a common claim that weekend polls favor the Democrats, there isn't much hard evidence to support that idea. One of the best studies of this question was conducted by two polling experts at ABC News. Gary Langer and Daniel Merkle looked at the data from ABC's tracking polls for the last three presidential elections. They compared results from people reached on Sunday through Thursday with those reached on Friday and Saturday and found no difference. Among the Sunday-to-Thursday people polled in 2004, 49 percent supported Bush and 46 percent supported Kerry. Polls of the stay-at-home, Friday-to-Saturday crowd produced similar numbers—48 and 46.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and Mark Blumenthal of Thanks also to reader Rob Formica for asking the question.

How Gasoline Becomes CO2
A gallon turns into 19 pounds?
By Daniel Engber
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 7:05 PM ET

Last week, Slate published the first installment of the "Green Challenge," a program that helps participants reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they put into the atmosphere. We started by asking people to think about the effects their cars have on the environment: "For each gallon of gas your car burns, it releases about 19 pounds of carbon dioxide." Explainer readers wondered about this statistic: If a gallon of gasoline weighs about 6 pounds, how can it produce three times that much greenhouse gas?

The carbon from the gasoline mixes with oxygen from the air. Gasoline consists mostly of hydrocarbons—chains of carbon encircled by atoms of hydrogen. When the hydrocarbons burn, they break apart and recombine with the air. This reaction produces heat, as well as two chemical byproducts: water and carbon dioxide.

For example, consider a single molecule of octane—a typical hydrocarbon that you'd find in gasoline. Octane consists of eight atoms of carbon and 18 atoms of hydrogen, written as C8H18. If you break down the octane and mix it with enough oxygen (O2), you've got the ingredients—i.e., the atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen—to make eight molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nine molecules of water (H2O). The eight molecules of CO2 weigh about three times more than the one molecule of octane you started with. That doesn't mean you've violated the law of conservation of mass; instead, you've added the weight of the oxygen from the air to the weight of the carbon from the gasoline. (For a more in-depth discussion of this reaction, click here.)

This reaction gives only a general sense of what happens when you burn a gallon of gas. First, the combustion that occurs in a car engine doesn't work perfectly, which means not every hydrocarbon gets converted into carbon dioxide and water vapor. Sometimes there's not enough oxygen available to complete the reaction, in which case hydrocarbons can be converted into poisonous carbon monoxide (CO). Burning gasoline can also release nitrous oxide and other gases.

Second, gasoline consists of octane along with many other kinds of hydrocarbons. You'll also find additives like surfactants, freezing-point depressants, corrosion inhibitors, and dyes. These nonhydrocarbon additives might make up half a percent of the total composition of the gasoline. There are also differences between winter and summer blends, low- and high-octane, and leaded and unleaded.

Thus, any estimate of the amount of carbon dioxide that comes from a gallon of gas must be based on some assumptions. The Environmental Protection Agency starts with a guess for how many grams of carbon are in each gallon of gas. First, they determine how much carbon is in each particular kind of gasoline, and then they come up with a weighted average based on consumption levels for each variety. Using this method, they estimate that a gallon of gas contains, on average, 2,421 grams of carbon. That's enough to make 8,877 grams of CO2. They multiply that number by 0.99 to account for the carbon that doesn't react fully with the oxygen. Their result: 8,788 grams, or about 19.4 pounds. (The Energy Information Administration gives a slightly higher number—19.564.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Roxanne Smith from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Why Can't U.S. Soldiers Marry Iraqis?
The elusive rule against fraternizing with the locals.
By Daniel Engber
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 6:13 PM ET

A U.S. soldier who was abducted in Baghdad had taken a secret Iraqi wife, his in-laws said on Sunday. A military spokeswoman quoted by the New York Times said soldiers aren't allowed to marry local civilians under the military's fraternization policies. Who sets these policies?

Local commanders. The Department of Defense doesn't have any rules about whom American troops are allowed to marry. The policies on how to treat the locals are generally established by regional command centers and then refined by officers further down the chain of command. When American forces set up shop in a foreign country, the rules on behavior are laid out in a document called "General Order No. 1." (Not to be confused with the one from Star Trek.) As the top commander at United States Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid's "General Order No. 1" covers the basics. Then, each subordinate general comes up with his or her own version; these may be a bit more strict and specific.

Abizaid's document prohibits alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, and private firearms. It also tells U.S. forces not to proselytize, adopt pets, enter mosques without permission, photograph detainees or dead bodies, or collect war souvenirs. There's no mention of having sex with or marrying the locals.

The Explainer contacted Central Command, the Army, and the Defense Department without getting a consistent answer about where exactly one might find the official rule against marrying a local civilian. (One source at CENTCOM said that CENTCOM made the rule; another CENTCOM source said the opposite.) Everyone agrees that it is up to the unit commanders to interpret and enforce the policy. (Update, Nov. 1: Click here to see a PDF of the rules for the 101st Airborne Division, which prohibit "having an intimate or sexual relationship with foreign and local nationals.") In 2003, a National Guardsman named Sean Blackwell fell in love with an Iraqi doctor, whom he'd met while guarding the Ministry of Health. (For their first date, he took her to one of Saddam's palaces.) According to a member of his platoon, his immediate superiors were OK with the relationship, but the colonel in charge ordered him not to marry. He went ahead with the ceremony and was forced out of the military.

It's become standard practice for the military to restrict contact with local civilians in areas of conflict. (Rules were particularly strict in the Balkans.) In general, soldiers are expected to avoid all interactions with the locals that aren't part of their official business. For the most part, locals are kept off the bases and aren't recruited even for menial labor. Policies are markedly different at peacetime garrisons. Troops in Germany and Korea, for example, often marry locals, and you'll see non-American faces working on the bases.

Bonus Explainer: There is a rule against "fraternization" in the Manual for Courts-Martial, but it refers to inappropriate intimacy between officers and enlisted persons. ("Gambling with subordinate" is also against the rules.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Gary Arasin of U.S. Central Command, Phillip Carter, Paul Reickhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Leonard Wong of the U.S. Army War College.

fighting words
Rushing for the Exit
If we leave Iraq, what happens to the supporters of democracy?
By Christopher Hitchens
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 6:14 PM ET

To say that "exit strategies" from Iraq have become the flavor of the month would be to exaggerate the situation to the point of absurdity. Exit strategies are not even the fall fashion. They are the regnant topic of conversation all across the political establishment and have been for some time. Even the Bush administration has some share in this discourse, having now abandoned the useless mantra of "staying the course" without quite defining what that "course" might be—or might have been. (A rule of thumb in politics is that any metaphor drawn from sporting activity is worse than useless, but at least one doesn't hear people saying that in Iraq we are "at the bottom of the ninth" or some such horse manure.)

Many of those advocating withdrawal have been "war-weary" ever since the midafternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, when it was discovered that the source of jihadist violence was U.S. foreign policy—a mentality now reinforced by the recent National Intelligence Estimate circulated by our emasculated, demoralized, and incompetent intelligence services. To this way of thinking, victory is impossible by definition, because any response other than restraint is bound to inflame the militancy of the other side. Since the jihadists, by every available account, are also inflamed and encouraged by everything from passivity to Danish cartoons, this seems to shrink the arena of possible or even thinkable combat. (Nobody ever asks what would happen if the jihadists had to start worrying about the level of casualties they were enduring, or the credit they were losing by their tactics, or the number of enemies they were making among civilized people who were prepared to take up arms to stop them. Our own masochism makes this contingency an unlikely one in any case.)

I am glad that all previous demands for withdrawal or disengagement from Iraq were unheeded, because otherwise we would not be able to celebrate the arrest and trial of Saddam Hussein; the removal from the planet of his two sadistic kids and putative successors; the certified disarmament of a former WMD- and gangster-sponsoring rogue state; the recuperation of the marshes and their ecology and society; the introduction of a convertible currency; the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan (currently advertising for investors and tourists on American television); the killing of al-Qaida's most dangerous and wicked leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and many of his associates; the opening of dozens of newspapers and radio and TV stations; the holding of elections for an assembly and to approve a constitution; and the introduction of the idea of federal democracy as the only solution for Iraq short of outright partition and/or civil war. If this cause is now to be considered defeated, by the sheer staggering persistence in murder and sabotage of the clerico-fascist forces and the sectarian militias, then it will always count as a noble one.

But the many disappointments and crimes and blunders (the saddest of which is the utter failure to influence Iran, and the corresponding advantage taken by Tehran-backed militias) do not relieve us of a responsibility that is either insufficiently stressed or else passed over entirely: What is to become, in the event of a withdrawal, of the many Arab and Kurdish Iraqis who do want to live in a secular and democratic and federal country? We have acquired this responsibility not since 2003, or in the sideshow debate over prewar propaganda, but over decades of intervention in Iraq's affairs, starting with the 1968 Baathist coup endorsed by the CIA, stretching through Jimmy Carter's unforgivable permission for Saddam Hussein to invade Iran, continuing through the decades of genocide in Kurdistan and the uneasy compromise that ended the Kuwait war, and extending through 12 years of sanctions and half-measures, including the "no-fly" zones and the Iraq Liberation Act, which passed the Senate without a dissenting vote. It is not a responsibility from which we can walk away when, or if, it seems to suit us.

Some time ago, I wrote rather offhandedly that the coalition forces in Iraq act as the defensive militia for those who have no militia. I get e-mails from civilians and soldiers in that country, as well as from its growing number of exiles, and this little remark generated more traffic than I have had in a while. Just look at the report in the Oct. 30 New York Times about the kidnapping of an Iraqi-American Army interpreter in the (still) relatively civilized Baghdad neighborhood of Karada. A few days earlier, according to the residents who tried with bare hands to stop the abduction, the same gang had been whipping teenage boys with cables for the crime of wearing shorts. (It is always useful to know what is on the minds of the pious.) A Sunday Washington Post headline referred to the "tipping point" in the erosion of congressional support for the Iraq intervention. Well, the "tipping point" between the grim status quo in Karada and its full-scale Talibanization is rather more acute. And does anyone want to argue that a Talibanized Iraq would not require our attention down the road if we left it behind us?

There are many different plans to reconfigure forces within Iraq and to accommodate, in one way or another, its increasingly tribal and sectarian politics. (Former Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith's suggestion, arising from his admirable book The End of Iraq, involves a redeployment to the successful and peaceful north, with the ability to answer requests for assistance from the central government and the right to confront al-Qaida forces without notice.) But all demands for an evacuation are based on the fantasy that there is a distinction between "over there" and "over here." In a world-scale confrontation with jihadism, this distinction is idle and false. It also involves callously forgetting the people who would be the first victims but who would not by any means be the last ones.

What Joy Is Missing
The latest edition of America's kitchen bible falls short.
By Laura Shapiro
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 6:15 AM ET

A thick, yellow sludge bubbled away in my pan. It didn't look too promising. Maybe the chicken would help. I stirred in three cups of cooked chicken and reduced the heat. According to the recipe, it would take about five minutes "to blend the flavors," after which the pan would suddenly be full of—chicken curry! And that's exactly what happened, if you define chicken curry as a thick, yellow sludge with pieces of chicken in it. I took a taste: canned coconut milk, canned crushed pineapple, powdered ginger, and curry powder. Especially curry powder. How did this recipe, truly a cry of despair from the dark night of America's culinary soul, find its way into the "brand new" and "updated" Joy of Cooking?

In truth, the 75th-anniversary edition of Joy, which arrives in bookstores this week with enormous hoopla, hasn't been made "brand new" at all. It's been antiqued with a vengeance. The new edition is an impassioned mea culpa for the last edition, which was launched to similar fanfare back in 1997 (the first update since 1975). That book—more Gourmet than Good Housekeeping—provoked such anguish among Joy devotees that the publisher, Scribner, is now desperate to make amends. "This Joy is a return to the traditional 'friend in the kitchen,' " swears the press release. "We have brought Joy back to its original glory." But you can't go home again, at least not if you're planning to eat there. Joy's "original glory" was precisely that—original—and there's no re-creating it.

One reason Joy is still around to celebrate 75 years is that its founding writer, Irma Rombauer, let past and present mingle comfortably at her table. The new edition nods to that spirit with 500 recipes created especially for 2006, along with 4,000 mined from past editions. Irma would have loved to see the recipes for sushi and bagel chips in the book, as well as the instructions on how readers can concoct their own flavored vodka. But ... patty melts and corn dogs and shrimp wiggle and Mississippi mud pie? That's not updating, it's retrofitting. Irma never ladled nostalgia across the page like cheap custard.

What makes this a recognizable Joy are the genuinely traditional recipes, those that emerged from their time and settled into place on their merits. Some are the recipes that taught generations of Americans how to get dinner on the table—pot roast, brownies, lasagna, hollandaise. Others are more contemporary: a Gruyère-Parmesan cheese crisp to accompany a salad, and an array of dry rubs and spices for meat and fish. And, thank goodness, there are still pages of painstaking instructions on homemade puff pastry, cake decorating, oyster shucking, and how to impress company by setting the after-dinner coffee on fire. I hope I never make Café Diablo in my life, but I confess I like knowing I could if I wanted to.

Much of the material jettisoned from the last edition has been brought back, wisely. The ice-cream chapter has been restored, and there's a lovely, genteel recipe for Sour Cream Apple Cake Soufflé, so grandmotherly you'll want to go out and buy flowered china to serve it on. Most important to Joy devotees: The jovial voice of Irma Rombauer—ditched in 1997—can be heard once again.

But the past has to be handled with care, or all we're going to see is a lot of artificial sepia tinting. In Irma's day, for instance, convenience foods were a miracle of progress and efficiency; she used them happily at every opportunity. The new book is less naive, but it's shameless about reclaiming Joy's history by any means necessary. Hence there's an odious page of the canned-soup combinations she adored. (Put two kinds together and hope the end tastes better than the means.) Conceivably, they're here to honor her memory. But what's the excuse for a beef stew made with canned tomato sauce, canned onion soup, and frozen vegetables? And the disgusting curry that sat in my refrigerator for three days before I finally threw it out? These honor nothing but the triumph of the food industry over common sense.

As for Irma's voice, the pride of the 75th-anniversary edition, it sits on the page with a hard brightness, as if her charm had been shellacked into place. The editors of the 1997 edition were probably right to make a clean break with all those creaky jokes and stories, not to mention many a weary recipe. In fact, the forward tilt of that version was exactly what Joy needed at the time: Goodbye, Hawaiian Meatballs and Grapefruit Sherry Aspic; hello, bruschetta and Jamaican Goat Curry. But the editors were so bedazzled by celebrity chefs and supermarket mesclun, they lost touch with the ordinary cook who had always been able to find a home in Joy. Nobody quite trusted a Joy that shed its old housedress, pulled on designer jeans, and invited a posse of glamorous experts to gather around the Viking.

Maybe next time around, Scribner can come up with a Joy that's true to both history and the future. Or maybe we already have it—in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, the current go-to for home cooks who rarely open their behemoth kitchen bibles anymore. This is pesto, he says; that's a stir-fry; this sauce is quick, that one takes longer. Bittman has an elegant way of getting to the point without stooping to mindless shortcuts, and his 960 pages are never overwhelming. He doesn't offer the universe, only a slice of life, but it's our life.

By contrast, the new Joy seems stuck in a time warp of its own making, longing to deliver useful domestic comforts, yet immobilized by its own overwhelming past. Here are the pictures of every pasta shape, here are the instructions on how to pass the salt, and here is a long section on how to eviscerate the bear you shot. ("Free the intestines by cutting around the anus and pulling them through to the inside. This is easier if you split the pelvic bone with a heavy knife.") If you miss your shot, by the way, better drop Joy and run. It's a good resource, but there are moments when it will certainly slow you down.

Do As We Say—If You Dare
The West is no better at promoting democracy today than it was in 1956.
By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 6:15 AM ET

With a clutch of new books, a multitude of speeches, and a score of conferences already under way, no one can claim that the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution has gone unmarked. The Hungarians themselves commemorated their tragic revolt against Soviet communism with a street riot: Just as post-revolutionary France remained divided for decades between royalists and Bonapartists, so, too, is much of post-Communist Europe still divided between former Communists and former anti-Communists, and nowhere more so than in Budapest.

But as the anniversary moves into its second week, I'd like to celebrate in a different way—by asking what, if anything, we in the West have learned since 1956. As many have already observed, the U.S. role in the Hungarian revolution was hardly admirable. Although American governments had spent much of the previous decade encouraging Hungary and other Soviet satellite states to rebel—using radio broadcasts, speeches, even balloons carrying anti-Communist pamphlets—no one was prepared for the real thing. As late as June 1956, a clueless CIA (sound familiar?) published an internal document declaring that "there really is no underground movement" in Hungary.

As a result, the initial U.S. reaction was confused—to be polite about it. At first, the White House dithered about whether the president ought to call a "day of prayer," or call on the Red Cross, or get the United Nations to do something. Only after four days of street fighting did the U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles—a man who had spoken often of liberating the "captive nations" of Eastern Europe—finally declare that the American government did not consider the Hungarians "potential allies." The message was clear: The West would not intervene. Or almost clear. At the same time that Dulles was reassuring everybody that nothing would be done, Radio Free Europe was explaining to its listeners how to make Molotov cocktails and hinting at the American invasion to come.

To use contemporary language, one part of the U.S. government was "promoting democracy" and another part was "advocating stability." The result was a bloody mess. The Hungarians kept fighting even after Soviet tanks arrived, believing help was on the way. Hundreds died. Western policy in the region suffered a setback from which it took nearly 40 years to recover.

Has anything really changed since then? Once again, we have an American president who speaks openly and, no doubt, sincerely about human rights and democracy in the Middle East and around the world. He's supported by Congress, the press, and even whole fiefdoms of the State Department that dedicate themselves to democracy promotion. Nongovernmental organizations, sometimes with U.S.-government funding, have emerged around the world to do the same. It would hardly be surprising, then, if a group of Arab democrats came to assume that we would naturally support an anti-totalitarian rebellion in their country today.

But what if they acted on this assumption? Try, if you can, to imagine what would happen if an imaginary group of pro-democracy Saudis staged a street rebellion in Riyadh. No one, of course, would be prepared. No one, of course, would have ever heard of any of the rebels before. Some in the administration, in Congress, and in the press would immediately hail the "new democrats," just as in 1956. Arabic-language radio stations, staffed by Saudi exiles, might broadcast messages of encouragement to the rebels, just as in 1956.

Meanwhile, others in the administration—alarmed by the potential for a Middle Eastern war, worried about oil supplies, horrified by the unknown rebels—would support the ousted royal family and call for maintaining the status quo, just as in 1956. The White House would mutter something about humanitarian aid, call upon the United Nations—and finally wind up supporting the old regime, just as in 1956.

The result: By simultaneously supporting democracy and stability, we would anger the rest of the Arab world; make U.S.-Saudi relations impossible, however the rebellion was resolved; and probably damage, in multiple unforeseeable ways, U.S. interests all over the world.

Scholars always bang on about the debate between "realism" and "idealism" in U.S. foreign policy, but the truth is that for most of the last century we've been simultaneously realistic and idealistic almost all the time—simultaneously in favor of democratic change and deeply wedded to status quo stability—much to the confusion of everyone else.

And the moral of this story? Don't blame George W. Bush. Chaos in U.S. foreign policy is nothing new. But pity the nations, whether it's the Hungarians in 1956 or the Iraqi Shiites in 1991, who take our democracy rhetoric too literally. Sometimes we really mean it—and sometimes we don't.

Root Causes
How do bacteria that make us sick get into plants?
By Constance Casey
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 1:10 PM ET

I just sent off my seed order for next summer's vegetable garden. Reviewing the list—bush beans, peas, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, red lettuce—I realize I didn't order spinach seeds.

Chalk this up to the irrational response to the outbreak of E. coli infection last month that was traced to bagged spinach grown in California. Spinach grown in a home garden, untainted by fresh animal manure, is unlikely to make anyone sick.

How did the bacteria get into the commercially grown vegetables in California? A lot of Web posts have surmised that the spinach plants took up the bug through their roots. I like to stick up for plants, which are not gifted at verbal communication. So, I planned to explain to you that these spinach plants were innocent bystanders, and their roots did not contribute to the E. coli disaster. I hoped to say that the Web chatters were spreading misinformation. But the particular villain involved in the poisonings in August and September—E. coli O157-H7, known to researchers as O157—has some disturbing special talents, which make it hard to be sure.

The most likely cause of the E. coli infection was animal manure that got splashed onto the plants' leaf surfaces. Roots have evolved to be very selective about what gets into the rest of the plant. Water and nutrients come in through the root hairs, threadlike, thin-walled vessels similar to our capillaries. These hairs take up nitrates, potassium, and other substances in ion form. These are little atom groups. A one-celled bacterium, by contrast, is generally too big to be absorbed by roots. That's pretty crucial to the food chain, because soil is alive with bacteria; if the plants we eat took up the critters regularly through the roots, they'd be chock-full of pathogens and we'd be sick all the time.

Think about it: A relevant experiment has been going on for centuries in China, where the fields were (and may still be) fertilized with human waste. The leaf surfaces in those Chinese fields may be contaminated. But the plants' internal systems are not, according to the experts I consulted. There are a few bacteria that can make a plant sick. They have devised ways to degrade the cell walls of the roots so they can invade. But these plant pathogens don't make a connection to the human gut.

The clever O157, however, seems to have developed some frightening qualities that set it apart from other bacteria and other E. coli strains. It can tolerate heat, dryness, and acid conditions better than its germ siblings. This is distressing news for human beings. And O157 may also be bad news for my plant-innocence argument. A 2002 article by Department of Agriculture researchers in the Journal of Food Protection showed that the O157 strain of E. coli can get into the root system of leaf lettuce—which may mean it can also invade the roots of a spinach plant. My argument for the impenetrable defenses of spinach roots is weakened—rats. The ingenious bacterium O157 may be slipping in through a back door. Still, even if the DOA researchers are correct and bacteria can infect roots directly, no one has shown that the germs get up to the leafy part that we eat this way. I'm sticking, so to speak, with splashed manure.

Either way, we've got to figure out a way to keep manure away from crops to outwit, or out-evolve, these clever bacteria. It seems logical: Food and crap ought to be far apart. Exactly how O157 got to the plants in the field is still a mystery. Here is a clue, though. (And now I am harkening back to my California life, when I worked for the San Jose Mercury News.) The E. coli contamination of the California spinach leaves occurred in fields south of San Jose that are downstream from the Gabilan Mountains, where feral pigs root among the oak trees and beef cattle, dairy cows, sheep, and horses graze. (It's beautiful country, celebrated most notably by John Steinbeck. In his story "The Red Pony," the ill-fated pony is named Gabilan.)

The Food and Drug Administration guidelines for vegetable growers are voluntary. There are no federal regulations requiring a vegetable field to be a minimum distance from a pasture or uphill and upstream from grazing animals. So, consumers have to look out for themselves. If you're going to eat raw leafy vegetables, wash them well, and eat them promptly. Better yet, cook them, because that kills even O157. The Chinese figured out a way to avoid getting sick from their fertilizing practices. They came up with the wok.

human nature
Why Girls Sleep Around
The evolutionary case for female promiscuity.
By William Saletan
Friday, November 3, 2006, at 7:57 AM ET

(For the latest Human Nature columns on alcohol, cybersex, and Rush Limbaugh, click here.)

Evolution favors female promiscuity. In a study of mouse-like marsupials, "survival of babies with promiscuous mothers was almost three times as high as those in the monogamous group." Key reasons: 1) "The sperm of some males were far more successful than others." 2) "Babies fathered by these males were twice as likely to survive." Takeaway for women: "Polyandry improves female lifetime fitness." Takeaway for men: "Males with more competitive ejaculates sire more viable offspring." Fine print: "Males usually died after a short and intense single mating season due to exhaustion and aggressive encounters with other males." (Did we mention that female promiscuity promotes big testicles and small brains in males? For Human Nature's case against promiscuity in humans, click here.)

Lower body temperature increases longevity in mice. The mice were engineered to maintain temperatures one degree to half a degree lower than normal; the increase in longevity was 12 percent for males and 20 percent for females. Researchers' conclusion: Chilling your body could get you the life-extension benefits of calorie restriction without the nasty kale-and-tofu diet. Fine print: We don't know yet whether this is safe for humans. Cynical view: Hmmm … tofu, self-refrigeration, or death? I'll take death. (For Human Nature's previous updates on calorie restriction, see below and click here. For the life-extension benefits of exercise, click here.)

A substance in wine, grape skins, and peanuts might protect you from the harmful effects of a fatty diet. Mice that were fed the substance, resveratrol, with a fatty diet got just as fat as mice that ate the same diet without resveratrol. But they didn't get the same heart damage, liver damage, or pre-diabetic blood changes. They also lived 15 percent longer, just like mice that ate healthier food. Rash conclusions: 1) Now you can eat all the ice cream you want! 2) Drink more wine! 3) Buy resveratrol pills and live 10 years longer! Researchers' warnings: 1) You'd need about 1,000 bottles of red wine a day to get as much resveratrol as we gave the mice. 2) Wait till we find out whether it works in humans. 3) And wait till we make sure it's safe for you. 4) The safer course is to eat healthy food. 5) But, psssst, we're taking resveratrol ourselves. (For Human Nature's takes on global obesity and regulating fatty food, click here and here.)

A survey produced some surprises about global sex trends. Findings: 1) People are not losing their virginity earlier. 2) Promiscuity is more common in industrialized countries than in Africa. 3) Premarital sex is increasing only because people are getting married later. 4) Married people have more sex. 5) The richer the country, the lower the ratio of male-to-female promiscuity. Researchers' conclusions: 1) Education about sexual protection may be more important than promiscuity in preventing sexually transmitted diseases. 2) Single women may be better equipped to protect themselves than married women because they can use the availability of alternative men to negotiate condom use. (For Human Nature's take on polygamy and homosexuality, click here. For sodomy, click here. For contraception, click here. For cybersex, click here.)

Scientists claim to have grown "mini-livers" in the lab. Boasts: 1) Within a year, we'll use these livers (instead of animals or human volunteers) to test drugs. 2) Eventually we'll grow whole livers for transplants. 3) We grew the livers from cord-blood stem cells, so no embryos were destroyed. Rebuttals: 1) These aren't livers; they're the size of a quarter. 2) Growing a whole liver would require blood vessels and a "fibrous skeleton," which is a lot harder. 3) This research hasn't been peer-reviewed. 4) The scientists are announcing it anyway because they've formed a company to make money off it. (For Human Nature's take on growing organs from embryos, click here. For bladders grown in labs, click here. For meat grown in labs, click here.)

Another study suggests divorce harms women's long-term health. In the short term, women who got divorced reported seven percent more "psychological distress" than those who didn't. After a decade, the divorced group reported 37 percent more physical illness than the married group. Women who remarried fared better than those who didn't. Conservative spin: The illness is spiritual, since the differences persisted "even after the researchers controlled for … income." Liberal spin: The illness is economic, since, apart from income, divorce takes away your job options, housing security, insurance, transportation, co-parenting, social networks, and other support systems. (For Human Nature's previous update on divorce and women's health, click here.)

Scientists are developing life-extension drugs modeled on ultra low-calorie diets. Harsh "calorie restriction" dramatically extends longevity in many animals, possibly by triggering the body's "starvation response," which redirects cells from reproduction to maintenance. Skeptics' arguments: 1) Thinness increases your risk of death. 2) Models indicate CR might extend human life a year and a half at most. 3) For this you'd subsist on tofu and kale? 4) American can't even stick to moderate diets, let alone this. Optimists' arguments: 1) Drugs could deliver the same effect as CR without the misery. 2) One drug already shows promise in animals. 3) We could postpone diseases more cost-effectively by slowing aging than by spending money on each disease. 4) We could extend healthy life to 112 years, keeping "old" folks productive. (For Human Nature's take on aging as a conquerable disease, click here. For the economics of life extension, click here and here. For a previous update on CR, click here.)

A study of mice suggests depression can weaken your skeleton. Mice exposed to chronic mild stress "display behavioral depression accompanied by impaired bone mass and structure." Antidepressants reverse this effect. Proposed conduit: the sympathetic nervous system. Old theory: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. New theory: Words may break your bones. (For Human Nature's previous update on spousal contact, stress relief, and blister healing, click here.)

Parents of "black and white" twins are going public. After a British newspaper featured a pair of Australian babies (one dark-skinned, the other light-skinned), two British couples showed off their own contrasting twins. All the twins are fraternal; all three couples include at least one mixed-race parent. Since skin color varies along a spectrum based on as many as seven genes, the odds of mixed-race parents producing a clearly black or white baby are extremely low. The odds of doing it twice in the same family, much less the same pregnancy, are that much lower. Tabloid spin: "One in a million!" Cynical View A: The "black" babies actually look quite mixed, and there are now roughly 1.3 million interracial couples in the United States alone, so there'll be more of these stories. Cynical View B: And then there'll be none, as the press realizes they're no longer newsworthy. (For Human Nature's take on the criminal propensities of black babies, click here.)

A teenager barely survived flesh-eating bacteria after getting her breasts pierced. An infection in one breast led to "necrotizing fasciitis," aka gas gangrene. Doctors saved her by removing her breast all the way up to the collar bone. Hypothesis: The piercing provided an entry point for the bacteria. Girl's takeaway: Don't get your breasts pierced. Takeaway with fine print: If you get your breasts pierced and happen to be diabetic like this girl, which increases the risk of infection, you might become the fourth person in recorded history to get flesh-eating bacteria in the breast area. (For Human Nature's previous update on the risks of tongue piercing, click here. For tattoos, click here. For HN's take on self-mutilation, click here.)

Britons are vandalizing the country's growing army of speed surveillance cameras. The government has set up thousands of cameras to catch speeders; one vigilante group alone claims to have damaged more than 1,000. Favored techniques: "digging them up; shooting, hammering and firebombing them." Government's spin: 1) The cameras have reduced average speeds, injuries, and deaths. 2) Polls show most Brits support them. 3) Did we mention the $200 million in handy revenue from fines? Opponents' spin: 1) "It's just a road tax." 2) The cameras distract drivers and cause sudden braking, both of which are dangerous. 3) GPS and other technologies will help us outwit Big Brother. Government's rejoinder: We have our own new technologies, such as fireproof camera housing and better resolution to identify drivers. (For Human Nature's previous update on new U.S. border surveillance cameras, click here. For private use of cell phone cameras to catch flashers, click here.)

New Zealand researchers proposed to ban smoking in cars when children are inside. Rationale: Even with the windows down, you get as much secondhand smoke in a car as in a smoky bar—and the country already bans smoking in bars. Six months ago, Arkansas banned smoking in cars when a child is strapped into a car seat. Next: The legislator who spearheaded the Arkansas ban wants to ban smoking by pregnant women, since the womb is another place where a child can't escape a parent's smoke. (For a previous update on the Arkansas ban, click here. For Human Nature's take on the global movement to ban smoking and regulate unhealthy food, click here.)

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) Rush Limbaugh's reality problem. 2) Pills, booze, and Mark Foley's abuser. 3) The perils of policing cybersex. 4) Pro-lifers against contraception. 5) The first penis transplant. 6) Is eugenics better than sex? 7) Buried alive in your own skull. 8) The global explosion of fat. 9) Stop killing meat and start growing it. 10) The war on tanning.

in other magazines
Money Matters
New York on how Gothamites make do.
By Christopher Beam, Torie Bosch, Zuzanna Kobrzynski, and Blake Wilson
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 4:25 PM ET

New York, Nov. 6

This week's issue is devoted to money. An article contends that the American Dream will remain just that—a dream—for many Americans: "[T]here is less than a 2 percent chance that an American born to parents whose income is in the bottom 60 percent of all incomes will end up in the top 5 percent. Americans born to parents in the bottom 20 percent, meanwhile, have a 40 percent chance of staying at the bottom." The dichotomy is illustrated by profiles of billionaires teetering atop gobs of cash and one in which a young father naps on a park bench between low-wage gigs. But here's how you can make it in New York on just $20,000 a year and still have money left over to treat yourself to the occasional $80 rock-concert ticket: Have your parents kick in for your gym membership and the rent on your West Village apartment.—Z.K.

New York Times Magazine, Nov. 5

The cover piece examines former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi's role in the lead-up to the Iraq war and its aftermath. Chalabi contends that America could have avoided disaster by handing over control to Iraqis immediately after the invasion. He dismisses allegations that he misled the Bush administration about WMD as an "urban myth." The Iraqi National Congress, he claims, merely provided the defectors who described Saddam's alleged nuclear program: "We did not vouch for any of their information." But a recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report asserts that Chalabi's group "directly influenced" key judgments that led the United States to invade. A piece traces the Oxford English Dictionary's expansion alongside an even faster-expanding English language. The original 1928 edition charted a large but seemingly limited linguistic territory. The third edition, still decades away from completion, faces a "larger, wilder and more amorphous" language that "no longer seems finite."—C.B.

The New Yorker, Nov. 6

A piece examines how a Machiavellian self-help book, Robert Greene's The 48 Laws of Power, became the bible of the hip-hop community. The book's lessons—"Crush your enemy totally." "Always say less than necessary." "Keep others in suspended terror."—have inspired rappers, producers, and moguls. Busta Rhymes wants to make a spinoff film "about a family who lives by the forty-eight laws" and 50 Cent wants to create a similar guide for street hustlers. Rhymes thinks the book gave him a competitive advantage: "I felt like I had some Deep Sea scroll or some shit." A piece examines the bitter politics surrounding the original Webster's dictionary. In the post-revolutionary years, Noah Webster sought to catalog an "American English" distinct from its parent language. He irked Federalist critics by incorporating "common" words like rateability and lengthy, which they considered linguistic impurities. Webster stressed that the lexicographer "has no right to proscribe words; he is to present them as they are."—C.B.

Weekly Standard, Nov. 6

An article on Virginia Senate candidate James Webb questions whether Democrats know what they're in store for with the former Naval secretary and reformed Republican. Declaring him "a blood-and-soil conservative" and "the most sophisticated right-wing reactionary to run on a Democratic ticket since Grover Cleveland," the piece describes a proud redneck and military man who opposed the war in Iraq because it is "another disastrous symptom of a country gone soft, the feckless gesture of a superpower brought low by wusses." The cover story by Fred Barnes profiles Ohio, Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut—"the most treacherous strip of the country for Republicans in the November 7 election." The states are looking tenuous for Republicans not only because of the nationwide problems facing the GOP—the war in Iraq, immigration, the economy—but also because of local issues, like corruption in Ohio, poor candidate choices in Pennsylvania, and bad policy decisions in Indiana.—T.B.

Time and Newsweek, Nov. 6

The Newsweek cover piece compares the Iraq war now to the final days of the Korean War—"not a defeat … but certainly not a victory." The best we can hope for now is a "gray ending" that avoids worst case scenarios, Fareed Zakaria argues. That doesn't mean pulling out now: "The United States must redefine its mission, reduce and redeploy its forces and fashion a less intrusive involvement with Iraq, one that both Iraqis and Americans believe is productive and sustainable for the long term." The first step is to scrap the illusion of a "united, secular, harmonious, freedom-loving" Iraq and recognize the sectarian reality. A piece in Time gives a harrowing account of an Iraqi man's kidnapping. While he was out driving his cousin's Chevy Lumina, kidnappers mistook him for a wealthier man. He became dismayed when the captors unmasked themselves. "If they were willing to show me their faces … they meant to kill me eventually."

Midterms: A Time election preview calls the upcoming elections "a referendum on an isolated President." In 2002, congressional candidates couldn't get enough face time with President Bush. Not so in 2006. Iraq has become a liability, as Bush argues that "staying the course means 'constantly changing tactics' and that benchmarks (good) aren't the same as timetables (bad)." His approval ratings remain low. But a Democratic majority might not make Bush a complete lame duck, especially on cross-aisle issues like immigration. Bush describes himself at campaign events as "Mr. Optimism." Newsweek identifies a set of "wedge issues" likely to affect certain midterm races. Twenty-nine percent of voters care most about Iraq, but Rush Limbaugh's recent remarks against Michael J. Fox have pushed stem-cell research to the fore in Missouri. The New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling on equal rights for gay couples may galvanize voters within and beyond the Garden State. And in South Dakota, a ballot question gives voters the option of overturning a state-wide abortion ban.—C.B.

New Republic, Nov. 6

The cover piece assesses Tempting Faith, a new book by evangelical Christian David Kuo that charts his political seduction and ultimate disillusionment. Kuo, who served as deputy director for the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, loved Bush but disliked his message to evangelicals: "Kuo listened as Bush lied through his teeth, claiming credit for making faithbased initiatives central to his presidency … and citing wildly inflated figures for how much the administration was spending on the poor." But Kuo—"young, idealistic, and phenomenally naïve"—trusted Bush's sincerity. The president's recovery from alcoholism somehow made him even more infallible to Kuo. But, as the author notes, "Testimonialism simply does not make for serious politics (or serious religion)." A piece examines how Clinton-era fiscal policy, dubbed "Rubinomics" after Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, has taken a hit under George W. Bush. Recent economic growth has mainly benefited the rich, a trend that has "begun to unravel" the Clintonites' confidence in remedies such as fiscal responsibility.—C.B.

Economist, Oct. 28

In the face of probable changes in strategy following the American midterm elections, an article and an editorial argue that the United States and Britain should not abandon Iraq. The editorial concedes that "cutting your losses is sometimes the sensible thing to do," but argues that "by persevering, America stands at least some chance of putting Iraq on a more stable trajectory. By leaving, it is almost certain to make things worse." The article reviews the dire situation and some possible strategies, such as a pullout timetable. The piece agrees that a new plan is needed: "Yes, but what?" A major survey of French society, published in anticipation of next year's presidential election, reiterates the need for "radical reform." France is politically, economically, and socially stagnant, and many commentators have a fatalistic attitude about the future. But the Economist is optimistic: "For almost every weakness" from which the French suffer, "it is possible to find a matching strength." What is needed is a "Madame Thatcher"—a visionary leader capable of forcing through major "pro-competitive reforms."—B.W.

The Atlantic, November 2006

A sweeping profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton suggests her successful Senate career may inhibit her presidential prospects. The author describes Hillary's rise as "a pattern of ambition, failure, study, and advancement." Since her health-care bill died in 1993, Clinton has played a cautious game, taking "small steps" without much political risk. Despite her name recognition and ability to reach across the aisle, critics see her latest incarnation—no longer the "brashly confident leader of health-care reform"—as unlikely to defeat a popular Republican like John McCain. … A piece examines the emerging genre of dramatic video games. Two programmers spent five years designing Façade, an emotionally charged "interactive drama" that breaks from the dominant action-thriller mold. The game, which features two characters in a marital crisis, may remedy the "real lack of meaning" in video games. But there's just one problem: "Façade is ingenious, but it is not fun."—C.B.

in other magazines
The Oracle of Hip-Hop
The New Yorker on how a self-help author is bolstering rap's elite.
By Christopher Beam, Torie Bosch, Zuzanna Kobrzynski, and Blake Wilson
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 12:44 PM ET

The New Yorker, Nov. 6

A piece examines how a Machiavellian self-help book, Robert Greene's The 48 Laws of Power, became the bible of the hip-hop community. The book's lessons—"Crush your enemy totally." "Always say less than necessary." "Keep others in suspended terror."—have inspired rappers, producers, and moguls. Busta Rhymes wants to make a spinoff film "about a family who lives by the forty-eight laws" and 50 Cent wants to create a similar guide for street hustlers. Rhymes thinks the book gave him a competitive advantage: "I felt like I had some Deep Sea scroll or some shit." A piece examines the bitter politics surrounding the original Webster's dictionary. In the post-revolutionary years, Noah Webster sought to catalog an "American English" distinct from its parent language. He irked Federalist critics by incorporating "common" words like rateability and lengthy, which they considered linguistic impurities. Webster stressed that the lexicographer "has no right to proscribe words; he is to present them as they are."—C.B.

Weekly Standard, Nov. 6

An article on Virginia Senate candidate James Webb questions whether Democrats know what they're in store for with the former Naval secretary and reformed Republican. Declaring him "a blood-and-soil conservative" and "the most sophisticated right-wing reactionary to run on a Democratic ticket since Grover Cleveland," the piece describes a proud redneck and military man who opposed the war in Iraq because it is "another disastrous symptom of a country gone soft, the feckless gesture of a superpower brought low by wusses." The cover story by Fred Barnes profiles Ohio, Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut—"the most treacherous strip of the country for Republicans in the November 7 election." The states are looking tenuous for Republicans not only because of the nationwide problems facing the GOP—the war in Iraq, immigration, the economy—but also because of local issues, like corruption in Ohio, poor candidate choices in Pennsylvania, and bad policy decisions in Indiana.—T.B.

Time and Newsweek, Nov. 6

The Newsweek cover piece compares the Iraq war now to the final days of the Korean War—"not a defeat … but certainly not a victory." The best we can hope for now is a "gray ending" that avoids worst case scenarios, Fareed Zakaria argues. That doesn't mean pulling out now: "The United States must redefine its mission, reduce and redeploy its forces and fashion a less intrusive involvement with Iraq, one that both Iraqis and Americans believe is productive and sustainable for the long term." The first step is to scrap the illusion of a "united, secular, harmonious, freedom-loving" Iraq and recognize the sectarian reality. A piece in Time gives a harrowing account of an Iraqi man's kidnapping. While he was out driving his cousin's Chevy Lumina, kidnappers mistook him for a wealthier man. He became dismayed when the captors unmasked themselves. "If they were willing to show me their faces … they meant to kill me eventually."

Midterms: A Time election preview calls the upcoming elections "a referendum on an isolated President." In 2002, congressional candidates couldn't get enough face time with President Bush. Not so in 2006. Iraq has become a liability, as Bush argues that "staying the course means 'constantly changing tactics' and that benchmarks (good) aren't the same as timetables (bad)." His approval ratings remain low. But a Democratic majority might not make Bush a complete lame duck, especially on cross-aisle issues like immigration. Bush describes himself at campaign events as "Mr. Optimism." Newsweek identifies a set of "wedge issues" likely to affect certain midterm races. Twenty-nine percent of voters care most about Iraq, but Rush Limbaugh's recent remarks against Michael J. Fox have pushed stem-cell research to the fore in Missouri. The New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling on equal rights for gay couples may galvanize voters within and beyond the Garden State. And in South Dakota, a ballot question gives voters the option of overturning a state-wide abortion ban.—C.B.

New Republic, Nov. 6

The cover piece assesses Tempting Faith, a new book by evangelical Christian David Kuo that charts his political seduction and ultimate disillusionment. Kuo, who served as deputy director for the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, loved Bush but disliked his message to evangelicals: "Kuo listened as Bush lied through his teeth, claiming credit for making faithbased initiatives central to his presidency … and citing wildly inflated figures for how much the administration was spending on the poor." But Kuo—"young, idealistic, and phenomenally naïve"—trusted Bush's sincerity. The president's recovery from alcoholism somehow made him even more infallible to Kuo. But, as the author notes, "Testimonialism simply does not make for serious politics (or serious religion)." A piece examines how Clinton-era fiscal policy, dubbed "Rubinomics" after Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, has taken a hit under George W. Bush. Recent economic growth has mainly benefited the rich, a trend that has "begun to unravel" the Clintonites' confidence in remedies such as fiscal responsibility.—C.B.

Economist, Oct. 28

In the face of probable changes in strategy following the American midterm elections, an article and an editorial argue that the United States and Britain should not abandon Iraq. The editorial concedes that "cutting your losses is sometimes the sensible thing to do," but argues that "by persevering, America stands at least some chance of putting Iraq on a more stable trajectory. By leaving, it is almost certain to make things worse." The article reviews the dire situation and some possible strategies, such as a pullout timetable. The piece agrees that a new plan is needed: "Yes, but what?" A major survey of French society, published in anticipation of next year's presidential election, reiterates the need for "radical reform." France is politically, economically, and socially stagnant, and many commentators have a fatalistic attitude about the future. But the Economist is optimistic: "For almost every weakness" from which the French suffer, "it is possible to find a matching strength." What is needed is a "Madame Thatcher"—a visionary leader capable of forcing through major "pro-competitive reforms."—B.W.

New York Times Magazine, Oct. 29

A piece analyzes the role of Islam in the nuclear era. With Sunni-Shiite violence escalating in Iraq, Muslims may pose a greater threat to each other than to the West. A nuclear Iran would change the rules of warfare, given that the practice of suicide bombing "unsettles the theory of deterrence," the writer contends. Scholars disagree on how Islam regards mass violence: Shariah law forbids the killing of women and children, as well as "offensive jihad" without the authorization of a "legitimate Muslim leader." But what happens if a nation's leaders apply a martyrdom complex to their own people? One radical Saudi scholar believes military inferiority justifies violation of Islamic law if using WMD is the only way "unbelievers can be repelled." A piece profiles Tony Snow, the "gloriously glib" White House press secretary whose charm has put a friendly face on an embattled administration. He's the anti-McClellan: "Snow's style is basically cheery: Gee, isn't it fun to run the world?"—C.B.

New York, Oct. 30

An article chronicles the author's experimentation with the Calorie Restriction "lifestyle." CR buffs believe their life expectancy will increase if they subsist on a caloric intake that nears starvation levels. How does CR differ from anorexia? According to one devotee, "[t]he focus of CR is health. Nobody here is trying to figure out how to eat less and disappear. The constant thought is, 'How can I pack more nutrition into my calories?'—and that's not something an anorexic is doing. Anorexia is slow suicide." A piece reports that New Jersey may be on the verge of electing its first Republican senator since 1972. At a time when Republican candidates are running scared, Tom Kean Jr. may end up besting Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez because, as the son of one the state's most popular governors, Kean has his dad's legacy working for him, while Menendez has to contend with a legacy of crooked Jersey Democrats.—Z.K.

The Atlantic, November 2006

A sweeping profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton suggests her successful Senate career may inhibit her presidential prospects. The author describes Hillary's rise as "a pattern of ambition, failure, study, and advancement." Since her health-care bill died in 1993, Clinton has played a cautious game, taking "small steps" without much political risk. Despite her name recognition and ability to reach across the aisle, critics see her latest incarnation—no longer the "brashly confident leader of health-care reform"—as unlikely to defeat a popular Republican like John McCain. … A piece examines the emerging genre of dramatic video games. Two programmers spent five years designing Façade, an emotionally charged "interactive drama" that breaks from the dominant action-thriller mold. The game, which features two characters in a marital crisis, may remedy the "real lack of meaning" in video games. But there's just one problem: "Façade is ingenious, but it is not fun."—C.B.

in other magazines
The "Gray" Zone
Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria on evading defeat in Iraq.
By Christopher Beam, Zuzanna Kobrzynski, and Blake Wilson
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 2:34 PM ET

Time and Newsweek, Nov. 6

The Newsweek cover piece compares the Iraq war now to the final days of the Korean War—"not a defeat … but certainly not a victory." The best we can hope for now is a "gray ending" that avoids worst case scenarios, Fareed Zakaria argues. That doesn't mean pulling out now: "The United States must redefine its mission, reduce and redeploy its forces and fashion a less intrusive involvement with Iraq, one that both Iraqis and Americans believe is productive and sustainable for the long term." The first step is to scrap the illusion of a "united, secular, harmonious, freedom-loving" Iraq and recognize the sectarian reality. A piece in Time gives a harrowing account of an Iraqi man's kidnapping. While he was out driving his cousin's Chevy Lumina, kidnappers mistook him for a wealthier man. He became dismayed when the captors unmasked themselves. "If they were willing to show me their faces … they meant to kill me eventually."

Midterms: A Time election preview calls the upcoming elections "a referendum on an isolated President." In 2002, congressional candidates couldn't get enough face time with President Bush. Not so in 2006. Iraq has become a liability, as Bush argues that "staying the course means 'constantly changing tactics' and that benchmarks (good) aren't the same as timetables (bad)." His approval ratings remain low. But a Democratic majority might not make Bush a complete lame duck, especially on cross-aisle issues like immigration. Bush describes himself at campaign events as "Mr. Optimism." Newsweek identifies a set of "wedge issues" likely to affect certain midterm races. Twenty-nine percent of voters care most about Iraq, but Rush Limbaugh's recent remarks against Michael J. Fox have pushed stem-cell research to the fore in Missouri. The New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling on equal rights for gay couples may galvanize voters within and beyond the Garden State. And in South Dakota, a ballot question gives voters the option of overturning a state-wide abortion ban.—C.B.

New Republic, Nov. 6

The cover piece assesses Tempting Faith, a new book by evangelical Christian David Kuo that charts his political seduction and ultimate disillusionment. Kuo, who served as deputy director for the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, loved Bush but disliked his message to evangelicals: "Kuo listened as Bush lied through his teeth, claiming credit for making faithbased initiatives central to his presidency … and citing wildly inflated figures for how much the administration was spending on the poor." But Kuo—"young, idealistic, and phenomenally naïve"—trusted Bush's sincerity. The president's recovery from alcoholism somehow made him even more infallible to Kuo. But, as the author notes, "Testimonialism simply does not make for serious politics (or serious religion)." A piece examines how Clinton-era fiscal policy, dubbed "Rubinomics" after Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, has taken a hit under George W. Bush. Recent economic growth has mainly benefited the rich, a trend that has "begun to unravel" the Clintonites' confidence in remedies such as fiscal responsibility.—C.B.

Economist, Oct. 28

In the face of probable changes in strategy following the American midterm elections, an article and an editorial argue that the United States and Britain should not abandon Iraq. The editorial concedes that "cutting your losses is sometimes the sensible thing to do," but argues that "by persevering, America stands at least some chance of putting Iraq on a more stable trajectory. By leaving, it is almost certain to make things worse." The article reviews the dire situation and some possible strategies, such as a pullout timetable. The piece agrees that a new plan is needed: "Yes, but what?" A major survey of French society, published in anticipation of next year's presidential election, reiterates the need for "radical reform." France is politically, economically, and socially stagnant, and many commentators have a fatalistic attitude about the future. But the Economist is optimistic: "For almost every weakness" from which the French suffer, "it is possible to find a matching strength." What is needed is a "Madame Thatcher"—a visionary leader capable of forcing through major "pro-competitive reforms."—B.W.

New York Times Magazine, Oct. 29

A piece analyzes the role of Islam in the nuclear era. With Sunni-Shiite violence escalating in Iraq, Muslims may pose a greater threat to each other than to the West. A nuclear Iran would change the rules of warfare, given that the practice of suicide bombing "unsettles the theory of deterrence," the writer contends. Scholars disagree on how Islam regards mass violence: Shariah law forbids the killing of women and children, as well as "offensive jihad" without the authorization of a "legitimate Muslim leader." But what happens if a nation's leaders apply a martyrdom complex to their own people? One radical Saudi scholar believes military inferiority justifies violation of Islamic law if using WMD is the only way "unbelievers can be repelled." A piece profiles Tony Snow, the "gloriously glib" White House press secretary whose charm has put a friendly face on an embattled administration. He's the anti-McClellan: "Snow's style is basically cheery: Gee, isn't it fun to run the world?"—C.B.

New York, Oct. 30

An article chronicles the author's experimentation with the Calorie Restriction "lifestyle." CR buffs believe their life expectancy will increase if they subsist on a caloric intake that nears starvation levels. How does CR differ from anorexia? According to one devotee, "[t]he focus of CR is health. Nobody here is trying to figure out how to eat less and disappear. The constant thought is, 'How can I pack more nutrition into my calories?'—and that's not something an anorexic is doing. Anorexia is slow suicide." A piece reports that New Jersey may be on the verge of electing its first Republican senator since 1972. At a time when Republican candidates are running scared, Tom Kean Jr. may end up besting Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez because, as the son of one the state's most popular governors, Kean has his dad's legacy working for him, while Menendez has to contend with a legacy of crooked Jersey Democrats.—Z.K.

The New Yorker, Oct. 30

Connie Bruck assesses the state of microfinance, in part by profiling "godfather of microcredit" Muhammad Yunus, winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. He hit on the idea of giving very small loans—a few dollars at a time—to poor villagers during the 1974 famine in his native Bangladesh; and his Grameen Bank subsequently proved that the idea worked, loaning out more than $5 billion over the years. Today, Yunus is at odds with a new cohort of microlending visionaries who want to make microcredit profitable, instead of relying on government and donor support. Yunus fears that in doing so, microcredit banks will abandon the "very poor" for the "less poor," and with them his dream of eliminating poverty altogether. George Packer spotlights groups in Washington that are earnestly trying to cook up alternative strategies for Iraq that acknowledge that "a unified and democratic Iraq" is no longer in the offing, and condemns the Bush administration for stifling internal dissent on Iraq and burying its head in the sand.—B.W.

Weekly Standard, Oct. 30

An editorial pleads with Republicans to get out and vote on Election Day. Sure, Iraq is a boondoggle, Republicans have been spending like Democrats, and a new GOP scandal seems to sprout up on a weekly basis, but now is not the time for conservatives to give up by shirking their civic duty: "For them to skip out on their obligation to vote in this election over a petty grievance—or for that matter, over a not-so-petty grievance—would mark them as politically childish," harangues Fred Barnes. A profile of Montana Senate candidate Jon Tester suggests he's representative of a new breed of Democrat emerging from such red-state bulwarks as Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah. Christened by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas as "Libertarian Democrats," this hybrid is wary of government abusing its power, but also understands that "no one is truly free if they fear for their health, so social net programs are important," the blogger contends.—Z.K.

The Atlantic, November 2006

A sweeping profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton suggests her successful Senate career may inhibit her presidential prospects. The author describes Hillary's rise as "a pattern of ambition, failure, study, and advancement." Since her health-care bill died in 1993, Clinton has played a cautious game, taking "small steps" without much political risk. Despite her name recognition and ability to reach across the aisle, critics see her latest incarnation—no longer the "brashly confident leader of health-care reform"—as unlikely to defeat a popular Republican like John McCain. … A piece examines the emerging genre of dramatic video games. Two programmers spent five years designing Façade, an emotionally charged "interactive drama" that breaks from the dominant action-thriller mold. The game, which features two characters in a marital crisis, may remedy the "real lack of meaning" in video games. But there's just one problem: "Façade is ingenious, but it is not fun."—C.B.

Pelosi = Amnesty?
Her Dems might pass Bush's plan.
By Mickey Kaus
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 10:25 AM ET

Kaus Silent as CNN's Zahn Fails to Crucify Coulter! Media Matters sleazily quotes the anti-Kerry things I said on CNN Wednesday while excising the anti-Bush things. (Here, via Atrios, is an uncut transcript.) ... 9:20 P.M.

All Hands on Deck: With a week to go before a close election, the New York Times continues to move beyond Democratic cocooning (though it does some of that too) in the direction of flat-out misrepresenation. Kate Zernike's Kerry story not only doesn't ever get around to telling Times readers what Kerry actually said--it leaves the clear impression that what Kerry said was something different (and more benign) than it was.** Patterico prosecutes. ... P.S.: Kerry's comments aren't a scandal, let alone a three-day scandal. ("KERRY SAYS SOMETHING STUPID"--is that news? It's Kerry! He's our national doofus. Dog bites man.) But the startling deterioration of the NYT is a scandal, maybe. [Via Insta]

Update: Maguire says Zernike's a repeat offender. ...

**--If Kerry had just dropped "a single word" from his prepared text--what Zernike identifies as the problem--he wouldn't have generated any controversy. The problem is he dropped that word plus the whole next sentence, leaving the distinct impression that he'd misread the passage to fit with an Early Vietnam-era view that those who don't do well in college wind up serving in the military. 11:27 P.M.

This anti-Burkle item in the L.A. Weekly doesn't add much, but does serve as a reminder: Are the feds ever going to actually bring charges against Jared Paul Stern, the now-ex-Page Six writer secretly taped by Burkle allegedly shaking Burkle down with a cash-for-coverage offer? It's been 7 months since the incident, Alan Mittelstaedt notes. ... P.S.: At this point, does Burkle even want an indictment, which could have the side effect of putting his name back in the headlines about the time his non-bachelor buddy Bill Clinton's wife is running for President? [Thx to alert reader Jared Paul Stern] 7:21 A.M.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Beyond Cocooning: The Feiler Faster principle will probably take care of John Kerry's Iraq gaffe long before it has any significant effect on the midterm vote--but the NYT's Adam Nagourney wasn't about to rely on that. Instead, Nagourney comes close to arguing that Kerry affirmatively helped the Dems because his remarks provoked an attack from President Bush, and "in the process, Mr. Bush brought renewed attention to the war in Iraq ..." Hey, that's the sort of wacky contrarian take a blogger might have! In applying such impressive ingenuity to the pro-Dem shaping of the news, Nagourney has triumphantly gone beyond cocooning--loosely defined as looking in a crowd of news stories for the most comforting friends--and into the realm of active spinning. A breakthrough, of sorts. ... Compare: WaPo's unimaginatively straightforward coverage of the same incident, quoting an unnamed strategist who merely "said the Kerry comments are an unnecessary distraction but would soon be forgotten." 9:50 P.M.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Pelosi = Amnesty? Rich Lowry thinks so:

On immigration, it was only the House Republicans who stood athwart the Senate and a Bush-Democratic accord on what is effectively amnesty for illegal immigrants and insisted instead on tougher border enforcement. And there might be substantially fewer of these Republicans after Nov. 7. A Pelosi speakership could represent the final breakthrough for Bush's lax immigration policy, which was first forestalled by the 9/11 terror attacks and then by the opposition of conservatives in the House.

This election, therefore, is about amnesty as much as it is about Iraq or taxes. There are limits to how much a Democratic congressional majority could directly affect Iraq policy, and Bush would veto any tax increases. It is immigration where there could be real action. [E.A.]

So does Influence Peddler, who offers some fresh reasons why. 1:43 P.M.

kf opens up comfortable 11 day lead on Orin:

Pelosi is Hillary's fatal fem: SEN. Hillary Rodham Clinton says she wants Democrats to win the House and make San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi the first woman speaker, but that might ruin Clinton's 2008 dreams.

The problem? Pelosi comes across as a shrill anti-military, anti-prayer, sharply partisan super-liberal who angrily insults Republican foes as "immoral" and refuses to work with them on anything. [snip]

"The one good thing that would come from a Speaker Pelosi is the first taste of a feminist in a nationally visible executive role," says GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway.

--Deborah Orin-Eilbeck, New York Post, October 31, 2006

Nancy vs. Hillary: [snip] ... Isn't it possible that--if Pelosi assumes the speakership and flops as badly as some Dems fear--she'll perform an opposite function, namely souring the voters on the idea of a female executive.

--kausfiles, October 20. 2006

Faster Party-Switching? Maybe the polls showing an unprecedently rapid Dem gain in party I.D. are wrong, as Michael Barone suggests. Or maybe party I.D. is just one more thing that's moving faster these days. 12:09 A.M.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Hot New House Polls: A new wave of 41 Majority Watch robo-polls** shows Dems leading outside the margin of error in 222 seats, leading by less in 18 more--for a likely Democratic gain of 19-39 seats. ... P.S.: See also Mystery Pollster's seemingly scientific "mashup" of the two most recent Majority Watch polls, revealing a continued, if small, Democratic gain for the month of October. ... P.P.S.: How does MP's calculation, which adds up voters in 30 contested House districts, differ from that Greenberg/Roper/NPR poll kf sniped at a couple of weeks ago? That's easy. The mashup effectively samples 30,000 voters; Greenberg/Roper only sampled 1,000. ...

**--This is also the last wave of Majority Watch polls scheduled before the election. ... 2:29 P.M.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

I've been trying to figure out if a Democrat-led House would actually pass some version of the Bush-McCain semi-amnesty immigration bill. Everyone I talk to in Washington pooh-poohs the idea, arguing that Pelosi-led Democrats will never give Bush something he wants. I'd like to agree, but I'm skeptical. The only thing standing in the way of the Bush legislation was the Republican House, and if that's gone ... . Plus, there will be intense pressure from Latino groups for Democrats to take advantage of the rare welfare-reform-like opening in which a President is willing to defy his own party's Congressional caucus. Not to mention all those new citizens for Dems to register. ... V-DARE immigration-restrictionist Steve Sailer is skeptical too, though he notes the possibility of a split among the Dems, with a significant Lou-Dobbsy "preserve unskilled wages" faction finally emerging. But Sailer leaves out the possibility of a McCain presidency--which would presumably mean at least four more years of White House pressure for "comprehensive" reform. ... P.S.: Anyone who can help me think through this somewhat crucial question, please e-mail. ... 9:55 P.M.

If that anti-Harold Ford ad--the one with the white bimbette saying "Harold, call me"--was "playing to racial fears" about interracial dating, was it intended to stir up whites who might fear miscegenation--or black women who might resent it if they thought Ford habitually went out with white women? ... [Both?-ed Sure--a twofer. But the MSM only brings up the "appeal to racist white voters."] ... P.S.: Does anybody still buy the idea that the reaction against this ad is going to save Ford? [Corker, apparently--ed What does he know?] ... 8:17 P.M. link

Why I don't believe any of the 'Karl Rove is optimistic' stories: Ambinder's Reason #7..... 8:04 P.M.

Peggy Noonan makes a point so true one forgets to think it: Thanks to the genius of our Constitutional system, the wrong name will be printed on millions of ballots.

This is two weeks ago, from a Bush appointee: "I hope they lose the House." And one week ago, from a veteran of two GOP White Houses: "I hope they lose Congress." Republicans this year don't say "we" so much.

What is behind this? A lot of things, but here's a central one: They want to fire Congress because they can't fire President Bush. [E.A.]

For their part, many Democrats are acting, emotionally, as if they can 'stop the madness' by electing Speaker Pelosi. But they can't. That's one reason the Catharsis Theory of the election--that Republicans will benefit if voters vent their pent-up frustrations in 2006 rather than in 2008--may be wrong. Won't there will be plenty of ongoing frustration if even a solid Dem victory doesn't change much? ... P.S.--Just a Reminder: In a parliamentary, or even quasi-parliamentary, system, Noonan's restive Republicans could replace their leader now, when it's in the national interest to do so. ... Yes, yes, I know that if our system allowed a "no confidence" vote, Lincoln might not have survived the dark days of the Civil War. But for every Lincoln, it seems like there are three George W. Bushes or Richard Nixons or Jimmy Carters--presidents granted constitutional tenure that extends well past their terminal loss of effectiveness. .. 3:17 P.M.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The battle for Robert Reich's soul between his natural instincts--he's a theater guy--and the desire for academic respectablity has been won by ... well, watch this video in which Reich stands on his head and proclaims, "The economy has gone to shit." ... There hasn't been a more poignant cry for attention since Kim Jong-il exploded a nuclear device. ... [via NewsAlert] 4:05 P.M.

RCP's new "Battle for the House" scorecard page is highly clarifying, and much more useful than their old page, which simply ranks seats in order of vulnerability. ... 3:59 P.M.

Friday, October 27, 2006

105,000: That's the number of Latinos in four states that Democracia USA claims to have registered. It's also the only actual number I could find in Nicole Gaouette's familiar rah-rah piece about how anti-immigrant rhetoric and fence-talk "galvanizes Latino voters," which "could tip elections not only in Colorado, but in Arizona and Illinois as well." She could be right! But she's not convincing. ... 4:30 P.M.

I try to roll my eyes like Bob Wright. ... 3:53 P.M.

Here's an NBC Nightly News segment** containing a clip of President Bush signing the Secure Fence Act. Am I crazy, or does he seem not very happy doing it? He slaps down his pen in I-hope-that-keeps-you-happy fashion and gets out of there fast. ...

**--All Hands On Deck: As predicted, NBC buried the fence-bill story and Brian Williams gave it a pissy lead-in ("As NBC's George Lewis tells us tonight, though the fence has a lot of fans, others say it won't fix anything. ...") No fence proponents are shown. An activist, Juan Jose Gutierrez, says "our Latino community" will view the fence as a "frontal attack" for which proponents will "pay a high political price." Gov. Schwarzenegger is presented as if he were a surprise critic though nothing he says is especially critical (he calls it an "incomplete reform"). ...This may be an instance where the Halperin Jujitsu Effect actually applies--the segment is so annoyingly slanted it has the effect of angering conservative, anti-MSM fence supporters and mobilizing them far more efficiently than a balanced or pro-fence presentation would. Yet the people who put together the NBC report undoubtedly thought they were striking a midterm blow against the base-appeasing House GOP. ...

P.S.--People Power! The National Review makes a point that, I think it's fair to say, will never be made on the NBC Nightly News:

On the issue of immigration, majorities of Republicans in both the Senate and House have sided with their conservative base against not just left-wing civil-rights groups and elite opinion, but also a business lobby accustomed to plenty of cheap labor, Republican-party poobahs, and President Bush. They have withstood withering press criticism and pressure from their deep-pocketed donors.

True, they were also doing it to save their political asses, given the views of the people who actually vote for them. Still! It's worth noting that the supposedly all-powerful GOP fatcat business lobbyist contributors were in fact powerless to stop the fence. ... 12:46 P.M. link

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Quote of the Day:

The court, by the way, is not being activist. It had no logical option but to apply its equal protection clause to everybody.--Andrew Sullivan on the N.J. Supreme Court's gay marriage decision.

Huh? a) The creation of a new protected class is pretty close to the paradigm of judicial activism; b) The final step taken by the New Jersey court may have seemed the "only logical option" only because of all the earlier activist steps the N.J. courts had taken to help bring the law to the point of giving some-but-not-full marriage rights to gays; c) As Amy Sullivan might argue, the breathtaking speed with which this sort of radical cultural change has gone from being unmentioned to being a litmus test for all rational people is one of the things that worries ordinary voters and turns them into cultural conservatives even though, were activists like Sullivan a little less self-righteous and condescending ("no logical option") these voters might be persuaded to try worthy experiments like gay unions and gay marriage. [But Sullivan's a doubting, Burkean proponent of conservative limited government, not an "activist"--ed. Right. Sorry. I forgot.]

Update--Quote Andrew, follow Amy: Reader A C-W emails:

But what about the Feiler Faster thesis, of which you are the chief proponent? Wouldn't that predict less backlash for the NJ ruling than the Massachusetts ruling? After all, people have had two years--eons in Feiler time--to process gay marriage. I'd say that a majority of the country believes (believes, not desires) that gay marriage will be legalized within their lifetimes, something which seemed impossible only 5 years ago.

Excellent point. The Feiler Faster Thesis, remember, holds that voters now process information comfortably at what used to seem like "breathtaking speed." Why doesn't this apply to the gay marriage movement? Here are some possible answers: a) It does. Gay marriage, as A C-W (along with Andrew Sullivan) notes, is being accepted relatively rapidly. b) Just because you process information about new social trends rapidly doesn't mean you approve of them. Specifically, it doesn't mean you approve of judge-made social transformations. You can "process" that development by disapproving of it. Undemocratic judicial imposition of gay unions arguably retards their acceptance; c) One of the things voters might be scared of is precisely that some sort of Faster principle will be applied to speed up social change, with disastrous unanticipated consequences (the same way, Amy Sullivan claims, voters are scared of letting scientific research proceed willy nilly with cloning, etc. "without ever having a conversation as a society about the moral issues involved." Given that concern, framing the gay marriage debate as "law" and "logic" against prejudice is analogous to framing the stem cell debate as "science" and "progress" against faith-based Luddism. The framing itself is what's most alarming. ...

P.S.: See also Drum, and his commenters. ... Drum writes, in part:

Sullivan wrote "Here Comes the Groom," an article for the New Republic that defended gay marriage, in 1989. The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that the state needed to show a "compelling state interest" in order to continue denying gay people the right to marry. Vermont passed a civil union law in 2000 ...

Four years from a provocative Andrew Sullivan TNR cover story to the law of Hawaii? Yes, that's alarmingly fast. Especially for constitutional law, which can't be repealed by simply electing new leaders. Especially for a change in family structure. (How many years did it take monogamy to displace polygamy? You mean how many millenia.) ...

P.P.S.: Slate's Dahlia Lithwick joins Andrew Sullivan in declaring (and not just once!) that "there is nothing 'activist' about [the N.J.] decision." It's just as cracked when she says it. 11:37 A.M. link

The Suspect Halperin Jujitsu Effect: If I read it correctly, Wednesday's ABC Note came close to arguing that when the MSM chooses to emphasize and anti-GOP story line--a classic example is the NYT's clucking front-page placement of the GOP Ford/Playboy ad controversy--it actually helps the Republicans, because such stories

produce an Old Media reaction (pro-stem cell research, pro-Fox, pro-Hollywood, pro-Ford) that Republicans can use to go to the base and say, "Don't let the Old Media steal this election!"

Under this perverse-yet-plausible theory, if the MSM really wanted to destroy the Republicans they would produce nothing but anodyne, pro-GOP stories from now until Election Day. Then the Republican base would stay home and the Republicans would lose. It's an idea that goes against all the fight-back instincts of the Democrats' Kossack netroots, but that doesn't automatically make it right. I'm skeptical. ... 11:15 A.M. link

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Dems Dodge Big Gay Bullet? It seems to me the New Jersey Supreme Court has--perhaps non-accidentally--denied Republicans the powerful base-mobilizing weapon that a ruling mandating gay marriage would have given them. Sure, New Jersey proponents of gay marriage have been more or less invited to return to court if the legislature doesn't call the equal package of rights it grants gay couples "marriage." But by kicking the nomenclature question to the legislature, and giving them 180 days to resolve it, the New Jersey justices avoided having the state instantly become, as the AP's pre-decision build-up put it, "the nation's gay wedding chapel." Unlike Massachusetts, AP's Mulvihill notes, New Jersey doesn't have a "law barring out-of- state couples from wedding there if their marriages would not be recognized in their home states." In other words, had the New Jersey Court gone all the way and required gay marriage, the next two weeks might have been filled with stories of happy gay couples from across the nation buying plane tickets to Atlantic City for their expected weddings. Only a Liberal Media Conspiracy of unprecedented self-repressive power could have kept the hype from driving cultural conservatives to the polls. But now court's decision will slide from national consciousness almost immediately, no? Unless Ken Mehlman wants to spring for the plane tickets. ... 11:03 P.M. link

Faster Foley: Foley? That rings a bell. I remember there was something about a guy named Foley a while back. ... 10:05 P.M.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter--writing on the magazine's new group blog--explains why Barack Obama is a mortal threat to Hillary Clinton's presidential hopes, even if he doesn't win. ... 11:07 P.M.

Momentum-changer? Looks like that big N.J. Supreme Court gay marriage decision will be handed down before the election-i.e. tomorrow--after all. ... See earlier blog posts here, here, and here for why this might make the Republicans' day. ...[Thanks to alert readers E.V. and R.H. and P.A. and P.R. and S.S. and A.D.S. Via Volokh Conspiracy.] 10:15 P.M. link

Writes Itself: You had to go to page A18 of today's NYT and dig for a few paragraphs to find out that Speaker-Expect Pelosi--a woman who apparently needs a Cray XT3 to update her enemies list--will pass over Jane Harman and select either Alcee Hastings or Silvestre Reyes for chairmanship of the intelligence committee. Hastings, as the next-most-senior Democrat, has to be considered the frontrunner. He has at least one little problem, though.


How hard is that ad for the GOPs to whip up? Make Pelosi deny it! Why does the RNC have those millions to spend anyway? Hastings is to Democrats as Foley is to Republicans. ... 2:54 P.M.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Modified Limited Hangout: According to the Chicago Tribune,

House Republicans especially saw the border-fence measure as excellent proof to voters that Republicans are serious about cracking down on illegal immigration. So they wanted some pomp and circumstance surrounding the bill-signing.

But Bush, who is holding out for "comprehensive immigration reform'' that acknowledges the millions of undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, plans to sign the fence bill in a relatively low-key ceremony in the Roosevelt Room on Thursday morning. [E.A.]

It seems to me that, by downplaying the fence, he's sacrificing a big 2006 GOP selling in the vague, slightly fearful pursuit of the Latino vote in the long term. It still makes no sense to me. Does Bush think the GOP is in such a strong position that he can win the midterms without every advantage he can bring to bear? Why not have a big, spotlighted ceremony at which Bush declares this the first, necessary and relatively non-punitive step toward larger reform? It's not as if Latinos aren't going to find out the bill was signed. ... Bush's action reinforces my earlier paranoid thought: He doesn't really care that much about winning the midterms. Or, at any rate, he cares less about them than about what he imagines as his "legacy"--a semi-amnesty that somehow turns Hispanics into permanent Republicans. ...11:59 P.M.

All-Hands-On-Deck MSM Drive for Victory! ABC's The Note has a thorough and knowing outline of "How the (liberal) Old Media plans to cover the last two weeks of the election" to try to ensure the GOPs do not regain any initiative. ...All ABC's Halperin & Co. left out, as far as I can see, is Point #13: Bury the news about the Secure Fence Act (if Bush doesn't bury it first!), Point #14: Do not mention the name "Alcee Hastings," and #15: 'Keep Foley Alive!' (though that may no longer be possible, even on NPR). ... 2:58 P.M.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Dead Again? Incoming e-mail: "word from Havana has it there are quite a lot of troops on street since yesterday and other cities...and rumors that Castro may have died...." 11:59 P.M. link

Blog-Proof Fence: Bush will no doubt sign the Secure Fence Act any day now. ... Update: Congress has sent the bill to Bush. (Here's the record on Thomas.) Presumably this means he'll sign it--maybe even in public! The signing statement could be a piece of work, though ('Nothing in this legislation shall be construed by the executive branch to mean I actually have to build the thing'). ... 7:52 P.M.

Is this why Rove is smiling? Influence Peddler speculates that a pro-gay-marriage ruling in New Jersey, expected any day now, might "energize Republicans to come to the polls to register their displeasure by voting against [Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Robert] Menendez." But why do we think a New Jersey pro-gay-marriage ruling will only have an impact in New Jersey? It might signal to voters nationwide that a judge-made gay marriage trend threatens to sweep large chunks of the nation--it won't just be bottled up in Massachusetts anymore. If you oppose gay marriage that might bother you, and motivate you to vote, even if you live in Missouri. Or, say, Tennessee. Or even Virginia. ... [Story started on Hotline]

Update: Never mind! The New Jersey court doesn't have to issue its ruling before its Chief Justice retires on 10/26, according to the Star Ledger. [Thanks to alert reader P.R.]

Update Update: Never mind "Never mind"! ...7:41 P.M. link

Friday, October 20, 2006

Speaker-Expect Nancy Pelosi:

"The gavel of the speaker of the House is in the hands of special interests, and now it will be in the hands of America's children." [E.A.]

Hmm. In Newsweek, a Dem "senior House aide" lauds Pelosi for reining in her party's impeachment talk, which Republicans were using to alarm voters. "We were writing their campaign ads for them," the aide notes. Looks like they still are. ...

P.S.--Nancy vs. Hillary: Remember when the temporary success of Geena Davis' Commander in Chief was said to pave the way for a Hillary Clinton presidency by getting voters accustomed to a competent female chief executive? Isn't it possible that--if Pelosi assumes the speakership and flops as badly as some Dems fear--she'll perform an opposite function, namely souring the voters on the idea of a female executive? Two-years woth of saccharine robotic liberal pollster phrases about "America's children" can do that. ... P.P.S.: The other possibility, of course, is that two years of mommish-yet-robotic rhetoric from Pelosi will make Hillary look muscular-yet-relaxed by comparison. .. [Thanks to alert kausfiles reader S.A.K.] 2:49 P.M. link

Tom Bevan of RCP writes:

It looks like the dastardly Karl Rove has done it once again. Somehow he's conned the MSM into promoting the one thing that might actually have enough juice left to get Republicans to the polls en masse in 17 days ...

Bevan's talking about all the Speaker Pelosi stories. But he might also have been talking about all the press buzz about the Baker commission and the possibility of 'changing the course' in Iraq--which could convince at least some troubled Republican and independent voters that Bush will react effectively after the election. ... Maybe these are the sorts of stories that give Republicans their best shot at changing the election's momentum in the final weeks: Not stories that fly in the face of the MSM's all-hands-on-deck last-quarter Beat Bush tendency (e.g., not a Secure Fence Act signing, which the MSM will just bury) but stories that take the media's own obsessions and turn them to the GOPs' advantage, jujitsu style. In this case, the press' intense interest in a Democratic Congress led by a woman leads them to counterproductively play up Pelosi Fever, while the press interest in anything that shows Iraq going sour gives Bush an opening to suggest that he's on top of the situation.**

**--He might have to suggest a bit harder, though. (See also Lowry) 11:52 P.M.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Pack and the Hacks: Greg Packer, "the entire media's designated 'man on the street' for all articles ever written,"** is still in business and still fooling the MSM--this time the St. Louis Dispatch--Patterico reports. ...

**--Ann Coulter quote. 1:33 P.M.

Loy vs. Kos: I drive Bob Wright crazy here, during a discussion of Brendan Loy's jibe at the "feeble amount of traffic" DailyKos sent him. (Sorry, twenty-three hits just ain't a lot of hits, no matter how you cut it.) ... It's all part of the dramatic unveiling of the new Bloggingheads 1.9 design, featuring a richer homepage interactive user interface experience, and ... comments. ... P.S.: The comments are already proving useful. For example, "dougwamble" gives a plausible explanation for what Bob points out is Tim Russert's characteristic failing (a failing that drives my brother up the wall as well). 1:23 P.M.

McIntyre scrounges for Republican bounce-back tidbits, and finds a few. But some of it comes in the form of Zogby Interactive polling, which means its evidentiary weight approaches zero. (See this graph). 1:10 P.M.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Updated Majority Watch scoreboard: Dems lead outside the margin of error in 222 House races. They only need 218 for a majority. ... The bad news for Dems: Dick Morris says they'll win! I'd only start worrying if Lawrence O'Donnell says it too. ... 6:18 P.M.

Bush Picks Secret Signing Over Winning Midterm Election: According to the Washington Times, Bush wants to sign the Secure Fence Act--but in private, without the public ceremony Republican Congressmen say they need to help with their reelection campaigns. The Times spoke with a White House official:

The official rejected a signing ceremony, and said the White House doesn't want voters to expect too much out of the wall.

Bush would seem to be sacrificing his party's chances of holding the House to ... to what? To avoid alienating the Latino vote in the long-term, presumably. Or to avoid undermining his larger semi-amnesty plan (by giving the impression of accomplishment). But even those standard political explanations don't quite wash: Clinton signed the welfare reform bill in public, and was able to do so without alienating liberal lobbies by putting it in the context of larger efforts to help the working poor. Bush could sign the bill and say "this is just the first step," etc., no? Why not milk it for whatever electoral value it might have? A secret signing plan might make sense if the Republicans were confident of midterm success. But they're not. ... Other, simpler explanations suggest themselves, as indicated by that anonymous White House official--i.e., Bush hates the fence; he's ashamed of it and doesn't want to build it. And more paranoid explanations--he knows he has a better chance of passing his semi-amnesty plan in a Democratic Congress, and he's doing his best to get one! ...P.S.: He also may be trying to avoid offending the Mexican government. ... P.P.S.: I feel a bit better about not having pinned down the bill's precise status--i.e. when it is due to be sent to the White House--because the WashTimes can't either:

The bill's actual status is somewhat murky. Calls to the House clerk's office were referred to the House Administration Committee, and a spokeswoman was not able to say where the bill was. [Congressman Steve] King said he has assigned his staff to track down the bill because he, too, wants to know where it stands.

Maybe Captain Ed's Hill source--the one who assured him that the White House wanted to "get as much coverage as possible"--can straighten everybody out. ... 9:26 A.M.

He'll Have a Fit: Seth Stevenson, like the car mag pros, loves the Honda Fit. He must be right--but I've now seen a lot of them and still have trouble getting over its gruesome '80s styling. Of course, when you're in it ... what was it Frank Lloyd Wright said about the Harkness Tower? 12:38 A.M.

Against the Liberal Media: Amid the ecstatic media frenzy of stories about looming Republican disaster, one contrarian dares speak up. The most persuasive Republicans-aren't-doomed analysis I've seen--more or less the only Republicans-aren't-doomed analysis I've seen--comes from ... Eric Alterman. ... Alterman even lashes out at the Congressional Black Caucus. ("Seventy-percent victories are not enough for them ...") He has more in common with Marty Peretz than he realizes! ... P.S.: But has he looked here. Or here? [via HuffPo] 12:30 A.M.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Fence and the Kitchen Sink: John Pomfret's Oct. 10 WaPo article, "Fence Meets Wall of Skepticism," has gotten a good deal of Web attention. Pomfret makes no attempt at balance--it's a straight "let's let fence critics piss all over the idea" piece. That's fine--advocacy journalism is finding a home in the MSM as newspapers try to woo a generation of younger readers! I must have missed the equally provocative story in which WaPo let one of its conservative reporters make the case for the fence--but never mind. Pomfret cites several arguments:

1. The fence "does not take into account the extraordinarily varied geography of the 2,000-mile-long border." Have you ever driven through the Southwest near the Mexican border? "Varied" is not the word that comes to mind regarding the geography.

2. "This is the feel-good approach to immigration control. ... The only pain is experienced by the migrants themselves. It doesn't hurt U.S. consumers; it doesn't hurt U.S. businesses." (Wayne Cornelius, an "expert on immigration issues at the University of California at San Diego.) We're the U.S., right? If the solution doesn't hurt our consumers and businesses, isn't that a good thing? Of course the fence will hurt businesses and consumers, if it works, by blocking a supply of inexpensive labor. But it will probably help low-skilled American workers, whose wages would rise. And it will avoid pain to "migrants themselves" by deterring them from attempting to cross the desert, where many have been dying. I hope for Cornelius' sake he was misquoted. **

3. When they built a short stretch of fence in San Diego, it "forced illegal traffic into the deserts to the East." Somehow this is supposed to be an argument that a fence doesn't work.

4. "T.J. Bonner, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, the main union for Border Patrol agents" opposes it. Isn't that a little like the president of the tolltakers' union opposing E-Z-Pass? Of course the border patrol agents oppose a fence, because a fence is an inanimate object that will do the job it would otherwise take hundreds and hundreds of dues-paying human union members to do! Duh.

5. Litigation might delay construction: This is a more or less circular argument--you can't build the fence, say anti-fence groups, because those nasty anti-fence groups will sue and delay construction! Under this argument few public projects would ever be built if they were opposed by interest groups with enough money to hire lawyers. (In fact, according to WaPo, the Department of Homeland Security can defeat some lawsuits by invoking a law that exempts border fence projects "from federal and state regulations in the interest of national security."

6. The fence will cost too much. The San Diego fence wound up costing "more than $5 million a mile." At that rate, the 700 miles of proposed fence would cost $3.5 billion, rather than the $2 billion estimated. A cost overrun! But still cheap. Other estimates run as high as $9 billion. That's also relatively cheap--the Alaska pipeline, for comparison, cost $26 billion in today's dollars. Keep in mind that fence opponents claim they are going to use other, alternative means that are allegedly equally effective at deterring illegal immigration. And compared to all the cameras, vehicles, and "ground based radar"--and of course, all the additional well-paid camera-watchers, vehicle drivers, radar operators and border guards--a fence has some virtues. A fence doesn't need annual raises. It doesn't need a pension. It doesn't unionize or sue for back pay. It also doesn't take bribes or accidentally shoot poor immigrants in the night (or get shot by narcotics traffickers). It just sits there. Compared with more labor-intensive alternatives, fences tend to be cheap, which is why most people build fences around their back yards rather than employing "ground based radar" and guards.

7. "[E]fforts to protect pronghorn sheep and encourage the jaguar to return to the United States could be seriously affected." We can patrol the whole border with high-tech cameras and "ground-based radar," yet we can't cut some holes for pronghorn sheep and patrol just them with cameras and "ground-based radar"? That would be something for the unionized border guards to do! But I guess we might have to give up the jaguar.... Oh wait, we don't have jaguars. We might have to give up re-acquiring the jaguar. OK. Which will it be: No new jaguars or no new illegal immigrants. Let's vote!

Another argument against the fence, not made by Pomfret, is that it will offend Mexico. It might! But of course, Mexico isn't worried the fence won't work. Mexico is worried the fence will work. Which is the same thing many Americans who say the fence won't work are worried about.

P.S.: None of these arguments matter, of course, because President Bush has already said he'll build the fence.

Question: "Are you committed to building the 700 miles of fence, actual fencing?"

President Bush: "Yes ..."

He's committed! And he's as good as his word. Right?

**--The Chinese government, apparently unaware of Prof. Cornelius' expertise, is building a "large barbed wire and concrete fence" along parts of its border with North Korea. The Saudi government--almost as susceptible as the Chinese to "feel good" solutions--is planning a 900-kilometer fence on its border with Iraq. 10:50 P.M. link

Majority Leader Boehner boasts to fellow House Republicans that the Secure Fence Act is "set to be signed by President Bush." [Is there a paranoid, Clintonian reading of that one?--ed. Yes, but I'll spare you.] 5:24 P.M.

Is this why Rove is smiling? Do the Dems have to gain 15 House seats--or 18 seats? Or 20 seats? Influence Peddler identifies at least two possible Dem-to-GOP party-switchers should Pelosi's team fail to win "by a margin of more than a seat or two." ... Update: Reader C.S. points out another possibility--that some potential party-switchers might be anti-Pelosi rather than anti-Dem, forcing the Dems (in a close race for control) to substitute a more conservative candidate for Speaker. 5:14 P.M.

21 Works in Blackjack: That Stan Greenberg/Glen Bolger poll trumpeted on NPR--the one showing that the Dems "hold a growing margin in the battle for control of the U.S. House"--claims to have

surveyed 1,000 likely voters in 48 of the most competitive congressional districts ...

According to my calculator, that works out to fewer than 21 voters per district. Not impressive! ... It's certainly no Majority Watch, which polls 1,000 voters in each contested district, and which shows ... that the Dems hold a growing margin in the battle for control of the U.S. House. ...

Update--63 Hot Races 63: Even better, go to Slate's renovated House "Election Scorecard," which has overcome its drab generic origins and become a one-stop source of poll results on individual House races. It includes Majority Watch's polls of 49 contested districts, plus other polls of those districts, plus other polls of a dozen contested districts Majority Watch doesn't cover. What it lacks is a handy overall scoreboard. For that you still have to go to the Majority Watch page. ... 3:30 P.M. link

kf continues to leave a swath of destruction. 3:22 P.M.

Monday, October 16, 2006

When having it one way just isn't enough: Hillary Clinton takes Charles Peters' advice--that to win a Democrat has to make clear the he or she supports torture if necessary in the "rare" case of an "imminent threat to millions of Americans"--and gets hammered by McCain aide John Weaver for trying "to have it both ways." But of course McCain wants to have it both ways too. He also approves torture in the "ticking time bomb" situation--he just doesn't want to write the exception into the law, arguing instead for a clear standard that "might be violated in extraordinary circumstances." Tediously fastidious legalism or forthright hypocrisy? I'd say it's a close question! ... P.S.: What is it with McCain and "extraordinary circumstances"? ....10:42 P.M.

Rove Coalition Crumbles! From HuffPo:

"Even Esquire Magazine Calls for a Democratic Senate"

Wow. When New York City magazine editors start tilting Democratic, you know the GOPs are in trouble. ... 4:07 P.M.

New Hope for the Middle East: Thomas Friedman has complained about being cut off from his vast overseas audience after his column got shoved behind the ill-conceived TimesSelect subscription wall. Penniless, pundit-hungry third world students can click here, however, to get Friedman for Free--at least until the NYT's lawyers get back from lunch. ... [Thanks to reader J.S.]11:44 A.M.

Sell No DeWine Before Its Time! Jay Cost doubts "Republican leaders" have really decided "to effectively write off" the Ohio Senate race between Mike DeWine and Sherrod Brown--as reported by the NYT's Nagourney. It's hard to believe that even World Cocooning Champion Nagourney would get such a big thing wrong, but Cost raises suspicions. For one, there is a jarring difference in tone between Nagourney's sensational lede and the more measured paragraphs buried in the piece, such as:

Republicans noted that Mr. DeWine, in addition to having a sizable financial advantage, was a well-liked figure in Ohio who handily won his first two terms in the Senate and still had enough time to recover, even though recent internal party polls showed him lagging badly.

As Cost notes, reallocating money away from a candidate who already has "a sizable financial advantage" isn't the same as 'writing him off.' But maybe Nagourney knows something. [Or maybe he's the victim of cunning Rovian disinformation-ed. I'm suspicious of Rove-as-Machiavellian-Genius arguments, though when dealing with Nagourney the temptation to con him with bogus pro-Dem info must be nearly overwhelming.] ... Update--Today's Pravda-like reading of The Note: ABC's The Note covers for its buddy Nagourney by artfully leaving out the most questionable overstatement in his piece, the words "effectively write off." ... "Reduce financial support" is one thing. But Nagourney (or a lede-goosing editor) said "write off." ... More: Stuart Rothenberg sees no 'write-off', but agrees:

The GOP's best chances for holding onto a Senate majority probably rest with Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, Virginia Sen. George Allen and Republican open seat hopeful Bob Corker in Tennessee.

But if Nagourney had written that, it wouldn't have had the same sensational, anti-GOP** impact, would it?

**--Nagourney's anti-GOP?-ed It just works out that way! Find me a story where he's hyped a lede in a way that gratuitously damaged the Dems. ... 1:21 A.M.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mort's Word: Writing in the LAT, Lloyd Grove writes--diplomatically--that New York Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman was "as good as his word" when it came to not interfering with Grove's Daily News gossip column. But it doesn't sound like it!

Mort was as good as his word, even though I would occasionally hear that he was peeved about this or that item concerning this or that pal. In July 2005, then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller, a close Zuckerman friend, phoned him from jail in Virginia to complain bitterly about a mocking item reporting that her husband, Jason Epstein, was taking a luxury Mediterranean cruise during her incarceration. Mort insisted — via a top editor — that I write a sympathetic follow-up item expressing my delight that Epstein was able to get away from the stress of Plamegate. [E.A.]

Forcing Grove to write a "sympathetic" item about the owner's close friend--I'd call that interference. .... If that's what it's like when Zuckerman's "as good as his word," what's his word worth? 12:22 P.M. link

On This Week, former Secretary of State James Baker said his Iraq Study Group would present options in between "stay the course" and "cut and run." So what's in between? "Stability First" and "Redeploy and Contain," according to the New York Sun's reporting. The Sun argues that both options leave out "the long-term vision of democracy in Iraq with regular elections." But the Sun doesn't make clear the extent to which "Stability First"--the apparently preferred choice--would give up on the current, elected Maliki government. Nor is it clear from the Sun's scoop what anti-democratic concessions might be made in the negotiations Baker envisions with Iran and Syria. More leaks needed. [via JustOneMinute] ... Update: LAT's Doyle McManus confirms the Sun but doesn't 'move the ball.' ... But see Dennis Ross' more fleshed-out non-Baker plan--which still doesn't make clear exactly how Iraqi democracy is to be sacrificed for "stability." ...11:50 A.M.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

MediaNews' Sacramento bureau on California's 2006 contrarianism:

Across the country, Republicans are taking a beating: ...[snip] ... Yet, oddly enough, in California it may be Democrats who have the most reason to fear Election Day. Not only does their gubernatorial candidate, Phil Angelides, trail Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger heavily in the polls, but there is growing concern that if Angelides does not inspire Democrats to vote, low party turnout could seal the fate of other vulnerable Democrats — and even left-leaning ballot propositions. [E.A.]

As blogger Steve Smith has noted, this may require a reevaluation of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's decision to support an incumbent-protection gerrymander of California's House districts--as opposed to a less-safe line-drawing that would have let Democrats capitalize on a "wave" of support. It turns out that California's Democrats are so weak there probably won't be a wave! Pelosi brilliantly anticipated this pathetic failure.

Old CW on Pelosi: Weak, short-sighted hack.

New CW on Pelosi: Clairvoyant and cunning!

4:16 P.M.

Next on Oprah: Andrew Sullivan and Mark Halperin, "When Blogs Become Flogs" ... 4:15 P.M.

Just a reminder: With Mel Gibson, there may be more going on than just alcohol ... or alcohol + anti-Semitism ... or even alcohol + anti-Semitism + "rage." ... I again refer readers to the last paragraph of this pro-Mel puffer. ... ... 3:19 P.M.

"Food Stamps in Four Hours": You think Ronald Reagan could have gotten some campaign mileage out of this LAT story lauding a program that gets "immigrants who are reluctant to get help from the government" to sign up for food stamps? ... Wake up, Republicans! You've got to make your meal out of the ingredients at hand.... And don't worry that any criticism of food stamps-for-immigrants will alienate Latinos--the vast majority of whom almost certainly share mainstream attitudes about welfare. Indeed, the point of the LAT's story is that the Latino work ethic is so strong that they disproportionately resist welfare:

"The Mexican man is macho. He doesn't want to come to this country and beg," said Alfonso Chavez, the Community Action Partnership's outreach coordinator. [E.A.]

Luckily, an innovative Department of Agriculture program enables Community Action Partnership to break down these archaic anti-begging prejudices! ...

P.S.: What's most amazing about the LAT story is writer Jennifer Delson's insistence on portraying this as a great thing ("Food Stamp Program Finally Speaks Their Language"). I can't tell if she's clueless or consciously propagandizing. ...

P.P.S.: Food stamps were the one welfare program to survive the 1996 welfare reform. That was the deal struck, and it's not unreasonable. The food aid is there for those who need it. But doesn't mean the government should go around encouraging people to come get their dole on. If low-income Americans are too committed to self-sufficiency to sign up for food stamps, as many are, that's a pride to be valued and respected, no? ...It's doubly problematic to affirmatively recruit new welfare recipients when many of the beneficiaries will be recent immigrants, including illegal immigrants (whose American-born children are eligible for food stamps, according to the LAT). You don't have to be a Minuteman to worry about the incentive structure this creates: 'Cross the border, have an 'anchor baby,' get free food.' ... [via Drudge] 12:50 A.M. link

Friday, October 13, 2006

Tom Edsall vs. Bob Woodward. ... 11:11 A.M.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A new round of Majority Watch robopolls in 48 hot Congressional races produces a new scoreboard. ... First impression: Grim for the GOPs, but if it were a ballgame you wouldn't head for your car. Counting both "weak" and "strong" D leads, Dems are up 224-205, (6 tied) with 218 needed for a majority. ... P.S.: The Majority Watch effort isn't perfect--coverage of potentially close races isn't complete. But it's still the best scoreboard I've seen on the contest for House control--seemingly much more useful than another national generic preference poll. ... 2:44 P.M.

"Impact his lobbying career": Did Karl Rove threaten to hurt Mark Foley's future access-peddling business if he didn't run one more time? That's the impression left by the DNC press release on the subject. I'd have no problem believing Rove was that thuggish. But all Ryan Lizza's scoop says, in the end, is.

Foley told him that the White House promised that if Foley served for two more years it would "enhance his success" as a lobbyist. "I said, 'I thought you wanted out of this?' And he said, 'I do, but they're scared of losing the House and the thought of two years of Congressional hearings, so I have two more years of duty.' [E.A.]

Logically, promising "enhanced success" if you do X might be little different than promising diminished success if you don't do X. But on the thuggishness scale, there's a big difference. It was Rove's job, after all, to convince popular incumbents to run for reelection. ... P.S.: At least this is powerful evidence that Rove, unlike Ramesh Ponnuru, actually wants to win!. ... P.P.S.: If Rove did know that Foley was hitting on the pages, something Lizza doesn't charge, then asking him to stay on was reckless. It was crazier from a political point of view (why risk a huge PR blowup it's not as if Foley's the only Republican who could win in his district) than from a child protection point of view (I haven't been convinced that any of the pages were at great risk from Foley's lechery, but then I'm not a parent). It wouldn't be the first time the Bush team has gone for a modest short-term benefit by crossing their fingers and hoping a big, damaging scandal would stay hidden. That was the management flaw highlighted in 2000 by the decision not to come clean early regarding Bush's DUI incident, no? ... 1:50 P.M.

Ambiguity Elminated: "He'll sign": I agree with Instapundit that this e-mail from Tony Snow to Powerline would seem to settle the question of whether Bush will sign the Secure Fence Act.


A belated note on the fence. The president hasn't signed the bill because it hasn't arrived from Capitol Hill. When it arrives, he'll sign.

Finally, no weaseling. [Are you saying you're satisfied when Snow says it but not when Ruffini says it?--ed Yes] ... 11:48 A.M. link

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bubble or Paranoia? President Bush was asked about the 700-mile border fence at his press conference today (see last question). [via Influence Peddler].

Once again, Bush doesn't quite say he'll sign the Secure Fence Act--although the questioner (foolishly!) assumes in his question that Bush has said he'd sign and Bush fails to correct him. Bush also, technically, says he's committed to building 700 miles of fencing--which again is not quite the same as signing the bill. The sincerity of even the 700-mile promise can be questioned--at one point Bush ominously seems to tie it all to the earlier appropriations bill that he did sign, saying, "I look forward to ... implementing that which Congress has funded."

Influence Peddler concludes:

He sure doesn't seem excited about HR 6061, but I don't see any way he can veto it, given that he clearly implicates he's going to sign it. But it sure is funny that he doesn't say something like 'I'm looking forward to signing this bill!'

Either a) Bush has a lot on his plate and is completely unaware that there are worries he won't sign the bill (as opposed to worries he won't build the fence**); or b) he doesn't care about placating the largely conservative worriers; or c) he cares but is too verbally and mentally clumsy to get the job done; or d) he's still trying to play a game that preserves the option of building a bit of fence but not signing the actual bill. ...

Call a) the Bubble Scenario, b) the Suicidal Scenario, c) the Inarticulate Scenario, and d) Paranoid Scenario. ... You make the call! ... I'd say it's either a) or d) ....

Update: Tony Snow's email to Powerline makes clear what Bush failed to make clear--he'll sign the bill. The email was actually posted before Bush gave his press conference. This does not, of course, mean that Bush intended to sign all along. That's one scenario!

**: CNN's Lou Dobbs, for example, has stressed the worry that the fence won't be funded or built, not that Bush won't sign the bill. On Larry King recently, Dobbs in fact appeared to be under the erroneous impression that Bush had already signed the bill. ... 4:45 P.M. link

I know how Ottawa County feels. A press release for my 1992 book highlighted its call for the creation of a "vast pubic sphere." .... P.S.: I should have just gone with it. It's one abstract-sounding policy proposal that's been rigorously implemented. ... [via HuffPo]1:44 P.M.

Comes at a time of mounting concern! From a report on right-wing

A leading senator on immigration-reform says he has serious doubts the 700-mile fence on the country's nearly 2,000 mile-long border with Mexico will ever be built despite a bipartisan Senate vote of 80-19 last week. ...[snip]

[Texas Sen. John] Cornyn's comments come amid efforts by Republican officials to turn back concerns that President Bush will not sign the Secure Fence Act, which allocates the money approve for the fencing. [E.A..]

Good to see the old 'comes-at-a-time' trick being used by the right as well as the left. ... Of course, if Bush wanted to "turn back concerns" that he won't sign the bill, there's an easy way to do it! He could say he'll sign the bill. Or he could ... sign the bill! Not send out RNC Internet campaigner Patrick Ruffini armed with an ambiguous CNN clip. ... 12:55 P.M.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Closet Did It: Andrew Sullivan has sketched out a three-point PC take on the Foley scandal. It's surprisingly coherent. I'm not buying it, for reasons I try to articulate here. ... 3:30 A.M. link

Monday, October 9, 2006 [Banks closed.]

"We expect ... " I telephoned the White House press office to ask if the President was going to sign the Secure Fence Act. Here's the response I got back from White House spokesman David Almacy:

"We expect the President to sign the bill but the last information we had was that we have not received the bill from Congress."

Does that sound definitive to you? I didn't think so. It doesn't to me either. "Expect" is a word that traditionally leaves a lot of wiggle room. Expectations change. ... Why can't they say: "The President will sign the Secure Fence Act"? There's a trick to talking to a paranoid they don't seem to have mastered! ... It's not as if Bush needs to build suspense for a cliffhanger signing ceremony. This isn't Sweeps Week. He needs to reassure the conservative pro-fence base. Which makes the White House failure to close the door on a veto all the more suspicious. ... P.S.: I'd say the weak response from the White House itself outweighs the earlier response from Patrick Ruffini of the RNC, which contains the magic sentence but appears to be relying on the ambiguous, weasely Bush CNN interview. But you make the call. ... P.P.S.: It seems clear, though, that the 10-day pocket veto clock hasn't started ticking yet. ... P.P.P.S.: See Captain Ed, who's convinced Bush is going to sign. ...

Update: I realize I'm using the same methodology--'Why don't they just come out and say it clearly?'--that many experts used to conclude that Saddam had nuclear weapons. But Saddam had reasons for maintaining strategic ambiguity! Bush doesn't. ... 5:28 P.M. link

Sunday, October 8, 2006

Is Bush going to sign the 700-mile border fence bill (the Secure Fence Act), passed with great fanfare by Congress a little over a week ago? According to an AP story from Friday:

President Bush has not yet signed the Secure Fence Act

That signing ceremony he held last Wednesday in Arizona, it turns out, was only for a Homeland Security appropriations bill that included "$1.2 billion for border fencing." It wasn't the Secure Fence Act.

We're approaching pocket veto territory here, aren't we? Under the Constitution Bush has 10 days to sign the bill into law--a deadline that would seem to be rapidly approaching.** ... [Thanks to reader M.M.]

P.S.: If I were paranoid, I would notice that even though WaPo and other MSM outlets have reported that Bush "has indicated that he will sign" the bill, he hasn't really. His alleged promise to sign took place on CNN, and he obsessively restricted his answer to the appropriations bill (which he's signed) not the Secure Fence Act. Here's the full answer:

BLITZER: The House has passed legislation that would support building a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border. Senator Frist told me yesterday that he's going to put that now before the Senate. Even though it's not part of what you want, comprehensive immigration reform.If the Senate passes what the House has passed, will you sign it into law?

BUSH: It's a part of strengthening the border. And we're in the process now of spending the money that they appropriated last session to modernize the border. And one reason -- the guy's question -- Ray's question was, "Why is it taking so long." It's a long border. It takes -- it takes a lot of manpower and new equipment to enforce that border. And Ray needs to know things are changing quite dramatically.

BLITZER: So, will you sign it into law?

BUSH: One thing that has changed is catch and release. Prior to the expenditure of the money that these guys -- the Senate and the House have appropriated, we would catch somebody trying to sneak in and just release them back into society. That's been ended.And so a lot of reform has taken place.You know, yes, I'll sign it into law. They're appropriating money -- I believe that's what you're talking about -- and it's part of the appropriations process, if I'm not mistaken.

BLITZER: Put another way, is it just a narrow focus on border security? Without the --without the guest worker program or the other issues, you'll just take that for now?

BUSH: Well I just -- that's what I did last time when I signed the appropriations process. [E.A.]

A pro-fence paranoid might also note that Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a major fence advocate, on his "victory tour", suggested that the appropriations bill--not the actual fence bill--was enough:

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and primary author of the House's immigration-enforcement bill, said that by getting the president to sign a funding bill that included a down payment on the border fence and other enforcement measures, the House position on enforcement first has prevailed.

P.P.S.: Yes, I find it hard to believe that Bush would double-cross the pro-fence Republican base like that, a month before an election. I hope somebody sends me an e-mail soon to say I'm wrong. But you can't read the above passages without thinking the White House was at least trying to create the option of a pocket veto, hidden under the diversion of an appropriations-bill signing ...

Update--Mo' 'Noia: Here's Speaker Hastert, in the middle of his Thursday Foley press conference:

And, you know, a lot of people wanted us to address the issue about the border, and we did exactly that. And, you know, last Friday, we culminated in appropriations, it did fix the border. So, you know, we have a good story to tell. [E.A.]

So Hastert, too, is telling us that Congress' border effort "culminated" in the "appropriations" bill Bush signed. Why didn't it culminate in the Secure Fence Act that's awaiting his signature? This is getting creepy! Why is nearly every top Republican (Bush, Hastert, Sensenbrenner) suddenly babbling about "appropriations," using the same weasely, Clintonian syntax? It would be crazy not to be paranoid. ...

**--Update: Not Ticking? Influence Peddler and several emailers suggest the bill hasn't been formally "presented" to the White House, meaning the 10-day veto clock hasn't started ticking yet. That doesn't resolve the issue of whether Bush will sign it, of course, given the evidence of coordinated weasling and misdirection above. ... 1:13 A.M. link

Friday, October 6, 2006

Immigration is big! It's the fence that got smaller! WaPo has some details of the backroom loophole-deals designed to let the Bush Administration weasel out of building the full 700 mile border fence. So was the fence bill all Kabuki? Did Frist flake after all? I'll stick with the prediction in the presciently paranoid post from last Friday:

P.P.S.: After the GOPs make a fuss about the fence during the midterm campaigns, voters may reasonably expect that it will actually be built--despite whatever hidden hopes or promises lurk beneath the surface of yesterday's vote.

There was a last-minute backroom deal that potentially watered down the 1996 welfare reform bill too--but in the end it didn't have that much effect. (See Haskins, Work over Welfare, 317-324) ... P.S.: If I were a Democrat, I'd publicize these loopholes, though, to demoralize the GOP base--in case they're not demoralized enough at the moment. ... 3:45 P.M. link

MyDD's Chris Bowers is skeptical of the theory that there is a Secret Dem ("Afraid to say I'm Voting Blue") Block, revealed in the difference between what voters are willing to tell human polltakers vs. what they tell automated robo-pollers. The suggestive difference in the two polling methods only shows up in Missouri, MyDD argues... And in Montana ... And in Ohio ... And in Tennessee. It doesn't hold in Virginia or Arizona. ... As Hotline's Blogometer puts it, "Four Out of Six Ain't Bad." ... P.S.: There's also a perfectly good reason--that is, a reason consistent with the theory--for why the differential would have disappeared in the most recent Tennessee polls: It's now less embarrassing to say you're for Ford! ... Similarly, in Virginia, where there used to be a differential, it became less embarrassing to say you were for Webb, causing the differential to disappear--and then it became positively embarrassing to say you were for Allen, causing the differential in the robo-poll to flip and show a secret Allen (GOP) vote. ... P.P.S.: Rasmussen's robo-poll in Connecticut has also repeatedly showed a more pro-Dem result, or more precisely a more pro-Lamont result, suggesting that voters may be embarrassed to tell actual humans they're voting against Lieberman. This effect, too, has dissipated, Mystery Pollster notes. .... But the Secret Dem theory doesn't pretend to apply to blue-on-blue Connecticut--it only applies to Red States, or states with large Red areas, places where it could be socially awkward to publicly declare that you're a Democrat. ... [No cheap MyDD astrology shots?-ed That would be so small.] 3:21 A.M.

Excitable CW Calming Down? Wall Street Journal on Tim Mahoney, the Democratic candidate for Foley's House seat:

Mr. Mahoney has gone from long shot to strong contender because of Mr. Foley's resignation after news reports that he sent sexually explicit communications to teenagers who were House pages. ... [snip]

Still, strategists from both parties say Mr. Mahoney stands a better than even chance of winning the race, a sharp shift in electoral fortunes that is contributing to Democrats' optimism about taking the House next month. [E.A.]

Wait. Weren't we told a Dem victory in Foley's district was a sure thing--"no question" (McIntyre). "Democrats are 1/15th of the way there. I can't see how they could lose," (Halperin, at 28.10). Now Mahoney's only a "strong contender" with a "better than even chance"? At this rate, by November he'll be "favored to run a strong second." ... 1:04 A.M. link

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Iraq the Morose: One of my tacit mental rubrics for thinking about Iraq has been, "When Iraq the Model gives up, I'll give up." I heard two of the ITM bloggers when they came through L.A. and was impressed with their sincerity, bravery, and sense. I figure they won't throw in the towel until all hope is gone. And they haven't thrown in the towel! But Mohammed of ITM has entered recrimination mode, ultimately producing a recommendation for action that does not encourage hope. (He outlines what his fellow Iraqis did wrong here and what the Americans did wrong here.)

According to Mohammed, the American mistake was--to be blunt--buying into the Flypaper strategy.

[I]nstead of chasing terrorists, America stopped at Iraq and sat waiting for terrorists to come in.

He doesn't argue for more troops:

Keeping a large number of troops in Iraq and hoping they could root out terrorists can only be described as a bad plan. It really wouldn't matter much if we had 50 thousand in stead of 150 thousand troops in Iraq ... [snip] If we look back at the record of the war since April 2003 we'll see that adding more troops on the ground resulted only in making the enemy call for more reinforcements and the war kept getting more violent.

Instead of leaving America's "warplanes, tanks and big organized units" in Iraq, he says, those troops should fulfill their near-Aristotelian function of going after the foreign governments who are providing "money, training, technology and in some cases men" to Iraq's "insurgents, terrorists and militias." Meanwhile, the task of actually defending against the latter forces should fall to

"smaller, more agile units backed by strong intelligence-gathering capabilities."

In short

[T]his war will not see an end unless America revives the preemptive war strategy and start chasing the enemies and striking their bases in the region, especially in Syria and Iran.

Yikes. Responding to Mohammed doesn't require any specialized knowledge of the region: a) He could be right! But if he is that means the war will not see an end, because it seems obvious the U.S. doesn't have the stomach, troop strength, or international standing to pursue his offensive strategy, quite apart from the question of whether that breathtaking campaign would be justified. ... b) Nor is it clear the Iraqi insurgents, terrorists and militias couldn't sustain themselves without international help even if all such aid were ended today. ... c) Mohammed thinks the Ahmadinejad government in Iran will "fall apart and surrender in the same manner that we saw in Iraq, and few will volunteer to stop" it from falling. Huh? Ahmadinejad was elected. That implies at least some significant level of popular support. ... d) Finally, do we have the "smaller, more agile units" Mohammed recommends? I don't think so. ... Aside from that it all makes sense. [Emphasis added throughout] 9:32 P.M. link

If Harold Ford is elected to the Senate from Tennessee, will he get the same adulation Barack Obama--and now Deval Patrick--are receiving from "starry-eyed Democrats" and MSM types? ... kf prediction: No. Why? Ford is too ostentatiously centrist and idiosyncratic. He doesn't activate The Dream. ... P.S.: But no doubt Ford and Obama will revel unselfishly in each other's success! ... 12:08 P.M.

Dean's Revenge: What does DNC chair Howard Dean think of the Iowa cacuses?

[In 2004 ] Kerry basically won in Iowa and was done. And poor John Edwards lost by 3 points and he won one primary, and Wes Clark won one, and I won one, and that was it. That was it. He won everything else; he just swept the table in the face of one 3-point victory. That won't happen again.

He's fighting the last war, but it's a good war to fight. ... P.S.: At least he's not bitter about it! ... 11:28 A.M.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Not-So-Secretly Blue: The Majority Watch robo-poll of contested House races now shows a likely Dem House majority. ... They've added a scorecard at the top, which gives a better idea of why I think this project is so useful. Even if the GOPs win all the "weak R" seats and the tie seats, they'd still lose their majority. They have to win some "weak D" seats, according to Majority Watch ... P.S.: But MP cautions

Majority Watch surveys use an automated methodology so new that even its creators describe it as a "work in progress."

OK. But even if it doesn't work perfectly this election, isn't this the wave of the future? In a 50-50 nation, we demand a poll that measures all the hot House races and comes up with a total. Even if all House races were contested, it should be possible to keep track of all 435. We have computers now! ... P.P.S.: One advantage of a robo-poll, of course, is that it counts more of any Secretly Blue vote--red state voters who may be embarrassed to tell a live human polltaker they're voting Democratic. ... 3:10 P.M.

Secretly Blue: Michael Barone has noticed that Tennessee Democratic Senate candidate Harold Ford does better in robopolls, which use a recorded voice to ask questions, than in regular polls where respondents talk to an actual person. This, Instapundit speculates, gives the lie to the idea that voters

are telling pollsters they'll support Ford over [his GOP opponent Bob] Corker in order not to sound racist but [will] vote for Corker in the privacy of the ballot box. [E.A.]

A robopoll, Instap. notes, is supposed to minimize this Political Correctness Error because fewer people will embarrassed in front of a machine. A machine isn't going to call them "racist."

But then why the difference in the polls? Maybe a new and different kind of PC error is at work--call it Red State Solidarity Error. Voters in Tennessee don't want to admit in front of their conservative, patriotic fellow citizens that they've lost confidence in Bush and the GOPs in the middle of a war on terror and that they're going to vote for the black Democrat. They're embarrassed to tell it to a human pollster. But talking to a robot--or voting by secret ballot--is a different story. A machine isn't going to call them "weak." ...

If Red State Solidarity Error exists, it means Dems might do a bit better than the non-robo polls indicate--not just in Tennessee, but in other states where the dominant culture is proudly conservative. ...

Update: Mystery Pollster has been all over the Tennessee polls. He cautions that the differences in the surveys aren't large and my be the product of other methodological differences between the two main polls involved, Rasmussen (robo) and Mason-Dixon (regular). MP also notes, though, that in Virginia's Senate race:

[t]he pattern of automated surveys showing a slightly more favorable result for the Democrats was similar from July to early September, but the pattern has disappeared over the last few weeks as the surveys have converged. [E.A.]

One of MP's commenters names the pattern the "afraid to say I'm voting blue" effect. ... 1:42 P.M. link

Bloggingheads --Bob Wright's videoblog project. Gearbox--Searching for the Semi-Orgasmic Lock-in. Drudge Report--80 % true. Close enough! Instapundit--All-powerful hit king. Joshua Marshall--He reports! And decides! Wonkette--Makes Jack Shafer feel guilty. Salon--Survives! kf gloating on hold. Andrew Sullivan--He asks, he tells. He sells! David Corn--Trustworthy reporting from the left. Washington Monthly--Includes Charlie Peters' proto-blog. the drink. Virginia Postrel--Friend of the future! Peggy Noonan--Gold in every column. Matt Miller--Savvy rad-centrism. WaPo--Waking from post-Bradlee snooze. Keller's Calmer Times--Registration required. NY Observer--Read it before the good writers are all hired away. New Republic--Left on welfare, right on warfare! Jim Pinkerton--Quality ideas come from quantity ideas. Tom Tomorrow--Everyone's favorite leftish cartoonists' blog. Ann "Too Far" Coulter--Sometimes it's just far enough. Bull Moose--National Greatness Central. John Ellis--Forget that Florida business! The cuz knows politics, and he has, ah, sources. "The Note"--How the pros start their day. Romenesko--O.K. they actually start it here. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities--Money Liberal Central. Steve Chapman--Ornery-but-lovable libertarian. Rich Galen--Sophisticated GOP insider. Man Without Qualities--Seems to know a lot about white collar crime. Hmmm. horror stories. Eugene Volokh--Smart, packin' prof, and not Instapundit! Eve Tushnet--Queer, Catholic, conservative and not Andrew Sullivan! WSJ's Best of the Web--James Taranto's excellent obsessions. Walter Shapiro--Politics and (don't laugh) neoliberal humor! Eric Alterman--Born to blog. Joe Conason--Bush-bashing, free most days. Lloyd Grove--Don't let him write about you. Arianna's Huffosphere--Now a whole fleet of hybrid vehicles. populists. Take on the News--TomPaine's blog. B-Log--Blog of spirituality! Hit & Run--Reason gone wild! Daniel Weintraub--Beeblogger and Davis Recall Central. Eduwonk--You'll never have to read another mind-numbing education story again. Nonzero--Bob Wright explains it all. John Leo--If you've got political correctness, he's got a column ... [More tk]

medical examiner
Your Health This Month
A $1 lifesaver pill, whether teeth whiteners work, and more.
By Sydney Spiesel
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 2:06 PM ET

This month, Dr. Sydney Spiesel discusses early detection of lung cancer, a $1 pill that could save millions of women's lives, whether teeth whiteners work, nighttime calls to the doctor, and alleviating the pain of shots.

Detecting lung cancer early

New research: Lung cancer is the leading cause of death among cancer victims. Tobacco use contributes; so does the silent development of the disease in its early stages. By the time enough symptoms have developed for a likely diagnosis, the cancer generally has spread too widely to be treated successfully. What if lung cancer could be detected earlier? More than 65 physicians around the world have collaborated on a study of the value of screening for early diagnosis. Last week, they reported their results in the New England Journal of Medicine, with reason for optimism.

Results: Using a low-dose spiral CT scanner, researchers screened more than 30,000 people age 40 or older who were known to be at risk for developing lung cancer (they smoked, were exposed to secondhand smoke, or worked in an industry with a high incidence of lung cancer, like uranium mining). The subjects had no symptoms. As a result of screening, almost 500 cases of lung cancer were found. Eighty-five percent were diagnosed early (with clinical Stage 1 disease), and the majority of these cases (302 of 412) had surgery to remove the tumor within a month of diagnosis. Of this early-diagnosis and quick-treatment group, 92 percent have survived for 10 years or are projected to survive for at least that long. The patients whose treatment took longer to begin have done nearly as well, with a projected 80 percent 10-year survival rate. By contrast, the eight patients with Stage 1 disease who chose to have no treatment all died.

Caveat No. 1: These are impressive results, and there will be great pressure as a result of this study to dramatically expand lung cancer screening using this low-dose CT technology. Is this a good idea? Critics argue that this style of study—in which there is no comparison group of patients similarly at risk who were not given CT scans—can never tell us if the intervention will actually prevent lung cancer deaths. Perhaps, for example, some of the tumors discovered by CT scan and treated would have regressed on their own, since malignancies are not entirely predictable. The deaths of the eight patients diagnosed but not treated help address this weakness in the study, though. My back-of-the-envelope analysis of the data found only a minuscule probability (less than one in 10,000) that chance could account for their 100-percent death rate as compared with the 18-percent death rate in the patients who were diagnosed and treated.

Caveat No. 2: There's another critical question about CT scans for lung cancer: costs versus benefits. Cost for this study was estimated at about $200 per screening (a lot less than the $800 at my institution). For the experiment, 31,567 people were screened and 27,456 were screened twice. That comes to, let's see, somewhere between $24,400 and $97,600 per case of lung cancer diagnosed. In addition, the scans identified more than 5,600 patients whose lungs showed signs suspicious for cancer, all of whom had to be biopsied or required other expensive tests to identify the 484 patients who actually had lung cancer.

Caveat No. 3: Economic expense is not the only cost to consider. Even low-dose CT scanning exacts a radiation cost to the body, a cost that increases the risk of developing cancer in the future—and smokers and ex-smokers might be at a risk that's greater than average, as one researcher has pointed out. The key question is whether the benefit of early detection and treatment exceeds the increased risk of developing cancer.

Conclusion: The other side of the cost-benefit equation is that cancer diagnosed early and treated successfully greatly reduces misery and the cost of care, and pays dividends in increased productivity. If CT scanning can be shown to have a worthwhile cost-benefit ratio, the method has great promise for improving the outlook for people at increased risk of lung cancer.

An amazing postpartum pill

The problem: More than 1,400 women die every day worldwide as a result of complications of pregnancy or childbirth, virtually all of them in the developing world. The single most common cause is postpartum hemorrhage—uncontrolled, catastrophic bleeding following delivery. Usually this kind of bleeding occurs because the muscles of the uterus become lax after delivery and don't contract forcefully to squeeze blood vessels closed. In developed countries, doctors control heavy postpartum bleeding with intravenous medications that cause the muscles of the uterus to tighten. In developing countries, these kinds of treatment (and midwives skilled in their use) are often not available, and so the women die.

The miracle drug: A recently reported study (Lancet subscription required) by Richard Derman of the University of Missouri and colleagues shows that this need not be the case. The research team showed that a single pill costing $1, administered to women in poor communities in India, cut the rate of hemorrhage dramatically. The miracle drug, misoprostol, is well-known to American physicians, who use it here to prevent the stomach-damaging effects of many drugs used to treat arthritis. The drug has another use: It plays a role in the standard method of early-pregnancy medical abortions. (Though used alone, it is usually not effective to induce abortions and is terribly unsafe.)

Given after childbirth, misoprostol stimulates the muscles of the uterus to regain tone. It is not used after delivery in developed countries, where more-effective products (like oxytocin) are the norm. But those drugs must be administered intravenously, require refrigerated storage, and are far more expensive, and so aren't well-suited for the developing world.

The study: About 1,600 women in India were divided into two equal-sized groups. After delivery, midwives treated half with a tablet of misoprostol and half with a placebo tablet. Use of misoprostol led to a 50-percent reduction in postpartum hemorrhage generally and about an 80-percent reduction in severe hemorrhage—one case prevented for every 18 women treated. The only side effects found were brief episodes of shivering in some women. (And there was an unanticipated benefit: The study confirmed the value of a traditional method of estimating maternal blood loss.)

Further benefits: Postpartum misoprostol could have great benefits even beyond preventing hemorrhage and saving women's lives at delivery. These include 1) fewer orphaned children; 2) less postpartum anemia, which makes people weak, less able to take good care of themselves and their children, and more susceptible to infection; 3) many fewer blood transfusions for women—which have played a huge role in AIDS-HIV transmission in central Africa.

Conclusion: I'm sure there are worries that easy availability of misoprostol will lead to its diversion for abortions. But that shouldn't stop its use after delivery: It has pretty amazing potential for a $1 pill.

White teeth: Can they be yours?

New research: The drugstore aisle promises a dazzling smile. But are tooth whiteners safe and effective? Hana Hasson and associates at the University of Michigan examined the question by finding 25 academic papers that compared home-use teeth-bleaching products with a placebo or with each other. Results were measured after two weeks of use with an electronic instrument (a colorimeter) or by visually comparing teeth with a standard set of toothlike color tabs. The products evaluated included gels, paint-on films, and whitening strips. The active bleaching ingredient was either hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide.

Findings: The authors were appropriately critical of the 25 studies, noting that all of them were sponsored by the manufacturer of a whitening product. Nevertheless, the results were a little encouraging for those of us with movie-star fantasies. Teeth whiteners work, at least in the short term. In general the gels worked best, the tooth-whitening strips came in second, and the paint-on products were third. Not surprisingly, the more concentrated the active ingredient, the more effective the whitening. Some of the studies compared immediate results with effects measured three or six months out and found improvement maintained over the longer period.

Side effects: Both hydrogen peroxide and carbamide peroxide cause bleaching by releasing oxygen. The short-term effects, especially of the gels, include tooth sensitivity and gum irritation. I was surprised to learn that both active ingredients penetrate through the tooth's enamel and dentin, and into the pulp, minutes after application. Whether that harms these structures in the long run is unknown.

Bottom line: So, these products are pretty good at whitening teeth, but poorly studied for long-term risks. Would I do it? Hmmm … let me go smile at the mirror and commune with my vanity.

Wake-up calls

The nighttime call: The other night I was awakened at 3 a.m. by a medical phone call. The patient's question seemed trivial. I thought about it for a minute, answered, hung up, mused for a bit about the meaning behind the call, turned off the light, and went back to sleep.

New research: Many doctors feel angry and resentful when they get a call like this, but I don't. Partly that's because I almost never have trouble going back to sleep. But it's also that I think these middle-of-the-night calls serve a function. Now I am vindicated by a paper in the most recent issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine by David Hildebrandt of the University of Minnesota and colleagues. These researchers studied after-hours phone calls received by a family-practice training program. An operator asked callers whether the call was an emergency. If they answered yes, their calls were forwarded to a doctor; otherwise, a written message was faxed to the office for review and response in the morning.

Findings: Ninety percent of the night callers said it was an emergency and spoke to the covering practitioner. Of the remaining 10 percent—288 nonemergency calls—more than half couldn't be reached, so only 119 were evaluated. Hildebrandt found that one-quarter of these calls came from patients with pain or discomfort that, though not directly harmful or health-threatening, should have been addressed at the time of the call. Three percent of the deferred callers suffered clinical harm, and 8 percent needed to visit the emergency room or another major intervention, which they had to arrange themselves. By pure good luck, no patients in this sample suffered serious harm or died—particularly fortunate was a man who complained of chest pain traveling down his left arm, went to the ER, and turned out to have gastroenteritis rather than an impending heart attack.

Conclusion: The authors of this paper argue—and I agree—that all after-hours clinical calls to primary-care physicians (and why not specialists, too?) should be forwarded directly to the on-call physician. I learned years ago that if patients know you can be reached, even in the middle of the night, they are more likely to call you about a serious problem and less likely to call about a minor one. And if the call does turn out to be trivial, there is always the fun of trying to divine its hidden meaning.

Painless shots?

The problem: I can't tell you the number of older children who fondly describe the time they forced me to chase them around the examining table with a dripping syringe as they did their best to avoid the needle. I refrain from pointing out that I am almost never inclined to run, and that one end of my examining table has always been pressed up against the wall. I do give my own shots, never try to trick children, and offer a straight warning. This pays off in patient trust, which lessens the fear and decreases the pain. But no matter how much I'd like to, I can't make shots pain-free. And for children who are exceptionally anxious or exquisitely sensitive, immunizations or blood drawings can really be a nightmare.

New research: So, I really looked forward to reading a recent review by Lindsay Uman at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and her colleagues on psychological interventions for children going through medical procedures that use needles. The authors examined 28 studies involving almost 2,000 children in total. In each study, the children (aged 2 and up) were randomly assigned to treatment (for example, distraction, breathing exercises, desensitization, hypnosis) before the shot or to no treatment. After the procedure, the pain of the two groups was compared.

Because the 28 studies included disparate methods to help prevent pain and distress (not to mention disparate methods to evaluate the results), it is hard to draw firm conclusions that I can take back to my examining room. Except these: Hypnosis was the most effective method, and distraction also had some value. Some of the other methods were vaguely described (what are "combined cognitive-behavioral intervention," "virtual reality distraction," and "memory alteration?"). And most didn't seem to be useful anyway.

At least until I learn the tricks of hypnosis, I guess I'm back to muddling along. I talk fast and hard, which amounts to distraction, I suppose. I give tips to minimize pain ("Jell-O arm"). And for the really hard cases, I have a secret stash of a special sticker that's no longer for sale. It says "I pitched a fit," and it is clearly worn with great pride.


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When CT scanners were first developed, the X-ray tube that rotated around the patient's body was attached to the machine by the powering electrical cables. The limited length of the cables prevented the X-ray tube from continuously revolving around the patient. Instead, the machine's head would make one 360-degree loop (generating the information needed to construct one image) and then stop. The patient would be advanced forward a bit, and the X-ray head would rotate backward 360 degrees, generating the next image as the power cable unwound.

Then engineers devised a way to send power to the X-ray as it rotated through a sliding ring, thus disconnecting it from a fixed cable and allowing it to rotate around the patient as he or she was eased forward through the machine. This "low-dose spiral CT scanner" generates a spiral "cut" through the patient that approximates a long series of sliced images. The method speeds the scanning process and decreases the radiation dose to the patient.


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Misoprostol (trade name Cytotec) is licensed in the United States and almost everywhere else as a drug that protects the lining of the stomach from the effects of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories—aspirin, Motrin, Naprosyn, Aleve, Indocin, and many others. Misoprostol is the only drug currently available with this stomach-protecting effect. In the United States, it is legal and common for a drug that is licensed for one purpose to be used "off-label" for another purpose. The great majority of drugs used for children are prescribed off-label, since most medications are licensed only for adult use and no one cares to bear the cost of pediatric testing.


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Misoprostol is part of the standard method of medical abortion for terminating early pregnancies. First the patient is given an oral dose of mifepristone (you might recognize it under a different name, RU-486), which blocks the action of the hormone progesterone needed to sustain pregnancy. A couple of days later, after the embryo has detached from the uterine wall as a result, an oral dose of misoprostol is given. This stimulates the uterus to contract and expel its now-lifeless contents. Misoprostol does not work well as an abortifacient on its own, however, since the contractions it provokes can lead to uterine tearing. This is an unreliable and dangerous way to terminate a pregnancy.


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This method was originally devised by traditional birth attendants in Tanzania, who estimate maternal blood loss after delivery by counting the number of blood-soaked kangas (the all-purpose cotton cloths, about 40 by 60 inches square, used as a skirt, shawl, head-wrap, or baby-carrier). Four soaked kangas equal a liter of lost blood.

The Return of Bushenfreude
Voters who love the president's tax cuts but loathe the president.
By Daniel Gross
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 5:17 PM ET

The super-rich and even the very well-off have even more to be happy about than they did in 2004—the S&P 500 is 21 percent higher than it was in November 2004. Long-term interest rates are still low by historical standards. Corporations continue to report record profits. High-end consumers continue to reap the rewards of globalization, from ever-cheaper flat-screen televisions to ever-expanding options for adventure travel. Far from trying to afflict the comfortable, Congress has continued to push for more tax cuts for the wealthy.

And yet Bushenfreude—the phenomenon whereby high-income beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts use their windfalls to fund Democratic candidates—is still raging this election season. If anything, it's more intense than in 2004. Around the country, high earners with million-dollar homes, foreign cars, and fancy jobs, people who have won the meritocratic race, are furious at what's happening to their country. You've seen the Pissed-Off Yuppies, weighing $5-per-pound heirloom tomatoes at the farmer's market in one hand while gesticulating wildly against the government with the other. (If you're reading this column in Slate, there's a high likelihood you're one of them.) But these angry folks are too polite to riot. Instead, they make political donations. The result: In a handful of races in which socially moderate Republicans are struggling to gain re-election, the POYs could be the difference.

Fairfield County, Conn., remains Ground Zero of the Bushenfreude epidemic. The ultimate Bushenfreude candidate is Connecticut's Democratic Senate contender. Ned Lamont is a Greenwich resident, a scion of a banking family, and a self-made gazillionaire—and hence a natural-born Republican three times over. Yet Lamont's candidacy, fueled by his own substantial capital and that of his friends and neighbors, is a primal scream against everything Bush stands for. In the primary, the insurgent Lamont beat Lieberman handily in Fairfield County. Fairfield County is also host to the Diane Farrell-Chris Shays 4th-District Grudge Match. In 2004, Shays, the moderate Republican incumbent, outspent challenger Farrell by 50 percent and won by only a slim 52-48 margin. This year, Farrell has raised more cash from individuals than Shays has. Where does the cash come from? Pissed-Off Yuppies. The most recent poll shows her leading.

Jodi Kantor, writing in the New York Times earlier this week, spotted an outbreak of Bushenfreude in the suburbs of Seattle, formerly "a stronghold of socially liberal Republicanism," where Democrat Darcy Burner is giving incumbent moderate Dave Reichert a run for the money. Their overall fund-raising totals are roughly equal: $2.47 million for Reichert to $2.41 million for Burner. But factor out the PACs, and Burner's winning the money race. She's raised $1.85 million from individuals, compared with $1.25 million for Reichert. Some of that Democratic cash is doubtlessly coming from folks like the die-hard Republican with a Harvard MBA and a job at Microsoft who told Kantor: "The Schiavo case. Tapping people without a warrant. Whether or not people are gay … Let people be free! It's not government's job to interfere with those things."

Rep. Sue Kelly's New York district includes some very tony parts of Westchester County. In 2004, the Republican outspent token Democratic opposition by a whopping $1.27 million to $56,000. Kelly's fund-raising margin against this year's challenger, John Hall, is much smaller. And polls show a tight race.

Again, it's not surprising that many suburbanites with high incomes aren't down with the Republican agenda, despite its friendly tax policies. If you'll let me indulge in a few crude generalizations: People who work at technology companies tend to favor stem-cell research and recognize that global warming is a serious issue. People who know how to read balance sheets tend to recognize the hash Republicans have made of the federal budget. People with lots of gay neighbors and colleagues cringe when they hear President Bush rail against the pernicious impact of gay marriage.

There's something else at play beyond Bushenfreude. All politics is local, and so is the sense of economic well-being. And for the residents of Stepford Country, not all is well. To be sure, the top 1 percent of American earners have done quite well in recent years. But, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted this summer, between 2003 and 2004, "more than half of the increased share of income going to the top one percent of households actually went to the top one-tenth of one percent of households." In other words, the super-rich are doing much better than the merely rich.

As a result, yuppies who live in areas where these ultra-earners congregate may be angry and envious, and act out. Hence, the "revolt of the fairly rich," as Matt Miller wrote in a great Fortune column last week. "Economic resentment at the bottom of the top 1 percent of America's income distribution is the new wild card in public life," he argued. In certain areas such as Fairfield County and Bellevue, Wash., people who make well over $200,000 don't qualify as obscenely rich compared with their neighbors. They're not getting the benefits of the Bush tax cuts because they're getting nailed by the Alternative Minimum Tax. They don't care about the estate tax, since they know most of their assets will go to pay the huge mortgages on their fancy homes. And as Miller notes, thanks to the free-spending ways of the richest of the rich, the price of everything they want for themselves and their kids—private school and college, ski condos—is rising.

Pointing out the travails of the merely rich may be unseemly in a country where median wages have barely budged this decade. And nobody should shed any tears for these people. But their resentment may be contributing to an intensification of Bushenfreude in certain areas.

What affect will the resurgence in Bushenfreude have on electoral politics? Come election night, if television's conventional-wisdom purveyors start talking about the irony of well-off districts booting out their socially moderate Republicans, just remember that you heard it here first.

America Undercover
Sacha Baron Cohen's disturbing, ingenious Borat.
By Dana Stevens
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 6:29 PM ET

At a Slate party this week, a colleague and I got into a discussion of what kind of movie Borat (Twentieth Century Fox) is. Is it a parody? If so, what would it be parodying—the horny Kazakh journalists who clog American airwaves with their dirty malapropisms? (Honestly, if I have to see one more of those guys on public-access cable …) Or is it a filmed reality show, like Jackass or Punk'd, in which nervy, obnoxious young men risk their dignity and at times their physical safety for the sheer joy of making fools of themselves and others?

I advanced the theory that perhaps Borat belongs to the tradition of the character-based spoof. Think of Peter Sellers in the original Pink Panther series or Mike Myers in the Austin Powers movies: comic performances so outsized they make the movie around them seem like mere decoration, an excuse for the character to exist. Sacha Baron Cohen's palpable physical glee in embodying the bumbling, humiliation-proof Borat at times recalls Myers' relationship to the furry, buck-toothed superspy, and Baron Cohen's virtuosity with accents and pratfalls can evoke Sellers.

But in spirit, Borat seems closest to last year's documentary The Aristocrats, which used an old chestnut of a vaudeville joke to investigate the darkest corners of our shared comic consciousness. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is, in a literal sense, wildly funny. Its best jokes approach some savage, atavistic core of cultural taboo and make the viewer wonder: Is it really possible to laugh at this? But by the time you formulate that question, it's too late: You're already laughing.

For those residing in some hype-resistant biospheric dome, Baron Cohen plays Borat Sagdiyev, the Kazakh TV reporter who shows up in New York City with nothing but a few dollars, some "clothings," and "a jar of gypsy tears to protect from AIDS" and undertakes a low-budget television documentary about the exotic mores of the "U.S. & A." with his producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian), by his side. When Borat catches an episode of Baywatch on his hotel TV, he conceives a blind passion for Pamela Anderson and resolves to drive to L.A. to kidnap the actress in his bride-bag.

The basic Borat MO is familiar to anyone who's watched Da Ali G Show, the British (and later HBO) semireality show in which Baron Cohen, as one of three different personas, interviewed public figures with a deliberate cluelessness that forced his subjects to step outside their usual talking points. (For those who haven't had the cringeful pleasure, HBO will be running the entire series over the next week.) The faux-doc concept of the movie allows him to expand slightly on that formula, mixing real interviews with unsuspecting citizens and scripted conversations between Borat, Azamat, and other characters played by actors. Pamela Anderson, playing herself, is a real sport as the object of Borat's desire. (It's not clear whether Anderson was in on the actor's true identity or not, but it seems likely she was, having been the butt of his practical jokes before.)

In some encounters, Borat merely embarrasses his interlocutors, as when he returns from the bathroom at a formal dinner party with a plastic bag of his own feces, asking where to throw it away. These scenes are funny but one-note; after the initial burst of oh-no-he-didn't shock, you start to feel sorry for the victim. But in the film's most sobering scenes, Borat's enthusiastic projection of guileless ignorance somehow compels people to disclose their own deepest fears and prejudices. "Do you have slaves?" he asks a group of drunken frat boys who pick him up in their RV. "I wish!" crows one of the lads. A rancher at a rodeo (where, in real life, Baron Cohen was nearly assaulted for singing a pro-Kazakh version of "The Star-Spangled Banner") heartily approves when Borat mentions that gay men in his country are taken out and hung.

Does Borat go too far? It's hard to address that question in a movie as ruthlessly piety-demolishing as this one: Whatever particular group you choose to stand up for, you end up looking like a humorless fool. The Kazakh government has protested the representation of their country as uncivilized. Borat's taped response, which appears on the official Borat Web site, assures his audience that, "I have no connection with Mr. Cohen and fully support my government's decision to sue this Jew." Baron Cohen's refusal to give interviews out of character, and the strict separation he maintains between self and character in the public milieu, functions as a brilliant tactic for simultaneously besting and evading his critics. In essence, he's offending himself.

If there's any group that might have some legitimate grounds for offense in Borat, it's one that hasn't made much noise about the film yet: fat people. At 82 minutes, the movie zooms by, with virtually no dead spots—a real rarity in film comedies, even the funniest ones. But the film's longest set piece, and one of the few jokes that drags on too long for my taste, is a naked wrestling match between Borat and the morbidly obese Azamat. It's a gay joke and a fat joke at the same time. But while the gay joke is primarily a joke on the audience (got a problem with gay sex? Here, watch while one guy shoves his balls in another's face!), the fat joke is a joke on Ken Davitian's body. We laugh, not only because the sequence is so shamelessly raunchy, but because the actor's physique is so consummately unappealing. Maybe it's just because I'm an American woman with the requisite body issues, but that makes me feel kind of bad.

Borat is directed by Larry Charles, a director and producer of many episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, another classic in the I-can't-believe-he-just-said-that comedy canon. But Baron Cohen's jaw-dropping gall makes even Curb's Larry David look like a blushing wallflower. Whether you attribute that gall to fearless honesty or shameless crassitude is up to you. I'll just be over here, laughing so hard I aspirate my popcorn.

music box
Take the O Train
The new Ornette Coleman album is incredibly good.
By Fred Kaplan
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 12:00 PM ET

Ornette Coleman has long been a puzzle to casual jazz fans, his name as baffling as his music, which seems to go everywhere and nowhere. If jazz is the "sound of surprise," as Whitney Balliett once wrote, then Ornette, at first hearing, is the sound of shock and awe. Yet few jazz musicians reward attention more richly. Even now, at age 76, nearly a half century after bursting onto the scene, he's blowing his alto saxophone as vitally, imaginatively, and beautifully as ever. His new quartet album, Sound Grammar (on his own label of the same name), may be the best jazz disc of the year—and ranks among the top half-dozen Ornette Coleman albums, period.

The key to figuring out Ornette is that he's, above all, a musician of melody. This may seem a strange claim, given his renown as the father of "free jazz," a term that evokes the opposite of melody. But Ornette's style of "freedom" lies not so much in what the musicians play as in their relationship to one another. Coleman made up his own odd word for his music: "harmolodic," roughly defined as music where harmony, motion (or rhythm), and melody play equal roles. No part is subordinate to the others. All the players feel free to improvise whenever they want.

Listening to an Ornette song, you might not notice the melody at first hearing because it doesn't follow conventional chord changes or, sometimes, any set structure at all. It's easy to hum along to most standard American songs because the chord changes cue you to where the melodic line is heading, to what the next notes are going to be. Ornette Coleman's lines can go any number of directions. The same is true of the bass line and the drum rhythm. (Most of his bands don't have pianists; he doesn't need, or want, the harmonic foundation.) There are lines and rhythms. You just have to follow them as they unfold, without the aid of a standard compass—not unlike the way you follow the lines on a Jackson Pollock painting or the swirls of a late-period Willem de Kooning.

Check out the opening tune, "," on his new album. At first it might sound like chaos. But listen again. The melody is clear, even catchy. It's the polyrhythmic drumrolls and the two bass players—yes, two bass players, one plucking, the other bowing, neither voicing out the chord, only hinting at it or playing around it—that may initially confuse things, but, after you get used to it, they deepen the layers, sharpen the edges, and send the music into a different, strangely satisfying dimension.

When Ornette Coleman made his New York debut at a fashionably hip Bowery bar called the Five Spot in November 1959, half the jazz community was ecstatic, half was deeply disturbed. Charlie Parker, who'd revolutionized jazz in the 1940s, had been dead four years, but many still regarded his music, bebop, as the approach to jazz; and bebop was built on elaborate chord changes. Since Ornette wasn't going that route, many thought he wasn't playing jazz and didn't know how.

About 20 years later, when I was fresh out of grad school and getting deeply into jazz, Charlie Parker was my alpha and omega, and I just didn't get Ornette. I couldn't hear through what I thought was noise. A friend (I forget who—if you're out there, let me know) showed me the light by playing three songs: one Parker and two Colemans.

The first song was "," from Parker's 1947 Dial studio sessions, a rippingly uptempo bebop classic, which I knew well. The second was (one of the very few times he's been recorded covering someone else's tune) on a 1958 live session at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles, along with his quartet, plus Paul Bley on piano. I was floored. Ornette was playing note-perfect Parker, but with a twist. The tempo, though no faster than Parker's, felt faster, more fevered; the cadences were choppier; the passages were punctuated with a bluesy wail. And the rhythm section, instead of simply keeping up and comping the chords, was going its own way, each player supplying his own commentary. It was hair-raising, in a way that was the opposite of Parker's approach to jazz. Yet the juxtaposition strongly suggested that this was the path Parker may well have followed, or carved out himself, if he hadn't died so young.

The third song my friend put on was "," Coleman's anthemic dirge from his 1959 album with the presumptuous but prophetic title The Shape of Jazz to Come. Heard right after his cover of Parker, it suddenly made sense; the links clicked, the lights flashed on, my conception of jazz expanded. Once the lines became clear, so did the music's allure and indigo beauty. And the key to that was Coleman himself—his fleet but knife-edged phrasing and, still more, his tone: nakedly passionate, infused with note-bending blues.

The Shape of Jazz to Come was a jarring album in its day, brooding and intense, and it still is. His next album, Change of the Century (another manifesto title!), recorded just five months later, is a more joyous affair. The first track, "," is a hoedown blues, a total kick. (And listen to what Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins are doing on bass and drums, respectively: not laying down chords or keeping time, but doing whatever they feel like; yet somehow it works. This is very disciplined playing because there are so few rules, because it could all slip out of control so easily.) The second track, "," offers clear proof that free jazz doesn't have to mean chaos. Ornette may have written "" to show that he could play like Charlie Parker if he wanted to. ("Bird" was Parker's nickname; nobody had heard the Hillcrest sessions—Bley released the tapes years later—and many of Coleman's detractors at the time thought that because he didn't play like Parker, he couldn't.) "" shows him carving a Latin curve.

More than 50 albums later, many great, some not (for a list of my favorites, click here), his latest disc, Sound Grammar, harks back to Change of the Century more than any album since. There's that similar Latin number, "Matador." There's a leisurely blues, "" (which he first recorded in 1958 on Tomorrow Is the Question!). But more than on any previous Ornette album, there are slow, gorgeous ballads. "" is as sweat-soaked as anything in the Coleman catalog: at once turbulent and sweet, muscular and gentle.

The band is the best he's assembled in more than a decade: Ornette on alto sax (with occasional forays into trumpet and violin), his son Denardo Coleman on drums (spectacularly so), and the two bassists, Greg Cohen (who's played with everyone from Woody Allen to John Zorn) and Tony Falanga (whose experience is mainly classical). Coleman tried a double-bass quartet before, in the late '60s (with Charlie Haden and David Izenzon), but it didn't really work. This one does. Cohen mainly plucks, Falanga mainly bows, and their interplay—with the two Colemans and with each other—cooks, boils, simmers, lights bonfires: whatever's called for.

But Ornette is at the center of things, guiding it all. There's always been a conciseness to his music. The two other colossal saxophonists of his era, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, were probing improvisers (Rollins very much still is), prone to take a passage or verse through endless perturbations, searching for the right note or interval that would open the portal to the rhythm of the universe. It's this boundless restlessness that makes their music so thrilling. Coleman's improvisations are no less intricate, but he heads straight for the prize. He seems to have figured out the various mazes of jazz from the get-go, as if he'd designed them all himself.


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The album documenting this session—recorded on an amateur's tape recorder by Paul Bley, who released it in the mid-'70s—is, alas, out of print. It first appeared as Live at the Hillcrest Club 1958, with all the musicians highlighted (Paul Bley, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins), and was later reissued, on LP, as Coleman Classics Vol. 1 and, on CD, as The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet.


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Any collection of modern jazz should include a selection of albums by the Ornette Coleman Quartet on Atlantic Records, produced from 1959-61, and featuring Don Cherry, trumpet; Charlie Haden (or sometimes Scott LaFaro), bass; and Billy Higgins (or Ed Blackwell), drums. Especially worthwhile are Change of the Century, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Ornette!, This Is Our Music, and Ornette on Tenor. (Warning: Free Jazz, a 40-minute improvisation featuring a "double quartet"—two saxophones, two trumpets, two bassists, and two drummers—is a bit on the shaggy side.) The complete works were compiled in a six-disc reissue, Beauty Is a Rare Thing.

My favorites among the later albums include Soapsuds, Soapsuds (a lyrical 1977 duet disc with Coleman on tenor sax and Charlie Haden on bass); Sound Museum: Three Women (a 1994 session with Denardo on drums, Charnett Moffitt on a rousing bass, and—an unusual addition—Geri Allen coaxing tone clusters on piano); and At the Golden Circle (a 1965 live date in Stockholm).*

His pre-Atlantic studio albums, Something Else!!! and Tomorrow Is the Question! (both 1958, on the Contemporary label) feature lovely, lively compositions but they're interesting more by way of contrasts with the Atlantic albums made just a year and two years later. The Contemporary label had Coleman play not with his regular band but with musicians who, at the time, were better known. Shelly Manne is a fine swing drummer, but Coleman isn't swing music. Percy Heath was a great bassist, great enough to ferret out the chords embedded in Coleman's music and pluck the notes that go with them. But simplifying Coleman's complex blues to a swing beat, and reducing his harmonies to standard chords, flattened the music; it's interesting, a stretch beyond most jazz of the day, but a shadow of what was soon to come.

Correction, Oct. 30, 2006: The original version of the article stated that At the Golden Circle was Coleman's one album on the Blue Note label; in fact, he had two others, New York Is Now and Love Call.

"A Moment Ago"
By Philip White
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 6:13 AM ET

Click to listen to Philip White read this poem.

We were out on the deck talking with mother,

watching the line of shadow climb the foothills,

intercepting the peaks around us one by one

as if the valley were a bowl being slowly filled

with darkness. She wore the blue cloth hat

with a flower, having just given up therapy.

We asked what she remembered of "little"

great-grandma and others we never knew.

It was hot. An afternoon storm had splotched

here and there the laurels, startling the swallows;

a dusty trickle had formed briefly in the throats

of the gutters. Mid-recollection, she paused.

When the day wears, she said, or when I begin to feel

too much for myself, I think of a song I heard

my mother sing I don't know how many times

over the sink washing dishes, a child's song,

and it lifts me.
It was some minutes later

that the leaves of the poplar began suddenly to rattle,

exactly as the leaves here in the darkening yard

ten years and two thousand miles away just did,

a harsh, dry sound like seeds shaken in a pod.

It is a brittle world. Over and over dusk

wells up in us; birds fly uncertainly overhead.

Midterm Elections
Slate's take on the races.
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 6:35 PM ET

"Lock in Your Punditry: If Harold Ford loses, was it the bunny that did it?" by John Dickerson. Updated Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006.

"Kean Enough: In Newark with the Republican Senate candidate," by John Dickerson.

Posted Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006.

"Weak Poll: These new push polls are really lame," by John Dickerson. Posted Monday, Oct. 30, 2006.

"War, Women, and Chaw: Sunday with the Virginia boys Allen and Webb," by John Dickerson. Posted Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006.

"Chafee the Bruiser: The incumbent's win in Rhode Island is a sign of the tough fight to come," by John Dickerson. Posted Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2006.

"Santorum Can't Draw: A tie in the first debate doesn't help the endangered senator," by John Dickerson. Posted Sunday, Sept. 3, 2006.

"Rudy Hits the Campaign Trail: Is Giuliani vicious enough to win the Republican nomination?" by John Dickerson. Posted Thursday, Aug. 31, 2006.

"Lamont TV: How Web videos dismantled Joe Lieberman," by John Dickerson. Posted Monday, Aug. 7, 2006.

"With Friends Like These: The blogger who isn't helping Ned Lamont," by John Dickerson. Posted Thursday, Aug. 3, 2006.

"Poisoned Politics: The ads this year are worse than ever. Both sides aren't to blame," by Jacob Weisberg. Posted Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006.

"Obama's New Rules: In the past 10 days, he has turned American politics upside down," by Jacob Weisberg. Posted Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006.

"Karl's Marks: Will Rove pass his midterms?" by Jacob Weisberg. Posted Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006.

"Don't Mention the War: Why candidates aren't talking about what to do in Iraq." by Jacob Weisberg. Posted Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006.

"May the Best Man Lose: Should anyone want to win the November election?" by Jacob Weisberg. Posted Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006.

"Dead With Ned: Why Lamont's victory spells Democratic disaster," by Jacob Weisberg. Posted Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006.

"The Midterm Elections," by Mark Halperin and John Harris. Posted Monday, Oct. 30, 2006.

"Harold Ford: Playboy?: Slate's remixed campaign ads," by Andy Bowers and John Dickerson. Posted Monday, Oct. 30, 2006.

"A Foley Apology, Translated: Slate's remixed campaign ads," by Andy Bowers and John Dickerson. Posted Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006.

"The Tennessee Death Waltz: Dissecting ads from the Tennessee Senate race," by Andy Bowers and John Dickerson. Updated Monday, Sept. 18, 2006.

"Fighting Video With Video: Slate's remixed campaign ads," by Andy Bowers and John Dickerson. Posted Friday, Sept. 8, 2006.

"The Mobile-Home Candidate: Riding the campaign RV with Missouri Senate contender Claire McCaskill," by Josh Levin. Posted Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006.

"Tangled Webb: James Webb's fiction wins accolades, but his speeches suck," by Dahlia Lithwick. Posted Monday, Oct. 30, 2006.

"This Is Ford Country?: The final debate in the sizzling hot Tennessee Senate race," by Josh Levin. Posted Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006.

"Election Scorecard: Where the midterm elections stand today: Senate, House, Governors," by Mark Blumenthal and Charles Franklin.

"Is Joe Lieberman Still a Democrat?: What will happen to the Senate if he gets re-elected," by Daniel Engber Updated Friday, Oct. 27, 2006.

"What To Call Foley: The congressman isn't a pedophile. He's an ephebophile," by David Tuller. Posted Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2006.

"How To Start a Political Party: If Joe Lieberman can do it, I can do it," by Daniel Engber. Posted Thursday, Aug. 24, 2006.

"Get Your Paws Off, Commies!: China is stealing American-born toddlers, and Republicans want yours to be next," by Bruce Reed. Updated Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006.

"What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?: With this election sinking fast, Republicans debate how not to lose the next one," by Bruce Reed. Updated Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006.

"Oops, We Did It Again: Bush can eat crow now, or eat more of it later," by Bruce Reed. Updated Friday, Oct. 20, 2006.

"Mark of Distinction: What the Democratic field can learn from Mark Warner," by Bruce Reed. Updated Friday, Oct. 13, 2006.

"Nothing Doing: Are Republicans failing on purpose?" by Bruce Reed. Posted Friday, Sept. 8, 2006.

"The Patsy Principle: Do Republicans really want Bush back on the campaign trail?" by Bruce Reed. Updated Friday, Sept. 1, 2006.

"Code Blue: Could global warming melt the Republican majority?" by Bruce Reed.

Posted Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2006.

"Pelosi = Amnesty?: Her Dems might pass Bush's plan," by Mickey Kaus. Updated Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006.

"Hot New House Polls: Plus—that anti-Ford ad, reconsidered," by Mickey Kaus. Updated Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2006.

"Nancy vs. Hillary?: How one powerful woman could spoil it for the other," by Mickey Kaus. Updated Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006.

" 'Food Stamps in Four Hours': Hello? Republicans? You awake?" by Mickey Kaus. Updated Sunday, Oct. 15, 2006.

"Slate Looks at the Elections: Listen to our special forum on the midterms," by Andy Bowers and John Dickerson. Posted Monday, Oct. 30, 2006.

"The Gabfest and the Playboy Party: Listen to Slate's weekly political show," by Andy Bowers and John Dickerson. Posted Friday, Oct. 27, 2006.

"Return of the Yellow Dog: A case for voting for the party over the person," by Michael Kinsley. Posted Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006.

"Folier Than Thou: The po-faced contest between Republicans and Democrats," by Michael Kinsley. Posted Friday, Oct. 20, 2006.

"It Doesn't Ad Up: McGavick vs. Cantwell and the inanity of political spots," by Michael Kinsley. Posted Friday, Oct. 6, 2006.

"Democracy for Dummies: How Oprah and other infotainment programs encourage the mentally tardy to vote," by Jack Shafer. Posted Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006.

"The Return of Bushenfreude: Voters who love the president's tax cuts but loathe the president," by Daniel Gross. Updated Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006.

"Zeitgeist Checklist, Course-Staying Edition: What Washington is talking about this week," by Michael Grunwald. Posted Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006.

"Election Deform: The Supreme Court messes up election law. Again," by Richard L. Hasen. Posted Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006.

How Bush coddles Iraqis and cows Americans.
By William Saletan
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 3:59 PM ET

Two weeks ago at a Republican luncheon, President Bush accused the Democratic Party of a 70-year drift from anti-communism to defeatism. "The philosophy of that party began to shift," he lamented. "Fortunately, in the 1980s, America had a Republican President who saw things differently. Ronald Reagan declared, 'My theory of the Cold War is that we win and they lose.' "

Bush told the crowd, "history will remember Ronald Reagan as the man who brought down the Soviet Union and won the Cold War. And now we're involved in what I have called the great ideological struggle of the 21st century." In the war on terror, Bush argued, Iraq remains central. He pledged that he, like Reagan, would prevail.

But anti-communism abroad was only one of Reagan's theories. Another was anti-socialism at home. A government that spends tens of billions of dollars to prop up able-bodied people, year after year with no deadline for self-sufficiency, breeds dependency. That's what Bush has done in Iraq: He has made it the largest, most counterproductive welfare program in American history. Talk about leading your party astray.

Reagan's critique of welfare made five points. First, the government overestimates its ability to manage faraway problems. Reagan faulted previous attempts to "parachute" Washington-devised solutions into disparate regions and cities. "The federal government doesn't really know how to apply these and other lessons to the day-to-day problems" of diverse communities, he said. "Successful reforms have been, virtually without exception, those that were homegrown in state capitals, cities, and neighborhoods."

Second, politicians who have invested their reputations in costly programs measure these programs the wrong way. They boast that the programs are covering more people, when in fact they should cover fewer people by getting rid of the underlying problems. "Shouldn't they be telling us about the decline each year in the number of people needing help?" Reagan asked. "But the reverse is true. Each year the need grows greater, the program grows greater."

Third, the reason welfare programs backfire is that they cultivate dependency. "Perhaps the most insidious effect of welfare is its usurpation of the role of provider," Reagan warned. "Programs that were intended to help poor citizens have instead made them dependent." When he signed a welfare reform bill in 1988, he summarized its message this way: "We expect of you what we expect of ourselves and our own loved ones: that you will do your share in taking responsibility for your life and for the lives of the children you bring into this world."

Fourth, in the absence of positive results, politicians measure a program's success by the resources spent on it. If you vote against increasing welfare spending, you're accused of hurting kids. "Today the federal government has 59 major welfare programs and spends more than $100 billion a year on them. What has all this money done?" Reagan asked in one State of the Union address. In another, he observed, "After hundreds of billions of dollars in poverty programs, the plight of the poor grows more painful."

Finally, when critics question whether the program is serving its stated goals, they are vilified as opposing those goals. Throughout his career, Reagan scorned the "war on poverty" for using good intentions to cover up bad results. Poverty, he observed, was winning the war. The real purpose of the "war on poverty" rhetoric, he charged, was to make critics look unpatriotic: "Anytime you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we are denounced as being against their humanitarian goals. They say we are always 'against' things, never 'for' anything."

This critique nails the occupation of Iraq in every respect. Not necessarily the invasion, but the occupation. According to an article by a former Reagan defense official in the U.S. Army journal Military Affairs, Bush's disbanding of the Iraqi army in May 2003 "changed the mission of the American soldiers from liberators to occupiers." Bush, having failed to find weapons of mass destruction, shifted his rationale to nation building. He bragged about funding infrastructure and vowed not to withdraw until the country was exemplary.

All the errors outlined by Reagan followed. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and other overconfident officials parachuted Washington ideas into the provinces of Iraq, starting with the dissolution of the armed forces. They bragged about how many terrorists we were luring to Iraq and fighting there, brushing aside their own National Intelligence Estimate, which suggested that the correct index of the war's success or failure—"cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement"—was going the wrong way.

They assumed "provisional" responsibility for governing Iraq and delayed handing some of those responsibilities back to Iraqis, arguing that the beneficiaries weren't yet ready to run their affairs. Unlike the Republicans of the 1990s, who insisted on firm deadlines for getting people off welfare so that the recipients would be forced to take responsibility, Bush continues to reject a "fixed timetable of withdrawal." The result is that Iraqi leaders aren't making the difficult decisions they'd have to make if the alternative were immediate collapse. At his Oct. 25 press conference, Bush was asked what he would do if Iraqi leaders failed to take steps toward responsible self-rule. "One should not expect our government to impose these benchmarks on a sovereign government," Bush pleaded. "You'd expect us to work closely with that government to come up with a way forward that the government feels comfortable with."

Feels comfortable with?

Worst of all, lacking positive results, Bush has cowed critics of the occupation into silence by accusing them of undermining the "war on terror." He ignores the fact that civil war, not anti-American terrorism, has become the chief cause of violence in Iraq. If you vote against an appropriations bill, you're betraying our troops. If you call for a withdrawal timetable, you're trying to "cut and run." In his campaign speeches against Democrats this week, Bush has charged that withdrawal would "dishonor the sacrifice of the men and women who have worn our uniform."

The most cynical welfare-state political strategist would be proud. Never mind whether the program is working or backfiring. Never mind whether it comports with the human tendency to take responsibility only when you have to. Bush will continue to spend blood and money on his program, and to portray its critics as cowards, until somebody has the courage to stop him.

Kean Enough
In Newark with the Republican Senate candidate.
By John Dickerson
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 1:31 AM ET

When you walk down Market Street in Newark, N.J., you know you're not in Republican territory. The buildings retain the cracked neon and broad storefront signs of a grand retail era. Now, there are shops selling cut-rate leather goods and street vendors hawking bootleg CDs. In the afternoon, the sidewalks are thick with young African-Americans and Latinos mocking, pushing, and text-messaging each other. This is an area in which some of Tom Kean's supporters would lock their automatic car doors. Yet Wednesday, just up the hill from this delightful urban circus, Kean, the Republican Senate candidate, was meeting with senior citizens at the Metropolitan Baptist church.

Why, in heaven's name? The New Jersey Senate race is close. Kean should continue to focus on his base, pressing the moisturized flesh in the suburbs and on the Jersey shore to make sure GOP voters turn out at the polls on Election Day. Newark is in Essex County, the strongest Democratic area in the state. Kerry won the county by 40 percentage points in 2004, and in 2000 Gore won by 45.

Tom Kean claims he's a different kind of Republican. By spending part of one of his precious last campaign days in a windowless community center with 250 African-American seniors, he was trying to demonstrate that. During the campaign, the one-term state senator has distanced himself from Washington Republicans, calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation and repeatedly proclaiming that the administration committed "terrible mistakes in Iraq" for which he says the blame "lies squarely at the feet of the president." He supports stem-cell research and casts himself in the mold of the state's moderate Republicans like former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Kean's father, former Gov. Tom Kean Sr., who preceded her.

National GOP officials don't mind Kean's strategy because in his case, being a different kind of Republican means being a Republican that might take a seat currently held by a Democrat. The party committees put $3 million into advertising to help Kean, whose comfy message of moderation is accompanied by a relentless attack on what he charges are his opponent Bob Menendez's ethical lapses. The cash infusion better kick in soon, or it will look like a foolish squandering of resources. Despite the relentless attacks on Menendez, new polls suggest that the Democrat is opening up a lead of five to seven percentage points.

If Kean is to close that gap and win, he'll have to lure independent voters. Sure, he would like to pick up African-American votes and water down his opponent's support in his stronghold, but the larger goal of campaigning in Newark Wednesday was to appeal to late-deciding independent voters across the state. By reaffirming that he is not a predictable Republican, Kean hopes to appeal to those voters who are independent because they resist strict party ideology.

Before Kean arrived at the "Seasoned Saints" luncheon, one of the church members read a "prayer" to her fellow parishioners which ended with this call to their common experience of old age:

It's better to say we're fine with a grin

Than to let people know the shape that we're in

And when we go to bed at night with our ears in the drawer our teeth in the cup

Eyes on the table, until we wake up

Then we get up in the morning brush off our wits

Pick up the newspaper and read the obits

And if our name is still missin', we know we're not dead

So we have a good breakfast and go back to bed.

The room erupted with laughter. The audience was ready to receive Kean and shout amen at the first opportunity. They didn't get their chance. His speech was thoroughly plain. His talk of tax cuts seemed far away from the lives of the people in the room who live on fixed incomes. When he talked about Social Security and Medicare, he offered platitudes: "I will lead the fight to protect Social Security benefits."

Kean doesn't leave an impression in a room. He's got a pleasant smile and a careful manner. If he's got a trick—and all successful politicians have one somewhere—it's that he is relentlessly on-message about his opponent's failings. His brief press conference after the event was nearly news-free because every answer circled back to that same topic. I imagine fights at home when he forgets to snap out of the loop and won't pass the potatoes without first giving a tour of Menendez's perfidy.

The audience only truly came to life during Kean's talk when Pastor David Jefferson intervened and answered a question for him. A parishioner wanted to know if Kean had made a large donation to the congregation. Other politicians had reportedly done that with other churches. The pastor took the mike and assured the room that he didn't run his church that way. "Thank God not one elected official has given this church one dime." The amens started and the heads in the room started nodding. "Listen to me carefully. … We don't have to cut deals with elected officials in order to have God's work done. The senator is here because he cares, not because a deal has been cut. Give God the Praise. Give God the praise. He is here because he cares. He is here because he cares. The senator is here to say you are important to him." The room erupted. (Kean may not have given a donation, but he now owes the pastor.)

In front of African-American audiences, uncomfortable white politicians can affect cultural connections and perform strange body gestures. Kean was sensible enough to keep from doing any of that. But that didn't mean he wasn't prepared to pander. He promised tax cuts, lower Medicare costs, better prescription-drug coverage, crime reduction, and budgets that wouldn't tap the Social Security trust fund.

I figured the audience would see through Kean's overpromising, despite the pastor's good words. They seemed skeptical. Several had asked Kean why he was any different than all the other politicians who had made promises to improve the schools and sweep violence from the streets but never delivered. His answers weren't very reassuring. But the dozen or so people I talked to afterward said they were all impressed, though they couldn't cite anything particular that he had said. Some liked his father, who was elected with 62 percent of the black vote, and they were prepared to give the son the benefit of the doubt. Others seemed just glad he came. They said his visit was a sign of respect for their community. Almost everyone I talked to said they were planning to vote for him. I couldn't tell whether he had left a lasting impression or whether they were saying they'd vote for him out of kindness, an act of hospitality due an outsider who had come to visit the neighborhood.

Weak Poll
These new push polls are really lame.
By John Dickerson
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 6:08 PM ET

Help, I've been push polled and I can't get up! During this final week before Election Day, the usual hue and cry has been raised about automated phone calls interrupting the dinner hour. The robotic voices ask questions as if they're conducting a genuine political survey but then deliver talking points favorable to the Republican candidate. (Democrats are no doubt using similar tactics but haven't been caught doing it as flagrantly yet.)

Push polling uses the objective, scientific language of regular polling to trick voters. If done well, a voter thinks the information contained in a question is a nonpartisan fact when it is any thing but. Good push polling is deeply insidious. But the bad push polling that's going on right now is more pathetic than sinister. As any smart trick-or-treater knows, your mask has to look real to scare anyone. I listened to a recording of one of the calls by Common Sense Tennessee to help out Bob Corker's senate campaign: It was laughably bad and devoid of authority. Political attacks don't have to be sophisticated to be powerful, but there's nothing in the execution or the message of this poll that achieves anything approaching political art. Anyone capable of seeing through the claims of a late-night infomercial won't be swayed.

What surprises me is that at least one person involved in the process should know better. Nathan Estruth, who is listed as a spokesman for Common Sense 2006, boasts on his Web site that he has been with Procter & Gamble for 15 years and is now general manager of new business development. Procter & Gamble built a multibillion-dollar business making people buy things they don't need. But none of that skill is evident in the poll call in the Tennessee, Maryland, or Montana Senate campaigns. Common Sense's polls deliver standard-issue claims on abortion and tax cuts—there's nothing like the muck Bush supporters spread about John McCain in South Carolina in 2000. A whisper campaign is meaningless if what you're whispering is banal.

Would you prefer to have your taxes not raised and, if possible, cut?

Fact: Bob Corker is committed to making the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 permanent.

Fact: Harold Ford has voted to raise taxes more than 78 times during his 10 years in Washington and voted against extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.

Do you believe that foreign terrorists should have the same legal rights and privileges as American citizens?

Fact: Harold Ford Jr. voted against the recommendations of the 9/11 commission and voted against the Patriot Act, which treats terrorists as terrorists.

Bob Corker supports renewal of the Patriot Act and how it would treat terrorists.

On the question of abortion: Do you consider yourself to be pro-life?

Fact: Harold Ford Jr. repeatedly voted to use tax dollars to pay for abortions in the United States and foreign countries.

Fact: Bob Corker opposes abortion and opposes using tax dollars to fund abortions.

Are the calls meant to be deceitful? Sure, but to be effective (and warrant our genuine outrage), they have to hide the deceit far better than they do. They achieve no higher level of deceit than everyday politics. When a politician heralds his "good friend" in the audience to make it seem like he's got local ties to the city he's visiting, it's not likely they're friends at all. Those hand-painted signs at rallies are not real symbols of dedication. In the history of politics, no civilian has ever been so moved by a candidate that he stayed up in the garage to paint "I (heart) George Allen" on a placard. The signs are mass-produced by campaign workers and then handed out at rallies. When a politician writes on his blog or campaign diary, we know it's not a genuine act of communication but a hidden press release. Town halls are rarely genuine exchanges but instead scripted colloquies between candidates and their planted admirers. (President Bush achieved such a high level of inauthenticity in the exchanges with voters at his town-hall meetings, I wondered whether you needed a SAG card to attend some of his events.)

The push polls suggest desperation. Many of the reports of such calls in the Maryland Senate race come from deeply liberal portions of the state. I thought campaigns were getting better at targeting voters precisely. That's what Bush's pollster, Matthew Dowd's, recent book is all about, but the push pollers—who are ostensibly independent operators—are not targeting in the way he suggests. My bet is that the push polls are as effective as hurling fistfuls of leaflets from your car window. We'll see after Election Day whether the races targeted with these appeals show an increase in Republican turnout, and whether these techniques contributed to that. But early signs are that indiscriminate calling is firing up Republican opponents.

It's not great that so much of the campaign process has become so phony, but to get overexercised about these push polls diminishes those parts of the process that actually deserve our genuine outrage. If we want to get really steamed, we should focus our attention on genuine, professional polling, which has done far more to undermine the political process than any of these fake last-minute attempts. Pollsters measure voters' every reaction, and then politicians and their advisers shape their words and policies to meet the mood of the moment. Pundits (like, um, me) use polls to pronounce immediate judgment on policies before they're actually born. Push polls are just a last-minute outrage. Regular polls damage the entire campaign.

press box
Democracy for Dummies
How Oprah and other infotainment programs encourage the mentally tardy to vote.
By Jack Shafer
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 4:15 PM ET

As a Slate reader, you probably also partake of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, or the Washington Post from time to time. I'd guess that your interest in politics and public policy leads you to consume editorials and columns in your local newspaper and supplement your news consumption with a few political magazines—the New Republic or the Weekly Standard, perhaps. You might even tune in the Sunday morning shows and a couple of the televised presidential debates.

For your labors, UCLA scholars Matthew A. Baum and Angela S. Jamison would type you a politically aware individual, as opposed to, say, your politically unaware sister-in-law who learned everything she knew about the 2004 presidential candidates by watching George W. Bush on Live With Regis and Kelly and John Kerry on The Late Show With David Letterman.

But Baum and Jamison aren't here to bust your sister-in-law's chops for scraping her civics lessons out of the infotainment bucket. Their new paper, "The Oprah Effect: How Soft News Helps Inattentive Citizens Vote Consistently," which appears in the November issue of the Journal of Politics, refutes the notion that soft news on talk shows dumbs down the political discussion. Using a data set from the 2000 presidential election, they determined that soft news helps the politically inattentive vote "consistently," i.e. for candidates who best represent their interests, compared with similar citizens who don't watch soft news. The soft-news viewer doesn't even need to know the candidates' policy positions, just riff off their "likeability" factors before voting.

The political value of soft news isn't lost on candidates. As Baum and Jamison write, Bush and Kerry appeared on Dr. Phil, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Live With Regis and Kelly, and The Late Show With David Letterman in 2004. Sen. John McCain appeared on The View to campaign for Bush. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent appearance on Leno's show prompted Phil Angelides, his opponent for the governorship of California, to file a petition with the Federal Communications Commission demanding equal time on the show under federal law. (The FCC said no because news, interview, and documentary programs don't fall under the equal time rule if the candidate is not the show's sole focus.)

Baum and Jamison's findings are certain to horrify civics teachers and good-government preachers, who would have voters study the ballot, the issues, and the candidates with the rigor of a law school graduate preparing to take the bar. Yet some scholars the pair quotes believe that "information shortcuts" allow typical citizens to "act as competent democratic citizens—at least with respect to voting—even if the political information is imperfect and they consume it in small quantities."

Although the consumption of hard news increases the likelihood of voting consistently, the authors hold, soft news is a "cost effective" way for the apolitical to garner political information. Some citizens may be better off watching Oprah than Meet the Press because they won't really comprehend the harder news variety.

This paper delivers a delightful kick in the pants to all those political journalists who have only recently wrapped their heads around the cliché that young people get their news from The Daily Show. A certain class of political reporter could tolerate the notion that "youth" found greater relevance in Jon Stewart's sardonic treatment of events than their learned dispatches from the front, as long as nobody maintained the kids derived any utility from their viewing. The press release touting Baum and Jamison's paper notes that Barack Obama told Oprah Winfrey during a recent appearance on her show that if he runs for president he'll announce on her couch.

Somewhere, David S. Broder is weeping.


I make all my political decisions after consulting my way to the bottom of a bottle. You? Send e-mail to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)


Shafer's hand-built RSS feed.

Return of the Yellow Dog
A case for voting for the party over the person.
By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, October 29, 2006, at 7:08 AM ET

In a remarkable editorial on Wednesday, the New York Times endorsed Diane Farrell for Congress from a district in Connecticut. Who is Diane Farrell? I have no idea, and the Times seemed to have not a lot. After eight years as first selectman of Westport, the paper noted somewhat desperately, "she has a better understanding than most legislators of the impact of federal mandates and tax policy on local government." By contrast, her opponent, Christopher Shays, has held the seat for almost 20 years and been endorsed by the Times "in every race in which he has faced a serious opponent"—until now.

Shays is a Republican, but not excessively so. He's moderate in policy and in temperament. In fact, he's just the kind of Republican that the Times ordinarily likes to dig up and endorse, in order to prove that it's not blindly Democratic. And they still like him: "[W]e have admired his independence and respected his leadership."

Yet the Times decided to "strongly endorse" Shays' opponent, entirely because she's a Democrat. Or rather, because she is not a Republican. "Mr. Shays has been a good congressman, but not good enough to overcome the fact that his re-election would help empower a party that is long overdue for a shakeup."

One of the axioms of small-d democratic piety in this country is that you vote for the person and not for the party. People just love to say, "I evaluate each candidate on his or her own merits"—even when it's not true. A related form of democratic piety is to refrain from voting at all if you know little or nothing about the candidates.

But this year does seem to be different. You hear people say—though rarely as forthrightly as the Times—that they are voting for the party and not the person. Well, more accurately, they say they are voting against the party and not the person. The Republican candidate for the Senate or House may be saintlike in general, no worse than muddled on the war in Iraq, and good on stem-cell research. She may never even have met Jack Abramoff. Meanwhile, the Democrat may be a grotesque hack just inches from indictment, whose views on Iraq are equally muddled with less excuse (since loyalty to the president is not a factor). Nevertheless, these New Yellow Dogs are voting for the Democrat, simply out of anger at, or frustration with, the Republican Party.

The term "yellow dog Democrats" used to mean someone who would vote for any Democrat over any Republican, even if the Democrat were a yellow dog. In recent decades, there has been no such person. And if there were, he or she would, of course, reject any implication of color preference. Ordinarily, a dog of any tint would be considered less promising as a public official than even the most feline Republican. This year, though, the dog might have a shot. Still, people feel sheepish (to introduce another animal) about voting the party line.

My advice is: relax. There is nothing wrong with voting for the party and not the person. There is even nothing wrong with blindly voting for the Democrat (or, I suppose, the Republican) even if you know nothing else about him or her. In other democracies, such as Britain, this person-not-the-party piety is not just unknown but would be hard to comprehend. Whatever Burke may have said, a member of Parliament is your representative. He or she runs on a party platform promising various things, and if that party wins a majority of seats it "forms a government." You would be silly to vote for the person and not the party. The party's views are what counts. The person's own views are almost irrelevant.

Even under the American arrangement, there is nothing ignoble about voting the party line. It is an efficient way to minimize your information costs. Voting is an irrational act: Despite what they drum into you starting in kindergarten, your vote does not matter unless it's a tie. And even 2000 was not a tie. The more effort you put into learning about the candidates, the more irrational voting becomes, and the more likely you are not to bother. A candidate's party affiliation doesn't tell you everything you would like to know, but it tells you something. In fact, it tells you a lot—enough so that it even makes sense to vote your party preference even when you know nothing else about a candidate. Or even vote for a candidate that you actively dislike.

True, people might question your sanity if you were to declare that you were voting for the Democratic Party agenda. The what? If there's anything worse than ignoring that famous elephant in the room, it's imagining a donkey that's not in the room. Even so, a vote for the Democrat is a vote against the Republican. And voting "no" to a record of failure is more important to the functioning of democracy than voting "yes" to any number of promises about the future. It was not Newt Gingrich's Contract With America that caused the great Republican sweep of 1994: It was disgust, skillfully nurtured by Republicans, with the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Disgust for Congress is higher than ever. But this time around, until recently, the disgust seems to be less partisan. The Democrats have not been as ruthless or as skilled about associating the sins of Congress with the party that controls it. The very recent emergence of Dennis Hastert, who was supposed to be Tom DeLay's gofer and no more, as a real person in the public mind has helped to change that. The speaker probably isn't a typical fat, stupid, and complacent, if not corrupt, politician. He just plays one on TV. Too bad.

So what do you need? Permission? You've got it. I give you permission to vote for—or against—the party, and not the person. And don't forget to vote.

Boarding Pass Failure
Closing an airport security loophole.
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 3:31 PM ET

The FBI raided the home of Indiana University grad student Christopher Soghoian, who created a Web site that lets users forge their own airline boarding passes. Soghoian said he intended to call attention to an airport security loophole. In a "Hey, Wait a Minute" article published in 2005 and reprinted below, Andy Bowers identified the loophole, created his own fake documents, and proposed a simple fix.

The Homeland Security Department's No-Fly List has always seemed a bit absurd to me. Only the stupidest terrorist would try booking a flight under his own name (or his known aliases) three years after the 9/11 attacks, and one thing I hope we've all learned is that our most dangerous enemies aren't stupid.

But even if you assume the No-Fly List serves an important purpose, the system as it presently operates contains a gaping, dangerous loophole that makes the list nearly useless. It's a loophole so obvious, it occurred to me the first time I held it in my hand. And believe me, if I can figure it out, any terrorist worth his AK-47 realized it a long time ago.

The loophole is "Internet check-in," a convenience most airlines now offer. (It was first used by Alaska Airlines in 1999, but expanded rapidly after 9/11, as air carriers looked for ways to ease wait times for grumpy passengers.)

Here's how Internet check-in works: On the day of your flight, you can now go online, check in as though you were standing at a kiosk in the airport, and—this is the important part—print out your own boarding pass at home. You then bring your boarding pass, which includes a unique barcode, with you to the airport and go straight through the security line (in many cases, you can check bags at the curb).

It's a terrific timesaver, and there's actually nothing inherently wrong with allowing people to print their own traveling documents at home or the office. The problem is what the airlines and the Transportation Security Administration do with those documents at the airport. (In the last year, I've used Internet check-in on three different major airlines and at airports both large and small across the country. In every case, I could have exploited the loophole with ease, and in exactly the same way.)

A home-printed boarding pass is generally checked only twice at the airport:

1) Right before you go through security, a security guard checks your boarding pass against your government-issued ID, making sure the names match. This check does not include a scan of the barcode, in part because the same security checkpoints process passengers for multiple airlines with different computer systems. Occasionally a second security guard at the metal detector will double-check the boarding pass, but again, not by scanning it.

2) Once you get to your boarding gate, the barcode on the printed pass is finally scanned just before you enter the Jetway. However, as the boarding agents remind you over and over, you no longer need to show your ID at the gate. (The TSA estimates 80 percent of U.S. airports have done away with ID checks at the boarding gate.) I've noticed that many passengers still have their driver's licenses or passports in hand as they approach, remembering post-9/11 enhanced security. But the agents cheerily tell them to put their IDs away—they're no longer necessary.

Do you see the big flaw? At no point do you have to prove that the person in whose name the ticket was bought is the same person standing at the airport.

At stop 1), the name on a home-printed boarding pass is checked against an ID, but not against the name stored in the airline's computer. At stop 2), the name on the printed pass is checked against the name in the computer, but not against an ID.

So all a terrorist needs to breeze through this loophole are two different boarding passes, both printed at home, that are identical except for the name. Check out the mock-up I made on Microsoft Publisher in about 10 minutes, using a real boarding pass I was issued last month. On the first one, you see my real name. On the second, the name has been replaced by that of Mr. Serious Threat, who we will pretend is on the No-Fly List.

Say Mr. Threat and his nefarious associates buy a ticket in someone else's name (perhaps by stealing a credit card number—something criminals do without immediate detection all the time). In this case, the name of the card-theft victim (me) will be printed on the boarding pass. Mr. Threat can be pretty sure a common name like mine won't trigger the No-Fly List as his would. Then he prints out the two boarding passes: the original in my name and an altered duplicate in his name.

At the first security checkpoint (the one where no scan takes place), he can breeze through using any name he wishes—even his own—just so long as his photo ID matches the altered boarding pass. Unless the security guard has the entire No-Fly List memorized, she isn't going to stop Mr. Threat. On the way to his gate he does the old switcheroo, and produces the pass with my name, which will match the computer record. Child's play. His real identity has never set off the computer's alarm bells.

Just to check my theory, I ran it by a noted airport security expert. When he heard my scenario, he immediately asked not to be named, because he didn't want to be on the record saying a method of foiling security might work. But he's pretty sure it would. "[The double boarding pass scam] would completely negate, for all intents and purposes, an identity check," he said gravely. It is, he agreed, "a potential loophole in the process."

I also spoke with Nico Melendez, a field communications director for the TSA. "We recognize that something like that could happen," he said. But he noted that even if someone passed through on a fake name, they are still subject to metal detectors, baggage scans, air marshals, and all the other physical safeguards (both seen and unseen) at airports and on planes. And he pointed to the high-tech biometric scanning systems now being tested, among them facial recognition cameras and eye scans.

All of that is comforting. But why, if we're spending so much on new technologies and personnel, are we allowing such an obvious procedural flaw to undermine our very first line of defense—the No-Fly List?

I know some readers may be seething at this point: Some will be saying, why is this jackass giving the terrorists a blueprint? Others will worry that I'm endangering their beloved online check-in. But I ask you to think it through a little. …

First, document fakery is all around us these days, from sophisticated efforts like this shot of Jane Fonda and John Kerry side-by-side at an anti-Vietnam War rally, to the ham-handed Rathergate memos. And we know modern terrorists are very computer-savvy—remember their online beheading videos. Do you really think they can't figure out how to change a few letters on a boarding pass without my help? If we're going to allow documents printed outside the airport to serve official purposes, we need to give them more scrutiny, not less.

Second, this problem is simple to fix, and in a way that won't scuttle online check-in. All the TSA needs to do is to have at least one document check station that simultaneously compares all three elements: the boarding pass, a government-issued ID, and the No-Fly List in the airline's computer. This could be at security or at the gate (where, after all, IDs used to be checked). TSA spokesman Melendez says there are no plans for such simultaneous checks.

Could an extra ID check slow us down a little? Yes, it probably would. Tough luck. We've already endured two wars and countless other disruptions in the name of safety. A few extra minutes at the airport isn't going to kill anyone.

Raising the Steaks
If you feed cows grass, does the beef taste better?
By Mark Schatzker
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 2:37 PM ET

Can you tell how good a steak is going to taste by looking at it? The government thinks you can. That's why, when a USDA meat grader assesses the quality of a beef carcass, he or she makes an incision between the 12th and 13th rib, takes a good look at how much marbling there is, and assigns the meat a grade, from the highest, Prime, to Choice and Select and all the way down to Canner. That's why a well-marbled steak, one that is abundantly flecked with little specks and streaks of white fat, costs a lot more than a steak that's all red muscle.

But is marbling all there is to a good steak? Doesn't, say, a cow's diet have something to do with the way a steak tastes? And can someone please explain why that gargantuan USDA Prime strip loin I ate in Las Vegas last year had about as much flavor as a cup of tap water? I decided to find out for myself. My mission: to taste steaks from cattle raised in very different ways and see how they stack up.

To understand good steak, it helps to know a thing or two about how it gets on your plate. These days, most calves are born on ranches, suckled by their mothers, and then sent out to pasture. When they reach 6 months, they're sent to a feedlot where they're "finished" on grain, usually corn. Grain isn't a cow's natural diet, but it's the feed of choice for two reasons: It makes cattle gain weight quickly, and it results in well-marbled beef.

But according to the ranchers and food scientists I spoke to, there's a lot more to a good rib-eye than intramuscular fat. A few other factors to consider:

Breed. Angus is currently the most popular among North American ranchers. This is partly due to economics—Angus cattle mature quickly and put on weight well—but also because Angus beef is reliably marbled and tender. Not all well-marbled steaks come from Angus cows, however. Grain-feeding techniques have become so effective that even dairy cattle (such as Holsteins) can achieve a grade of Prime. (According to Cattle-Fax, a cattle-marketing information service, 17 percent of American beef comes from dairy cattle.) Does a Prime steak from a dairy cow taste as good as a Prime steak from an Angus cow? Every rancher, meat packer, and butcher I spoke to told me an Angus steak would taste better. But good luck telling the two apart at the supermarket.

Feed. Just as soil affects the quality of wine, a cow's diet can change the quality of its flesh. Some North American cattle are finished on wheat or barley rather than corn. Is there a difference? One rancher told me that barley makes for flavorful beef and warned that wheat can make beef tough. Another rancher said, "Corn is the worst. It results in the greatest lack of flavor in beef." And what about grass-fed beef? Raising a cow on grass alone is ecologically friendly. But does it taste any good?

Hormones. Almost all feedlot cows are injected with growth hormones to help them gain muscle mass; critics charge that doing so merely causes cows to retain water and produces bland meat.

Aging. Steak from a freshly slaughtered cow is stringy and tough. For this reason, beef is aged, a process that tenderizes it and enriches the flavor. Traditionally, beef was hung in a cold room, where natural enzymes would break down the muscle fibers. Dry aging, as it's known, isn't cheap. The beef loses weight to evaporation, and the moldy crust that develops on the exterior has to be lopped off, which makes the remaining beef more expensive. In the 1970s, industrial meat processors opted for wet aging—sealing entire cuts of beef in cellophane—because it's cheaper. But most beef connoisseurs agree that dry-aged beef tastes better.

Before you walk into your neighborhood butcher and say, "Three rib-eye Angus steaks, please, pastured in the Rocky Mountain foothills, finished on barley, but with a hint of oats, and dry-aged for 28—no, make that 29—days," keep in mind that as a consumer, such choice does not exist. That said, if you scour specialty butcher shops or Google "steak," you'll discover other options, including naturally raised, grain-fed, and grass-fed beef. Which leaves carnivores with the question: Which steak tastes the best?


We sampled rib-eye steaks from the best suppliers I could find. The meat was judged on flavor, juiciness, and tenderness and then assigned an overall preference. The tasting was blind, except for me. (Someone had to keep track of things.) Cooking method: Each steak was sprinkled with kosher salt, then sent to a very hot gas-fired grill, flipped once, and, when just verging on medium-rare, was removed and rested under foil for five minutes.

The Results:

From worst (which, in all fairness, was still a decent steak) to first:

USDA Prime Beef, Wet Aged

Price: $32.50 per pound

Aging: Wet

Purveyor: Allen Brothers (

What it is: The best beef the industrial system has to offer. Only 2 percent of steak receives the lofty grade of Prime.

The knock against it: Feedlots are often nasty places, infamous for their cramped conditions, unnatural diets, contaminated groundwater, and clouds of fecal dust. These steaks may have come from one of the more humane operations. Unfortunately, it's simply not possible to know.

Breed: Impossible to say, though Allen Brothers' suppliers guarantee that their steaks are from high-quality beef breeds, the majority of which are Angus.

Hormones? Likely.

Raw impressions: Of all the competitors, these USDA Prime steaks looked the best raw. They had a pleasing shape, no unappetizing thick veins of fat, and abundant marbling. One taster's note: "Now those look like the kind of steaks I'd spend money on."

Tasting notes: This steak was juicy and so tender you could have practically cut it with a Q-tip. The only problem? Flavor—there wasn't much. Comment: "Not something that would have impressed me had I bought it at the supermarket."

USDA Prime Beef, Dry Aged

Price: $35 per pound

Aging: Dry

Purveyor: Allen Brothers (

Raw impressions: Visually, it was impossible to distinguish the dry-aged from the wet-aged rib-eyes.

Tasting notes: This steak had more flavor than its wet-aged sibling. Tasters described it as "woody" and "smoky," although the texture reminded one taster of liver. Despite all the time it spent hanging in a cold room losing moisture, it seemed juicier than the wet-aged steak.

Wagyu Beef

Price: $40 per pound

Aging: Dry

Purveyor: Strube Ranch Gourmet Meats (Wagyu beef from a different supplier can be purchased online here:

What it is: The Japanese have a thing for incredibly marbled beef, which is known as Kobe beef. According to legend, they feed cows a secret ancient recipe that includes beer and keep their muscles tender by massaging them with sake. This beef was raised on American soil, so it can't technically be called Kobe. But the breed—called Wagyu—is the one that the Japanese use, and the method of raising them is comparably particular. At about 9 months of age, Wagyu cattle are sent to a small, Kobe-style feedlot, where they spend more than a year eating a diet that includes some corn, but a lot of roughage as well. After that, they're sent to a finishing lot where they eat an all-natural but top-secret diet.

The knock against it: The price. Also, there are Wagyu-beef enthusiasts who say cooking it like a regular steak will lead to disappointment and an acute sense of having been ripped off. As the "foie gras" of beef, they maintain, it's better suited to searing or being served raw in, say, a miso-ginger-sesame-sake dressing.

Hormones? None.

Raw impressions: On looks alone, this steak faired the worst. The fat appeared pallid, and the meat possessed a gamey smell that had some tasters wondering if it had gone off.

Tasting notes: When cooked, though, what started out as a peculiar aroma mellowed into a distinctive taste that everyone enjoyed, although to varying degrees. (One person said: "I like it in the same way I like blue cheese.") The consensus: "Gamey, strong flavor. I like it."

Naturally Raised Grain-Fed Beef

Price: $26.70 per pound

Aging: Dry

Purveyor: Niman Ranch (

What it is: As with industrial beef, these cattle are finished on grain at a feedlot, which makes for well-marbled steak that is consistently tender. But Niman Ranch claims to raise cattle "with dignity." Feed is sourced locally. The feedlot is less crowded and features shaded areas and sprinklers where cattle can cool off. Niman Ranch cattle are finished on a blend of grain—including barley, corn, soy beans, and distiller's dry grain—along with plenty of roughage, which makes the grain easier on bovine stomachs. Also, Niman Ranch waits an extra year before sending cattle to the feedlot on the theory that steaks from an older cow, though slightly less tender, will taste better.

The knock against it: It's pricey.

Breeds: Angus, Hereford, and Short Horn

Hormones? None

Raw impressions: Niman Ranch doesn't sell its beef based on a USDA grade because Bill Niman doesn't believe in the direct correlation between marbling and eating quality. That said, these steaks were the most marbled of the bunch.

Tasting notes: Gustatory joy. Everyone loved this steak, declaring it juicy, tender, and, most importantly, bursting with flavor. Comments were roundly flattering, proclaiming it to be "full bodied" with "a good steaky taste," "mouth-filling and rich—holy cow!"

And the winner is…

Grass-Fed Beef

Price: $21.50 per pound

Aging: Dry

Purveyor: Alderspring Ranch (

What it is: Beef from cows that have never ingested anything other than mother's milk and pasture, which is just as Mother Nature intended. Like great wine and cheese, grass-fed beef possesses different qualities depending on where it's grown and what time of year it's harvested. The grass-fed steaks for this experiment came from a ranch in Idaho where cattle graze on orchard grass, alfalfa, clover, and smooth brome (a type of grass) in the summer and chopped hay in the winter. Also: Some studies have shown that grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and higher in omega-3 fatty acids, making it healthier than regular beef.

The knock against it: Consistency, or lack thereof. One grass-fed rancher I spoke to refused to send me any steak for this article because, he said, it sometimes tastes like salmon. Restaurants and supermarkets don't like grass-fed beef because like all slow food, grass-fed beef producers can't guarantee consistency—it won't look and taste exactly the same every time you buy it. Grass-fed beef also has a reputation for being tough.

Hormones? None

Breeds: Alderspring cattle are 90 percent Black and Red Angus, with some Hereford and Short Horn, Salers, and Simmental bred in. ("Red Angus cattle finish particularly well on grass," according to Glenn Elzinga, who runs Alderspring Ranch.)

Raw impressions: Not good. It had the least marbling, and what little fat it had possessed a yellowy tinge.

Tasting notes: Never have I witnessed a piece of meat so move grown men (and women). Every taster but one instantly proclaimed the grass-fed steak the winner, commending it for its "beautiful," "fabu," and "extra juicy" flavor that "bursts out on every bite." The lone holdout, who preferred the Niman Ranch steak, agreed that this steak tasted the best, but found it a tad chewy. That said, another taster wrote, "I'm willing to give up some tenderness for this kind of flavor."

The Verdict:

Marbling, schmarbling. The steak with the least intramuscular fat tasted the best—and was also the cheapest. That said, the steak with the most marbling came in a not–too-distant second. Do the two share anything in common? Interestingly, neither was finished on straight corn or treated with hormones. Both steaks also hail from ranches that pride themselves on their humane treatment of bovines. That made for an unexpected warm and fuzzy feeling as we loosened our belts, sat back, and embarked on several hours of wine-aided digestion.

slate green challenge
Warm Up
How to heat your house—not the outside.
By Meaghan O'Neill and
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 10:29 AM ET

More than 20 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the United States come from energy use in homes. A major source of the problem is heating. Some of us keep our homes warmer than we need to—if yours feels like an icebox in summer and a toaster in winter, you're probably in this group. In addition, most houses leak some heat from every window, doorway, and air duct, which means that they're constantly wasting energy, and thereby upping CO2 emissions.

This is not a necessary evil. Solar and wind power, which both create largely emissions-free electricity, are still expensive and tricky. So is the newfangled geothermal energy. But you can stick with regular old oil, gas, or electricity and still cut down on the amount of energy you use to heat your home. Weatherizing is an excellent place to begin. Along with shedding carbon pounds, it can save you hundreds of dollars each year. And there are relatively painless ways to address overheating as well. Some suggestions for getting started:

• According to the National Resources Defense Council, the gaps around the windows and doors in most houses let out the same amount of air, all told, as a 3-by-3-foot hole. You can find the leaks and then use caulking and weatherstripping to seal them off. (Here's a how-to guide.)

• If your house has single-pane windows, you might as well leave them open. OK, not really, but they won't make your house snug. Adding storm panels makes your windows 50 percent more energy efficient. Installing double-pane windows is even better. It can cost thousands of dollars upfront, we admit. But double-pane windows save 10,000 pounds of CO2 per household from escaping into the atmosphere each year—that's five tons. And the federal government and many states and cities will give you a tax rebate to help defray the cost.

• Planting trees and shrubs around the foundation of your house helps insulate it from wind and heat loss in winter. You'll also be cooler and shadier in summer.

• Losing a couple of degrees on the thermostat in winter also cuts CO2 pounds. Throw on an extra sweater instead. (It's good advice, even if Jimmy Carter did say it first.)

• Chimneys of traditional fireplaces are designed to remove the byproducts of a fire by creating a draft. That means they suck heat from your home, even when they're not in use. It's a good idea to keep the damper closed. Better than a fireplace (or you could install one inside it) is a wood-burning or pellet stove. They supplement your regular heat source, are more efficient, and use fuel that's much cleaner and cheaper.

• OK, so you're really stuck—you live in an apartment and can't choose where your heat comes from, or maybe even what temperature the thermostat is set to. You can still deal with your carbon sludge by purchasing green tags for your home through programs like TerraPass. Your home won't get a direct delivery of green energy. But you'll be investing in it.

(Click here to launch this week's action quiz.)

summary judgment
Copyright Crackdowns
The critical buzz on YouTube, Richard Ford, and Laura Kipnis.
By Doree Shafrir
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 1:57 PM ET

YouTube and MySpace Get Tough. This week, YouTube started taking down Comedy Central video clips, and MySpace began yanking copyrighted music from users' profiles using an automated program called Gracenote. But YouTube and Comedy Central were quick to come to a compromise, and YouTube has since reposted some of the clips. This has led to grumbling that it was all a negotiating tactic by Comedy Central parent Viacom. At information-technology blog TechDirt, poster Mike reflects, "Similar to the companies that hinted at future lawsuits just as they were negotiating with YouTube, Viacom is likely using this to put pressure on Google/YouTube to cough up a better deal for them." On BoingBoing, reader Aaron Newton notes, "It's moves like this, which aren't necessary due to the way the DMCA [Digital Music Copyright Act] works, that makes sites like this less socially relevant. MySpace is a haven for bands because it gives them these tools and doesn't make them really work hard to get their stuff online."

Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land (Knopf). The third installment in Ford's series of books about New Jerseyite Frank Bascombe sees our hero firmly planted in middle age and facing treatment for cancer. Many critics—who have been following Bascombe since Ford's first book about him, 1986's The Sportswriter—have developed an almost familial attachment to Ford's protagonist. "It can feel, writing about these books, that you are not evaluating a literary artifact so much as passing judgment on a person," muses A.O. Scott in the New York Times Book Review, and in the Guardian, Tim Adams cautions, "It is tempting to see Frank as a kind of American Everyman, but Ford knows him so well that he is never anything less than distinctly individual and real." Slate's Blake Bailey, however, finds Bascombe a "hard fellow to figure out, as he seems to adopt and discard personae on almost every other page." Indeed, some of Bascombe's extended ruminations on life have rubbed critics the wrong way. Entertainment Weekly's Gregory Kirschling jabs, "We like Frank even if he sometimes turns into a bit of a windbag," and the Los Angeles Times' David L. Ulin yawns, "The book meanders, taking pages to describe the simplest interactions, with an eye to detail that can be overwhelming, numbing, far too full." (Buy The Lay of the Land.)

Laura Kipnis, The Female Thing (Pantheon). The four chapters—dirt, sex, envy, and vulnerability—of Slate contributor Kipnis' follow-up to her 2003 pro-adultery polemic Against Love have sparked a bit of a critical contretemps—mostly among women. (Sections of this book appeared in different form in Slate.) What to make of this academic (Kipnis teaches at Northwestern) who, as Salon's Laura Miller puts it, "is like the intelligent woman's version of whatever Carrie Bradshaw was supposed to be on Sex and the City"? Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Alexandra Jacobs sneers, "It's as if Kipnis has eagerly Hoovered up every piece of media lint about white upper-middle-class 'chicks,' to use her saucy non-professorial parlance, and is now emptying the vacuum bag in our presence." Toni Bentley, reviewing for Bookforum, discloses that Kipnis criticized The Surrender, Bentley's paean to anal sex, as being "infused with the ecstasy of self-exposure" and takes the occasion to observe that Kipnis "offers no answers but does a Derrida on the female situation and leaves us to sort out the awful mess." But the New York Observer's Sheelah Kolhatkar takes the bird's-eye view (no pun intended) to note, "Both the television and print worlds are crowded with self-important boys fighting amongst themselves, but there's no Simone, Susan Sontag or even a kooky new Camille Paglia on the horizon"—and thus, she implies, Kipnis' "self-consciously irreverent voice" is a welcome one. (Buy The Female Thing.)

Shut Up & Sing (The Weinstein Company). Positive reviews and a little controversy never hurt anyone, as the new documentary about the Dixie Chicks ably demonstrates. "Life in Bush America gets a blunt, honest telling in this documentary that makes you want to stand up and cheer without ever begging for tears or glib sympathy," trills Rolling Stone's Peter Travers. Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines "is a bull in a china shop with the voice of an angel, and you can't help but cheer her fuck-you to a kow-towing music industry, and to all the bullies who picketed her concerts, wanting her dead," raves LA Weekly's Ella Taylor. And the New York Post's Lou Lumenick straight-shoots that it's simply "sharper and far more entertaining than most political documentaries." (Buy tickets to Shut Up & Sing.)

Babel (Paramount Classics). Oh, how Alejandro González Iñárritu loves a complicated story line. His third collaboration with screenwriter Gabriel Arriaga features no fewer than four interconnected plots, and Slate's Dana Stevens notes, "Babel handles all of its story lines equally well." But The New Yorker's David Denby seems like he's had it up to here with González Iñárritu's overly coincidental moviemaking. Though González Iñárritu "creates savagely beautiful and heartbreaking images," Denby takes him to task: "He abuses his audience with a humorless fatalism and a piling up of calamities that borders on the ludicrous." A.O. Scott, writing in the New York Times, decides to split the difference, sighing, "In the end Babel, like that tower in the book of Genesis, is a grand wreck, an incomplete monument to its own limitless ambition … It's a folly, and also, perversely, a wonder." Or, throw caution to the wind and take Rolling Stone's Peter Travers at his word when he calls Babel "the year's richest, most complex and ultimately most heartbreaking film." (Buy tickets to Babel.)

Death of a President (Newmarket Films). Critics give the technical aspects of British director Gabriel Range's faux documentary about an imagined assassination of President Bush grudging respect but are less enamored with the film itself. In the Village Voice, J. Hoberman calls it "dramatically inert but a minor techno-miracle," while in the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday asks, "Is it politically provocative agitprop or merely a cynical, exploitative stunt? Probably the latter, but one that has been performed with unusual dexterity." Whether agitprop or a stunt, several theater chains have banned the film, and some television stations are also refusing to show ads for it. Salon's Andrew O'Hehir knocks those making a fuss over the film's pseudo-realism: "Most of it is made-up controversy, fomented by possibly well-intentioned people (but also by boobs and morons) who haven't seen the film and who ascribe powers to mass-culture products that they don't actually possess. Nobody's going to kill Bush because it happens in a movie." (Buy tickets to Death of a President.)

Tower Records. The liquidation of Tower Records has begun, as have the requisite elegies for the venerable chain of music stores. The Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed writes, sadly, "Tower did take seriously its mission to be the world's most important record outlet." In the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini laments the demise of the location near Manhattan's Lincoln Center, because of its role in the classical music community: "For many people, tracking down a CD online, with only various critiques by unknown purchasers to guide them, is not the same as mingling with other opera buffs in front of the Verdi shelves." At the blog Serenade in Green, Stephen V. Funk notes that he doesn't own an iPod and wonders whether the growth in digital music led to Tower's rapid downfall: "I've been mourning the loss of Tower Records lately … I can't help but notice that there's never anyone younger than me shopping at Tower or any other record store these days." R.I.P., Tower.

supreme court dispatches
Up in Smoke
The Supreme Court makes one of the year's biggest cases disappear.
By Dahlia Lithwick
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 6:45 PM ET

Wow. Maybe Justice Antonin Scalia was right last week when he suggested that Supreme Court reporters just aren't smart enough to do this job. Judging by the faces of my colleagues as they entered the pressroom today, it looked as though every last one of them had just tumbled down a rabbit hole and spent a perplexing hour of oral argument watching the Mad Hatter spinning platters.

Philip Morris v. Williams was supposed to be one of the biggest cases of the year, but oral argument turned it into one of the biggest messes of the year. What was supposed to be the major case testing when punitive damage awards are just too darn high disintegrated today into a skirmish over the wording of a jury instruction that was, in fact, never given to a jury. That means Philip Morris rested its argument on this unfalsifiable contention: If the jury had been given an instruction they never got, they would never have done the thing they did.

Confused yet?

Welcome to our world.

Jesse Williams smoked Marlboros for 47 years and died of lung cancer in 1997. His widow, Mayola, sued Philip Morris in Oregon, alleging that the company had mounted a decades-long campaign to deceive smokers about the health consequences of smoking. A jury awarded her $800,000 in compensatory damages and almost 100 times that amount, $79.5 million, in punitive damages. That award has been chewed over endlessly through various courts of appeal, and, in 2003, the Supreme Court sent it back to Oregon for reconsideration in light of its decision that year in State Farm v. Campbell. In State Farm, the Supreme Court found a punitive damages award to be excessive, suggesting that "single digit multipliers are more likely to comport with due process" where punitive damages are concerned. The court felt there ought to be a general "presumption against an award that has a 145-to-1 ratio."

When the Oregon Supreme Court got the case back, it nevertheless upheld the $79.5 million judgment. And Philip Morris argued on appeal that the jurors should have been given this instruction: "The size of any punishment should bear a reasonable relationship to the harm caused to Jesse Williams by the defendant's punishable misconduct. Although you may consider the extent of harm suffered by others in determining what that reasonable relationship is, you are not to punish the defendant for the impact of its alleged misconduct on other persons, who may bring lawsuits of their own." The Oregon Supreme Court thought that instruction misstated Oregon law. What's more, it ruled that even following State Farm, Philip Morris' conduct was so "extraordinarily reprehensible" that the punitive-damages award passed muster.

The sole question plaguing the justices today is this: How can the jury consider the impact of the defendant's conduct on people who aren't parties to the suit—in this case, other smokers—yet avoid punishing the defendant for the harm to them?

Andrew Frey represents Philip Morris this morning, and almost as soon as he starts talking, he's bringing up that jury instruction. Which is about when the wheels come off. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stops him. About his proposed jury instruction, she says, "You don't think that would confuse the jury if they are first told that they may consider the extent of the harm suffered by others and then the next instruction seems to say they can't?" Justice David Souter agrees that if the instruction tells jurors to consider the impact on others, you can't also tell them not to punish for it. "I don't know how a juror is supposed to figure that out," he says.

Frey replies that this becomes a "one-way class action in which Philip Morris was exposed to global punishment by the jury without any of the protections of a class action."

Scalia suggests sending this mess back again to the Oregon Supreme Court. And when Frey attempts to counter that his proposed jury instruction simply restates the Supreme Court-mandated standard, Souter quips: "It was a good thing we weren't instructing a jury." Oddly enough, it becomes evident as the justices bang away at the jury instruction that most of them agree on two core ideas. The first is that you cannot punish a defendant for conduct affecting nonparties to the lawsuit. This would seem to make Philip Morris' instruction necessary. But the second is that the instruction is ridiculously confusing. Justice Stephen Breyer describes the case as a "bog of constitutional law, unclear state law and what was meant by whom in the context of trial."

Now what?

Robert Peck represents Mayola Williams, and he achieves the distinction of eliciting the following admission from Chief Justice John Roberts: "I thought our cases clearly establish that you can consider the harm to others in assessing the reprehensible nature of the conduct." Roberts adds that the case law also prohibits punishment of the defendant for harms to others. In other words, he seems to be saying, the proposed instruction is confused because our precedent is confused. In which case, why not send it back for the Oregon Supreme Court to fix?

It's the Roberts Court's New Minimalism: We screw up the law, then ship it out to the lower courts to correct it.

The Colbert Retort
How to beat the host at his own game.
By Troy Patterson
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 11:23 AM ET

Here we are, a bit more than a year into the run of The Colbert Report (Comedy Central, Monday through Thursday, 11:30 p.m. ET). Stephen Colbert continues to discover new dimensions of absurdity in his caricature of a blowhard-populist talk-show host even as he keeps up a stable of old hobbyhorses. (For instance, the man remains steadfast in his campaign to demonize bears.) The Report's "Better Know a District" segments, with their ambushing interviews of members of the House, have earned a cultural prominence far beyond what the show's ratings would suggest.

But if you want to turn an eye, jaded and jaundiced, on The Colbert Report and squint at its deformities, you will want to start with the regular guest-interview segments. Night after night, writers, talking heads, and entertainers turn up at Colbert's table and try to have a conversation with his alter egomaniac. While this yields some laughs, it mostly conjures a painful goofiness. The host stays in character and poses either ridiculous questions on serious topics or earnest questions on ludicrous ones. Before your eyes, the guest, too often hyper-self-conscious, tries to sort out whether to play along or steamroll ahead or what—usually managing to leave a little chunk of dignity behind. Thus, with the emotional health of the nation's chat-show class in mind, I present a few simple guidelines for interfacing with Stephen Colbert.

Act your age. Maybe they're just being obliging, but many of Colbert's guests tend to trip themselves up right out of the gate, before the host himself has even had a chance. They're so tickled to be there that they titter, ducking their heads shyly and perhaps muttering something vaguely racy and clearly inane. Are they 12? Writers, in general, and New York Times op-ed columnists, in particular, seem especially susceptible to this affliction. After Colbert's lead delivered a line about Ann Coulter's speaking engagements, David Brooks blurted, "I do Phish concerts." Whah? When a bellicose Colbert commanded Frank Rich to inveigh against President Bush ("What's he done now?! Spin!!"), Rich grinningly produced the following: "Luckily, he isn't doing much now. He just seems to be sort of lactating. … I don't know where that came from." Paul Krugman simply giggled, and simply giggling is inappropriate to the gravity of the occasion. No, you'll be better off if you …

Laugh uproariously. Conservatives do well by taking this tack, and Bay Buchanan, chair of the Team America political action committee, was an ace. She was pushing her line on illegal immigration, arguing for a vast wall along the Mexican border, when Colbert upped the ante: "We need two walls. We need a moat. We need it filled with fire, maybe with some fireproof crocodiles in there." I imagine that most of Colbert's constituency thinks Buchanan to be kind of a creep, but there was an appealing jolliness in her laughing response to this line that made her seem agreeable, and her hard chuckles took the edge off his mockery. And when Colbert had had his fun, Buchanan charged right on ahead. Perhaps, being a veteran of the Reagan administration, she is inclined to …

Embrace the theater. Contrary to the gigglers, masters of this strategy allow themselves to slide smoothly into Colbert's alternate reality and take his straight face at face value. Jesse Jackson instantly asserted control by joining the studio audience in cheering the host: "You the man." Joe Scarborough—whose feisty MSNBC show, Scarborough Country, remains undersung as a Colbert Report inspiration—rushed down to a level where he and Colbert could banter like the showmen they are, reveling in the horseplay and proclaiming, "We are kindred spirits." And Al Franken explained why he would enter this lion's den almost as if he were actually talking to Bill O'Reilly: "I couldn't very well not do it. If you don't do your show, you just go on and call a guy a coward." A seasoned culture warrior like Franken understands that it's important to …

Go on the offensive. No one has done this better than CNN's Christiane Amanpour, who went so far as to play the sparky schoolmarm and scold the host for referring to the country immediately south of the Caspian Sea as "Eye-ran." "Ih-ran," she said. "You didn't run anywhere, did you?" Amanpour was relaxed and confident, game enough to engage with the Colbert persona, and sharp enough to cut past its marvelous blather and say something witty herself. The guest interviews are often only half successful as entertainment because the interviewees are off-balance, unsure of the steps of this crazy new dance. But Amanpour—accustomed, as she is, to coping with the on-screen utterances of morons, megalomaniacs, and aggressive nitwits—had the nerve to take the lead. Future Colbert guests, I urge you to study her performance closely. You might not be able to beat Stephen Colbert at his own game, but you won't go home feeling like a loser.

the big idea
Poisoned Politics
The ads this year are worse than ever. Both sides aren't to blame.
By Jacob Weisberg
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 3:38 PM ET

Last week, I turned on the TV set in a hotel room in Phoenix. The first commercial I saw, for Rick Renzi, a vulnerable Republican congressman, was an effusion of pure political poison. In a voice rancid with contempt, the announcer declared:

Over 100 Democratic elected officials are opposing Democrat trial lawyer Ellen Simon. Liberal Ellen Simon served as the president of the ACLU, a radical organization that defends hard-core criminals at the man/boy love association, a national group that preys on our children. One Democratic mayor called Simon's actions "utterly disgusting." He's right. Ellen Simon: radical, liberal and wrong for Arizona.

While hearing this, the viewer sees just key terms superimposed on the Democrat's face: "LIBERAL" … "Served as the President of the ACLU" … "Radical Organization defends hard core criminals Man/Boy Love Association" … "ACLU Defends Child Molester Group" … "Preys on our children" … "utterly disgusting" … "radical, liberal."

Dutifully performing the fact-checking function expected of responsible newspapers, the Arizona Daily Sun analyzed the content of the ad. It could not "independently verify" that 100 elected officials had endorsed Renzi, though 55 are apparently members of a Navajo tribal council whose gambling interests Renzi has championed. Ellen Simon was not the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, but a volunteer lawyer in Cleveland who represented the group in precisely one case. That case had nothing to do with NAMBLA or child molesters. The "Democratic mayor" who called Simon "utterly disgusting" is effectively a Republican. Simon, who supports school choice and cracking down on illegal immigrants, is by no means a "radical liberal." In other words, not a single claim in the ad is actually true.

This spot is, however, entirely characteristic of the mud that Republicans are raining on their Democratic opponents in the closing days of the campaign. Buggery is probably the top theme. In California, Republican incumbent John Doolittle has similarly accused his challenger, the unfortunately named Charlie Brown, of being pro-NAMBLA because he's an ACLU member. Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican candidate for governor in Ohio, charges that his opponent opposed a resolution condemning sex between adults and children. Sonny Perdue, the Republican governor of Georgia, accuses his opponent of putting "the interests of the radical homosexual lobby ahead of our Boy Scouts."

The other big attack topics this cycle are Democrats and nonpedophilic sex, Democrats and drugs, Democrats and Osama, flag-burning, and illegal immigrants. In a New York congressional race, the National Republican Campaign Committee tried to run an ad accusing Democratic candidate Michael Arcuri of spending taxpayer money to call a sex hot line. The call was a wrong number that cost $1.25. When television stations refused to run it, the NRCC went with a more conventional charge that Arcuri went easy on a child rapist as a prosecutor. In Missouri, threatened Republican Sen. Jim Talent blames challenger Claire McCaskill for the prevalence of methamphetamine in Kansas City. In Ohio, likely-to-lose Republican Sen. Mike DeWine claims that his Democratic challenger, Sherrod Brown, is a hippie peacenik who doesn't support the military. In Iowa, Republican congressional candidate Mike Whalen links his Democratic opponent to the Communist Party and the Taliban. And, all across the country, Republicans are accusing Democrats of wanting to pay Social Security benefits to illegal aliens.

If there were an Oscar for political slime, it would go to "Twilight Zone," a spot run by Vernon Robinson, a congressional challenger in North Carolina. In 60 seconds, the ad manages to tie Democrat Brad Miller to Osama, gay marriage, "lesbians and feminists," activist judges, infanticide, flag-burning, racial quotas, space aliens, illegal immigrants, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton. In another ad, Robinson stamps "XXX" across Miller's face, claiming that his opponent refused to support body armor for troops in Iraq but that he "pays for sex" and that he "spent your tax dollars to pay teenage girls to watch pornographic movies with probes connected to their genitalia." It's all mendacious nonsense, but Paul Nelson, a Republican running for Congress in Wisconsin, liked the ad so much he ran it virtually unchanged against his own opponent.

Apologists for negative advertising often contend that, unpleasant or not, it conveys information and policy content. But it's hard to see what ads like these contribute to anyone's knowledge, beyond the notion that politicians are vermin and scum. Consider the most notorious ad of the campaign, the “Harold, Call Me” spot, aimed at the black Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee. It begins with a black woman saying, "Harold Ford looks nice—isn't that enough?" and goes on to claim that Ford wants to take away guns from hunters and is supported by the porn industry, before ending with a white actress who says she met Ford at a Playboy party and wants to hook up with him. The not-so-subliminal message is that Ford rejects women of his own race in favor of white hussies. Whether you think that's racist or not—and I do—the ad contains no "information" that isn't fundamentally false.

The other familiar excuse for negative advertising is that "everybody does it." Newspaper stories about attack commercials usually include a sampling of harsh Democratic spots in an effort to appear evenhanded. But there's really no comparison between what the two parties and their respective surrogates are doing. According to, a respected site that reviews the accuracy of various ads, "the National Republican Campaign Committee's work stands out this year for the sheer volume of assaults on the personal character of Democratic House challengers." Negative Democratic ads tie Republican candidates to President Bush, and to the Iraq war, or accuse them of being in the tank for the oil or pharmaceutical industries. But Democratic ads do not charge that their opponents "prey on our children"—even though one recently resigned following accusations that he did precisely that. One can only imagine the ads Republicans would have made this year if Mark Foley had happened to be a Democrat.

In fact, the form, style, and content of the contemporary attack ad are a specifically conservative contribution to American politics. Republicans have developed most of the techniques, vocabulary, and symbolism at work in these spots over the last couple of decades. Some of the motifs go back to Nixon and Spiro Agnew, but you can trace most of the elements back to the presidential campaign Lee Atwater ran for George H.W. Bush in 1988, best remembered for the Willie Horton ad and the charge that Michael Dukakis was a "card-carrying member of the ACLU." What's different in this election is simply the ubiquity of the conservative calumny and, in some cases, the aggressiveness of the Democratic response. Spreading hatred and poisonous lies about one's opponent has become an ordinary and almost accepted part of running for office.

It shouldn't be. There may be no cure for dishonest attack advertising that isn't worse than the disease. But that doesn't mean that voters shouldn't be offended or that they should fail to react when politicians treat them as docile bigots. Republicans deserve to get walloped next week for this, if for nothing else.

the book club
Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope
Debating the new book by the rising Democratic star.
By Stanley Crouch and Alan Wolfe
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 5:19 PM ET

From: Alan Wolfe
To: Stanley Crouch
Subject: Obama Was Right About the War in Iraq. And His Book Isn't Dreadful.

Posted Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 6:12 AM ET

Dear Stanley:

Well, what is one to make of Sen. Obama's The Audacity of Hope? Books by politicians are dreadful affairs: I cannot remember ever reading one that was edifying. (Can you?) This is, after all, the age of YouTube, in which anything you say at any time can be spread around the world in an instant. If you are a politician, by nature a cautious being, technologies like this guarantee that the one unrehearsed moment in a thousand will now become one in a million.

Good for Obama, then, that instead of hiding himself behind sound bites, he has actually published a book that, whatever its weaknesses, should not be counted among the dreadful. The senator has two main objectives. One is to let readers know something of himself. The other is to give them a sense of where he stands on domestic and foreign policy. He fulfills both objectives in ways that, I have to admit, I found interesting.

Ever since Jimmy Carter spoke of the lust in his heart, for which he was endlessly mocked, it has become common for politicians to write about their private lives as if they had only public ones. It may be that Obama, sensitive to next year's trends, understood that readers will be more attracted to self-confession than self-justification. Still, it is unusual for politicians to talk honestly about the conflict between the needs of their immediate family and the demands of public office. At one point in the book, Obama writes of how he thought he was sharing family chores equally with this wife, only to realize how she, in fact, was keeping the family intact during his many absences. Given that we have a president who admits to no doubts, I found Obama's acknowledgment of his own moving.

The bulk of the book is more boilerplate in nature, with the senator running down his views on just about every policy matter under the sun. Here, the weaknesses of even good books by politicians are all too evident. I did not find that Obama had much of interest to say about race and poverty; he agrees that welfare needed reform and that some of the problems of poverty found in innercity communities are due to "a casualness toward sex and child rearing among black men that renders black children more vulnerable—and for which there is simply no excuse." These are not Rainbow Coalition thoughts, and that is a good thing. But they do not move our discussion of these issues much in any direction, given that Obama, whenever he approaches saying anything controversial, backtracks by saying everything conventional. On-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand makes good political sense, but it kills narrative interest.

The one policy discussion in which the senator engages that I found most persuasive involved our relations with other countries, perhaps reflecting the fact that Obama's extended family extends from Illinois to Kenya to Indonesia. Obama's opposition to the war in Iraq is genuine and is accompanied by remarkably little grandstanding, considering that he was right. But it is more than that. We like to say that the world has become so complicated in this age of globalization. Obama suggests that our foreign policy need not be so complicated at all, and on this point, I think he is correct. As he notes, our failure in Iraq is not due to "bad execution" but instead represents a conceptual problem. This country did not figure out that the collapse of communism led the whole world to turn to us for leadership. Is it really so difficult to recognize that, as the world's great superpower, we were in a position to win respect and not just to instill fear? Perhaps it was inevitable that 9/11 would push the fear button. But now that we know the limits of military action as a way of protecting ourselves, surely it does not take a genius to understand that the next president will have to repudiate various versions of the Bush/Cheney doctrine and begin once again to fashion multilateral approaches to global leadership. Perhaps the real strength of Obama's discussion of foreign policy is that, by avoiding anything dramatic, he reminds us that the best foreign policies lack drama.

Not a bad book at all, this one, at least for the genre it represents. I don't want to leap on the "Obama for President" bandwagon. But as a writer, I am always delighted when other writers put thoughts down on paper in ways that move public discussion, if even a little bit. Obama is a writer. That he happens to be a politician—and a potential presidential candidate—is nice. I would certainly be inclined to vote for him. But for now, I am glad he told us something about who he is and what he believes.


From: Stanley Crouch
To: Alan Wolfe
Subject: Is Obama More Than Just a Well-Received Poster Boy for the Democratic Party?

Posted Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 1:01 PM ET

Dear Alan,

The major problem of a politician at this time is the overweening importance of having to look at oneself and figure out whether that person can rise in the show business that our system has become. It seems that Barack Obama understands this as well as anyone we have recently seen hovering in the air as the prospects of becoming the lower half of a presidential ticket moves ever closer. He does not appear to be in a hurry, or overly happy to be noticed, and the senator from Illinois does not give the impression that Al Gore does of losing all charm and turning into a slab of concrete when faced with the triple threat of an audience, a microphone, and a camera.

Obama has done well in the public art of seeming at ease under the media lights. Supposedly this is because there is nothing to hide. Not only is what you see what you will get, but the whole package will surprise you by proving how much better it is than you thought. That is the importance of Obama's demeanor of relaxation and the ability he has to express himself with the kind of humor reporters tell us will put those around the senator from Illinois at ease. In short, he always seems to be running for office, or for approval, or for the opportunity to have what he says taken seriously. He is a politician who began as a lawyer, both occupations representative of central aspects of our system.

The ability to structure an argument in clear language is just as important for the politician as it is for the lawyer—even so, many are understandably surprised whenever one of our politicians proves to have the talent necessary to write a clear narrative. Obama's ability to write does not make him particularly interesting as a man and a husband and a father—and he should not have to be interesting in this way. Unfortunately, our society has become so cannibalistic toward public figures that its stomach growls loudly if not thrown the red meat of inner secrets of doubt, difficulty, and indecision as well as the triumph over the shortcomings that are not allowed to hold a true leader back.

That seems to me to be the purpose of the books that Barack Obama has written: He wants to provide a paper trail for his followers—and his critics and enemies—that will outlast and perhaps overshadow the ever-present dangers of cameras and how the footage of what one says is edited. In short, when Obama is asked a question that is perhaps too complicated to be answered both quickly and properly, the book will provide a substantial reference. If such a book is successful, it will stand in strong opposition to the offerings of intellectual and political fast food that our media exhibit as brassy substitutes for in-depth examination of any issue at all, no matter how important or potentially threatening. That is why the dehumanizing insult has become the preferred form of slander among those on the conservative and religious right. Ad hominen attack moves almost as fast as a speeding bullet.

To defend himself against such threats, Obama seems to be suggesting that in order to know what he really has to say about this society and the place of its power and persuasion in the world, all one has to do is read The Audacity of Hope. What a reader encounters between its covers is a man who comes off as sincere but not especially deep in what he thinks, yet his thoughts have an aloof coolness that almost always begins to disappear whenever someone on the liberal left self-righteously intones the term "right wing" or a conservative nearly spits out the term "left wing" or "liberal."

Obama gives the impression that he might actually believe that the future of this country, like the weight of its past, rests upon a political willingness to compromise sensibly to achieve functional policy—a policy that could express the interests and the philosophy of more than one party. In that sense, his well articulated criticism of the "winner take all" attitude is important. It is questionable whether or not Obama is correct in referring to an earlier period when the House and the Senate were supposedly filled with men more interested in the substance and range of the policies formed in Washington than they were in constantly trumpeting how much better than the other party theirs might be.

The senator does not seem to understand that in those earlier days, politics so often pivoted on avoiding the ire of elected redneck Southerners who chaired powerful committees and were ruthlessly intent on maintaining the particularized and illegal position of segregation below the Mason-Dixon line. They might have had better manners than the elected officials of today, but they were far from amiable gentlemen.

Obama often seems to have a startlingly simple-minded understanding of other issues. Those include rebuilding the American educational system and addressing the problems of a world that has yet to understand how important it is to quickly get away from petroleum, which continues to spoil the international human nest. When caught between a rock and a hard place, the senator offers well-worded homilies but little more.

All of those perceptions can be improved upon, but perhaps the most essential thing looming before us all is improving the unquestionably important areas of the public and international life—like education, health care, the global economy, and the ecology. These are elements that should be subjected to the logistics wrought by hard facts. Change has to be made profitable in the short run and in the well-planned-out long run.

If Barack Obama gets together the logistics necessary for those kinds of revolutionary changes, he will be more than a well-received poster boy for the Democratic Party. He will have grown into a leader who has the chance to actually open up a new direction that transcends party affiliation and also allows both sides of the aisle to maintain their integrity and to endure the soul-chilling terms of the facts before us all. A tall order, but there have been no important times when short orders did the job.


From: Alan Wolfe
To: Stanley Crouch
Subject: What Does Obama Really Mean by "a Different Kind of Politics"?

Posted Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 6:17 AM ET

Dear Stanley:

I was very curious to hear your thoughts on Obama, both the man and the author. You like him in both capacities, it is clear, but there is something guarded in your appreciation (as there is in mine). I wonder why the two of us remain on guard. Is it because we once believed that politicians really were capable of inspiring Americans in difficult times, as Lincoln or FDR did, only to have purchased a policy of disillusion insurance in more recent years? When the only criterion to become a leading candidate for president is that you have either the last name of Bush or Clinton, it is not hard to be cynical.

Early in his book, Obama calls for "a different kind of politics." As I understand what he is driving at, this has less to do with left and right and more to do with up and down. "That politics will need to reflect our lives as they are actually lived," he writes. "It won't be prepackaged, ready to pull off the shelf." To reach out to all those turned off by politics as it has recently been practiced, politicians ought to start by asking what it means to live a decent life these days and build policies—and ultimately, if need be, ideologies—from that. What they should not do is start with policies driven by ideology, as in the case of George W. Bush's Social Security proposals, and then twist people's lives to fit them.

I wonder if Obama is aware of how much he owes to another thinker who lived a considerable period of his life in Illinois: John Dewey. Once the most famous liberal in America, Dewey has gone into a certain obscurity, in part, due to the fact that liberalism is a dirty word these days and, in part, because Dewey himself, unlike Obama, was a dreadful writer. (The significant exception to Dewey's decline is the work of philosopher Richard Rorty, who insists on Dewey's importance.) But some of the core teachings of Dewey, as well as the other thinkers generally labeled as "pragmatist," remain, and Obama, knowingly or not, is relying on them.

The pragmatists were not particularly pragmatic, at least in the sense we use it today. Pragmatic did not mean a willingness to compromise or to avoid theory in favor of practice. Pragmatism, instead, insisted on the importance of experience. We should be wary of any grand ethical scheme, metaphysics, theology, or epistemology that runs roughshod over life as it actually is lived by real people in real space and time. Pragmatism treated philosophical ambition with skepticism. Make your ideas too grandiose, and it is likely that their eventual effects will be too harmful.

Obama may have caught an emerging zeitgeist that is distrustful of the ambitions once associated with liberalism and increasingly characteristic of conservatism. If so, I give him considerable credit. Ordinarily, liberal periods of ambition in America have been followed by conservative periods of retrenchment. But George W. Bush, rather than retreating from ambition, tried to change the world with his foreign policy and renegotiated a long-standing consensus in his domestic policy. In so doing, he has allowed liberals such as Obama to sound liberal without raising fears that they will somehow cause disruption in their wake. It is not, in short, that Obama offers a message that can unite left-wing Democrats with more centrist ones, although he does. It is that he understands the need to reconnect citizens to government, to remind Americans that what takes place in public life has a serious impact on what takes place in private life.

There are two words of significance in the title of Obama's book. Given the role that fear is playing in the 2006 electoral campaigns, most of the commentary will be devoted to Obama's call for "hope." But I like the term "audacity" better. We need politicians who dare to be different. If you can do that and still be reassuring, all the more power to you.


From: Stanley Crouch
To: Alan Wolfe
Subject: Will Obama's Biracial Heritage Help Him?

Posted Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 5:19 PM ET

Dear Alan,

It seems to me that we are witnessing one of those moments when the American sensibility is undergoing a metamorphosis. For one, Barack Obama appears before us when the traditional shortcoming of not being white has taken some serious lumps. Presently, it appears that what one believes and represents is more important than his or her color, which we cannot judge as a bad thing. So, heroes and loons of any pigment can appear at all points on the political spectrum. Left, right, middle, far left, or far right are no longer color-coded.

Many things have also changed in what the sociologists call "signifiers." In that respect, part of Bill Clinton's accomplishment was that he removed the bane of association with terrorist politics from a Southern accent. Conversely, a big black man like Clarence Thomas can be a champion of the right. Surface skin tone, the sound of an accent, and even the state in which one was born do not have hard and fast meanings any longer—if, in fact, they ever did to the degree that the liberals of the Eastern seaboard would have us believe.

Much of what has changed began to come into plain sight when Strom Thurmond—a senator with one of the reddest necks to ever appear in Washington—took Clarence Thomas' side during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings and kneeled in prayer with the judge and his blond wife, as though color and intermarriage had never been of any importance to him. Thurmond's championing of Thomas symbolized, as well as anything could, that people were being judged by the content of their beliefs and affiliations more than by their color—and much faster than anyone could have predicted!

But the biggest possible change came about when Colin Powell, a Republican who believed in affirmative action, was very close to receiving the nomination for president—a bid that was supposedly scuttled, at least in part, by his paranoid West Indian family members who were afraid that the general would surely be assassinated if he were victorious over Clinton. That potential victory took on real possibility because media mogul Rupert Murdoch was a Powell booster, which meant the general would have had the Fox News Channel behind him and his war chest would have been overstuffed very soon.

If Powell had run, history would almost surely have changed dramatically, and it would have come about within the Republican Party, which had started to become the party of the Christian God when its leadership realized that all of those redneck Bible-thumpers were up for grabs. This came about after Lyndon Johnson pushed the civil-rights legislation through and the Democrats were redefined, among Southerners, as "too liberal." Johnson knew that signing civil-rights legislation was akin to signing the death sentence of his party, but he scrawled away with stoic conviction.

Since Powell's moment, Condoleezza Rice has risen to unexpected heights in the Bush administration and, were she willing, could be the candidate the elephants would come behind, especially if it looked as though Hillary Clinton was going to get the Democratic nomination. What a battle royal that would be!

But now, a new helmet has appeared on the battlefield and Barack Obama is beneath it. He may seem bland and superficial to some, but his rhetoric of unity across political divides has made him attractive and, I would say, his actually not being what he looks like to most of us may help push his popularity along. As he points out in The Audacity of Hope, Obama may look like a black American, but he is actually an African-American—getting to the true meaning of that trendy but woefully misapplied choice of name.

The senator from Illinois is the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother. He is what used to be known as a "half-caste" but is now dubbed "biracial." Given what we think of immigrants and their offspring—that they are more motivated and willing to work harder than the darker skinned who are American-born—this can only help Obama. Especially if those black people are correct when they claim that white America will embrace almost any group from anywhere on the planet before it will embrace domestic black Americans, primarily because all of the negative stereotypes still obtain and the unsettled business following slavery has yet to be resolved.

Obama is quite aware of this and lays out his background in The Audacity of Hope with a detail that he tended to touch on only so lightly when he was running for senator against Allen Keyes, who attempted to make the most of Obama's not being a black American. Keyes, a black American carpetbagger promoted by the Republicans, failed to connect with voters, but the man who is now junior senator from Illinois apparently recognized that he should approach the topic with the kind of specifics that would make it impossible to present him as an opportunist.

So, we are seeing identities redefined or given a greater complexity than the simplest meanings of black and white, which have oppressed us all in terms of understanding how the world actually works. It is perhaps grandly ironic that this kind of precise understanding is beginning to arrive in the United States at the same time that we find ourselves face to face with the nuances of the Muslim world. A recognition, for instance, that being a Muslim means no more than sharing a common book of worship with those whom one might savagely oppose. This is Barack Obama's moment, and it will be highly instructive to see what he and his supporters make of it.


the breakfast table
The Midterm Elections
What if Democrats take control of the House?
By Mark Halperin and John F. Harris
Friday, November 3, 2006, at 11:23 AM ET

From: Mark Halperin
To: John Harris
Subject: What Will Be the Outcome?

Posted Monday, October 30, 2006, at 12:20 PM ET

Dear John,

Given all the e-mails we have sent back and forth over the last few years in writing The Way to Win together and in covering politics for news organizations that poll together, it seems somewhat arbitrary to let the vast Slate reading audience into the mix with one week to go before the election, but so be it.

One week out is when I start to be concerned about how to cover everything at once. I dashed up to Stamford, Conn., over the weekend to watch a rally for embattled Republican incumbent House member Chris Shays, at which John McCain was the featured speaker. That was likely my last trip off of the island of Manhattan before Election Day. Shays is typical, in the sense that he has been a Democratic target all election cycle, but less typical because he is not running that much on issues but on this amorphous sense that he is a man of honor and integrity who will work across the aisle. The Iraq war clearly is weighing heavily on him, and if he loses, I have no doubt he will blame his fate on a war on which he seems to have soured at a rate too slow for his constituents.

In terms of the outcome overall, I'm right where I was last week: The most likely outcome is still that Democrats take the House and barely miss taking the Senate. I'm still torn on a related point: Should I donate $25 to charity every time someone asks me to predict what is going to happen, or eat a piece of unagi?

I'll never understand why so many people want to ask me (and others) to predict the outcome. Granted, in theory, I should have a more informed opinion than most, but the contours of the possible outcomes (Dems take the House narrowly and not the Senate; Dems take the House big and narrowly miss the Senate; Dems take the House big and just take the Senate; Rove Miracle 4.0) are pretty clear, and anyone with Internet access can read most of the same polls and expert analysis I see.

It is a sign of either my having done this for too long or of my cultivation of Yoda-like calm that I am just not that desperately curious about the outcome. If you told me I couldn't see the exit polls until much later than usual (more on that later this week … ), I would be fine with it. Other people we know—not so much.

The networks don't spend anything like they used to on covering elections, but we still have as many resources as anyone else devoted to trying to hold the candidates and campaigns accountable to the public interest. But it isn't easy. Even with all the modern technology out there, tracking new television ads is merely really, really hard while tracking radio ads, church fliers, and those robo-calls that come at the very end is nearly impossible. And once you get a hold of the content, figuring out how to truth-squad the item, and then report it in context, is among the toughest tasks in daily journalism.

What most amazes—and discourages—me right now is that the mood of both the politicians and the electorate seems so angry. Sure, there is a lot to be unhappy about in a country at war, and that has a lot of people feeling like the nation is on the wrong track, but this level of vitriol seems excessive and a bit scary.

I don't really mind negative ads or messages—in part because there is nothing that the press can do about them, in part because they often have useful information in them, and in part because if voters want to be swayed by them, they will get the government they deserve.

What I don't like is false negative messages. Those, I think, are just bad for the electoral process.

So, John, what is the Washington Post doing to make sure it helps voters know which messages in the last week are false (assuming you think that that is a proper postmodern role for the Old Media to play), and if you had your budget doubled, what additional things would you do?

All my best as I head off to finish working on The Note with my other hand.

Your friend and co-author,


From: John Harris
To: Mark Halperin
Subject: Why the Angry Mood Doesn't Worry Me

Updated Monday, October 30, 2006, at 4:40 PM ET

Dear Mark,

I agree that it is arbitrary to make public a week-long fragment of our regular correspondence, most of which will not be open to scholars before 2025. But as long as we are reasonably alert, we should be able to promote our book and stay out of trouble in these days before the election. (I'm way too busy already to read or answer hundreds of flaming e-mails, or to sit through a long interrogation by the ombudsman.) For the most sensitive stuff, we can still use the supersecret Gmail account.

Speaking of staying out of trouble, my early warning system is sounding. You start out with what on the surface seems like a David Gergen/Bill Moyers bromide about the decline of civility and this "level of vitriol," and you implore the free press to be more vigilant about protecting the "electoral process." I have a hunch you are trying to trap me into something more provocative. As during the book, I'm in a quandary. I am protective of you (and of myself), especially since most of the people who attack you and The Note do so with radically misguided assumptions about your actual opinions and professional values. On the other hand, your instinct for inflaming people on both the left and right into paroxysms of (publicity-producing) anger is, I suppose, a bankable asset for us.

In any event, I'll answer your question as if it is on the surface. The "level of vitriol" is hardly new in American history; virtually every generation has seen similar episodes. As you point out, there is plenty going on in national life that is worth getting impassioned about. What I suspect is historically unique is the way that anger and division are now cultivated and marketed for publicity and profit. Polarization is an industry. It includes segments of the media (cable, talk radio, blogs, and an increasingly large number of Old Media dinosaurs), as well as many politicians. This style of politics gives the appearance of debate but is really the opposite. A debate is an argument about competing ideas and common facts. These days there are no common facts—only weapons and shields that partisans use to cast the other side as not just misguided but as morally unacceptable. Now I sound like Gergen (who I like). The reason I'm not all that glum about things is that democracy is self-correcting. We may be seeing the limits of this brand of politics already in 2006.

It is our job as journalists to play referee, and I agree that at times, our efforts to call out falsehoods are pretty feeble compared to the volume. But, no, I will not say what I would do if the Post gave me twice the budget. (I'll send you an answer on the secret Gmail account.)

Your other topics … Election ennui: I know what you mean about the glut of spurious predictions, but believe that you are lying to yourself and readers about your supposed Yoda-like calm. You would kill for the exit polls, I feel sure. Unagi: Why do you like that stuff?

My question concerns our mutual friend Mike Abramowitz and his story in today's Post. Do you feel he is attempting to refute our thesis about Karl Rove in The Way To Win or that he is borrowing liberally without proper attribution?

He had a nice line about Rove and the midterms: "Rove is just eight days from having his genius designation revoked—or upgraded to platinum status."

I'm off to a panel at the Brookings Institution on presidential elections and will be back in the office late morning to answer your e-mails and, if there is time after that, supervise the Post's election coverage.


John Harris

From: Mark Halperin
To: John F. Harris
Subject: Karl Rove: Myth and Man

Posted Monday, October 30, 2006, at 5:55 PM ET


I'm disappointed in your failure to engage on some of my questions, especially your unwillingness to be tricked into telling the world what the Post is doing about acquiring and "truth squadding" questionable (as in "false") campaign material that will reach voters in these final days. I know you joked about it, but the reality is that there is not one news organization in America doing a good enough job on that, and that is too bad.

As for unagi: It is the solid nectar of the lucky.

As for Mike "Bram" Abramowitz's Post piece about Karl Rove, I can say this. Mike and I are childhood friends; Mike has read our book The Way to Win; and Mike is not dumb. So, I think it is pretty clear that he gets our Rove thesis—the emphasis, for those who want to understand the world, should be on "genius" and not "evil" (as in "Rove is an evil genius"). As for whether Mike ripped us off or not, I prefer the word "homage."

Democrats, Republicans, and the Jacob Weisbergs of the world can pick nits all they want with Rove—that Bush isn't the most successful president ever, that Rove can't walk on water, that Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, and that they both have made plenty of political and policy mistakes. All of that is true. The reality is, though, that Bush and Rove, as a team, have never lost to Democrats, and their wins in 2002 and 2004 defied the odds in many ways.

If Democrats win a big victory next Tuesday, it will be interesting to hear Rove's explanation. But for goodness' sake, as Abramowitz was smart enough to demonstrate, people who live in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Manhattan should understand that in much of red America, Rove is beloved and respected, and they should ask themselves why that is.

Go edit the paper.

Warmly I remain,


From: Mark Halperin
To: John F. Harris
Subject: Freak-Show Politics

Updated Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 12:54 PM ET

Dear John,

As dawn breaks over Manhattan, the political clichés flow like some oddly watered-down miso sauce on a piece of black cod headed for Chris Heinz's usual table at Nobu.

My point is: There does not seem to be much political news today, as we wait for the final round of TV spots and for cable news to overreact to a round of polls from Zogby and other practitioners, while frightened Democrats wonder if this is "natural tightening" or something more.

And, as my Nobu reference suggests, my fixation continues to be the "level of vitriol" that you kissed off so blithely yesterday from your 15th-Street Mount Olympus, saying you aren't that "glum about things" because "democracy is self-correcting." "We may," you wrote, doing your best imitation of the Three Davids (Gergen, Broder, and Letterman), "be seeing the limits of this brand of politics already in 2006."

To quote "the One" John (McLaughlin): WRONG!

I hate to personalize things, but thanks to Google News, I know well and again that the brand of freak-show politics we write about in The Way to Win is more than alive and well—it is defining the endgame of the 2006 midterms, just as we knew it would.

As we say often in the book, describing the way things are (rather than the way they ought to be) is not to endorse the status quo. In fact, I have long believed that one of the few possible routes to having a politics that is less angry and polarizing is for everyone involved—including (actually, especially) the Old Media, comprised of the networks, the major papers, and the newsweeklies—to face all the hard truths about how we contribute to the current situation.

The freak show, in which extreme voices are not at the fringes of the American political dialogue, but at its center, and in which the incentives motivating everyone—for power, influence, wealth, and fame—all push toward personal attack and away from discussion and consensus, is the environment in which the control of Congress will be determined and the 2008 presidential campaign fought out.

I'm no Harold Ford or Jim Talent, but I think I have a taste of how much anger people in public life are facing these days. Here's a sample of how I am being portrayed on the Internet, which, contrary to what you might have learned from seeing Avenue Q in Vegas, is NOT for porn, but for the propagation of the freak show. From "Identify the Enemies of the American Revolution in the 21st Century and Annihilate Them," by Tom Heneghan (Oct. 30, 2006):


It can now be reported that major political and media types are now being linked to an expanding spy scandal tied to the MOSSAD riddled Pentagon and the procurement and theft of U.S. Treasury Funds designed for the expenditures of the War In Iraq.

Grand Jury sources have now fingered former Republican Senator James Thompson (R. Tenn. Gay-in-the-closet) along with current Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana (gay-in-the-closet) as major targets of the FBI Justice Dept. inquiry.

Also linked is current Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (wife does not live with him anymore) and Curt Weldon (R. Penn.) now being linked to major 9-11 cover-up aka Stephen Cambone notes.

The aforementioned along with Feinstein and Harmon are also tied to the inquiry. Included now is Mark Halperin (closet gay), an ABC Mickey Mouse reporter. Halperin is a Bush Clinton Crime Syndicate stooge is now being looked at vis a vis his relationship with noted Mega MOSSAD operative Rahm Emanuel (D. Ill.)

Reference: Halperin's father Maurice Halperin, worked for OSS, CIA and was eventually fingered as both a Nazi agent and a Soviet spy. Maurice Halperin helped spy on U.S. Secretary of State Dean Atchison in the Truman Administration. Like father, like son. Halperin's handler is Rahm Emanuel and Halperin has also been linked to the anti-Gore, Matt Drudge, Mark Irwin frame-up team run by former so-called Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. Note: Matt Dredge is also another gay in the closet.

I confess, I'm not sure if this attack is from the right or the left, but it contains, um, several factual errors. But I assure you that, contrary to your colleague E.J. Dionne's column this morning, the left is pretty angry too—and not just at me.

You and David Gergen and other optimists might see something out there that suggests a resurgent sensible center, but I certainly don't see it—not in the twin presidential and vice-presidential interviews on Fox, not in the daily Reid-Pelosi press releases, and not in any corner of anything.

Our friend Todd Purdum, writing in the upcoming Vanity Fair about Karl C. Rove, who certainly has contributed to the freak show in his own way, suggests, as does The Way to Win, that over the long haul, the politics of division has some real problems preserving its political viability. But I'm sure that Rove and Bush haven't changed strategy for the midterms, and I remain skeptical that any politician running for president in 2008 could actually transcend the current forces.

So, beyond asserting it is so, explain why your Beltway establishmentarians are so certain that the middle is emerging, rather than mushy and overwhelmed. Choose from any data you see in 2006—and don't offer me Joe Lieberman or the Republican ads touting centrist credentials, since you know as well as I do that those are meaningless.

Optimistic in the face of all that swirls around me,


From: John Harris
To: Mark Halperin
Subject: I'm Still Not Concerned About "the Level of Vitriol"

Updated Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 4:05 PM ET

Dear Mark,

You do a nice job describing the freak show and its incentives toward extremism, as we outlined the concept in The Way To Win. But I fear you forgot to reread the final chapter, in which we concluded (or so I believed) that the polarizing—or, more charitably, clarifying—brand of politics practiced by Karl Rove and George W. Bush tends not to work well over the long haul.

A political strategy in which 50.1 percent of the county is inflamed on your behalf, but 49.9 percent is inflamed against you, is just too risky. It cannot sustain political setbacks. And it does not reconcile with the reality that a lot of people—at the end of the day, I'd say most people—do not want to approach politics as a nonstop holy war. They want to split the difference and get on with life. Clinton Politics, in which many important differences are blurred rather than clarified, may have less power, but it has more longevity. There is a reason he is known as "the Survivor."

To clarify: The Rove-Bush brand of politics is not synonymous with the freak show. I embrace your point (and now Todd Purdum's) that to see Rove as simply a practitioner of ruthless, negative politics (the "evil genius" thesis) is to miss many of the attributes that make him effective. If I did not believe that, I could hardly have written the book with you. But, as you point out, Rove is especially attuned to freak-show politics and how it can be used to discredit opponents, marginalize the Old Media, and advance conservative objectives. There is, of course, also a liberal freak show specializing in attack politics, but it is not (yet) as powerful.

So, what does all this have to do with 2006? Yes, freak-show politics are vividly in evidence, in lots of races around the country. Yes, there is a high "level of vitriol," as you say. But that does not mean that the freak show is the dominant factor in the election. Nor do I accept your point in earlier letters that the Old Media has fully succumbed to freakishness or abandoned its responsibilities to call out the worst of the extreme behavior.

The essence of a freak-show attack is that it does not really concern legitimate policy or character issues—it is aimed solely at branding an opponent as an unacceptable alternative. Lots of candidates have tried to do this during this election cycle. Has it been especially effective in many cases?

Maybe it has been in the Tennessee race with the notorious RNC "Harold, call me" ad. That was certainly a freak-show attack, aimed at destroying Harold Ford personally. Recent polls suggest that may be helping Bob Corker. (Though I still wonder whether it was as unambiguously racist as many critics believe. Surely anyone who is prone to vote against Ford because he is black already knew of his race and was planning to cast a racist vote before they saw the white Playboy bunny.)

But what about elsewhere? Michael Grunwald in the Washington Post had a good story last week about many of the most flamboyant freak-show attacks around the country. Most of them seemed like desperation tactics by likely losers. Ken Blackwell insinuated that Ted Strickland is in favor of man-boy love or something like that, but Blackwell is going to lose that race for Ohio governor by a mile.

Iraq, and the apparent failure of existing policy there, is the most important near-term issue facing the country. At the same time, it is the dominant factor in the election—never mind page scandals and allegations that a candidate strangled his mistress. So, that seems a pretty good example of democracy in action. I'm sorry if it is too messy from your vantage point at Nobu.

Just to remind you, the opposite of freak-show politics is not mushy, middle-of-the-road politics. It is a politics that deals forthrightly with reality and advances what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called "the search for remedy."

If it is middle-of-the-road politics you yearn for, however, there are plenty of examples this year that are also in the best David Gergen tradition. Look at lots of Western states. My favorite is Colorado, where Democrat Bill Ritter is winning the governor's race handily in a usually Republican state. You said I am not allowed to mention Joe Lieberman's success as an example, but you do not say why not.

As for your own exposures to the freak show, you have my sympathy. That blog entry was indeed quite irresponsible: Your father is not named Maurice, for heaven's sake. Where is the commitment to accuracy? But you know my view of the freak show, because I learned it from you. It should be marginalized. What incentives induced you to not follow your own advice?

One final point: Next time I am in New York, I would like to dine on Italian, not Japanese. Until then, I remain,

Your co-author and friend,


From: Mark Halperin
To: John F. Harris
Subject: The Freak Show Is Alive and Well

Posted Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 11:50 AM ET

Dear John,

Not only have I read the final chapter of our book, but Tuesday, I got plenty of ideas for the updated paperback edition.

The polarizing Bush Politics that we write about in The Way to Win—part of which involves conservatives using their superior clinical skills in the politics of the freak show—were on full display yesterday.

You say all this won't work over the long haul, but it might work for the next week. You also say that "most people do not want to approach politics as a nonstop holy war."

Read the reader comments on Slate about our exchange. Look at the us-versus-them-through-the-looking-glass divide on TV, the Internet, and talk radio, about whether John Kerry was inelegantly joking about the president or about America's troops. If there is some group out there that doesn't want a nonstop holy war, they do not seem to be on the town square jousting against, or alongside, the loudest voices.

In our work, generally, in this exchange and in our book, I think you and I always try to do a number of things at once:

1. Describe things as they are in politics and media, rather than necessarily how they ought to be (where we try to be optimistic, even though what we see around us contains a lot of the grim).

2. Acknowledge those skilled at political war, regardless of party or ideology (so Karl Rove tends to come off better than, say, John Kerry).

3. Be scrupulously fair and conscious of conservative complaints about media bias and liberal complaints about media softness on George W. Bush (a difficult balancing act, that).

4. Recognize that what we are covering impacts the real lives of real people (and make that compatible with 2 and 3 above).

5. Have fun (something that Peggy Noonan has pointed out is largely absent from our politics these days).

6. Take our jobs seriously and hold powerful interests accountable to the public interest (the most important and toughest of them all).

The problem is that in the current freak-show environment, and with greatly reduced news budgets, meeting all of those goals is nearly impossible. If this election is close, and if there are polling-place issues, I shudder to think what will happen.

Let me give you an example. Since Florida 2000, both sides of the divide are deeply mistrustful of the network/Associated Press exit polls. There is a lot of misinformation out there about how and why we do those polls, and I can guarantee you that even if they work perfectly this year, they will cause huge controversy on Election Day, driven almost entirely not by those trying to safeguard the public interest, but by angry partisans looking for every advantage and to indulge every conspiracy theory.

Two elements will compound this problem. First, concerns about the past practice in which leaked exit-poll data have started showing up on the Internet and talk radio by midday Eastern Time, have caused a change. This year, two representatives from each member organization (the five network-news divisions and the AP) will be the only ones with access to the data until 5 p.m. ET. They will be sequestered in a room together until then, pouring over their computer screens but unable to share the information in any way. The rumors and accusations this will cause as the wider polarized forces on either side learn about this fact will be as intense as they are irrational.

Second, there are no exit polls in any of the competitive House races around the country. The consortium members spend a fortune on the exit poll every two years, but not enough to have large enough samples in individual districts. This means there is no ability to use exit-poll data to "project" winners in the races that will be the greatest focus of the evening and no "cross-tab" data to talk about why voters in these competitive districts voted the way they did. I predict that this will also cause a huge furor on both sides.

Add in the now-biannual polarized debate over allegations about how the projections are made and the motivations of the media, and you can see why I am pretty concerned.

You can cite Joe Lieberman all you want, John. But the lingering fight over what John Kerry said (and what he meant to say) and the looming (inevitable) fight over the exit polls, suggest to me that the freak show is alive and well.

So, some questions:

What encouraging lessons can you draw from yesterday's Kerry-McCain-Bush dust-up?

Based on his performance in the last 24 hours, does Sen. McCain seem inclined to deploy the freak show or fight against it?

What did you think John Kerry's chances were to be the Democratic nominee in 2008 two days ago, and what do you think they are now?



From: John Harris
To: Mark Halperin
Subject: How Does the Media Fail in Its Coverage of Politics?

Posted Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 5:38 PM ET

These are chaotic days for political reporters and editors, and you have made them more so for me by your sensible but inflammatorily stated comments on various conservative television and radio platforms. I've been getting tons of e-mails from the liberal side of the spectrum, all quite upset with my famous co-author and wondering if I share his views.

As a general proposition: I do. On specific points of emphasis: not always.

In particular, people get lathered up by the way you describe point No. 3 in the Halperin (and Harris) journalistic canon. You said we should be scrupulously fair and "conscious of conservative complaints about media bias and liberal complaints about media softness on George W. Bush."

What could be wrong with that? My problem with the way you state it is that it tends to give credence to a popular view among ideologues of all stripes that the key to dealing with Old Media is "working the ref." Partisans, disguised as media critics, believe that by howling loudly enough, they can intimidate us into pulling punches. As a practical matter, I should say, I just don't think the "work the ref" strategy works, since in most Old Media newsrooms, we tend to dismiss the howlers as nut cases, even when they might have decent points. Beyond that, I fear that your injunction to be conscious of conservative complaints inadvertently creates the impression that coverage is a negotiation and critics should feel free to come to the table with loudspeaker in hand.

Not to sound like a Boy Scout, but the key for us Old Media dinosaurs is to have discipline and self-confidence in living up to our own standards of responsible journalism and not worry too much about being conscious of who is griping or how loudly. That does not mean we don't listen to complaints, but we do not organize our coverage around them. I am sure we have no disagreement about that, but I fear that the way you state it—whether out of conviction or a sense of mischief—creates a misimpression.

The big journalistic failure of recent years is one also shared by numerous other people and institutions. That was the media's failure—with some prominent exceptions, including several at the Post—to challenge and illuminate the administration's premises for the Iraq war before the invasion. That is not an ideological statement, or even a criticism of the war. It's just a statement of fact. The Post's editor, Len Downie—who is even more scrupulously fair-minded and politically neutral than you are—has acknowledged this publicly.

For what it's worth, I think our failures in campaign and government coverage usually have less to do with ideology and more to do with journalistic conventions. We follow noise, as witnessed by the coverage of the Kerry-Iraq uproar in recent days. (Though please note that this classic freak-show story ran inside the Post today, not on the front page.) And our professional habits and stylebook rules sometimes inhibit us from telling the truth—and from saying that someone is lying—in plain, conversational language. We let it become a matter of controversy whether it is sunny or rainy, when sometimes it's a matter of fact. This is one area of the liberal critique of Old Media that often is pretty compelling.

There have been some complaints in the "comments" section of our exchanges that we have not been responsive to each other's questions. It seems likely that these complaints are valid. I will take pains to answer all three of the questions you posed, posted below in italics.

1. What encouraging lessons can you draw from yesterday's Kerry-McCain-Bush dust-up?

None so far, but let's see how this plays out. It's not at all clear how consequential this will be.

2. Based on his performance in the last 24 hours, does Sen. McCain seem inclined to deploy the freak show or fight against it?

John McCain is in precisely the same situation as Hillary Rodham Clinton. He has previously had his public image hijacked by the freak show. Based on that experience, he has learned how to navigate the freak show and even exploit it to his advantage. Like Hillary Clinton, he has concluded that the role of navigator-exploiter is more enjoyable than the role of victim.

3. What did you think John Kerry's chances were to be the Democratic nominee in 2008 two days ago, and what do you think they are now?

Before: very low. Now: very, very low. But life is full of surprises.

And you are full of provocative ideas, which is why I remain your loyal friend and correspondent.

—John Harris

From: Mark Halperin
To: John Harris
Subject: Help Me Solve Our Political Problems

Posted Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 12:44 PM ET

Dear John,

First, I feel I should do my part to serve Slate's news function by saying that Democrats remain poised to take control of the House (maybe by a lot) and still have to figure out how to win two of three seats in Tennessee, Virginia, and Missouri to take the Senate.

The Senate playing field and dynamics remain pretty stable, although Republicans are still hoping to either save another of their four other endangered incumbents (in Montana, say, or Rhode Island) or flip a Democratic seat (in New Jersey or Maryland). But if control of the Senate is going to be in play, Democrats need to hold those incumbents and beat Republicans in those two GOP-held seats, plus Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The House is more confusing. The field of Democratic targets of opportunity continues to expand, with Republicans being forced to defend more than 50 seats—a number far larger than most people thought possible only a few months ago. These newly competitive seats are in blue places, such as New York, and red places, such as Idaho and Wyoming. Democrats have no more than four seats to defend, and probably just one or two.

As for your inbox and the anger that spews on the radio and the Internet: I think you and I are in intellectual concert on these issues, but I think we part on how big a problem it is.

Do I phrase everything perfectly in all that I write or say? I do not. There might even be parts of The Way To Win in which we did not smooth every edge and express ourselves with crystal-clear precision. What is absurd and troubling about the anger on the right and the left is that these people seize on whatever wisp of a phrase they wish in a wider discussion and twist it to their own purposes.

There are two areas of questions that interest me the most right now, one backward-looking and one forward. First, were people this angry before they had the New Media to express themselves to like-minded souls, or has the technology somehow egged them on? As we point out in the book (and George F. Will quotes in his column this week):

When the current President Bush completes his full second term, it will be the first time since James Madison and James Monroe almost two hundred years ago that back-to-back presidents both served all eight years of two elected terms. Put another way, two of the most divisive figures in this country's history will have commanded the White House for sixteen consecutive years.

And it is not a normal 16 years. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are extraordinarily polarizing figures, but it seems clear that the explosion of new media and the rise of the freak show in which extreme voices are now at the center of our politics and political media have interacted with the governing styles of 42 and 43 to make matters worse. We wrote some of this history in The Way To Win, but I think it really deserves more study.

As the Kerry episode this week demonstrates, the freak show right now benefits Republicans and conservatives more than Democrats and liberals. Going forward, I wonder if any serious candidate for president in 2008 would make an attempt to defuse the freak show and try to drain some of the anger out of our current politics. In the book, we say it is unlikely. I think that even more now than before.

The two major party front-runners—John McCain and Hillary Clinton—have both been heavily burned by the freak show and do not much like it. But they both have shown an obvious determination to use it to their political advantage and seem to think that rallying the base and destroying opponents using the methods that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have perfected is the only way to win in America today. I do not see them or their political advisers trying to figure out how to change the environment—only to master it. Some of the second-tier candidates—most notably John Edwards—appear to be searching for a different way forward, but I can't imagine at this point that that is the more likely path to victory.

You don't sound like a Boy Scout when you talk about how the Old Media dinosaurs can survive with "discipline and self-confidence." Rather, you sound like someone in (sorry) denial about what it will take to address the current economic and ideological environment.

The reason that I am simultaneously on our book tour and my own personal listening tour of the complaints of both the right and the left is that I want to understand the intellectual arguments of both sides about what is wrong with our product and how we can make it better for our customers. The problem I find is that most of their "arguments" are ad hominem attacks. In their world, liking both Karl Rove and Bill Clinton is impossible—it just doesn't compute.

I want a more optimistic and hopeful America. I want America to be on the right track. The freak show is not the answer. Help me solve it.

You raised no questions, but here are some for you:

1. Are you and the Post's other top political journalists working both days this weekend?

2. Do you think the president thinks it is possible that Nancy Pelosi will become speaker?

3. When do the big brains at the Post think we will know who will control the House?



From: John Harris
To: Mark Halperin
Subject: Rove Envy

Updated Friday, November 3, 2006, at 11:23 AM ET

Dear Mark,

First, let's deal with your questions with dispatch:

1. Are you and the Post's other top political journalists working both days this weekend? Yes, of course, I will be working both days over the weekend, as will most people who have anything to do with the election at the Post. I am pretty well in the red in my domestic accounts these days. You have the soul of a romantic: Any ideas how I can get back in good stead after Tuesday?

2. Do you think the president thinks it is possible that Nancy Pelosi will become speaker? I wonder what Bush really thinks about the prospect of Speaker Pelosi. He's not irrational, right? So he knows it's at least a possibility. But he seems not to dwell on the possibility or its implications. It's one of the surprising things about covering any president, but especially this one. There are huge subjects about which we have only a fragmentary understanding, even after years of covering him. What Bush really thinks about his presidency and his present circumstances is one of the biggest mysteries.

3. When do the big brains at the Post think we will know who will control the House? We are guessing we will not 'til very late, though surely the direction will be clear early in the evening. We are not necessarily expecting to be able to call the House and Senate for the print edition of Nov. 8. We are having our mutual friend Mike Abramowitz—a fellow Karl Rove chronicler who has been mentioned previously in our correspondence—come in at 4 a.m. because we want a senior reporter writing the lead campaign story for the Web site that morning.

On to other topics:

It is odd that after writing a book together it still takes Jacob Weisberg's intervention to really illuminate a place where our views are in tension—contradiction is too strong a word. You see the plunge into freak-show values—extremist rhetoric, irrelevant and intellectually dishonest attacks, and all the rest—as a kind of cancer on democracy, a potentially lethal disease. I see it as more of a rash: an irritating condition that will recede in time (and perhaps flare up again on occasion). It is ugly but not fatal. My guess is that the angry blog culture that is attracting so much notice these days—and for which you and I, but especially you, have been such a target—will come to be seen like long sideburns and polyester pants in the 1970s. We will look back and wonder what the hell it was all about. In general, I think these angry sentiments always existed, but now there are more outlets to give vent to them, and more incentives to do so in the harshest terms. In due course, we'll develop a new kind of civic protocol, in which these voices will be more marginalized and the incentives will reverse themselves. Pretty optimistic, I guess, but that's my nature.

On the election, your predictions sound about right to me, with the proviso that everyone's predictions seem like varying degrees of bullshit. Someone will turn out to be right, and my money is on you.

Here's what I wonder if the forecasts about one or both chambers of Congress flipping come to pass. For much of the past six years, many of our Democratic sources have been looking on with envy at the Bush/Rove experiment in governing. They yearned to be able to stop worrying so much about swing voters, and go on the offense with unapologetic, ideologically charged rhetoric. They admired what they perceived as the White House's success in intimidating and marginalizing the Old Media. "We kissed your ass and they kicked it, and look how much better their way works. Next time we'll do it differently. ... "

For a while, this brand of politics and governance did indeed seem to pay dividends. Lately, it seems to have failed, and it turns out the White House has not in the end brought Democrats or the Old Media to heel.

Here's my question: On Nov. 8, will many Democrats still have Rove Envy? To put the question another way, Sidney Blumenthal e-mailed us this morning with his latest column in the Guardian arguing that Rove's strategy is about to be repudiated. His subject line asked us, "Is this wrong?" Your answer to Sidney?

More questions:

1. Why do you bemoan the freak show and go on so many platforms that promote and profit from the freak show? Oh, wait, I just remembered: You go because I encouraged you to swallow your pride and appear on these places. You can scratch this one.

2. Is Jacob Weisberg right or wrong that Republicans are much more to blame for freakish, dishonest behavior in the 2006 campaign?

3. On Tuesday, I argued the story about John Kerry's "botched joke" off the front page and into the inside of the paper on the grounds that it just was not a serious issue and just because cable was going wild with something does not mean that the Post should. On Wednesday, I did not even bother to engage the argument, on the grounds that it had plainly become a big deal in the campaign and it's not our job to edit or sanitize reality. The story today was on the front and the lead of the paper. Do you disagree with my news judgment on either day?


John Harris

From: Mark Halperin
To: John Harris
Subject: What If Democrats Take Control of the House?

Posted Friday, November 3, 2006, at 11:21 AM ET

Dear John,

First and most important: The way you can get back in good stead at home after Tuesday (assuming we aren't dealing with an overtime nightmare) is to buy the kids some new socks and educational DVDs and to tell your wife you love her and you will never cover another national campaign again.

If Democrats take control of the House (or the House and Senate), there is going to be a lot of institutional and human chaos in Washington. I think the three most important ways this would play out is in the relationship between Nancy Pelosi and George Bush; in how House Republicans organize themselves in their leadership elections; and in how John McCain, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards frame the Democrats' victory.

In all of those sub-dramas, we'll see how Democrats and Republicans feel about what you and I call Bush Politics in The Way To Win but a lot of people in Washington think of as Rove Politics. I think that there will be a lot of noise about "bipartisanship." If President Bush strikes a quick deal with Nancy Pelosi based on mutual interests, he can keep the conch. If he doesn't, my guess is that the two parties and the political dialogue will turn to 2008, with both sides exhibiting a lot of Rove Envy—even as many will claim that it was Bush/Rove Politics that led to the 2006 midterm outcome.

As for your questions:

1. Jacob Weisberg is right that Republicans are better at freak-show politics than Democrats are.

2. I agree with your news judgment on the Kerry story on the second day but not the first day.

Now some from me:

1. If Republicans lose control of the House, who will Karl Rove blame? Who will Dennis Hastert blame? Who will Rush Limbaugh blame?

2. Would you please let Tom Edsall know that the New Republic doesn't do exit polls?

3. Who will George Allen blame if he loses? Who will Bob Menendez blame if he loses?

4. If Democrats win the House in a landslide, what will the anecdotal lede in the Post be in the paper's next Rahm Emanuel profile?

5. Any chance you can preview the Post's weekend political coverage here for Slate readers? (As a show of good faith, I'll tell you that on This Week With George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, George has interviews with Vice President Cheney and Howard Dean, and I'll be on the roundtable with George F. Will and Donna Brazile.)

As for next week, I'll miss our daily exchanges, but I have a feeling we'll have plenty to do.



the has-been
Get Your Paws Off, Commies!
China is stealing American-born toddlers, and Republicans want yours to be next.
By Bruce Reed
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 12:21 PM ET

Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006

Buttersticks: The National Zoo in Washington doesn't get as much attention as its sister institution across town. But in recent years, the zoo has done its best to match Congress scandal for scandal: lax oversight, multiple cover-ups, millions of taxpayer dollars squandered, ruinous mismanagement and neglect, a pattern of botched mating attempts with the whole world watching.

Last month, the zoo opened a new Asia Trail designed to showcase its most bankable asset, the giant pandas, in their 40,000-square-foot Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat. The $53-million project is part of an ambitious facelift by the zoo's new director, who wants to build "the world's finest zoo."

When the new trail opened, the Washington Post cooed over the antics of Fujifilm Giant Panda cub Tai Shan, the first surviving panda cub to be born at the zoo, who has been its top attraction since his birth last year. The Post reported that Tai Shan sparked a $1.6-million jump in merchandise sales in the first half of 2006, and the paper's eyewitness reporting showed why: "The cub snuffled through the underbrush as he hunted for a carrot, which he then devoured, licking his lips, as camera shutters whirred. Afterward, he climbed a cork tree and hugged it."

In the very next paragraph, however, the Post dropped a bombshell in what may be Washington's biggest and most ominous scandal yet:

"As part of an agreement with China, which lent Tai Shan's parents to the zoo, the cub is set to be returned to that country this summer after his second birthday."

In other words, this proud nation of ours—once master of its own destiny—is now renting itself out to have a rich totalitarian's babies.

For decades, millions of panda lovers have held their breath through the pandas' unpredictable and star-crossed attempts to mate. Time after time, thousands of schoolchildren wept when a surprised mother panda would give birth to a tiny cub, only to watch it die days later.

Thousands more voted in the zoo's suspiciously undemocratic Internet contest to choose the name Tai Shan ("Peaceful Mountain") from a list of five prescribed alternatives, each sanctioned by the China Wildlife Conservation Association. That list included two virtually identical and unappealing duds—Sheng Hua ("Washington China") and Hua Sheng ("China Washington")—and left out the cub's adorable American nickname, Butterstick ("Little Tub").

The zoo's website didn't bother to tell those young American stooges—most of them taking part in democracy for the first time—that they would all be invited back in 2007 to watch as the U.S. puts the cub on a Swift Boat to China.

According to the Post, "Zoo officials hope that they can breed the parents again this spring and that the roomy new habitat will increase chances for a second cub." The article doesn't say whether China will get to steal that young panda as well, in flagrant violation of its own one-child policy.

Of course, America's youngsters might as well get used to shipping their prized possessions off to China, because thanks to the current administration and Congress, that's what they're likely to spend the rest of their lives doing. In the past month, China's foreign-currency reserves topped $1 trillion, most of it invested in U.S. Treasury bonds to finance the Bush deficits. It's no crowd-pleaser, but the Bush White House and Congress have built their own Asia Trail: the Fujifilm Giant National Debt.

Fiscal disciplinarians have struggled to find a way to capture the nation's imagination about the Bush debt and America's looming indentured servitude to China. At last, we may have our chance. Get ready for this simple and devastating 30-second attack ad, "Butterstick":

"It's bad enough that President Bush looks the other way while illegal immigrants flock to America. Now the White House is letting China steal babies born in America and force them to spend the rest of their lives behind bars on Communist soil. This time, it's a cute and cuddly panda cub. But the way Republicans keep running up debts to China, your cute and cuddly 2-year-old could be next. That's wrong. Little ones made in America ought to stay in America. It's time to tell Republicans in Washington to get their paws off our children. If China wants babies, they can go make their own."

Lou Dobbs has already agreed to do the voiceover. … 12:21 P.M. (link)

Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006

Egg on Your Head: For years, critics have wondered how to deal with what might politely be described as the president's apparent lack of intellectual … curiosity. Back in 1999, Jacob Weisberg warned, "The sharpest tool in the shed he ain't" and prophetically explained why dim bulbs don't make better presidents. In 2001, E.J. Dionne called for "a moratorium on calling the president of the United States stupid," which prompted Chatterbox Tim Noah to counter that whatever Bush's innate intelligence, he is "functionally dumb."

In his introduction to a 2004 collection of Bushisms, Jacob Weisberg returned to this conundrum, concluding that the president's real problem was that he had made a conscious choice to know nothing about policy or history: "As the president says, we misunderestimate him. He was not born stupid. He chose stupidity." Some men are born dim, and others have dimness thrust upon them.

That settled one question—were Bush's wits fair game—but left open another: Was it smart for the president's critics to raise the issue? Jonathan Chait said yes and complained that in 2004, "Democrats had almost nothing to say about Bush's lack of intellect, while Republicans joyfully and repeatedly attacked John Kerry as an egghead."

I disagreed, siding with Dionne and his Post colleague David Von Drehle that Bush was just smart enough to want to be thrown in that brier patch and that Karl Rove would like nothing better than a bunch of intellectuals mocking Bush as not one of them. For my part, I sometimes go entire paragraphs without making fun of the president for governing like such an idiot.

If nothing else, John Kerry's blunder yesterday should put Jonathan Chait's mind at ease that Kerry could have won in 2004 if only he'd done more to question Bush's intelligence. At a time when even many Republicans enjoy a good joke at the president's expense, the senator swung at and missed that big, fat target and accidentally hit the nation's armed forces.

As he made clear in his apology, Kerry never meant to criticize men and women in uniform. Whatever troubles candidate Kerry sometimes had bonding with Main Street, he has always had a palpable, genuine bond with veterans and soldiers. The sole target of John Kerry's scorn was, is, and always will be George W. Bush.

Wednesday morning, Kerry went on Imus to make clear that had he known then what he knows now, he would not have gone forward with that joke. After Kerry pointed out that Bush had botched jokes, too, Imus replied, "O.J. killed his wife, doesn't mean I'm going to." The senator agreed. Tomorrow's headline on the Drudge Report: "Kerry Not Going to Kill Wife."

The underreported problem with Kerry's joke is that it wasn't very good before he botched it. Michael Kinsley famously wrote that a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth. A botched joke is one that wasn't funny.

Kerry aides say the joke as prepared was, "Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush." Note to file: Bushisms—funny. Jokes about being stuck in Iraq—not funny.

But in its own way, the whole overheated flap suggests why Republicans' trusty wedge issues have been firing blanks all year: Americans are in a grumpy mood and won't easily be distracted.

Nobody died when Kerry joked. Nobody laughed, either. In any case, the White House won't get far trying to make 2006 about 2004. Say what you will about George Bush; the American people aren't that stupid. ... 10:58 P.M. (link)

Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2006

More Is Less: In 1994, Republicans took over the Congress with one goal foremost in mind—to turn Americans against government. Twelve years later, they've succeeded, although not the way they intended. A new CNN poll finds that 54 percent of Americans think government tries to do too much, while only 37 percent think government should do more. And to put government in its place, they're going to vote … Democrat.

In years past, that question about the scope of government has been one of the most telling indicators of voter preference. According to the 1996 exit polls, voters who wanted the federal government to do more voted for Bill Clinton by 72 percent to 20 percent. Dole voters wanted the federal government to do less by a margin of 76 percent to 20 percent.

As Ruy Teixeira has written, independents and Perot voters fall somewhere in between. In 1992, 73 percent of Clinton voters wanted government to do more, compared with 36 percent of Bush voters. Perot voters demanded a third way: 72 percent were willing to accept less in services in return for lower taxes, but 50 percent wanted government to do more to solve national problems.

Call it the Wal-Mart Effect. Independents and Perotistas pointed toward the kind of government Americans would get under Clinton: more for less.

Bush's approach has been just the opposite—less for more. The federal government has gotten visibly bigger, with deficits that squandered the surplus and have added more than a trillion dollars to the national debt. A study by Paul Light of the Brookings Institution shows that the number of federal contractors has ballooned by 2.5 million over the past four years, a 50 percent increase. After shrinking by 400,000 under Clinton, the federal work force is growing again as well.

Bush would dearly love to blame the return of big government on Congress, Democrats, and the terrorists. But a big government that costs more and succeeds less is at the core of Bushism. Bush ran a campaign that promised not to cut government and runs a government that doesn't try to solve problems. Where the president has expanded government's reach—from Medicare to the Department of Homeland Security—it hasn't gone well. Where we needed government to succeed—from managing Iraq to responding to Katrina—the Bush administration did a Hack of a job.

So nobody should be surprised that independents—the bargain shoppers of American politics—are breaking overwhelmingly against Bush this year. Back in 1994, Republicans won the Congress by courting independents with the promise to make government a better deal. This year, those same independents are standing in line at the return desk, convinced that Bushism is no bargain.

If Democrats win, we'll inherit the same challenge we faced in 1992: a host of national problems that cry out for action and a government that the electorate doesn't yet trust to fix them. Back then, after 12 years out of power, Democrats tried to make up for lost time by setting out to solve every problem at once. Not until we passed welfare reform four years later did voters start trusting us to do more and do it well.

The first job of a Democratic Congress—and the next president—will be to face up to this paradox. If we want to do more to solve the nation's problems, we need to prove all over again that we can do more for less. ... 2:36 P.M. (link)

Monday, Oct. 30, 2006

The Potato Rebellion: Earlier this month, the NRCC scrambled to make a $375,000 ad buy in Idaho's 1st Congressional District, a contest Democrats in our wildest dreams never expected to win. The results so far: A new Mason-Dixon poll shows it's a dead heat.

State Sen. Bill Sali, whom fellow Republicans describe with two words—"fricking" and "idiot"—has 39 percent; Democratic businessman Larry Grant is at 37 percent. In 2004, the district voted 68 percent for Bush.

The same poll also shows the Republican candidate for governor, retiring Rep. Butch Otter, in a dead heat with Democrat Jerry Brady, who lost by 15 points when he ran for governor in 2002. Otter and Brady are in a statistical tie in a state where one county voted for Bush 9-1.

Otter is the former son-in-law of 97-year-old potato billionaire J.R. Simplot, who made his fortune selling frozen French fries. Two years ago, Simplot gave the state his spectacular hilltop palace overlooking Boise so that Idaho would finally have a governor's mansion. His only condition was that future governors would have to continue flying his enormous 30-by-50-foot American flag, which on windy nights keeps the entire county from sleeping.

In a widely mocked bid to raise private funds to renovate the Simplot home, the state offered naming rights to the governor's mansion. Much to Republicans' chagrin, it looks like naming rights to the statehouse and the First Congressional seat are still up for grabs. ... 1:31 P.M. (link)

Mr. Brightside: Even as Bush's stock plummets, a Washington Post look at Karl Rove's legacy manages to find only one tepid Republican blind quote at Rove's expense. Meanwhile, very smart people like Bill Kristol, Josh Bolten, and Aspen Institute president Walter Issacson vouch for what Bolten calls Rove's "massive brain." At Intrade, however, the futures market is betting 2-1 that the era of Rove genius is over.

In story after story, Rove's message for the midterms comes down to one word—optimism. Isn't that exactly the wrong message to send? Clearly, Rove wants to stave off Republican panic. But hasn't the whole point of Rovism been that fear is a better motivator that hope? On the subject of panic, conservatives might be better off listening to Ronald Reagan: "If not now, when? If not us, who?"

The most revealing line in the Post story is the kicker, which comes from Rove himself: "1938 was a huge wipeout for the Democrats—do you think that was the end of the New Deal?"

In 1938, the party in power lost six Senate seats and 71 House seats—perhaps the worst midterm defeat in history. And in GOP circles, Rove is the optimist!

As conservative historian Andrew Busch points out, the 1938 election brought the New Deal "to a screeching halt":

"Congressional investigations began to embarrass the administration; Congress passed the Hatch Act (limiting political activity by federal employees) and Smith Act (cracking down on internal subversion) over FDR's objections. For his part, Roosevelt offered no major new reform proposals in 1939 for the first time in his presidency."

Busch and others note that the 1938 election emboldened a conservative coalition between Republicans and Southern Democrats that shut down Congress for the next 20 years, until Democrats' midterm sweep in 1958.

Fortunately, "that massive brain of his" enables Rove to take the long view. A 71-seat blowout and two decades in political limbo might darken others' spirits, but to Rove, they're mere bumps in the road to Rushmore. Look on the bright side, conservatives: The 72-Hour Project is only going to take 20 years. ... 10:42 A.M. (link)

Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006

The Recriminator: One reason political parties rarely learn from defeat is that they don't really want to. That's why in politics – unlike other sports – most post-game analysis happens before the game is over. For most partisans, examining the actual results might be too threatening. It's much more comforting to look for excuses and play name-that-goat than to deal with the possibility that Americans might have fundamental problems with your way of thinking.

Both parties have a long history of ignoring inconvenient electoral truths. Democrats learned little from underperforming in 2000 and 2002, and came up short again in 2004. Republican ran a tired campaign in 1992, and replicated it in 1996.

If you're going to misread an election, it's important to start early, before the votes are actually cast. Otherwise you might learn something.

Lately, Republicans have had the recriminations race to themselves. After six straight years of non-stop misery and self-hatred, Democrats' only current complaint is that the election hasn't happened yet. Republicans, by contrast, have been at each other's throats for months. If Election Night goes badly, Republican talking heads won't have to scramble for talking points. A pre-season of pre-criminations has honed them for the internecine battle ahead.

At least three competing theories have emerged as early frontrunners in the Republican blame game. All have the same fall guy: George Bush.

The first and most persuasive school of thought is the Drunken Sailor theory, which John McCain (a Navy man) has been pushing from the outset. According to this theory, the Bush administration's original sin was forgetting that once upon a time, in a Republican Party far, far away, conservatism meant fiscal conservatism. Then Bush and Tom DeLay greased the skids to fiscal ruin with tax cuts and budget earmarks, luring Republicans to spend like drunken sailors and pig out on pork.

The Drunken Sailor theory has the virtue of truth. McCain made the same case against Bush on the campaign trail in 2000 – that big tax cuts would cause deficits and make it hard to strengthen Social Security. Fiscal prohibitionists like McCain (as well as the last surviving Northeastern Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and the last known Ohio Republican, George Voinovich) aren't quite sure what to do about the budget-busting Bush tax cuts. But they think any Republican who still buys the Cheneyist nonsense that "deficits don't matter" deserves a "dunk in the water," which in one form or another is what drunken sailors often get.

A second and much more counterintuitive Republican recrimination is the Squealer theory, named for the spokespig in Animal Farm who talks so persuasively, other animals forget their own firsthand memories of history and accept his version instead. Newt Gingrich is playing that role brilliantly as he lays the groundwork for a presidential campaign. Ten years ago, Gingrich – not Bush – was the vote-losing face that Republican congressmen morphed into in Democratic attack ads. Today, he wants conservatives to remember the mid-90s as the good old days, back before the only ones certain of Republican convictions were federal prosecutors.

Dick Armey offers the same view in a compelling and deliciously judgmental Outlook piece in today's Washington Post. Armey says, "Republican lawmakers forgot the party's principles, became enamored with power and position, and began putting politics over policy." It's a familiar lament of disillusioned revolutionaries: We were doing great till we took office.

Armey and Gingrich are right – the revolution of 1994 was betrayed by the arrogance of power. But by overreaching in the heady days after that election, they wrote the book on how to go too far. The corrupt, spendthrift compassionate conservatism that helped dig the deep hole Republicans are now in was the only way out of the last hole Gingrich and Armey had dug the party. After 1995, Republicans were so desperate to prove they wouldn't shut down the government again, they made it so big they couldn't shut it if they tried.

The third widely held excuse for Republican demise is the Hack-of-a-Job theory: that there's nothing wrong with Bushism that getting rid of the Bushies won't fix. Under this theory, the Bush administration and the Republican congressional leadership are the Hacks that Couldn't Shoot Straight. Donald Rumsfeld botched the war; Michael Brown botched Katrina; Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Tom DeLay, and now Dennis Hastert botched the Congress; and Mark Foley botched the election.

For all those self-evident truths, the Hack-of-a-Job theory is a dangerous delusion for Republicans, because it ducks the unpleasant matter of whether conservative ideas actually work, when for a very long time they haven't.

Mitt Romney will try to endear himself to conservatives with this unreflective message that Republicans' problem is incompetence, not ideology. We had a Massachusetts governor like that once. He lost in a landslide – but on the bright side, he made for great recriminations. ... 11:55 P.M. (link)

Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006

T-Minus 10: With just 10 days and counting until the midterms, there is nothing left to say about this election. Here at the Has-Been, that can only mean one thing: say it more often. From now through Election Night, the entire Has-Been team will be working round the clock to come up with inane commentary, falsified insider intelligence, and preposterous predictions.

Here at Slate, we recognize that you have a choice in how you kill time until the election is over. Over at TimesSelect ($), the New York Times offers a daily feature called "Midterm Madness." At Slate's sister publication, the Washington Post, you can win an American Express gift certificate by making your own predictions in a contest called "Midterm Madness." If you want more Midterm Madness, you can read the book or see the movie.

We're not going to pay you to waste time with us. That's what your employer is for. But in the spirit of the season, we will make you all kinds of promises we can't possibly deliver—including an advance copy of the actual election results, which Diebold was kind enough to share with us last week.

You can help! If you have a tip about what to expect on Nov. 7, send it to, where it will quickly be blown out of all proportion. Just the other day, a young political whiz named Jay sent me one of the best lines of the political season:

"The same week the Mark Foley scandal broke, several Republican congressman called for another investigation into Sandy Berger for pocketing classified documents from the National Archives. This just proves that Republicans are more concerned about the pages in Berger's pockets than about . . . ."

Well, you get the idea. … 11:58 P.M. (link)

Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006

You Bet: Not long ago, Bill Frist rushed to the Senate floor with legislation to curb an Internet practice that "threatens our families by bringing addictive behavior right into our living rooms." No, the Senate majority leader wasn't talking about curbing IMs from drunken sexual predators in Congress. He was pushing through a bill to ban Internet gambling.

Just as Jacob Weisberg anticipated in July, Congress passed and the president signed a law making it a crime to bet online. Frist tucked the measure onto a port-security bill as a late-night rider, hoping it would boost his presidential stock with Christian conservatives. Now Republicans will have to turn to Ralph Reed and Bill Bennett if they want to field a pro-God, pro-gambling ticket.

After Bush signed the bill earlier this month, the online gaming giants shut down their American operations almost overnight. Sportingbet Plc, a British company, took a $391 million loss and sold its U.S. arm for $1.

Other companies are betting the law won't stick. Trade Exchange Network, an Irish firm that runs and, continues to welcome American customers. But here's the real irony: At the same time the Republican Congress is trying to throw them out of the American market, the briskest business at Tradesports and Intrade is taking bets on whether Americans will throw out the Republican Congress.

Political futures markets are nothing new. For years, they've been a staple of the caucuses in Iowa, where presidential candidates are just pork bellies by other means. But in the run-up to this year's midterms, Intrade futures prices are everywhere. RealClearPolitics offers "Live Intrade Quotes" alongside its polling summaries. HuffingtonPost now posts them on the front page in a snazzy, multicolored bar graph.

The HuffPo graphics won't help with Tradesports/Intrade's defense. The headline shouts "Midterm Betting Odds," and the caption adds, "Odds based on people betting real money on the Tradesports website."

Is betting real money on the midterms a form of online gambling? If so, perhaps Congress should ban online campaign contributions as well.

At the moment, the Intrade market is far less bullish (and more Rovish) on Democrats' chances of recapturing the Senate than Slate's "Election Scorecard." In the House, the Intrade over-and-under looks to be about 20 seats—about 10 fewer seats than Kausfiles' favorite, Majority Watch.

With each new set of polls and each won-or-lost news cycle, the Intrade futures market bobs up and down. Yesterday, SUSA and Rasmussen polls sparked a GOP Senate futures rally. The latest race revelations from George Allen's youth should send them back down today.

If you don't feel like betting on politics, Intrade lets you bet on more trivial matters—like survival. So far, nobody's buying futures contracts on a U.S. military strike against North Korea. But trading volume is high for bets that the United States or Israel will launch a military strike against Iran in the next six months. The latest odds: 1 in 10.

Never mind the current Congress—the real value of political futures markets like Intrade is their potential to put someone else out of business: pundits. Intrade's predictions are erratic, unreliable, and meaningless—in other words, a perfect market in the conventional wisdom. Most Washington talking heads are just day traders in political gossip. Thanks to Intrade, you no longer have to listen to all the pontificators, because the market does it for you.

In politics, it's often hard to tell the difference between the conventional wisdom and "the wisdom of crowds." One man's CW is another man's WC. As further proof that the market works, this wisdom is now available for free—which is exactly what it's worth.

When it comes to the future, the present is always the last to know. Back in July, Intrade introduced a futures contract on whether an internet gambling law would be passed. On Sept. 30, the market was betting with 78 percent certainty that it wouldn't happen. The next day, Frist's late-night rider made that same bet worthless.

So before your addictive behavior leads you to bet your living room on Bill Frist's 2008 nomination at the current long-shot odds of 70-1, don't forget that in predicting political events, there's a reason the market is clueless—because we are. ... 1:08 P.M. (link)

Monday, Oct. 23, 2006

Book Him: In a White House melting faster than the polar ice caps, one figure maintains the confidence of the American people: First Lady Laura Bush. Her approval rating is roughly double her husband's. On the campaign trail, Republican incumbents embarrassed to be seen with him routinely welcome her. Most Bush advisers consider themselves lucky not to be fired or indicted, and many are unpopular even within their own party. But according to a recent Harris poll, 83 percent of Americans said Laura Bush was a good influence on the president's decisions.

America is probably right that this administration would do better with more Lauras and fewer Don, Dick, and Karls. But that's a very low standard. And while Laura Bush may be a good person, what little we know suggests that she has also given her husband some very bad advice.

If Mark Foley is the last straw for Republicans' chances next month, the first straw may well have been Harriet Miers. Laura Bush had a hand in pushing the nomination of her fellow SMU alum and infuriated conservatives by implying that they were sexist to question Miers' credentials.

For the right, the Miers nomination was the crash of 2005—the moment when thinking conservatives began to ask themselves, "Had Enough?" But Bush's 2006 strategy has been even worse—and while the trail is sketchy, the circumstantial evidence once again points to Laura Bush.

Going into 2006, many political experts thought the Bush White House's strategic motto would be Reductions in Force—a limited drawdown of troops in Iraq, along with a concerted effort to cut domestic federal spending. The first would allow Bush to claim the United States was turning the corner in Iraq; the second would signal conservatives that after five spendthrift years, the administration was coming home.

We were right that the White House game plan for 2006 was RIF. We just didn't realize it would stand for Reading Is Fundamental.

Instead of spending the sixth year of his presidency globe-trotting to solve the mess in Iraq or poring over options memos on how to address middle-class families' economic concerns, Bush seems to have dedicated every waking, nontreadmill moment to one cause: reading books.

Two months ago, Ken Walsh of U.S. News reported that Bush had already read a staggering 60 books in 2006. Quick reads like Albert Camus's The Stranger and three plays by Shakespeare drew most of the scorn, but plenty of weighty doorstoppers made the list as well.

Admittedly, the list itself is suspect. The same U.S. News article suggesting that Bush was on a two-book-a-week pace marveled that "the commander in chief delved into three volumes in August alone."

But if the list is for real, it's evidence of presidential dereliction of duty and perhaps an outright threat to national security. Two books a week is an uphill battle for a graduate student whose responsibilities don't even include showering. For a president, who lives at work, reading and comprehending two serious books a month takes a Herculean effort.

In the same way his father played speed-golf, Bush seems to have embraced speed-reading. That's Republicans' whole problem this year: too many pages, too little comprehension.

Lest anyone mistake his newfound literary interest as a summer fling, this weekend Bush revealed his latest read: The History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, by British historian Andrew Roberts. Any title with the word "peoples" is a Bushism waiting to happen, and sure enough, the president stumbled over the title, calling it The History of the English-Speaking Peoples From 1990. (CliffsNotes synopsis: up and down.) Asked on ABC's This Week what he had learned from the book, all the president said was, "Sometimes, history gets distorted."

The book won't even be released in the U.S. until next February. That means Bush has read so many books this year, he had to start importing them from other English-speaking countries.

Bush gave another reason why he has to buy books overseas: He refuses to read books (pro or con) about his administration. That doesn't leave much to choose from on Amazon—memoirs by former White House correspondents, manifestos by former White House operatives, prick-and-tells by disgruntled former employees from other professions—and never more than one degree of separation from Bob Woodward.

Bush is right that it's myopic for a president to spend his time reading books about an administration in progress. The only thing a president might learn from an insider account of his own administration is something he should already know—which aides do the most leaking. If Bush were quicker on his feet, he would have put George Stephanopoulos on the spot about whether White House aides should write kiss-and-tell memoirs about an administration in progress, either.

But if Washington books are a particular waste of a president's time, are biographies and baseball books much better? Don't get me wrong—every president should have an active mind, and reading can do much to help a president understand (or temporarily escape) the history he's shaping. But the past year provides conclusive proof that a well-read bad president is no better—and may be worse—than a bad president who uses that time to dedicate himself to governing badly.

At least for the next two weeks, Bush's presidency is still a work in progress, if you can call it that. When the full story behind his speed-reading becomes known, historians can decide whom to blame. In August, U.S. News suggested that far from reading alone, the president was in a reading race with Karl Rove, one Bush brain against another. Without the benefit of an indictment, Rove had fallen 10 books behind.

But I find it hard to believe that a president best known for reading My Pet Goat would set out to read 100 books in one year just to impress the help. He couldn't find the time or the books without the help of his wife, the librarian.

Literacy is a great cause, but Laura Bush has taught us something else as well: You can't judge a president by his library card. ... 5:01 P.M. (link)

Friday, Oct. 20, 2006

Hail Mary: If George Bush wants to make one last-ditch effort to cut Republican losses in November, he should dump Karl Rove and bring on a new strategist: North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il.

Why abandon Karl for his evil twin Kim? Some reasons are obvious. Every good campaign needs a madman. Kim's colorful personal life and successful rehab will give him credibility with embattled Republican incumbents. Helping the RNC develop a credible nuclear threat would give it a powerful weapon to mobilize turnout in tough years like this.

But the real reason to hire Kim Jong-il is that he has stumbled onto what may be the only desperate strategy Bush has left: to say he's sorry. It's so crazy, it just might work.

Yesterday, Kim met with a delegation from China. According to a South Korean newspaper, Kim told the Chinese that "he is sorry about the nuclear test."

Saying you're sorry has become a staple of modern politics. But even in this apologetic age, Kim has set a new standard. Most apologies take years, decades, or sometimes centuries. Kim put North Korea in a position to start World War III and apologized just 10 days later. Doom today, oops tomorrow.

Of course, we don't know whether Kim is actually sorry. For that matter, the report appeared in the South Korean press, so he may never have even told the Chinese he was sorry. It may be some kind of passive-aggressive tic that will lead him to bomb Japan and then tell the world he was only kidding.

Still, President Bush could learn a thing or two from his crazed nemesis. Bush is cruising for a bruising from American voters in November. Conservatives have already begun their circular firing squad, but after Election Day, the only target will be George Bush. Even if Democrats don't take back both houses of Congress, conservatives will still blame Bush for a near-death experience. If Democrats sweep, Mark Foley will be the answer to a trivia question, but all sides will long remember how much they couldn't stand Bush.

The White House's current strategy—indeed, the political strategy of the entire Bush presidency—is the opposite of an apology. They plan to take their lumps and tough it out. Forget "stay the course"—Rove's survival plan is "keep smiling."

The Bush White House believes it must keep a stiff upper lip so the base doesn't lose hope for November. But the base is the one most convinced that the end is near. Elected Republicans openly predict an electoral debacle. Only Bush's inner circle, in the tradition of Katrina, acts like it can't see disaster at its door.

So, the president has a choice: He can eat crow now, or eat it later. While the crow might seem harder to choke down now, if Bush waits until after the election, there may be far more of it to swallow.

To be sure, the one thing harder than getting George Bush to apologize would be deciding where to start. He owes economic conservatives (and the rest of us) an apology for spending too much, social conservatives an apology for conning them into thinking he was one of them, and every American an apology for calling himself a war president when he had no clue how to actually win one.

Bush would do himself and his party the most good by showing genuine reflection, remorse, and openness to a new direction. But if the president isn't ready to apologize for his own mistakes, he could start by apologizing for crimes he didn't commit all by himself. If Kim Jong-il can tell the Chinese, "Sorry about the nuclear test," surely George W. Bush can tell Americans, "Sorry about the 109th Congress."

In a tearful, Checkers-style speech from the Oval Office, Bush could apologize for the earmarks, the indictments, and the Foley scandal, and pledge to make sure they'll never happen again. He could thank Dennis Hastert for his lifetime of service, and accept his resignation as Speaker. The president could then announce that John McCain has agreed to use his floor privileges as a former congressman to step in as caretaker speaker until the whole place is cleaned up.

"Only one in six Americans approves of the job Congress is doing," Bush could say. "Let me assure you: I am not one of those people. In fact, I have spoken to Hill Republicans, and I believe I can speak for every member of the Republican caucus when I say that they don't approve of themselves, either."

Democrats and disgruntled independents might not accept Bush's apology. But conservatives would love it. At Bush campaign rallies, the RNC could hand out thousands of buttons and hand-painted signs that said, "We're Sorry, Too!"

Why would Bush approve this message? Because he knows it works. Bush's entire 2000 campaign was built on that very premise of apologizing for the Republican Congress. He criticized the House for cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit and promised to unite the country after the partisan rancor House Republicans brought on with impeachment. That was the only real difference between Gingrich conservatism and compassionate conservatism: Bush sounded like he was sorry about it.

The great Canadian philosophers, Mike Myers and David Steinberg, once joked that it's hard to ride in a crowded elevator with their countrymen, because every time anyone moves, they all say "sorry." That has never been President Bush's problem. But these days, the Republican slate looks increasingly like an elevator full of hosers in free fall. It's going down fast, and there's no point waiting till it hits bottom. ... 5:07 P.M. (link)

Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2006

The Face That Launched a Thousand Gunships: Not to brag, but over the last decade, my humble home district in Idaho may have elected more genuine extremists per capita than anywhere in America. These days, the national political scene is rife with pretenders like Ann Coulter who make outrageous statements just for effect. But Idaho's own Helen Chenoweth, who died this month, was the real thing—beyond-the-pale before beyond-the-pale was cool.

Chenoweth retired in 2000 after three terms, one of the few members of the 1994 class to keep her promise on term limits. But in her prime, she was without peer. She wondered how the Pacific salmon could be endangered, when she could buy canned salmon in the grocery store. She defended the militia, and insisted on being called "Congressman," because in her view, the white male was the real endangered species. She read French libertarians, not French existentialists. Perhaps most famously, Chenoweth popularized the far right's fear of a vast federal conspiracy of "black helicopter" gunships that were coming to take away our guns, our land, and our survival shelters.

Those are hard shoes to fill. If Ann Coulter ran for Congress in Idaho's 1st District, she'd be canned salmon. Five candidates to Coulter's right would say to her, "You're no Helen Chenoweth."

Chenoweth's successor, Rep. Butch Otter, said at her funeral that since he came to Congress six years ago, other congressmen have tried to convince him that "you'll never be as conservative as Helen, so quit trying." In his eulogy, Otter pledged, "I didn't quit trying, and I'll never quit trying."

Otter may have equaled Chenoweth's lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 95 percent, but he never came close to matching her extremist authenticity. After he led a House revolt against the Patriot Act, he became something of a liberal hero, which was tough to explain back home.

So like Chenoweth before him, Otter decided to leave Congress. He's heavily favored to be elected governor in November. With an open congressional seat, Idaho Republicans have spent 2006 playing a game of "Can You Top Helen?"

This spring, six candidates carved each other up in a bitter GOP primary. The runner-up, an anti-immigration candidate named Robert Vasquez, has already announced that in 2008, he will challenge Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, whose lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is a mere 94 percent.

The winner of the primary, with a commanding 26 percent of the Republican fringe, was a state representative named Bill Sali. Human Events calls him a "swashbuckling conservative." The leading political historian in the state, Randy Stapilus, dubbed Sali "one of the weakest Idaho state legislators in the last couple of decades." That's august company, indeed. Sali once testified that the "brain fade" he suffered after a car wreck hasn't hindered him, because "much of the time in the Legislature, critical-thinking skills are not necessarily needed."

Sali is an embarrassment, all right, but more of the Coulter than Chenoweth variety. Earlier this year, Sali brought the Democratic minority leader, a breast cancer survivor, to tears on the House floor by alleging that abortion could cause breast cancer. The Republican speaker of the House was so angry, he stripped Sali of his committee assignments and started fuming like Idaho's favorite son, Napoleon Dynamite. The speaker said of Sali, "That idiot is just an absolute idiot."

In a normal year, even a freakin' idiot could win the 1st District. Republicans held the seat in both of the last two Democratic midterm landslides, in 1974 and 1982. In 2004, Bush carried it with 68 percent against John Kerry, who considers Idaho a second home.

Republicans may well hold on to the seat again. As Randy Stapilus says, 1st District voters "don't embarrass easily." But a new robopoll last week showed the race still too close to call. The Democratic candidate, Larry Grant, is a centrist and former executive at Micron Technology, the biggest employer in the state. He recently won the endorsement of the influential Spokane Spokesman-Review, a Republican-leaning newspaper that serves the northern half of the district.

Bill Sali could be ultraconservatism's canary in the coal mine. But even if he loses, extremists should take heart. As the late Helen Chenoweth might say, if right-wing nuts were an endangered species, we wouldn't be putting them on the shelf. ... 10:14 A.M. (link)

** Update: Today's Roll Call agrees:

"The latest example of GOP worries about holding onto traditionally staunchly Republican seats was manifested in a new ad buy this week in Idaho's 1st district, where according to a Democratic source, the NRCC just bought three weeks' worth of TV time to defend an open seat that seemed safely in Republican hands."

Not everyone's brains are fading. ... 4:05 P.M.

Friday, Oct. 13, 2006

Family Ties: Any parent can understand why Mark Warner didn't want to leave home before his three daughters. Building a nationwide campaign that takes you to every county in Iowa: $100 million. Never missing your daughters' soccer games: priceless.

Running for president is a wrenching family decision for any politician, but especially for a governor. Senators, by definition, have already chosen to live part of their lives on the road. Some move their families to Washington and spend more weekends than they'd like politicking back in their home state. Some take an apartment in Washington and commute home to see their families from Friday to Monday (when they're not politicking). Only a lucky few, like Tom Carper of Delaware, live close enough to see their children every morning and every night.

Unlike the commuter's life of senators and congressmen, a governor's home life is remarkably normal. Governors work just as hard and campaign just as much, but they live above the store. In most states, the job comes with a mansion—so governors' kids not only still get to see their mom or dad every night, but the state gives them a bigger room and backyard in the bargain. With state helicopters at their disposal, no late votes, and state troopers chauffeuring them at 90 miles per hour, governors can almost always make it home for dinner.

That's one reason most governors wouldn't trade their current jobs for anything, and those who give them up because of term limits or to run for the Senate often wish they could have their old jobs back. When he announced his presidential campaign 15 years ago, Bill Clinton wasn't kidding when he said he was giving up "a life and a job I love." George W. Bush said the same in 2000. In a country suspicious of political ambition, both Clinton and Bush benefited as candidates from the sense that they'd almost rather be governor than be president.

So, John Dickerson is right: Anyone who has spent time around Warner can see why he would rather wave off a presidential bid than say goodbye too soon to his family.

In the first major spin scrum of the 2008 cycle, Warner's decision prompted a mad scramble to declare which other unannounced candidates gained the most from a race without him. Like most preseason handicapping, that's a silly question with no known answer.

The truth is that in the main, every potential candidate stands to lose from Warner's exit. A presidential race is not a cakewalk, where each departure automatically boosts the chances of all the remaining contestants. Nor is it a dinner party with assigned seating, liberals at one table and moderates at another, where one candidate can watch another leave and think, "More wine for me!"

No, the nominating contest is more like a friendly argument—a group effort to answer the same two extraordinarily hard questions: how to get elected president, and what to do for the country. Just as any group discussion suffers from the loss of a voice of reason, the whole Democratic field will miss the smart, sensible voice of Mark Warner.

The most successful presidential candidates, in fact, are those who learn the most from their rivals. In 1992, Bill Clinton gained a great deal from running against smart, sensible primary foes like Paul Tsongas and Bob Kerrey. In the general election, he even benefited from Ross Perot, a nut whose ideas made sense nonetheless.

George W. Bush won the Republican nomination in 2000 by pretending to be a reformer like John McCain and would have been a stronger candidate if he'd actually learned enough to mean it. After the 2004 primaries, John Kerry should have taken Will Saletan's advice to steal John Edwards' message.

At the end of his ill-fated 1988 primary campaign, Al Gore used his concession speech to thank each of his rivals, one by one, for the particular lessons they'd taught him. It was a classy move, only slightly marred by the fact that the field was so large, he forgot to mention one candidate's name and had to learn one last, painful lesson.

As a fiscally responsible governor who understood the importance of questioning orthodoxy, of going after every voter, and of the need to persuade both parties to do what he wanted, Warner had many strengths that would have made the whole Democratic field stronger. In the long run, the candidate who benefits the most from Mark Warner's departure from the race will be the one who best remembers what he would have brought to it. ... 1:02 P.M. (link)

Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006

Can't Lose: Ask paranoid Democrats their innermost fears going into the midterm elections, and you'll hear two answers. First, that the Foley scandal will force another October surprise to come out of the Republicans' closet: Osama Bin Laden. Second, that on Election Night, Diebold electronic voting machines nationwide are secretly programmed to stop counting Democratic votes as soon as Democrats pull within one seat of taking back the House or the Senate.

Attention, conspiracy theorists: The biggest conspiracy to steal votes already happened. It's called redistricting, and it offers Republicans' only real hope of holding onto the House this fall.

Democrats have never quite recovered from the anguish of watching Al Gore win the popular vote in 2000, only to lose the presidency in the Electoral College. Since 2004, many Democrats have become convinced that rigged voting machines in Ohio cheated John Kerry out of his chance to lose the popular vote and still win the Electoral College.

But you don't need a tinfoil hat to see how much redistricting could cheat an unsuspecting electorate this fall. In every national poll, Democrats now lead the congressional vote by a ridiculously large margin: Newsweek has it at +12 points (51-39), Washington Post/ABC at +13 (54-41), the New York Times at +14 (49-35), CNN at +21 (58-37), and USA Today/Gallup at an unimaginable +23 (59-36)—twice the lead Republicans had before the 1994 sweep.

The election is still four weeks off, and these generic ballot questions are of little value in actual races. Three weeks ago, the same USA Today/Gallup poll had Democrats and Republicans in a dead heat, at 48-48. Mark Foley and Bob Woodward didn't cost Republicans 23 points in one month; more likely, Gallup just happened to interrupt the dinners of a different mix of people.

Even so, the Election Scorecard average of those five polls, all conducted at the end of last week, gives Democrats a whopping 17-point advantage. In a presidential election, a 17-point win would produce a 500+ electoral vote landslide. In 1994, Republicans took back the House by winning the popular vote by seven points—51.5 percent to 44.7 percent—and picked up 54 seats.

Yet even after poring over this week's bleak poll numbers, Karl Rove isn't completely crazy to imagine his party holding onto the House in November. Democrats aren't likely to win the popular vote by seven points, let alone 17. But what's really keeping Rove's dark hopes alive is the Safehouse that Jack and Tom Built—the firewall of safe districts that could enable the Republican party to survive what would otherwise be a China-syndrome political meltdown.

If congressional districts were truly representative, a party that won a seven-point victory in the popular vote would walk away with a 7 percent edge in the 435-member House of Representatives, or roughly a 30-seat majority. For Democrats, that would represent a pickup of around 45 seats.

In a Category 5 political tsunami, anything is possible. But a cold-eyed look at the districts in play shows the tough slog Democrats have, even in a banner year, just to get to a simple House majority.

The RealClearPolitics rankings of the Top 40 House races show how steep the terrain has become. By RCP's count, in order to pick up 10 seats, Democrats will have to carry five districts that Bush won by 14 points or more in 2004, including three that Bush carried by more than 20 points. For a 30-seat gain, Democrats will have to carry 12 districts that Bush won by 10 points or more. Only one of those 30 districts gave a 10-point margin to John Kerry.

That's no reason to discount Democrats' chances of taking back the House in November. In each of the top 30-40 races, it's quite possible to see how the Democrat can win. But Democrats need to remember about the House what we learned the hard way about the Electoral College—even with a popular majority, we still have to run the table.

Tom DeLay traded his career for a mug shot in order to build the Republican majority's most formidable levee, the gerrymander of Texas's 32-seat delegation. In 2005, two big states—California (with 53 seats, more than the 20 smallest states put together) and Ohio (with 18, a number remarkably close to the incumbent Republican governor's approval rating)—trounced fair-redistricting initiatives that would have put more House seats in play.

California Democrats opposed redistricting in order to punish Schwarzenegger. As a result, House Republicans could well survive the worst political year in a generation without losing a single seat in the largest state (and one of the bluest). And because he got pounded at the polls, Schwarzenegger turned himself back into a centrist who's now riding the wave instead of drowning in the tsunami.

Rigged districts defeat the very reason we have a House of Representatives in the first place. The founders wanted one chamber that would be held accountable to the popular will every two years. When the Electoral College is wrong, at least it's a wrong the framers intended.

Thanks to DeLay, conservatives who now want their party to surrender Congress in November may find that they can't lose for trying. The irony is profoundly tragic: A Republican Congress that owed its existence to the term-limits movement went on to build the most absurd system of incumbent protection since the Great Wall of China.

If the GOP somehow holds on next month, voters will have every right to suspect the election was stolen. But it won't do any good to blame machines, when a conspiracy of incumbents did all the stealing. ... 1:54 P.M. (link)

today's blogs
Don't Blame Rummy
By Christopher Beam
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 6:36 PM ET

Bloggers debate Rep. John Boehner's take on the Iraq war, tussle over a heckler's rough treatment by Sen. George Allen's staffers, and look forward to long, inebriated lives.

Don't blame Rummy: In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, House Majority Leader John Boehner said he doesn't blame the failures in Iraq on Donald Rumsfeld: "The fact is the generals on the ground are in charge and he works closely with them and the president." Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid demanded Boehner apologize for "blaming our troops for failures in Iraq." Bloggers trade barbs over what exactly Boehner meant.

Liberal Steve Benen at The Carpetbagger Report calls Boehner's message "unmistakeable": "Boehner was talking about blame, Blitzer suggested Rumsfeld, but Boehner fingered 'the generals on the ground.' In other words, as far as Boehner is concerned, Rumsfeld isn't accountable, those in uniform are."

Conservative bloggers wonder if Democrats are just getting revenge for John Kerry's woes. Brian at IowaVoice points out Boehner's assertion that terrorists could be an attempt to influence the coming midterm elections: "Pretty darn clear that he's not blaming Rumsfeld OR the generals OR the troops, he blames the terrorists. But you see, Reid and most of the Democrats like to take things out of context and selectively quote people on the right (as they did with Rush) to make things look bad for them." Fellow righty PrivatePigg at Public Figures Beware calls Howard Dean a hypocrite for defending Kerry's remarks, then demanding an apology from Boehner: "You've GOT to be kidding me! Kerry made a 'blooper' and Boehner insulted the troops??? … Dean made these two statements on back to back days."

Bob at John Kerry For President 2008 distinguishes Boehner's comment from Kerry's: "[Boehner's] wasn't a botched joke. This was a slur. About the Generals leading the Army and the soldiers who are bravely serving. John Kerry never intended to say what he said."

Boehner's spokesman said Democrats are "quickly squandering any and all credibility by even attempting to equate Mr. Boehner's comments with criticism of anyone in the military." Tim Grieve at Salon's War Room feigns sympathy: "He's got a point there: You can't really 'equate' Boehner's comments with 'criticism of anyone in the military' because they are criticism of people in the military."

Read more on Boehner's comments.

Stark raving, mad: Supporters of Sen. George Allen roughed up Virginia law student and blogger Mike Stark at a recent campaign event after Stark asked the senator about allegations involving his ex-wife. Allen refused to denounce his handlers' behavior and blamed the campaign of his opponent, Jim Webb, for provoking the incident. CNN has the video. Bloggers on the left and right take Stark's scuffle to cyberspace.

Liberal blogger DownWithTyranny objects to the Washington Post's coverage of the incident: "When he was set upon by paid George Allen thugs and savagely beaten, the Post head-lined it as Allen Supporters Wrestle Heckler To Ground. The paid Allen thugs are 'supporters.' The blogger in the media area is a 'heckler' and the savage beating is a little wrestling?"

Ed Morrissey at conservative Captain's Quarters provides photos that suggest Stark got rowdy first: "The staffers afterwards closed ranks around Allen to keep Stark from committing violence against the Senator, and when he continued to push and shove, they physically removed him from the scene."

As Allen's staffers pulled him away, Stark shouted back, asking if Allen spit on his first wife. James Joyner at Outside the Beltway thinks Stark "got exactly what he wanted: National attention to a scurrilous charge previously limited to the nuttier lefty blogs along with footage of Allen supporters acting like goons." Steven Taylor at PoliBlog is surprised that Allen's staffers got so rough with Stark: "It is remarkable on a number of levels that anyone associated with the Allen campaign would act like that with cameras present." See Stark's blog, Calling All Wingnuts, where he promised on Monday "to 'Roger and Me' George Allen whenever I can."

"What was this guy thinking?" writes Republican blogger UnKnown at Pimp Smack the World. "You can't just rush up on a US Senator ranting and raving like a wacko. This guy could have had a gun or a bomb in his backpack. If anything Allen's staff showed restraint."

Read more about the Allen scuffle.

Three wined mice: A study has found that mice on high-calorie diets live significantly longer when given doses of resveratrol, a natural substance found in red wine. Bloggers wonder if the fountain of youth comes bottled.

Tim F. at John Cole's Balloon Juice imagines a future in which resveratrol is part of daily life: "The preventative aspects alone could force a major realignment in healthcare priorities – if you were an insurance company, wouldn't you want your clients taking the stuff?"

Mental Floss urges readers not to get too eager too fast: "[T]he safety of high-level doses of Reservatrol in humans is unknown, and the amount you get from a glass of red wine is only about 0.3% of that given to the lab mice. So just cool it for awhile, big boy; send back that cheeseburger and finish your veggies."

Read more about red wine and mice.

today's blogs
Party of Six Rerun
By Michael Weiss
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 2:56 PM ET

Bloggers cast a wary eye on North Korea's decision to return to six-party nuclear talks. They also weigh the waifish benefits of the calorie-restriction diet, while online Singaporeans attack and defend an 18-year-old girl with a blog and a big mouth.

In the wake of its alarming nuclear-bomb test last month, North Korea agreed Tuesday to return to six-party disarmament talks, perhaps to buy more time to expand the very arsenal in question. But bloggers think regional players China and Japan will have more to do with how events unfold.

Party of six rerun: At The Hill's Congress Blog, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell writes of the regalvanized diplomacy: "The President was right to call for additional, tough measures at the United Nations, and the first results are clear. His decision to have the response to this threat be a multinational response was the right one."

Jeff, at his foreign-policy blog Kinshasa on the Potomac, argues that rather than "thank" China for its muscular response to the atomic test last month, the United States should acknowledge that the Communist power is the main actor in this whole geopolitical cycle: "China has an interest in seeing US power in Asia broken and their own ascendancy as a Great Power secured as rapidly as possible. … [T]he Chinese leadership would be willing to take a serious political gamble - and one that would almost certainly have mixed results - in order to achieve the goal of breaking US power."

Viaggiatore at the China Analyst highlights the potential cooling of China's relationship with its southern neighbor: "China has beefed up its border of late, especially around Dandong. The border town is the busiest crossing between the tentative allies." Viaggiatore also notes that China supplies North Korea with 90 percent of its oil, but none was shipped at all for the month of September.

What about Japan, which imposed a ban on all imports from North Korea on Oct. 14 and has threatened to overcome its pacifist disposition and produce nukes in response to Pyongyang's aggression? Bill Belew at Japan-focused blog Rising Sun of Nihon opines, "The DPRK will only feel the pain of no business with Japan if other countries follow Japan's lead rather than pick up the slack that Japan has left. … Economic sanctions, in theory, should have an impact on a country. But, from where I sit, it just means life is tougher for the average folk, and business as usual for the idiots in charge."

Read more about North Korea's tilt toward diplomacy.

Only the fed die young: The hot new thing in dieting is calorie restriction, where you more or less starve your cells into longevity. New York magazine made CRD its cover story last week, and the New York Times' piece on the wan regimen is currently "Most E-Mailed." Reaction in cyberspace to the diet is mixed.

Clinical lab scientist Dennis Mangan responds to a calorie-restriction naysayer at his site, Mangan's Miscellany: "The idea that longevity is desirable and that some people want to pursue their chances of a longer and healthier life through lifestyle changes drives some other people crazy, though it's hard to see why. Some people make lifestyle choices wholly at odds with health and longevity, such as overeating and smoking, and personally I think it a rational choice to choose to say, smoke cigarettes, if one deems that choice to enhance one's pleasure in life and one is aware of and willing to accept the consequences."

Sephora beauty editor Laura Kenney at Beauty and the Blog is of two minds: "Aside from direct genetic manipulation, calorie restriction is the only strategy known to extend life consistently in a variety of animal species. It's really intriguing, but is it worth it? Would I give up cupcakes in favor of a few more years and a few less wrinkles? I'm not so sure...I really love cupcakes."

But Karen DeCoster at libertarian site violently condemns calorie restriction as an unhealthy longevity dodge that only leads to the "Auschwitz look": "A restricted calorie diet eats up gobs of human muscle, reduces metabolism, kills energy, destroys hair and skin and nails, numbs brain function, and depletes necessary nutrition to dangerously low levels. Only these pro-starvation crackpots would possibly claim that people on these nutbag diets can still get adequate vitamins, minerals, and overall nutrition. They claim that breaking down your body is, in essence, really 'building it up' for the long run."

Read more on CRD. Slate's William Saletan wrote about CRD here.

Trackback backlash: Wee Shu Min is the 18-year-old undergraduate daughter of a Singapore MP and a college student. She had a blog up until last week, when she posted a snarky—and, according to some, class-arrogant—post in response to fellow blogger Derek Wee's fears about Singapore's struggling labor market. She called Wee one of her country's "wretched, undermotivated, overassuming leeches" and declared, "If uncertainty of success offends you so much, you will certainly be poor and miserable." This has become the "let them eat cake" of the South Asian blogosphere.

"Political correspondent wannabe" The Kway Teow Man doesn't defend Wee Shu Min, but calls for a sense of proportion given all the fury surrounding her remarks: "18-year-olds spout nonsense all the time. Why only non-MPs' children can spout nonsense and MPs' children cannot meh?"

Not so fast, replies Singapore Media Watch, which sees Wee's blithe blogging as a metaphor for everything that's wrong with Singapore and its current government: "Mr Derek Wee's predicament is one that many Singaporeans can relate to and empathize with. The influx of foreign labor, both skilled and unskilled, in an increasingly competitive global economy has led to many middle-aged Singaporeans fearing and fighting for their rice bowls."

Read more about Wee Shu Min.

today's blogs
Military Intelligence
By Christopher Beam
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 6:10 PM ET

Bloggers get heated over Sen. John Kerry's remarks about the military. They also theorize about a recent madrasah bombing in Pakistan and laugh at Fox's premature announcement of Studio 60's demise.

Military intelligence: During a speech endorsing California gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides at Pasadena City College yesterday, Sen. John Kerry encouraged students to work hard in school lest they "get stuck in Iraq." White House press secretary Tony Snow called Kerry's remarks "an absolute insult," and Sen. John McCain said the former presidential candidate "owes an apology" to U.S. troops. Conservative bloggers go to town.

Neddy at the conservative Kerfuffles translates Kerry's comments thusly: "Because you were lazy and dumb in school, you are now in Iraq. Oh, by the way, 'thank you for your service' and 'we support the troops.' Vote for us at the polls so we can bring you home."

Conservative Jonah Goldberg at National Review's The Corner thinks Kerry is simply out of touch with today's military: "Kerry's just a Vietnam-era fossil who thinks the old nostrums about the draft and the underprivileged still apply. … He's hardly alone in perpetuating the Vietnam paradigm, but he seems uniquely gifted at souning like a moron when he does."

Conservative Blue Crab Boulevard thinks many Democrats share Kerry's "contempt for the military": "They continually refer to the people in the military as 'children'. They routinely paint them as having joined the military out of financial desperation, lack of education or a lack of ambition." BCB also thinks that the Democrats may have just lost their political heave in the upcoming midterm elections. Ed Morissey at Captain's Quarters is eager for Dems to weigh in: "If Democrats that have had John Kerry campaign on their behalf refuse to address Kerry's remarks or openly supports their characterization, it will expose the hypocrisy and the contempt that the Left has for the military. All of the talk of 'supporting the troops' will be revealed as lip service." But AllahPundit at the conservative HotAir doesn't find it insulting so much as misguided: "And, of course, completely politically tone-deaf, which makes it vintage JFK. As usual, you can kind of tell what he's trying to say but it's so artless you just end up shaking your head."

Liberal Steve Soto at The Left Coaster scolds Sen. McCain for having "his lips firmly affixed to Bush's butt": "McCain can't bring himself to truly support the troops by demanding a change in course in Iraq and a new defense secretary. Such a move would require integrity and guts, two things that won't get in the way of McCain's all-consuming drive for the White House in 2008."

Kerry released a statement and angrily chastised conservatives in a press conference for spinning his "botched joke." Gun Toting Liberal applauds Kerry for coming out "both guns a-blazing": "[T]his may just be the first time I have ever listened to the Senator elitist from Massachusetts and felt a compelling interest to lean forward and listen to what the man had to say."

Conservative Blackfive, among others, points to a Boston Globe story on Kerry's own "lackluster" academic record.

Read more about Kerry's comments. During the 2004 presidential election, Slate chronicled Kerryisms.

Pakistan bombing: A Pakistani madrasah was destroyed early Monday in an attack that killed 80 students. Initial reports suggested Pakistani helicopters bombed the school, but ABC News reported U.S. drones were targeting al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Both the U.S. and Pakistani militaries have denied American involvement. Some bloggers recoil, while others call it a job well done.

Dayfdd at conservative Big Lizards doubts the students were innocent: "The whole point of this kind of madrassa is to teach students how to be proper terrorist jihadis. It's like saying that the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis isn't full of Naval personnel... just students!"

"Here we go again," conservative blog The Reality Show sighs. "Islamists terrorists use civilian areas, local population sympathetic to militants … local population gets hurt in the anti terror offensive and blames ONLY the non Muslim force. Sounds familiar?"

Steven D at liberal Booman Tribune notes that none of the reports mention whether al-Zawahiri was killed: "I don't know if the intel was wrong, or simply unconfirmed, but the decision to kill 80 people on the hope that you might get Zawahiri on the eve of the election seems rather risky and represents a rather callous disregard for human life."

Read more on the attack in Pakistan.

Sorkin deep-sixed?: A columnist fueled rumors this weekend that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin's NBC drama about a sketch-comedy show, would soon be canceled. An NBC spokesman denied it, saying that the company has in fact ordered three more episodes.

Richard Pulfer at movie blog Screenhead isn't shocked that Fox got it wrong: "Use common sense: it is Fox. No, I'm not bashing the network, but common sense does dictate that Fox is the competitor of NBC, and thus probably not the best source to be reporting on this matter."

At Entertainment Weekly's PopWatch, Whitney Pastorek calls the network's request for new episodes "more of a peace offering/contractual obligation to Aaron Sorkin than a vote of confidence, given the god-awful ratings and continued barrage of criticism."

Read more about Studio 60's not-quite demise.

today's blogs
By Sonia Smith
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 3:37 PM ET

Bloggers are ruminating over a new economics-based analysis of climate change, disturbed by the Mexican military's actions in Oaxaca, and mourning the possible demise of the pink-flamingo lawn ornament.

Climatic: In a new report about impending global climate change, British economist Nicholas Stern issued a warning befitting his last name about the steep costs of ignoring global warming: $9.6 trillion or a depression rivaling the great one. On the bright side, if the world addresses climate change seriously, the global economy could see a $2.5-trillion gain in the coming years. "We know now urgent action will prevent catastrophe, and investment in preventing it now will pay us back many times," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

Former editor-in-chief of the Economist Bill Emmott, blogging at the Guardian's comment is free, believes that climate change is a reality that we now must address: "[T]he scientific case that warming is occurring, that human actions are a principle cause, and that warming could produce damaging outcomes is so strong that complete denial of it now relies on either lunacy or the same sort of spurious claim to certainty of which deniers accuse greens. … Where fair debate can and should occur is over how much needs to be done about it, and when and by whom."

Glen at environmentalist Climate Ark applauds the report for its accuracy: "This is not alarmist doomsdayism - it is the best policy predictions based upon the current science. … The report is the best policy document to date regarding likely apocalyptic social and economic outcomes of doing nothing to address the global ecological crises of which climate change is part and paramount."

At Energy Outlook, Virginia-based energy consultant Geoffrey Styles is heartened by this novel take on climate change: "The key contribution here is something we've lacked for some time: a serious cost estimate grounded in the science of climate change but focused on the economy and the consequences of the status quo and various levels of response."

But others see the findings as merely another way to inflate the government. At Right is Right, Rumsfeld the Brit is unamused by the prospect of new taxes, the details of which the report roughly outlines. "The cretins in Westminster and on the TV news seem unable to understand that even if the whole of Britain completely gave up the car, and stopped producing carbon emissions, it would make absolutely bugger-all difference to global warming. Britain's overall global emissions are miniscule," he writes. Brit Philip Chaston, Samizdata's UK Affairs expert, is similarly irked: "These taxes are politically unpalatable and would be rejected by the electorate, if levied without green cover. Therefore, climate change and catastrophism are the reasons for a 'greener than thou' ratchet effect, where politicians use Britain and our money to puff themselves up as a moral example for others."

Conservative Virginian Jerry Fuhrman at From On High is upset about the report from across the pond: "The chief economist of Great Britain has become a soothsayer. He's predicting massive floods and drought (at the same time) and is calling for ... drumroll ... a boatload of new taxes."

Read more about the British report on climate change.

Oaxaca in crisis: Draped in riot gear and backed by water cannons, Mexican federal forces on Sunday dispersed a group of protesters. The members of a yearly teachers' protest had been encamped in the center of Oaxaca since May and were clamoring for an end to the corruption plaguing their state.

Remembering a Oaxacan protest she once observed, Beth Whitman, writing at her Seattle Post-Intelligencer Travel Blog, voices solidarity with the protestors: "This is about Oaxaca and an amazingly strong group of people who are fighting for what they believe in." At Elena's Adventures, the traveling blog's namesake files a dispatch from the chaotic city: "Oaxaca is burning: buses, tires, encampments." But she cautions that the end may not be near: "We may be starting all over again. … Keep your fingers crossed for the people of Oaxaca."

TourPro of normally mountain-inclined Adriondack Base Camp has set up a special section of his site to monitor the goings-on in Oaxaca. "I always fondly remember the first day of school. You know, having your mommy walk you past the burnt debris, finding half burned Molotov cocktails along the way, unwelding the school gate, saying hi to federal forces, etc." An American English teacher living in Oaxaca, Mark in Mexico, has been liveblogging the events.

Read more about the trouble in Oaxaca.

Flamingo no-go : The pink flamingo lawn ornament, that 49-year-old triumph of kitsch, may be going extinct. The Massachusetts-based Union Products Inc., the only manufacturer of these suburban icons (eyesores?), will cease production on Nov. 1.

While no bloggers seem able to conjure up real tears, they do their best to sound maudlin. Houstonian Jeff Balke mourns America's loss: "This is a travesty. It's a sham, a mockery. It's a traveshamockery!!! We must save the pink flamingo or we must die trying."

Washingtonian Jeff at Quid Nomen Illius waxes poetic about the "flamingo wars" of his youth: "We looked up, and up, and up, and there it stood, high above the peaks of our very steep roof: a beacon of pink perched proudly, impossibly, upon our chimney, where everyone on the highway could see it," he writes. "All the flamingos have passed from this earth, gone to yard sales, every one. But some future day, when I drive down that highway, I may have to stop and catch up with Jack's kids. We're all good adults who can break bread in peace, so we'll each raise a glass to the flamingos of our fathers."

Read more about the demise of the pink flamingo.

today's papers
How To Build an Atomic Bomb
By Daniel Politi
Friday, November 3, 2006, at 5:43 AM ET

The New York Times leads with word from weapons experts that documents posted on a Web site created by the federal government included a basic guide on how to build an atom bomb. The documents were part of a project to make public the 48,000 boxes of documents apprehended during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Washington Post leads with the final advertising push by Democrats and Republicans, who sent out more than 600 new television ads before network deadlines for the weekend. This will push the total spending on advertising past the $2 billion mark, which is $400 million more than what was spent in the 2004 presidential race.

USA Today leads with some daunting news for political junkies, as analysts warn that the use of provisional ballots could delay results for tight races by days or even weeks. The Wall Street Journal tops its worldwide newsbox with President Bush campaigning in places traditionally thought as safe Republican strongholds. The paper reports Nielsen figures revealing TV ads are up 31 percent compared with 2002. The Los Angeles Times leads with officials charging a 36-year-old auto mechanic with setting the fires in Southern California that killed five firefighters. The suspect pleaded not guilty.

The Web site was created at the behest of Republicans in Congress who said intelligence agencies never properly analyzed all the documents. The idea was to put the documents in cyberspace so people could analyze them and try to find answers about Saddam Hussein's prewar activities. But recently, the site posted approximately a dozen documents with charts, graphs, and instructions on building an atom bomb that go beyond what is publicly available. Apparently, officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed their concerns to the U.S. government last week, but it took an inquiry from the NYT to get the site closed down last night.

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, President Bush kicked off his final six-day, 10-state, campaign swing that will take him to some of the country's most conservative areas. Yesterday, the president visited Montana, where he tried to rally his base by warning them Democrats would block his judicial nominations, raise taxes, make the country less safe, and give up on Iraq. According to Slate's Election Scorecard, Montana has now joined Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia as one of the "tossup states" that will determine who controls the Senate.

Contrary to previous midterm elections, the president's final campaign blitz will not be very ambitious, and he will only travel to carefully chosen places where his party won big in 2004 and Republicans believe his presence could make a difference (Slate's John Dickerson will be taking a look at these speeches in the coming days to see "what we can learn about the messages the GOP thinks will move their people out the door on Election Day").

Amid all the talk of negative campaigns this year, USAT goes inside with a dispatch from Vermont, where the race for the state's only seat on the U.S. House of Representatives is quite friendly.

A few days after the WSJ reminded its readers to take ID with them on Election Day, the WP says the new identification laws in a dozen states has some Democrats worried it could adversely affect their party's candidates and play a critical role in determining the winners.

The WSJ goes inside with a dispatch from Oregon to try to examine what happens when the minimum wage is increased, which would be one of the top priorities for Democrats if they win control of Congress. Oregon increased the minimum wage in 2002 despite concerns it would cause businesses to leave the state and increase unemployment. Four year laters, none of these fears materialized.

The NYT fronts word of a provision tucked inside a military authorization bill that orders the termination of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Now lawmakers from both parties are saying they did not realize the provision was slipped in and want to reverse the decision.

Everyone mentions that the U.S. military announced the soldier who was kidnapped in Baghdad last week is still alive, and there are currently talks in place to try and obtain his release. A U.S. military spokesman confirmed the kidnapped soldier is 41-year-old reservist Ahmed Qusai al-Taayie, who is married to an Iraqi woman.

The LAT goes inside with news that five U.S. troops died in Iraq yesterday.

Violence continued in the Gaza Strip yesterday, where Israeli troops fought against Palestinian militants for a second day. At least 12 militants, five Palestinain civilians, and one Israeli soldier have died in the operation, which was intended to stop Palestinian rocket attacks. But so far, it has not gone as planned, as at least 17 rockets have been fired into Israel in the last two days.

The Wall Street Journal mentions in the top spot of its worldwide newsbox news that the president of the National Association of Evangelicals resigned yesterday after a male escort said the influential Christian leader paid him for sex. The escort said in interviews he had a three-year sexual relationship with the Rev. Ted Haggard, who denied the allegations.

The WP fronts an investigation into two nonprofits that paid for expensive trips for 12 members of Congress and 31 staffers. It seems they were both fronts for foreign lobby groups.

Everybody fronts or reefers the results of a new study claiming that the world could run out of seafood by 2048 if current trends continue. Fourteen researchers from several countries spent four years analyzing data and concluded that overfishing, coupled with other environmental factors, would cause a "global collapse" of all the currently fished species. Sushi lovers shouldn't panic just yet, as the authors say the trend can be reversed.

The NYT reports a federal judge in Virginia upheld an earlier ruling ordering the paper to disclose the identities of three sources used by columnist Nicholas D. Kristof in a series of pieces about the anthrax mailings of 2001.

today's papers
Successful Squeeze
By Daniel Politi
Thursday, November 2, 2006, at 6:06 AM ET

The Los Angeles Times leads with a look at how the Bush administration's three-year effort to prevent North Korea from having access to the world financial system seems to have paid off. The New York Times leads with the results of their latest (and final one before Tuesday's election) poll that once again shows bad news for Republicans. Fifty-two percent of registered voters said they would elect Democrats and 33 percent Republicans. One day after the Washington Post seemed to take the high-road and buried Kerry's "botched joke" story (a fact the WP's national political editor proudly pointed out in Slate), today, it decides to lead with the former presidential candidate's apology. The Wall Street Journal tops its worldwide newsbox with President Bush vowing to keep Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld until the end of his term and, along with other Republicans, continued to criticize Kerry. USA Today leads with news that the bonuses paid to the country's airport screeners did not reduce the high turnover rate, as the Transportation Security Administration had originally hoped.

U.S. officials have frequently said North Korea uses foreign accounts to launder money, which is why it has worked hard to get banks to freeze its assets and prevent financial institutions around the world from doing business with the country. The strategy seems to have worked, at least somewhat, because discussing these restrictions was the only request put forward by the North Koreans to get back to the negotiating table. But, as the NYT reports, not everyone in the Bush administration is happy with the decision to get back to talking, feeling that nuclear tests should be met with isolation, not conversation.

Only 29 percent of Americans approve of the way President Bush is handling the war in Iraq, which was cited as the most important issue in the upcoming elections. In addition, 69 percent of respondents said George W. Bush has not developed a clear plan for dealing with Iraq, and 76 percent say a Democratic Congress is more likely to bring U.S. troops back home sooner. Fifty percent of independents said they plan to vote for a Democratic candidate, while 23 percent for Republicans. Despite Republican efforts to paint Democrats as weak on national security issues, slightly more Americans seem to believe the threat of terrorism would increase under Republican rule.

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Sen. John Kerry issued two apologies yesterday for his remarks and criticized Republicans for focusing on his statements rather than on the issues. Several Democrats tried to distance themselves from the senator, and, seemingly to avoid problems, Kerry canceled his campaign trips.

The LAT fronts a look at how Kerry is not alone, as "foot-in-mouth syndrome has become the bane of candidates coast to coast."

The WSJ mentions how a Democratic Party victory on Tuesday is going to force party members to come up with a unified foreign-policy plan, which would be critical for 2008.

The NYT reefers word that Rep. Nancy Pelosi has become the "unwitting star" of several Republican ads that are trying to use the possibility of Pelosi as speaker to get conservatives to the polls on Tuesday. The problem is, most voters simply don't seem to know who Pelosi is or what she stands for (a point Slate's Bruce Reed made in a forum at the George Washington University last week).

The Post fronts a look at how the wide-ranging congressional scandals could be one of the main causes for the likely Republican downfall in the House of Representatives. "There were scandals throughout the '70s, multiple scandals, but the number of stories now are almost overwhelming," a congressional historian tells the paper.

The NYT reefers a dispatch from the campaign to replace disgraced congressman Mark Foley, where everyone thought Democrats were slated for an easy victory. Republicans have put nearly $2 million into the race, and the efforts seem to be working, as some have declared the race too close to call.

USAT notes the fallout from the Abramoff scandal has led to Indian tribes cutting back on their political contributions this election cycle.

The WSJ fronts a look at leadership political-action committees that are meant to pass on money to congressional candidates who need the cash. But the paper says both Republicans and Democrats are increasingly using money from their leadership PACs for expenses that have nothing to do with funding candidates. "My impression is that a lot of people use leadership PACs as a slush fund," Rep. Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican, tells the paper.

The NYT reefers word from Iraq, where local leaders are continuing to try to assert their independence from Americans, even if it is for mostly symbolic results. Iraqi leaders announced they have written up a set of changes to a United Nations agreement that would give the local government more control over its armed forces.

The U.S. military announced two more deaths in October, which increased last month's death toll to 105. The first U.S. casualty in November was also announced. The Post cites figures from Iraq's Interior Ministry and says 1,289 Iraqi civilians died as a result of political violence in October, which is an increase of 18 percent from September. The paper is quick to point out that many civilian deaths in Iraq are never reported.

USAT fronts a look at how many combat veterans are being dismissed from the Marines when they express classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (such as drug abuse and alcoholism) and are then denied medical benefits to treat their illness. The Marine Corps says it is investigating the issue and so far has identified 1,019 Marines who may fall in this category.

The WP off-leads and everyone else mentions news that CVS Corp. has agreed to purchase pharmacy-benefit manager Caremark Rx Inc. in a deal worth more than $20 billion (all the papers have slightly different figures). The companies said the merger, which still has to be approved by shareholders and regulators, could lead to unprecedented power to negotiate lower drug prices. Wall Street seemed to have its doubts on the merger, as shares of both companies fell yesterday.

The LAT fronts the death of novelist William Styron, whose books included Sophie's Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. He was 81 years old.

Three drunk mice … The WP and NYT front a piece on research results that seem to show that a substance called resveratrol, which is found in red wine, prevented mice from suffering the negative effects of a high-calorie diet. It's still a little early to determine whether this would have the same effect on humans. In order to get the same proportion of the substance as was given to the mice, humans would have to drink anywhere from 750 to 1,500 bottles of red wine a day.

Worst lede of the day … For some reason, the NYT found it necessary to begin its mice story with not one, but two clichés: "Can you have your cake and eat it? Is there a free lunch after all, red wine included?" Can you say hackneyed?

today's papers
2004 Flashback
By Daniel Politi
Wednesday, November 1, 2006, at 5:59 AM ET

The New York Times leads with the Iraqi prime minister ordering the U.S. military to lift its blockade on Sadr City, which is seen as an attempt by Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to assert his independence from the American forces. U.S. troops seemed to have been caught off-guard by the demands but later went ahead and lifted the checkpoints. The Washington Post leads with news from Chinese and U.S. officials in Beijing that North Korea agreed to return to the six-nation nuclear-disarmament talks.

The Los Angeles Times leads with a wrap-up of the day on the campaign trail, where polls show control of the Senate is still up for grabs and the 2004 presidential candidates exchanged bitter words. In addition, a student and liberal blogger who approached Sen. George Allen with confrontational questions was shoved, put in a headlock, and pushed against a wall by three of the senator's supporters. USA Today leads with the thousands of lawyers and volunteers who will act as election monitors on Tuesday to make sure there are no problems at the polls. The Justice Department will send 800 observers around the country, a record for a midterm election.

The Wall Street Journal tops its worldwide newsbox with a new in-house poll that reveals President Bush has a higher approval rating for his handling of the economy but little else going for him. While in June, 39 percent approved of the president's handling of the economy, the latest poll puts that figure at 46 percent. Iraq continues to be the most important issue, and 52 percent of voters want Democrats to take control of Congress while 37 percent want the Republicans. Meanwhile ,54 percent of voters believe removing Saddam Hussein from power wasn't worth the cost.

Iraqi citizens went out into the streets of Baghdad to celebrate the removal of the checkpoints, which were set up, at least in part, to aid troops in the search of the kidnapped American soldier. The Post is alone in pointing out the blockade also was set up to search for Abu Deraa, who is thought to be a prominent death squad leader. The WP also mentions Mahdi Army members, who answer to Moqtada al-Sadr, were present in the streets of Sadr City on Tuesday morning to ensure citizens respected a strike the Shiite cleric and his followers had announced to protest the blockade.

Word of North Korea's willingness to negotiate comes three weeks after it conducted nuclear tests. Washington officials said it was willing to discuss lifting financial restrictions on North Korea, but emphasized no conditions had been set in order for the talks to resume. Everyone points out this might just be a ploy for North Korea to delay sanctions, and it is unclear whether any talks will be successful. North Korea walked away from talks in October of last year. Everyone sees this as a victory for the Chinese government. The WP's editorial page joins the dots and raises the possibility that the Chinese government may have put pressure on North Korea by not delivering oil in September.

President Bush criticized Sen. John Kerry for a speech in which he told students to study hard because, "If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq." Bush and some prominent Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, said Kerry insulted the intelligence of U.S. troops and he should apologize. Kerry responded by saying his comment amounted to a "botched joke" that was meant to criticize President Bush's intellect and said the criticism over his speech was a "shameful effort to distract from a botched war."

The NYT points out the back-and-forth made Republicans talk about the Iraq war again, a subject most of the party's candidates are trying to avoid. Besides the war in general, many Republican candidates are trying to steer clear of President Bush, says the Post on Page One. "The politican who has done more than anyone else over the past decade to build and expand the Republican Party has become a liability to Republicans in many parts of the country," writes Dan Balz.

W. Michael Stark, whom the WP characterizes as "Democratic activist", tried to ask Sen. George Allen whether he had ever spit on his first wife, before a group of Allen's supporters shoved him away, all in front of television cameras. Stark is now demanding Sen. Allen "fire the staffers who beat up a constituent attempting to use his constitutional right to petition his government." Charlottesville police confirmed to the WP that Stark reported the event, and they are trying to determine the identities of those involved so he can try and obtain a warrant.

The LAT fronts news that the October death toll in Iraq for American troops increased to at least 103. Military officials say the number of attacks sustained against American and Iraqi forces reached exceptional levels in October. At least 43 of the U.S. military deaths were in Baghdad.

The NYT got a hold of a slide shown at a classified briefing by the United States Central Command that graphically illustrates the increasing lawlessness in Iraq and the reasons behind these developments. The revealing slide has a color-coded bar chart with "peace" on one side and "chaos" on the other. The chart shows how Iraq has been moving closer to the "chaos" mark since the February attack on the Shiite mosque in Samarra.

The LAT goes inside with word from intelligence agencies that they have created a system that allows analysts to share information on sensitive issues. They dub the system Intellipedia because it is built on the open-source software used by Wikipedia. The system is, of course, classified.

All the papers front or reefer NASA's announcement that it will send a space shuttle to service the Hubble Space Telescope as early as May 2008. Two years ago, NASA said servicing the telescope was too dangerous, which caused an outcry from scientists and the general public. Now NASA said the risks are worthwhile if it means the telescope can be saved. The papers seem to agree, as both USAT and the NYT publish editorials celebrating NASA's decision.

The papers note the death of P.W. Botha, South Africa's head of state from 1978 to 1989, who tried to maintain apartheid rule and never quite accepted its end. After apartheid fell, the "great crocodile" refused to appear before the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He was 90 years old.

A fine line … A correction in today's NYT: "An article yesterday about races for state legislative seats across the country referred incorrectly to the coming State House elections in New Jersey. Not only is a shift in power in New Jersey's legislature 'unlikely,' it is impossible because the state elects its legislators in odd-numbered years."

today's papers
Violent Wave
By Daniel Politi
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 6:01 AM ET

The New York Times leads with the wave of violence that engulfed Baghdad yesterday and killed 46 Iraqis. The U.S. military also announced three more American deaths, raising the October death toll to 102. The Los Angeles Times leads with what it says is a "growing number of American military officers" who have begun to "privately" question the wisdom of not setting a hard deadline for troop reduction in Iraq.

The Washington Post leads, and the Wall Street Journal tops its worldwide newsbox, with President Bush stating at a campaign rally in Texas that if Democrats win on Nov. 7 and are able to impose their policies on Iraq, "the terrorists win and America loses." The speech is seen as a broad effort by Republicans to raise the stakes so that conservatives will be encouraged to get out to the polls. Vice President Cheney said he thinks insurgents in Iraq are timing their attacks to affect the outcome of the U.S. elections. USA Today leads with word from the federal government that it wants to require all nursing homes to have sprinkler systems. Approximately 3,500 older homes are currently exempt from sprinkler requirements. These latest efforts seem to, at least in part, stem from an investigation by the paper last year that revealed the extent of the problem.

On the same day National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley arrived in Baghdad, 33 day laborers were killed by a blast in Sadr City. U.S. and Iraqi forces had the city cordoned off, as they continue their search for the kidnapped U.S. soldier, which led to some Shiite leaders blaming the U.S. forces for allowing the bomb to go through. Total Iraqi deaths reported yesterday totaled 81, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Although the Bush administration and its supporters have always said setting specific deadlines in Iraq would only embolden the insurgents, some officers and traditional supporters of the president are now expressing disagreement with the policy. Many are having a change of heart because they are disappointed with the pace of progress and say the Iraqi government won't begin to make changes unless it feels specific pressure.

The WP spent some time with U.S. troops in charge of training the Iraqi police and tries to explain why some believe it may take "decades" before local forces are able to take on responsibility for the country's security. The head of the police-transition team of a U.S. military battalion tells the paper 70 percent of the Iraqi police force has been infiltrated by militias. Although U.S. soldiers say they frequently gather evidence of militia ties from within the police ranks, Iraqi officials don't take action on this information and no one has been fired.

While national attention is mostly focused on the Congressional contests, the NYT fronts a look at statehouse races, where Democrats could have a chance of winning back control of state capitols for the first time in a decade. This would bring more women, which is significant because local posts often serve as starting points for national politicians. A Democratic victory could also have a big impact when congressional districts are redrawn after the 2010 census.

The Post reefers word of two leadership fights that are bubbling up within the Democratic Party, which could have lasting effects on party unity before the midterm elections are even decided. These fights stem from the question of who would take the positions of majority leader and majority whip. The only post that now seems to have no disagreement within the party is that a Democratic victory would mean California's Nancy Pelosi will become speaker.

The WSJ mentions Republicans claim early voting is largely going their way, which is a demonstration of their superiority at getting voter turnout. Democrats, on the other hand, contend Republicans are exaggerating their early successes. Regardless, experts agree this type of voting is increasing and predict anywhere from 19 percent to 25 percent of the electorate will either vote early at the polls or through absentee ballots. In the 2002 midterm election, the figure was closer to 14 percent.

Everybody mentions a report released by the British government warning that failure to prevent global climate change could cause great damage to the global economy. Effects, including, but not limited to, droughts, famine, and flooding, could all bear a huge toll on the world's gross domestic product. "The consequences for our planet are literally disastrous," Prime Minister Tony Blair said. Some critics say the report overestimated the potential cost of climate change.

USAT fronts news that the federal government's abstinence message will no longer be directed exclusively to kids and teenagers. Revised guidelines show the government also wants to reach adults up to age 29 who are unmarried. The government insists it's just a clarification, but critics contend it's an intrusion into the private lives of adults, not to mention completely pointless.

Everybody points out the Pakistani military launched an airstrike against a religious school, killing close to 80 people. Pakistani officials said the facility was used as a terrorist training camp and denied involvement of U.S. or NATO troops. The Post is alone in reporting the attack was the result of U.S. intelligence reports that declared the school was used as a hiding place for senior al-Qaeda figures. The NYT fronts a four-column picture of the mass funeral. Early morning wire reports say thousands gathered close to the site on Tuesday to protest the airstrike.

Today's must-read comes from the LAT, which fronts the final heart-wrenching installment of its three-part series chronicling a gay couple's efforts to become parents through a "gestational surrogacy arrangement." Times correspondent Kevin Sack spent two years following the ups and downs of Chad and David Craig's saga and shines a light into the high financial and emotional toll faced by gay couples who want to start a family and choose not to adopt.

On Halloween, the LAT fronts a look at a group of people in the Philippines who have to live every day surrounded by ghosts. There are approximately 50,000 people who live among the tombstones in the North Manila Cemetery, known as Norte, which is the country's largest public burial ground. "The dead don't scare me so much," said a Norte resident. "It's the living I'm afraid of."

Mirror, mirror on the wall … The Post fronts, the LAT reefers, and the NYT goes inside with, news from researchers who claim elephants have a degree of self-awareness that before had only been definitively shown in humans and apes. Researchers put a mirror inside the habitat of elephants at the Bronx Zoo, and the animals proceeded to examine parts of their body. More impressively still, one of the elephants passed what is known as the mark test. Researchers painted a white X on the elephant's cheek and it then proceeded to look in the mirror and repeatedly touch the mark (video is available here). This is quite impressive because it requires the elephant to, in some way, understand that the mark is on its body and not on the mirror.

today's papers
Missing Arms
By Daniel Politi
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 6:07 AM ET

The New York Times leads with a new federal report that reveals the U.S. military has not kept proper track of hundreds of thousands of weapons intended for Iraqi security forces. In addition, the American military has failed to provide spare parts and even manuals for most of the weapons given to Iraqis. The WSJ includes news of the report in the top spot of its worldwide newsbox, which is an Iraq roundup, and also mentions the renewed violence in the country, which killed 23 policemen. USA Today leads with a new review by the Army's casualty notification office that indicates seven families were misinformed about how their relatives died.

The Los Angeles Times leads with the campaign spending by unregulated groups, known as 527s and 501(c)s, which so far has amounted to almost $300 million. Although this spending does not come close to the $600 million that was pumped into the 2004 campaign, these groups are responsible for many of the ads filling the airwaves in the last days before the Nov. 7 election. The Washington Post goes across the top of its Page One with news that the governing body of Gallaudet University, the nation's premiere school for the deaf, gave in to months of protests and said Jane K. Fernandes would not take over as the university's president next year. After learning of the decision, protesters in Gallaudet's campus celebrated and burned an effigy of Fernandes.

The report, released by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, revealed the U.S. military never even recorded the serial numbers of almost half a million weapons it gave to the Iraqis. This means tracking the weapons has now become nearly impossible and raises the possibility the arms could have ended up in the hands of insurgents. Inconsistencies in the number of weapons purchased and those in Iraqi warehouses show that more than 13,000 weapons are, essentially, missing.

In its review of 810 deaths, which accounts for approximately 40 percent of those who died in Afghanistan and Iraq, Army officials discovered that in five of the seven cases, including former pro-football player Pat Tillman, families were not told friendly fire was to blame for the soldier's death. The Army is now looking into all deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq to make sure there are no other mistakes. As part of the effort, the Army is also attempting to improve the way it notifies families of deaths. USAT takes a look at some of these efforts, which includes a new $800,000 video and more training for notification officers.

The NYT says on its front page that funds for research into energy technologies are falling, from both the government and the private sector. This decreases the possibility of finding viable alternatives to coal and oil. In the United States, federal spending for all types of energy research and development is less than half of what it was 25 years ago. In comparison, a revealing graphic accompanying the story shows how medical and military research has increased throughout the years.

Today's NYT and WP both front stories that are similar to ones first published by the LAT, with slightly different angles. Yesterday, the LAT led with Karl Rove's role in the last days of the campaign cycle,and mentioned the way he uses government resources to give GOP candidates a boost. Today, the WP also takes a look at the involvement of the White House political mastermind before Nov. 7 and gives it a more inside-Washington twist. The Post mentions these midterm elections could redefine Rove's influence and that he continues to be optimistic while some worry he might have some tricks up his sleeve. For its part, the NYT fronts a look at how many of the Democrats running for the House have conservative views that are more commonly associated with Republicans. Last Thursday, the LAT had a similar story on Page One, but today, the NYT focuses more on the tensions that could rise within the Democratic Party as a result of these candidates if they do win control of the House.

USAT goes inside with the story of Saba Al-Bor, an Iraqi town that illustrates the difficulties U.S. forces have in handing over power to Iraqi police. On Sept. 20, U.S. officials transferred control of the town to Iraqis and left. They had to come back 15 days later, after the town had descended into chaos, death squads roamed the town, and the majority of the town's Iraqi police and residents had fled.

The WSJ fronts a look at how Paul Wolfowitz is increasing the World Bank's presence in Iraq. This is seen in contrast to usual Bank policy of staying away from countries in conflict. The move by Wolfowitz, who was U.S. deputy defense secretary and is now heading the bank, is raising criticism from some who believe he is using the multilateral institution to carry out Bush administration policy.

The NYT reefers word that the missing American soldier in Iraq was secretly married to an Iraqi woman, whom he was visiting when he was kidnapped last week. None of this is confirmed, but the Times talked to some Iraqis who claim they are the soldier's in-laws. If true, it would mean the soldier broke military rules, which prohibits active personnel from marrying local civilians. So far, the U.S. military hasn't even released the man's name, but search squads have shown his picture to local residents. No one in his alleged bride's family knew he was an American soldier until after he was kidnapped.

The LAT fronts, and everyone else mentions, that federal police in Mexico used tear gas and water cannons to fight off demonstrators who had held Oaxaca's central square for five months. The protest began as a teacher's strike, but soon other groups joined and it escalated. President Vicente Fox ordered the raid after one American journalist and two Mexicans were killed on Friday. Although the police was able to take control of the square with much less violence than was expected, there were reports of a 15-year-old boy being killed, some claim as a result of a tear gas canister, and some say he was shot.

The NYT fronts a look at how Muslim Americans have become reluctant to donate to Islamic causes and charities out of fear that it could bring unwanted attention from the U.S. government.

Everyone mentions Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva won a landslide reelection victory yesterday.

The NYT publishes an op-ed piece co-written by Vaclav Havel, former Prime Minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, urging the world to pay attention to North Korea's humanitarian crisis. The authors say the attention Kim Jong-il has gathered as a result of his nuclear tests should be used to shine a light on the way thousands of North Koreans suffer from malnutrition and human rights abuses. "It is clear that North Korea is actively committing crimes against humanity—against its own people," the authors argue.

today's papers
First Enron, Now End Run?
By M.J. Smith
Sunday, October 29, 2006, at 5:48 AM ET

The New York Times leads with corporations and Bush administration officials lining up for an easing of some business regulations put in place post-Enron. The Washington Post has a poll on Maryland's gubernatorial and Senate races in its lead spot, but strips a piece across the top questioning whether Iraq has reached a "tipping point" this month. The Los Angeles Times takes a look at boy-genius Karl Rove marshaling federal resources as part of his super-duper plan to save Republicans in the upcoming elections for its top nonlocal story.

Certain details of the NYT's lead have been previously reported, but the story illustrates just how much steam efforts to lighten corporations' regulatory burdens have gained. Industry groups with close ties to the Bush administration have been working on proposals that would be put forward soon after the November elections. Why so soon after the elections?* Because, the Times says, it's "as far away as possible from the 2008 elections." The proposals may also, where possible, come in the form of rule changes instead of legislation to avoid that messy lawmaking process that has served our country so poorly.

The Sarbanes-Oxley law put in place after Enron's collapse is among the targets. Corporate-types have long argued that some of the requirements are too burdensome and costly. Treasury Secretary (and former Goldman Sachs chairman) Henry Paulson recently criticized aspects of Sarbanes-Oxley as well, saying they're too restrictive.

Another proposal would "emphasize" that prosecutors charge only individuals instead of corporations or accounting firms as a whole. The paper cites the case of Arthur Andersen, which shut down after being charged. Some warn such actions do too much harm to competition in the marketplace.

The story has the usual he said-she said, with several experts pointing out that scaling back regulations would be a mistake. But what it lacks is a good analysis of Sarbanes-Oxley's effect on business and the economy. While it may be tempting to toss this all off as the Bush administration seeking to help out buddies in the business world, there's a lot more at stake here.

The Post's Iraq front pager, while a solid story otherwise, unfortunately asks whether a "tipping point" has been reached. The writers were apparently unaware that a tipping point was reached long ago on use of the phrase tipping point.

The paper focuses on two events. From a political standpoint, it highlights comments from Republican Sen. John Warner saying things don't look good. The WP notes that this freed other Republicans to begin breaking with the administration on Iraq.

Militarily, the Post says, "the key moment was the realization by top commanders in mid-October that sending 12,000 U.S. troops back into Baghdad did not have the calming effect that had been hoped for."

The best Iraq piece of the day, however, comes from the Post's Anthony Shadid. He visits Baghdad again after covering mayhem elsewhere and offers his own take on whether, in fact, Iraq is engaged in civil war: "Civil war was perhaps too easy a term, a little too tidy."

With elections around the corner, the papers are stuffed with politics. The LAT's front breaks down Karl Rove's "11th hour plan to win." He has sought to, when possible, channel federal dollars into districts where Republican incumbents could use some help—and then see to it that the incumbent gets credit. That's not entirely new, but the story details how Rove has sought to inject politics into policy in a brazen way. He or members of his staff have met with Cabinet agency officials and dropped not-so-subtle hints—including using PowerPoint presentations—about races in battleground states, the paper says.

The NYT's Alessandra Stanley offers her critique of the season's political ads, focusing on the trend of injecting humor into TV spots. She notes the influence of Jon Stewart and YouTube and highlights a few examples, including one mock anti-Ned Lamont ad that accuses him of being a bad coffee maker and having a messy desk.

By the way, the NYT endorsed Lamont today over Joe Lieberman, as it did in the Democratic primary.

Apart from politics, the NYT fronts a bleak feature on child labor in Africa, explaining how kids in the central and western regions of the continent are sold to fishermen and farmers to work. The story describes how some are beaten regularly and the long, grueling hours they work. Several children are interviewed, including one as young as 6, and their tales are heartbreaking. A photo of the 6-year-old bailing water out of a fishing boat—his job—is on the paper's front page. There's also an audio feature on the website.

The LAT notes proposed changes in citizenship policies, pointing out a possible doubling of application fees and a potential mandatory online process that critics say will prevent many immigrants from applying. There would also be a simple form to fill out when registering for an online account—only 19 pages long.

Be sure not to miss the NYT's front pager on condoms and foreign aid, which includes this description: "Inside a modern, low-slung building owned by Alatech Healthcare, ingenious contraptions almost as long as a football field repeatedly dip 16,000 phallic-shaped bulbs into vats of latex, with the capacity to turn out a billion condoms a year." Whew.

For those who care, Michael Lewis may or may not be previewing his next book in the NYT's Play magazine with a profile of Bill Parcells, while the WP warns Google that teenagers are fickle.

And former Celtics coach Red Auerbach is dead. He is believed to have lit a stogie just before entering the Pearly Gates.

Correction, Oct. 30: This "Today's Papers" originally asked, regarding corporations' desire to change regulatory rules, "Why so soon after the new Congress takes office?" However, since the Congress will not be sworn in until January, we have made a clarifying adjustment. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

tv club
Breaking Down The Wire
And one more thing ...
By Steve James, Alex Kotlowitz, and David Mills
Monday, October 30, 2006, at 1:41 PM ET

From: Alex Kotlowitz
To: Steve James
Subject: That Look on Randy's Face

Posted Monday, September 18, 2006, at 11:49 AM ET

Hi Steve,

Well, this is about as good a gig as you can get. The Wire's the truest, most provocative, and most riveting show on television, and now I can justify watching it during the day in place of tending to my own writing. A point of disclosure before we begin: David Simon, The Wire's creator, is a friend. We met, in fact, because I so admired his work and because our interests over the years had converged. But we're not here to judge or critique each episode, but rather—so I'm told—to walk the terrain that The Wire treads each week.

It's now in its second week, and having missed last season I have some catching up to do. For one, I haven't been able to quite figure out Carcetti, the white man running for mayor in a predominantly black city. He seems so damn cynical, not so much about politics but about himself, that it's hard to imagine why he even considered running in the first place. But the mayoral race is the backdrop for the real drama in The Wire: the coarse, confused, tiring life on the streets. The Wire portrays it with such intimacy and empathy, unwilling to either let people off the hook or treat them as victims. The show gets it: People—whether poor or rich—are complicated, filled with their own contradictions. And it also gets it that these people are not fools. I love it that they call their heroin "pandemic," well aware, I'm sure, of the irony. Once in Stateway Gardens, about as dreary a Chicago public housing complex as you could find, which is saying a lot, I entered a high-rise breezeway to the cry of young men marketing their wares: "Fubu," "Mike Tyson," "Titanic," and "Dogface." I've always thought it'd be a kick to meet that smartass kid who comes up with these brand names—though of course Fubu's just an out and out rip-off from the clothing line by that name.

Well, after only two episodes, I'm completely hooked. There's a moment toward the end of the first episode that haunts me. It involves Randy, a pre-adolescent boy who has this wonderfully mischievous smile. (I loved his misguided effort at revenge when he suggests to his friends that they retaliate against another group of shorties by filling balloons with urine. Such a benign effort in the midst of some considerably more heinous activities. Well, it turns out, they figuratively were "pissing into the wind." The retaliation doesn't quite work out the way Randy envisioned.) Anyway, toward the end of that first episode, an older boy asks Randy to tell a local corner drug dealer named Lex that a girl wants to meet him later that day. So, Lex, who's just killed someone in a rather cold-blooded and brazen fashion, goes to the appointed spot and is shot in the head. (A retaliation that, unlike the urine balloon raid, works.) Randy soon realizes that he unknowingly lured Lex to his death. That hour ends with Randy sitting on his front stoop looking angry and completely lost. I've seen that face before. Angry not at anyone in particular but angry that you can't make sense of things. Angry at the realization that what control you thought you had is just a fiction.

It's hard to find a youngster in the central city untouched by violent death. More often than not they can't or won't talk about it. They fear they'll be held culpable—either by the police or by the gangs. Or they want to push it away. Or they think nobody will believe them. Or they can't make sense of it. (Who can, I suppose?) Years ago, a teenage boy I'd known for years took a cab from my house to his mom's on the city's West Side, and as he was getting out two men pushed their way into the back seat. It was a stickup, and the cabdriver apparently panicked, and as he pushed down on the accelerator one of the stickup guys shot him in the head, killing him instantly. My friend, frozen in place on the street, watched the whole thing unfold. I remember afterward trying to talk with him about it. He avoided my gaze. He mumbled something about it not being a big deal. And then he got testy at me for probing. I recall feeling his anger, directed at me, but realizing this anger would never find its real target. He was lost, and his hold on the world was slipping. And he knew that. I've tried at various times since to get him to talk about the incident, and each time he tells me a little more. But it's never much. He thinks the memory's receded, but I know it can't ever be too far away. As I am with my young friend, I'm rooting for Randy to get his hold back.

From: Steve James
To: Alex Kotlowitz
Subject: Urine As a Weapon of Mass Destruction

Posted Monday, September 18, 2006, at 12:05 PM ET


Wow. That's quite a story about your young friend. I, too, was haunted by the end of Episode 1. (The Wire is truly inspired at openings and closings.) From Season 1 on, the series has been brilliant at showing many sides to complex characters, be they cops, drug dealers, or, yes, even politicians. Randy and his gang may be budding drug runners and car thieves, but they are still just boys who look forward to the coming school year for the same reason boys everywhere do—to check out the girls' "developments," break out new clothes, and, I'm guessing, find some measure of safe haven from the streets. From the vantage point of boys, urine-filled balloons are the perfect retaliatory WMD.

At the risk of gushing like a schoolgirl myself, there is so much that The Wire gets right about the world it inhabits. It's also funny as hell. And like The Sopranos, that humor is grounded in the real, in the ironically biting and funny juxtapositions that life deals the characters. In Episode 1, Simon and company contrast the middle-school teachers' orientation with a police station briefing on terrorism prevention—both of which are hilariously divorced from reality. Or, in the second episode, there's the funny and chilling visit to the prison where young ponytailed Namond gets a lesson in the drug-trade work ethic from his father. Or how about after Carcetti finishes his uninspired speech at the senior citizens home? The only question he gets is, "Is the Salisbury steak for lunch today, or is they doing tacos?"

Carcetti, by the way, is less perplexing to me, perhaps because I followed his development as a character in Season 3. His portrayal strikes me as one of the truest of a candidate I have seen, precisely because he seems so torn between a desire for reform and his Machiavellian pursuit of power. With Carcetti and all the primary characters in this series, we are consistently asked to reconsider who they are at their core. The Wire's DNA will not allow for easy answers or black-and-white depictions.

Whenever I watch, I'm reminded of the time we filmed Arthur Agee in Hoop Dreams playing ball on the West Side playground near his home. Suddenly his father, Bo, showed up, strung out on drugs, looking like he hadn't eaten in a week. He'd been gone from the Agee home for a few months, "ripping and running the streets from the police," as he would later tell us. But on this day, he wanted to play a little basketball with his son. Arthur was both happy to see him and embarrassed by him. And when Bo went to the other side of the playground to score, in full view of us and his son, Arthur motioned to his father to come back. Bo got his crack and moved on. We glimpsed in that single moment the love and anger, wounded pride, and painful disappointment that would characterize much of their relationship in the years that followed. (Tragically, Bo was murdered a year ago.)

I have repeatedly discovered as a documentary filmmaker what you, Alex, so brilliantly captured in There Are No Children Here: There's no substitute for putting in the time it takes to really get past seeing people as mere symbols—be they symbols of good or bad, or the powerful or desperate. This is what David Simon and his team have done now for four years.

From: Steve James
To: Alex Kotlowitz
Subject: Back to School

Posted Monday, September 25, 2006, at 11:55 AM ET


The plot, as they say, thickens with Episode 3. The opening was pure The Wire, with Omar going out for some Honey Nut Cheerios, like some satin-robed Wild West gunslinger walking down Main Street. His reputation literally precedes him. Is there another character on television who is so openly gay, proud, and feared? In the body of the episode we learn that Mayor Royce is ready to play hardball with the surging candidate Carcetti. In the most moving moment, Carcetti visits the funeral home to witness firsthand the cost of the mean streets, and then refuses the photo op, out of respect. The major crimes unit gets a new boss, a hard-ass who sends Lester and Kima looking for new homes within the department. Former Maj. Colvin trades in a hotel security position for a chance to get back on the streets helping a college professor's research, which brings them by episode's end to the middle school, which is the heart of this week's story.

It was by turns hilarious and painful (and ultimately tragic) to watch Prez struggle with the first days of teaching math. You and I have waxed rapturously before about how much the series gets right about the worlds it dramatizes, and with this episode, The Wire now adds the inner-city school to the list. I've seen a lot of movies set in such schools over the years, and have spent a fair amount of time in them myself, but I've not seen it captured so accurately before. And there's a very good reason for it: Ed Burns, one of the key creators and writers of the series, himself went from being a Baltimore policeman to teaching school in the inner city. I feel for Prez—he was hired primarily because he was a warm body and a former policeman. But true to his character throughout the whole life of the series, he has never been able to deal with, well, people. And certainly not in combative situations. He was never more content than when he was working the phone taps with Lester and chasing the paper trails. So, you can see a guy like Prez thinking he's good at math and needs a less volatile occupation. Ah, I'll teach school. And do something that matters, too. His clueless idealism makes him an easy mark for the tough audience in his classes.

I remember filming a Chicago public-school teacher once who had a sweet disposition not unlike Prez. In his math class, he searched in vain for ways to try to engage his rowdy classroom, finally landing on the topic of teen sex. But, of course, that didn't work. A white, middle-aged teacher talking to these kids about sex? He rambled on louder and louder, trying to be heard over the din. Students chatted, or shouted at each other, or slept. A few did try to pay attention.

It would be easy to look at all this and conclude that these kids don't want to learn and say good riddance, they don't deserve better. But that would be shortsighted. One of the most insightful books I've come across on the tragedy of education in the inner city is Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities. Kozol writes about how many lower-income African-American kids entering kindergarten or first grade have an enthusiasm and ability for school commensurate with their more affluent, white, suburban counterparts. But starting very early, too many get the message that they cannot compete academically. I've seen kids brimming with self-confidence in their athletic lives try to disappear in the classroom or cover their fear by being the class clown. And the school culture now only tragically reinforces this cycle. Where once kids might have been embarrassed by poor academic performance, now it is the dedicated students who are too often ridiculed. The despair has become so profound, it has become hip to not care about school at all. When dealer Bodie tries to get young Michael to do more slinging for him because he shows promise, Michael says he can't because he's got school. Bodie taunts him. Does he think he's going to become an astronaut or a lawyer? For many of the Michaels out there, the prospects of becoming anything other than an athlete or a dealer are as realistic as going to the moon. I look forward to seeing where The Wire takes this story of the school and the characters whose fates we care more and more about.

From: Alex Kotlowitz
To: Steve James
Subject: Lost Children

Posted Monday, September 25, 2006, at 3:02 PM ET


I'm with you on the school stuff, but I'll get to that in a minute. You mentioned Carcetti's visit to the funeral, and his refusal afterward to participate in the photo op. Therein lies The Wire's brilliance: its unpredictability. Along with Carcetti, we've been growing increasingly cynical about the political process (though I suspect many of us were already there), and then, out of nowhere, his conscience gets him, even if just for a moment and even if it's tied up in the fact that he knows talking to reporters outside a funeral isn't the most politically savvy thing to do. Carcetti actually looked moved and unsettled after viewing the body. Could it be that he really cares?

You're right, though, what separates this season from the others is that now we've entered an inner-city school. (Politics. Police. The Streets. And now school. The Wire is hitting on all cylinders the fissures of urban life.) I'm waiting for Prez to let it be known to the kids that he was a cop—that he's not easily messed with. But as you point out, he's not a cop's cop, and those kids I suspect will get that, and maybe even disrespect him even more. A kind of payback in their minds, I suppose. Well, we'll see what lies ahead.

Watching Michael get dissed by a drug dealer for caring about school, I couldn't help but think of Ron Suskind's book A Hope in the Unseen. Suskind (yes, the Suskind of more recent Bush-watching fame) followed a boy, Cedric Jennings, from inner-city Washington, D.C., who excelled in school and as a result was an outcast. He was seen as acting white, of sucking up to the Man. In the school Jennings attends, those who excel academically get their names listed on The Wall of Honor at the school, but many beg the principal not to put their names up there out of fear they're going to be ridiculed or, worse yet, assaulted by their classmates. You hit it on the nose: For some it's become hip to not care about school. But I've got to say one other thing on this point. You walk into a classroom in any inner-city school, and it immediately hits you that these kids are outsiders, or at least feel that way. They're dancing along the cliff's edge. And then you look harder, and you realize that within that group there are those who already have a foot off that precipice. Some have been seduced by the streets. Then there are those who—as in any classroom—just don't fit in socially. Those who have trouble making friends. Those who seem quirky. Or flighty. Or just different somehow. And so I was taken by the end of the episode when that girl who has a distant look about her (at some point, we've got to talk about the acting of these young kids, which is dead on) is endlessly ridiculed by one of the cool girls, and the fight—a rather one-sided one—ensues. I felt for both of them. The Wire manages to achieve the difficult feat of empathy from all perspectives. Hell, I even feel for Omar, who's so damn cocky about his stickup abilities he doesn't even feel the need to run from his heists. A leisurely walk does him just fine. Great storytelling is all about achieving empathy, even with the unsympathetic. Think of In Cold Blood. Or your second film, Stevie.

See you next week.


From: Alex Kotlowitz
To: Steve James
Subject: What The Wire Gets Wrong.

Posted Monday, October 2, 2006, at 2:24 PM ET


This episode felt like a seventh-inning stretch. An interlude. A moment to catch our breath. Poor Prez. He's so damn earnest, so trying to do the right thing. He wants his students to talk about the incident last week, when one girl sliced up the face of another. But he never gets to deliver his speech. The kids don't want anyone telling them how to feel. They know all too well. And, well, the major-crimes unit has been pretty much decimated, and just as Marlo, the drug kingpin and the object of the unit's wiretapping, emerges as a character this season. Marlo swaggers around like some Third World dictator. He sees the smallest slights as something much larger. And he clearly likes to taunt the powers that be, as he did in filching three Tootsie Roll Pops in clear view of a grocery store's security guard. Marlo isn't the steadiest of fellows. We're going to be seeing more of him, for sure.

Given the lull in the action, I figure this is probably as good a moment as any to talk about one character who particularly intrigues me, though he only makes a brief appearance in this week's episode: the white professor. We've talked about how The Wire gets it so right. But the prof (I can't recall his name) seems like a bit of a caricature: the do-gooder white man who's a bumbling fool with black people. Which is a surprise, since the creators of this series are white—and they're clearly no fools. This is, I guess, a roundabout way to address something both you and I have been asked (and asked ourselves) over the years: Can a white person honestly and accurately capture black culture? To which I say, of course. But it can be treacherous turf. A brief exchange like this feels inadequate to this subject, but I figured I'd at least give it a go.

One Slate reader e-mailed:

Isn't it inevitably a little presumptuous for a white movie director and a white NPR/New Yorker magazine type to palaver about how authentic this show is? Do black people in Baltimore really act and talk and look like that? Black guys I work with (certainly not poor and inner city) detest this show.

There are really two questions here. Is it the place of white journalists or artists to try to capture the African-American experience? Soon after There Are No Children Here came out, I was invited to speak to a group of 200 social workers from the Chicago public schools. Most were African-American. The book hadn't been out long, so most hadn't read it. That didn't make a difference. They harangued me. Who was I to write about their community? I understood their anger. But, look, I told them, I've got two choices. One is I see what I see, hear what I hear, and I turn my head. I walk away. Or I use my skills as a storyteller to bear witness. Which is it? Keep the silence—or try to break it? The social workers also brought up something that the letter writer above touched on: The inner city is only a sliver of black America, and it distorts white America's view of African-Americans. To which I say, you're right, it does. But it speaks less to depictions like those in The Wire than it does to TV and journalism's inability to capture middle-class black America.

The tougher question though is, can a white writer or filmmaker get it right? Well, I suppose The Wire answers that. And its writers have come by it honestly. David Simon spent years as a journalist on the streets of Baltimore, with both the cops and the guys on the corner. Ed Burns worked as a cop and as a teacher. Richard Price, in researching his recent books, spent weeks hanging out in the projects of, I believe, Newark. There's no real magic here. Storytellers (fiction and nonfiction) have long written about the unfamiliar, and they've done it by immersing themselves in the lives of others. And they do it with an ear both to that which astonishes and that which resonates. In other words, you spend time in a place like the West Side of Chicago, and there's plenty there to make you wide-eyed (like the omnipresence of the violence, including informal street-side memorials to slain gang members), but there's also so much that feels familiar. In both the best and worst senses. Like ambition for a better life … which, as it does everywhere—in the suburbs and the inner city—ranges from a quest for the spiritual to a quest for the money.

When you were shooting Hoop Dreams, I suspect you took some heat. In my case, the principal of Lafeyette and Pharoah's school, who was African-American, wouldn't let me in the door; she didn't like the idea that I was writing a book on her community. I heard she told someone I'd just get it all wrong. Maybe. Maybe not. But she was going to make it as difficult as she could for me to get it right. (I ended up contacting teachers at home and visiting the school for public events.) I don't know, Steve; call me old-fashioned, but if you spend enough time with people, however unfamiliar their world might be—and if you can, as best you're able, put away your assumptions and preconceptions (or at least be conscious of them)—I think you can get it right. Or at least pretty damn close. What do you think?


From: Steve James
To: Alex Kotlowitz
Subject: We Are Outsiders Here.

Posted Monday, October 2, 2006, at 4:07 PM ET


I'm glad you've taken up the issue of white artists trying to capture black experience. Treacherous ground, indeed. There's quite an interesting exchange about this between two other Slate readers of our columns. "Ohigetit" makes a strong statement about why whites should not tell the stories of African-Americans: that white artists cannot fully and honestly capture those worlds, and even if our motivations are noble, ohigetit wishes that "well-meaning liberals would do what's right, and stop making the tragedy of black life 'entertainment' for their evening viewing consumption on television and screen. … Quit helping destroy our culture. You are killing kids yourselves by giving them 'bad people' to emulate." Another reader, "scarpy," answers ohigetit at some length. Acknowledging that The Wire may engage in some "cross-racial and cross-cultural voyeurism," scarpy questions—like you—the reductionism of ohigetit's position, saying:

Race isn't a god. It's not a fundamental. It goes deep, sure, and practically speaking I don't think any American ever really escapes thinking in its patterns. But race obscures more about us than it reveals. Beneath it we still share the same common urges, needs and actions. … Real artists I would hope would attempt something like The Wire, which though it fails in a lot of ways (like the kind of magical absence of racial division in the police department) still at least makes the effort.

Obviously, being white and having made the films I have, I agree with both you and scarpy. But that doesn't mean that ohigetit's position doesn't resonate with me. When we began Hoop Dreams, I didn't do so with the intention of spending years following the Gates and Agee families and delving as deeply as we did into their lives. My initial motivation for wanting to do the film was more modest and had its roots in my own experience of having been a lifelong (to that point) basketball player who had grown up playing with and against African-American ballplayers. Indeed, perhaps the most influential teacher of my youth was my 7th-grade gym teacher—he was the first African-American teacher I'd ever had and a former ballplayer. When I got to high school, it was so divided along racial lines that during pep rallies for football and basketball, one half of the gym was the "black side" and the other half was the "white side"—each cheering only for players from their respective races. If the goal of the pep rally was to pull the school and team together in common athletic pursuit, it failed miserably. And amazingly enough, my black teammates and I never discussed it, even though we always had good sport over our differences of language and music. Race was there but never dealt with in any real way. And in all my years of playing ball, I never had a close friendship with a black ballplayer. We joked, and made fun of each other, and occasionally clashed as athletes do, but we never really got to know each other. I never went to a black teammate's house or party. They never came to mine. Such was the reality growing up in Hampton, Va. What ultimately fueled my desire to make Hoop Dreams was wanting to understand what this game really meant to those African-American teammates. I was aware that, for all my own unrequited dreams of sports success, basketball played a great deal more significant and complex role in the their lives.

This gets at the question that always needs to be asked of any artistic endeavor but especially, perhaps, when artists try to traverse boundaries of race and class and culture. What are you trying to do and why? In Hollywood, the answer is often merely to make money, tap a "niche market," pander to the least common denominator. In this regard, there are many artists—both black and white—who have exploited the lives of poor black people, and poor whites, for that matter. (Is there any greater caricatured and misunderstood slice of America these days than poor whites? We call them "trailer trash" and worse without apology.) And then there are the well-meaning, but earnest and mythologizing, works that cast the poor and black as noble victims of Exploitation and Racism and Powerlessness. And while all these terrible realities are still very much with us in America today, such portraits, I would argue, can do as much damage as help. But if your quest is understanding what makes us all different from one another and what binds us together; if it is a genuine inquiry into the real, the messy, the complexly human—I think artists of any race and class can have something to offer us all.

Which does not give The Wire or you and me a total pass. We may come by our observations of the worlds we have documented honestly through spending the time there and trying our best to set aside our preconceptions. But we are and always will be outsiders. And sometimes that may be a good thing. In Hoop Dreams, what started as an inquiry for me into the meaning of basketball became a journey to understanding something deeper about race in America.

When we did the DVD commentary for the film a year ago, Arthur and William talked about that raw moment where we showed Arthur's family with their power turned off. On-screen, as the Agees wandered through a dark house, William said that was such a common occurrence in their neighborhoods that, had he been making the film, he wouldn't have made a big deal of it. For a host of reasons, that would have been a valid and sensitive creative decision. But for white America, just like me as a white filmmaker in that moment, getting to know this black family intimately and seeing that happen and how it happened, was a bracing dose of reality. Frankly, I am glad artists like Spike Lee are now able to make films like 25th Hour that grapple with the worlds of white characters, because I think his vantage point can give us all—whites and his African-American audience—a fresh view of a certain slice of white American experience. We need to speak to one another across the divides. If not in art, then where?


From: Alex Kotlowitz
To: Steve James
Subject: One Final Thought.

Posted Monday, October 2, 2006, at 5:20 PM ET


This is a conversation worth continuing. Just one final thought. There is one place where I think white writers and filmmakers too often come up short, and that's in dealing with the awkard, uncomfortable, and sometimes just plain ugly interplay between whites and blacks. Years back, I was asked to work on a documentary for ABC about race relations (talk about a broad mandate), and I had what I thought was this terrific idea: to look at race relations from the perspective of the congregation of a black middle-class church. The minister was an old friend, and I thought that would get us terrific access. Well, I failed miserably. Virtually everyone, as I certainly expected, had stories of how race intruded in their lives, but so much of their stories had to with the absence of any real connection to the white world. (It's astonishing how so much of the story of race in contemporary America is about the absence of connections.) And secondly, despite my friendship with the minister, people had a tough time being candid with me—because I was white. We abandoned the project midway through the filming. It's one of those instances where being an outsider may have only complicated matters—and, frankly, gotten in the way of getting at the truth of things. See you next week.


From: Steve James
To: Alex Kotlowitz, David Mills
Subject: We Interrogate a Wire Writer

Updated Monday, October 30, 2006, at 6:20 AM ET


This week, we have the pleasure of asking some questions of David Mills, one of the writers (this season's Episode 2)* who has been a key part of the series from the beginning. But first, this week's episode …

If Episode 4 was something of a "building blocks" show—laying the foundation and framing future set pieces—Episode 5 compellingly moved the various stories forward. Things are looking more desperate for Mayor Royce's primary campaign. His chief opponent, Carcetti, seems to be blessed by police department bungling, inside leaks, and a shrewd ability to say the right thing at the right time. Marlo is almost Carcetti's drug-world mirror: He's unwilling to play by the established rules—drug cartel rules—while he hatches an appalling plan for revenge against Omar. (Though by episode's end, Fat Man may be making headway, bringing him into the fold. But don't bet the farm on it.) And Prez is starting to find his footing at school through his own version of tough love.

That is, of course, the barest of summaries. I continue to marvel at the series' ability to keep numerous storylines going simultaneously and plot out organic connections between them. If the series stumbled at all, it was during Season 2. I admired the longshoreman story, the way it captured a mostly white tale of working-class desperation that leads to corruption and crime. (It reminded me of a terrific but demanding nine-hour Chinese documentary, Tie Xi Qu: West of Tracks, about the decline of an aging industrial city in the wake of modernization.) But the longshoreman story felt largely disconnected from the story we'd become so, well, addicted to: Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, and their West Baltimore drug ring. Whenever those scenes came on, I found myself sitting up a little straighter in anticipation. But by the end, the second season had paid off and introduced Baltimore politics into the drama, which would pay real dividends in Season 3. That third season was a tour de force for me, the single best to date for my money. It was effortlessly complex in its plotting and introduced new and vivid characters like Carcetti, Royce, Marlo, and the wonderful West Baltimore Maj. Colvin. Perhaps most importantly of all, it dramatized a near-philosophical inquiry into the legalization of drugs. Yet, it did so without pulling punches or simplifying the social and moral questions. (It was so much more insightful and challenging than the overrated and politically reactionary movie Traffic.)

This year, as we've noted before, The Wire ventures deeper into politics and adds schools to its list of institutions complexly wrought. Yes, certain major characters have receded. (McNulty springs immediately to mind, though I have a suspicion he will re-emerge as some juicy piece of the plot.) But to an impressive degree, the series has managed to add new characters while continuing to maintain our connection to the originals. This is something that The Sopranos has always struggled with; the first year was so brilliant and complete, it was like they had to start over and retool the series.

But, here's David. Because this is being conducted via e-mail, I invite David to use these questions as a springboard for whatever he wants to write about the series.

1) I know you are a former journalist. For all its realism and verisimilitude, The Wire is fiction—classic novelistic fiction. Do you distinguish real differences between a fiction approach to story and a nonfiction approach? (Besides the obvious so-called truth vs. so-called fiction. And I'd love to hear Alex weigh in on this one.)

2) You've worked in network commercial television (NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Streets, among others) and on commercial-free HBO. Talk about the differences between the two from the standpoint of story.

3) David Mamet once said he doesn't deal with "character arcs" because people don't really change. Talk about how The Wire deals with character, both within a season and season to season? Do you have a favorite character in the series?

4) You've been following (and contributing) to the conversation in Slate about white artists and black stories. Is this something that the creative team has openly wrestled with during the writing and production of the series? What role, if any, do the actors play in lending realism to the series? To the dialogue? In other words, how much of what we see is on the page before shooting begins?


*Correction, Oct. 16, 2006: An earlier version of this article misidentified David Mills as a writer and director for The Wire. He wrote Episode 2 this season. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.

From: Alex Kotlowitz
To: Steve James, David Mills
Subject: The Wire and the New Journalism

Updated Monday, October 9, 2006, at 3:41 PM ET


You've got me wanting more. So, does David Simon just have all those voices in his head? Or are he and the other writers still out on the streets, devouring more material and more of the street language? I get you on the difference between storytelling on cable and storytelling on commercial TV, but what influence do you think the former has had on the latter? And if you were to do a season on the new wave of Hispanic immigrants (I say go for it) would you be true to your characters and have them speak Spanish and use subtitles? All this is by way of saying I hope maybe you'll stay with us for another week.

Your response to the first question, though, is what really got me thinking. It's clear that The Wire comes out of deep reporting and personal experience. It's what gives it its authenticity. Just the other day, I was giving a talk and I found myself telling the audience that if they want to understand what's going on in our urban core, they should watch The Wire. Not read a newspaper or a book, but watch television.

Forty years ago in the late '60s, Tom Wolfe, in explaining the rise of what he called new journalism (it really wasn't all that new, but it was more vital and more spirited than ever before)—which included the likes of Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, and Joan Didion—suggested that the novelists of the day had abandoned the hard stuff. They were no longer tackling the tough issues, no longer capturing the fissures in the landscape, at least not in the way folks like Steinbeck or Faulkner or Dreiser had. And so, Wolfe said, if we wanted to understand this country, we had to turn to nonfiction storytellers, the new journalists. I wonder, though, if that's changed some. Novelists—some, not all—are writing about the world with such sharpness, such heart, such verisimilitude. If I want to learn about the new immigrant experience, for instance, I turn to Jhumpa Lahiri or Aleksandar Hemon. If I want to read about war and civil conflict, and the aftermath, I read the likes of Tim O'Brien or Philip Caputo. Then there's film and television. I think of Maria Full of Grace, which captured better than anything I'd ever read the human cost of the international drug trade. And then, of course, there's The Wire. I'm not declaring narrative journalism dead. Far from it. It's probably as alive as it's ever been—and as essential. But it's not the only game in town anymore. If I want to try to make sense of the world, I still turn to Tracy Kidder or Katherine Boo or Steven Coll or Jon Krakauer. But I'll also pick up Lahari or Hemon or watch The Wire. I just realize that we (I count myself among the practitioners of narrative journalism) have more competition out there now than we did, say, 10 or 15 years ago. And that's a good thing. God knows, we need stories—fiction or nonfiction—to help us make sense of these times. To put it another way, as you wrote, we need stories grounded in the raw materials of real-world reporting.


From: David Mills
To: Steve James, Alex Kotlowitz
Subject: The Writer Speaks

Updated Monday, October 9, 2006, at 3:35 PM ET

Thanks for the welcome, Steve. Good to meet you. I'll gladly respond to your questions in numerical order.

1) You ask: "Do you distinguish real differences between a fiction approach to story and a nonfiction approach?" Absolutely I do. The thing about David Simon is, he combines the best of both. I worked with him 25 years ago on our college newspaper, The Diamondback (University of Maryland). Even as an undergraduate, he had a full-blown writer's voice, just an extraordinary gift for language. But what he also had was the impulse to report, to investigate the workings of the world, which not all gifted writers have. (Those who have it can't necessarily do it well, just as many talented reporters aren't great writers, Bob Woodward being the classic example of the latter.)

So, in writing his nonfiction books, Homicide and The Corner, Simon combined a skillful reporter's urge to penetrate hidden worlds—be it the culture of police detectives or heroin addicts—with a novelist's ear for language and flair for spinning a tale. That killer combination applies as well to his fiction in The Wire. Everything is grounded in the raw materials of real-world reporting.

If his partner Ed Burns hadn't spent seven years teaching in the Baltimore schools, Simon wouldn't have tried to tell the story he's telling in Season 4. He'd lack the raw materials. How else would one know that middle-school kids are having sex in school lavatories? The girl-on-girl face-slashing is also based on something Ed Burns witnessed as a teacher, though in real life it took place in a lunchroom, not a classroom. (And it was Ed who ended up dropping Slasher Girl with a punch to the head.)

I kind of wish Simon would envision a sixth season of The Wire, dealing with the new wave of Hispanic immigrants. I don't know how this might plug into his theme of the failure of institutions, but I do believe it's the new chapter in the story of American cities. Over the last 20 years, places that have never had to deal with Hispanic immigrants are absorbing tens of thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans. Cities like Atlanta, Wichita, Indianapolis, Raleigh ... and, to a lesser degree, Baltimore, where the area known as "Spanishtown" didn't exist 20 years ago. (It had been the Polish immigrant enclave.)

But even if Simon wanted to tell a Hispanic immigration story, he wouldn't feel entitled to do so unless he reported it. That means tons of time spent hanging around real people to acquire those raw materials ... those voices. Difficult to do if you can't speak Spanish. The point is, this "nonfiction approach" frees up the artist within and explains why The Wire has the impact that it does.

In my case, I'm less of a born reporter, so I'm more inclined to just make up stuff.

2) Regarding the differences between writing for commericial television and for HBO, too much is made of the freedom to use profanity. After all, there are words you can print in the Village Voice that you can't print in the Washington Post. That doesn't mean the storytelling is any better in the Voice.

The big difference, as you suspect, is the absence of commercials. A decade ago, on shows like NYPD Blue and ER, you divided your story into five pieces: a teaser (before the opening titles) and four acts. Today, the broadcast networks generally demand a teaser and five acts, because the commercial breaks between acts were getting so painfully long. (I would guess that, over the last 15 years, the average "story length" of a given drama episode has shrunk from 47 minutes to 43.)

So, now you're chopping your story into six pieces. Which means you can't go more than seven, eight minutes without slamming on the breaks. So, you try to end each act in a way that'll keep viewers watching, and then, at the beginning of the next act, you're working to build up another head of steam ... only to slam on the breaks again.

The ability to tell a tale from start to finish without interruption allows for much denser, much more nuanced writing. The viewer is presumed to be paying closer attention. Multiple plays during the week are another benefit of HBO and Showtime. I happily check out episodes of The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire twice, confident of catching things I'd missed the first time. Broadcast TV will never be a home for shows like these, just as Top 40 radio was never the place for Coltrane.

3) You wrote: "David Mamet once said he doesn't deal with 'character arcs' because people don't really change."

I've always wanted to give that bozo a lesson or two in storytelling. Just kidding! Hey, I got jokes ... .

In series television especially, a "character arc" doesn't mean that the person changes. The character is the character; his circumstances change, and he must adjust. The Wire is a buffet of great character parts and great character performances. My favorite among favorites is Maj. "Bunny" Colvin in Season 3. In part because Robert Wisdom is a world-class actor, but mainly because the "Hamsterdam" story, to me, was about the folly of a man who dares to say, "I'm going to make the Nile flow this way, instead of that way." He messed with the forces of nature, and he reaped the whirlwind. I love the tragedy of that.

I feel lucky to have written for Season 4, where the focus isn't so much on servicing the continuing characters, but on those kids. Simon brought his writers together for three weeks in the summer of 2005 to beat out stories for the entire season. (Multicolored index cards on corkboards, the whole bit.) From the start, Ed Burns had the essence of those adolescent characters, based on kids he had taught.

Once the rest of us got a handle on Namond, Michael, and Randy—one who talks the talk but can't walk the walk; one who possesses true strength and leadership abilities, even if he doesn't assert them; one who isn't cut out for the street game at all—it was a thrill to imagine what the Fates would do with them. (Dukie, known in our early discussions as "Dirty Boy," emerged as a fourth among equals as time went on.) Wish I had taken meticulous notes, to chart how the whole thing evolved.

Concerns were voiced in the writers' room that all of the attention devoted to Carcetti and the political story would only steal time away from those kids, where the gold was. Simon, after letting everyone have his say, stuck with the heavy City Hall stuff. And it works. That's why he's the Man.

4) You ask: "What role, if any, do the actors play in lending realism to the series? To the dialogue? In other words, how much of what we see is on the page before shooting begins?"

It's all on the page. Simon has a sharp ear for dialogue, and he's spent years in West Baltimore, so he knows what those characters are supposed to sound like, more so than I, and more so than any given actor. So, the actors bring their actor stuff, that human emotional stuff, without the burden of having to make some fake-ass white-boy ghetto-speak sound authentic. All of those actors, I'm sure, are grateful for that.

I'm somewhat sympathetic to the racialist critique of white middle-class writers presuming to tell black ghetto stories. But in the end, good art trumps everything.


From: David Mills
To: Steve James, Alex Kotlowitz
Subject: Does HBO Influence the Networks, or Do the Networks Influence HBO?

Updated Monday, October 9, 2006, at 3:41 PM ET

Hey, Alex.

Great to chat with you. (We should let readers know that you and I worked together 20 years ago for the Wall Street Journal, and we've kept in touch a tiny bit since then.)

First off, I'd love to hang here with you and Steve for another week. I love talking about TV.

You asked: "So, does Simon just have all those voices in his head? Or are he and the other writers still out on the streets, devouring more material and more of the street language?"

It's more like a squirrel who has gathered his nuts. David Simon himself has joked that the tank is almost empty, in terms of the real-world material he acquired for The Corner. He still keeps in touch with many of the folks he met while working on that book, but Simon isn't hanging out on drug corners these days; he stored up those acorns a decade ago. (He doesn't hang out with homicide detectives anymore, either, but he knows how they think and how they talk.)

Donut, the boyish car thief, is based on a kid Simon used to see in West Baltimore while reporting The Corner. The real Donut (his actual nickname, I believe) sucked his thumb. He'd drive up in a stolen car, sucking his thumb, chillin'. I don't know why they didn't keep the thumb-sucking in The Wire. But the kid who plays Donut (Baltimore's own Nathan Corbett) has so much charm and personality, maybe the thumb-sucking would've gotten in the way. My point is: A thumb-sucking teenager, that's the kind of observed detail that a good storyteller puts in his back pocket. And Simon has tons of them.

As for the Hispanic immigration idea, let me clarify that I mentioned that as a fan, only a fan. I wasn't a full-time member of The Wire's writing staff. And at this moment, Simon has gathered his core writers to beat out stories for Season 5, and I'm here in California, pursuing the annual quest of getting a show of my own on the air.

I've pitched shows to HBO and Showtime, and I've pitched to the broadcast networks, so I've pondered the differences between the two. You ask what influence pay cable has had on commercial TV. I'm starting to wonder whether it's commercial TV that will ultimately influence the storytelling on cable.

The networks have tried to approximate the edgy violence and anti-heroic protagonists of The Sopranos. (As with my own NBC limited series, Kingpin, three years ago.) So far, it hasn't caught on with a mass audience. CBS just cancelled Smith, starring Ray Liotta as the leader of a gang of thieves, after only three episodes. NBC similarly failed last season with Heist. NBC will try again this season with The Black Donnellys, about the Irish mob in Hell's Kitchen. And CBS will trot out Waterfront, with Joe Pantoliano as a corrupt mayor of Providence, R.I. We'll see what happens.

Meanwhile, the breakout hit dramas of the past couple of years—House, Grey's Anatomy, Lost, Desperate Housewives—owe nothing to pay cable. And those are the shows the networks are trying to replicate. ("We want Grey's Anatomy with cops … ." "Let's do House with a lawyer … .")

The appeal of HBO, for show creators, used to be that it wasn't driven by ratings, because it wasn't selling commercial time to advertisers. It was in the business of attracting subscribers. So, by winning assloads of Emmys and inspiring reams of praise from TV critics, HBO could make viewers believe they must pony up for pay cable in order to experience the cutting edge of American storytelling.

I suspect that HBO is now becoming more ratings-driven. They want big numbers. Not the 25 million viewers of Grey's Anatomy, but at least the 10 million viewers of The Sopranos. How will that desire influence the choice of shows that HBO produces in the future? Will HBO be as reluctant to do a series about nonwhite people as CBS, ABC, and NBC are? Would HBO have bought David Simon's pitch for The Wire today?

As for the authors you mentioned, I must confess that I'm not a reader of books. Never formed the habit. I am a post-literate American, so it's even more important to me that Hollywood be in the business of telling tough stories, richly human stories, about the real world we live in.


From: Alex Kotlowitz
To: David Mills, Steve James
Subject: Character Count

Posted Monday, October 16, 2006, at 2:28 PM ET

Hey, David and Steve,

Well, Episode 6 ("Margin of Error") appears to be the springboard for the second half of the season. Now that Carcetti's won, we get to see him try his hand at ruling the damn city. You know that's not going to be easy. Omar's setup on the murder of a "civilian"—as the police so nimbly refer to nonplayers—has brought McNulty back into the picture. I've missed having McNulty around. He knows his nemesis well enough to realize that it's not like Omar to shoot someone not of the street. And then, of course, there are the kids, each of whom feels more defined with each episode. I'm keeping my eye on Namond, who looks like he's about to get caught in a tug of war between his mom and Colvin, the former police major. And Prez is keeping his eye on Dukie, who now, thanks to his teacher, has a place to shower in the morning.

In past exchanges, we've alluded to the storytelling genius of the show, how it mirrors great literature. It does and it doesn't. It does in its unbending loyalty to story. And it does in its seemingly magical ability to elicit empathy for virtually all its characters, from drug addicts to drug sellers to cops and—this is where the writers really get my admiration—to politicians. It's what makes great literature: its ability to get inside the skin of its characters, to see the world through their eyes, to understand their motives. It's where The Wire departs from most other television. We're looking at this landscape through all these varied perspectives. I feel Namond's utter confusion about where his loyalty lies—to his self-absorbed mom or to himself. I get Carcetti's ambivalence about his chosen vocation. I know Prez's growing attachment to a group of kids who regularly tell him to fuck off.

But where The Wire diverges from most literature is its ability to juggle this vast array of stories, and with such a full cast of characters. Look at this last episode. You had stories unfolding involving Carcetti, Omar, McNulty, Randy, Namond, and Marlo. That's just in one hour. And I'm sure I'm leaving someone out. The Wire has such faith in its audience. With all these balls in the air, you'd think much of it would be a blur, but the stories seem to unfold in slow motion. As fast-paced as the show is, there's this sense of lingering—on moments and on characters. (Not being a film guy, I'm sure there must be something going on here with the way the show is shot.) It's not that some literature doesn't do this. The more ambitious novelists juggle lots of seemingly disconnected characters, as well. But usually there's a convergence of all these various stories—and where many novelists fail is in pushing too hard to bring all the characters together in the end. We'll see, of course, how The Wire pulls it off this season, but as it stands now, I'm not convinced that The Wire's writers feel compelled to have all their stories and characters meet up in the end. It's the ability to look at this particular landscape—the contemporary city—through the eyes of all these characters, each with their own demons and their own travails and their own loyalties, that makes the storytelling in The Wire so extraordinary. For all its comparison to literature, in the end The Wire's created its own genre of storytelling.

David, is there something about the way The Wire is shot that separates it from other television? That gives that sense of lingering? And in mapping out the season, do the writers first figure out the ending, and then try to figure out how the characters get there—or is it more of a journey, letting the characters lead you to what feels like their most natural destination? It's great to have you back for another week.


From: David Mills
To: Steve James, Alex Kotlowitz
Subject: Why No Black Writers?

Posted Monday, October 16, 2006, at 3:15 PM ET

Greetings, gents. Thanks for having me back.

Alex, I wasn't a full-time writer on the show, so I can't speak to what the directors brought to the party. In fact, as a fan, I'm not particularly impressed with the visual style of the show. I'm not unimpressed with it either. The Wire just seems to be shot in a straightforward manner that gives us big eyefuls of Baltimore while otherwise staying out of the characters' way. (Show us the actors acting; that's all you need to do.)

I'd love to hear Steve, as a filmmaker, discuss the visual elements of The Wire, the directing and editing styles, separate from the writing and acting. I don't mean to sell the directors short. But in all of series television, the director's role is diminished, compared with feature films. A different director comes in for each episode, and he or she must maintain the signature look of the show. TV directors don't have a license to cut loose stylistically.

Also, The Wire doesn't tend to rely on purely visual moments. (As opposed to a stylized cop show like Miami Vice.) And even the visual moments are scripted, as in Episode 2: After Herc barges in on the mayor's blow job, we see him walking down the hall under the cryptic gazes of past mayors hanging in portraits on the wall. A director had to execute it, but Simon wrote it just like that.

I'm glad the visual style of The Wire doesn't often call attention to itself. That would cut against the naturalism of the drama. This show doesn't hit a lot of bum notes, but one of them came late in Season 3, when Omar faced hit man Brother Mouzone on a dark street. The scene was staged and shot like a classical Wild West standoff. So much so that it knocked me right out of the reality of the moment. Why evoke so blatantly the cinematic tradition of the Western gunslinger when you're supposed to be telling a story about present-day Baltimore?

Anyway, Steve, am I missing something or what?

If I may, I'd like to address a commentary by a poster on Slate's discussion board. "Groovelady," a black writer, asked: "[W]hy can't Hollywood hire black writers? … [D]on't tell me there are no brilliant black writers out there who don't live up to the 'black experience' like Pelecanos and Price."

Well, Groovelady, I'm gonna tell you something you don't want to hear. But first …

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1994, only a handful of black writers had ever worked on prime-time network dramas. Zero had written for elite shows such as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and L.A. Law. A veteran white producer told me he'd never even seen a script by a black writer. The times are changing. One of the hottest dramas on TV, Grey's Anatomy, was created by a black woman, Shonda Rhimes. I'm very proud of her. A few other black folks have reached the senior ranks of TV drama writers: Pam Veasey (CSI: NY), Judy McCreary (Criminal Minds), Samantha Corbin (Crossing Jordan).

But, while it might sound good to proclaim, "There must be brilliant black writers out there who just can't get hired in Hollywood," I don't see any reason to presume that's true.

Why not? Because in other genres of writing—novels, plays, narrative journalism—brilliant black writers are mighty scarce. We, the black culture, simply don't produce many elite-level storytellers the way we produce tons of elite-level athletes and musicians. Whose fault is that?

After a dozen years in the TV business, I can tell you that most white writers are mediocre. And I believe black people have a right to be as mediocre as anybody else and still get jobs. But when you talk about the highest level of dramatic storytelling, which The Wire represents, don't assume the world is full of black writers who can bring it like David Simon. Or David Milch. Or David Chase.

Screenwriting in general, and series television in particular, demands peculiar gifts. Not every fine novelist or playwright or journalist can do it well. Simon and Richard Price happen to be great at it. I dig Walter Mosley and August Wilson, but neither distinguished himself as a screenwriter. It's a tricky medium.

The flaw in Groovelady's argument is her belief that being black somehow qualifies a person to write a good script about black life. If that were the case, America would have 38 million excellent black writers. Blackness isn't a qualification for anything except being black. Talent is what qualifies a person to tell a good story, be it about black life or any other subject.

The Wire isn't flawless. Nor should it be the last word written about America's ghettos. But the black writer who takes it the next level deeper will need to be gifted like Coltrane, like Hendrix, like Willie Mays. And whoever that writer is, he or she had better be more interested in the condition of being human than the condition of being black.


From: Steve James
To: Alex Kotlowitz, David Mills
Subject: The Wire and Martin Scorsese

Posted Monday, October 16, 2006, at 4:27 PM ET

David and Alex,

For my money, The Wire's visual and storytelling style is what you might call "classical." The series runs against the tide of current television (and even film) drama by not indulging in spurious attempts to mimic the look and urgency of real documentaries with a lot of "shaky-cam": jiggley hand-held shots, quick unmotivated zooms, extreme close-ups, and editing that seems intent on letting no shot play longer than two seconds. It's an affliction shared by recent works like Friday Night Lights (the film and the series), the controversial Path to 9/11, much of the work of Oliver Stone, and virtually every awful network-TV miniseries involving natural and man-made disasters. (Though I don't include such deft appropriations of doc style as Paul Greengrass' Bloody Sunday and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves.) Real documentary filmmakers would fire shooters who can't hold a shot or focus, or sit still on a subject. Why? Because it prevents the viewer from connecting with the subject and story at hand. And as David says, The Wire is, above all, intent on pulling the viewer into the story and characters.

Classical doesn't mean uninteresting. I see some of Scorsese's influence in the style—not the amped-up, dolly-mad Scorsese of Color of Money and Casino. And not the poetic realism of Raging Bull. More like his Taxi Driver, or his latest, The Departed. (Indeed, Simon has noted Scorsese as an influence.) It's a style, like David says, that never lets you forget the world around the characters. It often caps off a scene with a beautifully composed wide shot that encourages the viewer to think about a character. I seem to recall a very apt one of Stringer Bell from Season 3, where we leave him sitting alone in a bucolic park after he's begun to see that his drug-world savvy is not enough to make him a player in the ruthless world of downtown politics and real estate.

I note other differences from the prevailing tide in films and television. Many scenes in The Wire end just short of resolution of a conflict. That's just good storytelling that keeps the audience hooked. But then other times, like Alex says, they will extend the moment at the end of a scene long past what most any other film or show would. Perfect example from this season is when Bunny Colvin is working as the head of hotel security and is called to deal with a guest who has beaten up a prostitute. After he angrily handcuffs the guest and basically loses his job, the last shot is held for maybe eight seconds on the tableau of the distressed prostitute, Colvin, the guest, and his boss. No one says anything. We watch Colvin, paralyzed by the realization that he does not belong here—yet he's no longer a policeman either and can do nothing about what just happened.

The Wire, in general, favors the medium shot over the close-up. You could say it's a more democratic angle—it allows viewers room to make judgments of their own instead of being led by the nose by far more emotionally manipulative close-ups. It astounds me how many films these days play out overwhelmingly in close-up. You're at your local multiplex looking up at a big screen, and it's as if the filmmakers have decided to treat it like you are sitting in your living room watching a 13-inch set. Perhaps that's why I always loved the fact that Stanley Kubrick was willing to take this concern to fairly extreme lengths. In Barry Lyndon, you get only two close-ups in the entire three-hour film. But they are two of the most potent close-ups I've ever seen in a movie.

And then, of course, there's The Wire's construction of the scenes themselves. The series isn't afraid to let scenes play out for minutes at a time. The result is a show that is defiantly not "fast-paced," yet riveting nonetheless. Like a long, compelling novel.

Before I go, I want to add a thought about David's answer to Groovelady: As a filmmaker with some experience in Hollywood, I've seen what David laments. I know of successful producers who have tried to develop black-themed projects and made a point of seeking out black writers for consideration and found the talent pool distressingly shallow. Many of the best candidates were busy or unavailable. But like David says, black writers should have just as much right to be as successful and mediocre as the scores of white writers out there now. Maybe there needs to be an initiative to steer more black students and budding writers into studio internships or something. But the writer's life in Hollywood is such a lonely one. With no real studio system in place anymore, it's hard to know where to begin.

But there is also still plenty of prejudice out there in "liberal" Hollywood. On the heels of Hoop Dreams' success, my partner and I did a lot of meetings with the studios. At the time, Spike Lee was in the press, due to a fight over his film Malcolm X. Several of these execs we met with went off on Spike. About how difficult he was and how ungrateful. It became clear that they were also afraid of him. That he didn't play by their rules. We would point out that no one was more generous to us with praise for our film than Spike. (He even signed on as an executive producer for a possible dramatization of Hoop Dreams.) We told these execs that we saw him in a different way, but it fell on deaf ears. I think it was John Singleton who once said something like, in Hollywood, an uncompromising white filmmaker has ambition; an uncompromising black filmmaker has an attitude.


From: Steve James
To: Alex Kotlowitz
Subject: The David Simon Code

Posted Monday, October 30, 2006, at 6:20 AM ET


Episode 7 was another strong one for me. The opening teaser was among the most intense in memory. Omar sends a message to other county jail inmates that he's not to be trifled with. But it's clear he fears for his life. He's more vulnerable than we've ever seen him in the show. Prezbo continues to rise to the challenge of teaching and relating to the kids in his classes. He discovers new textbooks and a computer squirreled away in a storage room. And he engages the kids in math through gambling with dice and monopoly money. Namond, the paper tiger, lashes out in school and in the boxing gym. He's not cut out for the life that's been chosen for him, yet he has too much pride and pressure to walk away. While waiting for the general election and expected coronation as mayor, Carcetti goes on some fact-finding tours within the police department. And Detective Kima solves her first murder case with a "no dialogue" crime scene investigation reminiscent of the famous Bunk/McNulty "fuck, fuuuck, fuuuuuuck" scene from Season 1. The Braddock murder, which launched Carcetti to victory, turns out to have been a random, accidental shooting. Great touch.

Last week, you and I had the pleasure of sitting in the audience at a David Simon Q&A at Northwestern University. A couple of points he made that night have stuck with me. He talked about how he always envisioned that the series would (hopefully) play five seasons and be done. If HBO came to him next year and wanted a sixth, he said he'd turn them down. If only David Chase were so inclined. Simon also hinted that the fifth season would take on the press as an institution. As a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, he would clearly bring an insider's perspective to that story line. In fact, he was pretty incensed over the current state of journalism in America today. Not so much about the cliché "hordes of mindless, aggressive reporters" but rather the slow attrition of quality reporting at the higher end. He lays most of the blame on the huge corporations that control much of the media in this country. He seemed particularly unhappy about what's happened to his old paper, where the reporting staff has declined from around 500 to 300.

Pressed to articulate what The Wire is ultimately about, he summed it up in one simple but devastating sentence. Paraphrasing here: The Wire is about how all our lives are worth less each day. Despite some well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) people in various institutions, modern life for Simon would appear to be about the decline of meaning and happiness. This comment sent me back to the companion book published on the series. In the introduction, Simon wrote:

The Wire is not about Jimmy McNulty. Or Avon Barksdale. Or crime. Or punishment. Or drugs. Or violence. Or even race. It is about The City.

It is about how we live as Americans at the millennium, an urban people compacted together. Sharing a common love, awe, and fear of what we have rendered in Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. At best, our metropolises are the ultimate aspiration for the American community, the repository for every myth from rugged individualism to the melting pot. At worst, our cities—or those places in our cities where most of us fear to tread—are vessels for the darkest contradictions and most brutal competitions that underlie the way we actually live together.

And to try to retard our collective slide into "worth-less-ness" (to "keep the Devil down in the hole" as it were), I suspect Simon believes that people need personal rules and codes of conduct: whether it be on a police force, or in a school, or on the streets. In Episode 7, Namond becomes so frustrated when the school won't suspend him for his misbehavior like they always had before, he sputters helplessly, "School gotta have rules!" And when Omar reaches out for Bunk's help, he tries to explain that he couldn't have possibly murdered a civilian because they aren't "in the game."

"A man got to have a code," Omar says.


From: Alex Kotlowitz
To: Steve James
Subject: David Simon Should Take On the Press

Posted Monday, October 30, 2006, at 10:53 AM ET


Omar's right: A man got to have a code. It's what I think has Simon mad as hell about the state of our brethren in the press. We got no code. Used to be, you got in this game to tear apart myths, to keep in check the folks with power, to get a handle on the human condition. But with some notable exceptions, it's not about that anymore. You have journalism gurus talking about things like focus groups and civic journalism and the balance sheet. It's not why I got into this business. I watch The Wire, and I'm thinking to myself, "Why aren't we reading about this world in our city newspapers?" I'm not on the streets like I used to be, but every time I go out, I stumble across some great story, some great shame. Not long ago, a young guy whom I knew as a toddler was shot and killed. In broad daylight. Just outside one of the few remaining public housing buildings. When he was a kid, everyone called him "Snuggles." As a young adult, they refined it to "Snugs." Everyone in the neighborhood seems to know who killed him, someone his brother had had a dispute with. Why hasn't he been caught? I suspect the answer to that is a complicated one, but no one's asking it. If I'm working for a newspaper, I'm on the street asking those questions.

All this is by way of saying, man, I'm glad someone of Simon's ilk is going to take on journalism. We need a good stiff kick in the butt. Without meaning to sound too high-minded about this stuff, an aggressive, rigorous, independent Fourth Estate is essential for a democracy—which is something we rightfully take such pride in that we're trying to import it to others. Look, I may be critical of the press, but I'm its biggest booster. I love what journalism can do. I rely on it. Newspapers are my nourishment. I practice it. It's in my blood. But we're losing our way. We blew it during the lead-up to the Iraq war. We weren't posing the questions that needed asking. It's clear where we failed there—and we're making up for it now with tough-minded, courageous reporting. Look, though, at what's going on in our cities and small towns. Is the press posing the questions that need to be asked? Are we making people squirm? Are we agitating folks? Are we spending time with the new immigrant; with the street-corner drug dealer; with the beleaguered public defender or the troubled prosecutor; with the laid-off steelworker; with the beat cop or homicide dick; with the single mom holding down two jobs; with the principal at an underfunded, overcrowded school; with the crack addict just out of prison; or with the guard at the packed county jail?

Look, this isn't to ignore what has all of us scared: the fact that newspapers are hurting financially. Just last week the publisher at the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a memo to the paper's staff telling them that it looks like cash flow will be half of what it was two years ago. As a recent article in Fast Company suggested: "Papers consequently have been laying off employees, offering buyouts, shuttering foreign bureaus, and cutting costs with a vigor they once reserved for exploring meaty stories."

But here's the thing: If we're worried about the newspaper's very survival, we can't run away from what we do best and what we must do, which is keeping an eye on things. Being a watchdog. Crawling into corners and crevices where we otherwise might not venture. Putting us in places we don't belong. Helping us figure out what holds us together and keeps us apart. Helping us, as Simon says, see why for some of us our lives have been devalued. (In my city, just take a walk on the tired West Side or among the abandoned steel mills on the South Side to see what Simon's talking about.) If we move away from that mission, newspapers are bound to lose readers. Newspapers will no longer be necessary. And so if we want to ensure the future of the Fourth Estate, we've got to make sure that we never—and I mean never—become anything less than essential. If that happens, it will not only be the end of the American press, it will emasculate our democracy.

I know I've wandered a bit far afield here, but I feel so passionate about my profession and so anxious about where it's headed—and, hey, Steve, you brought it up. I couldn't help myself. I'm barely halfway through the fourth season of The Wire, and I'm already pining for what next year will bring.


From: Steve James
To: Alex Kotlowitz
Subject: And One More Thing …

Posted Monday, October 30, 2006, at 1:41 PM ET


A quick rejoinder to say that it strikes me that with the retreat of everyday journalism, the vacuum is mostly being filled by books and independent documentary films. Look at all the books and documentaries that have come out on the Iraq war while it's still being waged. Remember that notion that the newspaper is the first draft of history? Maybe books and documentaries are fulfilling that role now. I read somewhere that last year alone, some 90 documentaries were released theatrically—more than any ever in a single year. And clearly, the most provocative films as a whole being made these days are nonfiction. I know I have a bias here, but it seems indisputable to me. Many people are tired of the same old fictional clichés and ready for something different, something true. The Wire proves that fiction can be just as true and deep as nonfiction. But it's more the exception than the rule.

See you next week.


war stories
Hillary Clinton's Small Ideas
In the Bush era, clichés represent much-needed wisdom.
By Fred Kaplan
Tuesday, October 31, 2006, at 6:47 PM ET

Sen. Hillary Clinton delivered what they call a "major policy address" at the Council on Foreign Relations this afternoon, and it proved that, against an administration of misplaced conviction and shallow ideology, clichés are wisdom and conventional thinking can be profound.

Few of Sen. Clinton's pronouncements would stun a classroom of freshman poli-sci majors. That U.S. foreign policy needs "bipartisan consensus" and "nonpartisan competence"; that, in an "increasingly interdependent world," we must remain "internationalists" and "realists"; that "patient diplomacy, backed up by American strength, informed by American values," is just the ticket. Who could dispute such truisms?

The stunning thing is that the president of the United States and his top advisers do dispute them in their rhetoric and their policies. Hence their blithe disregard of expertise (military, economic, and otherwise), their harrumphing unilateralism, their exaggerated assumptions about American power, their dismissal of negotiations as a game for weaklings (and negotiations with bad guys as appeasement).

The world is awash in the consequences, not least in the regions around the "axes of evil," where the administration has tried most intensely to hoist its ideas onto reality.

When President Bush reduces the sectarian complexities of Iraq to a struggle between the forces of terror and the ordinary people who just want a decent life, he seems utterly incurious about the composition of those people or what they might consider a decent life—and genuinely unaware of the connection between their society's upheaval and the war that he brought on.

Sen. Clinton today put forth her three-point proposal for dealing with Iraq. 1) Press the Iraqi government to get serious about internal reconciliation, and present real consequences for their failure to do so. One possible approach, she said, might be to establish an oil trust, the revenue of which would be equitably shared by all Iraqis, thus placating Sunni discontent and demonstrating that America has no ambitions for their oil. 2) Convene an international conference of all parties in the region, including Iran and Syria. 3) Begin a "phased re-deployment" of U.S. troops, leaving behind only enough for support and training Iraq's own military.

Nothing to raise eyebrows, but, by contrast, is the Bush administration doing anything? For all the fuss over the White House's recent disavowal of "stay the course," has actual policy changed in the slightest? And, by the way, what is that policy?

Sen. Clinton wants more troops in Afghanistan, noting that, per capita, the international community has 50 times as many troops in Bosnia. The case needs elaboration—for instance, what would the troops have the authority to do, and how can political corruption be cleaned up?—but the administration isn't doing anything, one way or the other, in part because, owing to the Iraqi quagmire (I think we can use that word now), there are hardly any spare troops to send.

On Iran, she called for direct talks with Tehran, if just to find out who's really running things over there. President Bush declines, leaving such things to the British, French, and Germans, saying that the Iranians know what we want if they want to strike up a conversation. Maybe, but does Bush—does anybody, really—know what they want?

On North Korea, she expressed delight that the North Koreans agreed this morning, after extensive diplomatic pressure from China, to return to the six-party talks in Beijing. But she complained that Bush administration has spent six years dangling neither sticks nor carrots in its dealings with the admittedly horrid Kim Jong-il.

She referred to the tension, which has challenged statesmen throughout American history, between our interests and our ideals—and the need to devise and manage a judicious mix of the two. President Bush has failed to do this because he pretends the tension doesn't exist.

She also commented that the FBI should have more than 33 Arabic-speaking analysts (none of whom work in the counterterrorism division); that our fiscal indebtedness to China's central bankers makes it hard to pressure the Chinese government on important matters of dispute; that torturing people, even horrible people who might deserve it, isn't a good idea if we're trying to present ourselves as paragons of democracy.

In certain Democratic circles, the cry has gone out for presidential candidates and party honchos to articulate grand ideas, especially in foreign policy—bright new strategies for the 21st century and the post-post-Cold War world. But if there's one lesson of the George W. Bush era (and it is an era—has any six-year span ever seemed longer?), it's that grand ideas are the ones that most often get you in trouble. There are plenty of good ideas—sound ideas out there in the realms of history, shrewd analysis, and common sense. It might be enough simply to call for candidates who are smart, skeptical, and rooted in reality.

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