Friday, June 30, 2006

New Yorker's David Remnick
Says Flipping Public the Bird

No Longer Works for Editors

'Q: Given the recent scandals in the field of journalism, do you think that ethics are disintegrating?

A: No. I think that transparency is increased. Twenty-five years ago, if you had tried to write a letter to Ben Bradlee (then editor of the Washington Post) or Abe Rosenthal (editor of the NYTimes) and gone on about, you know, 'How come you're so pro-Pakistan and anti-India?' or, alternately, 'How come you're so pro-India and anti-Pakistan?'--they were so powerful and so remote from the implications of the public that they could essentially flip the bird. Now that's not the case, and mostly to the good. So I think these questions are discussed more. There was in the old days, no New York Observer, there was no Web. Can these things be nasty? Can they be unreasonably personal? Can they be wrong? They can be all of those things, but they've also increased this sense of accountability. Were there things in the past at newspapers or magazines that were, as you say, as scandalous as some of the things we've seen in the last few years? Yes. They just didn't get as much attention.'

--From an interview (not online) with Remnick in the July/August issue of the excellent Poets & Writers Magazine

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Trying to Understand
the Ever-Elusive Source
Of Writing Compulsion

There are several books on and about writing that have rightly been installed in the informal canon, and which I think belong on any ambitious writer's bookshelf. I'll try to post my list sometime soon, which I hope will spark a dialogue from readers that will sharpen, add to and perhaps omit from my list. But of course that list is always in flux, and one recent addition is a
book that's far less well-known than some, but which I think belongs in that canon, The Midnight Disease--The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain, by Alice Flaherty, a neurologist. It's full of tremendous insights into the sources of creativity and the compulsion to write. Flaherty writes that her drive to understand the neurological sources of creativity and the writing impulse are more a result of an accident she had (she was hit by a truck) than the fact that she makes her living from understanding the human brain. She writes in the introduction that "I wrote this book to try to explain to myself what had erupted in (or into) my brain to turn me, almost against my will, into a writer." You can learn more about her by reading this interview. And below, with apologies to the author and her publisher, are some excerpts that I found especially interesting.

"One group of studies by Alice Brand provides evidence that writing, at least on personally chosen subjects, satisfies some urge and has measurable mood efffects. In both students and professional writers, the act of writing both intensified positive emotions and blunted negative ones. This outcome was something of a surprise to researchers in the field of composition studies, as the standard view of writing emphasizes the anxiety induced in students by writing assignments. The findings were consistent with what has been described by many writers, from hypergraphic patients to Joyce Carol Oates, who said, 'I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhuasted, when I've felt my soul as thin as playing cards....and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.' Ernest Hemingway saw Oates's half-full glass as half empty: 'when I don't write, I feel like shit.' Some writers, such as the poet Tina Kelley, describe a physical sensation of unease or restlessness that torments them if they haven't written for a few days. For others, it is a sort of headache, a stuffy, swollen brain. Milton described feeling like a cow that needs to be milked. For many, there is the primal conviction that they should not do anything but write--because it is their vocation, in a nearly religious sense. Writing is what they were meant to do, and the headaches and the restlessness are their body's rebellion when it is kept from fulfilling its destiny."

* * * * * * * *

"How does writing differ from speech? Writing is harder, and more culturally dependent. Nearly everyone learns to speak but in many countries almost no one learns to write. Even in the United States, with its universal public education, 10 percent of adults are functionally illiterate and write at less than a sixth-grade level. Why? Writing is not obviously a more complex task than speech. If anything, the much greater speed at which speech is produced and deciphered, the smaller territory allotted to auditory than visual processing in the brain, and the contortions of the tiny larynx should create even more of a challenge than writing. One argument has it that writing is more difficult for humans because it is evolutionarily recent, not hardwired the way speech seems to be."

* * * * * * * *

"Several factors besides skill are more significant in professional writers than in most amateurs. One is love of the surface level of language: the sound of it; the taste of it on the tongue; what it can be made to do in virtuosic passages that exist only for their own sake, like cadenzas in baroque concerti. Writers in love with their tools are not unlike surgeons obsessed with their scalpels, or Arctic sled racers who sleep among their dogs even when they don't have to. Another difference between amateur and professional writers, almost by definition, is that the latter more successfully engage their audience. It is partly a question of skill, but more often a matter of goals. Amateur writers tend to write primarily for self-expression, whereas writers able to become professional can hide or transform their own agendas enough so that they are of interest to others."

* * * * * * * *
"Many of the classic symptoms of depression are also classic symptoms of writer's block: increased self-criticism; decrease in enjoyment of the project; loss of energy, imagination, and the ability to concentrate. And most depression directly disrupts a writer's motivation to write. Because depression is not only a mental state but also a brain state that is at least partially understood, what we know about depression can serve as a window on the neurological basis of some types of writer's block."
* * * * * * * *
"Writing is one of the supreme human achievements. No, why should I be reasonable? Writing is the supreme achievement. It is by turns exhilarating and arduous, and trying to write obsesesses and distresses students, professional writers, and diarists alike. Writers explain why they write (and have trouble writing) one way; freshman composition teachers, another; literary critics and psychiatrists and neurologists have increasingly foreign explanations. These modes of thinking about the emotions that surround writing do not easily translate into one another. But one fact is always true: the mind that writes is also the brain that writes. And the existence of brain states that affect our creativity raises questions that make us uneasy. What is the relation between mind and body? What are the sources of imagination?"

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

On Letting a Thousand Voices Bloom

When Ken Burns produced his stunning multi-part documentary on the Civil War some years ago, people came away from the PBS series rightly amazed by many things. But one of the most persistent reactions I recall hearing at the time was astonishment over the quality of the letters from that era, how they showed the common person to be so wonderfully eloquent.

Now, we find ourselves in a new golden era of literacy, I think, with millions of people newly turned on to reading and writing, including of course through blogs. And yet so many writers who derive their living from arranging words have been lashing out lately at the whole format (and those who pursue it) that it sometimes causes my heart to ache. But only a little. That's because a moment later I turn my attention back to this "non-professional" writing, and I see so much cause for hope, so much insightful, heartfelt writing that gives me such joy, that opens my eyes to things I never knew, that offers me glimpses into lives I wouldn't otherwise know about. I could point to hundreds of examples, but I won't. Instead, let me just mention a few.

How about a young woman who summons the honesty and self-knowledge to
count the ways in which she should be worried about her possible drinking problem? Or another young woman who unflinchingly faces her multiple sclerosis by writing about it? There's a left-brained engineer who's so excited about his upcoming poetry reading (a very right-brained exercise) that he got me excited, too. And there's an impossibly well-read fellow in Lakewood who's embarked on a "Summer of Dostoevsky." And one of my favorites, a divorced mom who gives me endless insight into the mind of mature women, with her nakedly honest recounting of conversations with her female friends. I could go on, but you get the picture.

And remember, these examples are only from this region. There are obviously so many others about which to rejoice. Does that mean the examples I've cited scrupulously represent all the millions of blogs out there? Of course not. Does that mean that there isn't plenty of ugliness and banality to be found on the web? Obviously not. In any medium during any era, there have been plenty of good and less good choices clamoring for readers' attention. The trick, of course, (in this and everything else in life) is figuring out what to pay attention to, the glass half full or half empty. So I'll leave the hand-wringing about the masses finding their voice to my nervous, censorious colleagues. As for me, I'll choose to remain thrilled at the rebirth of language, a rejuvenation of both writers and readers. I can only hope it continues to grow.

Winning the Hearts & Minds of Writers

With editorial budgets getting tighter nearly everywhere, how can ambitious editors retain the loyalty of serious writers? Publishing consultant John Brady lets us in on a little secret: while money is of course as important to writers as it is to professionals in any other field, there are all kinds of other ways to recruit and retain good writers. In this fine
column in Folio Magazine (a trade journal for magazine professionals), he reminds editors that they can give cover bylines and write thumbnail profiles (with photos) of their best contributors. They can intercede with the publisher to pay writers upon acceptance of their pieces rather than upon publication (which can often be months later). Heck, they can even do something really radical and pay the writer a little extra for using the print version on the publication's website. Brady first came on my radar screen nearly a decade ago when I read his splendid book, The Craft of Interviewing, which remains the best book I've yet encountered on the subject. Brady is now a visiting prof at the Ohio University Journalism School. He's also consulting partners with former Clevelander Greg Paul, who was once the staff designer for the now-defunct Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine. He later designed the Cleveland Edition and has since gone on to become one of a handful of the more prominent editorial design consultants in America. I think he even did the last redesign of the strikingly handsome Christian Science Monitor tabloid format.

The Way We Think of Glamour Now. L.A. Times film critic Carina Chocano let loose with an aha moment for readers last month. In this otherwise workmanlike
essay about Hollywood and the glamour industry, she observes that what we think is glamorous today versus what we thought was glamorous in the days of Cary Grant and other earlier screen idols speaks loudly about our culture. "Glamour used to present an idealized version of adulthood," she wrote. "Now it presents an idealized version of adolescence."

Another Look at Cobra II. Some months ago, I noted an important new book that provides an eye-opening inside history of the Bush Administration's march to war: Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. Recently, Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich
rendered his verdict on the same book in the London Review of Books, and it was so good that I thought it worth recommending to your attention. He notes that the Bush team, despite its allusions to Saddam as the new Hitler, "did not see Baghdad as Berlin but as Warsaw--a preliminary objective," the first domino in its campaign to remake the Mideast as it imagined it. In order to achieve this, he writes, "everyone (domestically) had to be neutralised. In other words, unleashing American might abroad implied a radical reconfiguration of power relationships at home. On this score, 9/11 came as a godsend. The hawks, citing the urgent imperatives of national security, set out to concentrate authority in their own hands. September 11 inaugurated what became in essence a rolling coup." Congress gets plenty of fault for handing Bush a blank check. "The notorious Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964 was a straitjacket compared to this spacious grant of authority."

To his credit, Bacevich doesn't let Bush's predecessor off the hook for a different brand of military ignorance. Here's how he sums up the Clinton presidency as it pertained to the military: "eight years of drift and stagnation camouflaged by the vaporous talk in which the ‘Man from Hope’ specialised. With his notion of foreign policy as a variant of social work, Clinton had repeatedly misused America’s armed forces. Kowtowing to his own generals, he had failed to push through the reforms essential for perpetuating US military dominance. Beguiled by his own rhetoric about globalisation, he had ignored threats brewing in East Asia and the Middle East. In the Clinton years, American power had atrophied even as new dangers proliferated."

Monday, June 26, 2006

Working With Words Wins SPJ Award

This modest journal is blushing this morning, since we learned yesterday that the Society of Professional Journalists
recognized WWW as its top blog in Ohio, actually tied for first with this food-themed blog, by a self-described grump. As I read over the list of winners in various categories, I was especially pleased to be in the company of so many friends, colleagues and acquaintances. You can see all of the awards here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Billionaire Brat Cuban Has Meltdown
While JCU-Grad Ref Keeps His Cool

When the NBA finals began, I said that the Mavs' idiot owner Mark Cuban was reason enough for me to root for Miami, even if the classier Dwayne Wade and Shaq didn't offer a more appealing story line, which they do. After all, character counts. And when the going gets rough, a person's true character tends to surface.

Sure enough, Cuban didn't let me down. Sunday night in game five, after his team melted down in the final seconds of overtime (taking their lead from Cuban's tiresome antics, I think), he went on a rampage . We saw the billionaire brat as he really is, saying whatever ugly thing came to his mind, just like Joe Sixpack in the stands.

The subject of much of his fury was referee Joe DeRosa, who was probably the coolest person in the building. I'll admit to a bias. DeRosa is a fellow John Carroll graduate, a guy who was just a year ahead of me in school. I never knew him at the time. But some years later, I did have occasion to meet him, while interviewing him and then watching him officiate a game for a profile I wrote of him in the John Carroll magazine I edited at the time.

I vividly recall him musing about the subject of game pressure during the interview in his hotel room a couple hours before gametime at the Washington arena. He said you have to just banish from your mind all the noise and the booing and even the possibility of making a crucial mistake that will be forever replayed on cable TV, and simply call them like you see them. And the other night, he did just that. Meanwhile, his officiating camp apparently had to get along without him.

Last night, the classier, more composed team won an NBA championship. The Heat took their cues from the cerebral, veteran coach Pat Riley, and the Mavs from their owner Cuban, who has all the self-discipline of an adolescent on a sugar high. Chalk one up for the adults.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Washington's Lobbying Culture, Part IV

With the rise of the K Street Project and the subsequent fall of its chief ringleaders, Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay, I've been on a kick recently about the capital's corrupt lobbying culture. In
Part I we considered what's to come after Abramoff. In Part II, we linked to an illuminating Washington Post account of how former Senator and Defense Secretary Bill Cohen rationalized his quick evolution from public moralist to amoral buckraking superlobbyist. And in Part III we bid adieu to Tom DeLay. The crux of my continuing interest, though, is this: how much is any of this shifting of the chess pieces likely to bring any real changes to the underlying culture of corruption?

This latest installment in the series arises from an
interesting piece I happened to read in an unlikely source, a magazine edited for corporate financial officers. The profile of the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a good reminder of how entrenched these corporate lobbies have become, and how arrogant they continue to be, even in the face of all the plentiful negative attention they've been getting. Tom Donahue seems to be a vote for business as usual.

I remember this guy Donahue from my years reporting about business and government in Washington. He was head of the American Trucking Associations at the time, the chief lobbyist for an industry that was still reeling from its then-recent deregulation, pushed through not by Reagan but by his successor Jimmy Carter, who came to believe that was the only way to curtail the power of the corrupt Teamsters union. Donahue was a bluff, confident guy, who quickly worked his way through his talking points with the media and legislators, barely pausing to consider other points of view. If you wanted someone representing your industry, I suppose, he was the guy for you.

Judging by this piece, he hasn't changed a bit, though he's now responsible for representing the interests of a far larger slice of the U.S. economy. You'd think that in the current environment, a brass-knuckled corporate lobbyist might be reconsidering the tough talk. Forget it. The magazine quotes him as saying "I'm not looking for a barroom brawl...but our adversaries should be forewarned. We're coming at you 10 wide and 6 deep. We play to win." That kind of talk gets him branded a "thug" by some, but then you almost have to admire his honesty. No PRniceties for this guy, just a series of punches to the solar plexus for anyone who disagrees. He openly admits that the Chamber plans to push for rollbacks in the Sarbanes-Oxley law passed by Congress in the wake of the Enron scandals.

One can only hope that in time he will find that, like Abramoff and DeLay before him, hubris and arrogance carries the seeds of its own destruction. An official of Costco (of all places) is quoted as being amazed and offended that a supposedly nonpartisan business lobby would spend so much on partisan elections.
Costco Wholesale Corp. decided several years ago not to join the organization after reviewing its political agenda. 'I was appalled to find the Chamber is funneling millions and millions under a cloak of secrecy to support predominantly Republican candidates,' says chief legal officer and senior vice president Joel Benoliel. 'We are strenuously against involving our company and our shareholders in partisan politics.'

Monday, June 19, 2006

Trumanesque Musings and State Media

Seth Cuts to the Heart of It. Viral marketing guru and author Seth Godin always seems to have a way of cutting through the yackety-yack to get to the heart of things. The other day on his blog, he wrote: "There's a lot of mythology in our lives, especially at work. Most of the time, that mythology is a lot more important than whatever fact you're in love with right this minute."

State Media? In The Nation's annual media issue, the muckraking radio & TV host
Amy Goodman surveys media coverage of the Iraq war before asking an important question: "...the media's adoption of Pentagon nomenclature raises the question: If this were state media, how would it be any different?"

The Right's Embrace of Truman. You've gotta love how nonpartisan conservative Republicans are in their search for heroes. Armed with precious few presidents whose records grow rosier with time, they're forever adopting the names of Democratic presidents (and British stalwarts like Winston Churchill) as ballast for their current pet causes. The latest to be lionized by the right is Harry S. Truman. The dippy one-time Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan did one of her usual
overheated swoons about how much Bush reminded her of Truman shortly after 9/11, and the word "Trumanesque" has been popping up all over the place ever since. The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol recently hearkened back to "the hard, Trumanesque truth" that war is hell, and that all this liberal handwringing over the apparent atrocities in Haditha must end. There's of course a main subtext in using this name. Truman left office among the most unpopular presidents ever, but eventually regained his popularity as historians reconsidered his record and his blunt, Midwestern outspokeness came to be seen in a different light. The right is of course hoping there's a precedent in all this for their Bully Boy Bush, he of the collapsing poll numbers. Don't count on it, folks.

For Talese, It's All About Perseverance. The author Gay Talese, interviewed in Sports Illustrated, talks about why he thought boxer Floyd Patterson was an ideal subject for him: "Patterson got knocked down more than anybody in the history of boxing, but he got up more than anybody, and that is a real achievement. What I write about is perseverance more than anything else."

Wolcott Considers The New Yorker's History. In
this lovely piece in a semi-obscure intellectual journal, The New Criterion, the always-interesting James Wolcott uses the occasion of the release of a boxed CD set of the New Yorker's entire archives as an occasion to fondly recall the place he called home from 1992-'97. As he samples highlights from decades of the magazine's greatest hits, it occurs to him that the magazine "was never as monolithic as its reputation." Knowing something about the magazine's storied history makes the current magazine's continued successes only that much more remarkable.

Google's Embrace of Chinese Censorship
Forever Puts to Rest 'Don't Be Evil' Motto

A generation ago, historian Hannah Arendt coined a memorable phrase while watching the trial of Nazi figure Adolph Eichmann: she called it the "banality of evil." The current regime in mainland China may not be quite so evil, but they're apparently just as banal. Only why do our leading tech firms have to provide them aid and comfort in their outrages? Ever wonder what query words Google has agreed to omit for delicate Chinese web-surfers at the behest of their repressive government? They include such explosive words as allegation, bedroom, despair, eloquent, essay, flashlight, irresponsible, literature, miserable, teenager and vague. You can see the full revolting list
here. Thanks to the ever-vigilant Google-watcher John Battelle and his excellent Search blog for calling attention to this. The bitter irony, of course, is that Google's informal corporate motto has long been Don't Be Evil. Too bad that sentiment seems to stop at the Chinese border.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Happy Father's Day, Dad

Here's a column I wrote about my dad for father's day. May all you fathers enjoy the day.

Friday, June 16, 2006

A Few Luminous Thoughts at Week's End

“A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.”
--Robert Frost

“You study, you learn, but you guard your original naivete. That naivete is within you as love is within the lover.”
--Henri Matisse

“To love is not a state; it is a direction.”

--Simone Weil

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Power of Good Design

Since I posted links to some recent journalistic articles yesterday, today is a day for links to some web copywriting projects I've worked on recently. A couple have gone live only recently.

Because of the juxtaposition of their launches, just several days apart, these two projects forcefully reminded me of how important good design is: on the web, in print and everywhere else in life. It's easy to take pleasing design for granted, at least until you see its opposite. Then you come to appreciate it all the more.

this site for Goodyear Tire's premiere tire brand, The Eagle, still has a couple of kinks to be worked out, mostly in the time it takes to load. But when it does load, it's pretty pleasing to the eye (at least to mine). On the other hand, I'm afraid that when it comes to this site, for a technology recovery company (which of course has a far smaller budget, and whose "designer" I inherited), a visitor may never get to focus much on the words, because the design is so, well...less than appealing. I'm hoping to persuade these folks to upgrade the look as soon as possible. This third site, which I worked on some months ago for a talented Cleveland-area artist and Vietnam vet who taught me something about western-themed art, came out looking pretty nice, I thought. I never did meet that designer.

In the meantime, that tech-recovery site will cause me mild problems of an entirely different sort. Because the outfit competes on a for-profit basis (at least in certain ways) with my buddy Dan Hanson's splendid nonprofit Computers Assisting People, I'll expect to take my abuse from him when next I see him (he's already peppered me by email). But then, Dan, a.k.a. "the Great Lakes Geek," has been giving me the business for a very long time (you can dip into more of his sprawling geek empire here, here and here). Who knows--there may well be a way for these two organizations to help each other. I'm hoping to explore that with them both sometime soon.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Rough Crossings: The Review

Here's my latest book review in the Christian Science Monitor, of a book by the British historian Simon Schama. You'll find my earlier Monitor reviews here and here.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Yet Another Reason to Love the Journal

As stock markets around the world contiune to decline, you can expect to see hundreds of articles and other news reports that purport to explain what's happening and why. But you may never come across an explanation as clear as this one, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal last Monday. It’s one more reminder of how the Journal somehow manages to speak to both Wall Street and Main Street, illuminating both.

The problems roiling the world’s financial markets lately can be summarized in a simple sentence: Central bankers are draining away some of the easy money that has made investors’ lives comfortable for years. Whether once-hot investments such as Florida condos, developing-country stocks, gold and copper recover or continue to cool could depend on how serious the central bankers decide to be. If they keep mopping up the excess liquid cash they had helped pour into the markets, they will eventually slake the world’s thirst for speculative investments, forcing investors toward established stocks, government bonds and other safe investments. If they decide to go easy, as Japanese officials recently have been doing, then maybe some of the speculative investments can hang. on…The situation stems from the painful 2000-2002 bear market. Fearing price deflation that would cause a recession or even depression, central bankers slashed rates and pumped money into the world’s financial system by buying bonds, funneling deposits into commercial banks and generally tossing money at the problem. They avoided economic disaster. But the side effect was an eruption of questionable investments. Companies couldn’t use all that cash to build businesses, so a lot wound up in the financial markets. Speculators borrowed at tiny interest rates in Asia and profited by buying higher-yielding bonds in the U.S. Americans loaded up on cheap mortgages, plasma television sets and real estate. With the world economy booming, the speculative money flowed not only into copper and zinc, but also into gold, silver –even timberland. Many investment pros think those speculative days are gone.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Zarqawi: A Case Study in How
U.S. War Propaganda Unfolds

When you hear arguments about how independent-minded the media is, and how it's all over the Bush Administration, covering it aggressively, just think about Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.

Nearly every newspaper and electronic report in recent days has splashed major attention on the terrorist's death from an American bombing raid. And while most carried the obligatory caution, that his death probably didn't mean much in terms of stopping terrorism, the basic story line still took the lead from the Bush Administration's version, that this was a major figure in the terrorist network, rivaling even Bin Laden. And that his death constitutes a major victory for us in a grinding war that hasn't given our side much cause for celebration lately.

Only, what if the central figure was mostly an American concoction?
This piece from The Atlantic, rushed onto the web shortly after his death, wonderfully describes how this one-time Jordanian street thug is hardly a terrorist mastermind. He achieved that role, only symbolically, largely as a result of U.S. propaganda, beginning with Colin Powell's ushering him onto the world stage in his infamous presentation before the U.N.

The author quotes one Jordanian intelligence official as saying this: “'The Americans have been patently stupid in all of this. They’ve blown Zarqawi so out of proportion that, of course, his prestige has grown. And as a result, sleeper cells from all over Europe are coming to join him now.' He paused for a moment, then said, 'Your government is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.'” But he's perhaps short-sighted. No, this strategy won't help the U.S. win the larger conflict, but it does help the administration escape blame and look less inept, which is always what it's about for this bumbling crowd. By focusing all the attention on this lesser figure, the administration gets to shift attention away from its ongoing inability to capture the real mastermind. How kind of the media to help them achieve that strategic goal.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Newt for President!

One of the funniest bumper stickers I ever saw was actually a joke at Richard Nixon's expense. It was a play on his famous years-long campaign to regain respectability after resigning the presidency in shame. It read: "He's tanned. He's rested. He's ready. Nixon in '88"

The former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, is apparently taking a page from the Nixon playbook. Only he's going further, sending up trial balloons about actually running for the White House. I'm only glad my mouth wasn't full of drink or food when I came across
this Washington Post report a few moments ago, because I would have either ejected it or choked from laughing so hard. I can just see the opposition's 30-second spots. A look back at Newt's ex-wife, with the voice-over explaining how her one-time family values husband divorced her to take up with his young assistant while she was on the verge of death from cancer. Then again, I suppose the Republicans needed some comic relief on the day that Gingrich's successor, Tom Delay, formally stepped down (but not before giving earnest interviews to the TV networks about how proud he was of the K Street Project).

Friday, June 09, 2006

Bidding Farewell
to 'The Hammer'

'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.'
--Martin Luther King, Jr.

Though it's been scheduled for weeks, and in certain ways has been in the works for months if not years, today is the official date on which Texas Congressman Tom Delay, a.k.a "The Hammer," finally leaves public office. We wish him well in his many future endeavors, chief among which will be trying his best to avoid a prison term.

Perhaps only in America do stories such as this unfold. The one-time exterminator became the third-most powerful man in the capital (after the president and VP), effectively operating as Speaker of the House through his hand-picked guy, an amiable former wrestling coach named Dennis Hastert, who technically occupied the office. Denny got the title, while Delay called all the shots. It was a good strategy at first: the sneering Texan had studied the career of Newt Gingrich, and knew that by becoming a widely known figure, he would also become a juicy target for reformers, which might hasten his fall.

What happened next was almost unprecedented in American history, the kind of blatant pay-to-play government corruption that turns your stomach. Delay unashamedly went about merging the lobbying industry with the Congressional leadership, keeping lists of party donors on his desk, telling industry groups to hire Republican buddies or be shut out of the legislative process.

Like Newt Gingrich before him, his influence will of course not suddenly end because he leaves office. This piece in the Nation focuses on his explicit successors, but his larger legacy of deep, unapologetic corruption is a wider problem for the entire Republican establishment and for the right. It will be remembered, and dredged up again and again by the opposition, for a very long time. As well it should be.

There are many heroes behind his ouster, but let me focus on just the two most important.

From his perch as chairman of the obscure Indian Affairs subcommittee, Senator John McCain used that uniquely effective lever, the power of subpoena, to pry open this story. It took some courage to do so for a Republican, peering into the slimiest corners of his own party. But then, after being held prisoner for years in a Vietnamese cell, this was a walk in the park by comparison. And the bruising his image took from his role in the so-called Keating Five case had left McCain forever attuned to the importance of cleanliness on this issue.

The linchpin of this corruption, the public face of it all, was a bizarre man named Jack Abramoff, a well-oiled lobbyist with a weird past. McCain and his staff began to pull on the thread of impossibly large federal lobbying contracts from Indian tribes, and from there the larger tale of this network of corruption slowly seeped, and then gushed, out. The outrageous Abramoff emails, berating Indian clients as "monkeys" even as he was bilking them of millions of dollars in fees, forever stamped these people as cretins in the public's mind.

Abramoff had old ties, through the College Republicans, to a uniquely influential figure on the right, Grover Norquist, the onetime anti-tax crusader, later turned buckraking lobbyist. His weekly Wednesday meetings became a master planning session for right-wing political strategizing. And that in turn put him closely in touch with both Delay and with the White House, through Karl Rove, for whom he served as a key bridge to movement conservatives. Norquist, a grim, bearded and bespectacled revolutionary who once famously said he wanted to cut the federal government in half over 25 years, "to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathroom," apparently had no qualms against doing personal business with that same government before he drowned it.

He formed a lobbying partnership with a man named David Safavian, who had been the Bush Administration's top administrator for federal procurement policy, as well as a former lobbying colleague of Abramoff's. (Safavian was later arrested for obstructing the ongoing probe by allegedly lying to investigators). Throw in Ralph Reed, the telegenic, smooth-talking onetime political director for Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition (and later a buckracking lobbyist for the likes of Microsoft), and this tight little group was nicely set to engage in a massive feeding frenzy at the public trough.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a one-time Eagle Scout, was following the trail of political money-laundering by Delay fundraisers. He pulled on that thread until it became apparent that it led right to Delay himself. He ultimately won indictments, which eventually made it all but impossible for the Republican party to keep Delay in the leadership.

The Hammer didn't sit still for this two-bit local investigation, of course. He threw everything he had at the local-yokel prosecutor. But the veteran Earle knew how the game of power politics was played, anticipated many of Delay's slime tactics, and never let the pressure stop him from continuing his patient investigation. When Delay and his henchmen threatened to intervene with the state legislature to get his budget removed, Earle calmly informed everyone that wouldn't stop him. Even without a staff or a budget, he'd continue to investigate the case, even if he had to issue subpoeanas through the media (like McCain, he' s always been popular with the media, which loves a maverick. Earle almost pursued a journalism career himself, as this piece notes).

In an especially telling observation, Earle once told Texas Lawyer magazine: “There is a basic rule that the Mafia follows. And it is used as a template by most politicians that I have investigated: Deny the allegation and attack the allegator.” (I can't wait to see this documentary, "Big Buy," which chronicles the face-off between Earle and Delay. It's been in the works for several years, and should be a doozie when it's finished).

For their crucial role in helping to document and ultimately bring down this unfathomable corruption, these two guys are heroic Americans in my book, the kind (as I've written before) of people who, like Sam Ervin during Watergate, tend to appear at key parts of our national narrative, and perform heroically. A round of drinks on the house for both of them.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Let the Finals Begin

Now that one set of finals are over (in our house, that means high school final exams), the decks are cleared for a more pleasing set of finals--the NBA finals, which begin tonight. The Christian Science Monitor does
a nice piece on how the league has regained its groove, with a bevy of exciting young stars, naturally including Lebron James. Unfortunately, the piece contains one howler: it includes Denver Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony among the young NBA stars who are role models for kids. I think the writer may have overlooked one important fact: the guy once financed an underground DVD, "Stop Snitching," which counsels wrongdoers, especially drug dealers, not to cooperate with police. ESPN Magazine recounts the whole dreary chapter here. This kind of thing may enhance his street cred with the worst elements of the hip-hop generation, but it hardly makes him a role model.

Thankfully, this clown won't be among those on the big stage tonight. But there will be another clown in the thick of things: Mavs owner and brat-boy billionaire Mark Cuban, who made his pile by selling his start-up, to Yahoo shortly before the tech bubble burst. His new-age franchise owner's tactics--bitterly waging war on the refs, micromanaging team operations and forever crying about the team's media coverage--are more than enough to convince me to root for the Miami Heat, if Shaq and Dwayne Wade weren't enough reason already.

And while you're at it, if you see my friend Jim Kukral, web guru extraordinaire, ask him about his non-brush brush with Cuban. It's a funny story.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Missing Them Most
After They're Gone

'I've been drawn to writers unafraid of the first-person singular, willing to think out loud, to experiment with narrative and cadence, bet the pot on a metaphor, take a chance with an argument or a line of inquiry that in other periodicals might be deemed ill-advised, unkempt, overly complex. Whether or not I agree with what was being said didn't matter as much as the author's saying it in a way that couldn't be confused with the mission statement 'What we stand for: Our Core Beliefs and Values,' produced by the CIA: 'Objectivity is the substance of intelligence, a deep commitment to the customer in its forms and timing.''
-- Lewis H. Lapham, former editor, Harper's Magazine

Monday, June 05, 2006

Where Writing and
Citizenship Intersect

'The first job of the citizen is to keep your mouth open.'
--Novelist and Nobel laureate Gunter Grass

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Time to Move On, Lady

'Many years ago, when I was in analysis, my therapist used to say, 'love is homesickness.' What she meant is you tend to fall in love with someone who reminds you of one of your parents. This, of course, is one of those things that analysts always say, even though it isn't really true. Just about anyone on the planet is capable of reminding you of something about one of your parents, even if it's only a dimple.'
--Nora Ephron, writing in the current New Yorker, in a piece about her love for her old apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan. Once more, she manages to remind readers that her former husband (who she doesn't name, but whose name is Carl Bernstein, of Woodward & Bernstein fame) cheated on her. Mind you, this was a quarter century ago, and she's already written an entire movie about it, Heartburn. Time to move on, Nora...

Friday, June 02, 2006

Words of Inspiration
From One of Our
Leading Educators

'We all learned to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things.'
--then-Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, quoted in 1983 by the Washington Post.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Frontline Does it Again

For the better part of the last two evenings, I was mostly out of commission, thoroughly absorbed by
The Age of AIDS. The latest installment of PBS's Frontline series, this two-part, four-hour program was only the most recent reminder of Frontline's status as an unqualified national treasure. Its relentless, exhaustive reporting and the epic narrative arc of most of its programs only grows more distinctive and important as other media steadily gravitate away from ambitious, hard-edged storytelling.

Having lived through the entire life of this story and watching it unfold through incremental news reports, I found I'd missed so many crucial parts of it, or at least failed to understand their importance at the time, or how these various developments fit into the larger picture.

This show masterfully took you back over the whole broad sweep of the story, told by patients, leading medical investigators and world leaders. It wonderfully explained how the pandemic converged politics, public health, faith (and sometimes superstition) into the same narrow corridor, where they were left to fight it out to the death. It highlighted the clash between developed and developing world as few other issues could.

By the end of the last century, no fewer than 20 million people around the world had died of AIDS, and yet most national governments remained in deep denial about its ravages. Clinton cabinet secretary Donna Shalala recalled how the Chinese health minister told her his nation, with closed borders, could not possibly have this disease (about one million Chinese nevertheless did). While we naturally tend to remember Reagan's stubborn refusal to either speak up about the epidemic or provide funding to battle it, Frontline points out that he was hardly alone in avoiding the stigma of plague. Even the sainted Nelson Mandela refused to invest any personal attention in the subject (delegating it instead to aides) even though his South Africa had the world's highest incidence of the disease. A white South African nurse vividly recalled how doctors and other health professionals there were left to ignore AIDS patients to care for those with a greater chance for survival, creating yet another level of apartheid.

As always with Frontline, the producers don't pull their punches. They point fingers at mistakes along the way and name names of those who made them. One of the more illuminating disasters involved the World Health Organization--which in the early days of the epidemic was on a roll, spending $100 million on interventions and racking up some impressive victories. Eventually, the director tired of all the media attention being showered on one of his employees, a heroic doctor who tirelessly campaigned for resources to respond to the epidemic, and the doctor soon left. The WHO would never again take the lead in the global public health intervention (eventually, the United Nations Security Council met to discuss the problem, the first and only time that body has ever met to take up an issue other than that of war and peace).

Ultimately, after pressure from protestors as well as goverments around the world, the big pharmaceutical companies dropped the prices of the cocktail therapy for patients in poor nations, from $16,000 annually to $400. With that therapeutic success (there is no cure) and the leveling off of media attention in recent years, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that the problem of AIDS has been largely solved, but this program disabuses you of that notion. Forty million people around the world now have the virus, and that number is climbing by five million each year. Twenty percent of Brazil's health spending is devoted to the disease. "I think we won a few battles," says one middle-aged researcher, who predicts no cure in either his lifetime or that of his children. "But most of the time, HIV wins."