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The Nation

Harry Whittington, Prison Reformer

This afternoon, my friend Michael Mushlin--a longtime member of the invaluable Correctional Association of New York and a venerable professor at Pace Law School--sent me a worthy article offering empirical evidence for a proposition we intuitively know: Harsh prison conditions in fact contribute to recidivism. What struck me in reading the article, just hours after skimming today's New York Times profile of Dick Cheney's hunting victim, is that Texas lawyer Harry Whittington has made the same point. "While serving on the board of the Texas Department of Corrections in the 1980s," the Times reports, "and after observing the conditions in many state prisons, Whittington once claimed, 'Prisons are to crime what greenhouses are to plants.'"

Now, as the inimitable Molly Ivins put it in her column yesterday, Whittington isn't some flaming liberal. He's a liberal, Ivins writes, "only by Texas standards, and that sets the bar about the height of a matchbook. Nevertheless, [he] is seriously civilized, particularly on the issues of crime, punishment and prisons."

Seriously civilized. Hard to think of the Texans in this Administration--or its second-in-command, for that matter--in those terms.

Accidents Will Happen

This morning the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that ABC World News Tonight co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas is pregnant--mazel tov! Before everyone piles on about what this means for working women--if her maternity leave lasts longer than a weekend can all women be fired right away?--let's not overlook the most interesting bit. It was an accident! "This was about as unplanned as it gets," Vargas told the paper.

"I was shocked." (Vargas got the news 10 days before her debut.) So, a hugely successful, smart, rich, married woman with a three-year-old, who has access to the best medical care in the world, and is moreover 43 years old, can have an accidental pregnancy! Who knew? That must mean a woman can have an unplanned pregnancy and not be a careless, stupid, immature slut, who deserves the scorn of right-thinking people. It's great that Vargas is happy with her surprise, but if it could happen to Vargas, it can happen to any woman. Next time someone starts in on abortion as something that no one would need if women were more responsible, feel free to point this out.

Feingold's Frustrating Fight to Fix Patriot Act

The Patriot Act needs to be reformed so that it can serve as a legitimate national security tool without undermining basic liberties. That's the view of legal scholars, civil libertarians on the right and the left of the political spectrum, and the seven state legislatures and 395 local governments that have passed anti-Patriot Act resolutions promoted by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

For a time, it also seemed to be the view of a remarkable bipartisan coalition of U.S. Senators that in December blocked the Bush-Cheney administration's scheme to reauthorize the act without significant changes.

Unfortunately, the coalition fell apart when, under pressure from the White House, Republican senators backed away from the fight and, essentially, gave the administration what it wanted. Then, in another sign that America has no opposition party, senior Democrats joined with the Republicans to accept the White House-backed plan.

But one senator refused to go along with a reauthorization proposal that satisfies the president, but that does not pass Constitutional muster.

Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who cast the sole vote against the Patriot Act when it was first passed in 2001, attempted to mount a lonely filibuster against reauthorization of the Patriot Act in a form that he said contained only "fig leaf" improvements. With little or no support from his fellow Democrats, Feingold was forced to abandon the delaying tactic late Wednesday, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, prepared to force procedural votes on the measure as early as Thursday.

But, unlike the leaders of his own Democratic caucus, Feingold refused to embrace the deal that the White House has forced on the Senate. And the Wisconsin senator promised that he would use every tool available to him to try and amend the legislation before it comes up for final approval later this month.

"The White House would agree to only a few minor changes to the same Patriot Act conference report that could not get through the Senate back in December. These changes do not address the major problems with the Patriot Act that a bipartisan coalition has been trying to fix for the past several years," the senator said. "They are, quite frankly a fig leaf to allow those who were fighting hard to improve the Act to now step down, claim victory, and move on. What a hollow victory that would be, and what a complete reversal of the strong bipartisan consensus that we saw in this body just a couple months ago."

Blunt as ever, Feingold declared that: "What we are seeing is quite simply a capitulation to the intransigent and misleading rhetoric of a White House that sees any effort to protect civil liberties as a sign of weakness. Protecting American values is not weakness. Standing on principle is not weakness. And committing to fighting terrorism aggressively without compromising the rights and freedoms this country was founded upon – that's not weakness either."

Birdshot = WMD?

For Bill Clinton it was a stain on a blue GAP dress; might Cheney's Waterloo be an errant spray of birdshot? The way the normally dormant Washington press corps has seized upon this so-called "scandal," you'd think the country's lifeblood (and this administration's credibility) flowed through Harry Whittington's 78-year-old veins. Finally succumbing to pressure from Democrats (Nancy Pelosi demanded Cheney "come clean on what happened in Texas"), the nation's editorialists, and even fellow Republicans like Ari Fleischer, Dick is going to make a rare public appearance in a few hours on FOX news. Not exactly enemy territory, but give the man a break. He shot a buddy and hasn't held a press conference in 3 1/2 years.

The folks over at HuffPo have really gone bananas over this one though. Torture proponent Alan Dershowitz hypothesizes that the VP must have been up to something really bad (like drinking and hunting). Bob Cesca repeats Sirius radio's Alex Bennett's rumor that Cheney's missing hours gave the administration time to cover up his own private Lewinsky. It's like mock trial club meets Weekly World News over there.

The only voice of reason in the lot is Harry Shearer's Eat the Press which attributes the whole brouhaha to a little "psychological theory called displacement." The lesson the Bush administration might actually learn from all this: Lie about uranium to provoke war (no big deal), don't report a minor accident for a few hours (get strung up). The next time someone stubs a toe in the White House, I'm sure they'll convene an emergency meeting of Congress. I suppose politics by proxy is better than no politics at all, but I just want to scream: It's the war, stupid.

Impeachment Is Coming?

Has Paul Weyrich, a founding father of the modern conservative movement, been reading The Nation?

Via TAPPED, I see that Weyrich is ringing alarm bells over the possibility of Democrats impeaching the President should they take over the House in 2006. Quite frankly the chances of Dems recapturing the House, despite all the recent GOP missteps, remain slim, and the prospects for impeachment even slimmer. But listen to Weyrich voice conservative frustrations, citing government spending, immigration and the war:

 

I can tell you, if the e-mail and snail-mail traffic I receive is any indication, lots and lots of people are telling me they do not intend to vote in the 2006 election. Others are saying they will vote for third-party candidates. I hear that every election. Little comes of it. But staying at home is a huge problem for Republicans. To say that the grassroots are discouraged is an understatement.

 

Having exhausted gay marriage and showed their hand on the terror card, Republicans need a new boogeyman to drive base voters to the polls. Weyrich says impeachment is it:

 

Perhaps you haven't heard it before. Well, you have now. Impeachment. Coming your way if there are changes in who controls the House eight months from now. If the President and Congress get their act together, and with the possibility of another Supreme Court appointment in the background, and impeachment on the horizon, maybe, just maybe, conservatives would not stay at home after all.

 

We need Liz Holtzman on the blog!

 

Shoot First, Blame Others Later

Time and again, all we've asked of our government is simple honesty. In the war with Iraq, we wanted an honest assessment of the situation. According to the top CIA Middle East analyst, the administration cherry-picked information to support its drive to war.

According to Michael "Heck of a Job" Brownie, the administration knew about the breach of the levees in New Orleans long before Bush & Co. decided to end their vacations. Little has been done to alleviate the people's suffering. The relief effort has been surrounded in Halliburton-like chicanery and corruption.

Now, as we've now learned, the first Vice-President in 200 years has shot someone and failed to inform the public for a day. But why should he? No one has held him accountable for the Energy Commission. And the government is planning to add $7 billion to the oil companies' Olympic sized profits. No one has held him accountable for releasing Scooter Libby to smear Joe Wilson's wife. He skulks while his chief of staff faces prison.

In all of Cheney's gunfire of the last couple of days, we have simply seen another case of the reckless machismo of this administration. Shoot first, blame others later.

Cheney, "A Beer or Two" and a Gun -- UPDATED

Vice President Dick Cheney, who was forced to leave Yale University because his penchant for late-night beer drinking exceeded his devotion to his studies, and who is one of the small number of Americans who can count two drunk driving busts on his record, was doing more than hunting quail on the day that he shot a Texas lawyer in the face.

The vice president has admitted that he was drinking on the afternoon of the incident. He claims it was only a beer, according to the transcript of an interview with Fox New Wednesday. But the whole discussion about how much drinking took place on the day of the fateful hunt has been evolving rapidly since Katherine Armstrong, the wealthy Republican lobbyist who is a member of the politically connected family that owns the ranch where Cheney blasted his hunting partner, initially claimed that no one was imbibing before the incident.

Armstrong later acknowledged to a reporter from the NBC investigative unit that alcohol may have been served at a picnic Saturday afternoon on the dude ranch where Cheney shot Harry Whittington.

According to the report, which appeared briefly Tuesday on MSNBC, Armstrong peddled the line that she did not believe that alcohol played a part in the shooting accident. But, she admitted, "There may be a beer or two in there, but remember not everyone in the party was shooting."

The MSNBC story, which appeared only briefly before the website was scrubbed for reasons not yet explained, has been kept alive by the able web investigators at TheRawStory and other progressive blogs. And so it should be, as the prospect that alcohol may have been a factor in the shooting incident takes the story in a whole new direction.

Cheney's admission that he was drinking, along with Armstrong's clumsy attempts to downplay the alcohil issue raises more questions than it answers about an incident involving a Vice President who, like George W. Bush, was a heavy drinker in his youth, but who, unlike Bush, never swore off the bottle.

As with her over-the-top efforts to blame Whittington, the victim, for getting in the way of Cheney's birdshot blast, Armstrong's line on liquor smells a little more like an attempt to cover for the Vice President than full disclosure.

This is where the hunting accident "incident" becomes a serious matter. The role played by the Secret Service in preventing questioning of Cheney on the evening of the shooting takes on new significance when drinking is at issue. If Cheney was in any way impaired at the time of the shooting, it was certainly to the Vice President's advantage to put off the official investigation until the next morning.

Cheney claims that he downed beer hours before he shot Whittington. But he now has a lot more explaining to do than what was seen during the "softball" interview on Fox News, the Administration's house network, which the White House crisis management team arranged for him to do Wednesday.

When legitimate questions arise regarding the role that the Secret Service might have played in undermining the investigation of a shooting in order to protect the vice president from embarrassment, and possible legal charges, those issues have to be addressed fully and completely. And they must be addressed in a setting where reporters are able to press the notoriously cagey Cheney to actually answer all of the questions that are asked.

Up to now, the whole "hunting-accident" controversy has been little more than a diversion from more serious matters involving Cheney--not least among these, the investigation into whether the Vice President authorized the release of classified information as part of a scheme to discredit critics of the Administration's rush to war. But if Cheney used his Secret Service unit to prevent a necessary and proper official inquiry at a time when it might have uncovered relevant information regarding his condition when he shot a man, then the Vice President has abused his office in a most serious manner.

The prospect that such an abuse occurred requires Cheney and any White House aides who were involved in "managing" the story--put Karl Rove at the top of this list--to stop stonewalling and provide a detailed explanation of their actions in the hours that followed the shooting incident. This is certainly not the only issue on which the Vice President needs to come clean, but it is no longer a joking matter--or, more precisely, it is no longer merely a joking matter.

John Nichols's book The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."

V-Day or P-Day?

Today is Valentine's Day, which on campus means V-Day--over 1,000 productions of The Vagina Monologues will be taking place across the nation to raise funds for battered women's shelters and other projects that fight violence against women. V-Day is popular and successful and feminist--it's even been produced in some Catholic colleges. So naturally the ladies over at the Independent Women's Forum hate it. Every year they go on a tear about how The Vagina Monologues is ruining romance and sending Cupid packing. "V-Day is not celebrated with flowers or chocolates," grouses IWF Director of Policy Carrie L. Lukas. "Young men do not pay graceful tribute to young ladies on V-Day."

What, no chocolate? This sounds serious! Something tells me the folks at Godiva and Hallmark aren't too worried.

For the IWF, feminists just can't get it right: when they're not ruining romance by being puritanical killjoys, they ruin it by being raunchy and gynecological. But V-day isn't the only organization with big plans for Valentine's Day. There's also the conservative Christian Liberty Counsel, which is promoting February 14th as an annual Day of Purity, "when this nation's youth can make a public demonstration of their commitment to remain sexually pure, in mind and actions." You can order Live Pure t-shirts and wristbands, just to let the whole world know you are not, not, not thinking about sex. One question: The website urges young people to see abstinence before marriage as "countercultural"--but, um, how does that fit with the official proclamation of the Day of Purity by the Governor of Ohio? Is he some kind of hippie sex hermit?

(For more on P-day, go to feministing.com)

Keeping it Real

The New York Times has an interesting story on street fiction, the ever-rising genre of "urban" (read: Black) fiction that is moving from stalls on Brooklyn's Fulton Street to Manhattan publishers' desks. Long popular in prisons (especially with incarcerated Black men) and with Black women (women are historically bigger readers than men), some of these writers have become mini-empires unto themselves. Most white people have probably never heard of her, but Teri Woods, featured in a Salon story last year, has done millions in sales and attracted the attention of Random House. (She's also in the process of turning one of her books into a film, which may feature actors Hassan Johnson and Michael K. Williams, who play Wee-Bay and Omar on the best-show-of-all-time, HBO's The Wire ).

The Times story focuses on DeWitt Gilmore, the author of books like Push, Topless, and Platinum Dolls, who writes under the pen name Relentless Aaron. He has just signed a six-figure deal with St. Martin's.

According to the Gray Lady, "Mr. Gilmore's prison pedigree gives him a street credibility that is almost as vital as his written word," Ms. Patterson [Monique Patterson, a senior editor at St. Martin's] said. Readers of the genre want to feel that the author is drawing upon his own hard-knock experience as grist for his books.

'He's really writing about what he's been through," she said. "It's similar to the way hip-hop appealed to a mainstream audience.'"

Riiight. Cause hip-hop artists are totally known for really writing about what they've been through. Cause 50 Cent knew druglords Pappy Mason and Supreme, and Jeezy's been cooking crack for days, and Tupac didn't go to a performing arts high school. Is it that an African American experience that isn't ghetto isn't real, or just that it won't sell?

I don't really know what to think about "street fiction" --- on the one hand, it glories in misogyny and violence, passing itself -- and those things, too -- off as "gritty" and "real." On the other, it's pure entertainment, and it's reading, right? (As someone who has been known to very much enjoy listening to music about drugs and guns, it's really hard to point any fingers here.) Besides, Mr. Gilmore has gone from a convict to a six-figure deal, and you've got to give him some credit for that. But look at that Times quote again: "Mr. Gilmore's prison pedigree gives him a street credibility that is almost as vital as his written word...Readers of the genre want to feel that the author is drawing upon his own hard-knock experience as grist for his books."

It's not just readers of "street fiction" or hip-hop fans who want to feel that the artist is drawing upon his or her own life. It's all readers, and all viewers, and all listeners. It's why we have reality television and it's the cause of people's tiresome obsession with James Frey. We don't really care about telling stories anymore unless they're extreme real-life stories, unless they feature "viewers like you."

Last thing: A while back Gawker linked to an item about Marc Gerald , 50 Cent's literary agent (What, you didn't hear about G-Unit Books?). Gerald used to run an imprint for Norton called "Old School" that specialized in "gangsta-lit novellas" that are presumably kin to what 50 will oversee. The project is rumored to have fallen apart not only because writers were grossly mistreated, but because manuscripts were "blackened" with "ghetto" language. It will be interesting to note how Mr. Gilmore's writing fares under St. Martin's, and how he's pimped out for the public --- sorry, I meant marketed.