The Nation

What Would Jesus Buy?

There is one thing the Church of Stop Shopping's Reverend Billy wants you to buy this season: a ticket to his new movie, "What Would Jesus Buy." Make that purchase now and you'll add anti-media-monopoly oomph to your personal buying-power.

Writes the Reverend: "Every one of you who make it to the movies today dramatically increases the chance we can take the Stop Shopping message to Tulsa, to Long Island, to Cheney, Washington."

What Would Jesus Buy (WWJB) which opened this weekend in limited release, is a loving celebration of Reverend Billy's anti-Shopocalypse crusade. "We want people to buy less and give more," says Billy, (aka performance artist, Bill Talen.) With his wife and co-conspirator, Savitri Durkee and their 40-person Stop Shopping gospel choir, Talen's been preaching against commercialism since before "malling" became a frightening verb. The film, directed by Rob VanAlkemade and produced by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) follows Billy and his church-mates as they travel the country on a pre-Christmas anti-shopping tour.

Singing to the angels of anti-acquisition, they ride the escalators at the Mall of America. Facing down their demons, they're tormented in the trinket-store. When the bio-diesel in the tour-bus freezes, Billy gets down on his knees for forgiveness as he pumps the evil oil. ("Hallelujah Brother" he hails the truckers from the floor-court floor.)

The reverend's ordination my be community (not church) bestowed but his following is real enough. The Church of Stop Shopping is sanctified by a feisty, fun-loving and spiritually hungry anti-consumerist congregational rabble based in the East Village of New York. Billy's protests have cost him prison time. He's exorcised cash-registers at Starbucks (for the sin of killing the family coffee shop.) He's preached to protect public space from developers. He's married the un-marry-able and crucified the devil (Mickey Mouse) on a portable cross in Disney-Time Square.

As with a Stop-Shopping performance, so too, the movie's tone is comedic. But there are moments that speak to the heart, as when, exhausted after another seemingly fruitless wail against Wal-Mart, Durkee sighs:

"I just want what we do to have some impact on someone soon." That spoke to my longing, and I bet yours.

Now, whether they like it or not, the Church of Stop Shopping is taking on cinema's corporate consolidators. As producer Spurlock told the audience opening night in New York, Wal-Mart has a 50 percent corner on the nationwide DVD market. That makes WWJB, a distributor's nightmare. So Spurlock et al are on a grass-roots marketing mission to break into the market through force of sales. If opening grosses are impressive enough, the movie will be playing on screens around the country in time for the Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year.

It USED to be Friday. This year, the tech-chain CompUSA will start the post-Thanksgiving shop-a-looza while the turkeys are still raw. (They'll hold an online only sale starting at 12.01 Thanksgiving morning.) The chain, and others like them, say they aren't trampling on the give-thanks holiday by reminding us of what we lack. They're just offering "another option" for starved, deal-hungry consumers," CompUSA spokesperson Jessica Nunez told the New York Times.

What do we need? Change-a-lujah! There's no better time for the humanity-hungry human to go to the movies and pray with the not-just-a prankster preacher for save-our-souls radical change.

For theaters, dates and locations check www.revbilly.com.

Hurricane Katrina Blows Apart New Orleans Politics

For almost a quarter century, New Orleans government reflected the racial makeup of the city. As such, the city council had an African-American majority.

Not anymore.

Anyone looking for evidence of the extent of the racial reconfiguration that occurred after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 got it over the weekend. Run-off elections on Saturday reversed much of the political progress made by African-Americans in the decades since the civil rights movement opened avenues of advancement for people of color in the southern city.

For the first time since 1985, the New Orleans City Council has a white majority.

Both of the at-large seats on the council -- which are elected by voters from throughout the city -- are now held by whites. That last time that happened was in 1978.

In a citywide race for an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judgeship that had been held by an African-American for many years, a white candidate won.

Special elections for open state legislative seats representing the city's Uptown and Central City neighborhoods, which had for many years elected African-American representatives, were won by white candidates.

To be sure, many cities see individual positions shift back and forth from election to election between candidates of different races.

But the pattern of white contenders defeating and replacing African-American candidates in New Orleans was unmistakable on Saturday. In contest after contest, whites politicians defeated African-American competitors who in the past would have been likely winners.

There is no mystery about what has happened. For the first time in decades, it appears that predominantly white precincts are casting more ballots in New Orleans than predominantly African-American precincts. Officially, the voter rolls still show a black majority. But the rolls have not yet been purged of the names of Katrina's victims. The names that will eventually be removed are, for the most part, expected to be those of African Americans.

Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Sandra Wilson suggests that the vast majority of the more than 100,000 voters are on the rolls but are no longer living in New Orleans -- either because they died in the aftermath of the storm or because they were displaced by it -- are people of color.

"Katrina rearranged the political deck in New Orleans," Silas Lee, the Xavier University pollster and sociologist who is an expert on New Orleans and Louisiana voting patterns, told the Times Picayune newspaper after Saturday's election. "Symbolically what it shows is that we have a realignment politically, and that advances made by African-American elected officials and the African-American political structure over the last 30 years... right now are in neutral or being lost."

Did it have to be this way? Of course not. The federal government's agonizingly slow response to the crisis created by Hurricane Katrina was disproportionately devastating for African-American residents of the city's poorest neighborhoods. They were initially left to suffer and die. Then, vast numbers of the survivors were sent far from New Orleans and encouraged to settle elsewhere. House Speaker Denny Hastert, R-Illinois, suggested immediately after the storm that much of New Orleans "could be bulldozed." While he was roundly criticized for that statement, and the attitude underpinning it, the reality is that many of the city's oldest and most-politically engaged African-American neighborhoods have been bulldozed -- or simply abandoned -- while white neighborhoods that took less damage have been rapidly rebuilt.

These patterns have dramatically altered the electoral politics of a city that had been in the forefront of African-American political strength and advancement since the 1960s. The change was rapid and radical, but it is only now coming into something akin to full perspective. An initial mayoral race following the storm saw a significant amount of absentee voting, but Saturday's run-off voting was more reflective of the new political reality of New Orleans.

And it is not just the political reality of New Orleans that is changing.

Louisiana was, before Katrina hit, one of the most politically competitive states in the south. Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton actually won the state in 1992 and 1996, as did Jimmy Carter before him. Democrats elected senators and governors in competitive statewide races as recently as 2002 and 2003. In the last round of elections for state posts prior to Katrina, Democrats won six of seven races; this year, they won two of the seven. Even accepting that outgoing Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco was almost as uninspired in her response to Katrina as was George Bush, it cannot be reasonably argued that the partisan realignment of the state was a normal or natural political development.

Before Katrina hit, Democrats frequently prevailed in Louisiana because the party had a large, historically-active and well-organized base of support among African-American voters in New Orleans. That base was blown apart by Hurricane Katrina, as Saturday's election results confirm. And the politics of New Orleans, Louisiana and the United States changed, thanks to a storm and to the way in which a Republican administration in Washington responded to it.

Meet The Press and Leave it to the Girls.

Whether to be cheered or downcast? That's the question. TV wasn't born a male preserve, it's just grown up that way.

I was thinking about that this weekend as I watched NBC celebrate Meet the Press. MTP is the longest, continuously-running program on US television. At the end of this Sunday's show, a list of past hosts sped by. The first was Martha Rountree, the show's first host, and needless to say, last female anchor.

Curious, I dug around a little. Rountree, it turns out, not only anchored the first broadcasts (starting in 1947) but came up with the format in the very early days of TV. The format -- a panel of people asking questions of a guest -- was her idea.

Is it the anchor that makes the program, or the format that fuels the show? In our star-system of celebration, TV anchors usually soak up the credit, but over a long-run like MTP's, anchors come and go: it's the format that endures. MTP's came from Rountree. On radio, she hosted a program, "Leave it to the Girls," in which a panel of celebrity women fired questions at a guy. For Meet the Press (which she also hosted on radio before moving to TV,) Rountree and producer Lawrence Spivak, replaced the women with a panel of journalists.

And I do mean replaced.... A few years ago, The White House Project published a report called "Who's Talking," which highlighted the lack of women guests on the Sunday morning talk shows. At the time, women comprised only 14 percent of guests -- 0 percent of anchors. More recently, Media Matters conducted a survey which found that on average, men outnumber women on Meet the Press, This Week, Face the Nation, and Fox News Sunday by a 4-to-1 ratio. Of them all, Meet the Press shows the least diversity of all. The NBC program is, as Media Matters put it, "the most male."

It's always sobering to realize that women weren't born excluded. In this case, indeed, MTP was of-woman born. You'd never know it now.


Fighting Poverty in CT

At 37 years of age, Deborah Glover says she had lived a middle-class life and never knew poverty. That all changed when she had a car accident, and as a single mother with three kids she could no longer afford to make ends meet.

"I'd never lived in poverty before that time," she told an audience of 300 at the recent Connecticut Association for Community Action's (CAFCA) annual conference, Ending Child Poverty: Investing in Our Future. "I had ignored poverty all together."

When she was advised to go to a shelter to get the help she needed, she responded, "What the hell is a shelter?"

But Glover did go. And she received treatment for a substance abuse problem she had developed as a result of the daily pain she suffered from the car wreck. She also received mental health services, through which she obtained part-time work, and said that was where her recovery started. She learned that even with these challenges she could work again, could own a home, could further her education.

"It was very difficult, living at the poverty level. And even though it didn't last long it seemed like forever," she said.

Glover now owns her own house and works in the shelter where she once dreaded going. She said most clients just need people to listen to them. "We need these programs," she said. "We need these programs to help people be aware, to get the higher learning that they need, to get their health…. A lot of people that are in crisis don't understand what we as able people can do."

Glover was on a panel of four women – three of whom now work to eradicate poverty – who talked about their way out of poverty. She and the other panelists broke down the barriers between what Mark Greenberg, Executive Director of the Poverty Task Force at the Center for American Progress (CAP), described in his keynote address as "an ‘us' and ‘them' attitude towards poverty. ‘Them' being people living in poverty, and ‘us' being unaffected by it. If we move from ‘them' to ‘us' it would be transformative for our country." With 55 percent of the nation now looking for the government to "do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people," certainly this kind of transformation would be an important step towards changing the way we battle poverty.

Connecticut is a key state in an emerging anti-poverty movement. It passed landmark legislation in 2004 that mandated a 50 percent reduction in child poverty by 2014, and it has served as a model for similar efforts in Vermont, Minnesota, and Delaware. But the state has made little movement towards its goal. In fact, the child poverty rate has risen from 10.1 percent to 10.7 percent since 2004 – nationwide, 4.9 million more people are living in poverty than in 2000, including 1.2 million more children. Connecticut is the second richest state in the richest nation in the world, and advocates are frustrated with what they see as a lack of political will – a point activists across the nation would second in describing the conditions in their respective states and at the federal level.

The federal poverty level is an unjustifiably flawed measure – $20,614 in income for a family of four. If one measures poverty as the ability to actually pay for basic needs in a state – an income two to three times the federal poverty level is needed and the child poverty rate in Connecticut jumps to 1 in 4 kids. "Over 206,000 Connecticut kids live in low-income or poor households," said Juliet Manalan, Government and Public Relations staffer for CAFCA. And Mark Winne, former director of Hartford Food System wrote in the Washington Post that 275,000 Connecticut residents are hungry or "food insecure."

One reason Connecticut has failed to make the progress advocates hoped is because Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell maneuvered to kill the state Earned Income Tax Credit (a refundable tax credit that supplements the earnings of low- and moderate-income workers) for the second year in a row. State Representative Mary Mushinsky, who introduced the legislation mandating the 50 percent child poverty reduction, said she had been counting on EITC passage to get the state 60 percent of the way towards its goal. State Senator Jonathan Harris, Chair of the Human Services Committee, vowed at the conference to bring the EITC back next session. Harris is also focused on adult literacy, saying that if parents can't navigate the system – read, write, and communicate – kids won't have the parent-advocates they need.

But Gwen Eaddy-Samuel said when she was living on $62 per week she wasn't thinking about getting her education, or getting her kids into pre-school, she was "living in the moment and just trying to survive…. As much as you're trying to get to [point] B… A and C are calling you today," she said.

Only when Eaddy-Samuel got involved with the Community Renewal Team Head Start program, and learned about empowerment and being more involved in her child's life, "something inside me started clicking." She began to talk to people about the domestic violence that she had grown up with and realized that she "wasn't in this alone." She had been taught during her childhood that "what goes on in the home, stays in the home, you keep it to yourself." And now she found herself with an abusive boyfriend whom she stayed with – partly because they had three kids and she didn't want people to think of her as the stereotypical single mother.

But even though Head Start made her feel like part of an important community, and led her to get out of a violent relationship and broaden her outlook on her life, Eaddy-Samuel ran into a problem that was repeatedly discussed at the Connecticut conference. When she looked for help obtaining other basic services she was led in many different directions. "Oh my God, you pick up the phone and you dial one number. And they tell you to call somewhere else, and then another place. And you're using the pre-paid phone card 'cause your phone was shut off, or you're using your neighbor's phone. And then you finally drive to the YMCA where you're supposed to get such and such… and it turns out it's not at the Y, it's at so-and-so agency. A lot of times people just give up."

Eaddy-Samuel learned to do her own research, asking herself, "How can I get my needs met? How bad do I want [the services]? I wanted it very bad because I wanted to be free."

As she was able to find help and better cope with her circumstances, Eaddy-Samuel was eventually able to go back to school and graduated last year with a BA in Human Services. She has taken the LSATs and plans to attend law school ("If I don't know my rights anyone can tell me anything," she says.) Meanwhile, she works for a group called Connecticut Parent Power that focuses on organizing parents to advocate for their children's needs. And now that she's on the other end – providing services to those in crisis – she sees a whole other set of problems with addressing poverty. She commented in a recent phone interview, "Yes, we've had cuts in services and needed staff in the state. And it's inexcusable with the wealth and resources in this state. And, yes, everyone's overworked. But we've also got turf wars, and too many egos, and some duplicating, overlapping, competing services. A person in crisis shouldn't have to deal with that on top of everything else…. If nothing else, just treat each person as a human being." As she told the audience at the conference, "We have 2,055 days to meet our goal of reducing child poverty by 50 percent. This is a community, legislative, cohesive effort on all our parts. I see my link in the chain, I hope each one of you see your link in the chain as well."

It's clear that even for the committed advocates attending this conference – including politicians, agency workers, foundation leaders, labor representatives, faith-based groups, and business people – the obstacles to forming the kind of chain Eaddy-Samuel describes are formidable. Professor Fred Cartensen, Director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, says it took three years just to convince the state that it needed a state data center that linked to the US Census Bureau (for five years, it was the only state in the country that didn't do so), even though it was impossible to have practical conversations about poverty issues without the data.

Cartensen said that now state officials are beginning to see that "the trend lines in the state are not encouraging": over the next 25 years, elderly population is expected to increase by 70 percent; K-12 population decrease by 80,000; working-age population decrease by 40,000; college graduates in the workforce decline by 10 percent; and the population of lower-income minority people will rise in the "core cities." Cartensen said that these outcomes can be improved – it's once again a matter of political will. He listed investments in: affordable housing ("instability of housing is one of the most debilitating aspects of lower-income kids' school performance… when a child changes schools, one-half a year of progress is lost on average"); childcare ("it improves every indicator – high school performance, college, marriage, employment"); healthcare – especially Connecticut's S-CHIP program ("healthy people work all day, and kids can learn and focus. It's not a cost, it's an investment – clearly all economics support it"); and the community college system ("All of the panelists who spoke on their rise from poverty called on the community college system, yet North Carolina spends three times greater per capita on its system than Connecticut").

Other key ideas discussed at the conference included job-training for lower-income people to help rebuild the infrastructure; supporting candidates for office who understand poverty and will make it a key issue; helping the faith community expand from benevolent services such as soup kitchens to a more transformative mode; and continuing to press the economic case for fighting child poverty.

"The idea that we don't have the fiscal capacity for these smart investments is nonsense," Cartensen said. "And if people don't want to do it to be nice, tell them to look at the investments and the rate of return."

Greenberg agreed. "Besides the moral case against poverty, there's a strong economic case – when children grow up in persistent poverty, it diminishes their life chances, and it hurts our economy as a whole." Indeed Economist Harry Holzer estimates the cost of sustained childhood poverty as approximately $500 billion dollars per year – about 4 percent of GDP – roughly evenly divided between lowered productivity, increased health care costs, and increased crime-related costs. Holzer took a conservative approach, examining a set of variables that are readily quantifiable. Even a Republican scholar testifying before Congress called Holzer's study "superb."

One area where Connecticut has had some success – success now threatened by the Bush administration's war on government-assisted children's healthcare – is with its State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), Husky B. Currently, the federal government funds sixty cents on the dollar, and the program allows Connecticut to subsidize healthcare for children up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line ($51,510 per year for a family of three). These are working families who don't receive healthcare from employers and can't afford to buy it themselves, and who are an accident or illness away from poverty. The Republican cuts would lead to kids losing healthcare and families turning to emergency rooms, thus raising healthcare costs for the public in the long run.

"Increased numbers of people without health insurance mean more families struggling to meet their basic needs with reduced resources," Jane McNichol, Executive Director of the Legal Assistance Resource Center, recently said. "We need to focus on these issues at the national and state level to make progress for working families."

At the national level, only one top-tier presidential candidate – John Edwards – has made fighting poverty a key campaign issue. Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future , told the Chicago Tribune: "Sen. Edwards was very gutsy to do what he's done. Certainly he's done it against the conventional wisdom of nearly all Democratic strategists. Political consultants will tell you that poor people don't vote and middle-class people, when they're feeling squeezed, aren't generous."

Peter Edleman, co-chair of the CAP Poverty Task Force, said, "There's a rising concern in the country about inequality. There's concern about giveaways to the really wealthy, and there's concern about economic insecurity. The poverty issue is embedded in that." Edelman sees affordable health care, universal pre-K, and other issues that impact the middle-class as having an important anti-poverty impact as well.

Advocates are frustrated with the lack of attention the media pays to persistent and growing poverty. As Manalan said, "The realities are that the effects of child poverty are enormous. It harms how children develop, it harms their chances of academic success, of finding a job that pays a living wage and of supporting their families. We can point to a myriad of social ills related to unchecked poverty, and ultimately, the insecurity in our state's economic future brought about by the lack of a skilled workforce that can support business. So, given the sheer scope of these issues, it's unconscionable how infrequently child poverty is in the news…. When we pitch stories or issue press releases often times we are met with a sense of fatigue, ‘we've seen this already' type of response."

But the fact is we will continue to see it, and see it, and see it… until we finally realize that – as Greenberg said – this isn't about them, it's about us. Between 1964-73 poverty fell by 42 percent. Between 1993-2000 it fell by 25 percent. Since then, it has been on the rise and creeping up towards a middle-class whose real wages are stagnant (or declining) while the cost of living is on the rise. The tragedy is that we have the resources to change course and we know what works. What continues to be lacking – as we currently see with the S-CHIP battle and the presidential campaign – is political will.

This article was co-authored by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.

Condoleezza Rice's Middle East Photo-Op

The American-sponsored Middle East peace conference (or meeting or get-together) expected to be held in Annapolis , Maryland later this month has more to do with providing Secretary of State Condoleezza a much-needed photo op to repair her tarnished legacy than creating the groundwork for a just and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Besides the need to repair her legacy, Rice urgently needs to buy Arab support for the Administration's war in Iraq and its escalating threats against Iran. As a result, after years of scorning Arab-Israeli diplomacy, Rice has become such a freqent visitor to the region that she given birth to a new verb in Israeli government circles: 'lecondel." According to the New York Times, the verb --based on Ms. Rice's first name-- means " to come and go for meetings that produce few results."

But Rice has produced results. Disastrous ones. Responsibility for this war and occupation lies with her as much as anybody in the Bush Administration. She was perhaps the worst national security adviser in the office's history, as Slate's Fred Kaplan recently argued. (And she's had some tough competition.) And as a former security realist turned messianic "democratizer," Rice has squandered both democracy and realism in our engagement with the world. As Kaplan put it well, " Rice remains one of the architects of a fantasy foreign policy, and her record as secretary of state gives little hope that she'll be able to reverse that verdict in the administration's final months."

Nancy Nord Likes Business More Than Children

Parents in the US these days often seem only one step from the brink of panic in the best of times. So this past August when toxic toys from China, including the enormously popular Thomas the Tank Engine, began to be recalled, people freaked.

It got worse when it came out that the government division charged with protecting the toys that children play with, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, lacks the resources to do its job because conservative presidents and legislators have scandalously cut the Consumer Product Safety Commission to the bone. How bad is it? Successive administrations and Congresses have gutted this agency, cutting its workforce from almost 1,000 in 1980 to just 420 today. Only one of those employees works testing toys!

This is at a time when eighty percent of America's toys are imported from China--a country whose safety standards are so lax that 18 different children's products were recalled for excess amounts of poisonous lead in the first half of October alone.

Moreover, the problem is even deeper than has been reported. As Mark Schapiro wrote recently in The Nation in an adaptation from his new book Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power, the uproar over banned substances and rogue Chinese toy manufacturers has overshadowed an even more troubling issue: the toxins in toys that are perfectly legal like polyvinyl chloride additives called phthalates (pronounced tha-lates), which help make toys both soft and pliable yet also tough. A mounting body of scientific evidence suggests that phthalates impede the production of testosterone and disrupt the sexual development of infant boys.

Leading the agency charged with addressing these lethal threats to infants coast to coast is a corporate lobbyist named Nancy Nord who has remarkably insisted to Congress that her agency requires no additional resources in the face of the growing complexity of global production. Nord opposed a bill that would have doubled the Consumer Product Safety commission's budget over time, and allow her to hire much-needed inspectors. She's also admitted to accepting free trips worth thousands of dollars from the lobbyists of industries that are regulated by her agency. Our friends at the Campaign for America's Future have created a short video underscoring the threat Nord represents. Watch it.

Then sign CAF's petition insisting that Nord either resign or be shown the door.

Obama and Islam

Barack Obama represents "the only hope for the US in the Muslim world," according to Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Because Obama's father was a Muslim, he "could lead a reconciliation between the Muslim countries and the US." With any of the other candidates as president, Hersh said, "we're facing two or three decades of problems in the Mideast, with 1.2 billion Muslims."

Hersh, who writes for The New Yorker about the Bush Administration in Iraq and Iran, spoke to my history class at UC Irvine on Tuesday. In Obama's 2006 book The Audacity of Hope he wrote that his Kenyan father was "raised a Muslim," but says he was a "confirmed atheist" by the time his parents met. His parents separated when he was two years old and later divorced.

Of course if Obama did win the nomination, one can only imagine what the Republicans would do with the fact that his father was a Muslim. We've already had Mitt Romney smiling next to a campaign sign in South Carolina that said "No to Obama Osama."

Hersh did not hold out much hope for improved relations between the US and the Muslim world. "The only good news I can bring you is that tomorrow morning there will be one less day of the Bush presidency," he told an overflow crowd in a public lecture at UC Irvine. Bush "doesn't care about" his low standing in the polls, and as a result "he's going to keep going until 11:59 a.m. on January 20, 2009."

Even after Bush's term ends, "much of the damage is yet to come," Hersh said. "The problems for the next president may be intractable."

"They say the surge has worked," Hersh said. "But do you think someday we will get an oil deal in Iraq? They'll burn the fields first. We're hated in Iraq."

As for Afghanistan, "we became more of a threat to the people than Taliban," Hersh said. We're "losing the war there," he said, and concluded that "Afghanistan is a doomed society."

Hersh said he had just returned from Syria, where he was working on his next New Yorker piece, on the mysterious bombing carried out by the US and the Israelis. "The Syrians have a much longer-term perspective than we do," he said. "They say 'we've been here for 10,000 years; we're not going away.'"

As for the short term, Hersh said, "Cheney thinks war with Islam is inevitable, so we might as well have it now." Administration plans for bombing Iran call for targeting the Revolutionary Guards. Iran's response, Hersh said, is likely to be "asymmetrical" - instead of striking back directly at the US, they will "hit the oil" in the Gulf. The result will be oil prices of "$200 or $300 a barrel," double or triple the current price.

But will Bush bomb Iran? Hersh's answer: "How the hell should I know?"

Clinton Plays the Gender Card for a Win

Hillary Clinton, who joked about taking the stage wearing "an asbestos pantsuit" Thursday night, won what could turn out to be the critical debate of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

To suggest otherwise would be to underestimate the power, the authority and, yes, the intangibly presidential quality of Clinton's response to a question posed mid-way through the Las Vegas debate by CNN's Campbell Brown.

Brown asked about a speech the New York senator recently gave at her alma mater, Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Clinton had told the Wellesley crowd, "[In] so many ways, this all women's college prepared me compete in the all boys' club of presidential politics."

"What did you mean at Wellesley when you referred to the boy's club?" asked Brown.

Clinton paused. She smiled like the Cheshire cat.

"Campbell!" the Democratic frontrunner declared in mock exasperation.

Clinton's point was made. Everyone got it. Of course, there is a boy's club -- in politics and in media -- and that cannot come as news to Campbell Brown.

But the senator, who understood she was finally regaining ground lost after several tough weeks as a frontrunner under assault, was not going to let this magic moment pass quickly.

"It is clear, I think, from women's experiences, that from time to time, there may be some impediments," Clinton continued, taking every advantage of the sort of opening that rarely comes in a live and relatively unscripted political setting.

"[It] has been my goal, over the course of my lifetime, to be part of this great movement of progress that includes all of us but has particularly been significant to me as a woman," said Clinton, who suggested that her campaign seeks to break through "the highest, hardest glass ceiling."

Clinton had rehearsed this answer. That was beyond debate.

But it worked. She was pulling heartstrings when she spoke of parents driving daughters hundreds of miles to meet the candidate who could be the first woman president and of elderly women who were born when only men had the right to vote tell her that, "I want to live long enough to see a woman in the White House."

Clinton was playing the gender card -- even if she denied doing so.

"I'm not playing, as some people say, the gender card here in Las Vegas, I'm just trying to play the winning card," the candidate chirped. "I understand very well that people are not attacking me because I'm a woman. They're attacking me because I'm ahead."

The senator was having it both ways. Even as she cashed in on the fact that she is mounting a historic campaign for the presidency -- not the first by a woman, but the first in which a woman might prevail -- Clinton said she was not "running because I'm a woman." Rather, she said, "I'm running because I think I'm the best qualified and experienced person to hit the ground running."

Clinton left her most aggressive challengers, both of whom had been gaining ground on her going into Thursday night's debate, no space.

When former North Carolina Senator John Edwards followed Clinton's "not-playing-the-gender-card" soliloquy with a mild criticism of the frontrunner, he was roundly booed by the crowd.

Not long afterward, when Illinois Senator Barack Obama took a swing at Clinton, he was booed just as loudly.

Clinton had cornered them. They had no room for movement.

She won the night, and she might well have won a great deal more.

Pakistan vs. Punditry

I know the US Democratic contenders' debate is important, but how important, compared to, say, the imposition of martial law in nuclear Pakistan?

If the last debate was any indication, the University of Nevada's Las Vegas campus is right now crawling with reporters assigned to cover the presidential horse-race. According to Drexler University, close to 400 members of the media were "credentialed" for October 30th's debate. More than 200 news organizations covered it. One New York daily sent a "live" blogger and five of their editorial staff, including two political editors and a gossip columnist. (The Daily News's Heidi Evans authored an all-important sidebar on Hillary Clinton's ten-year old bout with deep vein thrombosis.)

As for Pakistan, we called around. According to their spokespeople, US networks are relying on just a handful of reporters to cover what could well be the world's most critical crisis. ABC alone, boasts two full-time producers in Pakistan: Gretchen Peters and Habibullah Khan. Philip Reeves, NPR's man on the story, is based in New Delhi. (Sariah Nelson, reports on the region from Kabul.) NBC opened a bureau in Islamabad two years ago but flew in Richard Engel, Middle East Bureau chief and correspondent to cover the crisis. CBS told us they retain one regular camera crew and use local or flown-in reporters "depending on the story." CNN has a bureau in Islamabad, but declined to offer details. Fox News may not have understood the question.

Talking on RadioNation this week, Jonathan Schell couldn't have put it more strongly. Even before the declaration of a state of emergency, there was an emergency. "The Pakistan of Pervez Musharraf has, by now, become a one-country inventory of all the major forms of the nuclear danger," writes Schell. Crude coverage has created a dangerous over-simplification: "The US media have set things up as strong man vs, terrorist," says journalist and author Ahmed Rashid on this Sunday's program.

Pakistan's journalists, always under pressure, have been fighting for their lives. President Pervez Musharraf's government has shut down local TV stations, stopped foreign cable newscasts and threatened journalists with imprisonment. On Thursday, two of Pakistan's four main national news channels returned to the air. It's unclear if the channel's owners agreed to the government's requirement that they sign a "code of conduct."

Sadly, US media don't need a "code of conduct" to keep them in line. Pakistan vs. Punditry? As far as the US media are concerned, there's simply no comparison.