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More on the Pentagon's Koran Fib

Let's consider a Tale of Two Pentagon Press Briefings.

Last week, amidst the fury over Newsweek's Koran-in-a-john item, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita told the Pentagon press corps that the Defense Department had received no credible allegations of Koran desecration at Guantanamo. Roll the tape:

Q: Larry, just to be clear, there have been numerous allegations by detainees who have been released --

MR. DI RITA: Mm-hmm.

Q : -- by attorneys who have talked to detainees, alleging mistreatment of the Koran, including instances where it was supposedly thrown into a toilet. Are you saying that none of those allegations were credible, and that none of them have -- have any of them been investigated, and were any substantiated?

MR. DI RITA: We've found nothing that would substantiate precisely -- anything that you just said about the treatment of a Koran. We have -- other than what we've seen, that it's possible detainees themselves have done with pages of the Koran -- and I don't want to overstate that either because it's based on log entries that have to be corroborated.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Senator Dick Durbin's defense of the no-nuke deal and how Corn was spoofed on Saturday Night Live.

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That was a pretty clear, categorical statement. Credible allegations of Koranic abuse? Nada, said Di Rita. The next day--as I noted here and elsewhere--the International Committee of the Red Cross blew apart Di Rita's spin when its officials told reporters that in 2002 and 2003 they had reported to the Pentagon that Gitmo detainees were saying that US officials there had dissed the Koran and that the Red Cross considered these accusations credible. Then yesterday, the ACLU released FBI records it had obtained noting that Guantanamo prisoners had complained of disrespectful handling of the Koran. So none of this was credible? Let's be generous to Di Rita and stipulate that. How then does Di Rita explain what was said in the Pentagon press room today when Brigadier General Jay Hood, commander of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay, briefed the journalistic troops. Roll the next tape:

First off, I'd like you to know that we have found no credible evidence that a member of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay ever flushed a Koran down a toilet. We did identify 13 incidents of alleged mishandling of the Koran by Joint Task Force personnel. Ten ot those were by a guard and three by interrogators.

We found that in only five of those 13 incidents, four by guards and one by an interrogator, there was what could be broadly defined as mishandling of a Koran. None of these five incidents was a result of a failure to follow standard operating procedures in place at the time the incident occurred.

We have determined that in six additional incidents involving guards that the guard either accidentally touched the Koran, touched it within the scope of his duties, or did not actually touch the Koran at all. We consider each of these incidents resolved.

Waitaminute. Last week Di Rita said there were no credible allegations and, thus, nothing to investigate. Yet today Hood disclosed there were 13 "incidents of alleged mishandling of the Koran," and five were confirmed. It turns out that not only were there credible allegations, there were actual "incidents." Would Di Rita care to explain this? Would he care to retract his briefing, apologize, and promise to do better? Anyone in the WHite House care to express outrage over Di Rita's untruthful assertion?

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Speaking of outrage. The White House goes bat-shit over the Newsweek item. But it has little to say when a repressive regime slaughters about 1000 unarmed civilians who were calling for democracy and religious freedom. Why such hypocrisy? Click here to find out.

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IT REMAINS RELEVANT, ALAS. SO DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research.... [I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer.... Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations.... Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there.

Sweet Victory: Electoral Reform is On the March

Electoral reform is on the march. Burlington, Vermont, the state's biggest city, recently adopted instant runoff voting for its 2006 mayoral elections. On May 18th, Portland, Oregon became the first city in the country to approve full public financing of elections. And last week in Canada, a majority of voters opted for proportional voting in an important symbolic victory that could eventually lead to more voices and more choices in future elections.

In a referendum coinciding with British Columbia's parliamentary elections, 57.4 percent of a record turnout of 1.6 million chose to replace Canada's US-style, winner-take-all voting system with a method of proportional voting known as the "single transferable vote" (STV). Under this plan, voters rank multiple candidates in order of preference, empowering minorities and breaking up the monopoly of entrenched political parties. "This was not generally a vote of ideology," says Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "This was a vote for a better, fairer democracy that people in all parties could rally around."

Although the STV drive fell short of the 60 percent needed for passage, the measure won a majority of votes in 97 percent of the province's districts. In the wake of these results, Premier Gordon Campbell immediately declared that reforming the electoral system should be a top priority for the newly elected Parliament. "The citizens have been very clear," said Campbell. "There's a pretty strong mandate for electoral reform to take place…a hunger to see improvement."

The STV system is one of many ways we could make the US electoral process fairer. If you're concerned about the state of our electoral system, check out the Center for Voting and Democracy to see how you can help defeat the moneyed duopoly impeding our democracy.

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing nationvictories@gmail.com.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

Blackmailed Onto the Court

Thanks to the compromise agreement made possible by seven Democrats who collaborated with Republicans to end the Senate impasse over judicial nominations, Priscilla Owen will now join the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Four years of successful efforts by civil rights, women's rights, religious and consumer groups to prevent confirmation of the right-wing extremist were undone Wednesday, as the Senate voted 56-43 to confirm a nominee whose judicial activism on the Texas Supreme Court was so wreckless that another member of that court, Alberto Gonzalez, who now serves as the nation's attorney general, referred to her actions as "unconscionable."

The final vote broke along partisan lines. Fifty-three Republicans and two Democrat, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and West Virginia's Robert Byrd, voted to confirm Owen. Forty-one Democrats, one Republican, Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, and one Independent, Vermont's Jim Jeffords, voted against confirmation.

Those numbers are significant because they show that Democrats had the 40 votes that were needed to sustain a filibuster against Owen.

That means that, had Democrats held firm and forced moderate Republicans to reject the unpopular "nuclear option" that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, was attempting to impose on the Senate, Owen might very well have been kept off the court. National polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans opposed the "nuclear option," which Frist hoped to use to bar filibusters of even the most objectionable of the Bush administration's nominees. A number of moderate Republicans had indicated that they were uncomfortable with the majority leader's scheme to rewrite Senate rules, and there was at least a reasonable chance that a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans could have preserved the ability of the minority party to block extremist nominees. Unfortunately, in return for the agreement to put the "nuclear option" on hold, seven moderate Democrats agreed to allow confirmation votes on at least three blocked appeals court nominees.

Owen's confirmation on Wednesday represents the first of what are likely to be many confirmations of extreme, unqualified and ethically-dubious nominees for seats on appeals court benches that have traditionally been the last hope of low-income Americans, people of color and women for justice. Equal justice concerns are of particular significance in the case of the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi and is home to the highest percentage of minority residents of any circuit in the country. Yet, with the compromise agreement on the "nuclear option," most Senate Democrats abandoned the filibuster and cleared the way for Owen -- whose nomination was opposed by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches -- to take her place on that bench.

As disappointing as the collapse of conscience on the part of most Democrats has been, however, it is important to remember that 18 members of the opposition caucus held firm against the compromise of principles. Those senators -- Democrats Joe Biden of Delaware, Barbara Boxer of California, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Carl Levin of Michigan, Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas, Patty Murray of Washington, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Jeffords -- refused to vote for the cloture motion that shut down the filibuster option and cleared the way for Owen's confirmation.

Feingold was blunt in his dismissal of claims that the deal that has put Owen on the appeals court represented a legitimate compromise. "There was no effort to reach a real compromise that would take into account the concerns of all parties. A compromise at the point of a gun is not a compromise. That, I'm afraid, is what we had," explained the Judiciary Committee member.

"I strongly opposed the threat of the nuclear option," he said. "I believe this was an illegitimate tactic, a partisan abuse of power that was a threat to the Senate as an institution and to the country. Attempting to blackmail the minority into giving up the rights that have been part of the Senate's traditions and practices for centuries was a new low for a majority that has repeatedly been willing to put party over principle. Unfortunately, the blackmail was partially successful. The end result is that (Owen and other) nominees who don't deserve lifetime appointments to the judiciary will now be confirmed."

M.A.D. About You

When the Republicans thought they were going to win the filibuster fight, they tried to change the term of art from "nuclear option" to "constitutional option." The GOP's lexicographer-in-chief, Frank Luntz, argued that "the implication of 'nuclear option' is way too hot and extreme." Even Trent Lott, showing a surprising lack of authorial pride, took up the new phrase, despite the fact that he personally had coined the old one.

But the far rights' reaction to the compromise between fourteen moderate Senators demonstrates how much they view the struggle over the judiciary in violent terms. Out went the soothing references to founding principles; in came the militaristic metaphors. Pat Buchanan referred to the agreement as "the Munich of the Republican Party," conflating the importance of a handful of conservative judges with that of Czechoslovakia.

Senator George Allen went even farther on Imus. The "constitutional option" was needed, in his words, "to set the rules of engagement." He said that it was "kind of like everyone was lined up for a duel, and they determined three of these hostages can go loose, and we'll discharge our pistols on two of these judicial nominees." According to him, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid wanted some "scalps" and gave the Republicans the choice of which one of their"troops" they were going to "take down."

Let's see: duels, hostages, scalps, troops, Munich, rules of engagement--no, it's obvious that "nuclear option" captures the far right's intentions. They clearly have learned to love the bomb.

Standing Against Genocide

On May 18th, the Illinois State Assembly passed a bill to prevent the State Treasurer from investing in companies doing business in Sudan. This requires the selling off of about $1 billion worth of investments in companies doing business with Sudan, part of a nationwide campaign to protest genocide in the African nation This historic piece of legislation now awaits the approval of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich before it can be signed into law. Passage of the bill would make Illinois the first state to divest from companies dealing with Sudan. (See Sam Graham-Felsen's piece about how Harvard was pressured to become the first college to divest from Sudan earlier this year.)

As the iabolish website, a leader in the divestment efforts, says "Divestment is a measure of last-resort and shouldn't be used frivolously. But the US Congress and the State Department have unequivocally stated that the Sudanese government is committing genocide. This is an incredibly serious accusation and an unparalleled moral crime. Thousands are dying every week in bombing attacks, militia raids, and through forced starvation. Thousands every week. American companies are already barred from doing business in Sudan. The divestment campaign simply asks institutions to pass a resolution saying they will not investment in foreign companies who are ready to put profit over principle, even when it comes to genocide."

So Sudanese solidarity groups are asking all Americans, especially Illinois residents, to click here to call, fax, write, or email the Illinois governor to show their support for Senate Bill 23. You can also find out how your own state funds are invested. (And click here to read the full text of the bill.)

Bad Deal on Judges

As the showdown on the so-called "nuclear option" approached, polls showed that the American people opposed scheming on the part of Senate GOP leaders to eliminate judicial filibusters by an overwhelming 2-to-1 margin.

Even among grassroots Republicans, there was broad discomfort with the idea of creating a tyranny-of-the-majority scenario in which the minority party in the Senate would no longer be consulted regarding lifetime appointments to the federal courts.

So there were plenty Republican senators who were looking for a way out of the corner into which Senate majority leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had maneuvered them. Democrats simply needed to hold the line, while attracting Republicans who were uncomfortable with Frist's machinations, and they could have secured the will of the people.

Unfortunately, the Democrats buckled. So Republicans will get the votes they want on at least three federal appeals court nominees who should not be allowed on the bench.

Under a compromise worked out by moderate Republicans and Democrats, the "nuclear option" has been averted for the time being -- and perhaps permanently.

But in return for that concession by the Republicans, the Democrats have agreed to allow confirmation votes on three judicial nominations that had been blocked: Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor Jr. and Priscilla Owen. The trio were among the ten appeals court nominees whose records of judicial activism, ideological rigidity and ethical misdeeds were so troubling that a substantial number of senators felt they ought not be given lifetime tenures on key appellate court benches.

It now appears that confirmation is all but certain for the nominees: That's bad news for Americans in general and, in particular, for low-income citizens, people of color and women who look to the nation's highest courts for a measure of protection against discrimination and other forms of government-sanctioned abuse.

Brown, who has been nominated to serve on the powerful US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has condemned the New Deal, which gave the United States Social Security, the minimum wage and fair labor laws. She has expressed doubts about whether age discrimination laws are a good idea. And she has made it clear that she is no fan of affirmative action or other programs designed to help minorities and women overcome centuries of oppression.

Pryor, while serving as attorney general of Alabama, fought to undermine the authority of Congress to prohibit discrimination and to protect the environment, to maintain separation of church and state, to protect reproductive freedom and to guarantee equal protection under the law for gay men and lesbians. He has been nominated to serve on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Owen, who has been nominated to serve on the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, established a record on the Texas Supreme Court of unswerving loyalty to corporate interests. She has, in addition, adopted such extreme antiabortion rights stances that even her fellow conservatives, including Alberto Gonzalez, who was then a Supreme Court justice but now servers as US Attorney General, have distanced themselves from her.

All three nominees have drawn broad opposition from civil rights, women's rights, public interest, religious, environmental and labor groups. None of them should ever be allowed anywhere near an appeals court bench. Yet it is likely that, as a result of the deal worked out by the moderate senators, all three will soon be donning the robes of the federal judiciary.

This "compromise" may have averted the "nuclear option" for a time. But it will saddle the federal bench with more bad judges.

That's a bad deal, especially when there is such overwhelming public sentiment for maintaining the right of senators to block inappropriate judicial nominees. Democrats were right to oppose Brown, Pryor and Owen. They will come to regret cutting the deal to let these unacceptable nominees -- and the others who are now sure to be nominated by the Bush Administration -- to be approved.

The No-Nuke Deal

The Senate will not be nuked. As the doomsday clock ticked down, seven so-called moderates from each party concocted a deal that was more of a win for the Republicans than the Democrats.

Under this brokered arrangement, three of Bush's right-wing nominees for appellate courts--Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor Jr.--will not be filibustered. In return--so to speak--the filibuster will remain a weapon the Democrats can use in the future against other judicial nominees but only "under extraordinary circumstances." What qualifies as "extraordinary circumstances"? That was not defined.

What does all this mean? At issue were five judicial nominees. The Republicans ended up with concrete gains: three conservatives (including one--Rogers Brown--who has declared that government is the enemy of civilization) will presumably be confirmed. What happens to the others--Henry Saad and William Myers--is uncertain. Saad's nomination is already in trouble (perhaps because of allegations within his FBI file). Myers could be a candidate for a filibuster. But the Democrats did not walk out of the room with a hard-and-fast right to resort to a filibuster. With this compromise, they are only able to wield a judicial filibuster if seven Republican senators agree the situation is "extraordinary." In essence, a small band of moderate GOPers will now have veto power over the Democrats' use of the judicial filibuster.

Democrats and their allies in the judicial wars can point to the fact that one or two of the Bush nominees may be stopped and that the filibuster might be available in the future. But what they got out of this deal is more iffy than what the Republicans pocketed. True, they prevented Senate majority leader Bill Frist from pushing the button. But Ralph Neas, the head of People for the American Way, is overstating the case when he says, "This is a major defeat for the radical right." What has the radical right lost in concrete terms? One or two conservative judges.

The future of the judicial filibuster remains unclear. Some opponents of Bush's nominees are suggesting the filibuster has been saved for the coming titanic battles over Supreme Court vacancies. "Our members fought hard to preserve the filibuster, which will now live to see another day," says Eli Pariser of MoveOn PAC. "The only way the 'nuclear option' comes back is if the Republicans break their agreement." Yes and no. If George W. Bush were to nominate, say, Priscilla Owen to the Supreme Court, would the GOP half of the Gang of 14 buck the leader of their party and attest that such an action was "extraordinary" and open to a filibuster? After all, how "extraordinary" would it be for a president to nominate to the highest court a jurist who served on both a state Supreme Court and a federal appellate court and who was previously confirmed by a majority of the Senate?

Frist and the Republican right had aimed to eliminate the judicial filibuster, and they did fail in that mission. But they succeeded in dramatically weakening the filibuster--possibly to the point of rendering it inoperable. Social conservative leader James Dobson decried the compromise as a loss for the Republicans. But undermining the filibuster is certainly more of a gain than a defeat for the GOP.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on how Corn was spoofed on Saturday Night Live and how Laura Bush backed him up on a key criticism of the White House.

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Did the Democrats get screwed--or screw themselves? This might have been the best deal they could have achieved. The Republicans were in the position of strength, and the betting in Washington was that Frist had enough votes to launch the nuclear option. There was no telling which party would have won the post-nuclear contest to blame the other side. What might have happened if Frist had dropped bomb and the Democrats subsequently hung together as a party and made good on their threat by slowing down the Senate, forcing the Republicans to vote on such Democratic initiatives as the minimum wage increase and health care tax cuts, and depicting the Republicans as a power-hungry majority (while the Republicans accused them of being obstructionists)? No one knows. And now no one will.

Looking back, it seems as if the debate over these judicial nominees became too much a fight about Senate rules. The Democrats benefited when Senator Trent Lott stupidly coined the phrase "nuclear option." But the back-and-forth about the filibuster and parliamentary matters (as important as they are) practically subsumed the central point: that Bush has been engaged in judicial activism--that is packing the federal courts with rightwing judges who usually side with big corporations over individuals. In spite of Lott's boneheaded mistake, the Republicans were able to define this war as one mostly over the use (or, as they put it, the misuse) of Senate rules. The Democrats fired back by claiming the Republicans were abusing their majority standing and unfairly rigging the game. This is what political consultants call a "process issue," and the conventional rule in politics is that "process issues" rarely resonate with large blocs of voters beyond those base-voters already engaged by such things. And with this arrangement, the Democratic moderates--let's name them: Ben Nelson, Robert Byrd, Joseph Lieberman, Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, Ken Salazar, and Daniel Inouye--did elevate the rules issue (and the goal of preserving the stately ways of the Senate) above the desire to do everything possible to block Bush's takeover of the courts. This deal was more about the Senate than the judiciary.

In the end, the bare-knuckle brawlers of each party who justifiably wanted a fight over Bush judges were sent back to their corners by the mushy-middlers. But this is a fight the Democrats need to pursue. The rules of the Senate matter, but what matters as much, if not more, are the far-reaching decisions handed down by judges who would restrict the rights of individuals and bolster those of corporate interests. This deal has yielded an uneasy peace--one arguably more beneficial at this moment to the Republicans than to the Democrats--but it does not the resolve the fundamental conflict. The judicial wars will (and should) continue by other means.

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IT REMAINS RELEVANT, ALAS. SO DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research.... [I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer.... Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations.... Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there.

Cowboy Cheers

Flouting the fact that Pat Robertson thinks the "activist" (Republican-sponsored and approved) judiciary is the worst threat America faces, the moralistic majority in the Texas legislature has decided that sexy cheerleading is our nation's undoing.

Forget the fact that it was the state of Texas that made sexy cheerleading part of our national cultural life. (This state, which wanted to be an independent nation, has also given us the execution of women and the mentally handicapped, Tom DeLay and George W. Bush.)

Of course, youthful female sexuality will always be a threat to the good ole boys. But my favorite part of this legislation is that it requires every school district to hire a sexy cheerleading commissar to enforce the proposed prohibition of "overtly sexually suggestive" cheerleading routines. (They won't be condemning James Joyce's Ulysses, but the principle of we-know-it-when-we-see-it has expanded.) Big government conservatism at your service.

As we fight fundamentalism abroad, it is crucial to know that we are fighting it here at home. What is next for the cheerleaders of Texas? Burkas?

Wal-Mart Avarice

Kudos to veteran 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer for lambasting the New York Times for its "paean" to Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton, and taking aim at Wal-Mart's "systematic obliteration of thousands of family businesses and of course the creation of hundreds of thousands of sweatshop jobs."

Safer's letter (posted below) succintly captures the grand irony of Walton's recent $35 million purchase of a famous landscape painting. ("All that Wal-Mart money was gleaned from the systematic destruction of the very American landscape Ms. Walton so expensively celebrates.")

Here's hoping that Safer's hardhitting letter is the basis of a forthcoming 60 Minutes segment.

New York, May 14, 2005

To the Editor:

Your paean to Alice L. Walton, the Wal-Mart heir who recently purchased Asher B. Durand's landscape painting "Kindred Spirits" for $35 million ("A Determined Heiress Plots an Art Collection," Arts pages, May 14), ignored a grand inherent irony.

All that Wal-Mart money was gleaned from the systematic destruction of the very American landscape Ms. Walton so expensively celebrates. Not to mention the equally systematic obliteration of thousands of family businesses and of course the creation of hundreds of thousands of sweatshop jobs.

The robber barons of yore, through contrition or vanity, also established enduring cultural institutions, but surely in this age of alleged transparency, it behooves the newspaper of record to make at least passing reference to the human and environmental price we all pay to satisfy Ms. Walton's ambition.

Morley Safer