Robert I. Friedman, whose uncompromising investigative stories appeared in The Nation from the early 1980s onward, died July 2 in Manhattan at the age of 51. In an era of timid, corporatized journalism, Robbie was the real thing: a courageous reporter who, operating freelance, made headlines exposing how the thuggish and the greedy, in all their guises as politicians, bankers, revolutionaries and mobsters, were preying on the weak.
Robbie came to prominence reporting from the Middle East, starting with a gutsy scoop from Beirut revealing Israel's relationship with the fascist Christian Phalange, a harbinger of its Lebanon invasion. Then came hard-edged portraits of Jewish fanatics like Moshe Levinger, leader of the militant Gush Emunim settlers, and Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League. Detailing the support those fringe elements were getting from US Jews and predicting they'd drive Israel far to the right, Robbie's reporting provoked a barrage of attacks. The Anti-Defamation League (which he called the Jewish thought police) maligned him, death threats poured in and he was once beaten up by West Bank settlers. To Robbie the worst was being called a self-hating Jew, since it was the humanistic tradition of Judaism that inspired him, and he feared, as he said in his last Nation article ("And Darkness Covered the Land," December 24, 2001), that Israel was dangerously close to becoming a right-wing apartheid state--something, he wrote, "Israel did not set out to be." Although his sympathies were with the Palestinian people, he reported on the duplicity of PLO leaders and described how Islamic extremism oppressed Palestinian women. He followed the truth, wherever it took him. Branching out, he presciently warned that the FBI was ignoring the broader threat posed by the first World Trade Center bombers and delivered cutting-edge reports on the international reach of the Russian mafia (which put a $100,000 contract on his life); it was the subject of his last book, Red Mafiya. Robbie was proudest of his Nation story "India's Shame" (April 8, 1996), which detailed how sexual slavery and political corruption in Bombay had created an AIDS catastrophe. Alas, while reporting it, Robbie contracted the rare blood disease that ultimately took his life.
The Fund for Investigative Journalism has established an award in his name: Box 60184, Washington, DC 20039-0184.
Events in Washington are potentially momentous, but hold the applause. In late May, the Dow was at 10,300, but by mid-July it had dropped almost 2,000 points. The Nasdaq and S&P indexes are at zero gain for the past five years, as if the bubble never occurred. This slow-motion crash induced even the most obedient right-wing lapdogs to scurry aboard the Sarbanes reform bill, and the Senate passed it, 97-0. The President made two malaprop-laced pep talks to recast himself as Mr. Reformer Guy (and knocked another 500 points off the Dow). But W. is a lagging political indicator these days. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has lost his touch. For years he celebrated the new economy and refused to take any action that might have worked to curb its excesses; a bit late he tells us "irrational exuberance" was actually "infectious greed." Now, with fear overtaking that greed in the markets and thus in Washington, the ingredients are present for an ideological sea change in American politics. But not yet.
Democrats, newly awakened to the potency of Enron-like financial scandals, are throwing smart punches at the business-friendly White House, but they are six months late to the cause (and still sound less convinced than Republican maverick John McCain). The passage of Senator Sarbanes's legislation is meaningful, but Democratic leaders choked on the hard part--reforming stock options and giving workers a voice in managing their own pension savings. Why mess up fundraising with those high-tech companies dumping "New Dem" millions on the party of working people? Majority leader Tom Daschle, who lamely promised a vote (someday) on the stock-option issue, will be revealed as another limp corporate shmoozer if he fails to deliver. So far, the Coca-Cola directors have more courage than he. Likewise, Senator Joseph Lieberman can doubtless raise millions from Silicon Valley for his presidential ambitions by defending the corporate hogs but, if so, he should rethink which party will have him.
The Republicans are in a deeper hole, of course. If Bush wants to bring his much-touted "moral clarity" to the reform cause, he'll have to drop the weepy speeches and dump Harvey Pitt as SEC chairman and Tom White, the Enronized Army Secretary. Then Bush should take his own medicine and come clean, open the secret SEC records of his insider cashout as a director of Harken, and do the same for the SEC investigation of Vice President Cheney's stewardship as CEO of Halliburton. Republican zealots and their attack-dog newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, exhausted the nation with their pursuit of the Clintons on Whitewater. Stonewalling by the Bush White House promises to make these far more serious financial matters a permanent theme of the Bush presidency.
The reforms currently in motion are a good start, but no more, as William Greider notes on page 11. We know what to expect from the Republicans--stubborn maneuvering and guile designed to stall real change until (they hope) the stock market turns around and public anger subsides. But Democrats have a historic opening far greater than this fall's elections--the opportunity to revive their role as trustworthy defenders of the folks who have always been the bone and sinew of the party, the people who do not get stock options and who deserve a much larger voice in Washington. If Democrats take a pass on the facts before them, they deserve our scorn. If they find the courage to break out of the corporate-money straitjacket and once again speak for the public, this could be the beginning of something big.
In a brief filed in connection with an appeal to the Supreme Court in a gun possession case, the Bush Justice Department, breaking with sixty years of jurisprudence, asserts that individuals have a constitutionally protected right to own firearms. Seeking to quiet ghosts of gun debates past as the November elections approach, the Administration tries to reassure us that this proposed sea change in American law would, if realized, leave law enforcement and gun laws unaffected. But in doing so, it elevates sophistry and doublespeak to a new art form.
In the case in question, a lower court held that a provision of the 1994 amendment to the gun control act prohibited one Timothy Emerson from possessing a Beretta pistol, since he was under a domestic-violence restraining order obtained by his wife. Even after a court issued the restraining order, Emerson used the pistol to threaten his wife and daughter as they entered his office to retrieve the daughter's shoes. In his appeal, Emerson claimed that the restriction abridged his Second Amendment rights. The Justice Department, in its brief to the High Court, departed from its historical position and agreed that Emerson did possess an individualized Second Amendment right. But in a legal high-wire act, it argued that this right was nonetheless trumped by his misconduct and that, therefore, the indictment should stand.
Gun control advocates criticized the inclusion of the constitutional assertion in the department's brief as gratuitous. But on this they miss the point. The real goal of Justice's new strategy is not to throw a bone to the gun lobby but to mount a backdoor attack on the very legitimacy of gun laws it doesn't like but doesn't have the guts, in the current political climate, to try to repeal legislatively. For as the Administration knows, elevating gun rights into the rarefied sphere of constitutional rights would create new, perhaps insurmountable, legal hurdles for existing gun violence statutes.
Individual rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, to which the Attorney General claims gun rights are analogous, occupy a unique area of American law. The Court has repeatedly held that legislative encroachments in these areas are presumptively invalid unless narrowly tailored to meet compelling government interests. On this basis, the Court has invalidated laws in the areas of affirmative action, free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. Recently, in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, it held that a law prohibiting virtual child pornography was too broadly drafted, and the putative harm it sought to prevent too speculative to pass constitutional muster. Were the Court to embrace the Bush view on the Second Amendment, the likely result would be to invalidate many federal and state gun laws, like the popular Brady law and the ban on assault weapons.
In passing the 1993 Brady Act, which is applied to the general population to screen out felons and other miscreants from buying firearms, the House and Senate judiciary committees did not consciously undertake the exactingly narrow drafting requirements necessary to overcome the constitutional hurdles placed on such rights as speech or religion. Rather, they acted under the authority of the Constitution's commerce clause, which gives Congress broad legislative discretion. And while Justice's brief, arguing that the prohibition on gun possession by those with domestic-violence restraining orders could pass the "narrow tailoring" constitutional test it seeks generally for gun laws, may be correct, it is unclear, even improbable, that the broader purpose of laws like the Brady Act (background checks for everyone) could survive the test.
Similarly, because the ban on military-style assault weapons, intended to remove the tools of many gang-type street massacres, was broadly drafted to apply to everyone, that law could be invalidated on the grounds that it is not sufficiently tailored to prohibit access by those with criminal records. So, too, could scores of state and local laws, such as the ban on handgun possession in the District of Columbia. The new proposal by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman to apply background checks at gun shows could also be constitutionally dead on arrival should the Administration view of gun rights become law.
Indeed, this is not the first time since September 11 that the Attorney General has catered to gun owners. In October, responding to gun lobby paranoia about gun registries, he refused to give the FBI access to records that could help it determine if post-September 11 detainees had attempted to purchase weapons.
Each year we lose roughly 28,000 people at the wrong end of a gun barrel, nearly ten times the number of people who perished on September 11. As the Violence Policy Center has documented, Al Qaeda terrorist training manuals note the ease with which one can obtain firearms in the United States--like the .50-caliber rifles that can with precision blow a nine-inch hole in a concrete wall from 100 yards. At a minimum, criminals and terrorists will benefit from new defenses that gun prosecutions violate constitutional rights as envisioned by the Bush Justice Department. Prior to his plea agreement, attorneys for the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, had already indicated his intention to invoke such a defense on his behalf.
If, when the Attorney General is proclaiming about the need to restrict Americans' civil liberties, he seeks to expand constitutional liberties for gun owners, he should at least be straight with the American people about the likely legal consequences and what it could mean for safety on our streets.
At the fourteenth international AIDS conference, the gulf between the United States and the rest of the world widened as US officials touted policies that world health experts agree are ineffective strategies for stemming the pandemic. Without stepped-up prevention efforts, 45 million more people will become infected with HIV by 2010, according to the Global HIV Prevention Working Group. Yet 29 million of these people would never contract the virus if leaders ratcheted up preventive strategies--most crucially teaching the use of condoms.
In European countries, including the Netherlands and Sweden, the promotion of a variety of safe sex practices--abstinence, monogamy and condom use--has reduced teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. In Senegal and Uganda, it has cut the rate of new HIV infections in half. In all these countries and in others, national governments have supported such programs both rhetorically and financially.
The White House, however, wants to expand programs enacted under the Clinton Administration that tie federal funding of sex education to the promotion of abstinence-only curriculums. While the vast majority of US schools provide information about what HIV is and how it is transmitted, less than half give students information about what condoms are or how to use them, according to Centers for Disease Control surveys.
In a speech drowned out by angry protesters in Barcelona, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson touted the Administration's $500 million drug initiative to prevent babies in Africa and the Caribbean from becoming infected with HIV during birth or through breastfeeding. He seemed confused when reporters later suggested that preventing women, girls and their partners from becoming infected in the first place might be a more productive strategy.
The evidence is clear: Campaigns that rely only on abstinence and drugs to protect babies from AIDS won't slow the world pandemic. HIV prevention does work when it is part of reproductive health programs that recognize that sex is an integral component of human behavior.
Speaking on NPR recently, Cokie Roberts, the soon-to-retire co-host of ABC's This Week, falsely informed her listeners that "the President was exonerated by the Securities and Exchange Commission." In fact, even though his daddy was the President of the United States during the incident in question, after a remarkably relaxed investigation the SEC informed Bush's lawyer that its decision "must in no way be construed as indicating that [George W. Bush] has been exonerated."
Call me sentimental, but I'm going to miss the old gal. With no discernible politics save an attachment to her class, no reporting and frequently no clue, she was the perfect source for a progressive media critic: a perpetual font of Beltway conventional wisdom uncomplicated by any collision with messy reality.
Lippmann/Dewey fans will remember that the very idea of a watchdog press breaks down when the watchdog starts acting like--and more important, sympathizing with--the folks upon whom he or she has been hired to keep an eye. With Cokie, this was never much of an issue. Her dad was a Congressman. Her mom was a Congresswoman. Her brother is one of the slickest and wealthiest lobbyists in the city. Her husband, Steve Roberts, holds the dubious honor of being perhaps the only person to give up a plum New York Times job because it interfered with his television career. And together they form a tag-team buck-raking/book-writing enterprise offering up corporate speeches and dime-store "Dear Abby"-style marriage advice to those unfortunates who do not enjoy his-and-her television contracts.
Cokie came to public attention at NPR, where she developed some street cred as a Capitol Hill gumshoe, but apparently grew tired of the hassle of actual reporting, which only helped her career. With no concern for the niceties of conflicts of interest, she and her husband accepted together as much as $45,000 in speaking fees from the very corporations that were affected by the legislation she was allegedly covering in Congress. Moreover, she claimed something akin to a royal prerogative in refusing to address the ethical quandary it obviously raised. (A spokesman responding to a journalist's inquiry said that Queen Cokie's corporate speaking fees were "not something that in any way, shape or form should be discussed in public.")
Apparently, nobody ever told Cokie that the job of the insider pundit is to at least pretend to be conversant with the major political, economic and intellectual issues in question before putting these in the service of a consensually derived story line. The pedantic George Will and the peripatetic Sam Donaldson at least give the impression of having considered their remarks ahead of time, either by memorizing from Bartlett's or pestering politicians. Not Cokie. Once, when a reporting gig interfered with one of her many social and/or speaking engagements, she donned a trench coat in front of a photo of the Capitol in the ABC studios in the hopes of fooling her viewers. She was not a real journalist; she just played one on TV.
Still, her commentary was invaluable, if inadvertently so. As a pundit, she was a windup Conventional Wisdom doll. The problem with Bill Clinton, for instance, was that he was the wrong sort for Cokie and her kind. "This is a community in all kinds of ways," she told Sally Quinn during the impeachment crisis. "When something happens everybody gathers around.... It's a community of good people involved in a worthwhile pursuit." Here was her analysis of the complicated constitutional questions impeachment raised: "People who act immorally and lie get punished," she proclaimed, noting that she "approach[ed] this as a mother." (Her own children are fully grown, but perhaps they're real sensitive...) "This ought to be something that outrages us, makes us ashamed of him." When the country refused to go along with the ironclad Broder/Cokester consensus, she supported impeachment anyway, because "then people can lead public opinion rather than just follow it through the process." These same "people," meaning Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich and Cokie's friends, made a return appearance in Cokieworld when the Supreme Court handed Al Gore's victory to George W. Bush following the Florida 2000 election crisis. "People do think it's political, but they think that's OK," she averred. "They expect the court to be political, and they wanted the election to be over."
All this is relevant to those of you who are not dewy-eyed about Cokie's departure--or Dewey-eyed about democracy, for that matter--because Cokie's inadvertent honesty helps us understand how George W. Bush ever made it to the White House in the first place. Why are we hearing about Harken Oil only today? Why did the press ignore the evidence of Bush's personal and professional dishonesty back in 2000, when it still mattered? Meanwhile, these same reporters concocted stupid stories about Al Gore's penchant for "exaggeration," misreporting the simplest facts on his (essentially accurate) claims about the Internet, Love Canal and Love Story. It's not as if evidence of Bush's unsavory past was unavailable. I wrote about it twice on MSNBC.com, in the fall of 2000, following a damning Talk magazine exposé of Bush's suspicious business ethics, written by Bill Minutaglio and Nancy Beiles, and based on documents made public by the Center for Public Integrity. But nobody cared. The Times, the Post, the Journal, CBS, ABC et al.--who had all championed Ken Starr's $70 million investigation of a $30,000 unprofitable land deal--did not think Bush's fortune-making sweetheart deals were worth more than the most cursory of investigations. (Let's not even bring up the dubious Texas Rangers deal or the missing years in his National Guard record.)
How did the media--and hence the nation--manage to miss these stories? Just ask Cokie: As she explained back then in defense of herself and her colleagues, "The story line is Bush isn't smart enough and Gore isn't straight enough. In Bush's case, you know he's just misstating as opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial exaggerator." Thus spake Cokathustra.
For more, check out www.altercation.msnbc.com during The Nation's summer lull. We never take vacations at Altercation.
When did the great executive stock option hog wallow really start? You can go back to the deregulatory push under Carter in the late 1970s, then move into the Reagan '80s, when corporate purchases of shares really took off with the leveraged buyouts and mergermania, assisted by tax laws that favored capital gains over stockholder dividends and allowed corporations to write off interest payments entirely.
Between 1983 and 1990, 72.5 percent of net US equity purchases were bought by nonfinancial corporations. At the end of this spree the debt-laden corporations withdrew to their tents for three years of necessary restraint and repose, until in 1994 they roared into action once more, plunging themselves into debt to finance their share purchases. This was the start of the options game.
Between 1994 and 1998 nonfinancial companies began to load themselves up with yet more debt. The annual value of the repurchases quadrupled, testimony to the most hectic sustained orgy of self-aggrandizement by an executive class in the history of capitalism.
For these and ensuing reflections and specific figures, I'm mostly indebted to Robert Brenner's prescient The Boom and the Bubble, published this spring with impeccable timing by Verso; also Robin Blackburn's long-awaited book (now being released by Verso) on the past and future of pensions, Banking on Death.
Why did these chief executive officers, chief financial officers and boards of directors choose to burden their companies with debt? Since stock prices were going up, companies needing money could have raised funds by issuing shares rather than borrowing money to buy shares back.
Top corporate officers stood to make vast killings on their options, and by the unstinting efforts of legislators such as Senator Joe Lieberman, they were spared the inconvenience of having to report to stockholders the cost of these same options. Enlightened legislators had also been thoughtful enough to rewrite the tax laws in such a manner that the cost of issuing stock options could be deducted from company income.
It's fun these days to read all the jubilant punditeers who favor the Democrats now lashing Bush and Cheney for the way they made their fortunes while repining the glories of the Clinton boom, when the dollar was mighty and the middle classes gazed into their 401(k) nest eggs with the devotion of Volpone eyeing his trove. "Good morning to the day; and, next, my gold:/Open the shrine, that I may see my saint."
Bush and Cheney deserve the punishment. But when it comes to political parties, the seaminess is seamless. The Clinton boom was lofted in large part by the helium of bubble accountancy.
By the end of 1999 average annual pay of CEOs at 362 of America's largest corporations had swollen to $12.4 million, six times more than what it was in 1990. The top option payout was to Charles Wang, boss of Computer Associates International, who got $650 million in restricted shares, towering far above Ken Lay's scrawny salary of $5.4 million and shares worth $49 million. As the 1990s blew themselves out, the corporate culture, applauded on a weekly basis by such bullfrogs of the bubble as Thomas Friedman, saw average CEO pay at those same 362 corporations rise to a level 475 times larger than that of the average manufacturing worker.
The executive suites of America's largest companies became a vast hog wallow. CEOs and finance officers would borrow millions from some complicit bank, using the money to drive up company stock prices, thereby inflating the value of their options. Brenner offers us the memorable figure of $1.22 trillion as the total of borrowing by nonfinancial corporations between 1994 and 1999, inclusive. Of that sum, corporations used just 15.3 percent for capital expenditures. They used 57 percent of it, or $697.4 billion, to buy back stock and thus enrich themselves. Surely the wildest smash and grab in the annals of corporate thievery.
When the bubble burst, the parachutes opened, golden in a darkening sky. Blackburn cites the packages of two departing Lucent executives, Richard McGinn and Deborah Hopkins, a CFO. Whereas the laying off of 10,500 employees was dealt with in less than a page of Lucent's quarterly report in August 2001, it took a fifteen-page attachment to outline the treasures allotted to McGinn (just under $13 million, after running Lucent for barely three years) and to Hopkins (at Lucent for less than a year, departing with almost $5 million).
Makes your blood boil, doesn't it? Isn't it time we had a "New Covenant for economic change that empowers people"? Aye to that! "Never again should Washington reward those who speculate in paper, instead of those who put people first." Hurrah! Whistle the tune and memorize the words (Bill Clinton's in 1992).
There are villains in this story, an entire piranha-elite. And there are victims, the people whose pension funds were pumped dry to flood the hog wallow with loot. Here in the United States privatization of Social Security has been staved off only because Clinton couldn't keep his hand from his zipper, and now again because Bush's credentials as a voucher for the ethics of private enterprise have taken a fierce beating.
But the wolves will be back, and popgun populism (a brawnier SEC, etc., etc.) won't hold them off. The Democrats will no more defend the people from the predations of capital than they will protect the Bill of Rights (in the most recent snoop bill pushed through the House, only three voted against a measure that allows life sentences for "malicious hacking": Dennis Kucinich and two Republicans, Jeff Miller of Florida and the great Texas libertarian, Ron Paul). It was the Senate Democrats in early July who rallied in defense of accounting "principles" that permitted the present deceptive treatment of stock options. Not just Joe Lieberman, the whore of Connecticut, but Tom Daschle of the Northern plains.
Popgun populism is not enough. Socialize accumulation! Details soon.
He says he had no clue the stock would tank.
About the details he is still evasive.
Though "on the board but clueless" could sound lame,
With Bush, a clueless claim sounds quite persuasive.
It used to be a matter of flashing a badge and appealing to patriotism, but these days federal agents are finding it a little harder to get librarians to spy. Under an obscure provision of the USA Patriot Act, federal agents can obtain a warrant to acquire information about library users. According to a recent survey, agents have been showing up at libraries--a lot--asking librarians for reading records. Nearly everything about the procedure--from the granting of the warrants to the search itself--is secret (as an excellent story in the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out recently). But, unlike in the cold war years, when the FBI last tried to conduct such library surveillance, this time around, top librarians are on the warpath to protect reader privacy. And Congress wants Attorney General John Ashcroft to account for his agents' library conduct.
It wasn't like this back in George W.'s daddy's day.
Between 1973 and the late 1980s, the FBI operated a secret counterintelligence operation called the Library Awareness Program. Back then the Feds were particularly concerned about what Soviet bloc citizens were reading in the nation's premier science libraries. In the words of Herbert Foerstel, a science librarian in those years, "Agents would approach clerical staff at public and university libraries, flash a badge and appeal to their patriotism in preventing the spread of 'sensitive but unclassified' information."
Today, with Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act in hand, law enforcement agents are at it again. This time, the stated purpose is to gather information on people the government suspects of having ties to terrorists or plotting an attack. The act makes it hard to track just what's going on. Anyone who receives an FBI request is prohibited, under threat of prosecution, from revealing the FBI visit to anyone, even to the patron whose records are subject to search.
On April 3 I interviewed Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, on Working Assets Radio, and the interview illustrated the problem. To paraphrase: Flanders: "How many libraries have received information requests from the FBI?" Stone: "They are not allowed to tell us, and we are not allowed to say."
But in February one enterprising library sciences professor sent a survey to 1,503 libraries around the country. Dr. Leigh Estabrook asked librarians for answers to a set of questions, to which they did not have to append their name. According to Estabrook's raw data, presented this spring at a Public Library Association conference, eighty-five of the libraries surveyed report that authorities (for example, FBI or police) requested information about their patrons pursuant to the events of September 11. More worrisome, about one-fifth of the libraries said staff had changed their attitude toward or treatment of users in some way. More than 10 percent (118) reported that they had become more restrictive of Internet use. Seventy-seven said they had monitored what patrons were doing.
Librarians on the alert aren't necessarily a bad thing. In Florida, an attentive Delray Beach librarian reported the use of her library by a group of Middle Eastern men, and they turned out to have connections to the attacks of 9/11.
But some of this monitoring may be illegal. Since the abuses of the cold war, almost every state has passed confidentiality laws to protect the privacy of personal records. Since passage of the USA Patriot Act, the American Library Association has been busy reminding librarians of their abilities to question things like federal search warrants and advising them of the best practices to undertake to protect confidentiality of patrons and themselves. In January, the ALA released a set of guidelines to inform librarians of what search warrants were, what subpoenas were and how they could react if in fact they were presented with such documents. Then in June, the ALA's governing council passed a resolution publicly affirming the privacy rights of patrons and implicitly instructing library staff to do all they can to protect their clients' privacy.
"Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought and free association," says the ALA council statement, in part. It wouldn't be a bad idea for librarians to post the statement in the stacks. Concerned library readers should also know that one sure-fire way to keep your reading records private is to take back your borrowed books on time. The ALA's Stone told Working Assets Radio that the circulation software most libraries use today automatically erases a reader's borrowing record once a book is returned and all fines are paid.
Congress is getting interested as well. On June 13 a bipartisan committee sent a twelve-page letter to John Ashcroft demanding details on the implementation of the USA Patriot Act. Representative James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, the staunch conservative chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Michigan Democrat John Conyers, the progressive, ranking Democrat, want to know, among other things, just how many subpoenas the Justice Department has issued to libraries, bookstores and newspapers under Section 215 and what safeguards are in place to prevent abuse. The letter asked for written answers by July 9, which at presstime had yet to be received; then Sensenbrenner and Conyers plan to hold hearings on the response. Are G-men harassing your librarian? The hearings should make for good, hot summer viewing on C-Span. Meanwhile, library staff are under a lot of pressure--why not drop by or write to your librarian and send a message of support?
Dispatches from adolescent territory reach me occasionally through my niece Michelle, who has moved into her teen years like the Wehrmacht hitting Belgium. Her most recent posting has taught me this about contemporary film culture: While visiting a Midwest resort town with a friend, Michelle was delighted to discover a street of quaint shops, as well as a theater that played old movies. Which old movies, I wanted to know. "Spider-Man," she said.
In the hope that this column might fall into the hands of teenagers, I therefore begin with an apology. Some of the movies I am about to discuss have been running for two weeks, or even longer. That's enough for them to have earned most of whatever theatrical revenue they can expect; enough that they are now being pushed into the back reaches of the public's attention, so that next week's movies can be marketed. I want to write about these pictures precisely because they were made to be forgotten (like Men in Black II); or, conversely, because they are already starting to fade, despite their makers' best intentions.
I also want to write about a film that just might stick in the mind: Langrishe, Go Down, starring Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons. But there I'm cheating. Although that film is only now being released, it doesn't really count as current, since it was made in 1978.
To people who dislike movies and attend only films, it might seem obvious that Men in Black II can't compete against Langrishe, Go Down (which has not only Dench and Irons to its credit but also a screenplay by Harold Pinter). But then, to my mind, Langrishe, Go Down can scarcely compete against the original Men in Black, which so brightened the summer of 1997. While that picture cheerfully fulfilled every duty of a sci-fi special-effects comedy, it also won a permanent place in memory by developing a theme that should interest thoughtful teenagers and adults alike.
In its portrayals of agents Kay and Jay (Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith) and of the coroner who stumbled onto their secrets (Linda Fiorentino), Men in Black proposed that knowledge has to be paid for, and that the cost is often loneliness. Fiorentino, you may recall, played a scientist whose zeal for research allowed her no living companions. Smith played a New York cop who had to choose between satisfying his curiosity and maintaining relations with his friends and family--not much of a decision in his case, since he was already thoroughly alienated. (In a training exercise, Smith shot to death a cute little blond girl but left unmolested a fanged and tentacled potato from Outer Space, with which he seemed to empathize.) As for Jones, he strutted and snapped his way through the movie as if a show of bravado were all that could keep him going. "We are a gullible species," he sighed at one point, as if wishing he might lay down his burden and rejoin the credulous. Everyone except Smith understood this ragged man was on his last case.
Clearly, Jones should have stayed in the retirement he achieved at the end of Men in Black. Smith should have remained partners with Fiorentino, and the sequel (if there had to be one) ought to have been written by Ed Solomon, who so ingeniously handled the original. Maybe he would have titled the picture Men and Women in Black. Instead, we get the throwaway Men in Black II, which disposes of Fiorentino in half a line of dialogue and uses the same method to eliminate the wife for whom Jones once pined. (It's as if the audience could be purged of memory, just like the movie's neuralized civilians.) With these impediments to buddy-movie business cleared away, the screenplay (by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro) can proceed to reunite Smith and Jones and replay, with slight variations, the simpler gags from the first picture.
Time passes, hope sinks and a theme emerges, unfortunately. Men in Black II shows that only two kinds of women exist on other planets: shining saints and snaky monsters. If this is so, then Earth must be bigger and more varied than the whole rest of the universe--a notion that runs counter to the spirit I recall with such joy from the first, the one true, Men in Black.
As you may know, Men in Black was based on a comic book by Lowell Cunningham; so it has something in common with Road to Perdition, a gangster picture spawned from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. Under the fussy and portentous direction of Sam Mendes (who previously postured his way through American Beauty), Road to Perdition is clearly a far more ambitious movie than Men in Black II. It boasts the very substantial talents of Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in lead roles, an unnerving performance by Jude Law in a crucial supporting part and magically dark, dense cinematography by Conrad L. Hall. The story would seem to be worth telling (it's about murderous gangster fathers and the sons who are either loyal or disloyal to them, either willing or unwilling to follow their path); and the setting is the Depression-era Midwest, which always helps a movie. And yet very little of Road to Perdition lingers, except for a feeling that you've been carried along.
Most of the carrying happens when mob hit man Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is driving around the wintry plains with his 12-year-old son, Mike (Tyler Hoechlin). The two are both fleeing a killer (Law) and chasing the men who dispatched him--a situation that allows for a couple of good, tense confrontations. Since Hanks thinks it would be helpful to empty Al Capone's bank accounts, there's also a series of jolly robberies. I would guess these episodes take up about fifteen minutes of the movie. The rest is murk, forced lyricism and mounting corpses. Perhaps you won't care when I reveal that almost no one survives, since the deaths never matter. They just happen, like ticks of a metronome. Each beat gives Sam Mendes the opportunity to make pretty arrangements: an image of violence framed by a man's legs, a flash at a nighttime window, a brightly lit homage to David's Death of Marat, a tracking shot of men silently collapsing in the rain. Watching these stage-derived tableaux vivants, I began to think better of the movie-mad energy of Miller's Crossing, in which the Coen brothers invested their overcoats-and-hats gangsters with both drive and character. Maybe Miller's Crossing has also turned out to be forgettable in large part; but its core moments (such as the scene of John Turturro begging for his life) dig right into you, as if they were newly installed neural pathways to the heart.
Road to Perdition? A passing flutter.
John Sayles can't be accused of prettifying his films, and he would never kill a character for lack of anything better to do. What's more, he despises the grand simplifications that are so common in comic books, graphic novels and pop moviemaking. In Sunshine State, he sets up for ridicule the fabulations of history pageants and real-estate developers, so he can show off to better advantage his own, more intricate vision of the social network. It's a strategy he's used in many earlier films, just as he visited Texas and Alaska before this excursion into Florida. From Sayles, you get highly specific landscapes, reliable accounts of politics and commerce, and (more often than not) actresses to die for--in this case, in alphabetical order, Jane Alexander, Mary Alice, Angela Bassett and Edie Falco.
All this is admirable. I just wish Sayles would also put a little movie into the movie.
Sunshine State isn't claptrap, like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but it shares that picture's claptrap method of being almost entirely expository. In scene after scene, Sayles tells you exactly what he thinks you should know about Florida, often by putting into the mouth of a character the kind of cliché-twisting monologue that keeps rational people away from Off Broadway plays. I think this is a waste of good actors--and the effects are nowhere more evident than in the parts of Sunshine State you forget, or that Sayles forgot. Tell me, if you've seen the picture: Can you recall what finally becomes of Terrell (Alex Lewis), the troubled teenager whose act of vandalism begins the story? He's hustled away so perfunctorily, once he's served the purpose of uniting two strands of the plot, that he might as well be Linda Fiorentino. And can you remember anything the American Indian construction worker does in the movie, other than wait around to be an American Indian at a crucial moment? For a filmmaker with a social conscience, Sayles is awfully quick to use characters as means, rather than ends.
So, for a dose of something eccentric and memorable, I turn to Langrishe, Go Down.
David Jones directed this picture in 1978 for the BBC, working from Harold Pinter's screenplay. New York's Film Forum is now giving the movie a much-belated theatrical release (July 17-30), no doubt on the strength of Judi Dench's ascent to stardom. She is, in fact, a wonder in the role of Imogen Langrishe, one of a household of spinsters living in ever-more-impoverished gentility on an estate outside Dublin. The period is the 1930s, when such descents from grandeur were not uncommon for the Irish gentry; nor would it have been unlikely for a self-styled scholar from Bavaria (Jeremy Irons) to show up in the neighborhood to do research, and to assert with sudden, unmotivated violence that he is indifferent to politics, absolutely indifferent.
Sayles himself could not ask for a more realistic, closely observed setting. (In this regard, Langrishe, Go Down owes a lot to its source, the novel of the same title by Aidan Higgins.) But the way the film's seduction and repulsion play themselves out--you understood, surely, that Dench and Irons have an affair--is utterly unpredictable. Irons turns himself into a fun-house mirror version of the self-important German intellectual, complete with an accent that keeps migrating toward Transylvania. He never stops talking; whereas Dench, who is given relatively few lines, speaks volumes with her eyes and the set of her mouth. You understand, without a word, how she sees through Irons. She's amused by him; she feels this may be the last amusement she'll get; and she enjoys it, until the underlying frustration and rage break through.
To all this, David Jones adds a fragmented, time-shuffling montage that's reminiscent of Alain Resnais. Or is the film's structure also a Pinter contribution, like the lines of dialogue that continually run askew? All I know is that this odd little movie has lodged in my brain, not comfortably, perhaps, but permanently.
Langrishe, Go Down is a keeper.
For readers of this magazine and millions of other Americans, the initial horror of September 11 was compounded by the sobering realization that George W. Bush would be at the helm for the aftermath. With a cabal of fundamentalists, crackpots and fascists whispering in his ear, Dubya became the world's most dangerous weapon. Perhaps, we hoped, the rather low esteem in which he was held by the American people, the news media and much of Congress might save us.
No such luck. Congress and the mainstream media lined up behind him in lockstep. Instances of his much-vaunted ignorance wound up on the cutting-room floor. One cable network ran daily promos of Bush spurring on World Trade Center rescue workers, declaring that he had "found his voice" amid the rubble. Pundit Peggy Noonan declared Bush's post-9/11 speech to Congress no less than "God-touched"; he had "metamorphosed into a gentleman of cool command...[with] a new weight, a new gravity." Yet, despite the rise in his approval ratings, many harbored lingering doubts about the extent to which a "new" Bush existed.
Among the many critical viewpoints drowned out in the wake of the attacks was Mark Crispin Miller's The Bush Dyslexicon, the first systematic critical examination of the President's mistakes, misstatements and malapropisms. Fortunately, this clever volume has been reissued with updated material on Bush's sayings and doings since that time.
Bush's propensity for mangling the English language is no secret to anyone. No doubt we all have our favorites, which we've gleefully shared with friends, family, co-workers and comrades. Miller, a professor of media ecology at New York University, has compiled what is clearly the largest collection of Dubya-isms to date, among them these treats:
§ On his qualifications to be President: "I don't feel I've got all that much too important to say on the kind of big national issues" (September 2000); and "Nobody needs to tell me what I believe. But I do need somebody to tell me where Kosovo is" (September 1999).
§ On coping with terrorism and other threats: "[We'll] use our technology to enhance uncertainties abroad" (March 2000); and "We'll let our friends be the peacekeepers and the great country called America will be the pacemakers" (September 2000).
§ On Russia: "And so one of the areas where I think the average Russian will realize that the stereotypes of America have changed is that it's a spirit of cooperation, not one-upmanship; that we now understand one plus one can equal three, as opposed to us, and Russia we hope to be zero" (November 2001).
Miller vividly illustrates the depth of ignorance--as opposed to stupidity--that leads this President away from direct contact with journalists whenever possible. Miller also demonstrates that Bush's "problem" with language is not easily separated from his "problem" with policy and politics. If we focus exclusively on his stormy relationship with proper grammar and logical sentence structure, Miller argues, we risk underestimating what his presidency means for the United States and the world. "Our president is not an imbecile but an operator just as canny as he is hard-hearted.... To smirk at his alleged stupidity is, therefore, not just to miss the point, but to do this unelected president a giant favor."
Loosely organized by subject matter-- "That Old Time Religion," "It's the Economy, Your Excellency"--the book's chapters chronicle several intertwined aspects of the chief executive: the politics of style that characterize his behavior and demeanor; the media's role in crafting him as a valid presidential candidate and, post-9/11, a changed man; the Bush family's political legacy and troubled public image; and, finally, the real meaning behind Dubya's flubs and gaffes.
Miller documents in detail how major news outlets have from the beginning provided a heavily edited public transcript of Bush's statements and have helped steer viewers away from his lack of policy knowledge. Even more disturbing are the ways the media have simply reported Bush's "ideas" without comment. Commenting on a Kansas school-board vote to end evolution's exclusivity in the state science curriculum (later overturned), for example, Bush declared, "I personally believe God created the earth" (September 1999); later, he opined, "After all, religion has been around a lot longer than Darwinism" (September 2000).
The abundant evidence Miller provides of Dubya getting pass after pass in the media seems particularly alarming. In addition to general "cover," Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson and other famed "journalists" and newspeople consistently let Bushisms fly with little or no comment. Note this flub on the fate of Elián González's potential citizenship during an airing of ABC's This Week:
Well, I think--I--It--listen, I don't understand the full ramifications of what they're going to do. But I--I--I--think it'd be a--a--a wonderful gesture. I guess the man c--the boy could still go back to Cuba as a citizen of the United States.... I hadn't really thought about the citizenship issue. It's an interesting idea, but if I were in the Senate, I'd vote aye.
Roberts gave no response to the nonsensical Bush, nor did Chris Matthews in this bizarre MSNBC Hardball episode in May 2000:
Matthews: When you hear Al Gore say "reckless, irresponsible," what do you hear from him, really?...
Bush: I hear a guy who's not confident in his own vision, and, therefore, wants to take time tearing me down. Actually, I--I--this may sound a little West Texan to you, but I like it when I'm talking about what I'm--what I--
Bush:--when I'm talking about myself, and when he's talking about myself, all of us are talking about me.
Of course, these snippets pale in comparison to the alacrity with which the media papered over the fact that our current President was not elected by a majority of the populace.
This is quite a contrast from the dis-ease with which the fourth estate treated Bush's predecessors. Miller traces the phenomenon back to Richard Nixon, whom he calls the "godfather" of Bush-era politics. Like Bush, Nixon was not a man well liked by the television cameras; nor, as the White House tapes reveal, was he an especially enlightened man, with his pedestrian literary interpretations, paranoid hatred of Jews, virulent racism, sexism and homophobia. "You know what happened to the Greeks!?" Nixon bellowed to Haldeman and Ehrlichman: "Homosexuality destroyed them. Sure, Aristotle was a homo." Nixon's angry and, as Miller describes it, "low-born" personality manifested itself throughout his televisual life, particularly during the scandal that brought down his presidency.
Inheriting this image problem was Dubya's patriarch, George Bush senior, who not only worked for Nixon politically but also shared in his televisually and verbally handicapped style. Whereas Nixon came off as a classless bully, Bush suffered from sissiness, the infamous Wimp Factor: "Bush's posh class background was his major TV problem, the cameras mercilessly outing the big pantywaist within.... In fact, the Bush clan, although fabulously wealthy, is not aristocratic enough to do well on TV, if by that modifier we mean elegant and polished. First of all, the Bushes often have let fly in the most boorish way--as when Barbara Bush hinted coyly that Geraldine Ferraro was a 'bitch.'"
In an effort to analyze Bush Sr.'s wanna-be aristocratic demeanor, Miller proceeds to call him a "Yalie faggot" and argues that the Bush family's privilege put the elder Bush in the toughest of spots relative to his macho Republican predecessors. On losing a straw poll in Ames, Iowa, for example, Bush noted, "A lot of people who support me were at an air show, they were off at their daughter's coming-out party, they were teeing up at the golf course." Miller makes it abundantly clear how frequently Bush Sr. not only missed, but miscalculated, the mark.
The point is that on television, class is not an economic issue but a style issue. Given what Miller terms the Kennedy "savoir-faire," the Bush family is at a distinct image disadvantage. Unfortunately, Miller frequently analogizes Bush's moneyed privilege with a certain kind of homosexuality--offensive behavior in a critic himself trying to "out" Nixon's ignorance and homophobia. And he contrives that Barbara's complaining of another woman's bitchiness is somehow anathema to aristocratic behavior.
At root, these strangely aristocratic cheap shots smack of a kind of backhanded liberal Kennedy worship. It is impossible to miss the implication that America's royal family is the standard-bearer of sufficiently presidential (read: aristocratic and classy) demeanor. Given that JFK was an ethically challenged, commie-hunting political lightweight, Miller's willingness to engage in macho class snobbery points to the disturbing presence in the book of a crass partisanship better suited to a Democratic media flack than a scholar of the left.
Symptomatic of this is the fact that for much of the book Miller seems to forget the high degree of political convergence between Bush and neoliberal New Democrats like Al Gore. One cannot help wondering if Miller thinks a Gore Administration would not have responded to September 11 with military action, and with legislation that expanded the already egregious powers given the government in the Clinton-sponsored Counter Terrorism Initiative of 1995. This see-no-evil quality of the book is all the more telling because it represents the very type of amnesia that Miller says afflicts us all after years of corporate-led media idiocy. When he harps on Clinton's downfall at the hands of the right without sufficiently stressing Bill's own never-ending rightward shift throughout his eight years in office, one wonders if Miller's own political memory lapsed from 1992 to 2000. It is not until near the end of the book that he turns tail and concedes Al Gore's rather striking resemblances to a war-happy Republican candidate, as Gore "spoke more expertly, but just as deferentially, straining to out-hawk the jut-jawed W, arguing that he would raise the military budget even higher and retrospectively saluting the preposterous invasions of Grenada and Panama."
Finally, Miller's critique of the "politics of style" turns in upon itself. Miller obtains the lion's share of Bushisms from precisely those style-obsessed media outlets he accuses of bringing down Clinton and building up Bush: the New York Times, Talk, Glamour, 20/20 and Larry King Live appear all over Miller's source citations, and he is just as dependent on, and dedicated to, the politics of style as they are. At the end of the book, one cannot help suspecting that Miller's beef with the politics of style is that it took down his guy while it has yet to take down the other guy.
This hedging makes crucial parts of the book read like sour grapes and detracts from the moments of sharp observation that Miller offers elsewhere. He clearly grasps the very real danger of the Bush Administration--his most intriguing observation is that Bush is not always a rhetorical bumbler. As Miller conducts his repeated dissections of various Bushisms, it becomes clear that this man is in fact possessed of considerable guile. In an interview with Charlie Rose, in August 2000, Bush speaks about Saddam Hussein:
Rose: OK. What if you thought Saddam Hussein, using the absence of inspectors, was close to acquiring a nuclear weapon?
Bush: He'd pay a price.
Rose: What's the price?
Bush: The price is force, the full force and fury of a reaction.
Rose: Bombs away?
Bush: You can just figure that out after it happens.
Here we see Dubya apparently willing and even eager to bomb a country with which we are not at war--yet. Two years before the recent enunciation of a "Hitting First" policy of pre-emption and even more recent revelations of an existing attack plan from land, sea and air, Bush's warring language was unambiguous. Likewise, when speaking of anger and vengeance post-9/11, he is nothing if not clear, and his dyslexic tendencies are nowhere in evidence. Down-homish and cringe-inducing though it may be, "evildoers" is a phrase whose meaning is singular, and Bush's repeated use of it has not been subject to the usual emendations or "clarifications" of his handlers. Similarly, Bush famously threatened to "smoke 'em out" of their holes, another inappropriate, unpresidential, phrase; yet no one was confused about what it meant for Al Qaeda.
The Bush Dyslexicon makes it clear that even after the 11th of September, Bush's personality was far from "God-touched" or even transformed; in fact, provided with the opportunity to inflate his defense budget, savage Social Security and go after the Taliban as if in a 'coon hunt, Bush was just this side of gleeful at the prospect for revenge. Hardly had the mourning American public time to collect itself before Dubya encouraged the military to "smoke 'em out of their caves, to get 'em runnin' so we can get 'em" in order, as Bush himself put it, to "save the world from freedom."
Given the potentially dire consequences of Bush's post-9/11 policy agenda, though, it seems strangely incongruous that Miller so often goes for the breezy, snappy rhetoric and eschews a more forthrightly analytical tone. It may be therapeutic to laugh in the face of danger, but somehow these do not seem to be particularly funny times.
A LAUGH, A CRY...
To Tony Kushner: Thank you so much for your words, for the heart and soul behind them, for your humor and for bringing tears to my eyes each time (so far twice) I have read "A Word to Graduates: Organize!" [July 1] I hope to organize more.
PUSHING PILLS FOR PROFIT
I applaud Marc Siegel for exposing the hazards of direct-to-consumer drug advertising in "Fighting the Drug (Ad) Wars" [June 17]. You might think that as a women's health advocate I'd welcome direct-to-patient appeals and an emphasis on prevention. But ads are not unbiased. Their promises to cure and prevent everything from allergies and depression to cancer and heart disease downplay--or leave out altogether--the serious, sometimes life-threatening side effects of the pills they push.
AstraZeneca, the manufacturer of tamoxifen, has urged healthy women to ask their doctors to prescribe a heavy-duty drug to reduce breast cancer risk, despite a wide array of dangerous side effects, from endometrial cancer to deep-vein blood clots. Because the Food and Drug Administration, still leaderless, is turning its back, new consumer health coalitions like Prevention First, whose members accept no funds from pharmaceutical firms, are calling for a ban on these ads. Lowering the risk of breast cancer, indeed good health generally, is much more likely to result from clean air and water, healthy food and unbiased information than from popping pills with life-threatening potential.
BARBARA BRENNER, executive director,
Breast Cancer Action
'THE [UNEXPURGATED] HOUSE I LIVE IN'
I was pleased to see Dick Flacks and Peter Dreier highlight my grandfather and Earl Robinson's song "The House I Live In" ["Patriotism's Secret History," June 3]. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the song is making a significant comeback. When I noticed in November that it had been played on Entertainment Tonight, I wrote a piece about the song and my grandfather's politics, which appeared in the February issue of O. Meanwhile, the short 1944 movie by the same name starring Frank Sinatra appears regularly on the Turner Classic Movie channel, and Michael Feinstein has recorded the song, the proceeds of which he is donating to the September 11 fund.
One important fact about "The House I Live In" will not be apparent to those who only see the Sinatra movie or hear his recording. My grandfather wrote the following lines in one of the verses: "The house I live in/My neighbors white and black." Flacks and Dreier correctly note that "the song evokes America as a place where all races can live freely"--however, that particular line was omitted from the Sinatra versions, recorded and onscreen. I believe only Paul Robeson's recording includes those lines.
Readers who want to learn more about my grandfather should see, in the Spring issue of American Music, a scholarly article by Dr. Nancy Kovaleff Baker, "Abel Meeropol (a k a Lewis Allan): Political Commentator and Social Conscience."
New York City
Jack Newfield's June 17 lead article "The Full Rudy" called Rudy Giuliani "a C-plus Mayor who has become an A-plus myth." What would it have taken to give him a failing grade?
You might re-examine the pluses you award him (e.g., for the drop in crime, which began under Dinkins and was pretty much nationwide) and two minuses the article didn't mention: Giuliani's heartless treatment of Haitian refugees as a federal officer during the 1980s and the vicious racism that marked his successful campaign to oust New York's first black mayor. Newfield could have shed some light on why he and a few other white liberal journalists supported Giuliani in that campaign.
JOHN L. HESS
Jack Newfield's comment about the former mayor of New York, "They don't allow this kind of behavior in trailer parks!" is inappropriate and deeply disappointing in a progressive magazine. Replace "trailer parks" with "public housing" or "Indian reservations," and you'll see what I mean. The Trailer Trash stereotype is an expression of bigotry based on socioeconomic class. That residents of mobile homes are largely white and rural should not make working-class people fair game for leftist scorn.
WHICH WAY TO THE POOL?
In a letter in the July 8 issue, John Bradley presents the appealingly egalitarian notion that women might "have it all" by following the strategy of high-achieving men: choosing a man "younger, poorer and less educated than themselves." I would be much obliged if Bradley could identify that pool of men who would even consider a date with a woman older, richer and more educated than themselves, let alone be willing to marry one, raise her children and tend to her emotional well-being.
AIPAC--SHOW US THE MONEY!
Michael Massing's June 10 piece, "The Israel Lobby," is the first article I've read in a US publication that even mentions the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In England, I listened to a show on BBC radio that dealt with the same subject. It amazed me that I had to go to another country to get an in-depth analysis of the relationship between this powerful lobbying group and Washington. It seems that since 9/11 one has to do this more and more to get the real story--or any story at all.
Port Matilda, Pa.
While it isn't news that AIPAC is so influential in Washington, it is noteworthy that the organization and its effect on policy is so underreported. I can't imagine a story on guns without mention of the NRA or one on workplace safety without mention of the influence of the AFL-CIO. And when did an abortion story last appear without position statements from NARAL and/or Right to Life?
MARK J. STEVENSON
San Rafael, Calif.
Michael Massing is correct: "AIPAC is widely regarded as the most powerful foreign-policy lobby in Washington." Much of its power lies in the concealment from the media and therefore from public scrutiny of the degree of its financial dealings and the political use of this wealth. Unlike other lobbies, AIPAC keeps its cards close to its chest. Despite the Federal Election Commission rules requiring lobbies to register with the FEC and open their books to the public, this behemoth has managed to do neither. It rules in secret and is so massively involved in Washington politics that few senators or congressmen will vote on an issue without ringing up AIPAC to determine which way to vote.
AIPAC, collecting money from over a hundred Jewish PACs, directs just how it will be spent, pouring millions into the campaigns of candidates who vote the AIPAC way while funneling millions to the opponents of those seen as voting out of step with AIPAC.
In an attempt to bring this monster under public scrutiny, in January 1989 then-Under Secretary of State George Ball, then-Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Atkins and then-Illinois Congressman Paul Findley filed a complaint with the FEC, charging AIPAC with failing to register as a political action committee. After almost nine years, as AIPAC fought this through the courts, the plaintiffs received a favorable 8-2 decision in circuit court, only to have the Supreme Court toss the too-hot issue back to the FEC, asking it to review its decision.
In December 1999 the FEC waffled, citing insufficient evidence. The surviving plaintiffs have appealed that decision. I refer readers to two books: Paul Findley's They Dare to Speak Out and The Passionate Attachment, by George and Douglas Ball.
EDWARD W. MILLER
NOW--HAPPY TO HEAR IT...
New York City
Your April 8 "In Fact..." column carried the following item: "Some thirty public television stations suspended Bill Moyers's NOW during pledge drives, apparently on the theory that the program's controversial stories might offend donors." While we appreciate The Nation's interest in public television's programming, the implication of this story is wrong.
We at PBS do not know of any member station that has pre-empted NOW during pledge drives out of concern that the show might offend donors. Just the opposite, station and viewer feedback on NOW has been overwhelmingly positive. Stations frequently alter their schedules during pledge drives. Such long-running shows as American Experience, Masterpiece Theatre and NOVA have all been pre-empted to accommodate the specific formats and objectives of pledge drives, so it would not be at all unusual for the same to happen with NOW.
Senior vice president
Co-chief program executive, PBS
DAVE DOES DAVIS
Thank you, thank you, thank you for Gene Santoro's "Folk's Missing Link" [April 22]. I first heard Dave Van Ronk at The Catacombs or the Second Fret in Philadelphia in the early sixties. When I moved to northern California in 1971 I despaired of enjoying him in person again--I knew he didn't like to fly--but then I discovered that he, somehow, had a special relationship with a little club in Davis, California, called The Palms, in a rundown barn south of the freeway. I got my semiannual Van Ronk fix there. Now he's gone and the barn is to be torn down, but I will keep the faith by teaching still more generations of field-trippers in my ecology courses the tune and lyrics of "Rompin' in the Swamp." Ave atque vale, Dave.
ARTHUR M. SHAPIRO
THE INCLINED PLANE OF HIS HEAD
Sierra Madre, Calif.
Calvin Trillin is quite right in observing that Dick Cheney has perfected the art of the tilted head ["Cheney's Head: An Explanation," June 24], but I don't think Cheney invented the maneuver. A perusal of 1988 campaign footage will reveal that Michael Dukakis often assumed the slanted-head position. He was preceded by the master of that maneuver, the late Rod Serling, who frequently appeared with his head at an angle in his opening segments for The Twilight Zone.