Saturday, January 26, 2008

How MLK's Birthday Became A Holiday (Hint: Not Easily)

As we honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. today, it bears remembering how the holiday came to be.

The legislation proposing creation of a federal holiday was not at all assured in the fall of 1983. The Democratic-controlled House had passed its bill in August with bipartisan support, but Democrats in the GOP-controlled Senate faced a fight despite support from some prominent Republicans. President Ronald Reagan was against this type of memorial. Many Republicans said they opposed it for economic reasons, arguing that our nation couldn't afford another federal holiday.

At the time, I was an intern for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and was following the bill carefully. It's fair to say I was rather devoted to the cause. I remember the October day that someone in the office mentioned that the senator's speechwriter, Bob Shrum, had crafted an incredible statement in support of the holiday. I begged for permission to go to the galleries above the Senate floor to watch Kennedy deliver the speech.

The galleries and the Senate were nearly empty when Kennedy walked onto the floor. I saw only three members -- Kennedy, the senator who was presiding, and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who was speaking against the holiday.

After several minutes, Helms said that he thought it "ironic" that "black citizens" were the ones who most needed jobs and yet were demanding a holiday. The few of us in the gallery gasped. Helms said repeatedly that the legislation was being railroaded through the Senate without proper hearings. Having heard enough, Kennedy rose to ask Helms to yield. Helms refused. Kennedy sat down and waited, reviewing his remarks. A few minutes later, he rose again, but Helms still held the floor. Finally, Helms said he would conclude -- and then he uttered the words that turned the tide of the whole debate.

Helms had been speaking about the negative economic effects of a federal holiday, but he announced that he also opposed the holiday because King had used "nonviolence as a provocative act to disturb the peace of the state and to trigger, in many cases, overreaction by authorities" and that King supported "action-oriented Marxism." Then he yielded the floor.

Kennedy rose, his face reddening with anger. He put his prepared remarks aside and began to explain that Helms's statement was exactly why our nation needed this holiday. The words seemed to come from deep within him. Kennedy said Helms's comments took him back to an uglier time in America, a time that King courageously fought to correct, as Kennedy's own brothers had.

Helms, who had been leaving the chamber, returned. "Will the senator please yield the floor?" he shouted.

"No, I will not yield the floor," Kennedy replied.

As Kennedy spoke, other senators appeared, trying to see what the commotion was about. The doors to the press gallery flew open, and reporters rushed forward and peered over the railing with notepads in hand. It was like a scene from a movie.

I was moved as Kennedy spoke about how it was critical to fight intolerance in our land, about how every generation needs to build bridges of understanding. He wanted the holiday to remind Americans that our nation must ensure equal opportunity for all and said that King had died fighting for that inalienable right.

It was his finest hour, and Helms's worst.

The next day, The Post ran a front-page story about Helms's remarks. Helms defended his statement and continued questioning King's patriotism. The debate drew attention. As the vote loomed later that month, some senators switched sides out of fear of being associated with Helms's views.

The legislation passed.

Right after the Senate vote, which I watched from the packed gallery, I rushed in excitement to the room that had been set aside for a reception. Not seeing anyone there, I turned around. I remember hearing a thunderous sound coming toward me. A crowd turned the corner, and there were Kennedy, Coretta Scott King, other famous civil rights leaders and so many other supporters filling the long hall. As they walked, arm in arm, they began singing "We Shall Overcome." It was a glorious moment.

President Reagan signed the bill, but the fight over the holiday continued. Some states initially refused to honor it, and it was years before the last holdouts -- New Hampshire and Arizona -- acknowledged the day.

Perhaps all of us can pause, on this day free of work, and think not of politics or acrimony but of the three surviving King children. This is a day for Americans to think of those who seek freedom from want and injustice, especially the children in our nation and around the world who need others to stand up on their behalf. Dr. King's dream will be alive and well if each of us does what we can for the most vulnerable in our midst.

New Collector's Items, In Case The Eternal War Won't Be Enough Of One....

Brave New World: The Shrinking Of Freedom In America

Damn you, Osama bin Laden! Here's another rotten thing you've done to us: After 9/11, untold thousands of New Yorkers bought machines that detect traces of biological, chemical, and radiological weapons. But a lot of these machines didn't work right, and when they registered false alarms, the police had to spend millions of dollars chasing bad leads and throwing the public into a state of raw panic.
OK, none of that has actually happened. But Richard Falkenrath, the NYPD's deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, knows that it's just a matter of time. That's why he and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have asked the City Council to pass a law requiring anyone who wants to own such detectors to get a permit from the police first. And it's not just devices to detect weaponized anthrax that they want the power to control, but those that detect everything from industrial pollutants to asbestos in shoddy apartments. Want to test for pollution in low-income neighborhoods with high rates of childhood asthma? Gotta ask the cops for permission. Why? So you "will not lead to excessive false alarms and unwarranted anxiety," the first draft of the law states.

Last week, Falkenrath made his case for the new law before the City Council's Public Safety Committee, where Councilman Peter Vallone introduced the bill and chaired the hearing. Dozens of university researchers, public-health professionals, and environmental lawyers sat in the crowd, horrified by the prospect that if this law passes, their work detecting and warning the public about airborne pollutants will become next to impossible. But Falkenrath pressed on, saying that unless the police can determine who gets to look for nasty stuff floating in the air, the city would be paralyzed by fear.

"There are currently no guidelines regulating the private acquisition of biological, chemical, and radiological detectors," warned Falkenrath, adding that this law was suggested by officials within the Department of Homeland Security. "There are no consistent standards for the type of detectors used, no requirement that they be reported to the police department—or anyone else, for that matter—and no mechanism for coordinating these devices. . . . Our mutual goal is to prevent false alarms . . . by making sure we know where these detectors are located, and that they conform to standards of quality and reliability."

Vallone nodded his head, duly moved by Falkenrath's presentation. Nevertheless, he had a few concerns. When the Environmental Protection Agency promised that the air surrounding Ground Zero was safe, Vallone said, independent testers proved that such assurances were utterly false. Would these groups really have to get a permit before they started working? "It's a good question, and it has come up prior to this hearing," Falkenrath replied. "What I can assure you is that we will look extremely carefully at this issue of the independent groups, and get the opinion of the other city agencies on how to handle that, and craft an appropriate response." And if people use these detectors without a permit, Vallone asked, do we really have to put them in jail? Afraid so, Falkenrath answered.

Councilman John Liu was considerably less impressed. Why, he asked, should a community group like Asthma-Free School Zones have to tell anyone, much less the police department, that they're testing for air pollution? "We have no interest in regulating air-quality sensors around schools," Falkenrath promised. "That's not what this is about."

"But then can't we just get that in the legislation from the outset, as opposed to putting it in the regulations afterwards?" asked Liu.

That, said Falkenrath, was asking too much. "It becomes a very slippery slope, and it would then be possible for many other entities to sort of drive things through that loophole."

And Liu was just the start of the critics' parade. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said the bill aims to fix a problem that doesn't even exist. "I cannot think of evidence or events in our recent past involving false alarms that would create any urgency for this sweeping legislation," he said. "If Manhattanites have any anxiety related to this bill, it is the very marked anxiety that residents have about their air quality."

Dave Newman, an industrial hygienist for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, claimed that under this law, the West Virginia air-quality experts who tested the air after 9/11 would have been a bunch of criminals. Dave Kotelchuck, deputy director of the New York/New Jersey Education and Research Center, pointed out the absurdity of having police regulate and permit research science. "Think about industrial-hygiene folks who are going from Boston to Atlanta to measure, and have atmospheric detectors," he said. "They land in LaGuardia and JFK. As soon as they land, because possession is a misdemeanor, they've committed a misdemeanor. They're not going to test in New York City; they're just travelling through. But possession, which is the way the law has stated it, alone is a misdemeanor—not use. Not attempting to make measurements—just possession. That is just unwarranted."

After an hour of this, poor Peter Vallone looked shell-shocked. He had planned to fast-track this legislation—in fact, the law was supposed to have been voted on last week—but that was before the critics had heard about it. As the opposition mounted, Vallone pulled the proposed legislation just before the meeting's end and agreed to give it a second look. "When I was first given a briefing only weeks ago, the potential problems did occur to me," he said in a later interview. "But the extent of the opposition, on such short notice, was a bit surprising."

But don't think Vallone has given up or anything. He and his colleagues will try to accommodate all the concerns when they redraft the bill, he said, but one way or another, the cops are going to have this new power. "No one's going to be completely happy in the end," Vallone said, "but I think the police department gave some very impressive testimony on the stand, and also expressed a willingness to listen to concerns." After all, if you let research scientists and community groups do their jobs, the terrorists will have already won.

Twisted Straight Talk

I guess we're at the dump-on-McCain point of the long slog -- he is this week's GOP frontrunner, no?

Calling himself (or allowing himself to be referred as) a frontrunner is just one more lie....

From the War Room
Memo to presidential candidates: When a debate moderator tells you you've said something, then looks down at a piece of paper and reads your words back to you, there's a pretty good chance a) that you've said it, and b) that someone will find proof.

At Thursday night's GOP presidential debate in Florida, Tim Russert turned to Sen. John McCain and said: "You have said repeatedly, quote, 'I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated.' Is it a problem for your campaign that the economy is now the most important issue, one that by your own acknowledgment you're not well versed on?"

McCain's response: "Actually, I don't know where you got that quote from."

Well, Senator, maybe he got it here, where you told the Wall Street Journal: "I'm going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated."

OK, so that was in 2005. But as Russert noted, McCain has repeatedly confessed a certain degree of economic illiteracy, and he has done it as recently as last month, when he told reporters: "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should. I've got Greenspan's book."

At last night's debate -- with the economy taking center stage -- McCain protested that he actually is "very well versed in economics."

"I was there at the Reagan revolution. I was there when we enacted the first -- or just after we enacted the first tax cuts and the restraints on spending. I was chairman of the Commerce Committee in the United States Senate, which addresses virtually every major economic issue that affects the United States of America. I'm very well versed on economics. And that's why I have the support of people like Jack Kemp, people like Phil Gramm, people like Warren Rudman, people like Doug Holtz-Eakin, people like Marty Feldstein ... And that's why the Wall Street Journal, in a survey of economists, recently [said] that the majority of economists thought that I could handle the nation's economy best."

Ah, yes, the Wall Street Journal again. That's where McCain attended an editorial board meeting last month and reportedly said that he doesn't "really understand economics."

Lies Of The Times

A Raw Story original!
Senator Hillary Clinton earned the endorsement of the New York Times of her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in a Friday editorial. But in giving the New York lawmaker their nod, the Times' editorial board appeared to be subtly revising its stance in the lead up to the Iraq War, painting the picture that it outright opposed the March 2003 invasion.

"We opposed President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and we disagree with Mrs. Clinton’s vote for the resolution on the use of force," the Times' editors write in Friday's endorsement. But editorials published by the paper in 2002 and 2003 point to a much more ambivalent record on the movement towards the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, rather than the direct opposition the paper asserts in the endorsement.

The paper can point to a March 9, 2003 editorial as its strongest declaration against the Iraq War.

"If it comes down to a question of yes or no to invasion without broad international support, our answer is no," the editorial board reasoned.

But after the editorial was published, the ambivalence of the Times' editorial page toward the invasion of Iraq was visible on the day in a March 18, 2003 follow-up, as the "shock and awe" campaign was set to commence. The opinion piece seemed to say that the war was unnecessary, but also that it was legitimate at the same time.

First, it described President Bush's actions as "a war waged without the compulsion of necessity." Later, the editorial concluded by arguing that the real problem with the war was that Bush seemed to be intent on waging it unilaterally, not that it was being waged at all.

"The result is a war for a legitimate international goal against an execrable tyranny, but one fought almost alone," the Times' editors argued. "At a time when America most needs the world to see its actions in the best possible light, they will probably be seen in the worst."

The position ultimately defined in the March 18 editorial grew out of a months of ambivalent argumentation that never quite arrived at taking a principled stance against the invasion of Iraq.

For instance, an Oct. 3, 2002 editorial prior to Congress' authorization of the use of force called on Congress to thoroughly consider the consequences of war with Iraq, but did not appear to rule out the use of force as an option.

"At this point, there remains a possibility that Iraq can be disarmed by voluntary means," they argued. "Congress must make clear its expectation that all diplomatic avenues be thoroughly explored. President Bush was right to declare Tuesday that 'the military option is not the first choice.'"

In another pre-authorization editorial on Oct. 8, 2002, the Times criticized Democrats in Congress for failing to challenge Bush. However, the paper stopped short of encouraging them to vote against the resolution, declaring it all but inevitable.

"Given the cautionary mood of the country, it is puzzling that most members of Congress seem fearful of challenging the hawkish approach to Iraq," the paper wrote, before adding in the next paragraph, "Congress is likely to grant the president the power to use force that he seeks. But that does not mean the debate should lack seriousness or tough questioning or that it should amount to a blank check."

After Congress had given Bush authority to use force in Iraq, the Times still urged the White House to avoid war, but did not argue against war outright.

"The desirable alternative to war is to send U.N. arms investigators back into Iraq with no restrictions on their ability to search out and destroy Baghdad's illegal weapons programs," the paper urged in a Oct. 11, 2002 editorial. "It needs to be fully explored."

Still, in making this case, it offered a menacing picture of Iraq and its potential to cause destruction in the Middle East.

"[I]f Iraq were to conclude that an American attack could no longer be prevented, Mr. Hussein ''probably would become much less constrained,'" the papers' editors wrote. "Targets for such attacks could include Israeli cities, Saudi oil fields and concentrations of American troops in the region."

And it was on this account, of exaggerating the danger posed by Saddam Hussein to the world, that the Times acknowledged in 2004.

"But we do fault ourselves for failing to deconstruct the W.M.D. issue with the kind of thoroughness we directed at the question of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, or even tax cuts in time of war," they wrote in the July 16 editorial. "We did not listen carefully to the people who disagreed with us. Our certainty flowed from the fact that such an overwhelming majority of government officials, past and present, top intelligence officials and other experts were sure that the weapons were there. We had a groupthink of our own."

In the end, the New York Times' editorial board appeared determined in belief of the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein, agreeing with the president on March 17, 2003 that, "Mr. Bush is right to insist that the choice between war and peace has been in the hands of Saddam Hussein."

And before the "No" editorial was published, they also made it clear that they did not oppose war with Iraq outright. What they opposed was a unilateral war.

"The threat of force, however, should not give way to the use of force until peaceful paths to Iraqi disarmament have been exhausted and the Security Council gives its assent to war," they wrote on March 3, 2003, 17 days before the US invasion began.
Link to article with links. It's all documented!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Fun Couple

Their touching story is here.

Oops! Second PSA


Today's PSA

Stop the Spying!

Link to how to fight this.

A Dying Business' Good Behavior

The first thing that goes, when a company's in big trouble, sometimes, is courtesy on the customer service front. The new mantra becomes the customer is always wrong.

But then, occasionally, there is this:
Earlier this month, I blogged about The Black Mustang Club -- a fan-club for owners of Ford cars -- being told by CafePress that they weren't allowed to publish their calendar because Ford had contacted CafePress and demanded that the calendar be removed on the grounds that it infringed their trademarks.
A few days ago, I heard back from Ford, with a different side to the story. According to them, they hadn't said anything of the kind to CafePress -- rather, Ford had taken the opposite tack, releasing tons of pictures and bric-a-brac under generous Creative Commons license to encourage Ford fans to do cool stuff with their work.

So what happened? After a few rounds of correspondence with CafePress, here's where I've netted out:

* Ford had previously sent very stern letters to CafePress about similar projects, warning them in no uncertain terms that CafePress had better not produce projects similar to the Black Mustang Club Calendar
* CafePress contacted the Black Mustang Club and either said "Ford told us that you can't do your calendar, because they control all images of their cars" or CafePress contacted the Club and said "Ford told us that we can't can't do projects like your calendar, because they control all images of their cars" (I haven't been able to reach the Black Mustang Club people to confirm which it was, though they certainly wrote that it was the former)
* Ford has since contacted CafePress and The Black Mustang Club to say that this project and future fan-run projects (that don't imply an endorsement by Ford) are OK -- this is consistent with trademark law and a reasonable position for them to take

There's a couple of interesting lessons for Ford and CafePress to take away from this. For Ford (and companies like it), the lesson is surely to tighten the reins on your legal department. When they send stern letters to online service providers that threaten legal action, the natural outcome is that OSPs are going to get gun-shy -- and they'll tell your fans that they can't do anything and blame it all on you. The usual overkill approach from corporate counsel will come back and bite you on the ass.

For CafePress, the lesson is to take your customers' side when the law is with them. Even if Ford did tell CafePress to kill the BMC calendar, they'd have been wrong. The BMC calendar is legal -- even without Ford's blessing -- and when you protect yourself from legal liability by shutting it down, you incur PR liability by seeming like a bunch of candy-asses who can be bullied into submission by a memo from some white-shoe legal goon from a Fortune 100. Word gets around.

I don't know that we'll ever be able to find out whether CafePress told BMC that Ford was down on their specific calendar, but at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. Ford's earlier letters on the subject clearly scared the hell out of CafePress, and CafePress's lawyers clearly need a refresher course in trademark and liability.

There's one very good piece of news to come out of this, though: Ford's program to let its fans do whatever they want with high-quality shots of the cars is a damned forward-looking and decent bit of strategy.
Link and more.

Those Wacky Wingnuts, Continuing Their Successful Efforts To Drag The US Through The Toilet

Isn't this, like, too funny for words? No??
Notorious Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone has launched a 527 political organization called Citizens United Not Timid (aka CUNT) to educate the public about "what Hillary Clinton really is." The organization's sole purpose? To sell $25 T-shirts emblazoned with the organization's charming name and its red, white and blue logo.

The class act that is Roger Stone:
As one who was never terribly enamored of Hillary Clinton's personality to start with, I grudgingly admit to enjoying her recent near-tears transformation. Plenty of critics concede her rarely seen emotion was heartfelt, but also that it was due to the 20-hour-day rigors of the campaign trail, making her perhaps the only candidate ever to win the New Hampshire primary because she needed a nap. Still, it was refreshing to watch her punch through the icy crust of her own phoniness, so that the molten core of artificiality could gush forth.

Many of my conservative acquaintances weren't quite as forgiving, however. Clinton, these days, is a stuck record, speaking so often of "change" that she sounds like the medicine-show huckster in Tom Waits's "Step Right Up" (change your shorts / change your life / change into a nine-year-old Hindu boy / get rid of your wife). But I didn't notice any change at all in my email inbox in the aftermath of her surprise victory. In fact, it more than ever resembled a nostalgia trip back to 1998, the high-water mark of Clinton hatred.

Messages poured in expressing revulsion and woe, and described resulting adverse physical symptoms, including but not limited to: nausea, dizziness, insomnia, twitching, numbness, abdominal pain, myalgia, cutaneous lesions, and retching. One friend invited me to visit him in Bermuda, where he'll be relocating. The only silver lining that came my way was an email from the professional dirty trickster and high priest of political hijinks, Roger Stone. It was titled "the good news" and said, simply, "Out of NH C.U.N.T. lives . Gearing up!"

He wasn't referring to Hillary's chances in South Carolina. Rather, by using the most offensive word in the English language, the word people employ when the f-bomb has lost all potency (and the word I will henceforth replace with "special flower" so as not to give greater offense), he was referring to the acronym of his spanking-new anti-Hillary 527 group, Citizens United Not Timid (

After having just exhaustively profiled Stone in our November 5 issue ("Roger Stone, Political Animal: 'Above all, attack, attack, attack--never defend'") and detailed his misadventures--from working for Nixon's dirty-tricks squad to imploding the Reform party by pushing Donald Trump's candidacy to delivering suitcases full of cash at the direction of Roy Cohn to buy New York for Ronald Reagan--I didn't expect to visit Stone again so soon. But it seemed time. Perhaps feeling all Christmas-y and overtaken with goodwill toward men, Stone had conceived of the special-flower idea in December, then had shelved it after Iowa, when like everyone else he assumed Clinton was toast. But with Clinton's resurrection, he feels he has no choice but to unsheath his sword--not that he ever requires much encouragement.

In public, Stone is often expensively haberdashed to within an inch of his life. But on this day, he greets me at the door of his Miami Modern home in a casual Saturday-morning rig: camouflage cargo shorts and a Nixon/Agnew T-shirt. We are followed to his backyard by a herd of barking Yorkies and a three-legged Wheaten Terrier named Oscar that he and Mrs. Stone (as he calls his wife, Nydia) rescued when they found him bloodied and abandoned beside a highway.

We take a seat at a glass poolside table in his lush backyard, filled with bougainvillea, cacti, and tomato plants. The dogs beg for finger food, and when it's not forthcoming, one of them happily munches on some of Mrs. Stone's impatiens. "Don't eat those," Stone shouts. "Welcome to the Stone dogpile." While his property has twice been whacked by hurricanes ("Everything you see that's green was mud"), today it's dominated by the peaceful metronomic swells of Biscayne Bay lapping against the yard's seawall, as we await the arrival of his Citzens United Not Timid crew for its inaugural meeting.

Stone is not going to be out front on this one--"You can't be the candidate and the campaign manager." So he anxiously awaits the arrival of his organization's titular figurehead, Jeff "Noodles" Jones, who is a local bartender/DJ (and who is called "Noodles" because of his resemblance to Robert De Niro's character in Once Upon a Time in America), along with his "handler," Scotty. "Why does Noodles require a handler?" I ask. "What time is it, eleven?" asks Stone. "He was supposed to be here an hour ago, if that tells you anything. Noodles would never get here on his own steam."

Even among fellow mercenaries, good help can be hard to find. A few nights prior, Stone had been interviewing a sinister Italian gentleman for the front man gig. It was a two-question interview. Stone kicked things off with, "Let me ask you, Angelo: I say 'Hillary Clinton.' Tell me the first word that comes to your mind, even if it's risqué." "[Special flower]," Angelo immediately replied. To which Stone followed with, "Would you be willing to tell other people you think that?" Angelo assented: "Abso-f'in'-lutely."

With the interview concluded, Angelo excused himself to the restroom, at which time one of Stone's friends asked, "Do you know who that is?" "No," Stone said, "Who is he? Nice guy." His friend explained, "He's one of the soldiers of the Lucchese family, has a record as long as your arm. I don't think he's the guy you want." Advantage: Noodles.

Stone says Angelo's is a sentiment you regularly hear, particularly from males, if you casually focus-group Hillary Clinton in bars--where this and "all good ideas" are hatched. The operation's genesis occurred when Stone was standing around with friends at a bar, Clinton appeared on television, and someone said "What a [special flower]." Everyone immediately concurred.

The crew slowly materializes. Stone's lawyer and webmaster are available by phone. Miss Money-penny, Stone's Australian-born assistant nicknamed after M's secretary in the James Bond films, arrives to sort out the tax filings and artwork. A piercing horn sounds from across the bay, as a solar-paneled tugboat flying a peace flag and blasting Grateful Dead music anchors within 100 yards of Stone's house. The captain, in a white skipper's hat, disembarks, paddling his kayak the rest of the way ashore. It's August West, Stone's frequent co-conspirator, pseudonymously named after a character in the Grateful Dead song "Wharf Rat."

While casually attired in Key-West-wear (a dancing-bears Grateful Dead T-shirt and swimsuit), West has picked up some of Stone's attention to sartorial detail. He switches his skipper's hat for a straw number modeled after the one worn by Darren McGavin in the '70s show Kolchak: The Night Stalker. "Wear a captain's hat on land," West says, "and you look like a dork." Having started as Stone's driver back during Stone's days as a D.C. political consultant, West has gone on to do crisis communications work for everyone from the contras, to the party linked to the Salvadoran death squads ("not my proudest moment," he admits), to the Afghan freedom fighters ("getting Ladies' Home Journal editors to ride camels through the Khyber Pass," he says, his dignity restored).

He, like Stone, has engineered a slew of 527s, the organizations named after the tax code section of the same number. In these puritanical McCain-Feingold-stricken times, such groups (from to the anti-John Kerry Swiftboaters for Truth) have rapidly come to resemble the Wild-West outlaws of political speech. They are allowed to solicit unlimited contributions and practice all manner of often thinly veiled "issue education," so long as they don't explicitly advocate the election or defeat of a specific candidate.

"It's the last vestige of political free speech rights in this country," Stone says, bitterly and defiantly. "Money is speech," the First-Amendment absolutist rails. "It's incongruous to say a multimillionaire can spend as much on his own campaign as he wants, but you can only give $2,300. His free speech rights are different from yours, thus violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. It's absurd."

Despite the constant meddling of campaign-finance-reform busybodies, there is a certain liberation that comes with staying out of political campaigns proper and running your own 527. "A 527 doesn't have a wife," Stone explains. "It doesn't have a brother-in-law who knows a lot about politics, or a union president who calls and doesn't like the color of the suit, or bimbo eruptions. It's the perfect candidate, because it has no personal characteristics."

Both Stone and West are mostly mum, at least on the record, about the 527s they've run, saying they handle everything from agricultural interests, to "marking up" industry opponents (driving their negatives), to keeping slots out of racetracks, to getting slots into racetracks (the 527 racket is not the province of moral absolutists). When I ask why all the secrecy, and why I have to refer to West by an alias out of the Grateful Dead's songbook, West responds, "Each one has a small reason why we can't talk. There's not a thematic reason."

"There's people who would sue us if they knew who we were," says Stone. "Or shoot us," adds West. I laugh, but West is dead serious. "That just happened to Oleg," he says, referring to one of their operatives on the ground in a recent Ukrainian parliamentary campaign. "Our guy in Ukraine took five to the chest," says Stone, of a colleague who two months ago bought it in a hail of gunfire outside the family home in Borispol. "It's unfortunate it happened right after he tried to cut us out and snag the contract for himself," Stone says, with some karmic satisfaction.

"We were doing some very aggressive email marketing," West says. Sometimes in 527-world, words can wound, literally. "So as a rule, I don't put my name on anything unless I'm a front guy," explains West, in which case, he charges 40 percent over regular fees. When asked why he's willing to sign his name to the Citizens United Not Timid caper, Stone, who most often operates in the shadows and is not typically driven by civic conscience, says, "The entire future of the United States is at stake. There comes a time when you've got to stand up."

I ask Stone to tell me more about Noodles before his arrival. He'd like to help me out, but can't: "I've only known the guy for 15 minutes." Noodles and Scotty finally show. Scotty is a wall of savagely tanned muscle. Noodles has elected to go gangster-casual, sporting his Philadelphia Flyers hat, a white T-shirt, and a liberal smattering of tattoos--everything from the dogtags of his siblings who have served in Iraq to his birth date, which one imagines comes in handy if he ever forgets it when, say, filling out tax forms to front Citizens United Not Timid.

Not wishing Stone to fall into another Lucchese-family trap, I ask Noodles if he has a criminal record. "No," he says. Not even any outstanding speeding tickets? "No, I'm pretty good," he reiterates. I ask if he's ready for the glare of the white-hot media spotlight. "Sure, if you wanna give it to me, I'll take it," he says, nonchalantly. On the side, I tell Stone that for a spokesman, Noodles is a man of few words. "Precisely," says Stone. "That's the idea. People won't be calling Noodles. People will email Noodles. Noodles is what's known as a nonexecutive chair. Everything you want to say is on the website. You don't need to say anything else."

Stone calls the meeting to order, as he taps the ash of a thick cigar into a Club Habana ashtray. "Dominican," he says, by way of identification. West, a Deadhead to the last, smokes something that's not a cigar and that smells sweeter. "Hawaiian," he tells me. Stone opens with an old groaner about why the woman he calls "Miss Queeny of Bossy-land" can't wear miniskirts. Scotty and Noodles like it. Miss Moneypenny, not as enthusiastic, tells him he'd benefit from a rimshot. "After half his life," adds West.

Stone wants everyone to understand the mission of the organization, simply and elegantly captured in its artwork, which Stone shows us. It features a red inverted triangle at the bottom of which, is a blue triangle with a white star in the middle. At first glance, it kind of looks like the Puerto Rican flag, or Captain America's martini glass. Stone designed it himself, and on second glance, it's meant to whisper, not scream, "special flower."

The text underneath it reads "Citizens United Not Timid, a 527 Organization To Educate The American Public About What Hillary Clinton Really Is." The artwork and text are, it turns out, the entirety of the "education." Stone says the website will feature an attractive model in the organization's T-shirt, which can be yours for a "donation" of $25 or more. And it will also feature a rolling tally of people who agree with the statement that's not quite stated, something like "the population billboard in Times Square that's constantly increasing because some baby is born in Botswana."

In addition to this website being blast-emailed to hundreds of thousands of addresses that Stone and West have accumulated over the years (working off over 170 different email lists of everyone from opinion-makers to political activists to industry associations), Stone is counting on T-shirt sales to further serve as "billboard education." He figures the whole thing will end up taking on a viral nature, thanks to the yuks factor.

"The more people go to the site, the more people buy the T-shirts," Stone explains to the troops. "The more people buy the T-shirts, the more people wear the T-shirts. The more people wear the T-shirts, the more people are educated. Consequently, our mission has been achieved." Though neither the word itself nor even the acronym is ever mentioned, "it's one-word education. That's our mission. No issues. No policy groups. No position papers. This is a simple committee with an unfortunate acronym. Addendums, deletions? Everybody's down?"

I ask Stone if he's a little worried about people confusing his "organization" with Citizens United, the Floyd-Brown founded anti-Clinton group. "We have no connection. Those guys are irresponsible," he says with a smile.

After Noodles signs off on an IRS application for an employer identification number and a declaration for electronic filing of notice of Section 527 status (the only paperwork required besides periodic informational filings down the road), he and Scotty leave, perhaps to get more tattoos. Starting your own 527 is ridiculously easy, Stone's lawyer, Rolly, tells me. "The application to create a 501c(3) is about 60 pages, requires about 20 hours or more of lawyering time, and takes six to nine months to get reviewed or approved. A 527 we'll set up in 20 minutes." As an expert in 527 law, Rolly offers the considered professional opinion that, while Stone cannot use his 527 to advocate the defeat of Clinton, he can use it to tell the truth about her. Speaking as a lawyer, he adds, "I will go to my grave saying it's true that Hillary Clinton is a [special flower]."

While Stone and co. seem quite pleased with their plan, I'm a little puzzled. "That's it?" I ask Stone. "It's a simple joke," he says. "It's not War and Peace." There was, however, he wishes me to know, considerable deliberation that went into this. In barroom focus groups, when he asked people to describe Clinton in one word, "bitch" came up a lot more often, with both men and women, than did "special flower."

"The truth is, we sat around for hours trying to come up with words for B.I.T.C.H. and just couldn't do it," admits Stone. "Try it," West encourages, "Start with 'b'--it has to be a noun." I'm stumped. "Bureau, actually," says Stone. "That's as far as we got. Now take it away, Matt."

It'd be easy to assume from the nature of this campaign that Stone and West are nothing more than mouth-breathing rightwing Neanderthals. But that wouldn't be quite right. West, in fact, hates George W. Bush and is utterly disgusted with the way Republicans have conducted themselves the last several years. A lifelong Republican, he wants to clean his own house, and says to do that, "you have to flush twice," meaning get rid of both Bush and the Republicans. While he's still undecided (he likes McCain), he says he'd be open to voting and even working for Barack Obama.

Stone, for his part, aside from the gimmickry and T-shirt sales, is trying to tap into deep-seated sentiments about Clinton that pundits and rival candidates can't articulate. Hatred of her is often not coldly logical, but visceral, and whether or not it is acknowledged, it exists in large volume. Despite her reinventions, she is, Stone says, "what Citizens United Not Timid stands for. You can be whittled, sanded, varnished. But you can't transcend your own essence. At the end of the day, she is who she always was."

It's Stone's position that wingnuts have spent a decade and a half demonizing Clinton's ideology, which is a waste of time, since she doesn't have much of one. As a committed phony (the reason Stone so dislikes her), Clinton is all about winning. And Stone warns that "Republicans who say, 'We can't wait to run against Hillary, we'll kick her ass,' are just wrong. We're gonna be in a 51/49 election with her no matter who our nominee is. [The Clintons] are wily people, who'll say and do anything. It's not a rollover."

Simultaneously, he wants to remind Democrats, currently chin-tugging over niceties like electability and who makes the better change-agent, that if Hillary is the nominee, a hard 527 rain is going to fall. There is only one candidate in this election who can universally mobilize conservatives, and as evident from the variety of primary victors, none of them is a Republican. It's Hillary Clinton. If you thought the late '90s were ugly, just wait.

Is his Citizens United Not Timid campaign tasteless, outrageous, and completely over the line? Absolutely, he admits, and he's counting on people thinking so. "If you're not controversial, you'll never break through the din of all the commentary," he says. If people don't like his anti-Hillary 527, they can start their own. In fact, West says people already have: "Right now, there are guys like us preparing to do the same thing all over the country."

And if Hillary gets the nomination, it might be awhile before all the 527 warriors man their battle stations, and it ought to be quite a show after the political conventions, when both parties have to rely on public financing, and outside forces start pouring it on. "After that," Stone warns, "a thousand special flowers will bloom."

Oh. Recycled News

Raw Story:
Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein didn't think the United States would stage such a large-scale occupation of Iraq like it ended up doing in 2002, says FBI agent George Piro.

Piro was assigned to interrogate Hussein after his capture, and did so for almost seven months. According to Piro, Hussein underestimated President Bush and his intentions, thinking that a planned attack would be like 1998's Operation Desert Fox, which he easily evaded.

According to Piro, Hussein had no "weapons of mass destruction," but wanted his public image to be that of strength, so he let the Bush Administration continue saying he had them. "For him, it was critical that he was seen as still the strong, defiant Saddam," says Piro, partly to keep Iran from invading Iraq again. Piro also says that Hussein had the capability and the desire to restart his WMD program, including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

"What he wanted to really illustrate is…how he was able to outsmart us."

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Two Provocative Interviews

Here and here.

Where Obama Stands?

A confidential memo questioning Senator Barack Obama’s potential approach to Middle East policy was circulated earlier this month among staffers at a major American Jewish organization.

In one section, the memo said that Obama’s approach to Iran’s nuclear program “raises questions,” while another portion suggested that Obama expected more from Israel than the Palestinians in resolving the conflict between the two.

The memo, a copy of which was given to the Forward, was written by Debra Feuer, a counsel for the American Jewish Committee, and also contained a discussion of the Republican winner in the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee.

After receiving questions from the Forward about the memo, top officials at the American Jewish Committee sent a letter to the Obama campaign on Sunday stating that “no element” of the letter “should be considered a position of the American Jewish Committee” and expressing “regret” that it became public.

The memo comes to light less than three weeks before February 5, when the vast majority of the country’s Jewish Democrats will vote in primary elections, including ones in New York, New Jersey and California.

As that date approaches, Obama has found himself at the center of a public debate about his personal associations, background and commitment to Israel. Earlier this week, the Chicago lawmaker responded to revived concerns about links between Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his pastor in Chicago, even as a number of Jewish senators and major Jewish organizations — including the American Jewish Committee — publicly denounced an email campaign spreading false accusations that he is secretly a Muslim. The editorial page of the staunchly conservative New York Sun newspaper recently defended the senator’s commitment to Israel.

However, the memo circulated at the American Jewish Committee betrays a quiet unease about Obama’s potential Middle East strategy that still lingers in some pockets of the Jewish community.

Feuer, the AJCommittee’s counsel for special projects, includes a number of statements Obama has made in support of Israel and against a nuclear Iran, but she questions Obama’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and emphasis on diplomatic engagement.

Obama “appears to believe the Israelis bear the burden of taking the risky steps for peace, and that the violence Israel has received in return does not shift that burden,” Feuer writes.

She added that Obama’s approach to the Palestinian government “contrasts with the three conditions that the international community has laid down for the resumption of aid,” including acting to stop terrorism and accepting the right of Israel to exist.

The memo also expresses concern about Obama’s potential approach to dealing with Iran, in the wake of a new National Intelligence Estimate, released in November 2007, which judged that the country had halted its alleged nuclear weapons program in 2003.

“The Senator’s interpretation of the NIE raises questions,” wrote Feuer, without elaborating further. She went on to list a half-dozen statements the Illinois lawmaker has made in support of renewed diplomacy with Iran, and note that “he also calls for negotiating with other rogue states, notably Syria.”

Under a section titled “Of Further Note,” Feuer takes note of Obama’s presence at a fundraiser headlined by the late Edward Said in 1998, and public suggestions by Ali Abunimah, a Chicago-based Palestinian activist, that Obama was more openly critical of the America’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before his first run for Senate.

The memo also includes several pages of statements by Huckabee on Middle East issues, but without editorial comment, except to note the Huckabee “inexplicably” said he had not seen the NIE when first asked about it by reporters on December 4. Under a section titled “Of Further Note” about Huckabee, Feuer states his campaign is “overtly Christian” and details a half-dozen comments and commercials referencing his faith.

In a statement issued in response to questions from the Forward, the AJCommittee said that the memo “was an internal document prepared by a staffer of AJC’s Washington office the day after the Iowa caucuses.”

“We regret the fact it has been circulated, as it was for AJC purposes only,” the statement said. “Its only intention, however expressed by the writer, was to try and help the agency better understand the winners’ positions on certain public policy issues concerning the agency.”

In the letter sent to the Obama campaign on Sunday, the president and executive director of the AJCommittee wrote that they “regret any inaccuracies that the memorandum, prepared from open sources on a tight deadline immediately after the caucuses – and never intended for publication – might have contained.”

“We would welcome further information from your campaign that would allow us to correct any errors you and your campaign might have discovered in this staff document,” the letter from Richard Sideman and David Harris said.

The Obama campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Something To Think About

A possible economic meltdown is worrisome enough, but a possible meltdown in an election year is downright frightening. For months now, Republicans have been pushing the White House to take some action that looked and sounded big enough to give them some cover if and when things got worse. President Bush has now responded with a stimulus package more than twice as large as the one Bill Clinton briefly entertained at the start of 1993 but couldn't get passed.

Not to be outdone, Democrats want to appear at least as bold, which means they'll suspend pay-go rules and throw fiscal responsibility out the window. In other words, hold your noses, because the "bipartisan" stimulus package that's about to be introduced could be a real stinker, including tax cuts for everyone and everything under the sun -- except, perhaps, for the key group of lower-income Americans. These are the people who don't earn enough to pay much if any income taxes, but who are the most likely to spend whatever extra money they get and therefore are most likely to stimulate the economy. The real behind-the-scenes battle will be over whose constituencies get what tax cuts, and for how long. Don't be surprised if the only thing Congress really stimulates is campaign contributions.

Meanwhile, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and Co. have surprised everyone with a rate cut larger and sooner than expected. The three-quarters of a percentage point ("75 basis points" in biz-speak) cut announced Tuesday morning may not sound like much, but it's bigger than any rate cut in decades. The politics here are more subtle because Bernanke and his Federal Reserve governors are supposed to be independent of politics. But as witnessed under the reign of previous chairman Alan "it's prudent to reduce the surplus with a tax cut" Greenspan, Fed chairs can have political agendas. Bernanke has been under a lot of pressure lately to cut rates big-time -- and the pressure has come not only from Washington Republicans but from panicked Wall Street Democrats, including, apparently, my old colleague Robert Rubin, formerly President Clinton's treasury secretary. (By the way, what could Rubin have been thinking when he allowed Citicorp to sell all those fancy securitized debt instruments, while agreeing to buy them back if they couldn't be resold?) Expect lots and lots more Washington activity -- enough seemingly bold strokes to convince voters that our nation's capital is doing whatever is necessary to stop whatever seems to be going wrong with the economy.

The problem is, people have different views about what's going wrong. Wall Street sees it as a credit crisis -- a mess that seems never to reach bottom because nobody on Wall Street has any idea how many bad loans are out there. Therefore, nobody knows how big the losses are likely to be when the bottom is finally reached. And precisely because nobody knows, nobody wants to lend any more money. A rate cut won't change this. It's like offering a 10-pound lobster to someone so constipated he can't take in another mouthful.

Main Street sees it as a housing crisis. Homes are the biggest assets Americans own -- their golden geese for retirement and their piggy banks for home equity loans and refinancing. But home prices have been dropping quickly. It's the first time this has happened in many decades -- beyond the memories of most Americans, which is why they never expected it to happen, why they bought houses so readily when credit was so easily available, and why so many people bought two or more of them, speculating and fixing up and then flipping. But now several million Americans may lose their homes, and tens of millions more have only their credit cards to live on and are reaching the outer limits of what they can spend. As consumer spending shrinks, companies will reduce production and cut payrolls. That has already begun to happen. It's called recession.

How much worse can it get? The housing bubble drove home prices up 20 to 40 percent above historic averages relative to earnings and rents. So now that the bubble is bursting, you can expect prices to drop by roughly the same amount, and new home construction to contract. The latter plunged last month to its lowest point in more than 16 years. A managing partner of a large Wall Street financial house told me a few days ago the scenario could get much worse. He gave a 20 percent chance of a depression.

Even if a stimulus package were precisely targeted to consumers most likely to spend any money they received, the housing slump could overwhelm it. According to a recent estimate by Merrill-Lynch, the slump will hit consumer spending to the tune of $360 billion this year and next. That's more than double the size of the stimulus package President Bush or any leading Democrat is now talking about. And the Merrill-Lynch estimate is conservative.

In reality, the crisis is both a credit crunch and the bursting of the housing bubble. Wall Street is in terrible shape and Main Street is about to be in terrible shape. And there's not a whole lot that can be done about either of these problems -- because they are the results of years of lax credit standards, get-rich-quick schemes, wild speculation on Wall Street and in the housing market, and gross irresponsibility by the Fed, the Treasury and the Comptroller of the Currency.

As a practical matter, our only real hope for avoiding a deep recession or worse depends on loans and investments from abroad -- some major U.S. financial firms have already gotten key cash infusions from foreign governments buying stakes in them -- combined with export earnings as the dollar continues to weaken. But this is something no politician wants to admit, especially in an election year. So we're going to go through weeks of posturing about stimulus packages of one sort or another, and then see enacted the big fat bonanza of a temporary tax break that will likely have little effect. That, perhaps along with a few more rate cuts by the Fed. The presidential candidates will be asked what should be done about the worsening economy, and they'll give vague answers. None will likely admit the truth: We're going to need the rest of the world to bail us out.

Oh, Now They Tell Us What We've Known For Years: Our Leaders Lied Their Asses Off

A study by two nonprofit journalism organizations found that President Bush and top administration officials issued hundreds of false statements about the national security threat from Iraq in the two years following the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The study concluded that the statements "were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses."
The study was posted Tuesday on the Web site of the Center for Public Integrity, which worked with the Fund for Independence in Journalism.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel did not comment on the merits of the study Tuesday night but reiterated the administration's position that the world community viewed Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, as a threat.

"The actions taken in 2003 were based on the collective judgment of intelligence agencies around the world," Stanzel said.
The study counted 935 false statements in the two-year period. It found that in speeches, briefings, interviews and other venues, Bush and administration officials stated unequivocally on at least 532 occasions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or was trying to produce or obtain them or had links to al-Qaida or both.
"It is now beyond dispute that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction or have meaningful ties to al-Qaida," according to Charles Lewis and Mark Reading-Smith of the Fund for Independence in Journalism staff members, writing an overview of the study. "In short, the Bush administration led the nation to war on the basis of erroneous information that it methodically propagated and that culminated in military action against Iraq on March 19, 2003."
Named in the study along with Bush were top officials of the administration during the period studied: Vice President Dick Cheney, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and White House press secretaries Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan.
Bush led with 259 false statements, 231 about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and 28 about Iraq's links to al-Qaida, the study found. That was second only to Powell's 244 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and 10 about Iraq and al-Qaida.
The center said the study was based on a database created with public statements over the two years beginning on Sept. 11, 2001, and information from more than 25 government reports, books, articles, speeches and interviews.
"The cumulative effect of these false statements - amplified by thousands of news stories and broadcasts - was massive, with the media coverage creating an almost impenetrable din for several critical months in the run-up to war," the study concluded.
"Some journalists - indeed, even some entire news organizations - have since acknowledged that their coverage during those prewar months was far too deferential and uncritical. These mea culpas notwithstanding, much of the wall-to-wall media coverage provided additional, 'independent' validation of the Bush administration's false statements about Iraq," it said.

The full story here
and here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In Arkansas, they Celebrate MLK bY Celebrating Robert E. Lee, Too


Another Thing To Worry About

Cockroaches conceived in space onboard the Russian Foton-M bio satellite have developed faster and become hardier than 'terrestrial' ones, a research supervisor said on Thursday.

The research team has been monitoring the cockroaches since they were born in October. The scientists established that their limbs and bodies grew faster.

"What is more, we have found out that the creatures... run faster than ordinary cockroaches, and are much more energetic and resilient," Dmitry Atyakshin said.

Cockroaches, as well as other types of insects, can give birth several times after one impregnation, and the cockroaches that conceived during the bio-satellite's September 14-26 flight have since given birth to their second and third batches of offspring.

"The second and third batches did not show these peculiarities of growth and physiology," the scientist noted.

'Ordinary' cockroaches are already known for their extraordinary resilience. Some species can last almost an hour without oxygen or a month without food, and are able to withstand high doses of radiation.

The September 14-26 flight was part of an ongoing experiment into the effects of space flight by the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP). The creatures were sealed in special containers, and a video camera filmed them during the flight.

A Day Late, Never Too Late: MLK Jr. Speaks

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Life In These Here United States

IN a recent morning interview in a Midtown Manhattan office Ramak Fazel came across as the quintessential world citizen: tall, slim and elegant, his English tinged with an untraceable accent and peppered here and there with an Italian phrase.

He also exuded the weariness of a frequent flier, having arrived the afternoon before at Newark Liberty Airport, where he was delayed for nearly three hours while United States Customs and Border Protection agents questioned him about the purpose of his trip, searched his baggage and photocopied the pages of his personal agenda.

That routine is something that Mr. Fazel, a 42-year-old freelance photographer who lives in Milan, Italy, has come to know well, and he takes pains to come across as favorably as possible. For starters, he makes sure his face is always immaculately cleanshaven.

“I have become the poster boy for Gillette,” he said, somewhat ruefully.

Shaving was one of the last things on Mr. Fazel’s mind when, on Aug. 7, 2006, he set out on a photographic and philatelic odyssey from his mother’s home in Fort Wayne, Ind. His mission was to photograph each of the nation’s 50 state capitol buildings and dispatch a postcard from each city, using postage stamps from a childhood collection. Each postcard would be mailed to the next state on his journey, where he would pick it up, continuing until he had gone full circle back to Indiana.

But there was a problem. On a flight from Sacramento, Calif., to Honolulu, Mr. Fazel described his project to a fellow passenger. He later discovered that she had reported him as suspicious — perhaps to the pilot or the Transportation Security Administration — and taken a picture of him as he slept.

Maybe it was because he was vaguely foreign looking, he reasoned, and his photographic endeavor seemed menacing in a post-9/11 landscape. He also had a three-day growth of beard, he recalled. And, although Mr. Fazel grew up mostly in the United States and is an American citizen, there was his Iranian name.

In his view that woman’s report began a chain reaction, turning him into a person of interest for officials from local law enforcement agencies on up to the F.B.I. On a stop in Annapolis, Md., for example, he was interrogated about his activities and read his Miranda rights. Today, he said, his name lingers on what he thinks of simply as the “the list.” (He doesn’t know where it originated or who controls it.) He believes it has prevented him from receiving a visa to India and caused him be questioned at the border of Poland, both of which he had visited in the past. He said he has been interrogated the last four times he has entered the United States.

That sense of stigmatization — and the pursuit of life, liberty and art — is a steady undercurrent in “49 State Capitols,” an exhibition of postcards, photographs and ephemera from Mr. Fazel’s 2006 trip that is to open on Wednesday at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in SoHo. (He ran out of money before he made it to Alaska.)

“I wanted to learn about America,” Mr. Fazel said. “Visiting the capitols — I don’t want to say it’s a dream, but we’re led as children to believe that it’s kind of an obligation, that you need to see up close the country you call home.

“I may live abroad, but my sense of being an American, of loving my country, has never changed.”

Mr. Fazel, who moved to Italy in 1994, conceived of the trip in 2006 while visiting his mother in Fort Wayne, where she called his attention to his stamp collection in the attic. “Do something with these,’ ” he remembered her saying.

He went to a collector who offered him less than he believed his stamps were worth. “I thought, what a shame to just sell these for $1,000,” Mr. Fazel said. “I felt they needed to be released from that static state, needed to be released for their original purpose to be postage.”

What specifically inspired his trip was a page of stamps of the flags of the 50 states, in the order of their admission to the union, issued for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. That was the year he began collecting, shortly after moving to Fort Wayne, where the Fazels were the only Iranian family.

Mr. Fazel was born in Iran but moved to the United States when he was 2 months old. His father, who was then working on his doctorate in psychology, and his mother, who eventually became a potter, settled in Logan, Utah, and then in Fort Wayne. In 1970 the family briefly moved back to Iran, where his father taught in a satellite campus of Harvard Business School in Tehran; in 1976 they returned to Fort Wayne.

Mr. Fazel, feeling something of an outsider in a community divided into white and black, athletically gifted and not, turned to stamp collecting at his father’s urging. “Through stamps I had the chance to learn about America and American culture,” he said. He collected enthusiastically, using money he earned from mowing lawns and shoveling snow.

But with a driver’s license came adult freedom, and Mr. Fazel tucked his collection away. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering at Purdue University, then went to New York to study graphic design and photography. In 1994 he moved to Milan — “to enrich myself, invest in myself,” he said — and to overcome a sense of his cultural limitations. He feels that he succeeded, he said, yet he never stopped pondering what it meant for him to be American.

So in the spring of 2006, stamps in hand, he began to plot his road trip, researching the shortest distances from state capital to state capital and the locations of post offices and Y.M.C.A.’s (where he could shower and swim). He spent $1,500 on a used Chevy van in which he would live and another $2,000 to refurbish it. At night he would often seek out Wal-Mart parking lots, where security was tight, to park his van and sleep.

In each capital Mr. Fazel would research the state’s history in a library and then design a 10-by-14-inch postcard on white stock, adorned with mosaics he concocted from stamps related to the state.

The postcard he sent from Florida to Georgia honors space flight; the one from Hawaii to Arizona pays tribute to Pearl Harbor. The postcard sent from New York to Pennsylvania bears 11-cent stamps from 1965 that Mr. Fazel arranged in the shape of the twin towers — one toppling over, the other being pierced by a commercial aviation stamp — and with fire truck and ambulance stamps and a commemorative stamp of St. Vincent’s Hospital Manhattan.

Mr. Fazel drove 17,345 miles in 78 days, mailing a postcard from each city and picking it up in the next one, with the speed of the mail dictating the pace of his trip. “It was such a nice surprise to discover how reliable the postal system was,” he said, adding that some of the cards arrived within 12 hours.

But in Jackson, Miss., his journey took its bizarre twist. One night, as he sat in his van, a beam of light pierced his reverie. He heard his name over a loudspeaker and a command to step out of the vehicle with his hands held high.

Suddenly, Mr. Fazel said, he was forced to the ground, face to the concrete, and handcuffed by a city police officer. His vehicle was searched, and when the officers determined that nothing was amiss, Mr. Fazel was ordered to leave the parking lot and continue down the road.

He said the officers told him that they had received a report that he was aiming an automatic weapon at passing traffic.

Lee D. Vance, assistant chief of the Jackson city police, said he could not confirm the incident because it had not resulted in an arrest and because Mr. Fazel has not filed a complaint.

As Mr. Fazel continued his travels, he slowly began to perceive that he was on some kind of watch list. In Atlanta he was prohibited from entering the Capitol, he said, even as others did. In Columbia, S.C., he was questioned on the grounds of the Capitol by a police officer who mentioned that he knew Mr. Fazel lived in Italy.

On the morning of Oct. 3, he entered the Maryland Capitol in Annapolis, where he presented identification and signed his name on a visitors’ sheet. A guard asked him to wait.

Suddenly, Mr. Fazel said, he was handcuffed and rushed through corridors into a police station, where a man he later learned was a member of the Maryland Joint Terrorism Task Force with the F.B.I. started speaking to him in Farsi.

As Mr. Fazel related it, the experience went as follows:

“I’m American,” Mr. Fazel said. “I speak English.”

Another officer asked, “Where are you really from?” Mr. Fazel produced his Indiana driver’s license.

“I can tell by looking at you that you’re not from Fort Wayne,” the officer replied.

After a four-hour encounter in which he was asked about a recent trip to Iran for an Italian design magazine and about who was financing his trip to state capitols, he was released without being charged. But he was also warned by an F.B.I. official that he was now in the system and would have troubles if he continued his trip.

Richard Wolf, a media coordinator with the F.B.I. in Baltimore, said he had no knowledge of the incident. He added, “We don’t normally respond or comment on any sort of leads we’ve conducted with the Joint Terrorism Task Force.”

Asked whether Mr. Fazel was on the government’s terrorist watch list, Bill Carter, an F.B.I. spokesman in Washington, said that as a matter of policy, “we can’t verify whether an individual is on a watch list or not.”

After the incident in Maryland Mr. Fazel called Brett R. Fleitz, a lawyer in Indianapolis and a childhood friend. Mr. Fleitz said he immediately sought to reassure him. “I implored him to continue because he was very, very doubtful about the prospects for going on and the dangers that might lie ahead,” Mr. Fleitz said. “I said, ‘Dude, you’re an American.’ And Ramak said, ‘No, I’m a naturalized American.’ And I said: ‘It doesn’t matter. There aren’t two tiers of citizenship here. You have nothing to hide.’ ”

He advised Mr. Fazel to greet law enforcement officers cheerfully and “lay it all out,” as well as to ask for and photocopy the business cards of the authorities he encountered.

Mr. Fazel forged toward the last half of his destinations with his camera, a 1964 Rolleiflex. Despite being questioned at or denied entrance to the remaining capitols, he got every one of his pictures: sometimes an image of gilded rotundas or historic murals, other times pictures of the everyday, the mundane. He photographed visitors in House chambers; a funeral procession for Ann Richards, a onetime Texas governor; a portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, in the waiting room of the California governor’s office.

And as the mood of his trip changed from joy to disquiet, he photographed police officers at one capitol, and, at another, a “caution” tape blocking an entrance.

In Albany, Mr. Fazel was asked to wait at the entrance of the Capitol until investigators talked with him. One gave him a big slap on the back, Mr. Fazel recalled, and said, “I know everything about you, and I know you’ve been getting a lot of attention.”

Thomas M. Peters, a senior investigator with the New York State Police, confirmed that Mr. Fazel’s journey from capitol to capitol had raised suspicion.

“We were notified in advance that he was making his way up the East Coast from his stops at other capitols, where he was challenged by law enforcement agents,” he said. “They indicated that at some times he seemed agitated and seemed to be giving evasive answers to their questions, but we don’t know for sure because we were basically getting this information thirdhand.”

Mr. Peters added: “He was fine with us. And if he was agitated, it was probably because he got tired of being questioned.”

Looking back on his travels, Mr. Fazel said: “Notwithstanding the intense scrutiny, the trip was a positive experience. I’m neither rancorous, nor do I feel offended.”

Still, he said, he would like to see his name removed from “the list,” or whatever it is that caused him to be repeatedly stopped and questioned.

The journey ultimately left him wondering what it means to be American — and, more fundamentally, who he really was.

“What I thought would be an exercise in self-betterment turned out to be something a little bigger,” he said dryly.

A Small Glimmer Of Good News On The E-Voting Front: Maryland Says Bye-Bye To Diebold

Outraged by the butterfly ballots and hanging chads of the disputed 2000 presidential election, political activists nationwide pushed for user-friendly voting systems that wouldn't lead to a repeat of the confusion that left the outcome in Florida - and the nation - in doubt.

Less than eight years later - after taxpayers in Maryland and other states spent hundreds of millions on easy-to-use, all-electronic, touch-screen voting machines - the debate has come full circle.

Fear of hackers and lost votes that can never be recovered is forcing out the new technology and giving new life to old-fashioned scanning machines that read tried-and-true paper ballots.

By 2010, four years before its $65 million touch-screen machines will be paid off, Maryland expects to be back on the paper trail, following states such as Florida and California, which have also decided that all-electronic systems make it too easy to compromise elections.

This week, Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed an initial outlay of $6.8 million toward the purchase of optical-scan machines, which will eventually cost $20 million. Lawmakers approved a return to the machines last year, but only if the governor could come up with the money.

Although optical scanners have produced occasional glitches, many experts say the system that Maryland plans to buy for the 2010 election is one of the most reliable and accurate available. The reason: It's backed up by paper ballots that can be saved and recounted if necessary.

"It's still a computer; you could still manipulate an election" with an optical scanner, said Dr. Avi Rubin, the Johns Hopkins University security expert whose findings helped launch the national anti-touch screen movement. "But if there's anything suspicious about the total, you have those paper ballots."

There have always been worries about election integrity. Even paper ballots produced talk of stuffed ballot boxes and tales of ballots getting "lost" on the way to election headquarters. When lever machines appeared in the 1930s, there were concerns that mechanical failures would deprive many of their franchise.

The debate seems to surface every time the technology changes.

A 2006 review of popular electronic voting systems by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that "the three most commonly purchased today are vulnerable to attacks and errors that could change the outcome of statewide elections. ...

"Indeed, it is impossible to imagine a voting system that could be impervious to attack," the report concluded.

Voters using optical-scan machines fill in a "bubble" or complete the drawing of an arrow pointing to their candidate. Then they feed their ballots into a scanner at the poll. If they've filled the ballot out incorrectly, the machine spits it back and the voter can try again. If a recount is needed, the ballots are stored so they can be re-scanned or hand-counted.

Touch-screen voting devices operate like automated teller machines: voters cast their ballots on computer screens and have a chance to review their choices before they're completed. But in the case of a recount, there is no paper ballot to examine - just an electronic record on the machine's magnetic memory card.

In recent years, backers and critics of electronic voting have vigorously debated whether hackers can break into a touch-screen voting system and sabotage an election - or steal it.

John Willis, Maryland's former secretary of state and a government professor at the University of Baltimore, said this discussion makes no sense today. Airlines, he noted, are abandoning paper tickets for electronic ones. Doctors are moving toward electronic prescription pads.

"In every other part of life, we're going the other way," he said. "I think it's a giant step backward. I can predict our elections will be no more secure and they will be less accurate - that's what the evidence shows."

Among the 19 Maryland jurisdictions using scanners in 2002, Willis said, there were nearly 15,000 voters who did not cast a ballot in the top-of-the-ticket race for governor. In 2006, when everyone used touch-screen machines, fewer than 10,000 voters failed to cast a ballot for governor.

But the Brennan Center study showed that nationwide, optical-scan machines had fewer residual or "no-votes" than touch-screens, meaning more people had their votes counted properly with optical scanners.

Maryland has had just two major elections with touch-screens - the 2004 presidential race and the 2006 gubernatorial election. Still, it isn't the only state to abandon them quickly.

Florida has also flip-flopped. In Sarasota, voters approved a measure requiring paper ballots after nearly 20,000 votes cast on touch-screen machines were not recorded in a close 2006 congressional race.

In Ohio last month, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner ordered Cuyahoga County to abandon its touch-screen voting and use optical scanners for this March's presidential primary election. The county's touch-screen server crashed twice on election night last November.

Her decision came after a state review of voting systems found "critical security failures" with the electronic machines. A spokesman said Brunner has urged the legislature to replace all of Ohio's touch-screens with optical scan by the November election.

But that decision has generated an entirely different controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday complaining that Cuyahoga County's optical scan ballots will be counted at a central location - not at the polls as Maryland intends. That means voters will not have a chance to correct errors on their ballots.

Optical systems do occasionally have problems. In Volusia County, Fla., outside Orlando, hundreds of votes were not initially counted in 2000 after an election worker turned off a machine that would not accept a ballot.

When the machine was restarted, its counter reset to zero even though 310 ballots had already been fed through. The error was found during a recount.

One of the original benefits of touch screens was that they allowed blind voters a chance to cast their votes secretly - a requirement of the Help America Vote Act, which funded new voting technology nationwide.

Optical-scan machines did not allow that. Now, though, technology has improved and an accessible, hybrid optical-scanning system is on the market.

In Volusia County, each precinct now has touch-screens for the disabled, as well as optical scanners. Voters can choose, but they overwhelmingly opt for the optical-scan machines, said elections supervisor Ann McFall.

Of 4,000 votes cast this week in early voting for the presidential primary, only 10 were cast on the touch-screens.

Monday, January 21, 2008

My Favorite Song At The Moment

I used to like to go to work but they shut it down
I got a right to go to work but there's no work here to be found
Yes and they say we're gonna have to pay what's owed
We're gonna have to reap from some seed thats been sowed


...from all of these signs saying sorry but were closed
All the way down the telegraph road
Mark Knopfler, "Telegraph Road".

Ponder this

"Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others." -- Edward Abbey

The Birth Of One Of The greatest Breathroughs In Automotive Design

Here. You know you can't live without it....

Glenn Greenwald's Found The Times' Replacement For Judy Miller

No, not Billy Kristol, someone they can and have slapped on the front page.

Can't say the guy's wrong; Colin Powell was right: we go into Iraq and fuck it up, it's only right we fix what we break. OTOH, first question is whether what we did is really fixable....

An Un-Funny, So Unfunny, It Hurts


How "The Media" "Thinks"

Jay Rosen:
Just so you know, "the media" has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not "get behind" candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy... or gal. Nor does it "buy" this line or "swallow" that one. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn't know what it's doing.

1. The Herd of Independent Minds

This does not mean you cannot blame the media for things. Go right ahead! Brainless beasts at large in public life can do plenty of damage; and later on -- when people ask, "What happened here?" -- it sometimes does make sense to say... the beast did this. It's known as "the pack" in political journalism, but I prefer "the herd of independent minds" (from Harold Rosenberg, 1959) because I think it's more descriptive of the dynamic. Mark Halperin of Time's The Page (more about him later) calls the beast The Gang of 500. But gangs have leaders, which means a mind.

That's more than you can say about the media.

Now, the pack, lacking a brain, almost had a heart attack when Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, since they had told us Obama would run away with it because the pollsters told them the same thing. The near-heart attack wasn't triggered by a bad prediction, which can happen to anyone, but rather by some spectacular wreckage in the reality-making machinery of political journalism. The top players had begun to report on the Obama wave of victories before there was any Obama wave of victories. The campaign narrative had gotten needlessly -- one could say mindlessly -- ahead of itself, as when stories about anticipated outcomes in the New Hampshire vote reverberated into campaigns said to be preparing for those outcomes even before New Hampshire voted.

"PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Key campaign officials may be replaced. She may start calling herself the underdog. Donors would receive pleas that it is do-or-die time. And her political strategy could begin mirroring that of Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican rival..."
That's Patrick Healy in the New York Times the day of the New Hampshire primary, reporting on what would happen, according to nameless campaign insiders, if events about to unfold that day validated previous reports about what was likely to unfold that day. Healy's best defense would be: Wait a minute, people with the Clinton campaign actually told me those things. They turned out to be premature and wrong. I didn't make it up!

Which is true. But when actual facts are used in the construction of news fictions -- and reports about the moves to be made in Hillaryland after Obama won Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina were precisely that, a news fiction -- your story can be accurate, well-edited, within genre conventions, and, at the same time, deeply un-informational, not to mention wrong. In fact, accurate news about the race that subtracts from our understanding of it is one of the quirky features of chronic mindlessness in campaign media.

By mindless I generally mean: No one's in charge, or "the process" is. Conventional forms thrive, even if few believe they work. Routines master people. The way it's been done "chooses" the way it shall be done.

Independent bloggers, who should have more distance from the pack mind (and often do) were not necessarily better on this score. Greg Sargent of TPM Media -- the blog empire run by political journalist Josh Marshall -- reported as follows on January 7th: "Camp Hillary insiders who have been with her a very long time, such as Patti Solis Doyle, are worried about the long term damage that could be done to Hillary if she decides to fight on after a New Hampshire loss, though there's no indication they are yet urging an exit." Doyle was said to be alarmed about damage to Clinton's Senate career from staying in the race amid a humiliating string of defeats.

Campaign news in the subjunctive isn't really news. And primary losses don't especially need to come at us pre-reacted-to, especially when there is plenty of time to air those reactions once any "string of defeats" actually happens. But while an individual mind in the press corps is quite capable of realizing this, the herd is not.

A good example would be an MSNBC program I saw just before the New Hampshire voting, where Dan Abrams asked his panel -- including Rachel Maddow, Pat Buchanan, and himself -- what each thought the final vote would be. The guests should have said, "How do we know? We're not New Hampshire voters, or professional pollsters." That would be intelligent -- and accurate. But they did something mindless instead. Each took a few points off the polls everyone else in the pack was reading and gave a "personal" prediction -- Obama by 4, Obama by 7.

Okay, so it's not a big offense -- but I didn't say it was. I said it was an illustration of routine mindlessness. That's when on-air journalism is dumber than the journalists who are on air.

Greg Sargent -- a smart reporter, quite aware of the absurdities the pack produces -- can, without great difficulty, dial back the use of nameless advisers pre-reacting to things that may not occur. (This post from his boss, Josh Marshall, suggests it may happen.) But the fact remains that his account, defining reactions-before-the-fact as news, was within the existing rules of journalism, relied upon by hundreds of other reporters adding their stories to the larger narrative. There's nothing to prevent those rules from being changed, of course. Nothing, except for the fact that the media has no mind and so can't easily change it.

2. Convergence of Judgment

Because we have evolved a way of talking about the news media that fails to recognize this very basic fact -- no mind! can't decide a thing! -- everyone is free to grant more intentionality to the organism than reasonably exists. Here are just a few samples from recent weeks:

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post: "The media have decided, fairly or unfairly, that Iowa was Edwards's best shot at winning the nomination."

John Amato, Crooks and Liars: "The media will treat Democrats much harsher than Republicans from here on in."

Ken Silverstein, Harpers: "Another factor in Obama's favor is (just as the Clinton campaign claims) that the media seems to be strongly in his corner."

Blogger Tom Watson: "At the start of the campaign, I didn't think the national media could possibly be successful in an anti-woman campaign against a Democrat."

Chris Bowers at Open Left: "OK, The Media Hates Clinton-But Why?"

I think we know why people speak this way. We use collective nouns, even when they mash way too much together, because, despite all the flattening and collapsing, there is some rough justice in saying, "The media loves Obama right now." We know we're speaking imperfectly, or metaphorically, but we also know we're observing something that's really happening.

And that's fine, normal, human even. Nonetheless, it's important to remember: The media has no mind. It might appear to decide things, but if no one takes responsibility for "Edwards must win Iowa," then it's not really a decision the media made, but a convergence of judgment among people who may instantly converge around a different judgment if it turns out that Edwards isn't done after failing to win Iowa.

That's pretty mindless. Strangely, though, the argument that the media has no mind serves almost no one's agenda, with one exception, ably represented by Jon Stewart, but including all who satirize the news and the news criers, exposing their collective mindlessness and making it almost... enjoyable.

3. "We have special insight"

John Harris and Jim VandeHei, formerly of the Washington Post, are the top editors of The Politico, a new newspaper-and-web operation that only does politics. After the New Hampshire screw-up, which they called a "debacle" and a "humiliation," Harris and VandeHei asked themselves why their profession, political reporting, "supposedly devoted to depicting reality, obsesses about so many story lines that turn out to be fiction."

This is an excellent question and it's admirable that they don't mince words in framing it. "The loser -- not just of Tuesday's primary but of the 2008 campaign cycle so far -- was us," they write. That would be the pack, "...the community of reporters, pundits and prognosticators who so confidently -- and so rashly -- stake our reputations on the illusion that we understand politics and have special insight that allows us to predict the behavior of voters."

A key point: "we have special insight." The current generation of political reporters has based its bid for election-year authority on its horse race and handicapping skills. But reporters actually have no such skills. Think: what does a Howard Fineman (Newsweek, MSNBC) know about politics in America? I mean, what would you logically turn to him for? It's got to be: Who's ahead, what's the strategy, and how are the insiders sizing up the contest? That's supposedly his expertise, if he has any expertise; and if he doesn't have any expertise, then what is he doing on my television screen, night after night, talking about politics?

Even if Fineman and company had it, the ability to handicap the race is a pretty bogus skill set. Who cares if you are good at anticipating events that will unroll in clear fashion without you? Why do we need people who know how this is going to play out in South Carolina when we can just wait for the voters to play it out themselves?

Among the "bogus narratives" the campaign press has developed so far, the Politico editors chose three to illustrate their humiliation. John McCain's "collapse" in the summer of 2007, which meant we could write him off; Mike Huckabee's win in Iowa, where the candidate without an organization took a state where electoral success, we were assured, was all about organization; and Obama's "change the tone in politics" campaign which, according to the Gang, was not going to be in tune with the voters' rawer, more partisan feelings in '08. All three were a bust, suggesting political journalists have no special insight into: How is this going to play out? What they have are cheap, portable routines in which you ask that kind of question, and try to get ahead of the race. This, too, is what I mean by mindlessness.

"If journalists were candidates, there would be insurmountable pressure for us to leave the race," say Harris and VandeHei about their sorry-ass performance in '08. But they're at sea in trying to explain why such things happen. They blame addiction to the game of politics, journalists and their sources hanging out too much together, and personal bias among reporters unconsciously rooting for the candidate who is more fun to cover. Those are certainly three factors. Another 23 could be listed without running out of plausible reasons, because what they're really grappling with is routine mindlessness in their institution. Explaining that is a bit harder.

4. "Removed from the experience"

A much better attempt was this short and consistently to the point entry by Christopher Hayes of the Nation magazine: "WHY CAMPAIGN COVERAGE SO OFTEN SUCKS." He starts with something that is known to everyone in the pack: Campaign reporting is an essay in fear.

"Reporting at events like this is exciting and invigorating, but it's also terrifying. I've done it now a number of times at conventions and such, and in the past I was pretty much alone the entire time. I didn't know any other reporters, so I kept to myself and tried to navigate the tangle of schedules and parking lots and hotels and event venues. It's daunting and the whole time you think: 'Am I missing something? What's going? Oh man, I should go interview that guy in the parka with the fifteen buttons on his hat.' You fear getting lost, or missing some important piece of news, or making an ass out of yourself when you have to muster up that little burst of confidence it takes to walk up to a stranger and start asking them questions."
Whereas he had once thought of it as a rookie's experience, this year he learned that the fear never goes away. "Veteran reporters are just as panicked about getting lost or missing something, just as confused about who to talk to. This why reporters move in packs. It's like the first week of freshman orientation, when you hopped around to parties in groups of three dozen, because no one wanted to miss something or knew where anything was."

It is rare to find a campaign correspondent who is inner-directed, with a vision of how to report on the election season that sends her off on her own. Campaign reporters tend to be massively other-directed. The reality-check is what the rest of the press is doing -- and the Web makes it far easier to check. Mindless.

"When you go to one of these events as a reporter, there's part of you that's aware that you don't really belong there," writes Hayes.

"You're an outsider, standing on the edges observing the people who are there doing the actual stuff of politics: listening to a candidate, cheering, participating. So reporters run with that distance: they crack wise, they kibbitz in the back, they play up their detachment. That leads to coverage that is often weirdly condescending and removed from the experience of politics."

Removed from the experience. Well, yeah. That is the number one virtue of horse-race reporting and the inside baseball mentality: speed of removal from the immediate experience. Hayes thinks the "worst features of campaign reporting" can be traced back to the "psychological defenses that reporters erect to deal with their insecurities." First line of defense: pack behavior. A second is what the Politico guys said: "the illusion that we understand politics" and with our special insight can predict the behavior of voters, anticipate a turn in the narrative, divine a winning strategy.

Maybe this illusion is reproduced for us because it is fear-reducing for them to mount the horse-race production.

5. Under the influence.

In November, Mark Halperin of Time, who is both a student of pack behavior and a creature of the pack, wrote a revealing op-ed piece about this "illusion that we understand." He said he had been under the influence of Richard Ben Cramer's massive and fascinating book, "What It Takes," about the 1988 battle for the White House. Halperin wrote:

"I'm not alone. The book's thesis -- that prospective presidents are best evaluated by their ability to survive the grueling quadrennial coast-to-coast test of endurance required to win the office -- has shaped the universe of political coverage.

"Voters are bombarded with information about which contender has 'what it takes' to be the best candidate. Who can deliver the most stirring rhetoric? Who can build the most attractive facade? Who can mount the wiliest counterattack? Whose life makes for the neatest story? Our political and media culture reflects and drives an obsession with who is going to win, rather than who should win."

Right there, Halperin identifies the roots of mindlessness in campaign coverage: All right, press team, when that door opens, I want you go out there and find out for us... WHO IS GOING TO WIN?

That's the baseline question. But how good a question is it?

The only decent definition of "information" I know of states that it is a measure of uncertainty reduced. But voters are the ones who reduce uncertainty in elections. They can do it pretty well themselves, without the help of horse-race journalists. Halperin once thought it fine to obsess over "the race," because he considered the race a good proxy for the leadership test we're supposed to be conducting during the now-well-more-than-a-year it takes to elect a new president.

"But now I think I was wrong," he writes. George W. Bush passed his horse-race test and flunked the leadership test once in office. So did Bill Clinton, Halperin says. Both were good campaigners and strategists. Their weaknesses only became glaring to the pack when they were in office, he argues.

Let me say it again: Reporters have no special insight into how elections will turn out. According to Halperin, a thesis that has "shaped the universe of political coverage" is false; the rigors of the race do not produce good outcomes. So what does the pack do now? "Well, we pause, take a deep breath and resist. At least sometimes... we can try to keep from getting sucked in by it all."

This is the same limp remedy Harris and VandeHei offered. They know they're stuck with horse-race journalism. They know what a mindless beast it can be -- and what a mindless beast they can be. And, above all else, they know they're not going to change it. After all, they are it. Glenn Greenwald of Salon was right to point to this exchange between NBC's Tom Brokaw and Chris Matthews as the results from New Hampshire came in...

"BROKAW: You know what I think we're going to have to do?

"MATTHEWS: Yes sir?

"BROKAW: Wait for the voters to make their judgment.

"MATTHEWS: Well what do we do then in the days before the ballot? We must stay home, I guess."

Matthews was being the realist: Without who's-going-to-win, "we" might as well stay home. Brokaw (now long retired as the face of the NBC brand) gave him an apt warning in response: "The people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don't begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding." But he was speaking as if the media had a mind and could shift course.

6. Less innocence, more politics.

Let's see if we can bring these strands together. I've been picking at the weaknesses of horse-race coverage, but to really understand it we need to appreciate its practical strengths.

Who's-gonna-win is portable, reusable from cycle to cycle, and easily learned by newcomers to the press pack. Journalists believe it brings readers to the page and eyeballs to the screen. It "works" regardless of who the candidates are, or where the nation is in historical time. No expertise is actually needed to operate it. In that sense, it is economical. (And when everyone gets the winner wrong the "surprise" becomes a good story for a few days.) Who's going to win -- and what's their strategy -- plays well on television, because it generates an endless series of puzzles toward which journalists can gesture as they display their savviness, which is the unofficial religion of the mainstream press.

But the biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to "play up their detachment." Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because "who's gonna win?" is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Ever noticed how spirits lift when the pundit roundtable turns from the Middle East or the looming recession to the horse race, and there's an opportunity for sizing up the candidates? To be manifestly agenda-less is journalistic bliss. Of course, since trying to get ahead of the voters can affect how voters view the candidates, the innocence, too, is an illusion. But a potent one.

Imagine if we had them all -- the whole Gang of 500 -- in a room and we asked them (off the record): How many of you feel roughly qualified to be Secretary of State? Ted Koppel having retired, no hands would go up. Secretary of the Treasury? No hands. White House Chief of Staff? Maybe one or two would raise a hand. Qualified to be President? No one would dare say that. Strategist for a presidential campaign? I'd say at least 200 hands would shoot up. Reporters identify with those guys -- the behind-the-scenes message senders -- and they cultivate the same knowledge.

What a waste! Journalists ought to be bringing new knowledge into the system, as Charlie Savage and the Boston Globe did in December. They gave the presidential candidates a detailed questionnaire on the limits of executive branch power and nine candidates responded. This is a major issue that any candidate for president should have to address, given the massive build-up of presidential power engineered by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. We desperately need to know what the contenders for the presidency intend to do -- continue the build-up or roll it back? -- but we won't know unless the issue is injected into the campaign.

Now, that's both a political and a journalistic act. And where does the authority for doing such things come from? There is actually no good answer to that within the press system as it stands, and so the beast would never go there.

The Globe's questionnaire grew out of Savage's earlier reporting on the "unitary executive" and the drive to create an "unfettered presidency." (See this PBS interview with Savage; also, contrast the Globe's treatment with more of a throwaway effort from the New York Times.) Here, the job of the campaign press is not to preempt the voters' decision by asking endlessly, and predicting constantly, who's going to win. The job is to make certain that what needs to be discussed will be discussed in time to make a difference -- and then report on that.