Saturday, June 02, 2007

Failed Presidents Ain’t What They Used to Be


Published: June 3, 2007

A few weeks ago I did something I never expected to do in my life. I shed a tear for Richard Milhous Nixon.

That’s in no small measure a tribute to Frank Langella, who should win a Tony Award for his star Broadway turn in “Frost/Nixon” next Sunday while everyone else is paying final respects to Tony Soprano. “Frost/Nixon,” a fictionalized treatment of the disgraced former president’s 1977 television interviews with David Frost, does not whitewash Nixon’s record. But Mr. Langella unearths humanity and pathos in the old scoundrel eking out his exile in San Clemente. For anyone who ever hated Nixon, this achievement is so shocking that it’s hard to resist a thought experiment the moment you’ve left the theater: will it someday be possible to feel a pang of sympathy for George W. Bush?

Perhaps not. It’s hard to pity someone who, to me anyway, is too slight to hate. Unlike Nixon, President Bush is less an overreaching Machiavelli than an epic blunderer surrounded by Machiavellis. He lacks the crucial element of acute self-awareness that gave Nixon his tragic depth. Nixon came from nothing, loathed himself and was all too keenly aware when he was up to dirty tricks. Mr. Bush has a charmed biography, is full of himself and is far too blinded by self-righteousness to even fleetingly recognize the havoc he’s inflicted at home and abroad. Though historians may judge him a worse president than Nixon — some already have — at the personal level his is not a grand Shakespearean failure. It would be a waste of Frank Langella’s talent to play George W. Bush (though not, necessarily, of Matthew McConaughey’s).

This is in part why persistent cries for impeachment have gone nowhere in the Democratic Party hierarchy. Arguably the most accurate gut check on what the country feels about Mr. Bush was a January Newsweek poll finding that a sizable American majority just wished that his “presidency was over.” This flat-lining administration inspires contempt and dismay more than the deep-seated, long-term revulsion whipped up by Nixon; voters just can’t wait for Mr. Bush to leave Washington so that someone, anyone, can turn the page and start rectifying the damage. Yet if he lacks Nixon’s larger-than-life villainy, he will nonetheless leave Americans feeling much the way they did after Nixon fled: in a state of anger about the state of the nation.

The rage is already omnipresent, and it’s bipartisan. The last New York Times/CBS News poll found that a whopping 72 percent of Americans felt their country was “seriously off on the wrong track,” the highest figure since that question was first asked, in 1983. Equally revealing (and bipartisan) is the hypertension of the parties’ two angry bases. Democrats and Republicans alike are engaged in internecine battles that seem to be escalating in vitriol by the hour.

On the Democratic side, the left is furious at the new Congress’s failure to instantly fulfill its November mandate to end the war in Iraq. After it sent Mr. Bush a war-spending bill stripped of troop-withdrawal deadlines 10 days ago, the cries of betrayal were shrill, and not just from bloggers. John Edwards, once one of the more bellicose Democratic cheerleaders for the war (“I believe that the risk of inaction is far greater than the risk of action,” he thundered on the Senate floor in September 2002), is now equally bellicose toward his former colleagues. He chastises them for not sending the president the same withdrawal bill he vetoed “again and again” so that Mr. Bush would be forced to realize “he has no choice” but to end the war. It’s not exactly clear how a legislative Groundhog Day could accomplish this feat when the president’s obstinacy knows no bounds and the Democrats’ lack of a veto-proof Congressional majority poses no threat to his truculence.

Among Republicans the right’s revolt against the Bush-endorsed immigration bill is also in temper-tantrum territory, moving from rational debate about complex policy questions to plain old nativism, reminiscent of the 19th-century Know-Nothings. Even the G.O.P. base’s traditional gripes — knee-jerk wailing about the “tragedy” of Mary Cheney’s baby — can’t be heard above the din.

“White America is in flight” is how Pat Buchanan sounds the immigration alarm. “All they have to do is go to Bank of Amigo and pay the fine with a credit card” is how Rush Limbaugh mocks the bill’s punitive measures for illegal immigrants. Bill O’Reilly, while “reluctantly” supporting Mr. Bush’s plan, illustrates how immigration is “drastically” altering the country by pointing out that America is “now one-third minority.” (Do Jews make the cut?) The rupture is so deep that National Review, a fierce opponent of the bill, is challenging its usual conservative ally, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, to a debate that sounds more like “Fight Club.”

What the angriest proselytizers on the left and right have in common is a conviction that their political parties will commit hara-kiri if they don’t adhere to their bases’ strict ideological orders. “If Democrats do not stick to their guns on Iraq,” a blogger at warns, there will be “serious political consequences in 2008.” In an echo of his ideological opposite, Mr. Limbaugh labels the immigration bill the “Comprehensive Destroy the Republican Party Act.”

But there’s a strange paradox here. The decibel level of the fin-de-Bush rage is a bit of a red herring. In truth, there is some consensus among Americans about the issues that are dividing both parties. The same May poll that found the country so wildly off-track showed agreement on much else. Sixty-one percent believe that we should have stayed out of Iraq, and 63 percent believe we should withdraw by 2008. Majorities above 60 percent also buy broad provisions of the immigration bill — including the 66 percent of Republicans (versus 72 percent of Democrats) who support its creation of a guest-worker program.

What these figures suggest is that change is on its way, no matter how gridlocked Washington may look now. However much the G.O.P. base hollers, America is not going to round up and deport 12 million illegal immigrants, or build a multibillion-dollar fence on the Mexican border — despite Lou Dobbs’s hoax blaming immigrants for a nonexistent rise in leprosy. A new president unburdened by a disastrous war may well fashion the immigration compromise that is likely to elude Mr. Bush.

Withdrawal from Iraq is also on its way. Contrary to Mr. Edwards, only Republicans in Congress can overcome presidential vetoes and in so doing force Mr. Bush’s hand on the war. As the bottom drops out of Iraq and the polls, those G.O.P. votes are starting to line up. The latest example came last Sunday, when the most hawkish of former Rumsfeld worshipers, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, joined his party’s Congressional leaders, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, in talking about drawing down troops if something “extraordinary” doesn’t happen in Iraq by the time Gen. David Petraeus gives his September report on the “surge.” No doubt Mr. Sessions, who is up for re-election in 2008, saw a May 12 survey in The Birmingham News showing that even in his reddest of states, nearly half the voters want America out of Iraq within a year and favor candidates who agree.

This relatively unified America can’t be compared with that of the second Nixon term, when the violent cultural and political upheavals of the late 1960s were still fresh. But in at least one way there may be a precise political parallel in the aftermaths of two failed presidencies rent by catastrophic wars: Americans are exhausted by anger itself and are praying for the mood pendulum to swing.

Gerald Ford implicitly captured that sentiment when he described himself as a healer; his elected successor, Jimmy Carter, was (to a fault, as it turned out) a seeming paragon of serenity. We can see this equation at work now in Mitt Romney’s unflappable game-show-host persona, in John McCain’s unconvincing efforts to emulate a Reagan grin and in the unlikely spectacle of Rudy Giuliani trading in his congenital scowl for a sunny disposition. Hillary Clinton’s camp is doing everything it can to deflect new books reminding voters of the vicious Washington warfare during her husband’s presidency. Then again, even Michael Moore is rolling out a kinder, gentler persona in his media blitz for his first film since “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

Edgy is out; easy listening is in; style, not content, can be king. In this climate, it’s hardly happenstance that many Republicans are looking in desperation to Fred Thompson. Robert Novak pointedly welcomed his candidacy last week because, in his view, Mr. Thompson is “less harsh” in tone than his often ideologically indistinguishable rivals and “a real-life version of the avuncular fictional D.A. he plays on TV.” The Democratic boomlet for Barack Obama is the flip side of the same coin: his views don’t differ radically from those of most of his rivals, but his conciliatory personality is the essence of calm, the antithesis of anger.

If it was a relief to the nation to see a president as grandly villainous as Richard Nixon supplanted by a Ford, not a Lincoln, maybe even a used Hoover would do this time.

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A Journey to, and From, the Heart of Radical Islam in Britain


Published: June 2, 2007


ED HUSAIN (left) remembers the man as a kindly soul, not the sort you would suspect of recruiting for a radical Islamic group. As a teenager already in rebellion against his upstanding middle-class parents, who had raised him as a sort of Muslim choirboy, young Mohamed — his original first name — was an easy target.

They met in the early 1990s at the elaborate Muslim wedding of a distant relative. “He was a medic at Royal London Hospital, and he invited me to lunch,” said Mr. Husain, whose recently published memoir, “The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left,” has caused a ruckus in the newspapers, on television, on talks shows and in blogs.

“He was asking me questions and then saying, ‘White Muslims are being killed in Bosnia,’ ” he recalled in an interview. “What chances do we have as brown people in England?’ He was creating doubts.” He said his new friend had “black and white” answers to the world’s problems, and gave him books by Taqiuddin an-Nabhani, a Palestinian judge who, dissatisfied with the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950s, set up his own Islamic party, called Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation.

Thus began Mr. Husain’s journey into the world of British Islamic radicalism. He joined a university campus branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir. He said he had been hooked on an ideology that calls for a caliphate in Muslim countries and the end of Israel, though in nonviolent ways. Membership made him feel important, even though he was only a cog in a larger movement. “You feel a few cuts above an ordinary Muslim,” he said.

He left the group in 1995 after two years, dismayed after a fellow Hizb ut-Tahrir member stabbed a Christian student, killing him.

NOW, with his book, Mr. Husain’s personal story has become fodder for the percolating debate in Britain about how to combat terror, and about how to narrow the divide between white non-Muslim Britons and Muslims from South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

With the zeal of a true believer, Mr. Husain, 32, has denounced Hizb ut-Tahrir, and called for it to be banned. With almost equal fervor he has upbraided the British government for being too soft on issues of Islamic extremism.

Some Muslims have called Mr. Husain, who is of Indian heritage, a traitor. Some non-Muslims on the left have questioned his get-tough approach. Others, mostly on the right, have hailed him as brave. Mr. Husain has also been challenged by some who argue that his experiences do not deal with the most pressing problem, the very small minority of British Muslims who end up being recruited as terrorists.

For its part, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which runs a sophisticated Web site and is no slouch at joining the fray, has assailed Mr. Husain, calling his attacks unfair and outmoded. A spokesman, Taji Mustafa, said that Mr. Husain was never a formal member who took a pledge, but rather attended the group’s circles like thousands of others.

On the other side, Mr. Husain says he has been approached by British government officials, asking whether he wants to join their antiextremist efforts, a move that would almost certainly cast him in parts of Britain’s diverse Muslim community as a government stooge.

“The Islamist blogs are apologists,” Mr. Husain said of his Muslim critics. Of the critics on the left, he said: “The left shouldn’t be getting into bed with the Islamists. We’ve got a political correctness gone mad in Britain that says, ‘How dare we white British tell them what to do?’ ”

Mr. Husain argues that radical Muslim groups prey on the anger and confusion of young British Muslim men of South Asian heritage, who grow up in segregated neighborhoods and peer from the outside into a society that promises equality but does not deliver.

In his case, he said, feverish internal politicking, religious arguments and leafleting on the streets, in the campus library and around pool halls in East London quickly took the place of what had seemed to be a dead-end life as a Muslim who tried to fit into British society. He had left an all-boys high school of mostly Asians — where he started out in a tie, blazer and polished shoes — feeling an outsider.

In contrast, being part of Hizb ut-Tahrir was an all-consuming business as he aspired to be one of the intellectual leaders of the new dawn of a Muslim caliphate. “I lost my smile,” he said.

But when things got out of hand — he said that one of his colleagues, Saeed, murdered a Christian Nigerian — Mr. Husain called it quits with Hizb ut-Tahrir. “I was spiritually down in the gutter, remote from the Koran and remote from my parents,” he said.

IN his continued quest for religious meaning, Mr. Husain joined several other Islamic groups, left those, and finally settled with the Sufi teachings of Hamza Yusuf Hanson, an American convert to Islam, whom he believes teaches an Islam of moderation that is the true Islam.

He married an Indian British Muslim, Faye Begum, and together they traveled to Syria and then to Saudi Arabia to teach English.

It took him six years, he said, to free his head from the doctrine of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Along the way, he deliberately did two things that the group had forbidden. “I had to make non-Muslim friends, because they said don’t do that,” he said. He now counts several Jews among his circle, he said. The second forbidden act, he said, was that “I joined the Labor Party, because they say don’t vote.” He has found religious solace, he says, in the teachings of the California-based Mr. Hanson — a popular preacher in Britain — because his faith allows Islam to face the contemporary world.

“In traditional circles, Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men,” Mr. Husain said. “But in a pluralistic world in 2007, where non-Muslim men and Muslim women are marrying, you can’t say, ‘You can’t do that.’ Hanson says Muslim women should be allowed to marry non-Muslim men as long as she can practice her faith.”

Mr. Husain, dressed in jacket, pressed shirt and khakis, took a visitor to the campus of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies, where he is studying for a Ph.D. on Sufism. Students sprawled on the grass between exams. One, a longtime friend and onetime colleague in Hizb ut-Tahrir, Majid Nawaz, came over to chat.

Mr. Nawaz, a Briton, spent nearly four years in jail in Egypt on charges of proselytizing for Hizb ut-Tahrir. After his release last year, he returned to Britain, and last month, quietly left the executive committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Soon, says Mr. Husain, his friend will go public with the reasons for his departure, an explanation he hopes that will cause a stir like his own.

As for that very un-Muslim first name, Ed is an abbreviation of Mohamed. “I found most Muslims didn’t address me as Mohamed,” he said. “Like Christians don’t use Jesus too much.” In Syria, some people would call him Mo, but he preferred the last syllable of his name: “In new times, with new problems, I feel like Ed.”

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Men Will Be Boys


Published: June 3, 2007

When Alvy Singer and Annie Hall split up, he tells her a relationship is like a shark: “It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”

A relationship that turns into a dead shark is common. A live shark that reproduces without a relationship, however, is uncommon. Yet there was a recent report of a virgin birth in an aquarium — a female shark having a baby without mating. A trick of nature called parthenogenesis.

“I love this word parthenogenesis,” David Page, an expert on sex evolution at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass., told me. “It suggests knowledge, but what it stands for in this case is ignorance. Nobody has a clue how parthenogenesis works.”

When a hammerhead shark had a baby at an Omaha zoo, scientists at first thought she had mated with another species or stored sperm from years before. But then they decided there was no “male contribution,” as one put it.

Dr. Page may be biased in favor of male contribution, but he doubts females are ready to dispense with males. “It’s reproducing without sex, and reproducing with sex is something that’s been around on our planet for maybe a billion or a billion and a half years,” he said. “Even yeast cells, the cells that make your bread and beer and wine, reproduce sexually.”

A shark may know how to knock herself up, but in “Knocked Up,” the new Judd Apatow comedy being hailed as “an era-defining classic” and a “zeitgeist-tapping generational marker,” Katherine Heigl still has to fool with the birds and the bees.

She plays a reporter for the E! network who becomes pregnant the old-fashioned way: she gets so drunk with a stranger at a bar that she can’t tell he’s not using a condom.

He’s not the perfect man. Played by Seth Rogen, he’s a pothead with no income, no cellphone and no muscle tone. He lives in a group house plastered with girlie magazines and littered with ninja weapons. When he and his friends aren’t paintballing or trading movie lines or fighting with fiery boxing gloves or obsessing on women’s breasts, they plot to start a cinema nudity Web site called Flesh of the Stars. The morning after their tryst, he advises the appalled Ms. Heigl at breakfast: “Once you’re hung over, you’ve just gotta puke.”

On the other hand, he’s sweet and honest and sticks by her through her pregnancy, despite ups and downs with her affections, her hormones and her high-maintenance sister. Maybe he is perfect.

Ms. Heigl’s single working girl decides to keep the baby, just as Natalie Wood’s single working girl did in the 1963 “Love With the Proper Stranger,” when she becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with a raffish stranger played by Steve McQueen.

Even now, after so many decades, it’s hard to imagine a romantic-comedy heroine opting for, as one of the slacker dudes puts it, “a word that rhymes with shmashmortion.”

I’m not sure I’d deem “Knocked Up” “a ‘Tootsie’ or ‘The Graduate’ for the 21st century,” as Slate called it. But Mr. Apatow, who specializes in lovable geeks falling in love, is funny.

The ’30s and ’40s had screwball comedies, with the snappy patter of zany dames and the guys they drove crazy. In the ’70s, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton made magic.

This period will be remembered for classic comedies where the true sparks fly between men — coming-of-age tales about guys who should already be of age — perpetual boys with Maxim mind-sets, hilariously knocking on each other (usually by dismissing each other with crude or anatomical terms for women). In his Bilbongsromans, Mr. Apatow cleverly tempers his adolescent raunch with old-fashioned innocence.

From Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson’s “Zoolander” to Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s “Wedding Crashers” to Will Ferrell’s “Old School” and “Anchorman,” to Mr. Apatow’s “40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” the creative energy is with the boys.

Mr. Apatow’s message is that his lost boys must put their toys away and find the deeper fun in adult responsibility. Suddenly, while having lap dances and taking shrooms in Vegas with his new buddy, Paul Rudd, Mr. Rogen decides to go home, shelve his bong and be a daddy.

Mr. Apatow’s women are smart and confident, but you always know you are on a journey with the men. Ultimately, the men seem happiest without any female contribution — when they’re engrossed in the gross-out world of guydom. It’s like a male version of parthenogenesis.

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Our Green Bubble

Published: June 3, 2007

Surely the most glaring contrast in American political life today is the amount of words, speeches and magazine covers devoted to the necessity of “going green,” “combating climate change” and gaining “energy security,” and the actual solutions being offered by our leaders to do any of these things. You could very comfortably drive a Hummer through the gap between our words and deeds.

We are playing pretend — which, when you think about it, is really troubling. Here are the facts: Our worst enemies, like Iran, have been emboldened by all their petrodollars. The vast majority of scientists tell us that global warming caused by our burning of fossil fuels is a real danger. And with three billion new consumers from India, Russia and China joining the world economy, it is inevitable that manufacturing clean, green power systems, appliances, homes and cars will be the next great global industry. It has to be, or we will not survive as a species.

And yet ... and yet our president and our Congress still won’t give us an energy bill that would create the legal and economic framework to address these issues at the speed and scale required.

If you were President Bush, wouldn’t you want to leave behind something big, bold and important on energy, just in case — you know, just in case — Iraq doesn’t turn out so well?

I sure would. But the president still has not challenged Congress or the country to undertake a radical departure on energy. So we still have only “energy politics,” not “energy policy.” Like previous energy bills, the packages working through the House and Senate today represent more “the sum of all lobbies,” as the energy expert Gal Luft, co-chairman of the Set America Free Coalition, puts it, not the sum of our best ideas.

Some lawmakers are pushing corn ethanol from Iowa, either because they hail from that area and are looking to give more welfare to farmers by wasting money on an alternative fuel that will never reach the scale of what is needed, or because they plan to run in the Iowa caucuses. Others are pushing huge subsidies to turn coal into gasoline, because they come from coal states. Those who don’t come from Michigan want higher mileage standards imposed on Detroit, while those who come from Michigan prefer to continue their assisted suicide of the U.S. auto industry by blocking tougher mileage requirements.

“The only green that they are serious about in Congress right now is the one with Ben Franklin’s picture on it,” Mr. Luft said.

Yes, it is helpful that Mr. Bush expressed a desire last week to work with other nations to limit greenhouse gases. His bully pulpit matters. But no one will — or should — take him seriously unless his government first leads by example. What would that look like? It has to start with a clear, long-term price signal. That is, a carbon tax or gasoline tax — or a cap and trade system with a binding national ceiling on carbon dioxide emissions — which would set a price for dumping carbon into the atmosphere or driving a gas-guzzling car.

Get Washington to signal that gasoline is never going to retreat from a level of $3.50 or $4 a gallon — and that wind and solar subsidies will be there for a decade, not stop and start as they always have before; get Washington to commit to buying a fixed volume of solar and wind power for government buildings and Army bases for 10 years, with only U.S.-based manufacturers able to compete for contracts; get Washington to set a new fleet average of 35 miles per gallon for Detroit within 10 years — with no loopholes; establish government loan guarantees for any company that wants to build a nuclear power plant; and, finally, build a national transmission grid — a green power superhighway — so that solar energy from Arizona or wind from Wyoming can power homes in Chicago. Do all that and our private sector will take America from green laggard to green leader.

Unfortunately, Congress is brewing instead a hodgepodge of incrementalism. This is particularly disappointing when America’s corporate icons — G.M., G.E., A.I.G., DuPont, PepsiCo — “have all come out in favor of a national mandatory limit on carbon emissions,” notes Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense. “But Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have not risen to their challenge.”

We have a multigenerational problem that requires a systemic, multigenerational response, and that can happen only if we get our energy prices right. Only that will guarantee green innovation and commercialization at scale. Anything less is wasted breath and wasted money — and any candidate who says otherwise is only contributing to global warming by adding hot air.

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Poisonous Police Behavior


Published: June 2, 2007

You most likely have no idea of the abusive treatment that students and teachers at many of New York City’s public schools are enduring at the hands of overly aggressive police officers and security aides assigned to the schools.

Students are being belittled, shouted at, cursed at, intrusively searched and improperly touched by cops and security aides who answer to the Police Department, not school authorities. In many cases, the students are roughed up, handcuffed, arrested and taken off to jail for behavior that does not even begin to approach the criminal. Teachers and administrators who have attempted to intervene on the behalf of students have themselves been abused, and in some cases arrested.

This poisonous police behavior is an extension into the schools of the humiliating treatment cops have long been doling out to youngsters — especially those who are black or Latino — on the city’s streets.

In January, a 15-year-old girl at Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn was manhandled for no discernible reason by an armed police sergeant. The sergeant had grabbed her book bag and ordered her into a school detention room. When the girl replied, “That’s where I’m going,” the sergeant is alleged to have pushed her. The girl then said she was going to take down his name and badge number.

When she said that, according to a new study of police practices in the public schools by the American Civil Liberties Union, the sergeant jerked the girl’s left arm behind her back at a painful angle. The girl’s right hand slammed against a wall and she began to cry.

Students inside the room cried out in protest, but to no avail. The girl was taken to the police station and given a summons. That night the school’s assistant principal called the girl’s home and apologized to her mother for the incident.

One morning last fall a large contingent of police officers arrived unannounced at Wadleigh, a high school for the performing arts in Harlem, to do a spot check for weapons by herding students through portable metal detectors. One of the students, the vice president of the school government association, was afraid his cellphone would be confiscated so he called his mother and asked her to come get it. He waited outside the school for her to arrive.

When police officers approached him, he explained that his mother was coming to meet him and would be there in just a few minutes. The police, according to the report, called him a smart-aleck, seized his cellphone, handcuffed him, took him to the local stationhouse and put him in jail.

Unaware that her son had been arrested, the mother was frantic when she couldn’t find him at the school. The charges against the boy were later dropped.

There is nothing unusual about this type of activity. A math teacher at the Urban Assembly Academy of History and Citizenship rushed outside the school one day last fall when he heard that a student was being assaulted. He saw a police officer slam a boy against a car. Explaining that the boy was his student, the teacher said, “He’s just a kid.”

According to the report, the police officer then hit and shoved the teacher. People in a group that had gathered cried out: “He’s a teacher! He’s a teacher!”

A second officer reportedly grabbed the teacher from behind and threw him onto the sidewalk. The teacher’s head bounced against the pavement. While on the ground, the teacher was handcuffed as students and school staffers looked on. He was arrested and taken off to jail.

The report, a must-read for anyone interested in the reality of public school life in New York, is titled “Criminalizing the Classroom” and was released jointly by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Racial Justice Program of the national A.C.L.U.

“Girls,” the report said, “are particularly targeted for intrusive searches. Girls whose underwire bras set off metal detectors must lift up their shirts so (security aides) can verify that they are not concealing metal objects. Many girls reported that officers ordered them to unbuckle and/or unzip their pants for the purpose of verifying that the students were not concealing cellphones.”

There is no excuse whatever for this systematic mistreatment of New York City students. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is in charge of the school system, and he and Commissioner Ray Kelly run the Police Department. Parents across the city should demand that they step in and bring this cruel madness to an end.

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Billionaires and Bake Sales

Published: June 2, 2007


Following Bill Gates over the years has been like watching Pete Townshend go from smashing his guitar with The Who to the aging master who just wants world peace and a complex string arrangement of “Tommy.” He was the high-voiced bully boy of Microsoft, snarling at people with less intellectual bandwidth, a Napoleon Dynamite with money — idiots!

But all of that changed when Mr. Gates and his wife, Melinda, decided to get serious about giving away their money, a net worth greater than the gross domestic product of more than half of the nations of the world. He brought his laser focus to ending malaria, the spread of infectious diseases, global inequity, computer illiteracy. This from a man whose name was Google-bombed with Satan.

Over time, the Gates Foundation has become not just an extraordinary force for change, but something of a shadow State Department as well, attracting hundreds of world leaders to the city on Puget Sound. In places, the foundation is more effective, and certainly more beloved and influential, than the current denizens of Foggy Bottom in the other Washington.

So, when President Hu Jintao of China came to the U.S. last year, he was feted at a grand dinner in the Gates’ home on Lake Washington. In the Capitol, Mr. Hu was snubbed by President Bush with a quickie lunch and a gaffe-prone reception complete with heckler — typical incompetence.

Now Mr. Gates wants to influence the upcoming presidential election. But his efforts to date show that he still has much to learn about getting American politicians to pay attention. And his latest venture is a prime example of just how nonresponsive our political system is to issues that may be widely supported by the public, but barely rate with the candidates.

Mr. Gates and Eli Broad, a fellow billionaire, said they will spend $60 million in an effort to get the candidates to talk about: schools! They have assembled a bipartisan group to point out such inconvenient facts as the million students who drop out of American high schools every year, or that the U.S. ranks near the bottom of industrialized nations in functional understanding of math and science.

The campaign could use a little remedial schooling. Three of the Republican candidates don’t even believe in evolution. Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology.

By any measure, $60 million is no small change. It is far more than the National Rifle Association or the National Education Association — two vaunted, entrenched interest groups — spent in the 2004 campaign. And it is nearly triple what it cost to Swift Boat John Kerry’s war record, an effective if dishonest campaign.

Most special interest groups can rally members and donate cash to politicians. The education group, called Strong American Schools, cannot support individual candidates or legislation, by the rules of their organization. Thus, the world’s richest man has little leverage in a wide-open presidential campaign.

At the early debates, the Gates’ group took out ads and held press conferences. But what did it get them? The candidates barely mentioned education, and when they did it was couched in the tired talking points tailored to their interest groups — vouchers and charter schools for Republicans, the untouchable teachers’ union for Democrats.

Education is such an orphan issue that Senator John McCain doesn’t even mention it on his Web site. If only Mr. Gates wanted to strip away environmental protections or weaken consumer laws — that would get the candidates’ attention. Witness the timber industry hacks who now guide the Forest Service after a decade of Republican contributions, or the bankers who bought a new bankruptcy law that makes it harder for poor people to stay out of credit card hell.

“We’re trying to create a Sputnik moment, to get people to see that our very economic future is at stake,” said Mr. Broad, a lifelong Democrat who says the party is too beholden to the teachers’ union.

To be fair, the new campaign is just getting started, and it may yet be split off into a group that has the legal flexibility to rate the candidates — which may be the more effective way to go.

Tomorrow, when Democratic candidates assemble for yet another debate, it is unlikely they will answer the hard questions that Mr. Gates is asking. But if he used that $60 million more directly, with muscle, the candidates would talk and talk and talk. Otherwise, it’s all apple pie at an empty bake sale.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.

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Murdoch’s Promises and Desires

Published: June 2, 2007

When I hear Rupert Murdoch talking about all the steps he’s going to take to preserve the editorial integrity of The Wall Street Journal, I can’t help thinking about The New Yorker.

You remember when S. I. Newhouse bought The New Yorker, don’t you? It was 1985, and the moment was as traumatizing to The New Yorker’s staff as Mr. Murdoch’s now all-but-certain buyout of Dow Jones is to the journalists at The Journal. The New Yorker had been owned by a family that kept its paws off the product, and allowed the legendary — if wildly overrated — William Shawn to edit the magazine as he saw fit. Staffers were aghast at the idea that their beloved publication was going to be owned by someone they viewed as lacking the appropriate seriousness — someone who was so crassly commercial, and was far more likely to meddle than the previous owners.

To assuage those concerns, Mr. Newhouse promised that The New Yorker would be maintained as a separate entity, and would never be folded into Condé Nast, his large magazine empire. He promised that Mr. Shawn would run it as long as he wanted to. He even promised Mr. Shawn that Ved Mehta, the turgid Indian memoirist for whom the New Yorker editor had an inexplicable fondness, would always have an office there.

Within two years, Mr. Shawn was gone. Mr. Mehta lost his office (as did many others). Not long after that, Mr. Newhouse brought in Tina Brown as editor, with a mission to produce a magazine that was more appealing to advertisers and readers alike, that is, to make it more commercial. And by the late 1990s, the fiction that The New Yorker was a stand-alone entity was dropped entirely. When Condé Nast moved into its spanking-new high rise in Times Square, The New Yorker went in there with the rest of the magazines.

Now, I happen to think that the objections of the staff to Mr. Newhouse had more to do with their own prissy insularity than with anything real. Indeed, to my mind, The New Yorker is a far better magazine under the current editor, David Remnick, than it was during most of the Shawn era. Still, Mr. Newhouse made promises that he eventually reneged on. And he made them because he so badly wanted to own The New Yorker, viewing it as the ultimate prize.

Which pretty much sums up how Mr. Murdoch feels about the prospect of owning The Wall Street Journal. He’s wanted it forever. He’ll promise just about anything to get his hands on it, including setting up a special editorial board that will protect the paper’s independence and integrity. But once he gets it, all bets are off. Of course he’s going to meddle — he’ll be the owner, for crying out loud, and he has very clear ideas about how a newspaper should look and feel and smell.

This is not to say that Dow Jones won’t vastly improve under his stewardship. I can guarantee you that it will. The reason Dow Jones is going to be sold to someone almost no one connected to the company wants to sell it to is precisely because it has been so poorly run over the past quarter-century. If there is one thing Mr. Murdoch knows how to do, it’s run a media company. It’s just sad that it’s come to this, that’s all.

As regular readers know, I don’t harbor much sympathy for the dilemma the Bancroft family finds itself in. The Bancrofts have owned Dow Jones for over 100 years, and laudably, they have always been passionate about the first-rate journalism produced by The Wall Street Journal. That passion has become part of the family’s DNA, passed on from generation to generation. Roy Hammer, the family’s longtime (and since retired) trustee, told me more than once over the years that the Bancrofts viewed their ownership of Dow Jones as “a public trust.”

The problem was that two consecutive chief executives, Warren Phillips and Peter Kann — along with Mr. Hammer himself — took advantage of the Bancrofts’ passion, and their fundamental ignorance of the business. They convinced the family that it was duty-bound to stand by management, in the name of editorial integrity, even as they were running the company into the ground. And the family let it happen. Dow Jones is far and away the greatest brand in financial news and information, yet it is dwarfed by the likes of Reuters and Thomson. And as newspapers have struggled with the loss of advertising and the rise of the Internet, The Journal’s profits have shrunk drastically. Standing pat has become untenable.

This is what the Bancrofts have come to realize over the course of the last few weeks. Their advisers at Merrill Lynch have repeatedly pointed out to them that Dow Jones will continue to struggle as an independent company, and that it would be far better off joined at the hip with a stronger, more diverse entity. The family now fully understands what a mistake it made not holding management’s feet to the fire — and the likely, painful consequence. That is why the family announced on Thursday evening that it would meet with Mr. Murdoch, and that the company was on the block.

Within The Wall Street Journal, there is a palpable sense of sadness, a feeling that a glorious era of journalism is coming to an end. One reporter talked to me about how wonderful The Journal had been when Norman Pearlstine had been the managing editor and James B. Stewart, the Pulitzer Prize winner now at The New Yorker, had been the Page 1 editor. “Murdoch has already said that he wants shorter stories,” this reporter said. “Those great long stories we used to do, the stories that made us special, will be gone.” (Like everyone at The Journal I spoke to, he declined to speak on the record about his prospective new boss.)

Others worried that linking The Journal with Mr. Murdoch’s coming new Fox business channel would be ruinous. After all, Fox has already said its channel is going to be more business-friendly than CNBC (though it is difficult to imagine that such a thing is possible). Surely, they felt, using Journal reporters to bolster the channel would harm The Journal’s well-deserved reputation for writing tough, smart stories. Still others feared that Mr. Murdoch would interfere in the paper’s political coverage or that he would dumb-down the paper, that he would act like the heathen they all think he is.

I have no idea whether these fears are overblown. The Murdoch side insists that he has no intention of mucking with The Journal. “The currency of The Journal is its credibility,” a Murdoch spokesman told me. “He’s not going to pay $5 billion just to gut it.” On the other hand, there was a powerful essay in The Washington Post this week about how Mr. Murdoch has too frequently done the bidding of the Chinese government. Harold Evans, the former editor of The Times of London, has written in his memoirs about how Mr. Murdoch meddled once he bought the paper. The current editor, Robert Thomson, denies that his boss is a meddler.

(I did get a sense, by the way, that not everybody at The Journal is upset about the prospect of getting a paycheck from Mr. Murdoch. The folks on the editorial page, though they won’t say so publicly, are rooting for him. And it’s worth pointing out that in the immediate aftermath of the News Corporation offer, when the stock jumped from the mid-$30s to $60 a share, over a million stock options were sold by insiders. Clearly, some of the same reporters who are bemoaning the prospect of working for Rupert Murdoch are perfectly willing to take advantage of his offer.)

There are plenty of people, though, who think Rupert Murdoch might be just what Dow Jones needs. One of them is Mr. Pearlstine, who is now a senior adviser at the Carlyle Group, the big private equity firm. (Before that he was the editor in chief at Time Inc., where he was my boss for about a decade.) Mr. Pearlstine likes the fact that Mr. Murdoch has talked about making a serious investment in The Journal’s international editions, “which has not been a hallmark of Dow Jones.” He suggested that Mr. Murdoch has done a terrific job over the years getting the various parts of his empire to work together — something he would be able to do as well with Dow Jones.

He felt that if Mr. Murdoch were to expand the definition of The Journal — viewing it less narrowly as a pure business publication — it might be able to better compete with The New York Times. He wasn’t even that ruffled by Mr. Murdoch’s good relations with government officials around the world. “It’s terrible if it affects coverage, but good if it makes governments more tolerant,” he said. Mr. Pearlstine believes much of that problem could be mitigated with a strong editorial board.

Still, this is a family where even those who most strongly want a deal would prefer to find an alternative to Mr. Murdoch. When I talk to big holders of Dow Jones stock, they suggest that Mr. Murdoch will probably sweeten his $60-a-share offer to bring over reluctant family members.

But I have my doubts. Truth is, if The Washington Post showed up tomorrow and offered $55 a share, the Bancrofts would leap at it. They would happily leave money on the table to be able to say they didn’t sell out to Rupert Murdoch. It’s not going to happen, though. When you look at the list of potential bidders, it is a lot easier to see why they wouldn’t bid than why they would. Of course, Mr. Murdoch had figured that out before he made his offer five weeks ago.

Going once, going twice...

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Domestic Disturbances: A Blog at Times Select

I was going to move on this week and write a column about end-of-school-year dyspepsia, but your answers to last week’s post have been so voluminous and so passionate that I don’t feel ready to let that topic – the response to Madeleine McCann’s abduction – go just yet. You will note the phrasing: the topic here (as last week) is “the response to Madeleine McCann’s abduction,” not the abduction itself.

Madeleine McCann’s disappearance is an unspeakable tragedy. Her parents’ decision to leave her – and their two-year-old twins – alone in a ground floor apartment was stupid and irresponsible. I’m saying these things now – stating the obvious – because so many of you seemed to think I was remiss in not saying them last week. Yet last week I didn’t say them for a very specific reason: I think they really ought not to be said.

What, after all, can the purpose be to piling on to the McCanns’ self-recriminations and suffering? Is it to safeguard others – to send a warning and thereby protect other potential Madeleines from danger? It would be nice to believe so, but the degree of anger and emotion behind the comments of those who condemn them lead me to think otherwise. I think that here, as in the United Kingdom, where the public has for weeks now been locked in debate about what kind of judgment to pass upon the McCanns, something larger is going on.

In Britain, there is clearly a backlash afoot against the kind of hyper-present, anxious and involved parent behavior that University of Kent sociologist Frank Furedi has famously dubbed “paranoid parenting.” (For his latest thoughts on this in the light of the Madeleine McCann case, here’s something to read that will make me look Not So Bad After All.)

In the United States, I think, we’re pretty unanimous in the feeling that keeping children under (relatively) tight watch is a good – if unfortunate – thing. Like most of you, I would never leave young children in a house or apartment or hotel room or ground-floor vacation suite unattended. Indeed, I can’t leave my children in the backyard unattended; were it not for our outrageously barky dog, I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable letting them out of my sight – even on our own tiny property – at all.

I don’t tell you this to prove my virtue as a parent. On the contrary, I know that excess parental anxiety is a poison. I grew up with a father who adjusted my Venetian blinds every single night, always finding a way – though they hadn’t moved an iota during the day – to better position them so that, as he put it, attempting to make his voice relaxedly neutral, and doing nothing to hide his terror, “You can look out, but no one can look in.” Not only was I never left alone in a ground-floor vacation suite – as were the McCann kids – we never, as a family, spent a night in a ground-floor hotel room (or any hotel room, for that matter) unless the doors and windows had been examined and were found to meet his exacting safety standards.

In every single photograph from my early childhood I look worried.

I agree with most of you that the McCanns should not have left their children unattended. But are they, for having made that decision, irresponsible, neglectful, abusive, selfish, “bad” parents? Not necessarily. To get behind that statement would be to imply that those of us who would never do such a thing are, by definition, “good” parents. That’s a judgment that isn’t earned quite so simply.

I do not agree, for a moment, with Frank Furedi, who recently told the Times of London’s Andrew Billen that Madeleine’s parents were right to have made the “well-balanced” and “legitimate” decision to go out alone because “they made a decision that they were going on holiday with the kids, they would have fun with them and would also have some adult time.” I think Furedi went rather nastily off the rails when he argued against Billen’s suggestion that “paranoid parenting” practices may actually lead to fewer children being abducted with the following:

You cannot hold to hostage every child, every parent, on the worst-case scenario. You are saying that saving one child from being kidnapped makes it worth creating this culture of suspicion and mistrust. We are currently sending out signals that adults are so untrustworthy that the police need to check them all out. That’s what every kid is learning, and that is a far bigger tragedy for the nation than if one child gets kidnapped. Because that’s just one child, but if the whole nation becomes dominated by this dysfunctional, disorienting culture it has all kinds of destructive consequences.

But I do know that there are many ways to harm children. There is harm that is caused by selfishness and bad judgment. There is harm that is caused by excessive, unrestrained anxiety. And, frankly, there is harm that is caused by being smug, self-satisfied, self-righteous and judgmental. How dreary – how potentially confidence-eroding – it can be to grow up as the child of a parent who is always right.

I think that there is one sad purpose being served by all the talk of the McCanns’s negligence: parental self-protection. Criticizing the McCanns is a distancing technique. It is a way to redirect the excruciating emotions elicited by the abduction of a three-year-old. It’s a way to put a thick layer of insulation between the McCanns’ unsafe world – where bad things happen – and our world, where they do not. In the end, this self-distancing is a form of magical thinking: by vocally being not-them, by declaring our otherness to the McCanns, we secure for our own children a better fate.

Our public incantations – I would never, They should never, Anyone who would ever should be arrested – don’t work, though. They just – and this was my point last week – add to the sum total of awfulness in our world.

I will not run from the criticism so many of you lobbed my way for having focused my treatment of the McCann tragedy through the prism of America’s attitudes toward working mothers. I threw the same criticism at myself – before, during and after writing the piece. I felt guilty about it. It seemed trivial, narcissistic. Why this irrelevant focus, I asked myself, when a little girl’s life was at stake?

I couldn’t – and still can’t – rationally answer that question. I just keep coming back to the raw feeling I had, standing in the supermarket checkout line and reading People magazine, of having been punched in the stomach. It was adding insult to injury. And it turned sadness and fear to rage.

Is that a valid topic for commentary? To answer that, just look at the breadth and depth of our conversation.

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The Assault on ‘The Assault’

Most people have reacted enthusiastically to Al Gore’s new book, “The Assault on Reason.” He seems to have hit a nerve with his assessment of what ails our democracy – the unchecked power of special interests backed by big money, the pervasive influence of mindless and addictive television, and the relentless triumph of image and style over content, which makes us read more articles about John Edwards’ haircuts than about our failing education system. “Gore understands our problems,” as one reviewer put it, “as does no other politician of our time.”

But not everyone shares that view. And judging from some of the more negative reviews now beginning to appear, the idea of trying to improve our public discourse and our government’s policies by the collective application of reason – and even science – comes pretty close in some peoples’ minds to communism or totalitarianism. It’s an assault on human freedom, an inhuman attempt to stamp out human virtue and sensitivity.

One reviewer claimed that Gore isn’t promoting better democracy, but aims for “the suppression of free political debate.” Others compared his writing style to “congressional testimony,” concluded that he’s “not American” and that “his every utterance and every persuasion is European socialist with considerable training in propaganda.”

In a recent column, a less extreme reviewer, David Brooks, chided Gore for pushing a “Vulcan Utopia” devoid of the emotion and passion that support the true core of human experience, and mocked him as a strange individual who “reacts to machines, not people.”

Ironically, of course, these reviews actually illustrate Gore’s central point. They cast him as a liberal monster who aims to suppress free speech, or they make fun of his writing, his sighs or his professorial manner, rather than focusing on his arguments. They aim to win with image and rhetoric, not content.

Which is great as entertainment, but not so great for understanding issues that really matter: how and why we’ve slipped from first to sixth in global business competitiveness, why our infant mortality rate ranks down there with Latvia’s, or why the Chinese are graduating more engineers every year than we are.

Surely a good share of the extreme animus against Al Gore comes from the far right, who seem to hate him viscerally, and from powerful business interests with no particular desire for widely ranging debate amongst an informed public. These interests like to paint Gore – and his idea of government that would use rather than abuse knowledge – as the products of some kind of demented science-crazed lunacy bent on shackling the human spirit with equations or computer programs, and luring us into a scientifically planned hell-on-earth.

Unfortunately, this kind of image seems to resonate with other fears that people have about science. And I wonder if this resonance doesn’t explain, at least in part, why Gore has in the past been demonized in this way so effectively.

Implicit in Gore’s argument is the notion that science shouldn’t merely be a source of knowledge about, say, the environment, or the hazards or potential benefits of nuclear energy, and so on, but should also be seen as a source of knowledge about how social systems function — including political systems. Especially important, in his view, is the way the human mind is susceptible to modern techniques of persuasion, based on scientific insights from psychology and neuroscience. Surely we ought to use science not only to manipulate people, but also to bolster our republic and make it function better?

Many people seem to think that science should have boundaries. They’re O.K. if it stays in the familiar realms of physics, chemistry, biology and geology. But there’s an innate distrust when science begins poking around our lives, thoughts and behavior, and near alarm at the idea that science might possibly show that we, like the rest of nature, obey law-like regularities – even if we might learn from them and in so doing help ourselves.

The science philosopher Lee McIntyre several years ago published a scholarly book entitled “Law and Explanation in the Social Sciences: Defending a Science of Human Behavior,” in which he argued that there’s no reason to think that human social science has to be essentially different from the rest of science, although many social theorists have been saying as much for years. His arguments, as he relates in his most recent book, “Dark Ages,” met with irate and emotional criticism, and intense resistance, though not many strong counterarguments:

[The counterarguments] were so weak that I became convinced that even their advocates did not really believe them. …The threat, it seems, is one to human freedom and autonomy-the notion that we are “special” in the universe. It is taken to be an insult to human dignity to suppose that one can study our behavior with the same methodology that one uses to study all the other matter in the universe. It degrades us and robs us of our uniqueness. It is somehow to make us less than human.

Maybe this deep-seated fear has nothing to do with the resistance to Al Gore’s proposals, which after all only aim to help us understand how we got ourselves into this predicament, in which the knowledge we create as a society, often at immense cost, so often fails to influence our policies. But I do wonder if it isn’t reflected in the intense criticisms of his world view, which some see as sterile, lacking in emotion and virtually inhuman.

Of course, they could certainly say as much about everything I’ve written about in this column over the past month. I’ve described a number of examples – some more convincing than others, to be sure – of how collective social patterns can “well up” in human groups, following processes that often operate outside of the field of human awareness. Of course, there’s no threat to morality or human autonomy, to values or emotions, in any of this, for there’s no contradiction between individual freedom and patterns that emerge in regular ways at the level of many people.

Our understanding of the human world is still relatively backward, I think, in part because the philosophy of man and society got off on the wrong track centuries ago and has been stuck with some damaging preconceptions, the worst of which is that man is somehow essentially different from the rest of nature and stands apart from it; that we can’t, or shouldn’t, use science to understand and help govern ourselves and our societies. This idea is still very influential. And it’s one of the key ideas, I suspect, that, although hidden, now stands in Al Gore’s way.

Thanks so much to everyone who has taken the time to comment on any of my essays. The idea, really, was just to illustrate a way of thinking that, I think, we should be more aware of. I’ve read all your comments, agreeing or disagreeing, and I’ve learned a lot from them. It’s been a lot of fun! I hope you’ll be interested to read further in coming months on my personal blog.

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Campaigning for History: Reflections on the American Presidency in a Political Season

Did anyone have the same reaction that I did this past January to President Bush’s State of the Union address?

I am not talking about what was in it — or what was omitted. I leave that to others. What struck me was the staged nature of the whole event, from the moment the president entered to the sort of thunderous applause you used to hear on the Johnny Carson show to his exit to more of the same. Even his most banal utterances elicited apparent enthusiasm from the assembled members of Congress and the invited audience.

The elected representatives of the American people, whether they were critics of this administration or not, bobbed up and down with an impressive alacrity and clapped their hands in unison as though they were all looking at the same cue card. It was a spectacle that reminded me of those bad old days of the Soviet Union when the members of the Supreme Soviet would rise as one to approve whatever was presented them by their leaders.

Of course we all know that in reality Congress does not meekly do what it is told by the administration. And that senators and representatives are a diverse bunch with their own sources of power, who do not passively submit to guidance from the executive branch. Why, then, do they lend themselves out as extras in the presidential show?

It is partly because today’s media, above all the visual ones, love the dramatic moment and the striking pose (but are not so good at picking up on nuance). Much the same thing has happened in parliaments like my own in Canada, where the daily question periods (during which members are allowed to grill government ministers) and debates on such weighty matters as the budget have degenerated into tedious events, with much shouting and posturing in search of the elusive sound bite for the evening news.

What foolhardy member of congress is going to sit in his or her seat when the president calls on the nation to unite behind some policy? Even if the policy is flawed, the danger of remaining seated once the call to patriotism has been made is too great. That clip can be played and replayed, and the message most viewers will take away is that Sen. Smith or Rep. Brown is an indifferent American. Far fewer people will read the articles explaining why Smith or Brown are registering their disapproval.

I also blame the tendency, again common in a variety of democratic governments, for elected leaders to take on the airs and graces of the monarchs they replaced — and for many of us in democracies to play along with that development. In the case of the State of the Union address, it is my impression, based on a completely unscientific sampling, that the applause is getting longer and more frequent as the content diminishes. When President Lyndon Johnson entered the House in 1964, the clapping, including one Texas yell, lasted for about a minute. In 2007 Bush’s entrance produced a longer ovation, and his speech was interrupted every few sentences by more applause.

Recent presidents — and one can understand the temptation — have done their share in turning the State of the Union address into an occasion for them to wrap themselves in the mantle of statesmanship and declaim like ancient Roman consuls. The message is pretty much always upbeat. Gerald Ford, who admitted in his 1975 address that “the state of the Union is not good,” still stands out as the exception. Even in 1968, when things were clearly turning sour in Vietnam, L.B.J. could only bring himself to say that the United States faced challenges. In 2007, President Bush talked about the success in the war on terror and the promise of victory to come in Iraq.

The State of the Union was not meant to be about boosterism and good public relations; it was a chance for the president to report to Congress on where matters stood and what he was up to. The Constitution calls for the president to “from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” From George Washington onward, presidents usually did this every year, but until the 20th century they simply sent Congress a written statement.

Woodrow Wilson, who admired the British parliamentary system, started the modern practice of delivering the address in person. In parliament, the annual Speech from the Throne gives the government a chance to outline its program for the coming year and the opposition to make reasoned comments and criticism, and for both sides to engage in substantive debates. That last part of the parliamentary tradition only reached the United States in an attenuated form. The minority party’s reply is not made in Congress but, usually these days, from a television studio.

While some of Wilson’s successors went back to the written address, most State of the Union addresses since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s have been delivered in person. In 1947 Harry Truman gave the first televised one. By today’s standards the event was stilted and subdued, but in retrospect it was a harbinger of things to come. In 1965, with the power of television clearly apparent, President Johnson moved the address to the evening in order to catch as many viewers as possible. Ronald Reagan added the crowd-pleasing touch of special guests: from visiting dignitaries to, increasingly, American heroes from all walks of life. In 2007 George Bush invited, among others, the founder of a company that made educational toys for children.

To be fair, that earlier role of the State of the Union address as a serious attempt to deal with the issues facing the country has not entirely disappeared. Even President Bush’s last address contained, amid the hollow rhetoric, some hints about what his administration intended to undertake in the coming year.

Is that enough though to keep the tradition alive, or has the time come to end the show?

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Floyd Norris on High and Low Finance

The household survey of employment shows some odd trends in who is holding down jobs. The number of employed teenagers is falling, but the number of employed people over 55 is soaring.

For the 12 months through May, the number of people working who were over 55 leaped 4.2 percent, rising by more than 1 million. The number of jobs for teenagers fell by 5.7 percent, or more than 350,000 jobs.

The number of jobs for 20-24 year-olds is barely up over the year (by 0.6 percent) and is down so far in 2007.

These are not new trends. The employment-to-population ratio is now lower than it was when President Bush took office for every age group up to 54. It is higher for every age group over 55.

Doers this mean there is less opportunity for the young, or greater opportunity for the old? Does it mean older workers find their jobs more fulfilling than their predecessors? Or do they feel less able to get by as the percentage of people with pensions declines?

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Back to Basics


Published: June 1, 2007

This week Fred Thompson gave a speech in Connecticut during which two words did not cross his lips: George Bush. But that’s all right. Thompson recently gave speeches in Virginia and California during which he scarcely mentioned Bush either. In the world Thompson described, the current Washington players are most notable for being trapped in that undifferentiated swamp we call Washington politics.

That’s because the divide that engages Thompson most is not the ideological one between liberals and conservatives or between this or that brand of conservatism. It’s the divide between concentrated power and decentralized power.

Thompson’s core theme is that there is a disconnect between the American people and their rulers. He campaigns against concentrated Republican power almost as much as he does against concentrated Democratic power. Though a Republican, he’s able to launch a reasonably nonpartisan attack on the way government has worked over the last 19 years.

This suspicion of concentrated power in general and Washington in particular is not some election-year conversion for Thompson. It stretches back his whole life. He began his career, remember, investigating the Nixon White House. As Stephen Hayes reminded us in The Weekly Standard, as a young staffer on the Senate Watergate committee, Thompson asked the question that revealed the existence of the White House tapes.

He went home to Tennessee and became a protégé of Howard Baker, whose party apparatus has always had a folksy, country vs. capital ethos.

As a senator, Thompson investigated the Clinton campaign finance scandals (poorly), and established a reputation on one issue above all others: federalism. He was the only senator who voted against something called the Good Samaritan law because he thought it centralized power in the national government. He was that rarest of creatures — someone who not only preached federalism to get to Washington, but practiced it after he arrived.

Today on the stump he talks about discovering Barry Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative” while in law school. He campaigns against the immigration bill because he doesn’t think Washington can be counted on to keep its promises. His main complaint with the war on terror is that Al Qaeda has a 100-year plan while most Washington politicians “have a plan until the next election.”

He tells party strategists that there is a tide in the country against the way Washington does business, which he is best positioned to ride. He says the 2006 election was not primarily about Iraq, it was about corruption and pork-barrel spending.

What Thompson’s campaign represents, then, is a return to basics. It’s not primarily engaged in the issues that have dominated recent G.O.P. politics. Thompson is campaigning to restore America’s constitutional soul. He’s going back to Madison and Jefferson and the decentralized federalism of the founders, at least as channeled through Goldwater. As Thompson himself said while running for Senate, “America’s government is bringing America down, and the only thing that can change that is a return to the basics.”

Thompson thus becomes one pole in the debate now roiling the G.O.P. Nobody is running as the continuation of Bush. The big question now is: should the party go back to the basics or should it jump forward and transform itself into something new? Thompson articulates the back-to-basics view in its purest form. Newt Gingrich articulates the transformational view in its purest form. The other candidates are a mishmash in between.

If I were a political consultant I would tell my candidate to play up Thompson’s back-to-basics theme. This is a traumatized party, not in the mood for anything risky and new. But over the long run, back to basics is no solution because it doesn’t produce a positive agenda for today’s problems.

Fred Thompson’s political skills are as good as anybody now running, but his challenge is going to be building a concrete agenda on his anti-Washington message. It will be translating his Goldwater risorgimento philosophy into policies on energy, health care reform, Islamic extremism and education. For if there is one thing the last 30 years have taught us, it is that campaigns that are strictly anti-Washington do not command 50 percent of the vote because they don’t address the decentralized global challenges that now face us.

Perhaps, as my friend Daniel Casse notes, what the G.O.P. needs is Newt Gingrich’s brain lodged in Fred Thompson’s temperament.

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bearish Politics, Bullish Market

Published: May 31, 2007


The world today looks very different according to which measure - political discourse or global markets - you use to gauge the mood. The vile and the incendiary are enjoying a political comeback, suggesting a planet on the brink. But soaring markets see a benign environment.

Nowhere is this dissonance more apparent than in Central and Eastern Europe. Russia, riding its switch from a one-party to a one-pipeline state, is booming even as its leader, Vladimir Putin, does his Godzilla act.

The Russian president draws a thinly veiled analogy between the United States and the Third Reich. He sees a world in "an abyss of permanent conflicts." But the Russians buying up the Côte d'Azur think it looks sunny enough.

Here in fast-growing Poland, the governing Law and Justice Party is busy digging up the past to poison the present. The Kaczynski brothers, who run the country, use Auschwitz and the Katyn forest massacre to sour relations with Germany and Russia. At home they show Bolshevik zeal in their bid to purge former Communist collaborators.

Diplomacy bows to diatribes. Putin's foreign minister calls Estonia "disgusting" and "blasphemous." The cause of his ire is the Baltic state's recent removal of a Soviet-era war memorial designed to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany but seen by many Estonians as a symbol of postwar Soviet diktat.

I would have left the memorial. In general history's warts, and zigzags, are best left exposed. They are a reminder that human nature resists all attempts to perfect it and that devising institutions to guard against perennial imperfection is the best course.

But the decision itself in Tallinn is less interesting than the fact that Estonians and Russians, who live more freely and travel more freely and do business more freely than at any recent time, choose to focus not on that freedom but on the rabble-rousing rhetoric of national identity.

They are not alone. Political fanaticism is fashionable. A radical fringe of the Islamic world responds to modernity with an atavistic call for a return to the caliphate and the edification of a culture of death.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, another one-pipeline man, calls President George W. Bush "the devil" and raises the unlikely cry of "socialism or death."

The Bush administration itself, in its cultivation of a with-us-or-against-us school of diplomacy that once lumped Germany with Cuba and Libya, has contributed its share to the darkening and debasement of political exchange.

Yet markets see a brightening world. From the extravagant exuberance of Shanghai to the gravity-defying Dow, they proclaim the benefits of the technology-driven spread of more open, connected societies. A certain level of violence, from Gaza to Kandahar, is discounted.

Asked what is more important - Al Qaeda or the doubling of the world's labor force through the entry into the global economy of China, India and the former Soviet Union - markets say the latter.

Asked what is more powerful - old sovereign states with their governments and armies and nationalist hang-ups or the border-canceling force of science and technology and global corporations - markets have no doubt. They know Google's capitalization dwarfs the GNP of Jordan.

Power has shifted from visible politicians to less visible potentates. So politicians rail. There is a connection between the erosion of their influence and the radicalization of their discourse. Consumers have ever more choices; politicians have ever fewer.

As Ivan Krastev, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, remarked at a conference organized by the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza: "Postmodern states are the way of the future. But we are seeing a strengthening of the nation state throughout the world because the only resource left for politics is culture and identity."

So what should we focus on? The world leaders, from Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Russia's Putin, using crude identity politics to rouse populist followings? Or the spread of a borderless virtual world that makes such nationalist appeals anachronistic?

I side with the wisdom of the marketplace in believing that the post-Cold War introduction of one third of humanity to the possibilities of the global economy outweighs the menace that is the everyday currency of an impoverished political marketplace in the age of Iraq.

Beijing trumps Baghdad for now. I fear, however, that when the exuberance departs Shanghai and the global economy dips, the real danger of politicians playing with the fire of national identity will be felt.

Growth makes the bellicose innocuous enough. But when hard times and harsh political slogans coincide, watch out.


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The Obama Health Plan

Published: May 31, 2007

As a surgeon, I’ve worked with the veterans’ health system, Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies. I’ve seen health care in Canada, Britain, Switzerland and the Netherlands. And I was in the Clinton administration when our plan for universal coverage failed. So, with a new health reform debate under way, what I want to tell you in my last guest column is this:

First, there is not a place in this world that is not struggling to control health costs while providing high-quality, easily accessible care. No one — no one — has a great solution.

But second, whether as a doctor or as a citizen, I would take almost any system — from Medicare-for-all to a private insurance voucher system — over the one we now have. Job-based insurance is bleeding away the viability of American businesses — even doctors complain about the cost of insuring employees. And it has left large numbers of patients without adequate coverage when they need it. In the last two years, for example, 51 percent of Americans surveyed did not fill a prescription or visit a doctor for a known medical issue because of cost.

My worry is less about what happens if we change than what happens if we don’t.

This week, Barack Obama released his health reform plan. It’s a puzzle how you are supposed to regard presidential candidates’ proposals. They are treated, by campaigns and media alike, as some kind of political G.P.S. device — gadgets primarily for political positioning. So this was how Mr. Obama’s plan was reported: it is a lot like John Edwards’s plan and the Massachusetts plan signed into law by Mitt Romney last year; and it has elements of John Kerry’s proposal from four years ago. In other words — ho hum — another centrist plan. No one except policy wonks will tell the proposals apart from one another.

Well, all this may be true. And if what you care about is which candidate can one-up the others, it is rather disappointing. But if what you care about is whether, after the 2008 election, we’ll be in a position to finally stop the health systems’ downward spiral, the similarity of the emerging proposals is exactly what’s interesting. I don’t think you can call it a consensus, but there is nonetheless a road forward being paved and a growing number of people from across the political spectrum are on it — not just presidential candidates, but governors from California to Pennsylvania, unions and businesses like Safeway, ATT and Pepsi.

This is what that road looks like. It is not single-payer. It instead follows the lead of European countries ranging from the Netherlands to Switzerland to Germany that provide universal coverage (and more doctors, hospitals and access to primary care) through multiple private insurers while spending less money than we do. The proposals all define basic benefits that insurers must offer without penalty for pre-existing conditions. They cover not just expensive sickness care, but also preventive care and cost-saving programs to give patients better control of chronic illnesses like diabetes and asthma.

We’d have a choice of competing private plans, and, with Edwards and Obama, a Medicare-like public option, too. An income-related federal subsidy or voucher would help individuals pay for that coverage. And the proposals also embrace what’s been called shared responsibility — requiring that individuals buy health insurance (at minimum for their children) and that employers bigger than 10 or 15 employees either provide health benefits or pay into a subsidy fund.

It is a coherent approach. And it seems to be our one politically viable approach, too. No question, proponents have crucial differences — like what the individual versus employer payments should be. And attacks are certain to label this as tax-and-spend liberalism and government-controlled health care. But these are not what will sabotage success.

Instead, the crucial matter is our reaction as a country when the attacks come. If we as consumers, health professionals and business leaders sit on our hands, unwilling to compromise and defend change, we will be doomed to our sliding global competitiveness and self-defeating system. Avoiding this will take extraordinary political leadership. So we should not even consider a candidate without a plan capable of producing agreement.

The ultimate measure of leadership, however, is not the plan. It is the capacity to take that plan and persuade people to find common ground in it. The politician who can is the one we want.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a New Yorker staff writer, is the author of the new book “Better.” He has been a guest columnist this month.

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From Torture to Plaintiff: a Pilgrim’s Progress in China

Published: May 31, 2007


Every evening in a little village near this coastal city, peasants gather in a private home and do something that used to be dangerous. They pray.

They are Christians gathering in a little “house church,” reflecting a religious boom across China. But their story also underscores another trend: the way the legal system here offers hope of chipping away at the Communist Party dictatorship.

The tale begins a year ago when the authorities here in Shandong Province raided this house church and carted 31 Christians off to the police station. Such crackdowns are the traditional way the Communist Party has dealt with house churches in rural areas, and some Christians have even been tortured to death.

But this incident ended differently.

Tian Yinghua, a 55-year-old evangelical Protestant who runs the church in her living room, was outraged after she was ordered jailed for 10 days.

“We had done nothing wrong at all,” explained Ms. Tian. “We weren’t criminals.”

So Ms. Tian contacted a prominent Christian and legal scholar in Beijing, Li Baiguang, who traveled to Shandong Province to do something that once would have been unthinkable: Sue the police.

Even more unthinkable, Ms. Tian won. The police settled the case by withdrawing the charges. The police also formally apologized, paid symbolic damages of 1 yuan (a bit more than a dime) and promised not to bother the church again.

It was a historic victory for freedom of religion in China — and, even more important, for the rule of law.

“The police don’t bother us at all,” said another church leader, Wang Qiu. “They just stay away.”

That seems to be a growing pattern. The central government’s policy toward religion is much more relaxed than a few years ago, and in coastal areas the government usually lets people worship freely.

“In most places, it’s no problem today,” said Mr. Li, who himself was imprisoned for more than a month two years ago for his legal activism. “It’s just a problem in backward areas, or if you directly attack the Communist Party.”

Mr. Li, who enjoys a bit of protection because President Bush invited him to the White House last year, says that last year he filed suits like this one in eight provinces. The other he lost, but even in those cases the authorities were shaken enough that they have stopped harassing Christians, he says.

“On the surface we lost,” he said. “But in reality, we won in every case.”

Han Dongfang, a Chinese labor activist now exiled to Hong Kong, says that he has also found that suing the authorities is often an effective way to increase labor protections. Mr. Han was a leader in the Tiananmen protests of 1989, but now he is trying to bring about change from within. “I believe this is the way to develop a civil society, not through a revolution,” he said.

Of course, the legal system is still routinely used to oppress people, rather than to protect them. China imprisons more journalists than any country in the world, and one of them is my Times colleague Zhao Yan. Judges never go against the Communist Party; what they can do is rectify local injustices where the higher party officials are indifferent.

Moreover, even when lawsuits are allowed to go forward, many Chinese police and judges are so corrupt that they sell themselves to the highest bidder.

A common saying, which I even saw in an illegal poster pasted on a government building in Beijing, goes: “The bandits used to hide in the hills. Now the bandits are in the courthouses.”

Still, the rule of law has gained immensely since the 1980’s, when a defense attorney was imprisoned for having the temerity to claim that the police had arrested the wrong man and that his client was innocent. If the Chinese government continues to nurture the rule of law, China could increasingly follow the path of South Korea and Taiwan away from autocracy toward greater democracy.

Easing the repression could also change the religious complexion of China. Estimates of the number of Chinese Christians vary widely, but the number may be approaching 100 million, many of them evangelical Protestants who aggressively recruit new believers. And with the more relaxed policy, the numbers are soaring.

“In 20 to 30 years China will have several hundred million believers,” said Mr. Li, the lawyer who helped the Shandong church. “That will make China the biggest Christian nation in the world, with more Christians than the entire U.S. population.”

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog,

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Chain Reactions

Our Lives as Atoms
On the Physical Patters That Govern Our World

The political party that claimed it would restore “honor and dignity to the White House” has done nothing of the sort. Having on false pretenses led us into the disaster of Iraq, the administration and its supporters are now beginning – cravenly and shamefully – to shift blame onto the Iraqi people. The administration continues to hold hundreds of people without charges in secret prisons around the world, while arguing that torture is O.K. and that President Bush can disregard the laws he doesn’t like. I haven’t even mentioned illegal spying or efforts to keep scientists quiet if they’re saying the wrong thing.

Where’s the honor and dignity?

In her testimony last week before a House panel, Monica Goodling, the Justice Department’s liaison to the White House, admitted that she had “crossed the line” in using political considerations to judge potential Justice Department employees. She may well have broken laws that forbid political influence over civil service positions. But “crossing the line” has been business as usual for the past six years. Goodling’s behavior follows a pattern established across almost all federal agencies, where the administration has sought loyalty over competence at every turn.

Another word for it, of course, is corruption – and it’s natural to wonder how we got so deeply mired in it. If the gathering storm of investigations forces Karl Rove and other White House officials one day to testify under oath, we may have some chance of finding out. And I suspect, if we do, that we’ll discover that honor and dignity were sacrificed at the very top. It will be a familiar story – of a few power-hungry and largely amoral political operatives, the real drivers, whose actions encouraged and directed a small army of fairly ordinary people, the Monica Goodlings of this world, many of whom were hardly aware they were doing something wrong.

People who engage in corrupt acts often do not see them as such. This much has emerged from studies of corporate scandals and fraud at places like Enron or WorldCom. In a study two years ago, for example, business professors Vikas Anand, Blake Ashforth and Mahendra Joshi concluded that most fraud within institutions takes place through the willing cooperation of many otherwise upstanding individuals with no psychological predisposition to be criminals.

Whether embezzling money, undermining product safety regulations, or even selling completely fake products, the perpetrators rationalize away their responsibility. They deny that they actually had any choice, saying that “everyone was doing it.” Or they deny that anyone really got hurt, so there really was no crime: “They’re a big company, they can afford to overpay us.”

Then there’s the popular appeal to higher authority, a mechanism with special relevance, perhaps, to the loyalty-rewarding Bush administration: “I had to do it out of loyalty to my boss.”

All of this isn’t so surprising, actually, when you realize that we like to feel good about ourselves and about those with whom we work, and that our brains have immense talent for producing reasons why we should. People engaged in corruption, the academic researchers suggest, create a kind of psychological atmosphere in which what they’re doing seems normal or even honorable. So if congressional oversight does ultimately expose the machinations behind anything from secret prisons to the United States prosecutor purge, brace yourself for a litany of the usual excuses – “We didn’t know it was wrong” and “We were told to do it.”

But the psychology of rationalization is only part of the story. The other element in all such cases seems to be a chain-like linking together of individual actions that can undermine social norms with surprising speed – or keep them safe, sometimes if just a single person remains strong.

In the late 1970s, Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter pointed out that the differences among people – in their willingness to engage in certain kinds of acts – can lead to surprises. Think of the dance floor at a party. Some people are more than happy to be the first out there, dancing alone, but lots of the rest of us would like some others out there first. You might be willing to go out if five or six went before you, while others might require 20 or 30. Some might not go out unless everyone at the party was out there.

The point is that each of us has a threshold for joining in, which depends on personality, the music being played and so on, but also – and this is the really important part – on how many others have already joined in. As Granovetter argued, this can make a group’s behavior extremely difficult to predict.

Just imagine, for example, that 100 people at the party have thresholds ranging from 0 to 99. In this case, everyone will soon be dancing, you can be sure of it. The natural extrovert with threshold 0 will kick it off, soon to be joined by the person with threshold 1, and the dancing will grow, eventually involving even the reluctant people.

But notice how delicately the outcome depends on the precise interlocking of these thresholds. If the person with threshold 1 goes home, then after the first person starts dancing the rest will simply stand by watching. With no one willing to be the second person onto the floor, there’s no chain reaction. So just one person can have a dramatic effect on the overall group.

This is just a toy model, but it illustrates something about the logic of people joining not only dance floors, but riots or protests, trips to the pub in the evening, getting in with others to skim cash from the restaurant till – or violating well-known rules against taking political affiliation into account when hiring. Tiny differences in the group makeup, the presence or absence or a few people of the right type, might be the difference between a few renegade violators and division-wide corruption.

I can’t help thinking of the bizarre attempt by then-White House officials Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales to get then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, drugged and in the hospital, to sign off on a secret National Security Agency wiretapping program. Ashcroft – who back then I would have thought would rubber-stamp anything Bush wanted – was clearly made of sterner stuff and refused, as did Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey. Again, we won’t know how much effect these refusals had – and just how extreme the program was that Bush wanted to authorize – until someone manages to get past White House stonewalling and digs up the real information.

But the fragility of social outcome, its potential sensitivity to the actions of just one person, brings home the profound importance of individual responsibility. Everyone’s actions count. The laws and institutional traditions we have were put in place precisely to help us avoid these social meltdowns, and to give people the incentive not to step over the line, especially when lots of others are doing so already. In particular, the laws of the civil service prevent hiring on the basis of political affiliation (at least for many positions), and the routine violation of those laws puts our democracy at risk. Many people went along with it, and so might have many more, had the creeping corruption not been exposed when it was.

Restoring honesty and dignity. One might say of it what Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western Civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.”

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