Saturday, July 07, 2007

A Girl’s Fear and Loathing


Published: July 7, 2007

In a column earlier this week I wrote about a cop who grotesquely abused his power by invading a high school classroom in the Bronx because a girl had uttered a curse word in a hallway. Not only did the cop handcuff and arrest the girl in a room filled with stunned students and a helpless teacher, but he arrested the school’s principal, who had attempted to reason with the officer.

The principal was suspended from his job immediately after the arrest in February 2005, but was reinstated when the charges — bogus from the very beginning — were eventually dropped. Still, the police commissioner, Ray Kelly, defended the police officer’s action, telling reporters at the time, “The principal was simply wrong.”

As I continued to look into this case, it became clear that police officials were trying to withhold important information about the officer, Juan Gonzalez. In response to a question, a spokesman for Commissioner Kelly said that Officer Gonzalez, now 29, had been placed on modified duty and that his gun and shield had been taken away.

But why? Despite repeated requests, the department would not say.

Then I found out through other sources that Officer Gonzalez had gotten into trouble for stalking, kissing and otherwise harassing a 17-year-old girl at another high school in the Bronx. The girl, extremely upset over the unwanted advances, notified school authorities and they notified the Police Department.

The Police Department confirmed this yesterday.

The encounter with the girl occurred in September 2005 outside Truman High School. The girl, questioned at a hearing by a lawyer representing the city, said she had just left the school and was on her way to a bus stop when Officer Gonzalez, in uniform, walked up to her.

He let her know that he had been watching her, and he followed her as she tried to walk away. He asked to see her school program, which lists, among other things, a student’s classes and schedule. She handed it to him.

According to the girl, the officer said, “It doesn’t have what I’m looking for.”

She said that when she asked what he was looking for, he replied, “Your address.”

The girl said Officer Gonzalez began touching her as they were passing another school. “He started touching my hair,” she said, “and pulling it all towards one side to touch my neck.” She backed up against a wall, she said, and the officer leaned over her, pressing his arms against the wall.

“I wasn’t looking at him,” the girl said. “I was turning my face away, and he touched my face and put my face to look directly towards, at him. He said, ‘Why can’t I look at him?’ And he touched my waist and pulled me closer to him, and he kissed me on my cheeks.”

The girl said, “I tried to push him away, but I couldn’t. So I had to duck under his arms.”

Officer Gonzalez followed her as she resumed walking toward the bus stop. He suggested they go out on a date. The girl said she told the officer, “I don’t think so.”

Then, she said, he told her what a powerful man he was, how he had kicked down doors and even arrested a high school principal.

This week, even as I continued asking questions about Officer Gonzalez’s status, the Police Department gave him back his gun and his badge and put him back on patrol.

It was a wildly irresponsible decision. Parents across the city should be warned about this officer.

Over the past several weeks I have heard one credible story after another of police officers ruthlessly harassing, and frequently arresting, youngsters who have done nothing wrong. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly seem to be in denial about this problem, which is widespread. There is an astounding reluctance to criticize or properly discipline police officers, no matter how egregious their conduct.

The big losers are the good kids who are treated like criminals by bullies and predators masquerading as New York’s finest. Other losers are the many cops who routinely take their crime-fighting mission seriously, but are undermined by these lowlifes in blue.

Jonathan Moore, a civil rights lawyer who represents the girl harassed by Officer Gonzalez, said his client had agreed, with “some hesitation,” to my request to tell her story in a column. She is still afraid, he said, that Officer Gonzalez will “track her down and cause her harm.”

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A-Rod and Me

Published: July 7, 2007

The 10-year-old girl waited in line two hours for the most gifted man in baseball, Alex Rodriguez, to sign the children’s book he had just written. When at last she got his autograph, my daughter hurried home and read every word — taking the lessons to heart.

It was called, “Hit a Grand Slam!” For a man now so reviled in many parts of the baseball world, his life story was sympathetic and sad, Dickensian with a Latin twist. A-Rod talked about throwing up on the school bus, getting dumped by the first girl he fell for and the father who walked out on them.

“Dad’s coming back, you’ll see,” he said to his sister, but Dad never came back. “I still can’t understand how a parent could abandon a family.”

By book’s end, he is rich beyond measure, the best young player in the game, and has a best friend for life, Derek Jeter. But A-Rod tells children that life is not about money or fame.

“It’s not all about the Benjamins,” he sums up. It’s about friendship, character, playing honorably. “If an injury suddenly ends my career tomorrow, I want people to like me for what I have inside.”

My daughter still has her A-Rod poster up in the now-empty bedroom, dating to his days as a Seattle Mariner. But nearly 10 years later, we are having trouble fitting A-Rod into the dissonant home we keep in our hearts for star athletes. Try as we might, it’s hard to separate the player on the plasma screen from the baseball card next to the kid’s pillow.

Tuesday is baseball’s All-Star Game, and the leading vote-getter from fans was Rodriguez, the Yankees’ third baseman. He’s having a year for the ages, setting an American League record for the most home runs in April, and leading all of baseball in homers. And in last night’s win, his home run tied him with Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff on baseball’s career list.

But A-Rod’s character has never looked more haunted. Everyone knows politicians are scum and film stars are ditzy. As for athletes, well — children, in any case, still expect something more.

And as much as A-Rod now begs for his privacy, it’s his fault that we got involved with him. He invited us, and our kids, to like him for what he has inside. He asked us to look at him as a man, not a hitting machine.

At least Barry Bonds said people should not hold him up as a role model. Give him credit for that. But his advice is too late for all the 15-year-olds buying vitamin “supplements” to get ripped like Barry, the human asterisk.

In less than a decade, Rodriguez has gone from A-Rod to Pay-Rod to A-Fraud to Stray-Rod. Each dimension downward came with a story, a character twist, that may outlive the numbers.

As the Mariner who made the major leagues before his 19th birthday, he looked as if he had been created by Michelangelo. Coaching Little League, I told my kids to watch him move, to emulate his sweet swing, and to listen to what he said off the field.

A lasting image for Mariner fans was A-Rod with his arm around a crying Joey Cora after the amazing 1995 season ended just short of a World Series bid. It began to unravel when Pay-Rod emerged. He signed the richest contract in baseball, and left Seattle for — arrgghhh! — Texas. Turned out, it was about the Benjamins.

With the Yankees, all it took were a couple of Bush League plays — swatting a ball out of a pitcher’s mitt at first base, yelling at opposing infielders under a fly ball — for A-Fraud to surface.

More troubling was the breakdown of his friendship with Jeter, the Yankees’ shortstop and designated Good Guy, and the strange episode with the stripper, captured in the tabloid headline, “Stray-Rod.” He’s married, of course, and is a father as well.

In that children’s book, he said having a friend like Jeter, was “more valuable than gold.” An athlete can survive crass acts. Ted Williams spit on Red Sox fans, several times, but more people remember that he left the game to serve as a fighter pilot.

I’ll leave it to A-Rod’s therapist, whom he credits with helping him immensely, to sort his demons. But please — no more children’s books, no more invitations to share the soul-ride.

Athletes build their legends for marketing purposes; it comes with collateral damage, on both sides.

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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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

  • Murder on the Straight Talk Express: Who or what is killing John McCain’s presidential campaign? Drew Cline, editorial page editor of New Hampshire’s Union Leader, agrees with the received wisdom that the Arizona senator’s presidential bid isn’t conservative enough for Republican primary voters. But Cline sees “poetic justice” in McCain’s money-raising problems. He writes on his Union Leader blog:

    So after a series of stances unpopular with the G.O.P. base, McCain, the one-time front-runner, finds his political support, as reflected in campaign donations, drying up. People are not donating to him because they don’t support his positions on several important issues.

    If McCain’s campaign fails to recover, it will be poetic justice of a sort. The man who waged war on the people’s right to express themselves through their financial support for particular candidates for office and who does not believe that donations are the result of ideological support will see his campaign wither and die for a lack of ideological support expressed through campaign donations.

  • The U.C.L.A. public policy professor Mark Kleiman, writing at the academic group blog, The Reality Based Community, notes that Fred Thompson “was a White House mole on the Senate Watergate staff” in the 1970s. Thompson divulged his leaks to the White House in his 1975 Watergate memoir, “At That Point in Time,” and the Boston Globe recently re-reported the story. The story, Kleiman suggests, “says something truly horrible about Thompson’s character.”

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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

John McCain is in trouble in Iowa and nationally,” writes Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen. “He and his campaign seem flat. They lack the sparkle they had in 2000. Support for an unpopular war and immigration bill is hurting, and there’s talk he’ll have to fold.”

What happened? “McCain’s decline reflects a flawed campaign strategy,” suggests The New Republic’s John Judis. “He set out to become the ‘Republican establishment’ candidate.” Unfortunately, the Republican establishment didn’t like him. “As his poll and fund-raising numbers illustrate, this strategy appears to have failed,” Judis writes. “McCain has not been able to alter his image sufficiently to attract conservative donors or voters. Unlike, say, Mitt Romney, McCain has not been able to perform an ideological makeover.” Judis adds:

The absence of conservative support has left McCain as the candidate of independents and moderates, as he was in 2000. But McCain has had to divide this vote with Giuliani and, in the Northeast, with Romney. Most revealing is a Survey USA poll last month of California Republicans, where McCain trailed Giuliani by 32 to 19 percent, Thompson also at 19 percent. McCain bested his 19 percent share among voters who identified themselves as moderate or liberal, were pro-choice, were convinced that the threat of global warming was real, supported same-sex marriage, favored stem-cell research, and didn’t own a gun. Oh yes, he was also favored by 24 percent of Republicans who had voted for Kerry in 2004. Unfortunately, Giuliani did somewhat better among these voters, while he and Thompson did much better than McCain among the more conservative voters.

McCain’s disappointing money-raising so far this year, combined with his campaign’s overspending and overstaffing, should be judged as a management failure on McCain’s part, says Philip Klein on the staff blog of The American Spectator. Klein writes:

All three Republicans have argued that restoring fiscal discipline and making the government run more efficiently would be one of their primary goals as president, so I think it’s fair to look at how they are managing their campaign bank accounts as part of the overall analysis of how they would run the country. I’m probably more sympathetic to McCain than a lot of my fellow conservatives, but thus far his money management skills leave something to be desired. Let’s see if he can turn things around.

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One Man’s Plea for Mercy, With a Recent Precedent in Mind

Frederick Lake, 54, waving his passport, with his son, Brandon, 9, in their home in Brooklyn.
Mr. Lake is facing deportation to Jamaica over a 1991 robbery conviction.

Published: July 7, 2007

If official mercy comes back into fashion, thanks to the clemency that President Bush granted this week to a former member of his administration who was headed to prison, it won’t be a moment too soon for Frederick Lake, a resident of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, for most of the last 20 years.

Mr. Lake has been to prison and finished his time; he was convicted in the 1989 robbery of a payroll company, and now faces deportation to Jamaica. From the moment of his arrest, he has insisted that he is not guilty. “I didn’t do this thing,” he said. “I wasn’t in the country.”

Now he has applied to Gov. Eliot Spitzer for a pardon, which is a legal cousin of clemency. A pardon erases the conviction from the records — and in Mr. Lake’s case would spare him from deportation — while clemency reduces a sentence, but does not eliminate the conviction.

Mr. Spitzer, in office only since January, is new to the exercise of official mercy. It has largely fallen into disuse, in New York and elsewhere.

Over the last 25 years, New York’s governors have granted fewer and fewer pardons or commutations of sentences. Perhaps they could find no one worthy of it, though the number of prisoners has grown fourfold. More likely, they feared TV ads saying that they were easy on criminals, or they fretted that one of those shown mercy would commit another crime.

The only person pardoned in New York since 1990 was the comedian Lenny Bruce, cleared in 2003 by Gov. George E. Pataki of “using foul language in public,” as state officials put it. At that point, Bruce was a safe bet to cause no further trouble for any governor: he had been dead for 37 years.

On Monday, President Bush granted clemency to I. Lewis Libby Jr., an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted of lying to a grand jury — a single thread in the web of untrue stories that were spun to justify the Iraq war. At age 56, Mr. Libby was about to go to prison for 30 months, until Mr. Bush stepped in and declared that the sentence was “severe” and “excessive,” considering Mr. Libby’s public service and the hardship to his family. He is probably as safe a bet for Mr. Bush as Mr. Bruce was for George Pataki.

Mr. Lake, 54, is the father of children ages 8 and 9. He has heart disease and diabetes. Before going to prison for six years, he worked at night, cleaning aircraft at Kennedy Airport, and ran a car-repair business during the day.

In turning to Governor Spitzer for a pardon, Mr. Lake is asking not just for mercy, but also for the justice that he and his lawyers, John D. B. Lewis and Claudia Slovinsky, say they were unable to get in court.

“I’m here laying in the bed, thinking, when is I.N.S. going to come for me?” he said. “What about my children? My whole life is crumbling for something I never did.”

On May 18, 1989, a payroll company in Inwood, on Long Island, was robbed of $103,000 by a short, stocky man wearing an earring. Some months later, Mr. Lake passed along a money order that had been stolen in the robbery. At a trial in 1991, three people identified him as the stickup man, though he did not have a pierced ear and is close to 6 feet tall.

Mr. Lake, a legal resident of the United States, produced airline tickets and passenger manifests from Jamaica Air showing that “F. Lake” flew from Miami to Kingston, Jamaica, on May 12, 1989 — a week before the robbery — and then back to the United States on Sept. 29, 1989.

On his passport, the stamps matched the dates on the tickets.

“The truth is swimming on top of the water,” Mr. Lake said.

Prosecutors in Nassau County challenged his alibi by calling to the witness stand a Jamaican immigration official, who testified that he could not find a landing card filled out by Mr. Lake, a requirement for anyone entering the country. Later, a judicial inquiry in Jamaica found grave inaccuracies in the official’s testimony and said that if the jury relied on it, Mr. Lake had been the victim of a “serious miscarriage of justice.”

“Whenever I talk about this, it tears me up,” Mr. Lake said. “The medical care in Jamaica, that will be the finish of me. My son says, ‘Daddy, why are you crying? Are they going to put me in the casket with you?’ ”


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Giving Nepotism a Good Name

Published: July 7, 2007

“The fundamental fact is that people love television,” said Ralph J. Roberts a few weeks ago. “And if you can provide them with more television, they love it even more.”

It was a stifling Wednesday afternoon in Philadelphia, but sitting at his desk in a downtown high-rise, Mr. Roberts was decked out the way businessmen used to dress, back when the executive suite was still a formal place, with a white handkerchief peeking out of the front pocket of an elegant suit. At 87, Mr. Roberts still has a full head of white hair, combed back in a way that reminded me of Paul Drake, the rakish sidekick in the old “Perry Mason” show.

Some 47 years ago, Ralph Roberts founded Comcast. He was a middle-aged man who had recently abandoned the belt and suspender business, and was looking for something new. He found it in a tiny company in Tupelo, Miss., which was erecting a giant antenna to provide the local citizenry with signals from the television stations in Memphis, 90 miles away.

At that moment, Mr. Roberts became a cable pioneer. Along with Ted Turner, John Malone, Charles Dolan of Cablevision, John Rigas of Adelphia and a handful of others, he was one of the men who built the cable industry, pulling off one of the more unheralded achievements in modern business: getting people to pay for something they had always assumed would be free.

Today, most of the cable pioneers have sold out or retired, or, in the sad case of Mr. Rigas, gone to jail. But in his understated Philadelphia way, Mr. Roberts turned out to have more ambition than the lot of them, and lo these many years later, his company is the biggest cable provider in the country. It serves around 25 million subscribers, employs 90,000 people and will generate an estimated $31 billion in 2007 revenue.

Except that it isn’t his company anymore. Not really. While Mr. Roberts remains a Comcast director, Comcast is his son’s company now. And therein lies a story that is pretty unusual in corporate America. And pretty instructive, too.

THINK for a minute about the generational sagas you usually read about in the business pages. Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachlan decides he can no longer work for his father, so he quits his job as the publisher of The New York Post. Charles Dolan and his son James, who control Cablevision, always seem to be fussing and feuding about something. Sumner Redstone’s daughter Shari has long been viewed as his heir apparent. But her octogenarian father can’t bring himself to let go of his companies, and he has a deep need to show the world who’s boss. Just last fall he publicly criticized his daughter — even as he was being sued by his son Brent. Geesh.

It’s never been like that with Ralph Roberts and his son Brian, who became Comcast’s president in 1990 at the age of 31, and has been chairman and chief executive since 2004. “Theirs is a relationship of love and mutual respect,” said David Calhoun, a former Pennsylvania politico who joined the company five years ago as executive vice president. “They are incredibly close.”

Brian Roberts knew he wanted to work for his father practically from the moment he emerged from the womb, and Ralph Roberts knew pretty quickly thereafter that he wanted his son to finish what he’d started.

As far as anyone can tell, they’ve never had so much as an open disagreement at Comcast, despite all the obvious stresses that running a business can put on any relationship.

I had originally gone to Philadelphia thinking I would write about Comcast’s recent success. Although it’s not been a knockout stock, that’s mainly because Wall Street is annoyed that Mr. Roberts won’t use some of the cash flow Comcast is generating these days to take on more debt and buy back shares.

What is unarguable, however, is that the company, having completely recovered from its failed effort to buy Disney three years ago, is clicking on all cylinders. Its revenue is growing at a healthy double-digit clip. The rise of high- definition television has turbocharged earnings. Its Internet service is going gangbusters. It has even started to make inroads against the telcos, selling its own phone service. All the talk that cable would be overrun by the Internet hasn’t remotely come to pass. On the contrary: cable in general, and Comcast in particular, seem stronger than ever.

“This is an extremely good business,” said Stephen Burke, who is Mr. Roberts’s No. 2. “We have 25 million customers who pay us an average of $100 a month.” Yes, indeed, people love their television.

Brian Roberts, who, like his father, also wears suits to the office, but unlike his father takes his jacket off once he gets there, would have been perfectly happy taking a deep dive with me about the state of Comcast’s business. He is a soft-spoken man, who answers questions with an appealing earnestness and lack of pretense. The reason Comcast wasn’t piling on debt, he said, was that the company has always been run conservatively; that was a cultural value his father, a product of the Depression, had instilled from the start.

“My father used to have two years’ worth of cash on hand,” Mr. Roberts said. “Cash! If we owed $5 billion, we might have $500 million in cash, earning just 2 percent. We were superconservative in a business that was wildly leveraged.” That the son had adopted the father’s fiscal conservatism was something Mr. Roberts wasn’t about to apologize for.

Indeed, to hear Mr. Roberts tell it, his father was the greatest entrepreneur in the history of the cable industry. He kept peppering his answers with references to his dad, and every time he did his eyes would light up. Eventually, I took the hint, and began steering the interview in that direction.

“My father has a wonderful mentoring style,” Mr. Roberts said. “He would never say, ‘This is a terrible idea.’ Instead he says, ‘Have you thought about this?’ ” When he was as young as 12 and 13, he would ask his father if he could sit in on meetings while Ralph was negotiating loan agreements with the banks. Afterward, Brian would ask questions about why Ralph had taken this tack or that one. Other fathers and sons went to ballgames, but this is how the Robertses bonded.

When Brian Roberts graduated from Wharton, his father resisted bringing him into Comcast immediately; he felt his son would be better served gaining some experience elsewhere. But the younger Mr. Roberts didn’t want to work anyplace else.

“My father is 40 years older than I am,” he said. “His father had died when he was 15. His mother died when he was 19. His brother had passed away in his 50s. How many good years were we going to have together?”

So Ralph Roberts relented, and Brian joined the company. It was obvious from Day 1 that he was the heir apparent, but the elder Mr. Roberts insisted that he work his way up.

Brian began his Comcast career as a line installer. Then he put in several years in branch offices before becoming head of operations at age 26. And at 31, his father made him president. At the time, Comcast didn’t use the title chief executive, so Brian Roberts was running the company. Ralph Roberts remained chairman of the board, but stepped aside from the day-to-day operations

Wasn’t that an awfully young age? I asked the elder Mr. Roberts. “It seemed to me that he was ready to be president of the company,” he replied, “and there was no reason not to let him have the job.” Besides, he added, “we seemed to think a lot alike.” What happened next is the real key. As often as not, when a son or daughter takes over a parent’s company, tension is the inevitable result. The heir wants to upend some of the practices the parent holds dear. He wishes the parent would stop coming to the office or meddling. The parent, meanwhile, finds it hard to let go, and second-guesses the child.

But that never happened with the Robertses. “It is hard to find a company that has done this transition better,” said Mr. Calhoun. It is not as if Ralph Roberts had set out a grand plan for the transfer of power. But he instinctively knew that it was important to step aside, to not second-guess, to offer advice when it was asked for, and to keep quiet when it wasn’t.

He also understood that he needed to make it clear to everyone at Comcast that Brian was the boss now, not him. That all requires a kind of supreme selflessness — a quality not often found in ambitious entrepreneurs.

“It’s not that I have no ego,” Ralph Roberts says now. “But I’ve learned that if you give people confidence and let them take some risks, most of the time they are winners.”

“Ralph doesn’t support Brian or give him advice because he has to but because he wants to,” Mr. Calhoun said. “And Brian doesn’t have a connecting door between their offices because he feels he owes his father anything. There is simply no one whose judgment he respects more.”

Because he is every bit as ambitious as his dad, Brian will probably spend the next 20 years or so trying to make Comcast bigger still. He believes the same thing his father does: people love television. And Comcast can make a lot of money servicing that desire.

“Here are two great facts,” Mr. Roberts told me as we moved the conversation back to the business. “Last year, more people bought more TV sets per household than any year in history. And half of those sets were 50 inches or bigger.”

Ralph Roberts, meanwhile, doesn’t have a title at the company anymore, but he does still have an important role as the keeper of the Comcast flame. After Hurricane Katrina, it was Ralph Roberts who went to Mississippi to visit Comcast employees working to get television service restored, even though their own lives had been disrupted. And whenever Comcast buys another company, it is the elder Mr. Roberts who makes the new employees feel good about their new workplace.

“I just got back from Boston, where I spoke to 1,200 new Comcast employees,” he told me as our interview wound down. “I encourage the idea that it is a family company. I tell them if they have relatives who want to come work here, don’t worry about nepotism. I have it right here with my son.” He smiled.

“And look how that worked out,” he said.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Sacrifice Is for Suckers

Published: July 6, 2007

On this Fourth of July, President Bush compared the Iraq war to the Revolutionary War, and called for “more patience, more courage and more sacrifice.” Unfortunately, it seems that nobody asked the obvious question: “What sacrifices have you and your friends made, Mr. President?”

On second thought, there would be no point in asking that question. In Mr. Bush’s world, only the little people make sacrifices.

You see, the Iraq war, although Mr. Bush insists that it’s part of a Global War on Terror™, a fight to the death between good and evil, isn’t like America’s other great wars — wars in which the wealthy shared the financial burden through higher taxes and many members of the elite fought for their country.

This time around, Mr. Bush celebrated Mission Accomplished by cutting tax rates on dividends and capital gains, while handing out huge no-bid contracts to politically connected corporations. And in the four years since, as the insurgency Mr. Bush initially taunted with the cry of “Bring them on” has claimed the lives of thousands of Americans and left thousands more grievously wounded, the children of the elite — especially the Republican elite — have been conspicuously absent from the battlefield.

The Bushies, it seems, like starting fights, but they don’t believe in paying any of the cost of those fights or bearing any of the risks. Above all, they don’t believe that they or their friends should face any personal or professional penalties for trivial sins like distorting intelligence to get America into an unnecessary war, or totally botching that war’s execution.

The Web site Think Progress has a summary of what happened to the men behind the war after we didn’t find W.M.D., and weren’t welcomed as liberators: “The architects of war: Where are they now?” To read that summary is to be awed by the comprehensiveness and generosity of the neocon welfare system. Even Paul Wolfowitz, who managed the rare feat of messing up not one but two high-level jobs, has found refuge at the American Enterprise Institute.

Which brings us to the case of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr.

The hysteria of the neocons over the prospect that Mr. Libby might actually do time for committing perjury was a sight to behold. In an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal titled “Fallen Soldier,” Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University cited the soldier’s creed: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” He went on to declare that “Scooter Libby was a soldier in your — our — war in Iraq.”

Ah, yes. Shuffling papers in an air-conditioned Washington office is exactly like putting your life on the line in Anbar or Baghdad. Spending 30 months in a minimum-security prison, with a comfortable think-tank job waiting at the other end, is exactly like having half your face or both your legs blown off by an I.E.D.

What lay behind the hysteria, of course, was the prospect that for the very first time one of the people who tricked America into war, then endangered national security yet again in the effort to cover their tracks, might pay some price. But Mr. Ajami needn’t have worried.

Back when the investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity began, Mr. Bush insisted that if anyone in his administration had violated the law, “that person will be taken care of.” Now we know what he meant. Mr. Bush hasn’t challenged the verdict in the Libby case, and other people convicted of similar offenses have spent substantial periods of time in prison. But Mr. Libby goes free.

Oh, and don’t fret about the fact that Mr. Libby still had to pay a fine. Does anyone doubt that his friends will find a way to pick up the tab?

Mr. Bush says that Mr. Libby’s punishment remains “harsh” because his reputation is “forever damaged.” Meanwhile, Mr. Bush employs, as a deputy national security adviser, none other than Elliott Abrams, who pleaded guilty to unlawfully withholding information from Congress in the Iran-contra affair. Mr. Abrams was one of six Iran-contra defendants pardoned by Mr. Bush’s father, who was himself a subject of the special prosecutor’s investigation of the scandal.

In other words, obstruction of justice when it gets too close to home is a family tradition. And being a loyal Bushie means never having to say you’re sorry.

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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

Michael Kinsley and the editorial page of The Washington Times aren’t often in agreement. So it’s not exactly shocking that Kinsley and the newspaper differ on whether President Bush should have commuted Scooter Libby’s prison sentence. The surprise is that Kinsley’s in favor of commutation and The Washington Times is against it.

The commutation “is neither wise nor just,” the newspaper says in its editorial. “It is clearly within the president’s executive powers, but that is beside the point.” The editorial concludes:

Perjury is a serious crime. This newspaper argued on behalf of its seriousness in the 1990s, during the Clinton perjury controversy, and today is no different. We’d have hoped that more conservatives would agree. The integrity of the judicial process depends on fact-finding and truth-telling. A jury found Libby guilty of not only perjury but also obstruction [of] justice and lying to a grand jury. It handed down a very supportable verdict. This is true regardless of the trumped-up investigation and political witch hunt. It is true regardless of the unjustifiably harsh sentence.

Had Mr. Bush reduced Libby’s sentence to 15 months, we might have been able to support the decision. Alas, he did not.

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The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp

On the Fourth of July, John Fabian Witt, a professor of law and history at Columbia, wrote on the op-ed page of The Washington Post that the Declaration of Independence “advanced an idea about war. The idea that war ought to be governed by law.” He writes of Thomas Jefferson’s message to King George III:

The climactic final charges, for which the rest were prologue, indicted the king for war crimes.

Britain’s navy, wrote Jefferson and the Congress, had “plundered our Seas,” while its armies had “ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.” Jefferson accused the British of employing legions of foreign mercenaries to commit acts of death and desolation “scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages,” acts unworthy of civilized nations. He charged British forces with taking Americans hostage and compelling them to bear arms against their own country. He and the Congress concluded their litany of war crimes by condemning the king’s two most fiendish offenses against the laws of war: inciting slave insurrections and encouraging attacks by “merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”

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"The Opinionator: A blog at the New York Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellenthorp" >>

Trump Deal Fails, and Shares Fall Again

High & Low Finance

Published: July 6, 2007

Donald J. Trump, the man who wrote “The Art of the Deal,” failed to make a deal this week, and his casino company’s shareholders are suffering. Again.

Mr. Trump grew famous as a real estate developer, and some people still think that an apartment with his name is worth more than one without it. He became a television star in “The Apprentice,” where his main contribution was to say to contestants competing for the right to work for him, “You’re fired.”

That played on his strength, as was shown again this week when his casino company, Trump Entertainment, reported it had fired two executive vice presidents.

But when it comes to running operating businesses, he has been something less than a resounding success. The Plaza Hotel in Manhattan went bankrupt under his tutelage, and his casino empire has been under bankruptcy protection twice, in the early 1990s and again this decade.

Mr. Trump has proved to be a fine negotiator in bankruptcy. In the last round, he got a large stock position in the reorganized company in return for giving the company a license to use the name it already had: Trump. He also put in some cash, and the courts turned aside pleas from angry investors whose stakes were being wiped out.

With no buyer in sight, shares in Trump Entertainment fell to less than $11 this week, well below the $14.60 value assumed in the bankruptcy reorganization. Trump bonds also lost value.

Losses for shareholders are nothing new in the Trump empire. Trump Entertainment’s predecessor company, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, went public, owning just two of Mr. Trump’s casinos, in June 1995. The shares did well for a time, but plunged after deals in which Mr. Trump sold his two other casinos to the company, at prices some deemed excessive.

When the company went into reorganization, the old shares were all but wiped out. Each share, which cost $14 at the initial public offering, got 88 cents in a cash distribution, and one-thousandth of a share in the new company. Shareholders also got warrants to buy new shares at $14.60. If they exercised the warrants, which have since expired, they have new losses.

All told, ignoring the warrants, a shareholder who invested $10,000 in Mr. Trump’s empire when the casino company went public in 1994 would now have about $636.

That performance came at a time when the casino industry was blossoming across America, as more states accepted more gambling as a way to raise revenues.

I counted five other casino companies that went public in the mid-1990s. All made money for investors in the initial offering. The champion was Penn National Gaming, which will take your bets in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Louisiana and in Ontario. It went public in 1994, and a $10,000 investment would now be worth about $724,000.

Over all, an index of casino stocks is up 268 percent since June 1995. Trump investors lost 93 percent.

Why did they do so badly? Mr. Trump has an explanation. “The company has always been a relatively high-debt company,” he told me, and when it needed money the bond markets were not always friendly.

He has a point. Trump casinos were sometimes starved for capital investment, and they showed it. And while others expanded into new areas as markets opened up, Trump went only to Indiana, and its casino there was sold in 2005 to raise money. Recent efforts to expand into Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Rhode Island went nowhere.

The company now has a $250 million investment program to improve its Atlantic City hotels and casinos, and is spending a similar amount for a new tower at the Trump Taj Mahal.

“The places are starting to really look well,” said Mark Juliano, who became the interim chief executive this week, after his predecessor retired, the company said, to “return to his family in California.”

“The refurbishment is going along nicely,” Mr. Juliano added. “We are looking forward to a great summer.”

But there may be more than capital problems and run-down buildings at work in the sad performance.

Trump’s companies are very complicated, with partnerships all over the place. At best, such complexity contributes to doubts that the boss has the same interests as public investors. Had a buyer been found, Trump Entertainment could have owed Mr. Trump up to $100 million to offset his capital gains taxes.

The two years since Trump Entertainment came out of bankruptcy have been good ones for owners of most casino companies. But not for this one. Mr. Trump’s name is, again, associated with a losing investment.

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Basic Instincts: Life on Two, Four, Six and Eight Legs

Acts of Gratitude

I’m too big a skeptic to put much faith in the circularity of life, with deeds done long ago coming round years later to haunt us or make us whole. But I began to think about the possibility recently, during a visit to Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. One of the lectures that day was about the art of listening to patients’ stories with an almost literary ear, as a way of treating them with greater insight and sensitivity.

The speaker was looking at things only from the doctor’s perspective. But it struck me that there are at least two sides to every medical story. And it got me thinking back 30 years, to when I was a young man dying of no apparent cause.

My symptoms then included listlessness, faint-headedness, an inability to climb stairs without resting and unquenchable thirst. Twice, I took home a jug for a 24-hour urine test, and both times I came back with an extra bottle on the side. It didn’t seem to signify much to my doctor. The heart was his specialty, and he kept doing electrocardiograms suggesting something wrong there, but no particular diagnosis. I wasn’t much interested, in any case. I was only 26 years old, but the idea of dying seemed perfectly fine.

Then one afternoon on my parents’ front porch, I stood up in front of my father and briefly passed out. My parents arranged for me to see an endocrinologist named Robert Modlinger, who got hold of my ample test records, phoned me, and started to talk in a strangely unmodulated voice. His wife April was also on the line, repeating my answers to his questions so he could read her lips. I learned later that he’d gone deaf a decade earlier, in his mid-twenties, when he was a student in medical school. Finally, he said, “I want you to come into my office. I think you have Addison’s Disease.” It sounded more like, “I THINK you have AHHHH-dison’s Disease.”

The idea of a deaf man diagnosing my problem by phone, when a seeing, hearing physician had repeatedly failed to do so in person, has stuck in my head ever since as the Miracle of St. Modlinger.

I went to see him on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in May when my blood pressure was 60 over 40. He spent three hours doing tests, asking questions, listening (that is, lip reading) and having the good sense to question more closely when my answers didn’t fit the evidence he was seeing. He confirmed that it was Addison’s Disease, a failure of the adrenal cortex that is fatal if untreated, and put me on the course of drugs I have taken ever since.

Within a day, I felt better, it seemed, than I had ever felt in my life. Within a few months, I was running five miles a day. I began to travel and to write articles, and later books, about the natural world, human behavior and other topics. In the years since, I have collected tarantulas in the Amazon, tracked leopards with !Kung San hunters in Namibia and trekked in the Himalayas of Bhutan in pursuit of tigers and a mythical beast called the migur. I remained Dr. Modlinger’s patient for years after the diagnosis, and he seemed to take vicarious delight in these far-flung adventures.

Eventually, though, I relocated, and we lost contact. My career in journalism gave me a garden for cultivating my native cynicism, and the business of making a living as a writer brought out an inclination to be blunt and not much good at social niceties. So when my oldest child announced a few years ago that he wanted to spend his life helping people, I said, “That’s a strange idea.” When he added, in college, that he had decided to become a doctor, I expressed horror.

“Think of the snot-nosed children,” I said. “Think of being stuck in an office seeing the digestive complaints, the migraine headaches, the depression, the vague symptoms of possibly imaginary origin.” I did not say, “Think about me on that Saturday afternoon in Dr. Modlinger’s office.”

In the face of this paternal discouragement, my son persisted, and it has been interesting to watch. He volunteered at a hospice and genuinely seemed to enjoy caring for people who were old, incontinent, terminal. I’d been telling him it was na├»ve, in modern medicine, to expect to get to know patients as much more than symptoms. Everything had become too impersonal. But then, by an odd coincidence, his childhood piano teacher showed up at the hospice and together they helped make her husband comfortable as he died.

I probably should have known that the stories of patients and the people who care for them can still circle together in strange ways. A few years ago, I looked up Dr. Modlinger to ask a question, and with April on the phone as always, he told me that on top of being deaf, he’d lost the vision in one eye and developed problems with his balance, forcing him to give up his practice while he was still in his 50s.

I expressed my sorrow. It seemed like a terrible loss, not least to his patients. And it seemed wrong that the doctor who had given me back my life should be losing the pieces of his. I thought gloomily of a book I used to read to my kids, Edward Gorey’s “The Dwindling Party,” in which the guests mysteriously vanish one by one.

When I phoned Dr. Modlinger again more recently, he was in a wheelchair. But he was also full of a characteristic quality of delight, bordering on ebullience. I reminded him of my miracle cure, and I could hear him beaming. “I must have been very good,” he said.

And he was. I thanked him for everything — that is, for keeping me alive long enough to marry, to travel, to write, to raise three fine children. In August, I told him, my son will become a medical student at Columbia.

“That’s wonderful,” he said. And the inexplicable note of happiness in his voice made me think that spending Saturday afternoons healing sick people might not be such a bad life, after all.


End Note: This is the last column in my stint as a guest writer for TimesSelect, and in the spirit of giving thanks, I would like to say what a pleasure it has been to read your comments, which have been remarkably thoughtful and well-informed.

Thanks especially to the reader who pointed out that the Germans, bless them, do indeed have a word, gluckschmerz, or luck-pain, for what I called the “un-schadenfreude.” Thanks also to the reader who noted that my Rule of the Decent Interval dates back at least to Dante, who consigned deathbed confessors to the first circle of Purgatory (“During life they made God wait for them; so, after death, they must wait for God.”) I even enjoyed the comments catching me on factual errors, and the nice turn-of-phrase from a reader who accused me of writing from my “own towering mountain of naive assumptions.”

For writers of books and magazine articles, the relationship with the page often feels one-sided. It’s like wandering alone in a forest from which all the animals have disappeared. The thrilling thing about this blog or online column or whatever you want to call it is the chance to hear readers roar back, almost instantly, from the other side of the computer screen.

So, yikes! And thank you.

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The End of Integration

Published: July 6, 2007

Nothing is sadder than the waning dream of integration. This dream has illuminated American life for the past several decades — the belief that the world is getting smaller and that different peoples are coming together over time.

Over the course of the 20th century, the civil rights movement promised to heal the nation’s oldest wound. Racism and discrimination would diminish. Blacks and whites could live together, go to school together and gradually integrate their lives.

The end of the cold war promised to heal the rift between democracy and dictatorship. More nations would be welcomed into the community of free peoples.

The trauma of Sept. 11 promised to heal the rifts between red and blue America. Then there were the integrating forces of globalization and technology. The growing movement of people would pave the way for multicultural societies. The movement of goods would increase interdependence. The revolution in communications technology would increase global conversation.

All these promises hung in the air, but then crumbled, even in the past few weeks.

The progress in civil rights has not produced racial integration. Amid all the hubbub about last week’s Supreme Court decision, we were reminded that five decades after Brown, blacks and whites do not live side by side, even when they share the same income levels. They do not go to the same schools. And when they do go to the same schools, they do not lead shared lives. As several people noted last week, many educators are giving up on the dream of integration so they can focus on quality.

The movement of peoples, meanwhile, provokes as much rage as assimilation. The immigration reform bill was defeated last week by Americans who feel their country is being torn apart by outsiders who don’t play by its rules, and by a ruling class blind to the threat.

The fall of communism hasn’t created a global community of democracies. It turns out the Russians don’t want to be like us. The Arabs don’t want help from infidels. The Iraqis’ democratic moment has turned into sectarian chaos. The Palestinians have turned theirs into a civil war.

The threat of terror hasn’t united Americans, but divided them. The globalization of trade has sparked nationalistic backlashes. The revolution in communications technology has brought media segmentation, as people seek out newspapers and shows that reinforce their preconceptions.

Expecting integration, Americans find themselves confronting polarization and fragmentation. Amid all the problems that have made Americans sour and pessimistic, this is the deepest.

It could be that all we need is a change of leadership in order to rediscover the sense that we’re all in this together. That’s what the Obama and Bloomberg boomlets are all about. It could be we just need to work harder to overcome racism and tribalism.

But it could be the dream of integration itself is the problem. It could be that it was like the dream of early communism — a nice dream, but not fit for the way people really are.

For hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors lived in small bands. Surviving meant being able to distinguish between us — the people who will protect you — and them — the people who will kill you. Even today, people have a powerful drive to distinguish between us and them.

As dozens of social-science experiments have made clear, if you separate people into different groups — no matter how arbitrary the basis of the distinction — they will quickly begin discriminating against others they deem unlike themselves. People say they want to live in diverse integrated communities, but what they really want to do is live in homogenous ones, filled with people like themselves.

If that’s the case, maybe integration is not in the cards. Maybe the world will be as it’s always been, a collection of insular compartments whose fractious tendencies are only kept in check by constant maintenance.

Maybe the health of a society is not measured by how integrated each institution within it is, but by how freely people can move between institutions. In a sick society, people are bound by one totalistic identity. In a healthy society, a person can live in a black neighborhood, send her kids to Catholic school, go to work in a lawyer’s office and meet every Wednesday with a feminist book club. Multiply your homogenous communities and be fulfilled.

This isn’t the integrated world many of us hoped for. But maybe it’s the only one available.

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Time to Call in the Iran Chips


Published: July 5, 2007


If one country should have been happy with the post-9/11 upheaval the United States has engineered in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was Iran.

The Shiite mullahs in Tehran were delivered from their sworn enemy, the Taliban, against whom they had amassed 200,000 troops on the Afghan border in 1997, and from Saddam Hussein in Iraq, against whom they had fought an inconclusive war in the 1980s that took one million lives.

Afghanistan came under the authority of President Hamid Karzai, who has called Iran a ''close friend.'' Iraq's social revolution brought Shiite brothers to power. All this came thanks to the ''Great Satan,'' at no cost in Iranian treasure (growing by the day with oil at $70 a barrel) or blood.

I know history has its ironies, not least the fact that the United States funded the creation of Muslim holy warriors, Osama bin Laden among them, as agents in the Afghan undoing of the Soviet Union, only to face these warriors reinvented as death-to-America jihadists once the Cold War ended.

This was harsh payback for Washington. But Iran's payback for the favorable power shift gifted upon it has been as bitter.

In contrast to Iran, the countries that ought to have been most unhappy with the regime changes were America's regional allies — Pakistan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — Sunni powers with scant sympathy for the governments installed in Kabul and Baghdad.

They are indeed displeased by the power shifts. Everyone is irked, Iran chief and most dangerous among them.

The failure to parlay two American military interventions that served Iran's objective strategic interest into substantive engagement between the two countries constitutes the Bush administration's most costly diplomatic failure. Such expenditure of U.S. treasure and blood merited more creative diplomacy.

This failure hurts U.S. interests in Iraq and Lebanon and in finding an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It has even begun to hurt U.S. interests in Afghanistan where, in a fantastic turnabout, Iran is arming its erstwhile mortal enemy, the Taliban.

If America is engaged in another Cold-War-like generational conflict, which is the way the administration has chosen to characterize the war on terror, then Tehran is the closest equivalent to Moscow.

Iran combines ideological fervor, military vigor, strategic agility, domestic repression, economic weakness (petrol shortages despite having the world's second largest oil reserves) and serious social fissures in ways suggestive of the former Soviet Union. It is, in the assessment of one seasoned American diplomat, ''a worthy adversary.''

That adversarial role is now channeled into a proxy war in Iraq. U.S. accounts this week of Iranian involvement, through agents of its elite Quds Force, in the killing of five American soldiers in January were the most specific of a series of persuasive U.S. and British charges against Tehran.

What is Iran up to in Iraq and Afghanistan? It wants to keep America bleeding. Looking down the barrel of a gun over its nuclear program, Iran likes the idea of American forces stretched as thin as possible. It wants its Shiite proxies armed in the event of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. And, angered by the notion that Pakistan can have nukes but not Persia rising, it is looking for respect.

''Iran and the United States were closest on Afghanistan and Iraq, and farthest apart on the nuclear issue, Hamas and Hezbollah,'' said Vali Nasr, the author of ''The Shia Revival.'' ''The conciliatory logic of Iraq might have dominated, but the reverse has happened and Iranian moderates were never cultivated.''

Iran is an ugly regime. Its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a foul-mouthed buffoon. But it is also a sophisticated country and the only one in the Middle East with a government far more anti-Western than its generally America-loving population. Placing Iran in the ''axis of evil'' and isolating it has served no constructive purpose.

It is time to put the onus on the mullahs. The United States should propose broad, high-level talks with Iran across the range of issues confronting the two countries — Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear weapons, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine — while dropping its meaningless insistence that Iran suspend nuclear enrichment activities before talks begin.

That will test whether the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Ahmadinejad feel they can survive without the ''Great Satan'' distraction from acute domestic woes.

If the answer to the invitation is no, and Iranian-orchestrated attacks in Iraq continue, America should play hardball. Iran, like Iraq, is a multiethnic country. Its Kurds, ethnic Baluchis and other minorities can find money and weapons flowing to them from a ''worthy adversary'' of the mullahs' regime.


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Justice Denied

In the 1960s, Chief Justice Earl Warren presided over a Supreme Court that interpreted the Constitution in ways that protected the powerless — racial and religious minorities, consumers, students and criminal defendants. At the end of its first full term, Chief Justice John Roberts’s court is emerging as the Warren court’s mirror image. Time and again the court has ruled, almost always 5-4, in favor of corporations and powerful interests while slamming the courthouse door on individuals and ideals that truly need the court’s shelter.

President Bush created this radical new court with two appointments in quick succession: Mr. Roberts to replace Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Samuel Alito to replace the far less conservative Sandra Day O’Connor.

The Roberts court’s resulting sharp shift to the right began to be strongly felt in this term. It was on display, most prominently, in the school desegregation ruling last week. The Warren court, and even the Rehnquist court of two years ago, would have upheld the integration plans that Seattle and Louisville, Ky., voluntarily adopted. But the Roberts court, on a 5-4 vote, struck them down, choosing to see the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause — which was adopted for the express purpose of integrating blacks more fully into society — as a tool for protecting white students from integration.

On campaign finance, the court handed a major victory to corporations and wealthy individuals — again by a 5-4 vote — striking down portions of the law that reined in the use of phony issue ads. The ruling will make it easier for corporations and lobbyists to buy the policies they want from Congress.

Corporations also won repeatedly over consumers and small stockholders. The court overturned a jury’s award of $79.5 million in punitive damages against Philip Morris. The Oregon Supreme Court had upheld the award, calling Philip Morris’s 40 years of denying the connection between smoking and cancer “extraordinarily reprehensible.”

In a ruling that will enrich companies at the expense of consumers, the court overturned — again by a 5-4 vote — a 96-year-old rule that manufacturers cannot impose minimum prices on retailers.

The flip side of the court’s boundless solicitude for the powerful was its often contemptuous attitude toward common folks looking for justice. It ruled that an inmate who filed his appeal within the deadline set by a federal judge was out of luck, because the judge had given the wrong date — a shockingly unjust decision that overturned two court precedents on missed deadlines.

When Chief Justice Roberts was nominated, his supporters insisted that he believed in “judicial modesty,” and that he could not be put into a simple ideological box. But Justice Alito and he, who voted together in a remarkable 92 percent of nonunanimous decisions, have charted a thoroughly predictable archconservative approach to the law. Chief Justice Roberts said that he wanted to promote greater consensus, but he is presiding over a court that is deeply riven.

In the term’s major abortion case, the court upheld — again by a 5-4 vote — the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, even though the court struck down a nearly identical law in 2000. In the term’s major church-state case, the court ruled 5-4 that taxpayers challenging the Bush administration’s faith-based initiatives lacked standing to sue, again reversing well-established precedents. In a few cases, notably ones challenging the Bush administration’s hands-off approach to global warming and executions of the mentally ill, Justice Anthony Kennedy broke with the conservative bloc. But that did not happen often enough.

It has been decades since the most privileged members of society — corporations, the wealthy, white people who want to attend school with other whites — have had such a successful Supreme Court term. Society’s have-nots were not the only losers. The basic ideals of American justice lost as well.

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A National Gut-Check: Who Lives Better?

Published: July 5, 2007

One of the memorable scenes in “Sicko,” Michael Moore’s latest cinematic provocation, comes from France, where he shows doctors in their little white cars making house calls — for free.

But it’s not just France. When we lived in Italy some time ago, a doctor came to our farmhouse rental on Easter Sunday morning to diagnose a stomach ailment. He charged nothing.

Let’s stipulate that Moore is a one-sided pamphleteer, with a bit of Mark Twain and Pat Robertson in his schtick. But like all propagandists, his job is not to find some objective truth, but to anger, challenge, ask hard questions.

With Independence Day just passed, a good nationalist shouldn’t be afraid to answer those questions. So, who lives better, us or them?

In Italy, this was a regular parlor game when friends came to visit. Inevitably, after a few days of taking in our new world — a village public school for the kids, neighbors who opened the doors of their ancient homes to us, a lengthy siesta every afternoon — our houseguests would side with the Italians. I would counter for the U.S.A., to keep the argument alive.

The Italians won on health, family and food. The United States was better on race and opportunity.

With health care, the anecdotal often carried the argument. One day, a tenant farmer named Sergio, our neighbor, woke with a terrible eye infection. He was full of pain, unable to see. Sergio got world-class care in Florence. After three days of attentive fussing in the hospital, he came home entirely well and without a bill.

Had he showed up at any American hospital — poor, no insurance — well, good luck. Especially in a place like Texas, where 30 percent of adults lack health insurance and what can pass for medical care is a get-in-line form of triage.

But even with insurance, Americans are stuck with what may be the worst of all systems: one that lets a handful of corporations make life-and-death decisions, with incentive to dump and deny.

Little wonder that the United States ranks 37th in effectiveness of health care. Italy ranks 2nd. This is a country that can’t form a government to last longer than the soccer season, and yet, they make our medical system look barbaric.

If our system doesn’t kill you — see the infant mortality and life expectancy rates, bringing up the rear — it can put you in the poorhouse. Medical catastrophes are the leading cause of bankruptcy, and most of those are people who have some insurance, clinging to the frayed edge of the middle class.

O.K., so what about leisure? Americans spend nearly a third of their disposable income on good times, baby. But we can’t relax. Sorry — no time. Lunch averages 31 minutes. And the U.S. ranks dead last among 21 of the world’s richest countries when it comes to guaranteed days off, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Most Americans don’t even use their allotted days of leisure. The Italians take 42 vacation days a year — No. 1 in the world. The average American takes 13.

A quarter of Americans receive no vacation at all. And it’s not like we don’t need it: one in three are chronically overworked. We even work 100 hours a year more than the Japanese.

President Bush has it figured out, with his month off at the ranch. But for a profile in clueless, Bush set the mark when he lauded as truly American some citizen who told him she had to work three jobs. Ain’t that something?

Ah, but what about taxes? Europeans pay more than we do, to fund that free health care. Take that, Euro-trash, while lying on the beach. And yet, our tax system is approaching Gilded Age disparity. Listen to Warren Buffett, the third richest man in the world. Last year, he was taxed at 17 percent of his taxable income, he said last month. His receptionist paid nearly twice that, at 30 percent.

Where America shines is with our multiracial society and the easy access to opportunity. It was jarring to listen to otherwise thoughtful Tuscans denigrate Ethiopian immigrants or even their Sicilian countrymen.

By contrast, nothing made me prouder than telling Italians that I came from a place with an African-American mayor and a Chinese-American governor. Or that I grew up in a big Irish-American family with little money.

A patriot should not be afraid to have this debate, vigorously — after a nap.

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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Africa: Land of Hope

Published: July 5, 2007

KIGALI, Rwanda

In the early 1990s, Rwanda reinforced all the worst stereotypes of Africa: wretchedly poor, torn apart by war and seemingly destined to be an international basket case forever.

Yet now it has become the little nation that could. It is clean, safe and enjoying economic growth more than twice as fast as the U.S. or Europe. And Rwanda underscores something that is easy to forget: There are signs of a turnaround in Africa, and plenty of reason for optimism.

This is the last column from my win-a-trip journey in Africa with a student, Leana Wen, and a teacher, Will Okun, and the stories have been long on gloom and suffering. But there is also a cheerier side to Africa, and Rwanda reflects the continent’s potential when there is both stability and good governance.

Dr. Paul Farmer, the Harvard public health specialist best known for his work in Haiti, is among a growing number of Americans who have begun working in Rwanda in part because it is so well-managed.

“The first time I got stopped by a policeman here, I thought, ‘Oh, no! Am I going to get kidnapped, or worse?’ ” said Dr. Farmer. “I rolled down the window, and the policeman said, ‘Put on your seat belt.’ ”

In the early 1960s, most of Africa was richer than Asia and many economists expected Africa to zoom far ahead of Asia. Back then, the World Bank named a group of African countries that it projected to grow at 7 percent annually.

Instead, Africa drove over a cliff. Of those countries with good data, one-third now have lower per capita incomes than they did at independence (typically about 1960), and the five worst-performing economies in the world from 1960 to 2001 were all in Africa.

What went wrong? The two most important reasons were that Africa was terribly governed and that it was torn apart by wars.

The problem of conflict is as bad as ever (Darfur sums it up), but governance is getting far better.

Increasingly there are new leaders like Paul Kagame here in Rwanda who are honest, intelligent and capable. President Kagame reads Harvard Business Review and is an African version of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore. Both are authoritarian, repressive and quirky (Mr. Kagame banned plastic bags to curb litter). Both did wonders for their countries’ living standards. And both are blunt.

I asked President Kagame why Asian countries that used to be at the same income level as Africa are now so much richer. He offered one reason that bowled me over: perhaps Asians are today more ambitious and work harder.

“I’m hesitant to talk about the issue of culture, but I have to — and we have to work on it — that culture of hard work, that culture of being ambitious and wanting to achieve,” he said, adding: “I believe that those values were in Africans, but I don’t know what dampened it — what killed it.”

Wow. It’s a bullish sign whenever a leader is willing to be self-critical, but in fact lackadaisical work may have more to do with malaria, anemia, worms and misrule than with culture.

And when African countries have enjoyed stability and sound policies, they have often thrived. Indeed, the fastest-growing country in the world from 1960 to 2001 was Botswana (South Korea was second, and Singapore and China tied for third).

More and more African countries are now following the Botswana model of welcoming investors and obeying markets. Aside from Rwanda, countries like Mozambique, Benin, Tanzania, Liberia and Mauritius are among those trying to build a future on trade more than aid.

“We’re not going to say ‘We don’t need aid,’ ” Mr. Kagame said. “But there’s no question about trade being more important than aid. There’s no question about that.”

Rwanda is trying to develop high-value exports like pomegranate juice that it could air-freight to Western countries. One of the best kinds of aid that the West could provide would be to expand the African Growth and Opportunity Act program, which encourages imports from Africa.

After decades of stagnation, Africa has now been growing solidly for several years, and this year the average economic growth rate is expected to rise again, to about 6 percent. To me, much of Africa feels like India in the early 1990s as it was reforming its economy and setting the stage for today’s boom.

So here’s an investment tip: Buy real estate in Benin and Rwanda.

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New Scheme Preys on Desperate Homeowners

Aleem Morris signed over his home in a complex arrangement.

Published: July 3, 2007

With the housing market in decline, financial predators are finding yet another way to take advantage of people who fall behind on their payments.

The schemes take various forms and often involve promises to distressed homeowners of cash upfront, free monthly rent and a chance to retain their houses in the long run. But in the process, someone else takes over the deed, borrows as much as possible against the value of the house and pockets the cash. And, almost always, the homeowners still end up losing their homes.

There are no nationwide numbers on this common fraud, known as equity stripping, but it has turned up in almost every state. Seven states have passed laws to try to stop it. Still, with foreclosure rates rising rapidly, it will be a growing problem, consumer advocates say.

“Conditions now are perfect for these scams,” said Lauren K. Saunders, managing attorney at the National Consumer Law Center in Washington. “We are at the end of a period of rising real estate prices, so a lot of people have equity in their homes. But we also have a foreclosure crisis.”

Gloria and Fred Johnson fell for a sales pitch that they now regret. They had secured their version of the American dream — a home of their own — in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn in 2001.

For three years, they scrimped to save the $8,000 down payment for a two-family house. They took out a $226,000 mortgage backed by the Federal Housing Administration.

But in 2004, an injury forced Ms. Johnson, 38, to take a leave from her counseling job at Fountain House, an advocacy group that works with the mentally ill. They struggled financially on her disability payments and her husband’s income as a construction worker. By the summer of 2004, they had fallen two months’ behind on their mortgage.

So Ms. Johnson called the Home Savers Consulting Corporation, a Brooklyn company that advertised help for people facing foreclosure. “I saw the advertisement in a local paper,” she recalled. “I was in a tight situation and was scared to death I was going to lose my house.”

Because the Johnsons’ home had risen in value, they could have sold it and paid off about $275,000 in debt. But they wanted to remain in the house.

Ms. Johnson met with Home Savers officials and agreed to what she thought was a refinancing of her loan at a lower interest rate with more affordable monthly payments. But the Johnsons unknowingly transferred their deed to a straw buyer working with Home Savers, court documents contend.

That stand-in buyer qualified for a type of mortgage that would let him take cash out as part of the financing. He borrowed $425,000 against the house and pocketed $134,000, which included the Johnsons’ equity built up over the years.

Now the Johnsons are fighting to stay in their house and to recover their equity.

Jessica Attie, co-director of the foreclosure prevention project at South Brooklyn Legal Services and the lawyer for the Johnsons, said her office was overwhelmed with homeowners who had handed over their deeds to people pretending to help “save” their homes.

Officials at Home Savers could not be reached; the company’s telephone has been disconnected.

Such foreclosure-related offers have attracted the attention of legislators, and at least seven states have created laws against them. Last February, New York instituted the Home Equity Theft Prevention Act, which provides legal recourse to victims. And last month, the Massachusetts attorney general, Martha Coakley, banned for-profit mortgage rescue operations from the state after numerous complaints.

Victims are becoming more plentiful as homeowners fall behind on payments and find that they cannot refinance, with mortgage rates rising. The Mortgage Bankers Association recently disclosed that nearly 19 percent of all loans to less-creditworthy consumers, or 1.1 million mortgages, were either delinquent by more than 30 days or in foreclosure. At the end of 2006, the figure among these loans was 17.9 percent.

When a property enters foreclosure, it appears on a list at the county clerk’s office. Individuals and companies in equity-stripping schemes monitor the lists closely, contacting troubled homeowners either by phone, by mail or by knocking on their doors.

These companies advertise heavily in target areas. “Are you losing sleep because of mounting debt and harassing bill collectors?” asked one flier from a “foreclosure specialist,” Equitable Real Estate Solutions.

Aleem Morris, 30, who lost his job as a forklift operator three years ago, answered that flier. Behind in his mortgage payments on a two-story home in the Vailsburg neighborhood of Newark where he lived with his ailing 82-year-old grandfather, Mr. Morris was desperate. He had borrowed money from family and friends, but the house went into foreclosure in February 2005. He owed $118,000.

Mr. Morris said he met with Kenneth McKinnon, an official at Equitable Real Estate, and told him that he had bad credit, no job and was losing his house.

According to Mr. Morris, Mr. McKinnon said those troubles could vanish. Equitable would arrange for someone else to buy the house — temporarily, as it was explained to him. In return, Mr. Morris would receive $20,000 in cash and someone else would make monthly payments while he and his grandfather lived there for a year.

Along the way, the monthly payments would be made in Mr. Morris’ name, repairing his credit, so that he could qualify for a new mortgage. After a year, the Morrises could buy the house back for $315,000.

The house was sold for $315,000. Records show that in May 2006, Mr. Morris received his cash, and that his debts, including a tax lien and outstanding mortgage payments were paid. But the remaining $127,199, which probably represented his equity in the house, went to a mysterious “construction note,” that Mr. Morris said he knew nothing about. Mr. McKinnon told Mr. Morris that to make the deal work, a lot of people had to be paid.

Last October, Mr. Morris was informed that his house was again in foreclosure. He started looking for a lawyer. Essex-Newark Legal Services is handling his case.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Mr. Morris admitted, saying that his grandfather will suffer the most. With the promise of quick money, repaired credit and a place to live without paying rent for a year, he was easily tempted. “Who wouldn’t take a deal like that?”

Mr. McKinnon answered his phone, but declined to discuss the case. He did not return subsequent messages.

Foreclosure rescue deals vary in execution but as Mr. Morris’s case shows, they capitalize on two things: borrower desperation and mind-bogglingly complex mortgage loan documents. A study published last month by the Federal Trade Commission found that the documents were so confusing that 9 of 10 borrowers could not identify upfront fees on mortgage loans and half could not specify the amount they were borrowing. Sam Finkelstein, an advocate for affordable housing, has encountered several variations of foreclosure rescue schemes. One program offered by RYM Technology Holdings, which is based in Birmingham, Mich., lured at least 20 struggling local homeowners and as many as 40 other people in Chicago, said Mr. Finkelstein, who is a housing organizer at the National Training and Information Center, a nonprofit group based in Chicago that supports housing groups around the country.

According to participants in the RYM Tech program, company officials promised that if the troubled homeowners signed over their property deeds to RYM Tech and made monthly loan payments as usual, in five years they would get their homes back, free of any mortgage.

RYM Tech said it would use the equity in their homes to invest in apartment conversions in New York and China, earning fees for itself and enough to pay back the mortgages. Best of all, the homeowners could stay in their homes.

Shakeela Muhammad, 55, a former account manager at Bank of America in Chicago, heard about the program from a friend. She had owned her home on the South Side since 1988, but when she was laid off in 1998 after an illness, she struggled financially. By 2005, she was significantly behind on her mortgage.

Ms. Muhammad said she checked out RYM Tech with the Better Business Bureau; no complaints. She also called Felix Daniel, the head of the company, to ask if her home would be at risk. Not at all, she said that Mr. Daniel told her, adding: “I give you my word on my life.”

In August 2005, Ms. Muhammad signed up. Four months later, she received a notice that she was in danger of losing her home; RYM Tech had stopped making her mortgage payments. It had also refinanced her house and taken out $44,157 in cash that represented her equity. Her home went into foreclosure in May 2006.

“It’s amazing to me how these people sit at a computer and just rob you,” she said. “I want everyone who did it in jail with the bubbas and the brothers.”

Securities regulators in Utah have issued a cease-and-desist order against RYM Tech, and Arizona officials said a hearing was scheduled for this month in its civil suit against the company for offering securities inappropriately. Phone messages left at Mr. Daniel’s home were not returned.

Lea Weems, a lawyer at the Home Ownership Preservation Project at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, represents Ms. Muhammad and has helped keep her client in her home. A hearing in her case is scheduled for mid-July.

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Only One Word for Subprime Mess

Published: July 1, 2007

It has been several months since the subprime mortgage market started hitting the skids. Whenever the mortgage drama takes a new turn — like a hedge fund blowing up at Bear Stearns, as occurred in late June — some high-level official is rolled out to calm investors.

The trouble is, they all seem to have the same scriptwriter. In March, for example, Henry M. Paulson Jr., the Treasury secretary, said the subprime mess was “largely contained.” In April, Richard W. Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, called the situation “mostly contained.” Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, has also used the word to describe the subprime problem.

Now the private sector is weighing in. At a conference in London last week, Timothy Bitsberger, treasurer of Freddie Mac, the home loan financier, called subprime woes “severe, but contained.” Not to be outdone, E. Stanley O’Neal, C.E.O. of Merrill Lynch, said at the same conference that the slump was “reasonably well contained.”

Containment certainly seems to be the consensus. Only question is, how big a container? GRETCHEN MORGENSON

THIRD TIME ISN’T THE CHARM Three strikes and Dr. Bruce D. Given was out as chief executive of Encysive Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company based in Houston that is developing a drug for pulmonary arterial hypertension, a life-threatening disease.

Dr. Given, who had run the company since 2002, was replaced as president and chief executive on Monday, 10 days after the Food and Drug Administration decided not to approve Encysive’s drug. It was the third time in 15 months that the F.D.A. had decided that Encysive had not sufficiently demonstrated that the drug, called Thelin, was ready for market.

The new president and chief executive is George W. Cole, who had been the chief operating officer since joining the company in November 2005. Encysive also announced that to conserve cash it was reducing its work force by about 70 percent, to 65 people.

Dr. Given had been criticized by investors for not disclosing the F.D.A.’s concerns about the drug after the first two regulatory setbacks. The F.D.A. does not discuss drugs under review, which means shareholders are dependent on the company for information.

Dr. Given had said he wanted the company and the F.D.A. to discuss things out of the spotlight. But after the latest setback, he accused the F.D.A. of reneging on an agreement as to how the data from the company’s main clinical trial was to be analyzed. The F.D.A. would not comment on the accusation.

In a conference call on June 18, Dr. Given noted that the drug had been approved in Europe, Canada and Australia and said Encysive would appeal the F.D.A. decision. ANDREW POLLACK

BEYOND SOLAR Howard Berke, 52, the serial entrepreneur who helped found Konarka Technologies in 2001 to develop low-cost flexible plastic solar panels, is getting ready to move on.

Konarka, based in Lowell, Mass., is still privately held and a couple of months away from starting up its pilot production line, but Mr. Berke stepped aside from daily management last week. Rick Hess, whom he recruited last year as his eventual successor, took over as C.E.O. while Mr. Berke became executive chairman, focusing on strategy.

Mr. Berke is also taking on a new job searching for prospective renewable energy investments for Good Energies, a subsidiary of a Swiss investment company, and one of the venture capital firms backing Konarka. One of them might become Mr. Berke’s 14th start-up venture. “There’s no such thing as a conflict of interest as long as you are transparent in your relationships,” Mr. Berke said.

One bonus of the arrangement is that it offers more chances to go to Switzerland, the homeland of Mr. Berke’s wife, Sabine, and the country where he hopes to serve as United States ambassador “somewhere down the road.” BARNABY J. FEDER

THE GENEROUS BLACKBERRY The BlackBerry has made James. L. Balsillie, the co-chief executive of Research in Motion, very wealthy. But Mr. Balsillie and Michael Lazaridis, the other C.E.O., still live with their families in modest homes near the company’s headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario.

Their apparent frugality has not extended to their charitable giving, though. The two men have become the leading benefactors of higher education in that area.

Last week, Mr. Balsillie gave 33 million Canadian dollars ($31 million) to establish the Balsillie School of International Affairs, a joint venture of the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University that will be located in Waterloo. Mr. Balsillie gave an additional 17 million Canadian dollars to the Center for International Governance Innovation, another affiliate of the new school. Three years ago, Mr. Lazaridis gave 33.3 million Canadian dollars to establish a school for research in quantum-related physics in Waterloo.

“Global governance issues are complex and require an interdisciplinary approach,” Mr. Balsillie said in an e-mail message. “This new school of international affairs will produce the next generation of students and ideas to help shape solutions to the most pressing global issues of our time.”

Mr. Balsillie was raised in another part of Ontario and attended the University of Toronto’s Trinity College and Harvard. IAN AUSTEN

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