Saturday, August 04, 2007

Patriots Who Love the Troops to Death

Published: August 5, 2007

GERALD FORD spoke the truth when he called Watergate “our long national nightmare,” but even a nightmare can have its interludes of rib-splitting farce.

None were zanier than the antics of Baruch Korff, a small-town New England rabbi who became a full-time Richard Nixon sycophant as the walls closed in. Korff was ubiquitous in the press and on television, where he would lambaste Democrats and the media “lynch mob” for vilifying “the greatest president of the century.” Despite Nixon’s reflexive anti-Semitism, he returned the favor by granting the rabbi audiences and an interview that allowed the embattled president to soliloquize about how his own faith and serenity reinforced his conviction “deep inside” that everything he did was right.

Clearly we’ve reached our own Korffian moment in our latest long national nightmare. The Nixon interviewed by the rabbi sounded uncannily like the resolute leader chronicled by the conservative columnists and talk-show jocks President Bush has lately welcomed into his bunker. For his part, William Kristol even published a Korffian manifesto, “Why Bush Will Be a Winner,” in The Washington Post. It reassured us that the Bush presidency would “probably be a successful one” and that “we now seem to be on course to a successful outcome” in Iraq. A Bush flack let it be known that the president liked this piece so much that he recommended it to his White House staff.

Are you laughing yet? Maybe not. No one died in Watergate. This time around, the White House lying and cover-ups have been not just in the service of political thuggery but to gin up a gratuitous war without end.

There is another significant difference as well. Washington never drank the Nixon Kool-Aid. It kept a skeptical bipartisan eye on Tricky Dick throughout his political career, long before the Watergate complex had even been built. The charmed Mr. Bush, by contrast, got a free pass; both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and both liberals and conservatives in the news media were credulous enablers of the Iraq fiasco. Now a reckoning awaits, and the denouement is getting ugly.

The ranks of unreconstructed Iraq hawks are thinner than they used to be. Some politicians in both parties (John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Gordon Smith) and truculent pundits (Peter Beinart, Andrew Sullivan) who cheered on the war recanted (sooner in some cases than others), learned from their errors and moved on. One particularly eloquent mea culpa can be found in today’s New York Times Magazine, where the former war supporter Michael Ignatieff acknowledges that those who “truly showed good judgment on Iraq” might have had no more information than those who got it wrong, but did not make the mistake of confusing “wishes for reality.”

But those who remain dug in are having none of that. Some of them are busily lashing out Korff-style. Some are melting down. Some are rewriting history. Most seem more interested in saving their own reputations than the American troops they ritualistically invoke to bludgeon the wars’ critics and to parade their own self-congratulatory patriotism.

It was a rewriting of history that made the blogosphere (and others) go berserk last week over an Op-Ed article in The Times, “A War We Just Might Win,” by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack. The two Brookings Institution scholars, after a government-guided tour, pointed selectively to successes on the ground in Iraq in arguing that the surge should be continued “at least into 2008.”

The hole in their argument was gaping. As Adm. Michael Mullen, the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said honorably and bluntly in his Congressional confirmation hearings, “No amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference” in Iraq if there’s no functioning Iraqi government. Opting for wishes over reality, Mr. O’Hanlon and Mr. Pollack buried their pro forma acknowledgment of that huge hurdle near the end of their piece.

But even more galling was the authors’ effort to elevate their credibility by describing themselves as “analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.” That’s disingenuous. For all their late-in-the-game criticisms of the administration’s incompetence, Mr. Pollack proselytized vociferously for the war before it started, including in an appearance with Oprah, and both men have helped prolong the quagmire with mistakenly optimistic sightings of progress since the days of “Mission Accomplished.”

You can find a compendium of their past wisdom in Glenn Greenwald’s Salon column. That think-tank pundits with this track record would try to pass themselves off as harsh war critics in 2007 shows how desperate they are to preserve their status as Beltway “experts” now that the political winds have shifted. Such blatant careerism would be less offensive if they didn’t do so on the backs of the additional American troops they ask to be sacrificed to the doomed mission of providing security for an Iraqi government that is both on vacation and on the verge of collapse.

At least the more rabid and Korff-like of the war’s last defenders have the intellectual honesty not to deny what they’ve been saying all along. But their invective has gone over the top, with even mild recent critics of the war like John Warner and Richard Lugar being branded defeatist “pre- 9/11 Republicans” by Mr. Kristol.

It’s also the tic of Mr. Kristol’s magazine, The Weekly Standard (and its Murdoch sibling The New York Post), to claim that the war’s critics hate the troops. When The New Republic ran a less-than-jingoistic essay by a pseudonymous American soldier in Iraq, The Weekly Standard even accused it of fabrication — only to have its bluff called when the author’s identity was revealed and his controversial anecdotes were verified by other sources.

A similar over-the-top tirade erupted on “Meet the Press” last month, when another war defender in meltdown, Senator Lindsey Graham, repeatedly cut off his fellow guest by saying that soldiers he met on official Congressional visits to Iraq endorsed his own enthusiasm for the surge. Unfortunately for Mr. Graham, his sparring partner was Jim Webb, the take-no-prisoners Virginia Democrat who is a Vietnam veteran and the father of a soldier serving in the war. Senator Webb reduced Mr. Graham to a stammering heap of Jell-O when he chastised him for trying to put his political views “into the mouths of soldiers.” As Mr. Webb noted, the last New York Times-CBS News poll on the subject found that most members of the military and their immediate families have turned against the war, like other Americans.

As is becoming clearer than ever in this Korffian endgame, hiding behind the troops is the last refuge of this war’s sponsors. This too is a rewrite of history. It has been the war’s champions who have more often dishonored the troops than the war’s opponents.

Mr. Bush created the template by doing everything possible to keep the sacrifice of American armed forces in Iraq off-camera, forbidding photos of coffins and skipping military funerals. That set the stage for the ensuing demonization of Ted Koppel, whose decision to salute the fallen by reading a list of their names in the spotlight of “Nightline” was branded unpatriotic by the right’s vigilantes.

The same playbook was followed by the war’s champions when a soldier confronted Donald Rumsfeld about the woeful shortage of armor during a town-hall meeting in Kuwait in December 2004. Rather than campaign for the armor the troops so desperately needed, the right attacked the questioner for what Rush Limbaugh called his “near insubordination.” When The Washington Post some two years later exposed the indignities visited upon the grievously injured troops at Walter Reed Medical Center, The Weekly Standard and the equally hawkish Wall Street Journal editorial page took three weeks to notice, with The Standard giving the story all of two sentences. Protecting the White House from scandal, not the troops from squalor, was the higher priority.

One person who has had enough of this hypocrisy is the war critic Andrew J. Bacevich, a Boston University professor of international relations who is also a Vietnam veteran, a product of the United States Military Academy and a former teacher at West Point. After his 27-year-old son was killed in May while serving in Iraq, he said that Americans should not believe Memorial Day orators who talk about how priceless the troops’ lives are.

“I know what value the U.S. government assigns to a soldier’s life,” Professor Bacevich wrote in The Washington Post. “I’ve been handed the check.” The amount, he said, was “roughly what the Yankees will pay Roger Clemens per inning.”

Anyone who questions this bleak perspective need only have watched last week’s sad and ultimately pointless Congressional hearings into the 2004 friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman. Seven investigations later, we still don’t know who rewrote the witness statements of Tillman’s cohort so that Pentagon propagandists could trumpet a fictionalized battle death to the public and his family.

But it was nonetheless illuminating to watch Mr. Rumsfeld and his top brass sit there under oath and repeatedly go mentally AWOL about crucial events in the case. Their convenient mass amnesia about their army’s most famous and lied-about casualty is as good a definition as any of just what “supporting the troops” means to those who even now beat the drums for this war.

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Getting Coffee Is Hard to Do

Published: August 5, 2007

A coordination problem (a term of art in economics and management) occurs when you have a task to perform, the task has multiple and shifting components, the time for completion is limited, and your performance is affected by the order and sequence of the actions you take. The trick is to manage it so that the components don’t bump into each other in ways that produce confusion, frustration and inefficiency.

You will face a coordination problem if you are a general deploying troops, tanks, helicopters, food, tents and medical supplies, or if you are the C.E.O. of a large company juggling the demands of design, personnel, inventory and production.

And these days, you will face a coordination problem if you want to get a cup of coffee.

It used to be that when you wanted a cup of coffee you went into a nondescript place fitted out largely in linoleum, Formica and neon, sat down at a counter, and, in response to a brisk “What’ll you have, dear?” said, “Coffee and a cheese Danish.” Twenty seconds later, tops, they arrived, just as you were settling into the sports page.

Now it’s all wood or concrete floors, lots of earth tones, soft, high-style lighting, open barrels of coffee beans, folk-rock and indie music, photographs of urban landscapes, and copies of The Onion. As you walk in, everything is saying, “This is very sophisticated, and you’d better be up to it.”

It turns out to be hard. First you have to get in line, and you may have one or two people in front of you who are ordering a drink with more parts than an internal combustion engine, something about “double shot,” “skinny,” “breve,” “grande,” “au lait” and a lot of other words that never pass my lips. If you are patient and stay in line (no bathroom breaks), you get to put in your order, but then you have to find a place to stand while you wait for it. There is no such place. So you shift your body, first here and then there, trying not to get in the way of those you can’t help get in the way of.

Finally, the coffee arrives.

But then your real problems begin when you turn, holding your prize, and make your way to where the accessories — things you put in, on and around your coffee — are to be found. There is a staggering array of them, and the order of their placement seems random in relation to the order of your needs. There is no “right” place to start, so you lunge after one thing and then after another with awkward reaches.

Unfortunately, two or three other people are doing the same thing, and each is doing it in a different sequence. So there is an endless round of “excuse me,” “no, excuse me,” as if you were in an old Steve Martin routine.

But no amount of politeness and care is enough. After all, there are so many items to reach for — lids, cup jackets, straws, napkins, stirrers, milk, half and half, water, sugar, Splenda, the wastepaper basket, spoons. You and your companions may strive for a ballet of courtesy, but what you end up performing is more like bumper cars. It’s just a question of what will happen first — getting what you want or spilling the coffee you are trying to balance in one hand on the guy reaching over you.

I won’t even talk about the problem of finding a seat.

And two things add to your pain and trouble. First, it costs a lot, $3 and up. And worst of all, what you’re paying for is the privilege of doing the work that should be done by those who take your money. The coffee shop experience is just one instance of the growing practice of shifting the burden of labor to the consumer — gas stations, grocery and drug stores, bagel shops (why should I put on my own cream cheese?), airline check-ins, parking lots. It’s insert this, swipe that, choose credit or debit, enter your PIN, push the red button, error, start again. At least when you go on a “vacation” that involves working on a ranch, the work is something you’ve chosen. But none of us has chosen to take over the jobs of those we pay to serve us.

Well, it’s Sunday morning, and you’re probably reading this with a cup of coffee. I hope it was easy to get.

Stanley Fish, a contributing columnist to TimesSelect, is a guest columnist. Maureen Dowd and Thomas L. Friedman are off today.

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For Family of Migrant Farmworkers, a New Season Is Dawning

The house Jim Blaufuss built on his farm for the Hinojosa family.
Photo by Ángel Franco/The New York Times

Published: August 5, 2007


Minerva Hinojosa and her family migrated north again last month, traveling from the Texas bottom of this nation to its Minnesota top to weed the sugar beet fields of a farmer named Blaufuss. Once here, they each claimed the hoe that felt truest in their hands by carving a telltale mark into the wooden handle.

For Ms. Hinojosa, 22, this is how it has always been: the Hinojosas working the Blaufuss fields, following the rows of beets deep into the green distance, then working back down new rows, their hoe blades getting duller with every hack at the black earth. All for about $22 an acre.

But she also knows how profoundly this migrant life is changing. It hit home a couple of weeks ago when her cellphone trilled while she was working in the fields, her long brown hair tucked under a Texas Longhorns cap.

Holding the hoe with one hand, she flipped the phone open with the other.


Three decades ago, well before she was born, some of Ms. Hinojosa’s relatives began traveling 1,600 miles north, from Weslaco, Tex., to Breckenridge. Jim Blaufuss needed help with his sugar beets, and so a bond between two families was made.

Among those arriving from Texas every season was Eleuterio Hinojosa, a Mexican-born laborer accustomed to traveling far for work, whether to the fields or to the cotton gins that long ago changed the feel of his handshake by taking three finger tops. His wife, Rachel, and their ever-expanding family would join him on those long trips north, including his daughter Minerva, an American citizen who says she has been migrating “since I was born.”

The Blaufuss family eventually built a squat, one-story duplex with air-conditioning on their farm to accommodate the Hinojosas and their many relatives. The workers felt fortunate; not all growers provided housing, and those who did sometimes offered little more than shacks.

The hundreds of migrant families of Breckenridge became a tight but time-sensitive community, here for the sugar beet crop, then gone, some back to Texas, some to Michigan to pick apples. Not all local residents accepted them, that is for sure. But on summer Sunday afternoons, at least, they claimed a town park as their own, for music and barbecues.

“You’d see no white people,” Ms. Hinojosa recalls.

Back then, she was just one of many Texan children running about. Every morning she would take a bus to a supplemental education program for migrant children at the elementary school, overseen by a teacher named Bill Mimnaugh. She studied, played, got fed and stayed out of the fields — at least, that is, until she was about 11.

At 13, Ms. Hinojosa became pregnant. She named the boy David, took a hard look at what kind of woman his mother would be, and went back to school. This meant that every summer she would hoe her rows all day, then head off for night classes at Mr. Mimnaugh’s education program, determined.

Early last month the Hinojosas returned again to that squat duplex in Breckenridge, where they found a freezer full of meat, courtesy of Mr. Blaufuss. “They’re family,” he explains.

But this Texas contingent included only Ms. Hinojosa, her parents, her older brother Jay and her son, David — meaning that the many bunk beds in the house would remain empty.

People in Minnesota say that changes in sugar beet farming, including the use of improved herbicides, have reduced the need for migrants; that adequate housing remains a problem; that cuts in the migrant education program have caused child care and schooling problems for migrant families.

At the same time, the children of migrants are finding different paths, says Jay Hinojosa, 36, who has just changed out of jeans that are damp with sweat. “Some of them pursued education,” he says. “Some joined the Air Force, the Navy. Other family members decided it wasn’t worth it.”

Still, the Hinojosas see familiar Texan faces in Breckenridge, including that of Maribell Molina, 35, who migrates now to work for the Tri-Valley Opportunity Council as a family service liaison for the migrant education program. She says that older migrants return because they need the money, they feel loyal to employers, and they want to set an example.

“To show their kids the value of the dollar,” she says.

A couple of weeks ago the Hinojosas rose again before dawn. Rachel Hinojosa baked the tortillas and made the beans that would be breakfast and lunch. Eleuterio Hinojosa packed the coolers and sharpened the hoe blades with his metal file. Minerva roused David, now 7, and got him dressed. The family of five drove to the field and began hoeing at 5:30.

While David dozed in the pickup’s cab, the Hinojosas hacked at the weeds inhibiting the subterranean growth of the sugar beet, which is used to sweeten your soda, your cookies. After a while, Rachel Hinojosa drove David to the same migrant education program that his mother attended, run by the same Mr. Mimnaugh, who is sometimes called the “Dairy Queen guy” because on Fridays he rewards good students with cool treats.

“The same school!” Ms. Hinojosa exclaims. “I love it!”

The Hinojosas worked their rows, paused to eat, then reached again for their hoes. The sun arced high and hot over the Minnesota flatness. A cellphone rang, and Ms. Hinojosa answered.

“Finally!” she shouted, and the Hinojosas around her immediately knew:

Minerva Hinojosa, daughter of migrants, had graduated with a degree in English from the University of Texas-Pan American, and would be teaching this fall at her alma mater, Weslaco East High School. She is the family’s first college graduate.

Her mother said, “Thanks to God.” Her father said the family should celebrate by hoeing another row. And so they did.

Online: Audio and photos of migrant workers in Breckenridge, Minn., at

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Mortgage Mania Didn’t Grip Everyone

Published: August 5, 2007

THE seized-up United States mortgage market claimed more victims both here and abroad last week. The American Home Mortgage Investment Corporation, once a big lender, closed its doors, laying off more than 6,000 workers. In Germany, IKB Deutsche Industriebank received a $4.8 billion bailout from a government-owned group that said it would cover potential subprime losses at the bank.

In a report last week, Charles Peabody, an analyst at Portales Partners, an independent research firm in New York, characterized the state of the mortgage market this way: “Investors finally realized that there is such a thing as a bad mortgage loan. As a matter of fact, there is such a thing as a whole bunch of bad mortgage loans.”

As a result, Mr. Peabody noted, investors are no longer interested in most of the risky loans that mortgage bankers have been creating lately. Bankers can sell only the highest-grade pieces of those wonderful securities pools that were so popular among investors until about five minutes ago.

That gives two choices — neither one felicitous — to the bankers who originated the low-grade loans. They can either sell them at a loss, reflecting the market’s view of such debt, or hold them on their own balance sheets and watch them decline in value.

It is never pretty, watching a mania come undone. Unless you are one of the folks who never bought into the madness in the first place.

Michael A. J. Farrell, chief executive of Annaly Capital Management, a high-grade mortgage real estate investment trust, is one such man. And with a perspective on the residential mortgage and credit markets extending back to the 1970s, he is an excellent person to consult on what is likely to happen next.

Annaly is an investment management company that oversees a portfolio of strictly high-grade assets. The company invests solely in mortgages backed by government-sponsored entities like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae. Investors understand that it has little exposure to the current credit crunch and have bid up its shares almost 8 percent this year. The shares also pay a generous dividend of 6.4 percent at current prices.

For his conservative approach, Mr. Farrell confirms that for about two years beginning in 2003, he took plenty of abuse from more aggressive counterparts in the industry and from potential investors who urged him to buy lower-quality assets for their greater returns. Some of those ridiculing Mr. Farrell were the same people who jeered at investors who did not get the new paradigm, espoused in 1999, that any-Internet-company-is-a-good-Internet-company.

“I definitely took heat not only in my professional life but in my personal life,” Mr. Farrell said. “I had people stop me on the street while I was walking my dog saying, ‘Where is your dividend going?’ ”

During the crazy years, Mr. Farrell and his team decided against increasing the size of Annaly’s balance sheet. Investors willing to throw money into anything mortgage scoffed when the company turned them down. “We decided to withdraw from the market until the end of 2005, when we thought investment risk was being recognized by the market,” he said.

Mortgage real estate investment trusts came public like weeds during the boom, of course. But the strategies they use can vary widely. Some originate mortgages — New Century did, for example — and others buy mortgage loans in the secondary market, whether risky or not.

Most mortgage REITs do a bit of everything, explained Jeremy Diamond, a managing director at Annaly. As a result, investors in these companies must rely on their managers to put the right emphasis on credit risk and interest rate risk at different periods in a business cycle.

But because Annaly shuns credit risk, its investors are trusting its managers to bet appropriately on interest rate risk only. In this they are also conservative, holding assets with a duration of six months to two years. They also have one-third of their portfolio in fixed-rate assets, with the rest in adjustable- and floating-rate assets; this allows the portfolio to work well whether rates decline or rise.

“There is no official Annaly interest rate forecast,” Mr. Diamond said. “We manage the portfolio with no significant directional bias because we could be wrong.”

Annaly’s biggest challenge comes when rates plunge, as they did in 2004, pushing mortgage holders to refinance. But it has reduced its exposure to refinancing risk in recent months by raising about $2.5 billion in capital and reducing the premium-priced mortgages in its portfolio. While the company paid an average of $102.50 per $100 worth of bonds in its portfolio in 2003, its average is now $100.50.

When the mortgage market started to regain some of its sense in 2006, Annaly began raising money from investors. It made two stock offerings in 2006 and two more this year. Each time, the deals carried a higher price tag, reflecting investors’ appreciation of Annaly’s conservative business model. Even those who bought into the company’s most recent offering last month — at $14 a share — are ahead. Annaly’s shares closed Friday at $14.98.

Mr. Farrell and other Annaly executives also align themselves with their investors by not taking performance fees as most REITs do. Instead, the executives’ compensation, just 0.12 percent of assets under management, comes out of the company’s revenues.

So what does Mr. Farrell, who has been through at least three mortgage market seizures in his career, see on the horizon for the credit markets? More of the same turmoil, alas.

“I look at this sort of like 1990 and 1991,” he said, referring to the savings-and-loan crisis. “Against that background you had a $7 trillion economy that gave birth to the $300 billion Resolution Trust Corp. Now we have an $11 trillion economy and we’ve already seen $2 trillion of market capitalization going away” before many loans in the pools have actually defaulted, he said.

WHAT about the people who argue that the impact of the mortgage mess will be muted because risks have been spread well beyond the banks and into many parts of the financial world? Mr. Farrell takes the opposite view. Spreading the risk beyond the banking system will make the task of fixing the mess much harder.

“Even if the Fed eases, it is probably not going to help the housing market,” he said. “This repair cycle is going to take a lot longer because it is not concentrated in the banking system like it was in the 1990s. Back then, they could repair the banking system by dropping interest rates. Now they can’t bail out rich hedge fund guys in Greenwich.”

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With Pasture as His Canvas, an Artist Turns a Purple Heart Green

If Roger Baker mows it, they will come to see it, or at least fly by for a better view;
he turned this Hamptonburgh, N.Y., park into a Purple Heart.
Photo by Chris Ramirez for The New York Times

Published: August 5, 2007


First came a chance encounter at the antique store he and his wife run in Ellenville, 90 miles north of New York City, then a trip to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in nearby Vails Gate, and along the way an idea he could not get out of his head.

So, almost inevitably, there was Roger Baker prowling around an immense, sweltering field of grass and clover here on Thursday in work boots, blue jeans, green plaid shirt and engineers cap, taking swigs from the jug of Leisure Time spring water and contemplating his latest adventure in field carving, lawn mower art and large-form Americana.

By Friday, it was pretty much done, an 850,000-square-foot Purple Heart medal, more than 1,000 feet long, each detail precise down to the seven 36-foot laurel leaves on each side of the three gold stars above the portrait of George Washington.

“Hi,” he said when he made his pitch to Orange County officials in June. “I’m Roger, and I mow the lawn.”

On one level, that’s pretty much it, though, even including the space aliens who carve mazes in Kansas wheat fields, he may be the greatest lawn mower who’s ever lived. On other levels, well, pick your own job description for a guy who carves titanic portraits, most of them visible just from the air, into summer fields, which within days give way to grass, bugs, dust, butterflies and nature’s heedless currents.

Beginning in 2000, Mr. Baker, now 53, has created field portraits ranging in size from 500,000 square feet to more than a million: the Statue of Liberty, Elvis Presley, Albert Einstein, Jimi Hendrix. When last seen in these pages, he was contemplating his next act after a portrait of the late custom motorcycle builder, Larry Desmedt, known as Indian Larry.

His instincts this year were pulling him sax-ward — either John Coltrane or Boots Randolph (a personal favorite) — until May, when he met Bill Bacon, an official with the Military Order of the Purple Heart, who was passing through Ellenville. Mr. Bacon was planning events in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the Purple Heart medal.

The more they talked, the more the idea of a giant Purple Heart took hold. Mr. Baker visited the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, where the director, Anita Pidala, was instantly intrigued. He made a drawing, using as his model the Purple Heart of Art Livesey, 88, of Middletown, N.Y, who was a marine who fought on Iwo Jima in World War II.

And when he and Ms. Pidala found the site 16 miles from the Purple Heart Hall of Honor, off State Road 416, at the edge of Thomas Bull Memorial Park, he had to catch his breath: It was a gorgeous sloping field, thick grasses, even gentle strains of purple clover. “I thought,” he said, “that’s one of the nicest fields I’ve ever seen.”

And so, after getting permission from the county, which owns the park, he began work a week ago, walking the field with his Craftsman Hi-Wheel gas-powered push mower.

He did the detail himself, like the 260-foot-long portrait of Washington, while county workers on brushhogs did much of the large-scale mowing. He gets different colors and shades by changing the height of the blade. The piece will be unveiled today at an 11 a.m. ceremony.

EACH piece is different. The biggest new element in this one is that because of the slope of the land you can see it from the ground — “not perfect — it will look like a bad haircut — but it gives you a sense, and then I know from the air it will be something.”

Mr. Baker, a sculptor, artist, cartoonist and whatever comes his way, has no cellphone and no computer. He’s not political and he won’t make any money from the project. He did it because in a visceral way it hit him like a sudden burst of wind — his attempt, at once large and small, to make sense of and to honor the sacrifice people make in battle.

He said when he began, he looked, as usual, for reasons not to do this one. How about, he was asked hypothetically, the notion that many people won’t be able to think of it apart from the passions surrounding the war in Iraq?

“My thought processes never went there,” he said. “Not one time did that enter my mind. I look for things — aesthetic, personal, artistic, technical — that draw me. What I’m concerned with is my craft and doing this as if it’s the last time I’ll ever have a chance to.”

One thing he loved about the Indian Larry project, he said, was how Mr. Desmedt’s friends and family came to the site, and then walked it as if touching his spirit in the furrowed fields.

Mr. Baker hopes that happens even more this time — no simple answers or message, just a chance for people to silently traverse a country field to pay tribute, to give thanks, to contemplate heroism, to find peace.


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Chasing No. 300, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

Published: August 5, 2007

Here in the watched-pot department of baseball milestones, we become voyeurs, observing people as they observe other people.

There on the tube was Bud Selig, looking like a peevish, insomniac owl, perched under the eaves of a stadium, waiting for Barry Bonds to pass Henry Aaron and get us all back to our lives.

If Bud were a Woody Allen creation, he would be Commissioner Zelig, everywhere at once, eyewitness to history, waiting on Bonds to hit No. 756, watching as Alex Rodriguez hit his 500th home run, but he is only mortal, and he chose to follow Bonds.

A truly omnipresent commissioner would also find a way to watch Tom Glavine (pictured) try to win his 300th game tonight in Chicago, and might even have split himself, parameciumlike, to commiserate with Christine Glavine as the Mets’ bullpen squandered the lead Tuesday night in Milwaukee.

As composed as her husband, she did not express herself in any way that could have upset anybody, but her worried eyes could have been interpreted as saying: “Oh, jeez, poor Tommy and the rest of the guys. Well, now it’s more packing, more room service, more midday activities for the kids.”

Her stricken face reminded me of another look of desperation back in 1962, although Early Wynn was not as pretty as Christine Glavine, I can assure you of that.

Wynn was the Roger Clemens of his time, a burly old cuss. In 2003, Clemens taped Wynn’s dour mug in his locker, as a talisman of his long march to his 300th victory.

It took Clemens four attempts to gain that victory, but it took Wynn eight starts — more than nine months, doctor — to win his 300th. Nobody would wish this on the Glavine family.

As far as I know, Commissioner Ford C. Frick was not hunkering down in Yankee Stadium on the last Friday night of the 1962 season, as the Yankees tuned up for the World Series. Commissioners were not professional witnesses in those days.

Forty-two years old by then, Wynn had been a great pitcher in his time, coming up with Washington in 1939, helping to win pennants for Cleveland in 1954 and Chicago in 1959, and hitting 17 career home runs, one a pinch-hit grand slam.

Known as Gus, he was one of those ornery pitchers who are no longer allowed to exist. How ornery? Mickey Mantle — who slugged 13 homers against Wynn, more than he did against any other pitcher — once drilled a single right past Wynn’s blocky frame, and big Gus promptly fired a fastball pickoff attempt at Mantle’s bad knees, making him dance at first base, which was how the old boy had won 299 games.

On this autumn night in 1962, Wynn had nothing left. He suffered from gout. His weight was far above the listed 200 pounds. And baseball didn’t have trainers and diets and pitch counts the way it does today.

The Sox gave him a 3-1 lead into the seventh inning, but Joe Pepitone pinch-hit a two-run homer, and Manager Al Lopez had no recourse but to send Wynn out for the eighth. The Yankees clobbered him for four runs, ending his season at 299.

As a boy reporter, I interviewed Wynn, slumped in the clubhouse, probably a beer bottle in his hand, profound disgust all over him. It wasn’t the losing. Heck, old Gus had lost before.

It was the prospect of whipping his body into some kind of shape to trudge out there for another season.

Wynn skipped the tortures of spring training, and his old team, Cleveland, signed him in June 1963. He failed in four starts but finally found a team he might beat, the Kansas City Athletics.

“He didn’t throw as hard as Glavine,” said Ed Charles, who played for the A’s that day and is now a prince of New York for his role as poet laureate and third baseman with the 1969 Mets.

“His fastball, if it reached 80, that was stretching it,” Charles recalled of a game 44 years ago. “He was laboring, throwing nothing but bloopers and junk.”

Wynn staggered five innings, leaving with a 5-4 lead before Jerry Walker preserved the 7-4 victory. He said he had not slept the night before because of the gout, and he was glad to leave the game because “I might have fallen on my face; I was exhausted.”

He never won another game, and died in 1999.

Forty years after Wynn’s 300th, Clemens had his own travails, flying around America accompanied by his family and friends and a flotilla of camp-follower journalists. He won his 300th on his fourth try, and is still going.

Now it’s Glavine’s turn. He is an admirable player, and his wife seems the same.

My advice to the family: Pack light, expect nothing from the airlines and remember the camera is on you at all times. No. 300 will come — with any luck, sooner than it did for old Gus.


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Teaching From His Mistakes

Published: August 5, 2007

Canton, Ohio

During the past eight days, baseball and pro football fans have listened to inspiring speeches and watched great highlight films.

Last Sunday, in the quaint village of Cooperstown, N.Y., Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn capped a feel-good weekend at the National Baseball Hall of Fame not with tear-splashed speeches, but, rather, by their presence. In the midst of the controversy surrounding pervasive steroid use in baseball, fans embraced two of the game’s most popular stars.

Nothing, however, could match the emotion here Friday during the dinner for the six players who were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last night: two offensive linemen, Gene Hickerson and Bruce Matthews; a defensive back, Roger Wehrli; a tight end, Charlie Sanders; a wide receiver, Michael Irvin (pictured); and a running back, Thurman Thomas.

The inductees received their yellow Hall of Fame jackets Friday night, completing the symbolic transformation of great players into Hall of Fame players.

Of the eight inductees we watched the last two weekends — Ripken and Gwynn in Cooperstown and the six Pro Football Hall of Famers here — Irvin was the most compelling.

“I used to tell people, ‘O.K., the best get to play in college, and then the best of that best get to play in the N.F.L.,’ ” Irvin said Friday. “This is the best of the best of the best.”

Irvin led the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl championships and compiled great statistics for his position. But he is just as compelling for how he wrestled with — and often lost to — forces outside of football. He represents a sense of realism in an era when we would prefer our sports heroes to kiss babies and pet puppies.

I’m far more intrigued by a flawed star like Irvin.

I am not advocating that we reward poor judgment, only that we acknowledge that poor judgment will happen.

In fact, Irvin said he favored the new approach to player misconduct taken by N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell. “He’s trying to help these young guys make better decisions,” Irvin said. “At 21, 22, 23, you make a decision and you think it’s gone and in four or five years, that everybody will forget about it. That’s not the reality, not anymore.”

Everyone has lapses of judgment, everyone makes mistakes, although not everyone’s missteps become public. Irvin’s did.

There was an arrest in 1996 on charges of cocaine possession at a hotel party while celebrating his birthday. He was sentenced to community service, ordered to pay a $10,000 fine, put on four years’ probation and suspended for the first five games of the 1996 season.

In 2000, the year he retired, Irvin was arrested on drug-possession charges that were later dropped. In 2005, he was charged with a misdemeanor after the police found drug paraphernalia in his car. He said that he was taking the items away from someone he was trying to get off drugs and that he cared more about that than about his chances of being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“Of course I have regrets,” he said Friday. “Some of the things that have happened off the football field, I don’t think anyone would raise their hand and say, ‘I want that to happen.’ ”

On the other hand, Irvin effectively communicates with young people precisely because of his missteps. Mistakes and misdeeds are part of life; the challenge is recovering from mistakes.

“I was the hard-headed young guy,” Irvin said. “Now I’m talking to a lot of hard-headed young guys. It’s not that they don’t want to hear it. They hear it, but it won’t take root until it’s time for it to take root. They’ll hear what you say, and the job is to give them something. You give something — you hope it prevents them from doing certain things. But the reality is, they’ll probably still get in some situations, and hopefully what you gave them will help them get through it. A lot of times, you don’t learn until you’re in the mess yourself.”

Irvin’s career ended in 1999 in Philadelphia. His head was driven into the hard artificial turf by a hard tackle. He was carried off the field on a stretcher, praying, “God if you let me walk away from this, I will straighten up.”

He sustained a cervical spinal cord injury. As he walked away from the game, his mother, Stella, said she reminded him constantly, “Michael, you are on a short leash.”

At the end of an emotional evening Friday, Stella stood by a table with her children and grandchildren, basking in the glow of a miraculous evening. She said she wished her husband, Walter, could have been a witness. Shortly before he died in 1983, Walter Irvin told his wife he had a vision that Michael would be drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the first round.

On Friday, Irvin’s mother said she had a vision about her son’s future. “Michael’s got another job to do,” she said. “Michael’s got to preach; he’s going to have to do it before he leaves this world.”

The Right Reverend Michael Irvin.

Has an odd ring to it.

But once upon a time, so did Michael Irvin, Hall of Famer.


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Haunted by Seamus

Published: August 4, 2007

Most high-profile politicians acquire weird little bits of biography that you just cannot shake out of your mind. A reporter once told me that he sat next to a member of Congress on a trip, while said lawmaker kept eating mayonnaise out of those little packets they give you at fast-food restaurants. Even if this guy someday single-handedly resurrects the Equal Rights Amendment and shepherds it through 37 State Legislatures, when I look at him, a corner of my brain will always think condiments.

Then there is Mitt Romney, a candidate most of us don’t really know well yet. (A disconcerting number of well-informed people seem to believe his name is “Mort.”) Yet he could become the Republican presidential nominee. It behooves us to pay attention, to mull his Iran plan and deconstruct his position on health care.

But every time I see him, all I can think about is Seamus the dog.

Seamus, in case you missed the story, was the Romneys’ Irish setter back in the early 1980s. Mitt used to drive the family from Boston to Ontario every summer for a vacation, with the dog strapped to the roof in a crate.

As The Boston Globe reported this summer, Romney had the entire trip planned so rigidly that every gas station stop was predetermined before departure. During the fatal trip of ’83, Seamus apparently needed one more than the schedule allowed. When evidence of the setter’s incontinence came running down the back windshield, Romney abandoned his itinerary and drove to the closest gas station, where he got a hose and sprayed both dog and station wagon clean.

“It was a tiny preview of a trait he would grow famous for in business: emotion-free crisis management,” The Globe said.

Well, you could spin it that way. Imagine George W. Bush staring blankly at the windshield, the way he did during his My Pet Goat moment. However, how many people out there are troubled by the idea that we might have a president who wouldn’t let his kids go to the bathroom unless it was time for a preauthorized rest stop?

Romney has already come under considerable fire from animal rights groups over the Seamus incident. “They’re not happy that my dog loves fresh air,” Romney snapped back. He said that just recently, in Pittsburgh, although Seamus had actually long since shuffled off this mortal coil.

Is it possible that Romney is trying to dodge the Republican YouTube debate because he’s afraid someone will ask him about his method of transporting dogs across long distances? Perhaps we could have one sponsored by the A.S.P.C.A. instead.

Most of the candidates from both parties have pets. In fact, so many of them have golden retrievers or labradors you can’t help but wonder if they rent them. (John Edwards, ever the conspicuous consumer, has one of each.) This could be an excellent opportunity for John McCain to catch a break, since he seems to have the largest menagerie. Although counting each of the fish individually was a bit much.

McCain also has a ferret, which could provide ample opportunity for lively discussion with Rudy Giuliani, a well-known ferret-hater. Few of us who lived in New York City during his ferret-banning crusade can forget the day a ferret owner confronted the mayor on a radio-call-in show. Giuliani, in tones of Dr. Phil on steroids, urged him to seek psychiatric care. (“This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness.”)

Animal-lovers around the nation may also be interested to know that Giuliani’s second wife once asked for $1,140 a month in dog support for Goalie, the family retriever. Or that the third Mrs. Giuliani is a former saleswoman for surgical staplers — a profession that involves demonstrations of how well the product works during unnecessary surgery on dogs.

The Giuliani campaign has dodged the question of whether Judith Nathan Giuliani ever was involved in this kind of activity, which usually ends badly for the dog in question. This week a spokesman said he didn’t know, adding: “In the 1970s that was an acceptable medical technique,” which I think we can probably take for a yes.

Once we settle all these issues we can get back to health care. Although every time Mitt Romney walks on stage, a sodden Irish setter is going to flash before my eyes.

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The Columbine Syndrome

Published: August 4, 2007

Have you followed the series of articles in The Times about Joshua Komisarjevsky, the Cheshire, Conn., 26-year-old who, on early parole for a long string of late-night home robberies, teamed up with an accomplice and broke into a nearby house, sexually assaulted a woman and at least one of her young daughters, beat the father with a baseball bat and left them all to die in a fire? (The father alone survived.)

Buried in a report on Tuesday was a sinister detail that piled on a broad insult to all the gruesome injuries, victimizing a whole new set of people who should have had no link whatsoever with Komisarjevsky’s crimes. It was that, while pleading for leniency for his client’s earlier break-ins, Komisarjevsky’s lawyer, William T. Gerace, had in 2002 told a judge that the young man suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the learning disabilities dyslexia and dysgraphia as a child.

A.D.H.D., dyslexia and dysgraphia — invoked as logical potential causes for home invasions and theft? I don’t know if you all find this as appalling, offensive and cruel as I do. Perhaps you shrug it off as the work of a defense lawyer doing his job. I just can’t do that, because I know that Gerace isn’t alone in supporting and promulgating the view that kids with problems like A.D.H.D. — and depression and perhaps soon, thanks to this case, learning disabilities — pose real dangers to society.

Call it the Columbine Syndrome. Ever since the news got out that school shooter Eric Harris was taking Luvox, an antidepressant, kids’ mental illness and eventual mass murder have been linked in the public mind. This past May, the journal Psychiatric Services published the results of the first large-scale nationally representative survey of public attitudes about children’s mental health. Eighty-one percent of respondents said they thought children with major depression would be dangerous to themselves or others; 33 percent said they believed children with A.D.H.D. were likely to be dangerous.

This despite the fact that scientific studies have shown only a modest relationship between mental health issues and violence, “a relationship that is largely attributable to co-occurring substance abuse,” wrote a team of authors led by Bernice A. Pescosolido, a sociologist at Indiana University. “Unfortunately,” they concluded, “public perceptions that mental illness and violence go hand in hand may be more important than the evidence.”

Another study released in March found about one in five parents saying they would not want children with A.D.H.D. or depression as their neighbors, in their child’s classroom or as their child’s friends.

It’s deeply ironic that at a time when more than ever is known about children’s mental health needs and more methods than ever exist to help kids with behavioral or emotional issues, the stigma attached to those problems won’t budge. Instead, our brave new world of diagnosis and treatment has spurred new kinds of myth-making and prejudice. Chief among them is the idea that a diagnosis of A.D.H.D. is an escape hatch for selfish and permissive modern parents who are too lazy to discipline their badly behaved kids and prefer instead to medicate them into compliance.

There are very serious consequences of trivializing conditions like A.D.H.D. There is real harm done by instrumentalizing disorders — whether it’s in the service of a legal defense, as in Komisarjevsky’s case, or more generally to buttress ideological arguments about the decline of the American family. The more the disorders are banalized or made ridiculous, the more parents and kids dealing with them are stigmatized. The net result of this stigma, according to numerous studies, is that families don’t seek the help they need. And children with A.D.H.D. need help — not because they’re at risk of becoming rapists and arsonists but because, untreated, they’re likely to be in for a lifetime of frustration and unhappiness.

Health officials at a local psychiatric hospital apparently tried once to put Komisarjevsky on antidepressants, but, according to The Times, his parents refused, saying their son needed to deal with his problems “on a spiritual level.” I don’t know whether Komisarjevsky’s behavior stems from sickness or from evil. But I do know there’s something sick, in general, about turning kids with difficulties into actors in the morality play about family life that’s forever being staged in our time.

Judith Warner is the author of “Perfect Madness” and a contributing columnist for TimesSelect. She is a guest Op-Ed columnist.
Bob Herbert is off today.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

A Test for Democrats

Published: August 3, 2007

It’s been a good Democrats, bad Democrats kind of week. The bill expanding children’s health insurance that just passed in the House makes you want to stand up and cheer. Reports that Senator Charles Schumer opposes plans to close the hedge fund tax loophole make you want to sit down and cry.

Let’s start with the good news: The House bill, which the Congressional Budget Office says would provide coverage to five million children who would otherwise be uninsured.

The bill is so good that it has Republicans spluttering. “The bill uses children as pawns,” declared Representative Pete Sessions of Texas. Yes, the Democrats are exploiting children — by providing them with health care.

The horror, the horror!

What’s especially encouraging is the way House Democrats were willing to take on the insurance companies. The bill pays for children’s health care in part by cutting subsidies to Medicare Advantage, a privatization scheme that yields big profits for insurers, but that the budget office estimates would cost taxpayers $54 billion in excess payments over the next five years.

Earlier this year I worried that many Democrats would be taken in by the insurance industry’s disinformation campaign in support of its subsidies, which included the pretense that Medicare Advantage offers big benefits to minority groups. In the end, however, House Democrats refused to be rolled.

All in all, the bill is both a fine piece of legislation and a demonstration that Democrats can stand up to special interests. Happy days are here again.

Or maybe not.

The hedge fund tax loophole is a crystal-clear example of unjustified privilege. Because of a quirk in the law, the people who run these funds don’t pay taxes like ordinary mortals.

For example, the salaries that pension fund employees receive for managing other peoples’ money are taxed as ordinary income, at rates up to 35 percent. But if that money is invested with a hedge fund — and 40 percent of the money in hedge funds comes from public, corporate and union pension plans — the fees the hedge fund manager receives for his services are mainly taxed as capital gains, with a maximum rate of 15 percent.

The arguments usually made on behalf of this unique privilege make no sense. We’re told that the tax rate on hedge fund managers has to be kept low to encourage risk-taking. But the managers aren’t risking their own money. The only risk they face is the uncertainty of their fees — and as any waitress who depends on tips or salesman who depends on commissions can tell you, most people with uncertain incomes don’t get any special tax breaks.

We’re also told that management fees would rise, reducing returns to investors, if the privileged status of fund managers is eliminated — as if someone with a $100-million-a-year hedge fund job would walk away if his take-home pay fell from $85 million to $65 million.

And we’re talking about a lot of lost revenue here. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the hedge fund loophole costs the government $6.3 billion a year — the cost of providing health care to three million children. Of that total, almost $2 billion a year in unjustified tax breaks goes to just 25 individuals.

If being a Democrat means anything, it means opposing this kind of exorbitant privilege. Yet according to a report in The Times earlier this week, Mr. Schumer says that he opposes any increase in hedge fund taxes unless tax breaks for the energy and real estate industries are also eliminated, and pigs start flying. Seriously, his claim that he really would support closing the hedge fund loophole if other, deeply entrenched tax privileges were eliminated at the same time is a fig leaf that hides nothing.

Mr. Schumer, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, insists that the large financial contributions that hedge funds make to his party aren’t influencing him. Well, I can’t read his mind, but from the outside his position looks remarkably like money-driven politics as usual. And that’s not acceptable.

Look, the worst thing that could happen to Democrats is for voters to conclude that there’s no real difference between the parties, that when you replace Republicans with Democrats, all you do is replace sweet deals for Halliburton with sweet deals for hedge funds. The hedge fund loophole is a test — and it’s one that Mr. Schumer is failing.

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The Opinionator: A blog at the NY Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellentrop

The Washington Post editorial page says Alberto Gonzales should not be impeached, nor should a special prosecutor be appointed to determine whether he perjured himself before the Senate Judiciary Committee though the editorial does add the caveat, “at least not yet.”

Instead, the Post editorial proposes, Solicitor General Paul Clement should refer the matter to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, “an independent watchdog who has not been afraid to take Justice officials to task on overzealous intelligence-gathering, among other things.” The editorial continues:

Mr. Fine and the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility are already investigating apparent contradictions in the testimonies of Mr. Gonzales and former aide Monica M. Goodling over the U.S. attorney firings. And since at least last November, the inspector general has been examining Justice’s use of the surveillance program. The investigation into whether Mr. Gonzales perjured himself about intelligence matters would dovetail nicely with work that the office is already doing.

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Being Old, Then and Now

Published: August 3, 2007

Last week, while driving from a campaign event in Keene, N.H., I stumbled upon a used bookstore that I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager. I stopped in — even though I was rushing to catch a plane — and came upon a sad book published anonymously in 1911.

The book is called “Autobiography of an Elderly Woman,” and it’s a description of what it was like to be old a century ago. The woman begins by recalling the stages of her life: the misty days of girlhood; the precious years when she was raising her young; the rewarding times when she and her children were adults together and companions.

But then something changed.

“I do not know when the change came, nor do they, if indeed they realize it at all,” she writes. “There was a time when I was of their generation; now I am not. I cannot put my finger on the time when old age finally claimed me. But there came a moment when my boys were more thoughtful of me, when they didn’t come to me anymore with their perplexities, not because I had what is called ‘failed,’ but because they felt that the time had come when I ought to be ‘spared’ every possible worry. So there is a conspiracy of silence against me in my household.”

She describes how her children baby her. They offer to give her rides in the carriage to run errands when she could just as well walk. They try to prevent her from doing normal housework on the grounds that it’s too taxing. “You count the number of your years by the way your daughter watches your steps; and you see your infirmities in your son’s anxious eyes.”

She describes living in a different dimension. She sees and understands, but her counsel is never sought and she has no ground upon which to act. “We have learned then that we can’t help our children to lead their lives one bit better. There is not one single little stone we can clear before their feet.”

Though writing in the age of the gas lamp, she understands what the latest scientific research is now concluding. “Very soon your children slip from between your fingers. They develop new traits that you don’t understand and others that you understand only too well, for, like weeds, your faults come up and refuse to be rooted out ...

“There came a time when I realized that every child on the street my child stopped to talk with had its share in bringing up my sons and daughters. One week in school was enough to upset all the training of years.”

The book is a lament from a person put on a shelf, bound by convention and by the smothering concern of others not to exert any power on the world, even while seeing more clearly than ever the way power can and cannot be exerted.

It’s a remarkable little book, and when I did some research, I was surprised to learn it wasn’t written by an old woman. It was written by 37-year-old Mary Heaton Vorse, using the voice of her own mother.

Vorse was a bohemian and a radical journalist who wrote for The Masses, hung around Eugene O’Neill, John Reed and Louise Bryant, and she helped found the Provincetown Players.

Using her mother’s perspective, Vorse wrote a sort of “The Second Sex” for the elderly of 1911. It is about a class of people unable to exercise their capacities.

And what she described was real. In “Growing Old in America,” the historian David Hackett Fischer writes that age was venerated in early America. But starting in the first half of the 19th century, youth was venerated and age was diminished.

Thoreau wrote that the young have little to learn from the old. The word “fogy,” which had once meant a wounded veteran, acquired its current meaning. Dinner table seating was no longer determined by age but by accomplishment. Scientific knowledge gained prestige over experience.

Women, who had once rarely lived much past their youngest child’s marriage, now lived on with no clear role. The character in “Autobiography of an Elderly Woman” is a victim of all this.

I don’t know how many of her opinions will ring true to today’s oldsters. Now, elderly are richer, more active and more engaged than their cohorts of a century ago, but are they still living in a different dimension?

Is it now a dimension of their own choosing?

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Floyd Norris: Notions on High & Low Finance

Lone Star Funds, a private equity operation, prides itself on its ability to figure out when markets have overreacted and driven down prices to unreasonable levels. In June, it stepped in to buy Accredited Home Lenders, a troubled sub-prime mortgage lender. (Is that redundant?)

Today Accredited finally put out its delayed 2006 annual report. (It had to change auditors first, after the previous ones quit.) It includes this paragraph:

In connection with the challenges facing the non-prime lending industry, several of our competitors have recently stopped originating loans or sought protection under bankruptcy laws. Unless the values of our mortgage products cease their decline, and we are able to obtain new sources of liquidity and waivers and modification of the covenants in our credit facilities, we may suffer a similar fate.

Lone Star has not had anything to say, but Accredited’s stock fell to $5.31 a share, about a third of the price Lone Star has promised to pay

Of course, in this credit market, you can’t be sure that a private equity firm could fund such a takeover anyway.

In other mortgage bad news, IndyMac has told its employees “the private secondary market is not functioning” and it will be much more discerning in making loans in the future. And American Home Mortgage, whose problems came from mortgages that were not sub-prime, said it will close. In April, it sold shares to the public for $23 and change. Now they will be worthless. (In Friday’s Times, I look at the accounting games American Home played, and the evidence that some stock traders knew what was happening before the company disclosed its problems a week ago.)

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Getting One for the Price of One

Published: August 2, 2007

This week, Rudy Giuliani is focusing on health issues, attacking Democrats’ plans to get the government more involved in covering the cost of medical care. In a campaign tour of New Hampshire town meetings, he used the word “socialism” so often that it crowded out the old nonterror-related record-holder, “Ronald Reagan.” Other frequently repeated nouns were “choice” (good) and “France” (bad).

“Deal with it the American way!” he urged.

His own proposal involves tax credits and repeated analogies to the way the cost of plasma TVs go down when people buy a lot of them. Since the campaign says it will take a few more months to crunch the numbers and make the details perfectly clear, I, for one, am prepared to defer probing any deeper.

Meanwhile, we can consider the disappearance of Judith Giuliani.

You may remember a while back that Rudy Giuliani was touting his wife, a nurse, as an important adviser to him on health matters. This was around the time that he told Barbara Walters that he would be “very, very comfortable” having her sitting in on Cabinet meetings and policy discussions about her area of expertise.

So Judith was expected to be part of the New Hampshire health care tour. But her plans seemed to have changed about the time a new Vanity Fair profile emerged, one that makes her sound like a particularly unpleasant combination of Catherine the Great and Britney Spears. The article, by Judy Bachrach, accuses her of everything from demanding a separate airplane seat for her handbag to putting her husband in harm’s way by forcing him to retrieve a bag of health bars from the hotel during a security lockdown.

It’s a howl from the political and moneyed elite, recoiling from the idea of the social-climbing third Mrs. Giuliani.

“It’s a vile and venomous piece,” said Michael McKeon, a Giuliani spokesman.

Many of the anonymous quotes in the Vanity Fair piece seem to have come from past and present Giuliani employees, who are particularly bitter about Judith’s alleged attempts to elbow out his closest aides and confidants. This is not something you as a voter need to worry about since Giuliani’s closest aides and confidants tend to be extremely expendable hangers-on.

(We will revisit this issue sometime later when we discuss how chauffer-turned-police commissioner Bernard Kerik came to be nominated for chief of Homeland Security.)

The more problematic question is whether Rudy is so gaga over the lady that he will let her do anything she wants. If you elect him president, will you wake up a few months later and discover that Judith is Avian Flu Czar? Inquiring voters want to know.

There are three possible roles for the modern political wife/husband: Partner, Decorative Accessory or AWOL. We’re knee-deep in partners these days, with Bill and Hillary and Elizabeth and John. But there’s nothing to suggest Judith Giuliani can play in those leagues. In fact, although the campaign has tried to launch her several times, she’s showed absolutely no aptitude even for the role of admiring spouse.

She kept one of her divorces under wraps for a long while, trying to convince the world that Rudy was only her second husband. (The first rule of politics is to never lie about things that are quantifiable.)

In a rare speaking appearance at a fund-raiser last spring, she began with an anecdote about when they first met that was both unwise, given his married state at the time, and unlikely. (“The first time we sat down and talked I said: ‘What do you know about infectious diseases?’ ”)

Things did not really improve from there on in.

To protect his wife from unnecessary sniping, all Rudy needs to do is say that he was looking at the world through the eyes of love when he seemed to be envisioning her as a future weapons inspector. (“She gives us a lot of advice and a lot of help in areas where she’s got a tremendous amount of expertise — biological and chemical,” he said in 2003.)

They can jointly announce that while he campaigns, she’s decided to return to her true love and raise money for hospitals. They will need all the help they can get if his health care plan ever goes into effect.

Already, we can detect baby steps in this direction. Asked yesterday to describe Judith’s role in the Giuliani race, McKeon said: “She is involved with the campaign in terms of helping out with the fund-raising.”

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I’m Ripping You Off

Published: August 2, 2007


One measure of the inanity of our national farm policy is that you, as a taxpayer, are paying me not to grow crops here in Oregon.

Democratic House leaders have rammed through another grotesque farm bill on the assumption that the only people who will pay attention will be the beneficiaries. Let’s hope that they’re wrong, because this is a classic example of weak-kneed politicians caving in to special interests.

I grew up on a sheep and cherry farm here in Yamhill, Ore., and still have some timberland outside of town. Every year I get paid $588 not to farm it, under the Conservation Reserve Program.

That’s right: taxpayers are subsidizing a New York columnist not to plant crops in a forest in Oregon.

But at least I’m alive. The Government Accountability Office last month found that the government had handed out $1.1 billion over seven years to dead farmers. In one case, payments were made continually to a farmer who had died in 1973.

When I planted new Douglas fir seedlings on my land, care for the young trees was also subsidized. So America provides health care for tree seedlings but not for millions of children.

Maybe uninsured American children who can’t get adequate health care could masquerade as cotton plants or cornstalks. Then the farm bill would shower them with money and care.

What’s especially dispiriting is how quickly the House Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi have tumbled from idealism to cynicism. The Democrats had promised reform — but then the House leaders worried that scrapping welfare for farmers might hurt the re-election prospects of some newly elected Democrats. So they killed the reform proposals (which are backed by many rank-and-file Democrats).

But as a former farm kid myself, let me say what a lot of farmers and ranchers are too polite to say: Farm subsidies are a cancer on rural America itself. The subsidies have raised land costs, driving out small farmers and undermining the family farm by encouraging consolidation.

The benefits overwhelmingly go to producers of just five crops — wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans and rice — with livestock producers mostly left out. The majority of payments go to commercial farmers who earn more than $200,000 annually, while 95 percent of farmers get little or no benefit from the farm bill. That’s why my friends from my F.F.A. days speak contemptuously about those who make a living “farming the government.”

Look, I fervently believe in trying to preserve the family farm and the vitality of rural towns. One of my high school buddies, Bob Bansen, runs a dairy farm outside Yamhill, and years ago one of his cows had trouble calving. So he called in the local vet in the middle of the night, but the vet’s Caesarean operation didn’t go well and the cow died.

When the vet finally retired, he sent the Bansens a check for the cost of the cow, saying he had always felt guilty about losing that cow. The Bansens refused to accept the check. Foiled, the vet salved his conscience by sending the sum to charity.

That’s the kind of neighborliness that I love about Yamhill and farm towns like it. Unfortunately, farm subsidies don’t protect that social fabric but tear it apart, by encouraging consolidation into the hands of big operators who rake in millions in subsidies.

In contrast, one way to assist family farms would be to underwrite rural broadband, just as rural electrification transformed farms in the last century. Then rural businesses might stand a chance.

The average American family pays $320 a year in farm subsidies, through higher taxes and food prices, according to a recent study by the Heritage Foundation. And those subsidies, particularly for cotton, exacerbate poverty in Africa by depressing prices of crops raised by small African farmers.

There is a familiar trajectory when a political party takes power. At first, it brims with ideals. Then it makes compromises to stay in power. Finally, it becomes devoted simply to staying in office. Can Ms. Pelosi really have compressed this downward spiral into just six months?

President Bush had sought to place a ceiling on payments to any farmer of $200,000 per year, but the Democratic leaders have set it at $1 million ($2 million for a couple). Any time the Democrats find themselves fighting on behalf of fat cats, against a Republican White House that says enough is enough, it’s time for the donkey to kick itself in the head.

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

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‘In Cold Blood,’ Re-enacted in Our Time

Published: August 2, 2007


Shortly after noon yesterday, the Cheshire United Methodist Church was engulfed in what seemed like a disconcerting occurrence: normalcy.

Vacation Bible School was getting out. In the middle of an excited gaggle of children and moms — in tan shorts, a knit shirt and rainbow visor — was the church minister, the Rev. Stephen Volpe.

For the past week, Mr. Volpe has been at the center of a very different kind of scene, the extraordinary outpouring of grief and shock that followed the horrific break-in July 23 that left three of his parishioners dead.

So as he tried to balance the stirrings of new life with the horror of the past week, Mr. Volpe did his best to make sense of the way the crime had reverberated across Connecticut and far beyond, a reaction that lawyers say has probably exceeded any crime in the state in decades.

Part of it was the stunning brutality of the crimes, which left two career criminals facing capital murder, sexual assault, kidnapping, burglary, arson and other charges. The attack killed Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and her daughters Haley, 17, and Michaela, 11, and left the family’s father, Dr. William Petit Jr., badly beaten. Much of the reaction reflected the degree to which the Petits were loved and admired.

But beyond that, Father Volpe said simply, “I guess a lot of it’s about the kind of place Cheshire is perceived as being.”

Which is to say a place where the local hardware store, R. W. Hines Ace Hardware, dates back to 1910 and every transaction seems more a colloquy than a mere sale. A place not in a city, not in a faceless hodgepodge of fancy new subdivisions and McMansions but in a sliver of New England with deep roots in old soil.

As the dismal refrain often goes, this is not the kind of place where this is supposed to happen. What place is? But what resonated with such force was the utterly random nature of crime and locale, as if it should have some logic, some lesson, something that makes it fit into some cautionary narrative, but instead is a blank slate of random, senseless malice.

So people run out to get gun permits at the police station (10 the other day, compared with an average of 2 a week). They hurry over to R. W. Hines in search of new locks and bolts. Jay Markella, a lieutenant with the Cheshire Police Department, said even he’s changed his behavior. He had bought a tent for his children to use in the backyard. Now, maybe not. He used to be casual about locking his doors. No more. “That’s the thing about this,” he said. “Usually, there’s something you can point to. Someone was having an affair. It had to do with drugs. It was in the inner city. You can look at it and say, that’s not me. This time you can’t.”

Lawmakers have gone into overdrive reviewing parole and sentencing procedures. No doubt there’s much to learn. One glaring problem, lawmakers say, is the routine failure to follow a law requiring that sentencing transcripts are available to parole officials.

But the state is already at the upper reaches of prison capacity, 19,000 in a system meant for 17,000, said State Representative Michael P. Lawlor. Finding the potential time bombs, he said, can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

SO the most compelling commentary on the case may be one that’s not about it at all. It’s Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” with its account of a nightmare from another time, the 1959 murders of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kan. In it, two parolees invaded the Clutter home while four people slept and then terrorized and killed them. That was about a prominent and beloved farming family in the heartland. This one, about a prominent and beloved doctor’s family in New England, is like a cautionary retelling of the same horrid meditation on evil, chance and fate.

To get to the Petits’ house on Sorghum Mill Drive from the main part of town, you turn onto Higgins Road, with its hand-painted signs reading “Flowers for Sale” and “Sweet Corn.” You drive through a neighborhood that’s neat, green and orderly until you come to the house that’s incongruously battered, smoke stained and boarded up. There are still welcome signs in the flower bed and on the garage. The mailbox, surrounded by black-eyed Susans, is decorated with pictures of bird feeders. There’s a white plastic chair in the shade, as if waiting for someone to take in the early evening air.

In the makeshift memorial of dozens of bouquets is a single red rose enclosed in plastic. Wrapped inside is a piece of paper. It reads, “May God watch over all of you and bless your beautiful souls.”


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And Here’s to You Mr. Robinson, My Friend

Published: August 2, 2007

Son. That’s what Bill Robinson called Darryl Strawberry. Not Darryl or Straw or any street variations. Son. On days when Darryl wasn’t quite ready to play, Bill would materialize in front of Darryl’s locker, using that deep, melodious voice.

“When I dogged it,” Strawberry was saying the other day, in grief, “Bill would get all over my butt, but he never yelled. He said, ‘You’re the best in this business.’ He always called me ‘son,’ like he was my father.”

The Mets called him Uncle Bill, and he was a brother to many other people, including me. He earned four World Series rings with four different teams and, who knows, he might have earned another one as the Dodgers’ minor league instructor, but he died in his hotel room Sunday at age 64, and a lot of us are in pain.

“Bill was an incredibly patriarchal person,” said Ron Darling, who pitched for the Mets when Robinson was the hitting instructor in 1986, and is now an insightful commentator. “Bill tried to pass it on to Darryl,” Darling added. “He’d put his arm around him. Darryl wasn’t ready, and Darryl knows it.”

Darryl was the prodigal son that everybody expected to die young. But he has beaten back stomach cancer and intemperance and legal issues to run an autism foundation, based in St. Louis. Now, Strawberry is in New York, waiting to attend Robinson’s funeral Saturday at the Gloucester County Community Church in Sewell, N.J., glad that his surrogate father got to see him sober and healthy.

“He loved me so much,” Darryl said. It was an unconditional love, far beyond the immense talent Strawberry alternately brandished and squandered.

The Yankees envisioned Bill Robinson as that kind of force, trading Clete Boyer, their nimble third baseman, to get Bill to play right field for the 1967 season. Michael Burke, one of the grandest executives in sports, could not curb his enthusiasm, and somehow the title of the black Roger Maris was foisted on Robinson, expectations he could not fulfill. In a sport of failure, Robinson hit .196 and .240 and .171 with the Yankees. I have never seen a player fail with more dignity.

Bill had heard a mantra from the Dodgers’ Willie Davis, “It’s not my life, and it’s not my wife, so why worry?” He repeated it, sharing his love for his strong and beautiful wife, Mary, and their two children, Bill and Kelley Ann. We became friends, in ways I don’t think writers and players do these days, what with the huge gap in income, and the new edge between athletes and the news media.

In the spring of 1968, Bill was worried about how to get his pregnant wife, their little boy and their car up from Florida, so I volunteered to drive, thereby saving myself a plane ticket. As it happened, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated that day, and all hell broke loose. When we caught up with the Yankees in Richmond, Va., Bill was pacing outside the team hotel, a worried husband.

After three years of failure, Robinson wound up in Syracuse, but he fought his way back, first with the Phillies, then with the Pirates, earning his first ring as an important member of that boisterous we are fam-a-lee team of 1979. He remained the same person — straight, religious, mindful.

Bill invited my 11-year-old son into the Pirates’ clubhouse after a spring exhibition game in 1981. Suddenly a naked Dave Parker and Bill Madlock emerged from the shower, wearing jewelry and nothing else, and talking the normal, hilarious, scatological trash. In that deep voice, Bill told my son, “Uh, David, maybe you’d better wait outside.”

After batting .258 in 1,472 games, Robinson was hired by the Mets in 1985. “Bill insisted on being called hitting instructor,” Keith Hernandez, another sharp commentator, said. “He wouldn’t let you call him batting coach.

“He told me: ‘I can’t teach you anything, you’re a batting champion, you know what you do. Just tell me what to look for,’ ” Hernandez added.

“Bill would get on you, but he wouldn’t raise his voice,” Mookie Wilson, who didn’t need much prodding, said. “Bill was more subtle than that.”

“He was able to have a close family in a business that does not encourage it,” Darling said, adding, “He did not allow you to go on the field without your full uniform. He’d make you tuck in your shirt.”

Then Darling remembered a brawl or three when Robinson was in the middle of the pile.

The Mets won the 1986 World Series — Bill’s second ring — and then underachieved, which led Frank Cashen, the general manager, to dismiss Bill and Sam Perlozzo as a crude warning to Manager Davey Johnson. Robinson could have handled the Mets better than a few lummoxes who came later, but a managing job never happened.

He earned a third ring as a minor league instructor with the Yankees, and a fourth ring in 2003 as the hitting instructor with the improbable Florida Marlins. I got to hug him and Mary outside the clubhouse during that Series. I’d like to say to the fans, the next time you’re tempted to complain about all the rich bums in baseball, think about my friend, who called Darryl Strawberry son.


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The Opinionator: A blog at the NY Times by Tobin Harshaw & Chris Suellentrop

Barack Obama’s speech outlining a muscular antiterrorism policy wasn’t
his “Sister Souljah moment,” says Thomas B. Edsall, political editor of
The Huffington Post. But that’s only because Obama has already had at
least two Sister Souljah moments, Edsall suggests.

The speech was “part of the Illinois Senator’s larger campaign strategy, demonstrating his willingness to break from liberal orthodoxy — defying teachers’ unions, proponents of racially based affirmative action, and Democratic constituencies wary of the use of force,” Edsall writes. He later adds, “Although little noticed, Obama has been challenging influential Democratic primary constituencies at a rate of about once a month, building what now is a significant record of dissent from key party factions. He has taken on civil rights groups, the National Education Association, and the powerful lobby opposed to any changes in Social Security benefits.”

Like Bill Clinton in 1992, Obama is “seeking to establish his political independence from Democratic party interest groups, refuting
stereotypes which might encumber his candidacy,” Edsall writes.

And unlike many political observers who have emphasized Hillary Clinton’s sizeable lead so far, Edsall also thinks that Obama’s campaign is having “unprecedented success”: “Despite Hillary Clinton’s institutional and organizational advantage, Obama has moved from running 20-plus points behind Clinton at the start of the year to a current deficit of only 12 to 13 points, compared to John Edwards’ 18 points lag behind Clinton today.”

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