Saturday, September 08, 2007

Giuliani’s Ground Zero Legacy

Published: September 8, 2007

Rudy Giuliani is going to be at ground zero next week, taking part in ceremonies to remember the victims of Sept. 11. That was inevitable — the man has so identified himself with 9/11 that it’s amazing he hasn’t tried to patent it.

It’s also a terrible idea.

After the attacks, Giuliani did his best work in front of a microphone, speaking simply and honestly to the city and the nation. Ground zero, on the other hand, is the site of his worst failure.

That’s saying a great deal when you consider that this is the man whose crack plan for disaster response involved building the city emergency command center in one of the towers of the best-known terrorist targets in the nation.

But think about this: In the final months of his mayoralty, Giuliani went to ground zero 41 times, with whatever visiting statesman, movie star or sports hero who happened to be in town. He would walk them around the edge of the disaster zone and retell the story of 9/11. They could see ironworkers and crane operators dismantling the ruins and emergency workers looking for remains of the victims. Beneath those workers, the still-burning wreckage coughed up benzene and PCB’s and asbestos. The city had received many reports about the danger of that air. Looking down, Giuliani could see that very few people — except the health supervisors — were wearing protective gear. And he did nothing about it.

Now, some of those workers have gotten sick. Since thousands of them have filed lawsuits, it’s not likely that there will be any coming to terms with the numbers soon. The city has not even acknowledged that James Zadroga, a 34-year-old New York City police detective who died in January 2006, was killed by what his family said was more than 400 hours put in at the site. But a New Jersey coroner found that Zadroga died from a disease caused by his exposure to the ground zero dust. A widower, he left behind an orphaned 5-year-old daughter who is being raised by her grandparents.

Construction workers and emergency crews who raced to a stricken New York, eager to offer their services, are now wheezing and, in some cases, sitting immobilized in their living rooms, sucking oxygen from a tank. Their families have already paid a terrible price, and either the city or the federal government is likely to wind up with a financial bill equal to the moral one it already bears.

Workers exposed to toxic air can be protected by respirators. They’re uncomfortable and heavy, and people don’t like to wear them, even when it’s important to their health and safety. So the person in charge of a dangerous site needs to make it clear that only those with proper equipment can come anywhere near it. That’s what happened in Washington at the Pentagon, where there haven’t been health problems. Over in Staten Island, where workers were examining the rubble that the ground zero crews had excavated and loaded onto trucks, people were so well-protected that some of them looked like bit players in a space movie.

At ground zero, the priority was getting the site cleared as quickly as possible to show the world that New York was back to normal. The workers were left on their own. This happened on the watch of a mayor who had been eager to save us from our own imperfect impulses by bringing down the heavy hand of the law on every jaywalker, Chinese New Year firecracker-thrower or ferret owner in the city, not to mention the famous squeegee wielders.

Giuliani also set the worst possible example. While his own expeditions to ground zero were generally confined to the areas where the air was much less dangerous, his failure to ever, ever wear serious protection sent a very strong signal to the workers: Real Men Don’t Wear Respirators.

Sept. 11, 2001, gave Giuliani an extraordinary platform from which to educate the country about terrorism and public safety. Imagine how much help he could have been if he had talked about the mistakes made, the lessons learned. But he has never admitted error.

He has never acknowledged that it might have been better if he had focused less on getting the disaster site cleared away fast, and more on getting all the workers out in one piece. Recently, he had the temerity to claim that he’s a victim, too. “I was at ground zero as often, if not more, than most of the workers ... I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to. So in that sense, I’m one of them,” he said last month during a campaign stop in Cincinnati.

Forty-odd tours of the edge of the site with beauty queens and foreign dignitaries is not exactly the same as months of round-the-clock work on top of a mass of burning plastics. Questioned later, Giuliani copped to the universal politician non-apology — a failure to communicate. Then he added “... but I was there often enough so that every health consequence that people have suffered, I could also be suffering.”

It was, you see, all about him.

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Escape From Las Vegas

Published: September 8, 2007

Amber is 19 years old and on Sunday she caught a flight out of Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport and went home to a small town in Minnesota, not far from the Iowa border.

I’m rooting for her. She’s low on funds (“I’ve got my ticket, that’s about all,” she said), and she’s at a crucial turning point in her life.

The question is whether she will go off to college in Florida, and stick with it, which she insists is what she wants to do, or whether she will slip back into her life as a stripper and lap dancer, which is so often the start of the descent into the hell of prostitution.

“I hate the dancing,” she told me. “Sometimes I think I don’t have a strong enough mind for it, because of the way people treat me.”

I met Amber in Las Vegas last week. I was with Melissa Farley, a psychologist and researcher who was asked by the head of the U.S. State Department’s anti-trafficking office to do a study of the sex trade and its consequences in Nevada.

(She published the book-length study this week under the title, “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections.”)

Amber’s story is far more typical than many Americans would like to acknowledge. There are many thousands of Ambers across the country, naïve kids from dysfunctional homes who are thrown willy-nilly into the adult, take-no-prisoners environment of the sex trade with no preparation, no guidance and no support at all.

They are the prey in the predatory world of pimps, johns and perverts that goes by the euphemism: adult entertainment.

Amber’s parents are divorced. Her mother, with whom she lives when she’s in Minnesota, is both physically and emotionally ill.

For awhile, she said, she had a stepfather who physically abused both her and her mother.

“He was on meth,” Amber said. “He’d hit us, scream at my mother. We’d make dinner and he’d go into a rage and throw away the whole dinner. So we’d go without dinner that night.”

Amber was both shy and rebellious and began dancing at a strip club in Minnesota on a dare. That was several months ago.

One afternoon a wrestling coach from her high school came in while she was dancing. “I was topless,” she said, “and I just wanted to crawl into a hole.”

She saved enough money to go to Vegas and tried out for a job there. “The manager told me, ‘You can’t work for me. You’re too big,’ ” she said. “So I didn’t eat for four days. All I had that whole time was one bowl of cereal and some water. It was horrible. I lost 10 pounds and went back. He made me take off all my clothes and dance for him. And then he said I was still too big. You have to be practically anorexic to dance for him.”

I asked why she continued dancing even though she hated it. Her face took on the puzzled look of a kid who had no good answer for not doing her homework.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s not very logical, is it?”

She got a job at Sheri’s Cabaret on South Highland Avenue, which trumpets to all and sundry that its dancers are completely nude. The owners of the cabaret also own Sheri’s Ranch, a legal brothel about an hour’s ride outside of Vegas.

“It’s unbelievable the way the customers degrade you,” Amber said. “Their hands are all over you and they’re always trying to have sex with you.”

I asked if she’d ever been tempted to give in. She waited a long moment before answering.

“Sometimes I am,” she said. “Sometimes a guy will offer a lot of money, and I might think that could help with whatever I need for that month. But then I think, I just can’t do that. Nobody should violate my body like that.”

I asked Amber why she was willing to talk candidly and on the record about her experiences. She said, “I want people to know what it’s like for us. They think we’re just a bunch of lowlifes who like to get naked for money. We’re not. We go through a lot.”

When I asked her if she ever wanted to get married and raise a family, she was unequivocal.

“No” she said. “I don’t want any of that. I just feel if I get married the guy will change and show his true colors. I don’t want that to happen to me.”

She swears she’s going to school and will try to find work in the fashion industry.

I asked if she thought she would ever go back to dancing.

“Probably not,” she said.

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The Case of the Subpar Smartphone

Published: September 8, 2007

My Treo died.

It happened about three weeks ago, and I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. I bought a Treo 700p in early January and have had buyer’s remorse pretty much ever since.

The 700p, of course, is a member of the Palm smartphone family; it’s the one that uses the Palm operating system (the 700w uses Windows). I chose it because I was a longtime user of the Palm Pilot, and had all my data already stored on the Palm application on my computer. In other words, it was the kind of completely rational technology decision we nongeeks tend to make — and then, sadly, come to regret.

Practically out of the box, my Treo froze on a regular basis. I could never get my Gmail account to sync with the Treo, and had to use the Web to retrieve e-mail — which required the patience of Job. It had all sorts of weird glitches: sometimes it raced around the menu while I watched helplessly; at other times, it would switch from one application to another for no reason. It would ring randomly. By June, it was shutting down completely two or three times a week, even in the middle of phone calls, and then powering back up again.

Maybe, I thought, I’m just unlucky. Maybe I’ve bought a lemon, in which case I should try to get my carrier, Verizon Wireless, to replace it. You know how it is, though: life kept getting in the way, and I never got around to it.

But I also think my avoidance was due to a darker, more painful thought: maybe Treos were simply lousy devices. Maybe I should never have believed The Wall Street Journal’s technology guru, Walt Mossberg, who wrote in early 2006 that “Palm’s Treo smartphones have been the best high-end cellphones on the market, with the finest combination of voice, e-mail and Web-browsing capabilities in a hand-held device.” Maybe I was a fool to assume, as I clearly had, that just because Palm had once made great products, it was still making great products.

Then my Treo died, and that gave me my answer. What killed it was, of all things, a software upgrade from Palm. I had finally gotten around to trying to get the 700p replaced, but Verizon Wireless insisted that I try Palm’s newly issued upgrade first, to see if that solved the problem. Instead the new software destroyed the phone; indeed, within a week, the upgrade had been withdrawn, with Palm posting a quasi-apology on its Web site promising a new upgrade that would fix the severe problems the previous one had caused.

We won’t dwell on what happened next because I’m still trying to eradicate it from my memory: the refusal of Verizon Wireless to replace the phone in a store, even though it was under warranty, causing me to have to buy a new one, at full price, in order to not be phoneless. When my “real” new phone arrived a week later in the mail, I then returned the temporary phone to Verizon for a full refund (this maneuver, by the way, was suggested by a Verizon Wireless technician). Then came the hours of working with the valiant Verizon technical support guy, as he struggled to get my Treo up and running. There was the software that refused to work. The continued difficulty of synching with Gmail. The “soft resets.” The frustration. The constant refrain of “Let’s try that again.” And finally, after everything was more or less up and running, the painful realization that the new phone was almost as problematic as the old one had been.

And as I’ve since learned, I’m hardly alone in this view. Read the chat about the Treo on the Internet; it’s brutal. “I have been disgusted with Palm,” wrote one angry consumer. “The Treo product line has become increasingly unreliable and unremarkable,” wrote another. In the words of Ryan Block, the editor of the consumer electronics Web site,“Palm has lost its way.” Who knew?

Before going any further, it’s worth pointing out something that nobody ever bothers to tell us nongeeks. It’s hard to make a good smartphone — so hard, in fact, that no one really has it right yet. BlackBerrys are great at e-mail, but the phone is barely adequate and its Internet abilities are not very good at all. The Motorola Q crashes almost as often as the Treo. The Apple iPhone is terrific for music and media, but lousy for e-mail and phoning.

Part of the reason has to do with what’s called the “form factor.” For marketing reasons, everybody is trying to cram all these complicated features into ever-sleeker, ever-thinner boxes, while also adding longer battery life, and so on. Invariably, smart phone designers have to make compromises that mean some functions don’t work especially well.

Part of the reason, also, is that with the possible exception of the Swiss Army Knife, products that combine functions tend to disappoint. “Take the toaster oven,” said Larry Keeley, the president of the industrial design firm Doblin Inc. “It tries to be an oven and a toaster, but it’s an unsatisfying product. You’d rather have a great toaster.” That is why so many businesspeople, especially, use the BlackBerry for e-mail — but still own a separate cellphone for telephone calls.

Finally, there is the question of a company’s heritage. All the big smartphone companies are coming at the device from a different starting point. Motorola has its roots in cellphones; not surprisingly, that’s what works best on the Motorola Q. Apple has the iPod and computing in its heritage, so it does music and media really well. BlackBerry began as a mobile e-mail company, which is why its e-mail is so much better than everybody else’s.

Palm’s heritage is that it practically invented the hand-held device with its original Palm Pilot — and in that one fact lies both the root of the company’s problems and the explanation for what’s keeping it afloat today. On the one hand, believe it or not, the company is still using the same operating system it used when it was churning out Palm Pilot, which, please recall, had no Internet, no e-mail and no telephone.

No wonder my machine is so unstable. You can’t just keep piling new features on top of an outmoded operating system and not expect to have big problems. (Just ask Microsoft.) When I asked around among the technology cognoscenti, the general consensus was that Palm had been so far out in front in the hand-held business that it became trapped by its own success, and had, in the process, gotten sloppy and arrogant. And now it was paying the price.

On the other hand — and this is what is keeping Palm afloat — saps like me, not knowing any better, keep buying the wretched thing. It is a remarkable illustration of the power of brands. Maybe, if my due diligence had gone beyond reading Mr. Mossberg, I might have realized that the Treo was far more trouble than it was worth. But I was equally trapped by the fact that I had Palm as part of my personal infrastructure, and sticking with Palm meant that I wouldn’t have to start from scratch, re-entering my data by hand. (Note to technology experts: please don’t tell me how easy it to “port” data. For most of us, that kind of thing always turns out to be way too hard.) So when I was ready to buy a smartphone, I assumed that Palm still knew what it was doing — because if that were indeed the case, it would make my life a little easier. In other words, it was a belief that grew out of convenience, not fact.

That is also why so many consumers are now so furious at Palm. Once they saw how poorly the Treo worked, they felt foolish for having believed in Palm. And many of them have vowed never to make the same mistake again. In time, if enough people start to feel that way, there is not going to be a Palm. The company is running out of time.

The only real glimmer of hope is that Palm, at long last, seems to have realized what dire straits it is in. Not long ago, the smart guys over at Elevation Partners made a deal to take a 25 percent stake in the company. Once the deal is approved in a few weeks, Elevation Partners will get a handful of board seats, with one of them going to Apple’s former chief financial officer, Fred Anderson. Jon Rubenstein, who ran Apple’s iPod division from 2004 to 2006, will take charge of product development.

Just this week, Palm announced that it was canceling a new product called the Foleo, a misguided, and widely mocked, effort to create a “tweener” device — something in between a laptop and a hand-held. Instead, it is refocusing its efforts on coming up with a next-generation operating system. Better late than never.

Smartphones today account for fewer than 5 percent of the 1.1 billion cellphones sold annually. Clearly, over the next few years, that percentage is going to rise sharply; in theory, the smartphone just has too much utility not to succeed. Eventually, some company is going to get it right, and the smartphones will ultimately be akin to the Swiss Army Knife — the rare combo product that works.

And maybe, just maybe, that company will be a newly refocused Palm. But I’ll be long gone by then. Under my contract with Verizon Wireless, I’ll be eligible to get a new phone, at a substantial discount, in five more months.

I can’t wait.

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Fighting an Outbreak of Mortgages Too Good to Be True

Published: September 8, 2007

Last week, the lawyers at a legal clinic in Brooklyn set the answering machine to stop taking new messages. So many people in Brooklyn and Queens are in trouble with mortgage bills that the lawyers cannot keep up.

“That’s the first time we’ve had to suspend taking on new clients,” said Meghan Faux, co-director of the Foreclosure Prevention Project at South Brooklyn Legal Services. “There’s no way we could answer all those calls and provide proper representation to our clients.”

Through this week, notices of pending legal action against homeowners are up by 48 percent in Queens and by 40 percent in Brooklyn over last year, according to the county clerks. Foreclosures in the city have doubled since 2005.

The subprime crisis that has knocked the financial markets began, at least in New York, as fliers taped to lampposts in Brooklyn and Queens over the last decade. These posters promised good deals on loans or home refinancing. Lending to low-income people at high rates became a thriving business.

Last year, Tilton Jack, a retired transit worker, opened the mailbox at his home on Cortelyou Road in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and found a leaflet advertising low-interest loans. He was soon visited by Michael Goltche of Golden First Mortgage, according to court papers, who told him that he qualified for a 1 percent mortgage.

Too good to be true?

In fact, the rate was 1 percent — but for one day. On the second day, it increased to 8.13 percent. Now, it is 8.77 percent. But those jumps are not what is sending his mortgage into a financial death spiral.

Under the terms, Mr. Jack’s monthly payment is set as if the mortgage cost just 1 percent, even though it is much more. So the seemingly low rate is a trap: every month, the unpaid interest is being piled onto his principal. When it reaches 110 percent of the original loan, the payments will be adjusted to the full 8.77 percent — on the principal that has been swollen by the unpaid interest.

“The principal has been increasing ever since he got the loan, and his payments will go from $1,100 a month to over $3,000,” said Navid Vazire, a lawyer with the Foreclosure Prevention Project who is representing Mr. Jack.

Mr. Jack, 82, had fallen into the grip of a maddeningly dense mortgage scheme known as “payment option adjustable rate mortgage.”

“Nearly all our clients with these loans are elderly, on fixed income, so they have no prospect of making the dramatically higher payments,” Mr. Vazire said.

Feeling uneasy about the loan after the closing, Mr. Jack tried to exercise his right to cancel it within three days, according to court papers, but could not reach Mr. Goltche. A person who answered the phone yesterday at Golden First Mortgage, which is based in Melville, on Long Island, said Mr. Goltche no longer worked there and referred inquiries to a lawyer who did not respond to a message.

In early June, Nerida Cuccia of Queens Village said she got phone calls from people who claimed they could give her a mortgage at 2.25 percent for five years, and then 20 years at 5.5 percent.

Ms. Cuccia, who will be 61 tomorrow and retired in March as a nurse practitioner from the city hospital systems, said she was deeply skeptical.

“But even if your gut tells you something’s wrong, the percentages make you forget about the gut,” she said. The loan was issued by Countrywide Financial, the lender that had come close to collapse. The closing took place at her home on 215th Place. She did not have a lawyer examine the papers.

“They told me, don’t worry about it,” she said. “I’ve refinanced before with just a notary.” She said the papers she signed showed the promised rates, but when her first statement arrived, she found that the loan was for 8.25 percent. And like Mr. Jack’s loan, her payments were set at a rate that meant she would lose ground every month. She is now being represented by the Foreclosure Prevention Project, which is considering a lawsuit.

The phone number of the brokers in Monroe, N.Y., who set up the Cuccia loan has been disconnected.

“It mortified me, for sure,” Ms. Cuccia said. “I will handle this. It makes me sick to think of some little old lady getting stuck with this.”

And the answering machine at the legal clinic will be turned back on next week, Ms. Faux said.


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As Testing Continues, Cheating Endures

Published: September 8, 2007

Rick Ankiel reportedly received
human growth hormone in 2004.

Perhaps there will come a time when baseball shakes free of these vexing and occasionally damning performance-enhancement headlines. Perhaps the sport will awaken some future morning with a drug-testing program that is as good as it can be, and the right to say there is nothing more the game can do except to punish the cheats when they get caught.

For now, no such claim can be made as the testing apparatus remains incomplete and the slimy residue of industry-wide and years-long neglect is thrown back at baseball like a pie to the face. Rick Ankiel and Troy Glaus are the latest cases, the former based in St. Louis, nine years and a couple of weeks after the first sighting of Mark McGwire’s little bottled helpers.

“It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it,” Tony La Russa, the Cardinals’ manager, said after Ankiel’s assault on National League pitching escalated with two home runs in a rout of the Pirates on Thursday, giving Ankiel, a converted pitcher, nine in 81 at-bats since his return to the majors Aug. 10.

The home runs, yes; and also the timing of the curveball spun into the dirt yesterday, at the feet of Ankiel, the feel-good slugger of the baseball summer.

La Russa’s succinct commentary had barely been heard when Ankiel — author of the greatest comeback story ever told — was added to the growing list of major leaguers suspected of, or who have admitted to, spiking their spinach. The Daily News reported that Ankiel, in 2004, received 12 months’ supply of human growth hormone from a Florida pharmacy that was part of a national, and illegal, prescription drug distribution ring.

Ankiel was a pitcher at the time, futilely struggling to overcome the mysterious condition that prevented him from throwing a baseball in the direction he aimed it and an elbow injury that in 2003 required what is known as Tommy John surgery.

Was he taking H.G.H. merely for rehabilitation purposes, as he told reporters in Phoenix last night, while breaking no baseball rules? Assuming as much, does he deserve the benefit of the doubt for what he is achieving now because he reportedly stopped receiving shipments before baseball banned the substance in 2005?

That depends on how one views the purpose of baseball’s own investigation into its so-called steroid era — to comprehend what caused it and take every possible step to dismantle it or to declare mission accomplished by shooting down a select number of easy targets for mounting on Commissioner Bud Selig’s wall.

I’ve said many times that the crusade to invalidate Barry Bonds’s career home run record set last month was always more distraction than solution, the selective pursuit of celebrity for the sake of protecting sacred statistics.

“They have fixated on home runs and records in baseball,” said Dr. Gary I. Wadler, an expert on performance-enhancing drugs and a World Anti-Doping Agency consultant. “But that was never the big picture.”

It was about the rooted culture, always the culture. And here we have more names — Sports Illustrated’s online report on Glaus receiving steroids in 2003 and 2004 followed yesterday — in what has become a steady, insidious drip, reminding us again of how widely infected baseball was with the belief that natural preparation, or recovery, was for suckers.

A player, any player, bought into that or he didn’t. You want to still let Ankiel be Roy Hobbs, the Natural, because his H.G.H. timeline suggests no current foul play and because his inspirational return is just too good to let loose-lipped investigators and nosy newspapermen ruin? Fine, but you forfeit your right to sneer at San Franciscans who long ago extended that courtesy to Bonds, who, after all, became the inflated wonder of the world before baseball had a collectively bargained testing program.

None of that addresses the H.G.H. factor, of course, the elephant in the enhancement arena, not just for Bonds, but an entire sport that lied so insistently to America and, worse, to itself, and now expects people to take it on faith that its players, by and large, would not cheat even if they couldn’t get caught.

Baseball, Wadler said, has conducted a “misinformation campaign” about the reliability of testing for H.G.H. used by the Olympics because it doesn’t want to confront the players’ union on the drawing of blood. Now, he added, the new formula for cheating is believed to be a combination of H.G.H. with small amounts of steroids that go undetected in urine samples.

As more names leak from the faucet, further illuminating the past, the culture of enhancement continues.

From Bonds to Ankiel, one end of baseball’s summer spectrum to the other, there can be no selective reasoning, no double standard, only a complete accounting of a cheating culture bigger than any one player, and using that historical perspective to move on, confront the future headlines being written right now.


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The Opinionator - September 7, 2007

Because, apparently, regular polls don’t give vague enough snapshots of Americans’ political opinions, Gallup has now conducted a survey of attitudes on the presidential candidates using a “feeling thermometer” rating scale. “Only one — Barack Obama — stirs up warm feelings in a majority of Americans,” the study found. “However, Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and John McCain are all close to Obama in favorability. Clinton’s image is the most polarized of this group: nearly as many Americans say she leaves them cold as say they feel warmly toward her.”

But Joe Gandelman at his “independent thinker’s” blog, The Moderate Voice, points out that “Gallup notes that in getting a nomination these national rankings don’t outline the whole story. What’s important is how candidates are perceived within THEIR OWN party ­ and on that score Ms. Clinton is in good shape. Gandelman continues:

Expect Clinton’s foes ­ within and outside her party ­ to look at this poll material and adjust their campaign’s strategy and tactics accordingly. Most likely Republicans and Democrats will seek to drive up her negatives and perhaps even try to bait her into getting into situations that show her in the worst possible light. On her end, Clinton will have to continue to make the case that she can gain wider support than she has ­ and have it be increasingly evident in poll numbers as primary season unfolds.

Diane Meyer at Respublica, however, feels the real losers are the American people: “What’s mind boggling is the high percentage of people taking the poll who answered “never heard of” in response to Thompson, Biden, Romney, Richardson, Huckabee, and Brownback. Are these people living in a media free zone?

A “media free zone”? At the risk of losing my paycheck, I’d still like to see Gallup do a “feelings” poll on that concept.

Patrick Healy at The Times’s Caucus blog has the scoop on the latest Hillary Clinton supporter to find himself in big legal trouble. The twist: it’s not Norman Hsu.

“Among the 11 public officials arrested in an F.B.I. corruption sting in New Jersey today was a leading Democratic supporter of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign in that state, Mayor Samuel Rivera of Passaic,” reports Healy. “Blake Zeff, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, just e-mailed to say that Mayor Rivera stepped down from Mrs. Clinton’s Mayors Council today.”

Lawhawk, one of the Garden State lawyers at A Blog For All, calls it “one of the larger corruption arrests in recent years — and that’s even by New Jersey standards.”

Keven Hayden, founder of the liberal site American Street, blames the media for linking the incident to Clinton, when one of the 11 arested has “loose ties” to the Clinton’s campaign: “These are small potatoes crooks, selling out for far less than the crooks who fed off Jack Abramoff. And what does Clinton have to do with any of it? Not a thing.The corporate media is already sliming her…”

While they argue over the significance of the New Jersey scandal, the prolific conservative blogger Fausta Wertz looks into a trend: “The Busted Clintonistas — a good name for a rock band. Heck, make that a symphonic orchestra: there are 47 individuals and businesses associated with the Clinton machine who have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes. And that doesn’t include the ones still on the lam.”

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Time to Take a Stand


Published: September 7, 2007

Here’s what will definitely happen when Gen. David Petraeus testifies before Congress next week: he’ll assert that the surge has reduced violence in Iraq — as long as you don’t count Sunnis killed by Sunnis, Shiites killed by Shiites, Iraqis killed by car bombs and people shot in the front of the head.

Here’s what I’m afraid will happen: Democrats will look at Gen. Petraeus’s uniform and medals and fall into their usual cringe. They won’t ask hard questions out of fear that someone might accuse them of attacking the military. After the testimony, they’ll desperately try to get Republicans to agree to a resolution that politely asks President Bush to maybe, possibly, withdraw some troops, if he feels like it.

There are five things I hope Democrats in Congress will remember.

First, no independent assessment has concluded that violence in Iraq is down. On the contrary, estimates based on morgue, hospital and police records suggest that the daily number of civilian deaths is almost twice its average pace from last year. And a recent assessment by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found no decline in the average number of daily attacks.

So how can the military be claiming otherwise? Apparently, the Pentagon has a double super secret formula that it uses to distinguish sectarian killings (bad) from other deaths (not important); according to press reports, all deaths from car bombs are excluded, and one intelligence analyst told The Washington Post that “if a bullet went through the back of the head, it’s sectarian. If it went through the front, it’s criminal.” So the number of dead is down, as long as you only count certain kinds of dead people.

Oh, and by the way: Baghdad is undergoing ethnic cleansing, with Shiite militias driving Sunnis out of much of the city. And guess what? When a Sunni enclave is eliminated and the death toll in that district falls because there’s nobody left to kill, that counts as progress by the Pentagon’s metric.

Second, Gen. Petraeus has a history of making wildly overoptimistic assessments of progress in Iraq that happen to be convenient for his political masters.

I’ve written before about the op-ed article Gen. Petraeus published six weeks before the 2004 election, claiming “tangible progress” in Iraq. Specifically, he declared that “Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt,” that “Iraqi leaders are stepping forward” and that “there has been progress in the effort to enable Iraqis to shoulder more of the load for their own security.” A year later, he declared that “there has been enormous progress with the Iraqi security forces.”

But now two more years have passed, and the independent commission of retired military officers appointed by Congress to assess Iraqi security forces has recommended that the national police force, which is riddled with corruption and sectarian influence, be disbanded, while Iraqi military forces “will be unable to fulfill their essential security responsibilities independently over the next 12-18 months.”

Third, any plan that depends on the White House recognizing reality is an idle fantasy. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, on Tuesday Mr. Bush told Australia’s deputy prime minister that “we’re kicking ass” in Iraq. Enough said.

Fourth, the lesson of the past six years is that Republicans will accuse Democrats of being unpatriotic no matter what the Democrats do. Democrats gave Mr. Bush everything he wanted in 2002; their reward was an ad attacking Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, that featured images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Finally, the public hates this war and wants to see it ended. Voters are exasperated with the Democrats, not because they think Congressional leaders are too liberal, but because they don’t see Congress doing anything to stop the war.

In light of all this, you have to wonder what Democrats, who according to The New York Times are considering a compromise that sets a “goal” for withdrawal rather than a timetable, are thinking. All such a compromise would accomplish would be to give Republicans who like to sound moderate — but who always vote with the Bush administration when it matters — political cover.

And six or seven months from now it will be the same thing all over again. Mr. Bush will stage another photo op at Camp Cupcake, the Marine nickname for the giant air base he never left on his recent visit to Iraq. The administration will move the goal posts again, and the military will come up with new ways to cook the books and claim success.

One thing is for sure: like 2004, 2008 will be a “khaki election” in which Republicans insist that a vote for the Democrats is a vote against the troops. The only question is whether they can also, once again, claim that the Democrats are flip-floppers who can’t make up their minds.

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The New Social Contract


Published: September 7, 2007

In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt imposed wage controls on American companies. Unable to lure workers with higher salaries, many employers began offering health insurance and other benefits. Then, in 1952, officials at the Internal Revenue Service ruled that these benefits wouldn’t count as taxable income.

And so, accidentally, the modern American health and pension system was born.

The system, in which families received social protections through their employers, worked well for decades. But now it’s coming apart at the seams. The proportion of people insured is falling. Rising health care costs burden employers. Workers can’t chase opportunities because they can’t bring their health insurance packages with them.

As Jason Bordoff points out in the current issue of Democracy, the old employer-based social contract is eroding and the central domestic policy debate of our time is over how to replace it.

Some liberals, believing that government should step in as employers withdraw, support a European-style, single-payer health care system. That would be fine if we were Europeans. But Americans, who are more individualistic and pluralistic, will not likely embrace a system that forces them to defer to the central government when it comes to making fundamental health care choices.

And so some distinctly American social contract is going to be required. Beneath all the fluff of the campaign season, that’s what the domestic side of the presidential race is about. In early, halting and half-formed ways, several candidates are offering broad visions of a new social contract and plans married to those visions.

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Few have thought about these matters as long or as well as Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation. Butler grew up in Shrewsbury, England, got a doctorate in American economic history in Scotland and became a U.S. citizen in 1996. As a result, he’s acutely aware of what makes American civilization unique, and which policies fit the national character.

As you read his work, you quickly see what priorities the new social contract should embrace. It should offer basic security, so Americans will feel comfortable enough to move around and seize new opportunities. It should demand reciprocity; if you contribute to society, you’re protected from catastrophes no one can control. It should foster personal responsibility, stimulating private savings and self-insurance among those who can afford it.

Finally, it should foster self-sufficiency; if people do slip and require government support, they should be induced to rebound and take care of themselves. If you are fortunate enough to be upper-middle class, you shouldn’t be rigging the game so you grab benefits that should properly be allocated to the needy.

Butler is no libertarian. He doesn’t believe individuals should just be given Health Savings Accounts and then sent off to shop for health care. Nor does he believe that the primary social relationship is between individuals and government.

He sees America as a thick society, and believes that unions, churches and community groups should be involved in health care and social support. He sees America as a decentralized society. The worst thing we could do is get the smartest people in a room and build one system from Washington. Instead, Washington should set parameters and states should be left free to innovate and compete.

He also sees society as a continuum between the dead, living and unborn. We shouldn’t disrupt the lives of those who are happy with the insurance they have. On the other hand, it’s immoral to shift the costs to our children and grandchildren. Long-term expenses should be calculated into every decision we make.

Butler’s specific health care plan is well-summarized at the Web site of the Hamilton Project. First, he would create tax-exempt “insurance exchanges.” These would be sponsored by trusted agents — unions, churches and other social groups. Organized like the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, they would offer menus of coverage choices and create diverse risk pools.

Second, employers who did not offer their own coverage would oversee payroll deductions and tax withholdings, but they would no longer have to sponsor programs or make choices for employees. Third, Congress would offer a health care tax credit to families making up to 200 percent of the poverty level, and would tighten benefits for the affluent. Fourth, states could come up with their own ways to regulate this system.

This isn’t the laissez-faire social contract of the 19th century. But neither is it the centralized, big bureaucracy contract of the 20th century. It’s a contract that envisions society as a dense but flexible web of social networks, the perfect vision for 21st-century America.

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So This Subprime Lender Walks Into an Audit...

Published: September 7, 2007

The auditor got cold feet, and the company may die.

It would no doubt be interesting to hear a tape of conversations last week between the senior management of NovaStar Financial, a subprime mortgage lender, and its auditors at Deloitte & Touche.

NovaStar, like many of its competitors, has seen its business model blow up this year. But in mid-July it got a lifesaving $48 million infusion of capital from two institutional investors, with a promise of $101 million more to come.

Now Deloitte has effectively revoked its audit of NovaStar — evidently without claiming that any number in the report was wrong — and the investors do not have to put up the cash.

Deloitte seems to have invoked a little-known auditing standard that says an auditor cannot allow a previously audited financial report to be cited by a company if there are subsequent events “of such a nature that disclosure of them is required to keep the financial statements from being misleading.”

Deloitte won’t talk, but by NovaStar’s account, the auditors’ qualms did not surface until last week, when Deloitte said it thought that the 2006 annual report should have more disclosures on business problems and that there were questions about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern. But even with those changes, Delolitte was not prepared to quickly recertify the financial statements.

Since the company had to make a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission to get the additional money, and since it could not do that without Deloitte’s blessing, the additional money will not be coming.

NovaStar says it will soldier on, cutting costs and hoping to get by. Since the stock is still trading around $6 a share, it appears that some investors think it can do so. But at current prices, the company has a market capitalization far below the dividend it is supposed to declare later this month.

NovaStar holds a special place in the market not because of the problems it has encountered, which are similar to those of others in its business, but because of the long and bitter battle waged between investors who believed in the stock and those who did not.

Before, Nova-Star was the stock of focus for those who believed their stocks were being sabotaged by “naked short sellers” who drive a company’s share price down by selling shares they had not bought or borrowed.

It was NovaStar that Patrick Byrne, Overstock’s chief executive, pointed to when he began what he called his “jihad” against naked shorts. There is a suit pending by some NovaStar shareholders against major brokerage firms, charging that they aided naked shorting and thus cost the investors money.

At last report, NovaStar had 9.5 million shares outstanding, and a short position of 8.1 million shares, a very high proportion. Overstock, by contrast, has a short position equal to less than a quarter of the shares outstanding. (It also has confounded the shorts by rising sharply this year.)

In its prime, NovaStar appeared, to its fans anyway, to be a money machine. It was organized as a real estate investment trust, and it reported high taxable income that it paid out in dividends. The high yield attracted investors and made it easy to sell more shares, which it regularly did. Its shares were worth $1.8 billion.

Critics asserted NovaStar used questionable accounting to produce those profits as well as other dubious business practices. One of its current problems is a $46 million judgment won by a competitor who said NovaStar conspired to drive it out of business.

Accounting in the mortgage business is notoriously inexact. NovaStar, like many other companies, sold mortgages on terms that left it with some of the risk. Just how much profit it reported depended on a series of assumptions about those risks.

“If our actual experience differs materially from the assumptions that we use,” NovaStar said in the annual report that Deloitte is no longer willing to certify, “our future cash flows, our financial condition and our results of operations could be negatively affected.”

That warning was prescient. With mortgage defaults rising, it appears NovaStar paid dividends from ephemeral profits.

The REIT status that helped make NovaStar attractive is now its albatross. The company’s last estimate said it would have to pay $157 million more in dividends to satisfy tax rules that require REITs to pay out profits to shareholders. In July, it talked of paying the dividend with preferred stock rather than cash.

But that may be tricky. At current market prices, the entire company is worth far less than $100 million, so how can it give out preferred stock worth more than that?

The $48 million July investment in NovaStar, made by funds affiliated with the Jefferies Group and the MassMutual Corporation, seemed bold at the time. Now it seems foolish, providing for the purchase of preferred stock convertible to common at $28 a share.

The funds will not comment, but there is nothing — other than a fear of throwing good money after bad — to stop them from making a new investment, presumably on better terms. Perhaps significantly, Jefferies and MassMutual have not exercised their right to name two new NovaStar directors.

Had Deloitte not rebelled at the last moment, NovaStar would have the extra $101 million. Without it, the battle for survival will be that much harder.

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Towers Gone; ZIP Code Carries On

Published: September 7, 2007

It’s pretty amazing, when you think about it. That was the feeling of a clerk at the Church Street Station, the majestic post office a few steps north of the World Trade Center site. He got no argument from us.

Six years have passed since that monstrous day when death filled the sky. It is time enough to get a simple detail straight, the clerk felt. “You would think they’d learn the new address,” he said the other day.

You would think. But for some reason, probably mundane, a fair number of companies and organizations keep sending mail to the twin towers, phantoms since that day in 2001.

At the post office at 90 Church Street, that mail arrives now in a trickle. “It’s down to maybe 200 pieces a day,” said Pat McGovern, a spokeswoman for the United States Postal Service.

That is piddling compared with the 85,000 pieces that poured in on a typical business day before 9/11. The number has steadily shrunk. There were roughly 7,000 pieces a day in early 2003. By the end of that year, there were 3,600. A year ago the figure was 300. Now it’s down to 200.

Still, you would think. Did some people not hear the news about the trade center?

More likely, Ms. McGovern said, “companies haven’t updated their mailing lists.”

Citing privacy concerns, she did not identify the companies that send letters and packages to the towers’ exclusive ZIP code, 10048, or the recipients. Postal Service higher-ups were also not interested in our request to talk with workers who sort the 10048 mail.

But generally speaking, “this mail is bundled up, and then the carriers send it back,” Ms. McGovern said. “We do have some caller service, where some companies come and pick it up,” even though it was sent to their old, ghostly address. For this service, they pay a fee. “It’s like having a post office box,” she said.

The sorting is done at the Church Street Station, home of the 10007 ZIP code. It is a survivor, somewhat akin to the World Trade Center companies that picked themselves up and moved elsewhere.

The terrorist attack damaged the station and left it contaminated by asbestos and other pollutants. But it bounced back to life three summers ago in all its marble and Art Deco splendor. On a wall near the entrance, neatly folded and packed in a triangular glass case, is the American flag that flew at the station on Sept. 11, 2001.

IN its time, 10048 was special for a bunch of reasons. Not the least of them was that in terms of income per worker, no other ZIP code in the city performed better.

After the attack, Andrew A. Beveridge, a Queens College sociologist and demographer, analyzed census data from 2000, the trade center’s last full year. He learned that 31,149 people worked in 10048, that they were paid an average of $101,006 (compared with a citywide average of $59,448) and that the $3.15 billion earned by trade center employees amounted to more than 1 percent of the New York metropolitan area’s entire payroll.

Some people, however, didn’t want to hear any of that.

They didn’t want to be reminded that the place was called the World Trade Center and that its spirit was commerce and finance. Four years ago, we quoted Professor Beveridge about the twin towers as a money machine. That led to some angry letters and e-mail messages, he recalled the other day. One woman who had lost a close relative was especially upset.

“I guess she felt it was demeaning to say that someone was trying to make a lot of money,” he said. He found the reaction to be “a little peculiar.” Reality is what it is.

And perhaps will be again. Final designs for new towers at ground zero were unveiled yesterday. Financial companies may yet flourish anew at the site.

If so, a tried-and-true ZIP code awaits them. At the Postal Service, 10048 remains very much alive. “There are no immediate plans for retiring it,” Ms. McGovern said.

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It Is Time for Vick’s Deeds to Speak for Him

Atlanta Coach Bobby Petrino


Published: September 7, 2007

Flowery Branch, Ga.

Alge Crumpler sat in a small office inside the Atlanta Falcons’ training facility earlier this week, talking about his friend and teammate, the fallen Falcon, quarterback Michael Vick.

Crumpler, Atlanta’s tight end, said he spoke with Vick several times a week — not so much about football, but about life. Crumpler passes along scripture passages from his mother, and well wishes from teammates. The last time they spoke, Crumpler said, they joked about playing the Madden NFL 08 video game online. But even that was bittersweet: Yesterday, EA Sports pulled Vick from the rosters of Madden NFL 08.

Vick’s fall from grace is stunning, so traumatic that its effect on the team is difficult to measure. Crumpler and his teammates have spent the past several weeks putting this situation into perspective, trying to keep a team that once had lofty aspirations inspired.

Vick and Crumpler were members of the 2001 draft: Vick was the first player taken. Crumpler, taken in the second round, was the 35th player selected. They were going to contend for the Super Bowl together; Crumpler said he could feel it. In fact, Crumpler said he saw it.

“I had a vision that we were going to win the Super Bowl together,” Crumpler said. “I had a vision of winning the Super Bowl, and it was always going to be with Mike. I’ve had that vision since the day we were drafted. I want to still have it, but I just don’t.

Would Crumpler ever catch another pass from Vick?

“Not here,” Crumpler said, referring to the Falcons.

“I think Mike is going to be back in the league,” he added, and then said: “I think it’s going to take a lot of ‘show me’ for Mike to get back into the league. It’s going to have to be more than words.”

Everyone has carved out their turf on this issue. Like Crumpler, I feel that Vick should and will return to the N.F.L., as a quarterback. Suggestions to the contrary betray an underlying prejudice that goes far beyond the legal issue at hand. Vick should receive a yearlong sentence for pleading guilty to a felony charge of conspiracy stemming from his connection to dogfighting but should serve no more than six months in jail.

The more intriguing question is how Vick’s fall from grace will affect a city that had become deeply invested in him.

Friends of mine who live in Atlanta say, half-jokingly, that the Falcons are black America’s team. The city has a large African-American population, and a substantial portion of the team’s season-ticket holders are African-Americans.

On the other hand, Atlanta has had an up-and-down relationship with its pro football team, and the fans are largely regarded as fair-weather ones. Right now, the weather is stormy.

The Falcons may have to deal with empty seats this season. Last year, they drew an average of 55,000 fans in two preseason games; this year they drew an average of 40,000.

In many ways, Atlanta’s fans have never stood on solid ground. The Vick episode is simply the latest blow.

Atlanta played its first season in 1966 and didn’t have a winning season until 1971. The Falcons have never had back-to-back winning campaigns, with or without Vick.

The Falcons did reach the Super Bowl in the 1998 season but that moment was tarnished when Eugene Robinson, a star safety, was arrested on charges of soliciting a female undercover police officer posing as a prostitute the night before the game. The Falcons lost, 34-19, to the Denver Broncos. The next season they finished a dismal 5-11.

In 2004, Vick led Atlanta to an 11-5 record and the National Football Conference championship game. In 2005, the Falcons finished 8-8. Last season, they finished 7-9.

Before Vick officially pleaded guilty 11 days ago, there was a sense in Atlanta that the African-American community was split down the middle regarding its star quarterback.

Now there’s a resignation in that community that he did something seriously wrong, that he will have to atone for what he did and that in all likelihood he will never play for the Falcons again.

“But if we can win, if we can show some form of competitiveness on a consistent basis, I think we’ll be all right,” Crumpler said.

Vick apologized the day he pleaded guilty. He apologized to the Falcons’ owner, Arthur Blank, to Falcons fans, to the city of Atlanta. But when Vick said that he had also found Jesus, I felt that the time for talking had come to an end. Faced with being hemmed in, as Vick was, one can easily find the Lord.

At this point, Vick has to demonstrate his remorse, not only enunciate it.

As for Crumpler; the new starting quarterback, Joey Harrington; the new coach, Bobby Petrino; and Blank, the challenge is to move on and build a consistent winner, something Atlanta has never had even with Vick running the show.

In Atlanta, this is a time for deeds, not words.


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Domestic Disturbances: A blog at the NY Times by Judith Warner

September 6, 2007, 9:50 pm

When you arrive, she will already be there. Well-coiffed, but not too well. Suntanned, but not too tan. Chic, but not too chic. Hanging off each arm she’ll have a perfect child, with a new backpack and a pretty, excited smile … begins the editor’s note in the current back-to-school edition of French Elle.

Naturally, she will have already done everything necessary so that her son is with the “right” third grade teacher. Naturally, she will already have told the lunchroom lady about her daughter’s problem with fish…. You, on the other hand, will grow even paler under your non-tan. Because, of course, you did not have the time to buy new backpacks, nor to attempt the slightest lobbying campaign for good teachers …

I do not usually read women’s magazines like Elle when I am in France. I prefer the newsweeklies and, for a special treat, the French People-substitute, Paris Match. (All Ségo/Sarko, all the time.)

But this summer was special. I went to France not just on vacation, not just to reconnect with the place where my children were born and I put down the first roots of my adult life, but on assignment. I wanted to research how to be a Yummy Mummy.

A Yummy Mummy, in case you’re not familiar with the phrase, is the term used in Britain for moms (mums) who are soignée. Trim and fashionable, well-turned-out and groomed, equipped with the latest must-have bags and shoes, widely smiling, insouciant, skilled in home decoration, furniture restoration, competitive skiing, dressage, and … well, they’re not really all that. I am indulging in a little bit of wish-fulfilling projection.

Indulge me.

You see, I’ve never actually met a Yummy Mummy. I’ve read about them in the British press; I spent a good bit of imaginary time in the company of one earlier this summer, when I read Fiona Neill’s hilarious new “mum lit” import, “Slummy Mummy.”

Reading “Slummy Mummy,” the account of an unbelievably spacey, slatternly, careless and careworn stay-at-home mum, made me acutely aware of my own borderline slumminess. It awoke in me a desire for yumminess.

But lacking the time or money to put into being truly yummy (“Come on now,” you are saying, “even if you did have the time or the money you wouldn’t waste it on such shallow, narcissistic consumerism.” You are wrong.), I decided to go for the next best thing, and use my vacation time to study my French sisters for how to ape the grace, style, joie de vivre and simple, seemingly effortless chic for which they are famous.

(“Ugh!” American expats in France are now snorting. “You’ve been reading too much Mireille Guiliano!” And they would be right.)

In fact, for the past nearly seven years since the moving truck closed its doors on the rue St. Dominique and we left Paris for Washington, I have spent, I see now, far too much time nourishing the fantasy that motherhood in France is lived more prettily, more graciously, more calmly, happily and romantically than on this side of the Atlantic.

I maintained this belief even after “Perfect Madness” was published in France last summer and women there told me that there was a lot in my portrait of the anxious, self-doubting, self-effacing, guilt-ridden, sexless American culture of motherhood that they could relate to. I didn’t believe them. I figured they didn’t know how good they had it, with their five-week vacations, multi-month paid maternity leaves, government-subsidized nannies, 35-hour work week, guaranteed right to part time work, free public schooling for three-year-olds – all things that freed up plenty of time and money for vacations in the sun, exercise, dinners out, séduction and other vectors of yumminess. It was all so taken for granted by them that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

But this year, for the first time, I saw it. Trawling for vestiges of yumminess among women who, like me, were now pushing middle age, I was confronted time and again by the yuckiness – the stress and mess and sense of too-muchedness — that so many of us know all too well in the United States. My friends, overwhelmingly, were kind of worn out.

They now all have children who are in the equivalent of middle and high school – far past the golden period of parental leaves and charming preschools that I remember from my time living among them. They’re facing an increased gap between the very best public schools and the mediocre mass. They’re seeing an increased tendency (in government-subsidized private schools) to kick out kids who don’t perform well enough to guarantee the school a 100 percent success rate on the baccalaureate exams.

There’s an increased sense of urgency to get into the very best colleges; there’s a sense that only top-level math and science studies can lead to admission to the best colleges; there’s a sense that the job market is being flooded by young talent from China, India and the rest of Europe; a sense that the fruits of success are being distributed more and more narrowly, that the gap between the rich and everyone else is being dug more and more deeply and that you have to do absolutely everything you can, from the earliest possible age, to guarantee your child a slice of the shrinking pie of prosperity.

The atmosphere of dogged competition provides fertile terrain for the Mommy Wars. (In the café, it’s with a heavy heart that you drop a third chocolate into your too-strong espresso and sit across from her, as she drinks an herb tea without sugar and finishes filling out the sign-up sheet for Wednesday afternoon swim lessons, Elle concludes. But be assured … The psychiatrists – no idiots – are already rubbing their hands. They know that, soon, in the privacy of their offices, it will be the children of the perfect mothers who will have the most to tell them.) The atmosphere fires all-too-familiar domestic wars. (“He does nothing around the house but criticize me when things go wrong,” one friend confided in me.)

Even vacation – always so precious – has now been compromised. By kids sitting at the dining room table doing remedial math. Or heading back early to attend pre-term class prep. Or taking off for an intensive language program or to meet a learning “coach,” or for a last-ditch attempt to find a place in a new school after all the neighborhood schools said no.

“You don’t understand what it’s like here,” a stay-at-home friend told me, one chilly late afternoon in Paris, as we sat outdoors drinking tea.

Seven years earlier, I’d interviewed her, also over tea, as she’d neared the end of her third maternity leave. I was writing an article on French mothers’ workplace advantages. Shortly after the article was published, she’d returned to work to find she’d been moved to an intellectually stultifying, more “family-friendly” position. “Petits-fours and seduction,” she’d e-mailed me. And she’d quit.

“It’s total madness,” she said.

I shifted in my seat, shivered, and stirred my tea.

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The Opinionator - September 6, 2007

President Bush got in a little swipe at Congress during his swing through Australia yesterday, and Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, the influential Chicago Democrat, quickly fired off a nasty letter to the White House. In the letter, published on The Tribune Co.’s The Swamp, Emmanuel calls the president’s remark a “false and gratuitous shot” and writes:

It has long been the custom that members of Congress do not go overseas and criticize the president ­ that partisanship ends at the water’s edge. But reading today’s accounts of the President’s remarks in Australia, it is clear he has a different view. Asked about the lack of political progress in Iraq, the President said Iraq’s Parliament had passed 60 laws, and added, “It’s more than our legislature passed.”

But Emmanuel must not have been following the doings of his colleague and presidential candidate, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who is currently visiting Syria: In the Jerusalem Post, Kucinich is quoted as saying, “I feel the United States is engaging in an illegal occupation … I don’t want to bless that occupation with my presence … I will not do it.” The Post reports, “Kucinich, who accused the Bush administration of policies that have destabilized the Mideast, met with Syrian President Bashar Assad during his visit to Damascus. He said Assad was receptive to his ideas of ‘strength through peace.’ ”

The conservative Don Surber, writing on his blog at The Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail, has some advice for Emmanuel. He writes:

We shall see how serious Emanuel is about this water’s edge business. Emanuel heads the Democratic congressional efforts.

Unless he is an insincere, cheapshot-taking charlatan, Emanuel will withdraw all party help for Kucinich’s re-election bid to Congress and run a candidate against Kucinich in the Ohio Democratic Primary.

That is how Republicans handle their problems — right under the bus they go. Just ask Larry Craig.


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So who made the biggest impression at the big Fox News Republican presidential debate? The guy who didn’t show up, of course.

Jennifer Rubin at The American Spectator online feels that Fred Thompson’s team had a bumpy start:

Some days are just bad days. Todd Harris, Communications Director for Thompson, will have better ones than today … it was raining on Thompson over at NRO earlier. Now they dump more cold water, pointing to comments from Rush and more Fox coverage. Far be it for me to be the voice of restraint (or maybe I’m a contrarian at heart) but it’s all either wiped away in a week by a fabulous start or everyone shakes their heads and says: “Wes Clark.” It will have much more to do with what he says, the crowds he gets, and the energy he shows than anything that happened today. (Unless of course, this is not the end of the departures or all these disgruntled ex-Fredheads keep talking.)

John Podhoretz at The Corner sees a similar frosty welcome. “The Fox News debate began with a message from Fergus Cullen, the chairman of the New Hampshire Republican party, ‘Campaigns should be about more than 30 second ads,’ he said. Then he said something about how the candidates have worked hard over the past months to meet voters. Has the New Hampshire Republican party declared war on Fred Thompson?”

Meanwhile, Eric Kleefeld at TPM election central is gleefully checking up on the new candidate’s other problems: “Jim Mills, who only weeks ago left his position as a high-ranking Fox News producer in order to join Thompson’s communications team, has left the campaign. After about a month in the Thompson camp, Mills has been replaced by former Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Karen Hanretty and Bush 2004 communications staffer Jeff Sadowsky.”

It’s enough to warm the heart of any liberal loyalist, or at least of Jeralyn Merritt, writing at Talkleft:

“The other candidates have an 8 month lead on him and more money. I don’t think any Republican candidate has warmed the hearts and minds of voters. Not that I’m complaining.”

No, Jeralyn, the complaints seem to be coming from the right this morning.


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Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Least Bad Choice


Published: September 6, 2007

The way the United States leaves places matters. Having armed mujahedeen fighters to undo the Soviet empire in Afghanistan, America lost interest in a backwater. Payback came in the form of Afghan-trained holy warriors bent on the destruction of the West. That was careless.

It is important to be less careless in Baghdad. As reports on Iraq reach Congress this month, it’s worth considering that blow-back from an oil-rich country at the heart of the battle for the Middle East could be even more severe than the violent legacy of funding Islam to fight communism in Kabul.

Nothing can undo the American blunders in Iraq that turned the liberated into the lacerated. Hubris is bad, careless hubris worse. The fraying Bush administration still can’t work out who took the decision to disband the Iraqi Army in 2003; that’s grotesque. Nobody in the administration should sleep easy over its ethical responsibility for calamitous mistakes.

But what we did matters less today than how we leave Iraq. It’s far easier to score backward-looking political points against Bush than serve the forward-looking interests of 27 million Iraqis. Still, the latter is more important than the former.

As Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has written: “It seems likely that the U.S. will ultimately be judged far more by how it leaves Iraq, and what it leaves behind, than how it entered Iraq.” America’s future ability to use its hard and soft power “depends on what the U.S. does now.”

Exit timing and U.S. election maneuvering stand at the center of this month’s Iraq drama, with testimony due next week from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, and several reports coming in. One, from the Government Accountability Office, has already given the Bush-Petraeus surge a failing grade: a feckless Iraqi government, unshared oil money, untamed militias and undiminished violence.

Not fair, Petraeus and Bush will argue, using the new catchphrase “bottom-up progress” to highlight headway in Sunni-dominated provinces like Anbar through cash-cemented alliances with local sheiks who have been persuaded to turn again to Al Qaeda.

Bush will also make a virtue of necessity on U.S. troop levels. The post-escalation presence of 160,000 can’t be maintained past next spring unless tours of duty are extended beyond 15 months. So some drawdown will start next year, with improved Iraqi conditions claimed to obscure domestic political realities.

Both views of Iraq are right: the situation is awful and, four years on, cleverer U.S. commanders are winning a few. The enduring horror counsels a swift exit. The positive shifts bolster a catchphrase Cordesman found doing the rounds in Baghdad: “strategic patience.”

I side with the latter, provided the patience is indeed strategic and not just a means to kick the mess into the post-Bush world. That strategy should involve the following elements.

First, continue bolstering Sunni power and allegiance through aggressive use of aid and local security deals. A rough balance of power between the main Iraqi communities — Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish — is in the interests of Iraqi stability.

Second, while accepting that Iraq’s central government will at best be a respectable fig leaf and that strong provincial authorities are essential, pressure the weak Shia-dominated coalition to share oil money, power and space. Stronger American-backed Sunnis and fewer U.S. troops may help focus Shia minds.

Third, establish, with United Nations help, a regional framework for talks between the neighboring powers. Use this to reach out to Iran. Tehran wants America to fail in Iraq but not to the extent that Shia gains are reversed. That provides some leverage.

Fourth, recognize that all Middle Eastern problems — Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq — are tied and that the U.S. needs a coherent diplomatic strategy for containing jihadist fanaticism through ideological persuasion. An uncritical embrace of Israel does not help. And whatever happened to Karen Hughes, our invisible public diplomacy czar?

Fifth, protect the countless Iraqis who have helped America and are vulnerable. The U.S. urged Iraqis to rise up in 1991 only to abandon them to slaughter. Never again should be our policy.

The above may just avert the worst: a regional war in which a disintegrating country’s neighbors are drawn into carnage that makes current bloodshed pale.

Some see Iraq as the ultimate demonstration of the demise of American power. Fast withdrawal is in that view’s logic. But if you believe, as I do, that global stability still hinges on the credibility of that power, “strategic patience” is the least bad of the terrible options Bush’s now amnesia-clouded incompetence has bequeathed.

You are invited to comment at my blog:

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The Do-Over Theory

Published: September 6, 2007

It has probably come to your attention that Senator Larry Craig is not sure he wants to resign after all.

“It’s not such a foregone conclusion anymore,” said his spokesman.

Craig has assembled a crisis-management team, including public relations people and the Michael-Vick-dogfighting lawyer. They will attempt to undo the guilty plea he made after the incident in the Minneapolis airport men’s room and the resignation he announced last week. Meanwhile, Craig’s adopted kids are making the rounds, telling TV interviewers that they are sure he is not gay.

“He’s a fighter,” said a former staffer admiringly.

This is not about entrapment or (heaven forbid) gay rights, or second chances. Craig is looking for a total do-over, one of those magic moments frequently seen on a cable television series, in which some unfortunate incident is erased from the memory of the entire world, and everything goes on exactly as it was before. The United States Senate as a “Charmed” rerun.

Except for the lieutenant governor of Idaho, who’s waiting to grab hold of that Senate seat, it doesn’t really matter whether Larry Craig manages to convince the crowd he hangs out with that he is a not-gay victim of overzealous police work and failure to consult an attorney at the critical moment. What’s more troubling is the way the definition of a “fighter” can change from somebody who battles for the truth to somebody who fights for his right to impose his vision of the way things ought to be in place of reality.

Like George W. Bush, who, according to Robert Draper’s new book “Dead Certain,” was still privately insisting that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 2006. (That was the last time anyone checked. For all we know, the president is still in his oil-patch mode, waiting for some lost caravan of weapons inspectors to strike a gusher.)

Bush seems to believe that it’s his duty as president to imagine that things are going well even if they aren’t. “I fully understand that the enemy watches me; the Iraqis are watching me; the troops are watching me ...” he began, explaining that all these folks will know if he is faking it. “You have to believe it. And I believe it. I believe we’ll succeed,” he said.

And, of course, everybody else is responsible for helping the president keep his mind in the proper position for serious believing. This has caused some of the people around Bush to pummel their own brains into order so firmly that, according to Draper, at a White House gathering in early 2006, one presidential aide expressed mystification at how the public could be so cranky when everything was going so well. “Do you think the polls are just wrong?” he asked.

Our absolute first priority for the next election has to be making sure that both parties nominate presidential candidates who are in touch with reality. Does this seem too much to ask, people? I didn’t think so. But you look out there and sometimes you worry.

Consider Mitt Romney. Back in the mid-’90s, when Romney ran against Ted Kennedy for the U.S. Senate, he was the most avid defender of abortion rights you ever saw. In fact, he had a “dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion.” Nobody in his family would ever get over that tragedy, he said, and even though he personally did not believe in abortion, he would never, ever try to impose that on anybody else. When Kennedy joked in a TV debate that Romney was not pro-choice but “multiple choice,” Romney looked straight into the camera and promised the voters of Massachusetts: “You will not see me wavering on that or be a multiple choice.”

Nothing changed until he was safely in the governor’s office in 2003, and began to veto every single expansion of abortion rights that hit his desk. Then he announced that he had experienced a change of heart while studying the issue of embryonic cloning, and no longer believed that abortion was a matter best left to the individual’s conscience. “I changed my mind. I took the same course that Ronald Reagan took, and I said I was wrong and changed my mind and said I’m pro-life,” he explained in one of the Republican presidential debates.

The best we can hope for is that in the quiet of his motel room after a night of campaigning, Mitt Romney brushes his teeth, says his prayers and sadly tells himself that you have to be one whopping hypocrite to get to be governor of Massachusetts and a Republican presidential nominee in the same lifetime. If not, if he thinks he has achieved a complete mid-career all-expenses-paid moral do-over, then we are in really big trouble.

Watch out for candidates who believe you can change the unchangeable if you just:

a) Think positive

b) Hire a better lawyer

c) Check into rehab

d) Quote Ronald Reagan

e) Click your heels three times and repeat after me: “General Petraeus, General Petraeus ...”

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Letter From Baghdad

Published: September 5, 2007


I saw many contradictory things on this visit to Iraq — too many to declare a definitive trend. So let me share three scenes that had an impact on me:

Scene 1: I went on a patrol that visited a U.S. Army platoon based in the Ameriya neighborhood of Baghdad, alongside the “Ameriya Knights,” who, as Gen. David Petraeus put it to me, “are not a rugby team.”

Ameriya is a Sunni neighborhood that had been home to doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Today it is a ghost town. It is chilling to see how much this city has been fragmented into little pieces. What were clearly upper-middle-class homes are almost all abandoned, and the streets are full of litter and rubble. This neighborhood first came under assault from Shiite militias, then from pro-Al Qaeda Iraqi Sunnis, who moved in on the pretext of protecting the Sunnis from the Shiites and then imposed a reign of Islamist terror on them.

The Ameriya Knights are predominantly secular Sunni boys from the neighborhood, who banded together to both drive out the pro-Al Qaeda forces — which took root here more deeply than I realized — and to protect their homes from Shiite death squads. They decided to work with the Americans because we threaten them — today — less than either the pro-Al Qaeda Iraqi Sunnis or the Shiites. Many looked like former Baathist army vets to me. They mostly wore jeans, each brandishing a different kind of weapon.

When I asked one of them, Omar Nassif, 32, why he had gone from shooting at Americans to working with them, he said, “I saw an Al Qaeda man behead an 8-year-old girl with my own eyes ... We want American support because we fought the most vicious organization in the world here ... I would rather work with the Americans than the Iraqi Army. The Americans are not sectarian people.”

At one point we took a walk around the neighborhood, trudging through the powdery dust in 126 degree heat. When I looked up, I saw a surreal scene — former Baathists insurgents, guns pointed in all directions, providing a security cordon around a senior U.S. officer. That is the good news and bad news from Iraq. Good news: the surge is tamping down violence. Bad news: the relative calm stems largely from a Sunni-Sunni war that has pushed mainstream Iraqi Sunnis into our camp to fight the jihadist Sunnis — rather than from any real Sunni-Shiite rapprochement.

Peace in Iraq has to be built on a Shiite-Sunni consensus, not a constant balancing act by us. So far, the surge has created nothing that is self-sustaining. That is, pull us out and this whole place still blows in 10 minutes. You’ll know there’s progress if Shiites or Sunnis do something that surprises you — actually reach out to the other. Up to now, though, all I’ve heard from them is either “I’m weak, how can I compromise?” or “I’m strong, why should I compromise?” No happy medium, no stable Iraq.

Scene 2: On my way into Iraq, I had a private chat with an Arab Gulf leader. He said something that still rings in my ear: “Thomas, everyone is keeping you busy in Iraq. The Russians are keeping you busy. The Chinese are keeping you busy. The Iranians are keeping you busy. The Saudis are keeping you busy. Egypt is keeping you busy. The Syrians are keeping you busy...”

He’s right. Everyone loves seeing us tied down here. One need only observe how Vladimir Putin is throwing his weight around Europe, how China is growing more influential by the day, how Iran has been emboldened and how all the Arab dictators are relieved that America is mired in Iraq so we can’t push any democracy on them to understand that there’s a huge “opportunity cost” for our staying here without either success or an exit strategy.

Scene 3: I’m visiting the new American field hospital in Balad, in central Iraq. The full madness that is Iraq is on display here: U.S. soldiers with blast wounds, insurgents with gunshots to the stomach and a 2-month-old baby with shrapnel wounds from an insurgent-planted I.E.D. scattered over her face. The hospital commander, Brig. Gen. Burt Field, looks at her and says to me: “There isn’t a 2-month-old on the planet who knows how to hate anybody. It’s all taught.”

Visiting Centcom commander, Adm. William Fallon, chats with the hospital staff, who are all here on different rotations — 30 days, 60 days, 180 days. He asks how they coordinate everyone. A voice from the back, an American nurse, says: “We’re all on the same team, sir.” I look around the room. I see African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans — the whole melting pot that is America — working together. Half are women, including mothers who have left their families for long stretches to serve here.

We don’t deserve such good people — neither do Iraqis if they continue to hate each other more than they love their own kids.

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