Saturday, April 23, 2016

100 years ago today

The New York Times tweeted out a picture of its front page from April 23, 1994 to mark the Yahrzeit of that lovable old criminal Richard Nixon:
Our eyes fell not on the obituary of the Mad Bomber of Cambodia but on the page one story right next to it.  Apparently in those quaint pre-social media, pre-Internet days, the media used to peddle ridiculous stories about “scandals” involving the Clintons, including one Hillary Clinton, all of which vanished upon cursory examination.

How long ago it seems!  For those of you under 40, the term “Whitewater” referred to the investment by the Clintons in a busto Arkansas land deal sponsored by a friend of theirs who turned out to be a crook.  Slightly embarrassing to be sure, but a page one scandal?

The New York Times sure thought so.  We took a look at the April 23 story, to learn why it merited its placement next to the death of a disgraced President.  The perfectly reasonable piece, by Gwen Ifill, recounted Mrs. Clinton's press conference which she held to respond to various media questions about the investment, none of which reflected any conceivable illegality on the part of the Clintons.

She quoted the favorable response of the First Lady's aides, and for balance threw in a dart from then Senator Alphonse D'Amato alleging the insufficiency of her responses.  He especially noted that she did not explain why their partners in Whitewater bore more of the risk of loss.  Senator D'Amato, it will be recalled, made his money through insider trades placed by his crooked brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Perhaps the Times thought it was doing the Clintons a favor by putting her response on page one, after having run many prior Whitewater non-stories there.  But it's well to remember that as with the other Clinton scandals, there was never anything there.

That same day, Maureen Dowd, not yet a famous Times columnist, provided the “news analysis.”  Amazingly enough, she agreed with the bent Sen. D'Amato, stating that Hillary did not “ever really answer the question of why the Clintons' partners, the McDougals, wound up bearing so much more of the burden of the losses in Whitewater than the Clintons did.”

For good measure, Ms. Dowd attacked the Clintons thusly:
And she was never able to satisfactorily explain why the White House has had so many conflicting stories on so many important issues, and why their explanations have changed so many times in the past few weeks. 
Ah, conflicting explanations made in the heat of a political firestorm.  It sounds as bad as something actually illegal or unethical.  Except it isn't.

At least Ms. Dowd gave her some credit:
With a calm, unwavering gaze, she apologized over and over for whatever customs of the city she and her husband might have violated . . . .
It got us to thinking how much has changed since those long-ago days, when the media and professional or political Hillary-bashers would team up to build a “scandal” out of a bad investment, new drapes for the White House, or a private email address for private emails.

How different it all looks today.  Nowadays, when there's some non-existent “scandal” supposedly attached to Senator Clinton, there's a new made-up problem, posed by a famous Times columnist as follows: “Wouldn’t it be a relief to people if Hillary just acknowledged some mistakes?”  (The New York Times, April 16, 2016)

Who was excoriating Hillary Clinton for failing to apologize with adequate frequency?  Your guess is probably better than her memory.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Charlie Baker: Commonwealth Man of Mystery

By A. Lawrence Lowell
State House Correspondent

What's the secret of Gov. Charlie Baker's apparently immense popularity?  According to State House insiders, it's his cultivation of an intoxicating air of mystery, most recently exemplified by his refusal to support legislation that would outlaw discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.

It's not that he actually supports the kind of bigotry that has stained the reputation of North Carolina and sent bankrupt mouth-breather Curt Schilling to the showers.  It's just that he doesn't like to take a position on pending legislation, he claims.

This air of inscrutability and its seductive effects on Massachusetts voters have frustrated legislative leaders, who have decided to mount an effort to see if they can get Baker to take a position on any legislation at all.  For example, Rep. James T. “Jimmy” Burke (D – Old Sludgebury) has filed legislation to double the state income tax to 10%.  According to Burke, the Governor's Office has said it will “study” the legislation if, as, and when it passes the Great and General Court.

Gov. Baker's refusal to take a position has angered the veteran rep, who has responded by introducing an array of bills designed to provoke a reaction from the wily Governor.  Thus far, according to Burke, the Governor has remained resolutely neutral on legislation that would

  • make the New York Yankees the state baseball team;

  • build a thousand-bed detox facility in Swampscott;

  • declare General Electric an “evil empire;”

  • impose a 25% sales tax on white bread and mayonnaise;

  • build a car wash in Harvard Yard; and

  • replace the Sacred Cod with a statue of Whitey Bulger

Even the Governor's allies in the Republican Party are tiring of Gov. Baker's bottomless reserves of detachment.  In response to the Governor's staunch opposition to decriminalizing marijuana, Rep. S. S. “Tosser” Pierce (R – Athol) filed a bill that would treat Scotch like pot, thereby outlawing its sale.

Rep. Pierce, a Harvard roommate of the Governor's, may have struck a nerve.  Today the Governor's Office released a statement stating “this time Tosser's gone too far.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Journalism 101: Hillary-bashing made E-Z

By A.J. Liebling
Media Editor

So Hillary Clinton has just won a smashing victory in New York, well exceeding expectations.  She now faces a clear path to the Democratic nomination.  She leads her likely opponent, a tangerine-faced clown in a fright wig, by double digits.  How can you spin this into a negative story about her? Let's turn to today's Washington Post, to show you how it's done.

First, let's stick on a headline that doesn't reflect the story that follows, viz:

OK, what was the great cost of her overwhelming triumph in a major state?  The lede says that her primary win took a “significant toll,” as indeed all contested Democratic nominations tend to do, at least until the electorate focuses on the golem heading the Republican ticket.

Seven grafs later, after admitting her victory puts her in a strong position for the general election and quoting some polling data, we get to the money quote, from a longtime Republican hack and mouthpiece. What's he gonna say?  Hint: anything he can to trip her up. Another GOP finagler chimes in later with even more far-fetched drivel.  For balance, the Democratic hacks quoted admit some damage from the primary campaign, but insist she can make it up.  Doesn't sound like “great cost” to any fair-minded reader.

So the correct headline would be: PARTY PROS DISAGREE OVER HOW MUCH DAMAGE CLINTON HAS SUFFERED IN NOMINATION BATTLE.  But that's not much of a story, is it?

In fairness to Dan Balz, we only give him a B for gratuitous Hillary bashing.  To get an A, he would have had to add two more bullshit tropes. Number 1 is the one that's been pushed by Maureen Dowd, who's been recycling the same crap for 20 years so efficiently that, with apologies to the BBC, she should get an award for America's leading zero-energy columnist.

According to Dowd, Hillary is bad because she defended her husband, who's a cheating dog. Stand by your man? Maureen says no way, based on her no doubt extensive experience with the vicissitudes of married life.

Bullshit trope number 2 is of course that Clinton is “plagued” by scandal, including the by-now notorious matter of her emails. Although no one has yet explained what is illegal or scandalous about the practice of Secretaries of State using a personal email address for personal or unclassified emails rather than State's klugy unclassified system, she continues to be plagued thereby, according to the Wayward Press.

To wit, a search for “Clinton email scandal” returns 419 items on The Washington Post's website.  A typical example goes something like this:
Her numbers -- particularly when it comes to the number of people who view her as "honest" and "trustworthy" have long been in net negative territory -- and the ongoing questions surrounding her private email server while serving as Secretary of State doesn't help matters.  (Chris Cillizza, The Washington Post, April 18, 2016).
What ongoing questions?  The only ongoing question anyone has is how long the Republican Benghazi hit squad will hold off on releasing their report because they know it will implode upon reading.

Don't believe me?  How about my old colleague and former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson '76, whose journalistic views have a great deal of validity?
"The issue, to me, that's at the crux is that everything that we know that was classified was classified after the fact — after the emails were sent," Abramson said on Thrush's "Off Message" podcast. "And so, you know, why is that a big deal? And the fact that she had this private email is something that, you know, I've read widely, a lot of people in the government [did]."(The Washington Post, March 21, 2016)
Better luck next time, Dan Balz.  But don't worry: when it comes to bashing Hillary with nonsense, there's always another chance.   Hey Maureen, maybe that's why Secretary Clinton is as you say so “paranoid.”

Update: Charlie Pierce, a better man than I, endured Chris Matthews handing out this stuff and concluded: “It's all a load of bollocks.”

Monday, April 18, 2016

Department of Remarkable Coincidence

By Scott V. Sandford
Justice Correspondent

How's that tyrannical job-killing un-American catastrophe informally known as Obamacare going?  Apparently pretty well, according to an article in the April 18, 2016 New York Times, at least if you judge it by its goal of providing health care to those who traditionally went without because, unlike the Koch Brothers, they weren't white men who inherited a big pile:
The first full year of the Affordable Care Act brought historic increases in coverage for low-wage workers and others who have long been left out of the health care system, a New York Times analysis has found.  
There were a few discordant notes, however.  You will recall that in his tortured opinion grudgingly upholding the obvious constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, John Roberts '76, joined by three other strict constructionists and a dead guy, held that the Taxing and Spending Clause of Article I didn't, um, mean what it said in haec verba.

As a result, states were given the right to reject hundreds of billions of federal dollars and elect not to expand Medicaid coverage for those just above the poverty level.  What kind of state would do something as obviously economically ridiculous (not to mention morally suspect)?  At any rate, 19 states did not expand Medicaid.

As a result,
Gains for blacks were muted because they disproportionately live in states that chose not to expand Medicaid. About 60 percent of poor blacks live in states that did not expand Medicaid.  
So, the decision of 38 per cent of states disproportionately afflicted 60 per cent of poor blacks.  If John Roberts hadn't already told us that America has solved its racial problem, you might think this was more than a remarkable coincidence.

In another remarkable coincidence, had the good Jesuit fathers of Georgetown University not sold 272 slaves down the river to Southern states most of which haven't expanded Medicaid, the descendants of those slaves might still be living in the District of Columbia and might not have to worry about health insurance.  As it is, they'll have to look elsewhere, as long as they don't look to Georgetown University's “modest” (its description) $1,500,000,000 endowment.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Why We Fight: The Utterly Unsustainable Garden

Interested in sustainable gardening?  Check out The Sustainable-Enough Garden.

Interested in utterly unsustainable gardening?  Just ask the experts: the Afghan Army, which apparently has plenty of time for horticulture as its country is devoured by the Taliban.  According to the April 9, 2016 New York Times:
As the commander of the 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army, General Faqir is the top military man in Helmand Province, more than half of which has been overrun by Taliban in the past year. After a visit two weeks ago in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, he was at the airstrip, with full entourage in tow: aides de camp, bodyguards, camp followers — and gardeners with lots of flower pots.
Everyone piled onboard a Russian-made MI-17 helicopter, one of four that do dual duty as transports and air ambulances, its pilot also a general of Communist-era vintage. And then the ground crew loaded up the center aisle with the flower pots, earth and all, a score of them blooming with African daisies, begonias, morning glories, nasturtiums and something vaguely petunia-like and purple.
General Faqir explained: “Helmand is a desert. We need some color out here.”
Back at Camp Bastion, as he sat down for an interview in his headquarters, soldiers went right to work outside, shoveling sheep manure into flower beds arranged around the corps flagpole and soaking everything down with trucked-in water. 
General Faqir was appointed corps commander four months ago, with two of Helmand’s 14 administrative districts in Taliban hands. The insurgents were so close to the outskirts of Lashkar Gah that officials in the capital were evacuating members of their families, even while assuring the public there was nothing to fear.
Those Taliban advances coincided with a scandal over ghost soldiers — thousands of men listed among the 215th’s battalions for whom salaries were being paid, to someone at least, but who never actually made roll calls, if they had ever even drawn breath. General Faqir’s predecessor was fired as a result, and General Faqir came in to clean things up, which he says he did successfully.
Battlefield success, however, has been more elusive. Since General Faqir came, the Taliban have taken over three more districts, including Now Zad and Musa Qala. Both are important agricultural zones and major sources of opium poppy, and Musa Qala is a center of opium refining and heroin production. . . .
One of his own officers, however, was openly critical of that. “The fighting has died down because the corps commander stopped fighting the Taliban,” said Col. Mohammad Ahmadzai, one of the helicopter pilots. “He’s lost three districts since he’s been here.”
General Faqir scoffed at that, saying districts change hands all the time in Helmand and could easily change again tomorrow. . . .
The Afghan garrison commander, Col. Nasimullah Alishangai, has been here 10 years now. The rose garden in his personal compound shows it.
Huge bushes with half a dozen varieties — some already blooming — surround a roofed pavilion with two Life Fitness treadmills, left behind after the American withdrawal in 2014 and apparently not used since then. At the other end of the garden is a handsome grove of tall, spindly white birches, arranged in a horseshoe around a seating area. . . .
“You see that row of trees?” Colonel Zazai asked, pointing to a long procession of willows alongside the road to the training ground. He planted them in 2004, and his American mentor asked why. “I said: ‘Just wait. One day A.N.A. soldiers will be sitting in the shade of those trees, saving on air conditioning in the barracks.’ ”
The colonel paused in the shade of the willow trees, grown tall and thickly foliated. “It’s a long war,” he said. “See what I mean?”
General Faqir?  Unlike the Afghan Army, you can't make this stuff up.  His gardening project will continue for exactly as long as the cream of American youth is deployed in harm's way to prop up a failed state whose own population will not fight to protect it.  Whether that's sustainable is open to question after 14 years of war, although no American politician has dared to suggest that enough is enough.     

It's not all bleak on the Afghan gardening front, though.  This time of year the poppies are lovely:
Soon they'll be harvested into products beloved by American consumers from Bangor to Modesto.
And when it comes to the endless Afghan War, there's no shortage of fertilizer.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Ink-Stained Wretches: The Glorious Cause of the Rational Voter

By A.J. Liebling
Content Generator

Dana Milbank has always been one of Washington's most beloved (by each other) generators of conventional wisdom.  Every so often, he tries to escape its clutches, but each time, like a boat against the current, he's borne back into it.

In today's Washington Post he sings the praises of voters whom he claims have now seen enough of the Donald Trump geek show, whose imminent closing he fearlessly predicts.  His evidence for this is the results of the primary in Wisconsin, whose Republican Party establishment operates as a wholly-owned subsidiary, as the great Charlie Pierce notes, of Koch Industries.  That, um, well-oiled machine turned out the vote for the equally-loathsome Ted Cruz, an outcome that has restored Milbank's faith in the American Voter:
Six months ago, when Trump was lapping the field in public opinion polls, I argued that he would ultimately fail because “American voters are more sensible than many poll-obsessed journalists and commentators give them credit for. Trump . . . won’t prevail in the Republican primary because voters, in the end, tend to get it right” and “will never choose a candidate who expresses the bigotry and misogyny that Trump has.”

That prediction looked shaky for some time, but Trump’s recent tumble rewards a faith that the voters, in the long run, almost always get it right.  
Those rational voters!  Of course, those nutty New York Republicans may not have gotten Milbank's memo.  According to Bloomberg Politics,
Trump has a 31-point lead in New York, which holds the next primary on April 19, according to a CBS News poll released Sunday. He has a 9-point lead in Pennsylvania, which follows on April 26, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday.
Sounds more like Trump's little town blues are melting away and he's back on top of the heap.  But disproving the predictions of Washington bloviators isn't really the point.

The issue is Milbank's remarkably sanguine take on American political history.  Did those wonderfully rational voters get it right in 1968, when they chose a lying crook over Hubert Humphrey, thanks in large part to disaffected lefties who declared they would stay home before voting for an Establishment Democrat?  That couldn't happen again!

Did they make the right choice in 1972, when they voted in a landslide for the same crook who by that time had sent thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Indochinese to their deaths to conceal the fact that he had no plan to end the Vietnam War?  Or in 1980, when they voted for the TV star who promised to crack down on welfare queens and strapping bucks?  Or in 1984, when they voted for that guy again despite the efflorescence of his dementia on national television?  Or in electing George W. Bush once in 2004?

Milbank, referring to Trump's supposed collapse, concludes thusly:
It was touch-and-go for a while. But you’ll rarely lose money betting on the wisdom of the voters.
We beg to differ.  To paraphrase Warner Wolf, if you had bet your lunch money on rational voters in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, or 2004, you lost!  Similarly, you'd be hungry following the elections of Pierce, Buchanan, McKinley, Harding, or Hoover, to name just a few lumps of coal from America's glorious past.

What's really going on here?  We suspect it's the desire to imagine a lovely American political history that runs in a straight bright line from the Founding White Men, or whatever they are called, all the way to the defeat of Trump by that noted statesman and philosophe, Loathsome Ted Cruz.  After all, it's harder to defend democracy if you admit that the electorate chooses badly time and again for base reasons like fear and bigotry.

With all the electoral huffing and puffing, we're a little behind on our reading, so we just got to the November 2015 issue of Smithsonian.  It contains a long article describing an almost-forgotten tidbit of antebellum American history: the Slave Trail, down which men, chained together, women, and children were marched from the farms of Virginia to the slave markets of Natchez and New Orleans.  That's a long march with an iron collar around your neck.

The author interviews some of the black descendants of the merchandise on offer and white descendants of the slave traders.  The latter claim that it wasn't so bad, that slavery developed here “primarily because of the ignorance of blacks” and that blacks were better off coming to America, which presumably is why they queued up so patiently at the West African slave ports.  Those views are about on a par with Milbank's tall tale of the Wise Voter.

We'd ask: isn't it better to confront our history honestly, both the sordid and the glorious bits (like cronuts)?  That way, we'd be able to come to terms with the swirling cross-currents of our past, and perhaps, change course so we could finally make some progress.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Monday, April 4, 2016

Department of Good Advice, Expatriation Edition

Not sure you want to hang around the U. S. of A. for the Trump Administration, but you're thinking that maybe Cape Breton Island is a little cold and distant?  Before you begin your search for an exotic locale with the climate and cultural sophistication of Texas, you'd be well advised to check out The New York Times:

I asked Ms. McElroy and others familiar with expat life about the things Americans traveling abroad should do if they’re visiting a place with an eye to settling down. Here are several suggestions.
 . . . .
Take off your jacket and imagine the sun beating down on you in midsummer — 20 years from now.
What may seem like a pleasant climate in spring may be a sopping inferno in summer or cryogenic tank in winter. “If you’ve never lived by the Equator, you may find you hate being in air-conditioning all the time,” said Mr. Eves, who has lived in India, Poland, South Africa, Russia and Ukraine, among other places. There’s also global warming to consider. Prognosticators say the countries that will endure it best have both fortunate geographic locations and strategies for mitigating the impact. A University of Notre Dame index put Germany and Iceland at the top of the list, Chad at the bottom.

New York Times Travel Section, April 3, 2016 at 4.

Chad at the bottom?  Who knew?

So before you chuck everything for that open-plan three-bedroom in N'djamena, thank your lucky stars that the Times is looking out for you.  Our advice: wait until next Sunday's Real Estate Section for the multimedia piece “What 650,000 Dirhams Buys You in Noakchott.”

Escape dreary malls and Chris Christie in sunny N'djamena