Sunday, April 30, 2006

In German, Katze und Madchen.

Here it is: Cat and Girl. And a tip of the hat to M. for the pointer.

Science is hard to do in a political climate.

Today, Science published an important comment pointing out that there were serious errors in a climate research article that it published in October 2004. The article concerned (Von Storch et al. 2004) was no ordinary paper: it has gone through a most unusual career. Not only did it make many newspaper headlines [New Research Questions Uniqueness of Recent Warming, Past Climate Change Questioned etc.] when it first appeared, it also was raised in the US Senate as a reason for the US not to join the global climate protection efforts. It furthermore formed a part of the basis for the highly controversial enquiry by a Congressional committee into the work of scientists, which elicited sharp protests last year by the AAAS, the National Academy, the EGU and other organisations. It now turns out that the main results of the paper were simply wrong.
The owl of Minerva flies slower when there's a smokescreen. Thanks to foxy hedgehog for the tip.

Stop parrying and attack already.

Josh Marshall has some good advice for Democrats:
. . . [E]ngineering a confrontation with Iran is a key part of [the White House's] plan to resuscitate the president's dismal approval ratings in time to survive election day. . . . [T]he question we hear more and more from Democrats: how do we prepare for whatever it is Karl Rove has cooked up this election season? . . . [T]his is loser talk. The 'how will we defend ourselves' conversation is an example of the malady itself masquerading as the cure to the disease. . . . [Y]ou do everything you can to maintain the initiative. And that pretty much always means bringing the attack to the other side. . . . With respect to what's coming on Iran, what is in order is a little honesty . . . . The only crisis with Iran is the crisis with the president's public approval ratings. . . . The Iranians are years, probably as long as a decade away, and possibly even longer from creating even a limited yield nuclear weapon. . . . [T]he only reason to ramp up a confrontation now is to help the president's poll numbers. . . . This is a powerful message because it is an accurate message. . . . The period of peril the country is entering into isn't tied to an Iranian bomb. It turns on how far a desperate president will go to avoid losing control of Congress. Go to his heart. Go to his weaknesses. . . . [T]he man is a laughing stock, whose lies and failures are all catching up with him.

Pinot Evil.

Zinquisition tastes a cheap new French pinot noir:

[I]t's pretty damned one dimensional. There is the very-slightest-note-you-may-ever-detect of bandaids and phenol which evolves when the glass has been standing after emptied, but I think most everyone would miss it . . . .

The Wine Cask Blog doesn't like it either:

[I]n the mouth this wine is–and I am not exaggerating–chokingly dry. At the rear of my palate I thought someone had just slit my throat and placed a rosin bag there.

The wine is shallow all the way around with not to much commend it.

So you're paying your $4 or $5 for the label.

Invert those gas prices.

From Professor Pollkatz via The Big Picture, a graph of Bush's approval ratings (orange) and an inverted gasoline price index (blue):

(Click on the graph for a larger version.) Correlation? Causation? BP Commenter Andrew says that gas prices has been a good leading indicator of presidential approval, but that pattern is not quite as clear to my eyes.

Giants in the earth, fallen.

John Kenneth Galbraith passed away Saturday at the age of 97.

Brad DeLong says: "If there were justice in the world, John Kenneth Galbraith would rank as the twentieth century's most influential American economist." Yet "Galbraith's economic views have undergone [a] . . . distressing eclipse. Among economists (excluding economic historians), the 70-year-olds have read Galbraith and think he is very important; the 50-year-olds have read Galbraith and know that the 70-year-olds think he is important but are not sure why; and the 30-year-olds have not even read him."

Argues DeLong, part of the reason for this is that notwithstanding Galbraith's status as a liberal icon, he does not stand for a reductive school of thought: "For Galbraith, there is no single market failure, no single serpent in the Eden of perfect competition. He starts from the ground and works up: What are the major forces and institutions in a given economy, and how do they interact? A graduate student cannot be taught to follow in Galbraith's footsteps. The only advice: Be supremely witty. Write very well. Read very widely. And master a terrifying amount of institutional detail." It's hard enough to teach people to master institutional detail and write well, but teaching supreme wit is nearly impossible.

One of them jet-powered bugs.

Ron Patrick spent four years and $250,000 to install a Navy-surplus General Electric T58-8F jet engine in the back of his VW Bug. It's street legal -- so long as he doesn't turn the engine on. Watch this if you want to see the afterburner in action (the video drags a bit at the outset, and then kicks in). Patrick's future projects include a Honda scooter powered by cruise-missile motors, and a SAM-2 missile installation in his front yard.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Kelo opponents, take note.

Before the Revolution, some of the founders -- George Washington was one of the Dismal Swamp Company's shareholders -- persuaded Virginia's legislature to permit them to seize private lands for development:
In anticipation of beginning drainage, the Dismal Swamp Company partners in January 1764 rushed through the House of Burgesses and the Council a law granting them the right to dig canals or build causeways through any land adjacent to the Dismal Swamp. The company must submit to arbitration to determine compensation due to any property-holder claiming to have suffered loss. But property-holders could not sue the company because, the law read, rendering the swamp fit for cultivation "will be attended with publick utility."
Charles Royster, The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company 89 (Knopf, 1999).

I suppose you could say that a familiarity with such evils was what prompted the Takings Clause, but you cannot say that takings in the name of private development were unknown in colonial times.

Ron Rosenbaum.

Ron Rosenbaum watches United 93 so you don't have to. Hell, I don't even want to think about the movie, but for Rosenbaum I'll make an exception. He's terrific -- I hope he'll be a regular on Slate.

Tony Snow.

Forget the FOX News angle -- it's tired already, and soon it will be irritating on so many levels. This is what you need to know about Tony Snow.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Bringing the free market to the heartland.

"Bunch of Oklahoma socialists that don't believe in the power of the free market is what it sounds like to me."

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The social significance of a Nokia handset.

Gautam Malkani's piece in yesterday's Financial Times about ethnicity and masculinity in British Asians -- not to be missed, but for subscribers only, so sign up for the free 15-day trial or find a paper copy -- had much to say, including this aside about mobile phones.
Asians have typically been early adopters of new technology but even 10 years ago top-of-the-range Nokia handsets were being brandished by schoolboys in ways that they couldn't always do with the latest sports car, widescreen television or video game console. . . . [M]obile phones represent more than just fashion accessories . . . . They are also weapons that enable a new kind of technological truce between domineering Indian mothers and sons, one that somehow gives both parties more potency. Boys are able to conduct their affairs in greater privacy while mothers can exert their overbearing presence even when their sons aren't at home.

"Only celebration."

Merriam-Webster's defines "ombudsman:"
Main Entry: om·buds·man
Pronunciation: 'äm-"budz-m&n, 'om-, -b&dz-, -"man; äm-'budz-, om-
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural om·buds·men /-m&n/
Etymology: Swedish, literally, representative, from Old Norse umbothsmathr, from umboth commission + mathr man
1 : a government official (as in Sweden or New Zealand) appointed to receive and investigate complaints made by individuals against abuses or capricious acts of public officials
2 : one that investigates reported complaints (as from students or consumers), reports findings, and helps to achieve equitable settlements
- om·buds·man·ship /-"ship/ noun
The Washington Post uses the term differently. Its "ombudsman" Deborah Howell has been engaged in a long campaign to bring a new, third sense to this term, as seen most recently in her column today celebrating the Post's "winners of the holy grail of American journalism, the Pulitzer Prizes." In a form evocative of the worst of access journalism, Howell breathlessly describes the scene in the 5th-floor newsroom: "The morning had begun with the buzz of Pulitzers in the air . . . . Cheers went up as The Post won a record four Pulitzers . . . . The ceremony was dignified . . . . Speeches and thank-yous lasted an hour and a half. The winners' spouses and children were there . . . . [T]he winners were all shy and a little embarrassed, carrying scraps of paper to remember what they wanted to say."

Most of Howell's column is devoted to describing the winners ("all veterans of the journalistic trenches") and their work. Yet rather than do that herself, Howell literally serves as a mouthpiece for the Post's management, quoting Executive Editor Len Downie at length.

Howell's last paragraph encapsulates her attitude perfectly:
Monday ended with a party on the roof of the Hay-Adams Hotel, overlooking the White House and downtown Washington. For a day, there were no falling circulation numbers or angry bloggers or disappointed readers. Only celebration. Then back to work.
Here is the idealized world of the Post: Perched atop a traditional icon of Washington privilege, looking across (and down) at the White House, with no readers around. "Only celebration" -- of the Post, of the idealized Washington exemplified by the Hay-Adams, of the White House.

Of Howell's putative responsibility to speak for the Post's readers, to investigate their complaints, the entire column bears only the slightest hint -- Howell's suggestion in the closing paragraph that she does not care for that work. (Anyone who has read her previous columns does not much need the hint.) For Howell's day of celebration, we get an idealized ombudsman, one who gives you a glance inside the newsroom without telling you anything, and then regurgitates the prepared remarks of the paper's management. An "ombudsman" in the sense of "shill" or "flack."

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Something is wrong here.

Colbert King:
The District of Columbia has approximately 83,000 active, individual child support cases, representing children ranging in age from newborn to 21 who are receiving support payments from non-custodial parents, 90 percent of whom are male.

To put that 83,000 number in context: The D.C. public schools have a certified student enrollment of 58,394. It's true: There are more children drawing child support in the District than there are children enrolled in the public schools.

Not just "more," but almost half again as many. Yikes!

Hunting for aliens in Texas.

The Financial Times reports that the Pentagon is hiding alien space ships:
. . . Gary McKinnon . . . is accused of causing £390,000 damage to Pentagon, army, navy and Nasa computer systems and is fighting extradition to the US where he faces up to 70 years in prison or even incarceration as a terrorist at the Guantánamo Bay. . . .

. . . infiltrating the Department of Defense computer systems in 2001 and 2002 required only a little ingenuity and patience, he says.

Essentially, Mr McKinnon scanned the US military computer systems for network administrator accounts where the password had been left blank.

. . . Once in control of such an account, Mr McKinnon could begin scanning every file and document on the network.

A bit of a sci-fi fan, he was looking for evidence of secret military technologies he thought the US might be developing, such as anti-gravity technology, as well as for evidence of UFOs. . . .

He never did find anything about anti-gravity but he did stumble on intriguing details on extra-terrestrial activity. Computers in Building 8 of the Johnson Space Center, for example, contained satellite pictures showing what looked like alien space ships. But Mr McKinnon never saw these as closely as he would have liked.

Before he could download them fully, someone on the space center computer system noticed the unauthorised access on the network and cut the connection. . . .

A housing-price benchmark?

The Washington Post reports on an indicator of the speculative bubble in the area's housing market:
At one recently completed condominium called the Halstead at Dunn Loring, a luxury condominium complex in Fairfax County, a park bench outside the building bristles with real estate agent lockboxes to permit vacant units to be shown to prospective buyers or renters. On a recent morning, there were 49 lockboxes there, outside a building that has about 200 units.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Ways of seeing.

This web essay certainly is worth a minute or two. Via BitchPhD.

Colbert Report rapport.

I'm not surprised that someone took Caitlin Flanagan's appearance on the Colbert Report last night at face value, but I am surprised that it was the wise and talented Heather Havrilesky. OK, so Flanagan enjoys being provocative. But last night she was clearly trying to play Colbert's game of turning the dial up to "11." She's not comfortable appearing on TV yet, but neither was Sarah Vowell when she recently appeared on The Daily Show, and we like her too.

Fish, barrel.

The argument of Bobos in Paradise is simple, and the author restates it every two pages (perhaps as a courtesy to the people he is discussing, who must do their reading between cell phone messages).
Six years ago, Scott McLemee reviewed David Brooks then-new book, a target-rich environment.

Wish list.

I want this bumper sticker.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

And some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.

The president has taken, those around him say, great comfort in biographies of previous presidents. All presidents do this. They all take comfort in the fact that former presidents now seen as great were, in their time, derided, misunderstood, underestimated. No one took the measure of their greatness until later. This is all very moving, but: Message to all biography-reading presidents, past present and future: Just because they call you a jackass doesn't mean you're Lincoln.
Peggy Noonan. Did they really call Lincoln a "jackass"? Where is Doris Kearns Goodwin when you need her?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Hello, Equatorial Guinea.

Lip service to democracy doesn't last long when oil comes to town.

Patrick Leigh Fermor.

A new post at Words, Words, Words about Patrick Leigh Fermor's account of his journey across Europe in 1933-34, in A Time Of Gifts and Between The Woods And Water. Highly recommended.

Best college loan. Synthetic gun stock.

What is this about?

Swef, le douce Beaumont.

Over the last week, I have found myself thinking of the boat hunt in The Sword in the Stone, and of this passage in particular. Robin Hood has killed the boar, but not before it broke the back of one of Master Twyti's hounds.

Master Twyti drew one leg slowly from under the boar, stood up, took hold of his knee with his right hand, moved inquiringly in various directions, nodded to himself and stretched his back straight. Then he picked up his spear without saying anything and limped over to Beaumont. He knelt down beside him ad took his head on his lap. He stroked Beaumont's head and said, "Hark to Beaumont. Softly, Beaumont, mon amy. Oyez a Beaumont the valiant. Swef, le douce Beaumont, swef, swef." Beaumont licked his hand but could not wag his tail. The huntsman nodded to Robin, who was standing behind, and held the hound's eyes with his own. He said, "Good dog, Beaumont the valiant, sleep now, old friend Beaumont, good old dog." Then Robin's falchion let Beaumont out of this world, to run free with Orion and roll among the stars.
T.H. White, The Once and Future King 150 (Ace, 1987),

Down and out in Irvine.

This is incredible:

In the last 18 California bar exams, administered over nine years, just two graduates of the unaccredited Irvine University College of Law have passed the exam, neither on the first try.
And several other unaccredited law schools aren't doing much better. Why would people pay for an education from these schools?

Maybe part of the problem is false advertising. Irvine claims:

Irvine University College of Law first opened its doors in the Winter of 1993. Since that time, Irvine University College of Law has fostered the development of a legal education of many professionals. Among the alumni are judges, practicing lawyers, people that hold political office, international personages, successful administrators and business owners.
Since California's bar exam is held twice yearly, the statistics referenced above would appear to relate to the period from 1997 through 2006. If Irvine opened its doors in 1993, and based on its reported performance, it's hard to believe that many Irvine alumni passed the bar before 1997. (Note that Irvine apparently has no tie to the University of California at Irvine, which does not have a law school.) Unless Irvine graduates find a way to practice in other states -- unlikely, since most states do not permit graduates of unaccredited schools to sit for the bar exam -- the claim that Irvine's alumni include "judges" sounds hard to believe. The claim that they include "practicing lawyers" might be literally true, at best (i.e., both the graduates who passed the bar are still practicing).

Many people go to law school and then opt to do something other than practice law. But surely Irvine is not the school of choice for students who know they would rather be an "international personage" or a "successful administrator." Why would anyone spend their money on Irvine University tuition?

Too late, or just in time?

Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and retired Air Force lieutenant general Robert Pursley take to the Washington Post's op-ed pages to say that the retired generals are too late: "while their advice and the weight of their experience should be taken into account, the important time for them to weigh in was while they were on active duty."

This is true only if you think that the criticism of Rumsfeld is motivated by the mess we have made of Iraq rather than the gathering storm that is Iran. Maybe the "important time" to talk out is now, before it's too late.

Actually, Laird and Pursley make it clear that "weighing in" is OK only if it's kept secret:
[C]are must be taken by those experienced officers who had their chance to speak up while on active duty. In speaking out now, they may think they are doing a service by adding to the reasoned debate. But the enemy does not understand or appreciate reasoned public debate. It is perceived as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve.

In other words, reasoned public debate harms the war effort. Laird and Pursley say they "do not advocate a silencing of debate on the war in Iraq," and yet that is exactly what they want. I cannot believe that the Sunni insurgency gives much attention to the Washington Post, but apparently the effort to bring democracy to other countries requires that we stop acting like one at home. If democracy means much of anything -- perhaps more of an open question than we might like -- it means that debate over important public issues must be open and vigorous, not reserved to high government officials and active-duty military officers behind closed doors. Laird and Pursley ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The mysterious East.

Vietnam's Communist leaders recognise a need to fight graft. But it is unclear whether poorly paid party members will be able to resist temptation.

"They are all addicted to it, like opium," says Fred Burke, a partner at the law firm Baker & McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City.
Amy Kazmin, "Corruption crisis throws shadow over Vietnam's Communist party congress," Financial Times 2 (April 18, 2006).

Monday, April 17, 2006

Fronting for South African military intelligence.

Ken Silverstein unearths Jack Abramoff's propaganda for apartheid.

eta: Don't miss this account of dinner with Abramoff, replete with stories about the making of Red Scorpion.

He won't get the job.

It is inconceivable to me that the White House would actually hire Tom DeLay for any job, let alone to replace Josh Bolten as budget director. Notwithstanding that they both hail from Texas, DeLay and Bush have never been close, and DeLay has his own power base. In short, he is not a Bush loyalist and he's not going to become one. Moreover, hiring him would bring the Hill's corruption problems over to the White House, which has largely avoid that stigma. So it seems obvious to me that someone is floating DeLay's name to score some points. But why are smart people taking the bait?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Mourning Butler.

Annalee Newitz mourns the passing of Octavia Butler. (But why the swipe at Thomas Pynchon? For contemporary American politics, read Vineland.)

It's increasingly hard to find a good queen.

In San Francisco, the Cherry Blossom Queen Pageant has been renamed the Cherry Blossom Queen Program in the hopes of finding the requisite five candidates -- still, it's a dicey thing:
Tonight's queen selection at 7 p.m. at the AMC Kabuki Theater won't showcase beauty queen elements of bygone days. The swimsuit competition, for example, disappeared more than 35 years ago. The qualities judges seek now are intelligence, creativity, confidence, poise and leadership -- all intended to find good community representatives and role models.

"The word "pageant" has connotations with classical beauty pageants based on looks and appearance," said Aimee Sueko Eng, the 2004 queen who now serves on the queen program committee.

Eng considered entering the competition only after another former queen, a friend of her family, phoned and let her know that being a queen or member of the queen's court means community service, not comeliness.

The job could be painting clown faces on kids at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center, appearing at the anniversary of a Japanese-American church, or staging a pan-Asian cultural festival in Orinda, as Eng's court did in 2004.

Recruitment of candidates is a "struggle" that is becoming harder year by year, said Benh Nakajo, chair of the queen program committee since 1989. The committee has kept moving the deadline, from December to January and then February, he said.
"It's kind of touch and go," he said. "There were a few times in the past where it almost looked like we weren't going to get enough."

He said any Japanese American woman in Northern California who is 18 to 25, has never been married and makes the yearlong commitment to the community can become a finalist. There are six finalists this year, and there were five each of the past several years.

The committee hasn't yet found a good term to replace "queen," said Nakajo, a retired account manager for Japan Airlines, though the committee sometimes informally uses "ambassador of goodwill" or "community ambassador."

"Misunderstanding is a huge part of it," said Kristina Mieko Boyd, a princess from the 2004 court, speaking of the recruitment difficulties.

Nakajo said competition from college studies, the diffusion of Japanese Americans into mainstream culture and the weakening of ties to the Japanese American community also limit interest in the contest.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Lead or get out of the way, but don't follow.

Fred Kaplan:
It's an odd thought, but a military coup in this country right now would probably have a moderating influence.
Josh Marshall suggested the other day that there are two powerful constituencies in the White House likely to push a hard line towards Iran: those worried about the GOP's prospects in the November elections, and the Vice President's office, with its medieval view of foreign relations. Is there anyone to push back? One might place one's hopes in the State Department, but has Condoleeza Rice been able to block Cheney and Rumsfeld on something of this consequence before? More to the point, do we think that whatever prudence might lurk in Bush's character can overcome his messianic impulses (or thirst for a positive legacy)? Five years into this Administration, we should abandon the conceit that Bush is a weakling at the hands of palace intriguers. Maybe five years ago, and maybe on other issues, but not here and now.

Military officers evidently are not willing to wait for the Secretary of State to tutor the President towards caution. Kaplan's article is about discontent with Rumsfeld in the senior ranks. This same unhappiness surely prompted the leaks from the Pentagon featured in Seymour Hersh's much-blogged-about article in The New Yorker. Dan Drezner spots more of the same in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Where are the Democrats? You'd think they could give the generals some covering fire. But too many Democrats cannot even come to terms with where they went wrong on Iraq.

Shade of Lindsey Jacobellis?

En route to a gold medal, Ezra Klein stumbles just before he crosses the finish line:

. . . Bush isn't flailing because this White House is insufficiently politically adept. He's flailing because the major policies on which he's staked his presidency are self-destructing. Iraq is a bloodbath, the deficit threatens to swallow the country whole, the Middle East is less stable than ever, economic insecurity is rampant, inequality has risen, the government response to a national disaster was staggeringly incompetent etc, etc. . . . . Fact is, Bush is proving that presidencies are about something more than communication strategies. This White House was predicated on the belief that policies didn't matter, only politics did. That's been disproven, they've found themselves unable to fight failure with photo-ops. And this country will be better for it.
Only if you ignore the bloodbath in Iraq, the deficit, Middle Eastern instability, inequality, Louisiana, et cetera. But he's dead-on right about the White House's attitudes towards policy. Does George W. Bush believe in much of anything other than the acquisition of power? If he did, you would think that policy preferences would flow from those beliefs.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

My inbox needs a dog.

The Financial Times' Mary Branscombe talks to Microsoft sociologist Marc Smith about how people use e-mail:
He calls current software socially inept: "It simple has no conception of human relationships." His team is working on ways of making software "socially savvy" so that it can take more of the load. . . .

"We found that 50 per cent of user minutes are focused at the top of the inbox. That's a sacred space, that's like my living room. You have to be invited into my living room and you should have to be invited into my inbox."

He wants to reclaim that space for the most relevant unread messages: in the real world, he says, "some people matter more than others" and software should take that into account.

"If you come to my home and knock on my door, I have a dog, my dog will bark. If you come back frequently, eventually the dog notices that you are a friend of the family. It does not bark, it wags its tail. Why is it that Outlook and other e-mail clients cannot be as smart as my dog?"
Mary Branscombe, "Inbox out of control? You're not alone," Financial Times Special Report: Digital Business 6 (April 12, 2006). The rest of the Special Report is quite good, too, including this piece by Kate Mackenzie about over-use of e-mail and efforts to find solutions.

Cornell ornithology.

Joseph Cornell, untitled collage (1964)

Smithsonian American Art Museum, via Eye Level

The first time as tragedy.

I recommend Rick Perlstein's review of Jane Fonda's War, by Mary Hershberger, an account of Fonda's voyage from Miss Army Recruiter in 1959 to space nymph in Barbarella in 1968 to cult anti-icon in 1973. Here are the historical antecedents of so much of the last six years, and hints of the stab-in-the-back strains to come as Iraq spirals away from us. For much of this, we can thank Richard Nixon:
It’s remarkable how many things that we think of as permanent features of American culture can be traced back to specific political operations by the Nixon White House. We now take it as given, for example, that blue-collar voters have always been easy pickings for conservatives appealing to their cultural grievances. But Jefferson Cowie, among others, has shown the extent to which this was the result of a specific political strategy, worked out in response to a specific political problem. Without taking workers’ votes from the Democrats, Nixon would never have been able to achieve the ‘New Majority’ he dreamed of. But to do so by means of economic concessions – previously the only way politicians imagined working-class voters might be wooed – would threaten his business constituency. So Nixon ‘stood the problem on its head’, as Cowie says in Nixon’s Class Struggle (2002), ‘by making workers’ economic interests secondary to an appeal to their allegedly superior moral backbone and patriotic rectitude’. (One part of the strategy was arranging for members of the Teamsters to descend ‘spontaneously’ on protesters carrying Vietcong flags at Nixon appearances. Of course it’s quite possible that the protesters too were hired for the occasion.) It’s not that the potential for that sort of behaviour wasn’t always there. But Nixon had a gift for looking beneath social surfaces to see and exploit subterranean anxieties.
Fonda made a rich target whom many still hate, a hate with continuing political currency -- witness the pictures doctored to show John Kerry with Jane Fonda, and the bumper stickers reading, "Jane Fonda: John Kerry with Tits."

How do you say "Rove" in Italian?

Alexander Stille points out that the Berlusconi government, anticipating that it would lose power in this election, pushed through a change designed to weaken its successors:
It seems sadly fitting that the legacy that Silvio Berlusconi’s government will leave Italy is a gigantic mess. It appears that his rival, Romano Prodi, has pulled out a narrow victory that will allow him to put together a shaky majority in parliament. A weak government, presiding over a sharply divided country, will allow Mr Berlusconi to continue to play an important role in blocking any measure that is of interest to him.

This was not only predictable but actually planned by the outgoing Berlusconi government and partially created by a new electoral law passed in the government’s twilight. A few months before the election, Mr Berlusconi – after studying polls that showed the centre-left winning a substantial parliamentary majority in the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system – decided to return to the proportional voting arrangement that the Italian electorate had roundly rejected in a popular referendum in 1993.

The old proportional system was thought to have encouraged a plethora of small parties, unstable government majorities, short-lived, revolving-door governments and endless horse-trading among coalition partners that fostered corruption and lack of programmatic clarity in the post-war period. Mr Berlusconi came to power for the first time in 1994 thanks to the new majority-rules system and once declared that the majoritarian system was his “religion”. But he lost his religion when studies showed his coalition doing better in 2006 under the proportional system. At the very minimum, the centre-right calculated that even if the centre-left won, the proportional system would fragment the vote and leave them with a fractious, unstable coalition that would need the centre-right’s help in order to govern.

In a moment of shocking candour, Roberto Calderoli, Mr Berlusconi’s minister for reform, admitted: “The ­election law? I wrote it, but it’s a porcata,” a vulgar term that roughly means “a piece of crap”. It was the move of a retreating army that has decided to blow up the bridges, poison the wells and sow the fields with salt to make life difficult for the conquering army.
This sounds like something Karl Rove, whom we have to thank for the innovation of off-year congressional redistricting, would dream up. By the fall, if it appears that the Democrats are poised to take control of the House or Senate, what will Rove have up his sleeve? (Or is that what the budget deficits are about?)

Dog was my co-pilot.

1995 - 2006

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

When judges get angry.

Via Orin Kerr, a Sacramento lawyer gets hammered for her appellate advocacy, and a Detroit man gets disciplined for trying to avoid jury service.


The Social Security Administration has a terrific site that lets you look at the popularity of different first names over time. This is the sort of vital data that lets smart people develop cutting-edge research like this graph of the number of boys (blue) and girls (pink) named Ashton in recent years:

The recent explosion of little male Ashtons is easy enough to explain, but what about the spurt of little female Ashtons in 1986? Odd.

It's almost like Santa Claus is coming to town.

Michael Bérubé is getting ready for David Horowitz's visit to State College, and -- among other things -- that means horticultural excess:
There might be some anti-Horowitz activity this week, though so far as I know, it’s nothing more than a brief press conference. I’ve advised the local left against doing any anti-Horowitz demonstrations, under the heading, “Horowitz’s Hands, Playing Right Into.” After all, we’re dealing with a guy who declares jihads against individual professors for handing out snarky T-shirts before his lecture and laughing at some of his remarks. I think we here at Penn State should be careful to treat Horowitz very, very nicely so that he doesn’t get very, very angry. For my part, I’m hoping to put together a special parade downtown, “A Celebration of Horowitz,” but I’m not sure I’ll be finished with my float—a 25-foot trailer depicting Horowitz’s service to the Black Panthers—by Thursday afternoon. If anyone in central Pennsylvania can stop by and give me a hand with the Huey Newton I’m sculpting out of carnations, I’d really appreciate it.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Social policy, DeLay style.

Yesterday's Washington Post has a story about Rio Bend, a subdivision under construction outside Houston designed for foster families, and a pet project of Rep. Tom DeLay and his wife, who is the chairwoman of the non-profit that owns the project. The plan is for each house to be occupied by a foster family, creating a community where foster children are not stigmatized.

The Post explains that Rio Bend will "shatter the orthodoxy of both the right and the left about child welfare," apparently on the theory that the right cares only to have children raised by their parents, and the left cares only to have children raised by the government:
The DeLays' belief in long-term foster homes departs from mainstream thinking that foster children should be reunited with a parent or adopted. Christine DeLay said she is "not big on family reunification" and that teenagers, the focus of Rio Bend, seldom get adopted.

The experiment unfolding here also breaks away from the idea of foster care as mainly a government responsibility. Although the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services remains legally responsible for the children here and pays their foster parents a stipend, the neighborhood is being built entirely with private money . . . . The foster parents pay a small rent, $450 a month, that is pooled to pay for extras not covered by the state.

Governments "do a sucky job taking care of individuals," Christine DeLay said in an interview.

But this begs the question: How will Rio Bend do at taking care of individuals?

That's a question a Post reporter on the political beat apparently doesn't know how to report on. We get some statistics, but nothing about what they mean: "Despite the promise of a permanent place to live, 12 of the 38 youngsters here since summer 2005 have moved out. None of them, state records show, has moved back home with a parent." Maybe this is a substantial improvement over the state system -- who knows? Not the Post. Instead of analysis, we get an anecdote:
The retreat center has been used once since the Blackwells arrived. A girl stayed with them last month after she had been suspended from school 28 days, run away three times and behaved so badly in church that her entire foster family was asked not to come back. When she first arrived, Blackwell said, she threw things and cursed but then "sort of mellowed out." One Saturday, she borrowed a dress and heels from his wife to go with them to church. She joined a church choir. And after about 10 days, she moved back into her own foster home.
But of course, the results don't matter. This story is not about the children, and for all the talk of orthodoxies, it's not about foster-care reform. It's about the DeLays. The story makes clear that Christine DeLay has been doing the spending, and spending it as if it's not running dry anytime soon:
At 46,000 square feet, the houses are larger and fancier than most of the children have known before -- and filled with features to help their occupants get along. "You are putting six unrelated children in a household," Gow said, "and hoping things turn out okay."

Each one has seven bedrooms, six bathrooms, walk-in closets, two kitchens, three refrigerators, two washers and dryers, and four hot water heaters. No more than two children share a room, and there is a spare nanny room -- though no nannies yet -- to give parents a break. The floors throughout are cream-colored tile -- easy to clean with the cats and dogs, which are encouraged because Christine DeLay favors pet therapy for youngsters with attachment disorders.
The largesse doesn't end at the houses:
The goal is for children to feel as if they are part of a regular family in a close-knit neighborhood. "We have been to plays and bowling. They all have their library card. We go out to eat. Anything any other family would do," said Sharon Horn, who sold her house and gave up a 13-year job as a special-education teacher near Corpus Christi to become the first parent to move in July 2005.
What we have here is a vanity project. This is not to suggest that the DeLays' hearts aren't in it -- they took in three foster children during the 1990's, which is three more than my family did. But shouldn't the most powerful man in the House of Representatives have his sights set a little higher than a project of this size?

Government often does "a sucky job" of taking care of foster children. Surely part of the problem is that the Tom DeLays of the world do not favor government spending on such things. If foster care systems "throughout Texas and the nation [are] overburdened," is there any single individual one who bears more responsibility than Rep. DeLay?

Rio Bend is not being built with government money, though Texas does support the children there. Rio Bend was paid for by private parties who gave money to entities controlled by Tom DeLay. Michael and Susan Dell of Dell Computers, ExxonMobil, Comcast, Continental Airlines. While it is possible that Tom DeLay is a charismatic advocate for the needs of foster children, from what we know about the man and his modus operandi it seems rather more likely that they saw some sort of material benefit in the arrangement.

If these thoughts occurred to the Post's Amy Goldstein, you nevertheless will find no mention of them in her article. Though she notes that Rio Bend is being "built with money from the fundraising operation of former House majority leader Tom DeLay," and names some of the donors, she does not pause long to consider what this means, or to connect that fact with the large and fancy houses. Nor does another advantage that the DeLays have found in establishing their own private foster-care fiefdom -- the "strong Christian presence" at Rio Bend, including the requirement that foster parents be Christian, and an evangelical ministry to come -- draw no comment either.

At least Tom and Christine DeLay care for the children at Rio Bend. For the Post, the project is of interest not because it signifies something about social policy, or because it heralds a better way of caring for foster children, but merely because it is the DeLays' project. They are Potemkin foster homes, except for the families living in them.

Our CEO President.

Could he pretend to have some grasp of policy?

Not ruling out any option.

Abridged Seymour Hersh, via Greg Djejerian:
Joint Chiefs of Staff: Let's stop talking about using tactical nuclear weapons on Iran.

White House: No, let's keep looking at that option.
I would feel somewhat better about this -- if not all warm and fuzzy -- if I thought, as Djejerian seems to, that the military officers leaking to Hersh are involved in psy-ops.

eta: Wonkette has more:
[T]he idea of using tactical nuclear weapons in such situations has gained support from the Defense Science Board, an advisory panel whose members are selected by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “They’re telling the Pentagon that we can build the B61 with more blast and less radiation,” he said.
I suppose I could read Hersh's article in The New Yorker, but I like to wait until the paper copy arrives in the mail -- I'm old skool that way.

"I think Vanilla Ice is a superstar compared to this guy."

Kevin Federline's new album features a sample from a Mobb Deep song sampling Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science." Dolby is not happy. "You can't just take a very well-known piece of music and add your own vitriolic rap over the top of it and get away with it," says Dolby. If anybody's going to sing nasty lyrics over my music, it's going to be me."

The silver lining here is discovering that Dolby has a blog, upcoming tour dates, and a new Galliano trenchcoat. But no new album.

A Hong Kong childhood.

Martin Booth's memoir of growing up in Hong Kong in the early 1950's, Golden Boy, was favorably reviewed in The New York Times Book Review this weekend. I read a copy purchased overseas (published as Gweilo) some months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.

A few more Hong Kong books at Words, Words, Words.

Critic criticism.

Ben Yagoda:
[Michiko] Kakutani doesn't offer the stylistic flair, the wit, or the insight one gets from [Pauline] Kael and other first-rate critics; for her, the verdict is the only thing. One has the sense of her deciding roughly at Page 2 whether or not a book is worthy; reading the rest of it to gather evidence for her case; spending some quality time with the Thesaurus; and then taking a large blunt hammer and pounding the message home.
This and the rest of his take on Kakutani sounds right to me. I rarely want to read her reviews unless I have a particular interest in the book.

Which part of this is Christian?

The Washington Post discusses the Christian Coalition's problems, not the least of which is mounting debt. One positive development for the Coalition is its recent settlement with the IRS, which eliminates potential liabilities and secures tax-exempt status going forward. However, the settlement will force "substantial change" in the Christian Coalition's voter guides, to which the Post says are essential to the organization's identity.

[T]he settlement requires the Christian Coalition to allow candidates to write up to 25 words of explanation on each issue in the voter guides. In the past, the guides listed topics such as "unrestricted abortion on demand" or "adoption of children by homosexuals" and described the candidates' positions simply as "supports" or "opposes."

In a letter to state chapters in February, Roberta Combs warned that they, too, must follow the 25-word rule when they publish voter guides for state elections, or else stop using the Christian Coalition's name and logo. The settlement has irritated some conservative activists, who think it will make the guides less effective.
I must not be in the target audience for these voter guides, as I do not recall ever having seen one. They sound more abusive than educational, though this surely made them "effective." These activists probably get irritated by state libel laws, too.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

It left me cold.

If you're thinking of seeing The Ice Harvest, with John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt and Randy Quaid, don't bother. For fans of Harold Ramis's ouevre, it doesn't stand up to Groundhog Day. He had material and actors here to work with, too.

No snow tomorrow in Hilo, either.

Apparently the conventional wisdom is coming around on the importance of the Valerie Plame defenestration. Here's David Broder, in a chat on on Friday:

Clearwater, Fla.: What is your opinion about Bob Woodward's comments last year about the Valerie Plame case ... When "all of the facts come out in this case, it's going to be laughable because the consequences are not that great."

David S. Broder: Subsequent events do not appear to be supporting that forecast.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Short, and plagued by cranes.

The Pygmies

In the knowledge of the ancients, this nation of dwarfs -- measuring twenty-seven inches in height -- dwelled in the mountains beyond the utmost limits of Indian or of Ethiopia. Pliny states that they built their cabins of mud mixed with feathers and eggshells. Aristotle allots them underground dens. For the harvest of wheat they wielded axes, as though they were out to chop down a forest. Each year they were attacked by flocks of cranes whose home lay on the Russian steppe. Riding rams and goats, the Pygmies retaliated by destroying the eggs and nests of their foes. These expeditions of war kept them busy for the space of three months out of every twelve.

Pygmy was also the name of a Carthaginian god whose face was carved as a figurehead on warships in order to spread terror among the enemy.
Jorge Luis Borges, The Book Of Imaginary Beings 188 (E. P. Dutton & Co., 1970) (Norman Thomas di Giovanni, trans.).

Friday, April 07, 2006

Trading the rock-and-roll lifestyle for the addictive screen.

An invisible fist in a silicon glove?

. . . When [the International Petroleum Exchange] announced that it would close one of London's last open-outcry floors on April 7 2005 and transfer trading to the screen, self-employed oil traders were in revolt, even taking the extraordinary step of going on strike for a day -- an ineffectual move that hurt their pocketbooks and did little to upset the daily flow of oil trades.

"I didn't want to change," says Mr Pettman. "Like a lot of people I don't like change . . . but when change is forced upon you, then you have to adapt," he says . . . .

Other traders worried that they would fail to adapt to an office environment after spending most of their working lives immersed in the distinctive culture of the world's second largest energy futures exchange.

"It was a rock'n'roll lifestyle - the money, the drinking," says one former trader who did not want to be named.

The adjustment from floor to screen has also brought other lifestyle changes. "Traders are working harder now then they ever did on the floor," says Mr Pettman. "There is one who used to come onto the floor three days a week for a couple of hours, now he is in the office from 7 in the morning to 7 at night," he says.

The heightened atmosphere of the trading pit made patterns of buying and selling more predictable, so that traders could almost pick and choose the times they wanted to work. Many feared that the move to screens would wipe out their advantage.

"The one thing you don't get [on screen] is the noise. [On the floor] you could hear the sound of the market changing - people would be screaming 'buy, buy, buy', and then all of a sudden it would change to 'sell, sell, sell'," says Mr Pettman.

Yet for some, he adds, trading via the screen has become addictive, with traders reluctant to leave their screens in case they miss an opportunity.

Kevin Morrison, "An exodus from floor to screen," Financial Times 7 (April 7, 2006).

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The past is not so far away.

Kieran Healy makes the past seem closer:

I use [Oliver Wendell] Holmes as an example in my undergraduate social theory class . . . to convey to my students that the modern world has come into being in an astonishingly brief period of time. But they think of the 1980s as essentially equivalent to the Paleolithic, so I need a something corresponding to the inverse of Douglas Adams’ line that “You may think it’s a long way down the street to the Chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Holmes provides it. He died in 1935, and so there are still many people alive today who knew him, or at least shook hands with him. Holmes was born in 1841, and as a boy he met John Quincy Adams, who was born in 1767. So (I tell my students—maybe I should chew on a pipe when I say this, for added effect) you are just three handshakes away from a man born before the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, and arguably before the Industrial Revolution, as well.

Mickey Kaus really means business.

Much of the immigration debate has an otherworldy tone to it, a detachment from reality on the part of people who spend too much time in a solipsistic political world, or something. For example, here is Mickey Kaus:

A not-uninteresting Senate compromise is discussed on page A9 of today's WaPo. Under the deal, illegal immigrants who've

lived and worked in the United States for five years would qualify for a work visa and an opportunity to apply for citizenship. They could stay in the country as they apply for a green card.

Those not meeting the requirements would have to return to their native countries. New measures in the larger immigration bill, such as a tamper-proof identification card and sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants, would convince recent illegal immigrants they have no choice but to comply, advocates of the compromise said.

Sen. Frist is quoted saying that 40% of the 12 million illegals have been here less than five years. ... The actual sight of millions of illegals having to leave the country might have a deterrent, they-mean-business effect that could counterbalance the inevitable incentive effect (on potential future illegals) of the deal's partial semi-amnesty.
(The bolding is Kaus's own -- a gift to those who can't be bothered to do more than glance at what he writes?) Of course, illegal immigrants are in this country notwithstanding laws which do not permit them to be here. What to do? I know! We'll pass a law requiring them to leave.

It's one thing to propose something of the sort for political reasons -- i.e., as a sop to those who want something done, without much expectation that the law will be enforced any more than current laws are. But it takes a special obtuseness to read this proposal and start fantasizing about "[t]he actual sight of millions of illegals having to leave the country."

Presumably this proposal came from the same legal minds who think that the way to deal with the administration's disregard of FISA is for Congress to pass another law.

International election news, contd.

Meanwhile, Peruvian voters are preparing to vote for the candidate who dresses like an Inca, Ollanta Humala.

No love for ponies in Italy?

A surprise promise from Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister, to abolish a significant property tax rebounded on the Italian premier yesterday as his centre-left opponents ridiculed it as a transparent pre-election gimmick.

"What will Berlusconi be promising on April 7 in his final election appeal? A yacht for everybody? The moon?" asked Alfonso Scanio, leader of the opposition Greens party.

. . . Mr. Prodi was scathing in his criticism. "There is no way the voters will believe in such fibs," he told Sky TG24 television.

Tony Barber, "Prodi seizes on shock Berlusconi tax pledge," Financial Times 2 (April 5, 2006).

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Digby talks about writing under an assumed name:
This tradition goes back to the early days of our nation in which the enlightenment belief that pseudonymous written argument, based in reason rather than authority, democratizes ideas and promotes freedom. Many of the writers and activists who fomented the American revolution used fictitious personaes or wrote pseudonymously -- Sam Adams wrote under 25 different identities. The idea (aside from protecting themselves from charges of treason!) was that the written words standing on their own, without the edifice of credentialed expertise and social status -- or grounding in the received word of religion -- had the greatest persuasive power. (The best example of this, of course, is Publius, of the Federalist Papers.) Writing pseudonymously openly distinguishes between the private person and a citizen of the public sphere by removing all but the disembodied voice from the argument.

A dull paradise, with good skiing.

Mr. Alexander Ineichen of Oberaegeri, Switzerland, writes to the Financial Times:

Sir, The debate in your letters columns as to whether the Swiss are dull or Switzerland a paradise is missing the point. The two are not mutually exclusive but correlated. . . .

The Swiss never had victories on battlefields to speak of, never had colonies, never had social upheavals or revolutions, never had disasters. The Swiss, unlike their neighbors, do not even strike. The Swiss have no poets, no composers, few philosophers, and hardly any painters and writers of international acclaim. No wonder the Swiss are dull.

However, when we measure wealth and quality of life not just as gross domestic product per capita but add some less tangible factors such as functionality of infrastructure, medical care and pension system, as well as level of education and safety of our children on their way to school, Switzerland actually is paradise. . . .

Oscar Wilde must have been thinking of the Swiss when he said: "It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating."

Monday, April 03, 2006

1960s nostalgia.

Reviewing The R. Crumb Handbook, Ian Buruma proposes that Crumb shared a nostalgia with Bob Dyland and much of 1960s culture:
If there is one mood, apart from lust, that defines Crumb's work, it is nostalgia. But in fact this was also very much a feature of 1960s culture. . . .

A great deal of rock music of the 1960s and early 1970s was soaked in nostalgia for a pre-industrial, or at least pre-plastic-fantastic, Americana. There was, in an age of extraordinary mass-produced affluence, a deep longing for the handmade, the artisanal, the simple good life. "Plastic" was a general term of abuse for anything in the modern world that was deemed to be hateful: suburban mod coms, TV personalities, and so on. Country rockers folk singers, tie-dye weavers, and other enthusiasts of the organic and the "real" imitated the styles of an earlier, rougher, more rustic or proletarian culture. Bob Dylan, in his first steps to stardom, pretended to be a hobo. The Rolling Stones, nice suburban English boys all, pretended to be Edwardian rakes, or black men from the Deep South. [Robert] Crumb adopted the comic style of pre-war funny papers.

Like Bob Dylan, however, he transformed the style of a bygone era into something rather different and personal. Both artists reworked popular, even proletarian arts, and came up with something that could be played at Carnegie Hall or pinned on the walls of a fine arts museum. . . . Crumb certainly didn't use the techniques of a fine artist. On the contrary, it was more that, like Dylan, he used a popular idiom to express feelings and ideas normally reserved for more sophisticated forms, such as poetry or the novel.
Ian Buruma, "Mr. Natural," The New York Review of Books 28, 30 (April 6, 2006).

But surely artists draw on earlier styles without trafficking in nostalgia. Greil Marcus wrote about the continuity between earlier folk music and Dylan's Basement Tapes in Invisible Republic, now sold in paperback as The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. But I don't hear much nostalgia in the Basement Tapes.

Sometimes a cigar isn't a conspiracy.

Assorted lefty bloggers of note observe that though the Treasury Department is required by law to issue an annual Social Security actuarial report by April 1, this year's report was put on the slow boat. Or is waiting to board the slow boat. Or something.

Says Josh Marshall: "[t]his administration doesn't play fast and loose with the law on Social Security for nothing. Something's up." Says Yglesias: "it's pretty fishy." But what about the incompetence meme? Don't we expect these folks to screw up the things they care about least?

Staring Day.

Even when he's not in the classroom, Michael Bérubé likes to educate:

Though no one sent me the memo, yesterday was Staring Day. Jamie and I did our usual drill, swimming at the Y, playing basketball, and running sundry errands around town, and two or three times in the course of the day, people just gawked at him as if they’d never seen a person with Down syndrome in public before. When we were in Target getting some of the materials for his science project, one kid, who looked about 10 or 11, stopped in his tracks, backed up a few steps, and peered around an aisle to look at Jamie. So I decided to give this kid something to think about. “Jamie,” I said. “What are we supposed to be building again?” (This was a real question, by the way. I kept calling the thing an “angioplast,” because I am not always so wise in the ways of science.) “Angiosperm,” Jamie replied. “Right,” I said. “Monocot or dicot?” “Monocot,” Jamie said. “OK, and do you want purple or blue for the petals?” I asked. “Hmmm,” Jamie mused, “maybe aqua.” We left that kid mid-aisle in a slack-jawed stupor. In a pleasant way, of course. Let’s hope we advanced the common good.
If I'm not mistaken, Jamie is in the seventh grade.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The comedic stylings of President Bush.

Via Brad DeLong, Teresa Neilsen Hayden says that President Bush's public remarks aim only to serve a short-term political calculus:
Bush doesn't really talk to us. When it's advantageous or required, he'll go through the motions of talking to us, but that's all. What it "means" is that he either has to do it, like the State of the Union speech; or he wants something from us, like votes; or he's tossing out a string of words calculated to endear him to some fraction of the citizenry, like "manned missions to Mars" or "Constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage." He doesn't care what he's saying, and afterward he doesn't consider himself bound by what he's said.

The implications are unpleasant. Someone who doesn't care that he's lying to you, and doesn't care that you know it, doesn't respect you, and doesn't consider you part of his social or political universe. Look at how many reasons Bush has tendered for cutting taxes for the rich, or going to war with Iraq. The only connection between those statements and his actions is that he believed that saying those things would get him what he wants.

But if there are no principles to be discerned when Bush speaks, he does tell us what kind of person he is. The Washington Post returns to a favorite subject -- the stagecraft of Bush appearances -- and breathlessly tells us that Bush is back:
As he takes to the road to salvage his presidency, Bush is letting down his guard and playing up his anti-intellectual, regular-guy image. Where he spent last year in rehearsed forums with select supporters, these days he is more frequently throwing aside the script and opening himself to questions from audiences that are not prescreened. These sessions have put a sometimes playful, sometimes awkward side back on display after years of trying to keep it under control to appear more presidential.
The terms "playful" and "awkward" don't begin to capture the side of the President that we see when he loosens up. For one, the President is not particularly funny, even though the likes of White House counselor Dan Bartlett tell us otherwise. Indeed, the Post's piece is pretty much devoid of intentional humor. Take this exchange:
[H]e banters with audiences in a way he doesn't when delivering a conventional speech.

"My name is Jose Feliciano," a questioner introduced himself in Cleveland last month.

"No!" Bush answered skeptically.

"Yes, it is," the man insisted.

"It's like the time I called a guy and said, 'Hey, this is George Bush calling,' " the president recalled. "He said, 'Come on, quit kidding me, man.' "

OK, the thing about the President calling someone is a little funny, but we all saw Michael Douglas do it in The American President (1995), and I'm sure he wasn't the first. (Come to think of it, the creepy parallels between Michael Douglas and George W. Bush are worth a blog post of their own.) But the set-up is all wrong. There's no apparent connection between Jose Feliciano's name and Bush's importance, but you can see the connection in Bush's mind: Bush doesn't know Jose Feliciano, but everyone knows George Bush.

Bush likes to tell jokes at others' expense. Sometimes the press:

While talking about Iraq before Cleveland's City Club, Bush stumbled over how many U.N. Security Council resolutions condemned Saddam Hussein.

"I think 16," Bush said, then turned toward the media area and spotted Bloomberg's Richard Keil. "Is that right, Stretch? Sixteen?"

Keil, hunched over his laptop, looked up in surprise. Bush played it for the crowd. "I'm asking a member of the press corps," he explained. "I like to, like, reverse roles sometimes. Really checking to see if they're paying attention, you know. Halfway through, they kind of start dozing off."

Bush knows that Keil is working, even if the audience cannot. Bush calls this a role-reversal, but again it's more like a reminder of his status, since no one in the press could possibly pull this sort of stunt. (Although again you can imagine the connection in Bush's mind: The press is ready to hassle him about pesky facts, like the UN's condemnation of Saddam Hussein, so he's going to turn the tables.) And again -- not funny, since it's too clear that this is a diversion from the initial stumble. [ed. note: I laughed.]

Bush sometimes does this sort of thing to politicians, too:
At the Freedom House event, Bush launched into a favorite riff about being friends with the Japanese prime minister even though their fathers fought on opposite sides six decades ago.

"I see Stevens nodding," he said, glancing at Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), age 82. "He was there. Weren't you?" The audience laughed. "Well, I wasn't," Bush added, prompting more laughter.

This is not mean spirited, assuming that Stevens was nodding in agreement rather than fatigue. Stevens is used to the public eye, and pointing out that he is an octogenarian hardly is pejorative. And maybe the juxtaposition of now-ancient history and the veteran now grown old is worth a laugh.

What all of these moments show is that Bush finds humor in puncturing the formality of a presidential address. As any Monty Python fan knows, there is humor latent in formality, waiting to be exploited. But Bush's efforts are not particularly funny -- let's just say that he is a far cry from John Cleese and leave it at that. This is not least because though the formality of the presidential office serves him, he jokes at others' expense to reinforce his own status. He has his cake and he eats it too.

Here's another example.

[T]here are moments when audiences are left wondering just what he's talking about. At Freedom House, Bush called on a member of the audience, then, before the man could ask a question, segued into his plans to leave for a summit in Cancun, Mexico.

"No Speedo suit here," Bush declared. "Thankfully."

The questioner, unsure if Bush was done, waited patiently. "Ready?" the man finally asked.

"Yes," Bush said. "Sorry to interrupt you. Just testing your concentration."

Bush is not even trying to be funny here, just musing as if to express his disregard for having to answer questions. No one will interrupt the President, even if he's talking about Speedo suits. And there is the trope of role reversal again. Bush says he's testing the questioner's concentration, as if to reminds the audience that no one is testing Bush, even if his concentration is flagging. The only thing tested is the audience's patience.

Bush uses these moments to remind everyone who he is, not to poke fun at himself. He has his anti-intellectual, regular-guy image to burnish. But don't forget that when he calls people, it is George Bush calling. He bestows nicknames. (He famously puts people in their place with these names, although when he calls out Kiel as "Stretch" here it means the audience doesn't know which reporter he's picking on). He's sharp enough to catch the reporters who fall asleep. He doesn't wear Speedos. And he's self-aware that he uses his humor in this way, as you see when someone else tries to be funny:

Bush often plays the rube. When Melia got up last week, the president cut him off before his question. "You're going to ask me if I read the book," Bush said.

"I gave the president a copy of our annual report, 'Freedom in the World,' before he took the stage," Melia explained to the audience.

The president gave his instant review: "Little print, no pictures."

Melia did not miss a beat and compared it to another book Bush likes to cite. "It's the bible of freedom," Melia said.

When the crowd laughed, Bush protested, " I'm the funny guy."

The Post has it wrong: Bush doesn't play the rube. A rube is a sucker, a yokel, the brunt of the joke. Bush never bears the brunt of his jokes. He's the funny guy, even if he isn't funny.

Post writer Peter Baker sees it otherwise:

President Bush was taking questions from an audience the other day when he was asked about the immigration debate raging in Washington.

"It's obviously topic du jour ," he said.

The audience laughed at the famously Francophobic Texan's faux accent.

"Pretty fancy, huh?" Bush asked, mocking himself. "Topic du jour ?"

The audience laughed again.

"I don't want to ruin the image," he added conspiratorially.

But Bush did not earn that first laugh. And so his calling himself fancy and his conspiratorial aside have a certain whiff of defensiveness. Maybe "awkward" isn't so far off. Bush wants you to know that if he cannot pronounce "topic du jour" correctly, it's only because he doesn't want to. Of course he is concerned about that image. The whole Post article is about a President who plays at being a regular guy, even as he reminds everyone around him that he's the President. With all that he has acheived, he still needs to remind us all that he doesn't need the establishment's approval.

We all can play armchair psychoanalysts to explain why the forty-third President of the United States, the son of George Herbert Walker Bush, the grandson of Prescott Bush, should feel this way. If W. keeps using his own brand of humor to put everyone around him in their place, we'll have plenty to work with.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

He wants you to know he doesn't hear you.

The Washington Post suggests this morning that more changes are coming at the White House, but hastens to add that Bush wants everyone to know that he is not listening to his critics:
White House aides have made clear Bush wants the changes to look like the logical result of Bolten's promotion -- not a shake-up in response to his critics.
When Bush was strong, his "fuck all y'all" style augmented his strength. Now that he's weak, it's compounding his weakness.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]