Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Rolling Stone moves Bush

You know, it's hard out here for the Prez. George Bush is moulting into lame-duck status faster than any second-term president in modern times. But if you're looking for a sign of just how bad it's gotten for President Bush, you can pretty much skip the nonstop plummeting polls from AP-Ipsos and Pew, Washington Post and ABC News and all the rest. The administration isn't reading them and, in all probability, neither are you.

Just file this item in the back of your mind: Mick Jagger, lead singer of the You Know Whos, refused to roll over and accede to a request from the President of the United States.

Turns out that the president will attend a summit meeting in Vienna, in June, a meeting for which the president's aides tried to secure the Royal Suite at the luxury Imperial Hotel. Turns out two that Jagger, whose little band will be playing in Vienna the same month, already reserved for a tidy $6,500 (£3,600) a night.

Apparently, entreaties from the White House were rejected. A source close to Jagger: “White House officials had wanted to reserve the suite and all the other rooms on the first floor. ... Bush’s people seemed to be under the impression that they would just hand over the suites but there was no way Mick was going to do that.”

You might think being president hasn't got the clout it used to have. But remember, Mick's been an outspoken critic of this war (check out "Sweet Neocon" on "A Bigger Bang") and the last one in the Gulf ("Highwire" on the "Flashpoint" collection). But frankly, all that aside: When what's at stake is said to be among the best 100 hotel rooms in the world, first-come-first-served is Law. And there's just a natural ... rightness about it. If anyone on this planet knows a thing or two about hotel rooms, it's Mick Jagger.

Not to worry for the Prez; rest assured he will not represent the United States squirreled up in an Austrian dive on the edge of town; Vienna is a city of grand historic architecture, a beneficiary of six hundred years of the Habsburg dynasty. Some of that architecture is evident in hotels -- places no doubt eager to accommodate the commander-in-chief.

But sorry, Dubya -- a man of wealth and taste nailed down the Imperial Hotel Royal Suite in June.

"Can't get no"?

Oh, yes you can. Just ask Mick.
Image credit: KF (Public domain), through Wikipedia

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pooh! Baby! Meet me at the Ivy!

"Oh bother!" With these words, the characteristically self-effacing Winnie the Pooh got his star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame yesterday, the latest sign of Pooh's steady return to good graces after a long decline in Tinseltown. The recipient of the 2,308th Hollywood star is a survivor in every sense.

Pooh began his Hollywood career late by the usual standards. He was in the public eye since the 1920's, appearing in a successful series of books with longtime companion Christopher Robin. Pooh came to southern California in 1966, working with Disney in its relative infancy as a motion picture company. The fortunes of both increased over the years, with Pooh the star of dozens of films, television specials and cartoons.

Once his generation's version of the King of All Media -- cuddly symbol of an empire of animation, publishing, motion picture and product merchandising -- Pooh fell out of favor in the late 80's, as a childhood public increasingly older than its years, and more and more infatuated with technology and eventually the Internet, ignored Pooh's more juvenile brand of adventure.

A long addiction to honey finally gave way to something worse. With few movie prospects and declining book sales, Pooh began to drink heavily, reportedly downing up to a fifth of scotch every day. In 1992, at the height of the crack epidemic, Pooh was arrested on Sunset Boulevard and charged with possession of crack cocaine.

Old friends, such as Eeyore and Pooh's bosom companion, Christopher Robin, turned away, busy with their own careers in Hollywood. Pooh consumed himself with drink, strippers and parties that got wilder with each passing year. He reached rock bottom in 1995 when, at the Oscar ceremonies -- and witnessed by millions on television -- he staggered into the red-carpet crowd, drunk, raving and disheveled, and vomited on the Oscar statue outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

After a brief stint in jail, and a highly public probation hearing, Pooh retreated to his estate, Hundred Acre Wood, in the Hollywood Hills. He began the slow process of rehabilitation, chastened, in part, by the death of his lifelong friend Tigger, killed in a 1996 auto-pedestrian accident in London. Pooh's personal therapy included Zen meditation, a change in diet and six weeks at the Hazelden alcoholism clinic. He was also helped by another lifelong friend, Rabbit, whose move-in intervention in 1997 helped Pooh turn the corner.

Eventually, other old friends began to return. In 2000, Pooh teamed up with Robin for an historic one-time joint appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman." In 2003 Pooh and Eeyore got together to write a script that's now in development at Fox. Pooh is also now in talks to direct a film starring Mickey Rourke and Paul Reubens.

As Pooh dutifully held back tears, Disney CEO Robert Iger made plain at the Los Angeles ceremony the feelings of millions of readers and moviegoers around the world: "You really are a bother." Here's to Pooh bothering us for generations to come.

Monday, April 10, 2006

By the skin of their grills

It's come to this, ladies and gentlemen. Your Justice Department is eager to enforce laws against drug dealing and corruption, so eager, in fact, that it will stop at nothing to prosecute evildoers to the full extent of the law. Nothing. Not even your teeth.

In what may be the stupidest prosecutorial gambit in a long time, officials with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently moved to have the "grills" -- gold-capped teeth favored by rappers and the hiphop crowd -- removed from the mouths of two suspected drug offenders, as a way to achieve asset forfeiture against two people seen as having profited from the drug trade.

The Seattle Times reported the story on April 7. If not for two attorneys who raised a huge stink about the proposed action in the literal nick of time, the two men -- charged with "several counts of drug and weapons violations in January" -- might well have found themselves on the receiving end of something out of the "Is it safe?" scene from "Marathon Man."

On April 4 -- yet another grim anniversary of the passing of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- the two men, Flenard T. Neal Jr. and Donald Jamar Lewis, were moved from the federal "Detention Center" in SeaTac, near the airport, to the U.S. Marshals office in Tacoma, a short drive south.

"There they were told the government" -- the United States government! -- "had a warrant to seize the grills from their mouths and that they were being taken to a dentist in Seattle for removal."

Speaking to the Times, Richard Troberman, former president of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, got it just about right: "It sounds like Nazi Germany, when they were removing the gold teeth from the bodies, but at least they waited until they were dead."

Neal and Lewis called their attorneys but they were bundled into a van and whisked to Seattle. Their lawyers managed, in the time it takes from Tacoma to Seattle, maybe forty miles, to convince a judge that this was a toweringly bad idea.

Turns out the grills Neal and Lewis were flashing were part of their permanent dentition. "Some styles of grills," the Times reported, "can be snapped onto the teeth somewhat like an orthodontic retainer, while others are permanently bonded to the teeth."

But by then the feds saw the public-relations handwriting on the wall. They claimed not to know whether the grills were or weren't permanently bonded to the teeth of the two men, which shouldn't have mattered anyway. But when they found out, the seizure attempt was vacated. A permanent stay on the seizure was signed by a judge later on April 4, the Times reported.

Setting aside the abundant weirdness factor in this case, there's a sobering dimension to the plan, who it targeted and their status in the criminal justice system. "This is especially egregious because these two had not been convicted and are presumed to be innocent," Troberman observed for the Times.

Maybe U.S. Attorney General Alberto VO5 Gonzalez has it in mind to both prosecute domestic evildoers and help the American economy at the same time; perhaps it's all part of a Forensic Dentists' Full Employment Act to be introduced in Congress.

Whatever. Score one for common sense, a winner by the skin of oral precious metals.
Image credit: Bottom: Calliopejen, through Wikipedia licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license

Sunday, April 9, 2006

War without end, amen II

The frequent flyer-in-chief is lately on the move again, crisscrossing the country to shore up support for the war in Iraq. The urgency of these domestic sorties, their almost painful automaticity, illustrates just how politically wounded President Bush has become as he faces a broad range of problems stemming from the war, including the persistence of a robust insurgency and a rising tide of opposition at home.

Case in point: On Bush's airborne whistlestop to Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, the president faced an unusually hostile crowd in his own political backyard. At a speech before the World Affairs Council of Charlotte, Bush faced the comments of one man in the audience -- and not the usual audience pre-sanitized for his convenience. Harry Taylor, a 61-year-old real estate broker, spoke of the paradox of the president speaking of freedom when certain presumably unassailable civil liberties were under siege in America.

"What I wanted to say to you is that I, in my lifetime, I have never felt more ashamed of, nor more frightened by my leadership in Washington, including the presidency, by the Senate,' Taylor said.

"I would hope from time to time that you have the humility and the grace to be ashamed of yourself."

This was no wild young yahoo, no grunge-soaked ragamuffin, no disaffected twenty-year-old knucklehead that the president or the crowd could ostracize and belittle as part of the reflexive liberal fringe. Notwithstanding the man's membership in MoveOn.org, a liberal political group that assumed a maverick role in the 2004 election, Harry Taylor's comments came from someone with presumably long standing in the community, a man nearing retirement age -- someone not unlike the people who swept Bush into a second term not that long ago.

To be sure, Bush had his supporters in the crowd, but even their support had unintended ironies. The New York Times reported that one woman expressed backing for Bush, saying "My heroes have always been cowboys" -- apparently oblivious to the wicked double entendre of the word "cowboy" in the context of a 21st-century American president at war.

The great unraveling has continued from last month, and one especially embarrassing performance in one of the president's least favorite forums.

On March 21, with all the dutifully suppressed distaste of a man prepping to undergo a root canal for the first time, President Bush stood front and center at a White House press conference and proceeded to blame the press for the bad news coming out of the Iraq war, even as he set a no-timetable timetable for ending that war at a date beyond the life of his own administration.

At the hastily called conference, which Bush probably hates as much as any dental operation, Bush said that troops would be in Iraq after his presidency ends in 2009, almost three years from now. When those troops would all be withdrawn, he said, "will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq." In one statement, George Bush placed as a political issue the Iraq war -- its human, diplomatic and financial costs -- firmly around the neck of the Republican party for years to come.

It can't have escaped anyone's attention that Bush used the phrase "future presidents" Maybe it was just a linguistic misstep, one of many the president is well known for. But it raises the troubling specter of American forces bogged down in Iraq for decades.

That this prospect shouldn't be fair game for reporters is one of the issues that's long divided the White House and the press. Bush alluded to the matter of what the press covers and how much at the press conference, suggesting that, in a repeat of an old argument, the good news stories about Iraq are overcome by the bleeds-leads mentality of journalists, and the visual drama of a fresh wave of insurgent attacks.

"They're capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show," the president said to CBS News' Jim Axelrod. "I can understand how Americans are worried about whether or not we can win. ... I understand people being disheartened when they turn on their TV screen. Nobody likes beheadings."

Implicit in that statement is the idea that, distilled to its essence, if the press weren't there to report those events, those events wouldn't happen. The folly of that position has lately aroused the ire of the Washington press corps, whose attack-dog tendencies, usually held in abeyance in the presence of the president himself, have lately been, well, unleashed in his direction.

It's all led to what looks to casual observers like a rise in tension, certainly within the administration and, from the sad and frightening visible evidence, the president himself. And a photograph from the March 21 press conference is instructive. The image, taken by Associated Press photographer Charles Dharapak, is one of George Bush, face tight as a fist, the President of the United States of America looking like nothing so much as a man about to explode.
Image credit: © 2007 Harry Taylor for Congress

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Will we respect her in the evening?

One of the longest courtships in television history was consummated today. Like the charming, ambitious Charles Foster Kane -- who looked through the window of a rival newspaper at a photograph of its staff before acquiring their services -- CBS top dog Les Moonves got his candy, all of it, in the form of one Katharine Couric, soon to become the first sole female television news anchor in the history of the medium according to America.

It's all over but the reactions from the public and the press. The results of a spanking-new poll conducted this week by The Associated Press and TV Guide may hold the key to Couric's fortunes in the nation's evening hours.

According to the AP/TV Guide poll, when asked if they'd rather see Couric in her longtime (15 years and counting) role as host of the “Today” show or as the first woman to anchor a U.S. network weekday evening newscast solo, 49 percent favored Couric in the morning and 29 percent wanted Couric in the evening.

In her new role as anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News” (she starts in September), Couric becomes the beneficiary of a slowly-increasing audience for the Tiffany Network News. While her loyal audience at “Today” is now about 6 million viewers, and likely to stay there until she bows at "Today" in May, Couric inherits a “CBS Evening News” audience of about 7.5 million viewers.

It's an equally safe bet that many of them will stay for the early rounds to see how Couric looks behind an anchor desk, instead of her previous backdrops and costumes (narrating the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, or dressing like SpongeBob SquarePants on Halloween, for example).

Which leads us to how the press, her colleagues in the business, are reacting to her ascension. Interviewed by the AP, news consultant Andrew Tyndal says that the incessant claims that Couric lacks the “gravitas” for the job are “thinly disguised sexism.” Tyndal went on to suggest that the same arguments brought against Couric for being insubstantial were strangely absent when one considers that former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw took roughly the same path to the high chair at the Peacock Network, coming up through the ranks as a fixture on "Today" alongside Jane Pauley.

Another journalist, however, says there is a difference in style and temperament between morning and evening programs, and the audiences of each group varies. “This relationship (with viewers) will be different — it’s a more serious, more weighty and more important position,” said Charlotte Grimes, journalism professor at Syracuse University. “It’s going to take a different set of skills,” she told the AP.

It's fair to say that Couric has ably demonstrated the other side of her skill set, the gravitas part, on that day when journalists all over America grew up: Sept. 11, 2001. In short order, Couric necessarily made the shift from perky morning-show host to witness to a national tragedy, working for much of the early going alongside Brokaw as a solid hard-news journalist in the best traditions of the craft: emphatic yet empathic, relatively objective but not blind to the emerging human dimensions of the worst foreign incursion on American soil in centuries.

For his part, Bob Schieffer, who's been pinch-hitting as anchor since Dan Rather's departure, is solidly in Couric's corner.

"She's a great interviewer, people know who she is, and she has enormous credibility. People believe her. They take her seriously," Schieffer told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Gail Shister. You want journalistic gravitas? The G word may well be Schieffer's middle name. With a vote of confidence from that wily veteran of the Washington press corps, the game is Couric's to lose.

So we'll see. We've got about five months to prepare for this Paradigm Shift in broadcast TV news, and a lot can happen between now and fall. ABC's Bob Woodruff should be back on the job after his injuries in Iraq in January. For the perennial No. 3 network in the news ratings race, the appointment of Katie Couric may be just the tonic the doctor ordered. Maybe not so much a tonic as, uh, a high colonic.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 1, 2006

O'Connor speaks, no tape at 11

In the future, a shockingly powerful statement on the prospects for American dictatorship made by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor may resonate with an unlikely irony: For generations yet unborn, one reporter's recalled paraphrase of a 400-word precis may be our only indicator of an unsettling assessment of what may be a dangerous American trend. Irony of ironies: In a time of relentless press coverage of everything under the sun, in the researchable and archivable Internet age, perhaps the most dire, woeful forecast of the nation's possible future ever uttered in public largely managed to fly under the radar of the 24/7 press.

O'Connor's cri de coeur (or cri pour la justice) took place on March 9, sometime during a speech that morning at Georgetown University. Despite the profile of the speaker, just five weeks removed from being in one of the nine most powerful jobs in American life, it seems that the speech was scarcely covered by the press. From all indications, National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg was the only press witness to the event. No recording, no videotape, as yet no official transcript from the speaker herself.

What follows here is a transcript of O'Connor's comments as reported by Totenberg on NPR and published online by RawStory.com:

Totenberg: "In an unusually forceful and forthright speech, O’Connor said that attacks on the judiciary by some Republican leaders pose a direct threat to our constitutional freedoms. O’Connor began by conceding that courts do have the power to make presidents or the Congress or governors, as she put it “really, really angry.” But, she continued, if we don’t make them mad some of the time we probably aren’t doing our jobs as judges, and our effectiveness, she said, is premised on the notion that we won’t be subject to retaliation for our judicial acts. The nation’s founders wrote repeatedly, she said, that without an independent judiciary to protect individual rights from the other branches of government those rights and privileges would amount to nothing. But, said O’Connor, as the founding fathers knew, statutes and constitutions don’t protect judicial independence, people do.

"And then she took aim at former House GOP leader Tom DeLay. She didn’t name him, but she quoted his attacks on the courts at a meeting of the conservative Christian group Justice Sunday last year when DeLay took out after the courts for rulings on abortions, prayer and the Terri Schiavo case. This, said O’Connor, was after the federal courts had applied Congress’ onetime only statute about Schiavo as it was written. Not, said O’Connor, as the congressman might have wished it were written. This response to this flagrant display of judicial restraint, said O’Connor, her voice dripping with sarcasm, was that the congressman blasted the courts.

"It gets worse, she said, noting that death threats against judges are increasing. It doesn’t help, she said, when a high-profile senator suggests there may be a connection between violence against judges and decisions that the senator disagrees with. She didn’t name him, but it was Texas senator John Cornyn who made that statement, after a Georgia judge was murdered in the courtroom and the family of a federal judge in Illinois murdered in the judge’s home. O’Connor observed that there have been a lot of suggestions lately for so-called judicial reforms, recommendations for the massive impeachment of judges, stripping the courts of jurisdiction and cutting judicial budgets to punish offending judges. Any of these might be debatable, she said, as long as they are not retaliation for decisions that political leaders disagree with.

"I, said O’Connor, am against judicial reforms driven by nakedly partisan reasoning. Pointing to the experiences of developing countries and former communist countries where interference with an independent judiciary has allowed dictatorship to flourish, O’Connor said we must be ever-vigilant against those who would strongarm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, she said, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings." [Italics are mine]

RawStory.com, the bloggers and some of the online press, God love 'em all, were on the case almost from the beginning, with transcripts of the statement (or as close to transcripts as secondhand recall would allow). That evening, Keith Olbermann, host of "Countdown" on MSNBC (my employer) kicked the issue around with Mike Allen of Time Magazine. The Guardian (UK) picked up on the story, with an op-ed piece by Jonathan Raban, followed by Jack Shafer, who weighed in the following Monday in Slate.

But what's clear here is exactly the problem. Almost uniformly, the electronic press at least tried to represent on the issue. The newspapers were way behind the curve. Where were The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post? Why weren't they at the original event? Georgetown has to be considered the Post's neighborhood -- hell, its very backyard; how'd they get caught asleep at the switch on a story like this?

The story is especially arresting in this election year, in no small part because the comments come from a stalwart of the Republican party speaking -- free at last of the need for judicial circumspection -- in unflattering terms about the Republican leadership in the Congress. Her comments showed again how fragmented the GOP has become in recent months, from the executive to the legislative branches, and now the judicial.

There may be another side to it. The dead-tree media might make the case that newspapers didn't so much miss the story as they missed the immediacy of the story, possibly deciding that by the time they could do anything productive with it in print, they'd have already been outflanked by the bloggers and the electronic mainstream media.

That might be correct -- these days it's a given that airborne media gets the jump on everything -- but it still doesn't explain why the major dailies, which delight in pissing from a great height with such big stories, generally dropped the ball.

The San Francisco Chronicle made the speech the subject of an op-ed five days after NPR aired the Totenberg piece. Raban (writing in the Stranger, an alternative Seattle weekly) reported that the Houston Chronicle and the Salt Lake Tribune also carried op-ed pieces based on Totenberg's reporting. And the Times finally did show up at the party, trying to bigfoot everybody with a comprehensive story that combined O'Connor's comments with those from a similarly-themed speech by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in February.

But frankly, it's all weak tea from the branch of the media that can't afford to let itself look complacent or out of touch. O'Connor's statement -- in its urgency not unlike Winston Churchill's announcement of "an iron curtain" across Europe, in a March 1946 speech, or President Dwight Eisenhower's warning, in January 1961, of the rise of a "military-industrial complex" -- is the kind of lucid, non-ideological, valuable wake-up call Americans often don't even realize is a wake-up call, and can't afford to miss. It's a shame that this time, a cross-section of the nation's print media wasn't awake to make it.
Image credit: O'Connor: U.S. Supreme Court (Public domain)
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