Friday, May 28, 2010

BP: Centralizing responsibility

BP, the British-based octoconglomerate that leased the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig platform that exploded late on April 20, announced a while back that it intends to seek to have the various lawsuits against it centralized in one judge.

The company wants the 70-plus class action lawsuits over the Gulf oil spill — lawsuits from fishermen, property owners and others — consolidated into one mother of all class actions, and brought before U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes of Houston, to address pretrial matters, the Associated Press reported on May 10.

But on the basis of a hearing Friday in Louisiana, BP might well do to be more concerned about another kind of centralizer — specifically a piece of hardware used in the safe operation and maintenance of offshore oil platforms. The number of those devices in use on the Deepwater Horizon rig the night of April 20 is the issue.

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Here’s an excerpt from a prepared statement from Tim Probert, the president of global business lines, and the chief health, safety and environmental officer for Halliburton, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on May 11th.
It should be noted that cement is used at specific designated spots and is not designed to be a complete barrier through the entire wellbore.

Cement can be used to isolate formation fluids, to prevent movement of these fluids between formations and to bond and support the casing … There are many external factors that impact the design and execution of a cement job. These include the variability in the hole geometry, relative location of hydrocarbon zones, hydrocarbon content and the prior condition of the wellbore and associated fluids as determined by the drilling fluid provider. Casing strings are typically run with devices to centralize the casing concentrically in the wellbore and prevent incomplete displacement of drilling fluid, or "channeling". ...

The centralizer placement on the production casing, the drilling fluid conditioning program prior to cementing and the cement slurry and placement design used for this well were implemented as directed by the well owner. However, as shown in the attached diagram, by design there is no continuous cement column throughout the entire wellbore.
It may or may not be significant in the long run, but on Friday at a C-SPAN-broadcast hearing of a joint Coast Guard-Minerals Management Service investigation, in Kenner, La., an exchange between Donald Godwin, a Halliburton attorney, and Mark Hafle, a BP senior drilling engineer, hinged on the number of centralizers in place at the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20:

GODWIN: Are you aware that Halliburton recommended that 21 centralizers be used in this well?

HAFLE: I’m aware that the final number agreed upon had, perhaps, 21 centralizers. I can’t remember the exact number, but it was in that ballpark.

GODWIN: How many centralizers were in use in the well at the time it blew up?

HAFLE: To be honest, I’m not sure how many centralizers they ran.

GODWIN: Are you aware that that number was six?

HAFLE: I’ve heard various discussions that that was the case, yes.

GODWIN: Thank you sir. Nothing further.

You can make the case, of course, that Godwin’s line of inquiry had the express intent of enabling Halliburton to cover its ass, proving that by accident or by design, Halliburton’s recommendation was ignored by BP, which leased the well. In this, and by the admission of a senior engineer from BP, Halliburton may well have succeeded.

But in Hafle’s hazy but still significant recall, there’s additional grounds to suspect BP of gross negligence, by not implementing Halliburton recommendations and contractually compelling Halliburton to use six centralizers instead of 21 in the well under its control.

Why would such a recommendation be ignored? And how many other safety recommendations were ignored or overlooked by BP before the night of April 20? In the highly reactive time-is-money culture of oil production, BP’s decision to operate the Mississippi Canyon well despite the recommended number of centralizers was almost certainly a financial shortcut, nothing more or less.

Like was said, it may not matter much in the greater scheme of things. But as the case of negligence against BP begins to gain momentum, and it will, watch for the centralizer issue to gain more attention as the various corporate players here start jockeying for position ... looking to centralize responsibility for this worst environmental tragedy in the history of the United States.

Elizabeth Birnbaum, the director of the federal Minerals Management Service, was fired on Friday.

Image credits: BP logo: BP plc. Protech CRB Centralizers: Halliburton Web site. BP protest in L.A.: Jae C. Hong/Associated Press.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Obama to BP: Co-own it

At a press conference on Monday, in a response to the growing chorus of discontent from the media, and from many in the beleaguered Gulf region, Thad Allen, the Coast Guard incident commander in the Gulf (and to this point as close to an oil-spill czar of this unfolding tragedy as we’re likely to get), said in clear terms what they needed to hear, as opposed to what they wanted to hear. It was, by proxy, a White House response to the call for action on the BP oil spill — and one that made the most logistical sense, if not the most favorable press.

Responding at the White House to a question about Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's shot at the British superconglomerate the day before (when Salazar threatened to take BP out of the loop of resolving the crisis), Allen said, “I’m the national incident commander, and right now the relationship with BP is the way to move forward. To push BP out of the way would raise the question: To replace them with what? They just need to do their job."

Allen also told the reporters that, according to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, although the federal government retains full oversight, the polluter is responsible for paying for the clean-up, securing the equipment needed to perform the clean-up, and paying for the damage done. “This is not policy,” he said. “This is a command-and-control structure. It’s actually contained in the Code of Federal Regulations that implements the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. So there are actually clear definitions.”



Allen’s statements effectively frustrated the growing calls for the BP spill to be ended with a John Wayne bigfoot nanny-state solution — an idea that that might be more emotionally satisfying, but which in practical terms solves nothing. Allen seemed to say this is not a moment of blindly throwing federal money and materiel into easing the crisis in the Gulf.

Some lawmakers have even proposed the idea of using the U.S. military to end the spill. The presumption that military might can be leveraged to end this environmental crisis is plainly the wrong one; you can prove that by just reversing the players in a hypothetical: Would environmentalists, engineers and oil-industry scientists be the resource of first resort to fight an asymmetrical war in a foreign country? Reflexively throwing the armed forces at a problem is no guarantee of a solution.

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Politically and even morally, the White House’s present inclination to compel BP to take the practical and operational lead in ending a crisis of its own making recognizes common sense: when an unprecedented situation faces a specific, highly specialized industry, that industry should be the first and primary responder.

Oil is what BP does for its bottom line. This isn’t a question of resources; in terms of ready cash, BP’s at least as liquid than the government is for purposes of dealing with this crisis, and probably more. It’s a question of expertise and experience in the field, and BP’s experience trumps the government’s.

And BP is under its own self-imposed pressure. The loss of millions of gallons of the product BP sells means the company has a decided financial interest — among others — in fixing the situation. BP’s stock has been drifting south since shortly after the spill occurred; even for a company with $240 billion in revenue last year, the financial incentive for BP’s fixing this catastrophe of business, the environment and public relations ASAP is self-evident.

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The White House no doubt made another calculation, political but real just the same. The administration recognizes that the moment the federal government fully wades ashore like MacArthur at Leyte Gulf in 1944, pantlegs coated with heavy crude, the federal government will be perceived (by the public and sure as hell by the media) as owning the problem, and by extension owning the responsibility to find a solution.

To say that the United States (hunkering down behind two wars and a deeply sour domestic economy) is out of its depth in this field is an understatement.

President Obama volunteered to fully shoulder the task of fixing this mess. He said as much Thursday in the White House. “I take responsibility. It is my job to make sure that everything is done to shut this down … there shouldn’t be any confusion here. The federal government is fully engaged. And I’m fully engaged.”

But even now, as Thad Allen said days earlier, the United States’ role is that of a monitor with teeth. Day by day, as the White House has ratcheted up the rhetorical pressure on BP, it’s shown that enforcer’s role can be effective. One of the things a “fully engaged” president and administration can do is make damn sure the one that can do the job is fully engaged in getting it done.

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More of a problem for the Obama administration is addressing the cultural relationships between the oil industry and the federal government, not just the government now under Obama but the fed going back years. One example of that cozy relationship and its consequences: the apparent corruption within the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency charged with collection of oil and gas royalties, and with oversight of the oil industry in matters of deep-water drilling.

In a new report by the U.S. Inspector General, MMS officials are the big players in a tale of gross mismanagement: The Inspector General’s report found that MMS brass took gifts, cash, drugs, vacations and even tickets to sporting events from several oil companies in the past.

The fact of government and the oil industry being in bed together — sometimes literally — compounds the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico with what could be a crisis of confidence in the reformist rhetoric of the Obama administration.

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The president himself is a party to that relationship: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, $3.5 million of BP money has made its way into the campaigns of various candidates by BP over the last 20 years, with the Obama campaign receiving the largest single donation (just over $77,000).

As Obama holds BP’s feet to the fire, and the public does the same to him — 53 percent of Americans give him a poor rating for his handling of the crisis, according to a new USA Today/Gallup Poll — the president’s proven he’s ready to throw the weight of the government into ending this slow and deadly hydrocarbon bleed into the pristine bays and estuaries along the Gulf of Mexico.

But the government’s ongoing dalliance with Big Oil, and Obama’s own previous one, underscore a fundamental problem with federal agencies forced to rely on the industries that are their responsibility to monitor, or with government itself getting tough with the industry that oils its gears:

You can’t be the watchdog when you’re sleeping with the one you're supposed to watch.

Image credits: Thad Allen: Via MASNBC. MacArthur at Leyte, 1944: Public domain.

BP, Obama and the new Gulf war

For a frequent blogger on national affairs, the last 38 days have been a sad disaster of riches. Admittedly, it’s been the worst, most mindboggling of tragedies, one whose dimensions and contours grow — literally — every hour of every day, every moment of the 38 days the BP/Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil spill and environmental catastrophe have played out in front of the world, live, under the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s one frame of reference: National Public Radio reported on May 14 that Steven Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, had examined videotape of the leak using an advanced method of fluid-velocity analysis and estimated the oil flow rates at between 56,000 to 84,000 barrels per day — roughly equivalent to one oil spill the impact and magnitude of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill every 3.5 to 2.4 days.

It’s hard for a blogger to get around the issue in real time. It may be that way for a president, too.

The one thing that’s been consistent (and consistently growing) since the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico the night of April 20 has been calls for the intervention of the federal government, cries from lawmakers and pundits and editorialists for the White House to “do something” to end this environmental crisis. The calls for federal intervention haven't always been real constructive as to what “something” the White House should do.

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President Obama took care of that, or started to, on Thursday, in a way that reflected both the president’s trademark sang-froid vis-à-vis crisis management, and, it’s gotta be said, a willingness to deliberate that may be working against him in the eye of the public.

On Thursday at the White House, Obama held his first news conference in months and laid out an action plan defined, at least initially, by actions that won't be taken: exploration of two sites off the coast of Alaska is suspended; a pending lease sale in the Gulf and a proposed lease sale off the coast of Virginia are cancelled; issuance of new permits for deep-water drilling is suspended for six months; action on 33 deepwater wells in the Gulf is suspended.

When it comes to talking about the BP spill, the usually rancorous tone of Washington politics has achieved a rare bipartisanship: Obama has had no shortage of critics from both sides of the political aisle. James Carville, a longtime Democratic strategist and Obama supporter, has been an attack dog against the current White House strategy of making BP take the lead in stopping the spill; Carville tore into the administration Wednesday on “Good Morning America.” On Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida told CNN that “the perception is that we’re fumbling around” in dealing with the problem.

Predictably as the sunrise, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the White House’s handling of the Gulf crisis a “total failure.”

Even political personality Sarah Palin got in a shot. "I don't know why the question isn't asked by the mainstream media and by others if there's any connection with the contributions made to President Obama and his administration and the support by the oil companies to the administration," she told Fox News on Sunday.

But on Thursday the president proved that, regardless of how it looked to the outside world, the Gulf oil spill was, and always had been a front-and-center issue, not a flyover event, and one Obama took personally.

“[T]his is what I wake up to in the morning, and this is what I go to bed at night, thinking about,” he said Thursday, the room of White House reporters more silent than you’d expect. “I think everybody understands that when we are fouling the earth like this, it has concrete implications not just for this generation but for future generations. I grew up in Hawaii, where the ocean is sacred. And when you see birds flying around with oil all over their feathers, turtles dying, that doesn’t just speak to the immediate consequences of this. This speaks to, how are we caring for this incredible bounty that we have.”

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Obama, while disinclined toward making Gulf-spill-related decisions rashly and out of emotionalism, thus exercised one of his more pivotal responsibilities in times of national crisis: consoler-in-chief, a source of both rational calm and fellow feeling.

Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, on MSNBC on Wednesday, understands this presidential task: fuzzier and imprecise but no less the job of the president than presiding over the State of the Union address.

“Emotionally the president has a duty to be there, to be on scene with these people,” Fineman said. “It sounds a little bit too technocratic and bland to talk about reducing oil demand at a time when a whole way of life is under threat and a whole ecology is under threat in Louisiana and elsewhere on the coast.”

Obama got Fineman’s message. On Friday, Obama goes to Louisiana, for all practical purposes the epicenter of the event. Obama’s visit was announced on Tuesday. If Steven Wereley's estimate is correct, in the three days between Obama's announcement and his arrival, another 56,000 to 84,000 barrels of oil — roughly equivalent to one oil spill the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill — will have bled into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Image credits: BP logo: BP plc. Oil spill live feed: BP. Deepwater Horizon explosion: U.S. Coast Guard (public domain). Pelican rescue: Les Stone/International Bird Rescue Research Center.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Start wearing the layers:
Super Bowl XLVIII to New York/New Jersey

This was one of those things that, when you heard it, you said to yourself, “you mean they don’t do that already?”



If you’re a less than diehard pro football fan, you might have thought they’ve already played the Super Bowl in the New York metropolitan area. The towering symbolism of New York City is so ubiquitous, it’s just assumed that anything of any consequence in this country’s history has already gone down in the Big Apple.

Likewise, even if you’re a blood-in-the-veins fan, you might think the Super Bowl has already been played at least once in its XLIV years in some cold-weather city. Right?

Sadly no. Never happened before. Not the Super Bowl.

That changes in February 2014, when Super Bowl XLVIII comes to the sparkling $1.6 billion New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The stadium — the most expensive ever constructed — actually opens for business this fall, but somehow it’s all a dress rehearsal for its Super Bowl debut.

On Tuesday, the NFL team owners agreed to award the game to the NY/NJ metrocell. The big industrial east edged out bids by South Florida, where Super Bowl XLV (one of the greatest ever) was played in February, and Tampa. The shift breaks the stranglehold of the Southeast and Southwest as the presumptive locations for the national gladiator game.

The NFL has long had the traditional requirement that a Super Bowl host have a 50 degree climate or be held in indoors, in a climate-controlled structure. The New Meadowlands got the nod because of what the bid committee called a "unique, once-only circumstance based on the opportunity to celebrate the new stadium and the great heritage and history of the NFL in the New York region."

“Hosting the Super Bowl in the New York/New Jersey area will not only place the game of football on the largest stage it’s ever seen, but the positive economic impact for the region will be substantial,” said Woody Johnson, Jets chairman and CEO, earlier this month. "Studies have shown that the economic benefit would exceed $550 million, providing a major boost to this area on many levels.”

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All the civic advantages aside, it’s fitting that, despite the conveniences of artificial turf and retractable roofs, finally a game whose very performance depends on acreage, space and externality will see its professional championship determined amid the elements.

And count on the elements being there. According to AccuWeather, the average high in NYC in February is about 41, and the average low about 28. The About.com reference Web site says the average high is 32°F, the average low: 29°F. The KLGA weather station at La Guardia Airport places the average high for February 2010 at 38 degrees F. The low: a butt-numbing 16°F.

All of which is somewhat academic. When the mercury dips below 40 degrees, stationary human beings can’t generate the body heat needed to stay warm. When the temperature drops to the teens, you only hope your constant jittering shivers won’t disrupt your own ability to see the game. For the vast majority of 82,566 relatively immobile fans sitting in the stands in the dead of dead of winter, the word cold is likely to take on a whole new meaning.

The challenges of cold weather that wouldn’t be a problem in a smaller city like Green Bay or even Philadelphia are magnified, like everything is, in New York City. The roads and bridges leading to and from the stadium, the traffic logistics, police and paramedics — all the things that affect travel in smaller cities are added to a two-state, multi-county transportation grid whose operation and navigation is already complicated on any given day of the year.

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The Los Angeles Times Sports blog sampled the opinions of four sportswriters as to whether the Super Bowl should be played in an outdoor venue.

With both the temperature in mind, and more than a little hometown booster’s pride in tow, Sarah Talalay of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel defended the idea of doing it. “Sure. Once. Then the NFL will finally see the error of its ways.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Tea Party (2009-2010)

Has there been a faster fall from relative political grace than the one Rand Paul has taken in the last 48 hours?

On Tuesday night, Paul, the eye doctor from Kentucky and son of libertarian icon Ron Paul, was astride the world of American politics, having won the Republican state primary for Senate, besting a challenger handpicked by the Senate Republican Leader. Paul, darling of Tea Party movement, threw down a gauntlet, essentially declaring his impressive win a shot across the bow of the Washington establishment. This was to be the Tea Party’s coming-out party, their long-awaited crossover into real national significance — with one of their own taking the lead in mainstreaming the movement before the eyes of the nation and the world.

Fast forward, just a hair, to Wednesday night. Paul, no doubt feeling his oats, went on the “Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC, and in a Q&A with perhaps the most incisive, blisteringly intelligent interviewer on television today, started the process of losing what he never had.



Paul was asked about his position (previously reported elsewhere) suggesting that Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — the section on "injunctive action" that makes illegal any discrimination by private business owners of patrons on the basis on their race — conflicted with his libertarian sense of the bright line between public and private entities. Paul was solid in his support of the idea that public institutions (those funded with taxpayer money) should absolutely be barred from such discrimination. Private businesses — lunch counters, restaurants, hotels, gas stations, stores of every kind? Not so much.

"Do you think that a private business has the right to say, 'we don't serve black people?'" he was asked by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Wednesday.

"Yes. I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form," Paul said, cranking up on a long disquisition he used (in vain) to try and twist the issue by condemning limits of speech for everyone, including racists. "I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior, because that's one of the things freedom requires."

“Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant, or does the government own his restaurant?” he said rhetorically.

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In an NPR interview earlier in the day, Paul was asked whether the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protects the handicapped against discrimination in hiring and access to services, were indicators of federal overreach.

"Right. I think a lot of things could be handled locally," he said.

In an April interview with the Louisville (Ky.) Courier Journal, Paul was asked point-blank whether he would have supported Title II.

"I think it's a bad business to ever exclude anyone from your restaurant. But at the same time, I do believe in private ownership," he volunteered evasively.

It got worse. The Washington Post's David Riegel reported this on Thursday: “In a May 30, 2002, letter to the Bowling Green Daily News, Paul's hometown newspaper, he criticized the paper for endorsing the Fair Housing Act, and explained that "a free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination, even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin."



It’d be tempting to invoke the metaphor of Paul being thrown under the bus, except Paul, awaiting the outcome of his first political campaign, hasn’t even gotten on the bus yet. Already, GOP Rep. Jim DeMint, pigeonholed Thursday in Washington for a walking interview, was less than ringing in his endorsement of Paul’s position on the Civil Rights Act. “I’m going to talk to Rand about his position,” DeMint said.

Rep. Eric Cantor lost his customary frozen on-camera smile when discussing Paul on Fox News.

For his own part, Paul spent Thursday, less than two days after his first political triumph, walking back his previous positions. When asked directly by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer whether he would support his Civil Rights Act today, Paul volunteered a “yes” that was tepid and grudging at best. Teeth would have been easier to extract from Rand Paul’s head than a response that suggested anything like a real, basic, heartfelt support for one of the more socially significant pieces of legislation Congress has ever produced.

Rarely has an ophthalmologist had such poor vision.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tuesday’s primaries: Nobody knows nothin’



To go by the predictably partisan reaction to Tuesday’s primary election results, the outlook for Democrats and Republicans alike is something straight outta “Rashomon,” an outcome whose success or failure was purely a matter of perspective. That’s not really new; since the 2008 election, political matters have been spun according to the party doing the spinning. The wild card this time is the Tea Party movement and a political victory achieved tonight that could tweak the two-party pendulum swings we’ve been used to for years. Or not.

The primaries in three states — Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky — were closely watched by political insiders, who saw the outcomes in the states comprising 6 percent of the country as leading indicators of what’s coming in November. What the results are indicators of is very much up for grabs.

Pennsylvania

For the punditburo, the marquee contest of the night was the Democratic Senate primary race between Rep. Joe Sestak, a veteran of 31 years in the Navy and a little more than three years in the House; and Sen. Arlen Specter, the wily Machiavellian incumbent whose career in the Senate goes back five presidents. Going in to Tuesday, the smart money said the Specter machine would prevail again, returning Specter, 80, to the Senate for one more hurrah.



The smart money stayed home. Sestak defeated Specter by eight percentage points, clearing the field for a battle against Republican challenger Pat Twoomey, founder of the conservative Club for Growth. “This is what democracy looks like,” Sestak said Tuesday night. “A win for the people over the establishment, over the status quo, even over Washington, D.C.!”

By any measure, Sestak beat Specter by running a strong campaign that didn’t depend on the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for leverage. Telegenic and relentlessly on-message, Sestak benefitted from being the newcomer, the fresh face in Pennsylvania politics with an anti-Washington message that rang with voters from across the state.

But in other ways, Sestak didn’t so much win the primary as Specter lost it. Analysts took note of Specter’s political volte-face on April 28, 2009, when Specter, then a Republican facing a tough challenge from Twoomey in the GOP primary, announced his jump to the Democratic Party.

Political optimists were initially prepared to assume Specter made his switch on the basis of principle. At least until Specter was interviewed admitting, with dangerous candor, “my change in party will enable me to be re-elected ...”

That frank admission became part of a devastating Sestak campaign ad that included the killer line: “"Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job: his — not yours."

On MSNBC’s “Hardball,” host Chris Matthews put it in terms anyone could get their head around: Specter’s bolt to the Dems “reminds me of the guy who puts on the woman’s dress to get in the lifeboat on the Titanic.”

Specter’s honest statement was preceded by another that’s come back to haunt him. The day he switched last year, he said, “I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate.”

What a difference a year and 21 days makes.

Kentucky

Tuesday’s second big attraction was the contest that Tea Party activists will be trumpeting loud and long for weeks and months to come. Rand Paul, an eye doctor and the son of Republican iconoclast Rep. Ron Paul, defeated Trey Grayson, the Kentucky Secretary of State, hand-picked by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who tapped Grayson to run after pushing the incumbent, the tireless obstructionist Sen. Jim Bunning, into retirement for fear Bunning would lose the seat to a Democratic challenger.

Despite McConnell’s imprimatur and the backing of the party machinery, Grayson lost by fat double digits to Paul, the novice whose opponent in November will be Jack Conway, the state attorney general, who eked out a win Tuesday over Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo in the Democratic primary.

McConnell, almost as Machiavellian as Specter, wasted no time in sucking up to Paul, who has said he may not support the continued presence of McConnell as leader in the Senate. Paul lost no time in making clear his ties to the Tea Party movement championed by, among others, political personality Sarah Palin. “I have a message, a message from the Tea Party, a message that is loud and clear and does not mince words: We have come to take our government back," he said Tuesday night.



The unanswered question is: Take it back from whom? And take it back for whom? When Paul’s name is on the ballot in November, there will be a Republican “R” behind it, which begs the question of who besides Paul the party loyalists would have voted for anyway, given the Tea Party's supposed populist clout. Gene Robinson of The Washington Post, speaking on MSNBC Tuesday night, said the Kentucky outcome “continues the plot line of a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

Brand new old Arizona

If this had happened on the streets outside the Staples Center, they’d have called it a drive-by. Did you see it tonight? I’m referring to Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference Finals, which the Los Angeles Lakers won, defeating the Phoenix Suns by the score of 128-107. The Suns were embarrassed. Humiliated. P’wned. Dismissed. As sound a drubbing as this was in the world of basketball, recent events outside the world of sports gave the game an extra resonance.

This wasn’t just a game between the Lakers and the Suns; this was a proxy battle between California and Arizona. Take a wild guess as to why.


On May 12, the Los Angeles City Council voted to boycott the Arizona Territory in business dealings, a direct result of Arizona’s new and fiercely contested anti-immigration law. The city council has moved the boycott measure on to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has indicated his intention of signing it. CBS News reported Thursday that Los Angeles is also reportedly exploring whether or not more than $50 million in existing contracts with the Territory can be legally broken.

CBS reported that Arizona’s Office of Tourism estimated that the territory stands to lose about $90 million in trade, convention and related business.

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In the wake of the criticism and the building blowback on the bottom line, territorial Gov. Jan Brewer has undertaken an effort meant to fix the mess Arizona’s in. Late last week, it was announced that the Territory would begin a campaign to rebrand itself, to take the initiative of changing people’s expectations of what Arizona’s really like. With a new PR strategy and (almost certainly) a new Web presence, Arizona is trying to change the game.

"It's up to us to get the truth out there. This is impacting Arizona's face to the nation," Brewer said on Thursday. The governor agreed to transfer $250,000 from the Arizona Department of Commerce to the Arizona Office of Tourism, AZCentral reported on Friday.

"The end goal is to reassert that we are a safe, inviting, diverse and culturally aware community," said Steve Moore, the president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We were surprised by (the boycotts)," Debbie Johnson, CEO of the Arizona Tourism Alliance and the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association, told AZCentral.com in a statement reflecting naivete as much as surprise. "We didn't think it was going to be a tourism issue. This is a political issue."

The bigger problem for Arizona, though, isn’t one of branding. Any first-year marketing student knows that repositioning the brand is likely to be a waste of time if the public has a problem with what’s inside the can. Arizona’s furious bid to change people’s expectations about it is running into what people already know, and what they’ve already been led to expect.

“There’s so much gray area in this law,” L.A. City Councilman Ed Reyes told CNN on Thursday. “There’s so much subjectivity ... As an American I would walk or travel or drive through Arizona with a sense of fear, a sense of caution. I would not feel as if I have the liberty to be there ... I’m vulnerable. I’m vulnerable just because of the way I look.”

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But back to tonight’s game: You can’t help but feel for the Phoenix Suns players. To a man, they’ve proven that their hearts and heads are in the right, morally defensible place on this when they wore their Los Suns jerseys last week, in the semifinals, as an expression of solidarity with the state’s 1.8 million Latino residents. All due props.

But this is bigger than the Phoenix Suns. This is really bigger than Arizona. As recent polls reveal that more and more Americans think racial profiling is a justifiable tool in the national security arsenal, we’re on a slippery slope towards becoming something this country has fought against, something crude and fearful and hysterical. We’re in the process of sliding backwards. And we’ve been here before.

What’s playing out in the issue of putting a new face on Arizona’s old ways is the emergence of a new old national question: What, exactly, does it mean to be an American? Are we prepared to compromise what we stand for to accommodate what we’re afraid of?

Let’s see how the marketing people handle that.

Image credits: L.A. City Council: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images. Brewer: Talking Points Memo.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Grand Old Purge

Three-term Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett was in tears on Saturday. “At the risk of getting a little emotional ... I want to thank my staff ... I get dewy-eyed at the dedication of a parking lot, so this is not unusual for me.”

What set Bennett off wasn’t the death of a friend, a defeat in the Senate or even the loss of an election. At a Salt Lake City news conference, Bennett was effectively announcing the death of a career: his own.

Bennett was cast out of office Saturday by delegates at the state’s GOP convention, placing third in a three-way beauty contest pitting him against unknowns Tim Bridgewater, who got 37 percent of delegate votes, and Mike Lee, who garnered 36 percent. Bridgewater and Lee, who both served in former Gov. Jon Huntsman’s administration, will face off in the state primary in June.

Bennett, the once-popular incumbent, trailed badly with 27 percent.

Bennett hung tough on Saturday, the best he could. “"The political atmosphere obviously has been toxic, and it's very clear that some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment," Bennett said to reporters.

"Looking back on them, with one or two very minor exceptions, I wouldn't have cast any of them any differently, even if I had known at the time they were going to cost me my career."

What made it so clearly bad, so obviously painful was the source of this political demise. Bennett is apparently the leading indicator of a purge of the Republican rolls, an absolute and unswerving retreat to the redoubts of the True Believers in the Republican cause. Apostates — the reasonable, the consensus-minded, the civically-motivated — need not apply.

◊ ◊ ◊

In gearing up for the November midterms, the party leadership and its outliers have started the process of excommunicating all those in the GOP seen as too moderate or inconsistently obedient to the party doctrine of countering the agenda of President Obama, At All Costs.

It’s not as bad as what Pol Pot did back in the day, when the opportunistic Khmer Rouge warlord, running roughshod over Cambodia in the days of vacuum after the Vietnam War, declared war on “intellectuals” — basically anyone in or around Phnom Penh wearing eyeglasses — and transported them to the killing fields.

But the Republicans’ grand old, brand new purge of its own ranks tells a story almost as tragic: a once-proud political party reduced to the reflexive talking points of its most extreme champions, an orthodoxy of rage.

Bennett is the first congressional incumbent to get offed this year this way, and the punditburo that bestrides the mediascape has made it almost a catechism from the start of the year: 2010 would be the Year of the Incumbent in the Crosshairs. No party has embraced that idea quite like the GOP.

What some say may have cost Bennett re-election was his inability or unwillingness to adopt the strategies of the right wing. Brock Vergakis of The Associated Press reported today: “Recently, he has said part of his problem with delegates has been that he doesn't go on conservative cable talk shows and offer angry sound bites. Instead, he said he likes to work on finding practical solutions.”

Practical solutions? No angry sound bites? For the GOP 2010, this is blasphemy. Bennett would have been more easily forgiven if he’d been caught selling crack outside Salt Lake Temple.

Kagan: The devil may be in the Senate

All eyes are on the White House today for the official announcement of what’s already been reported: President Obama’s second nomination for the United States Supreme Court will be Solicitor General Elena Kagan, finally nominated to the high court (she was informally if not officially shortlisted in 2009). Much of the impetus behind the Kagan forecast was distilled Sunday in a Playbook blog post in Politico, written by the news Web site’s chief political correspondent, Mike Allen.

Kagan would replace the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, the icon of liberalism who’s retiring after 34 years on the bench.

Allen’s prediction of Kagan was the prevailing wisdom in the home stretch, and not to be ignored when its source is the subject of a New York Times Magazine article naming him as “The Man the White House Wakes Up To.” But a survey of other analysts and legal scholars suggests that some of the same issues that might have scuttled her nomination by the president may be front and center in the looming battle for confirmation by the Senate.

Read the rest in theGrio
Image credit: Kagan: Harvard Law School.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

New jerseys in Phoenix

The Phoenix Suns will play the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals in the NBA playoffs. Phoenix leads the best-of-seven series 2-0 right now, but for many people, basketball fans and otherwise, the Suns are winners in ways that have nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with knowing the community they live in.

The Suns, of course, represent the once and future state of Arizona (currently reclaiming its status as the Arizona Territory), whose governor, Jan Brewer, signed into law an anti-illegal immigration bill that has the potential to presumptively criminalize, more or less on sight, any number of Arizona's Latino residents.

Since April 23, the day it was signed, the territory has been the object of scorn, ridicule and a variety of protests. One happened yesterday, Cinco de Mayo, when Rev. Al Sharpton wore a basketball jersey emblazoned with “Los Suns” at a protest rally through the streets of Phoenix.



Another protest happened last night at the US Airways Arena, when the Suns team, to a man, wore the same style of jersey in Game 2 against the Spurs. It was the Suns statement of solidarity with Arizona’s Latinos amid the current immigration debate crisis, and — if you can forgive the mangling of Spanish (a more precise translation of “the Suns” would be “Los Sols) — an emotionally effective one.

Suns owner Robert Sarver made it plain in a statement: It was done “to honor our Latino community and the diversity of our league, the state of Arizona and our nation.”

The outcome of the game (which los Sols won) almost didn’t matter. The jerseys sent a message that rattled from the arena all the way to the office of the territorial governor.

◊ ◊ ◊

Speaking of rattled, it’s safe to say that Brewer is just that, more than a little worried at the real prospect of Arizona losing prestige and millions of dollars of revenue, including the money to be expected when — or if — Arizona loses its lock on the 2011 major-league All-Star Game, in the face of a called-for boycott as a result of the misguided legislation that’s now the law of the territory.

That possibility got the territorial governor all sportsicious yesterday, when she wrote an op-ed piece published on ESPN’s Web site. In a piece with sports phrases and metaphors wielded occasionally but inartfully, Brewer defended the law.



“Urging Major League Baseball to take away next year's All-Star Game from Phoenix is the wrong play. In Arizona, both proponents and opponents of Senate Bill 1070 have stated that economic boycotts are an inappropriate and misguided response to an issue that is clearly worthy of proper public debate and discourse. Put simply, history shows that boycotts backfire and harm innocent people. Boycotts are just more politics and manipulation by out-of-state interests. ...”

“In December 2008, the U.S. Justice Department said that Mexican gangs are the ‘biggest organized crime threat to the United States.’ ... Essentially, our border leaks like a team with a last-place defense.”

“It is time for our country to act to resolve our border security problem; an economic boycott in Arizona would only exacerbate it -- and hurt innocent families and businesses merely seeking to survive during these difficult economic times.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Despite Brewer’s stand, however, a groundswell of grassroots opposition has been building by way of several civil rights organizations and social thought leaders.

As reported in the excellent Indian Country Today, Native Americans have come down hard against the Arizona law. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona opposes it. “We have a range of concerns, including tribal sovereign nations not being recognized as able to define and protect their own borders as they see fit, and the possibility that tribal citizens will be profiled by police,” John Lewis, council director, told ICT. “This impacts all indigenous people, and the lawmakers need to know it,” Lewis said. “America’s boundaries are not tribal boundaries.”

Robert Warrior, president of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, was just as blunt in an April 24 letter to Brewer. “Your action as chief executive of the state of Arizona will, when the law takes effect, give license to abuse by police and citizens, making ever more murky the possibility of working towards a just future for all people in the Americas,” Warrior wrote.

The constitutional challenges facing this law are likely to be formidable; several scholars have already said flat out it won’t survive a challenge in court. The opposition to the law has already jumped a shark of perception; the mayor of Phoenix made one heartfelt but maybe ill-advised reference to the law and its possible abuse — in a rhetorical linkage with the stars of David that European Jews were forced to wear during the ascendancy of the Nazis.

But all that somehow pales in comparison with the new jerseys, a simple statement of support made by one professional basketball team — a sí se puede statement of solidarity with Latinos and the right thing, available in small, medium and (like the hearts of the players who wore them) extra large.

Image credits: Phoenix Suns alternate "rising phoenix" logo: Suns/NBA. Al Sharpton: Getty Images.

CBS and CNN, this time?

Like two people contemplating a relationship, one that neither is entirely sure they want to get into, CBS News and CNN are making partnership noises — again.

“We're open to a deal, whether it's with CBS or any other news network,” said Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, in a Wednesday conference call with analysts. "It's no secret we've been talking to other news networks in the past. There's a lot of financial strength at CNN that puts us in a good position to offer a solution to the financial problems of network news organizations.”

This discussion of a hookup has happened before, each partner agonizing privately about how far to go. But this time, there’s more at stake.

With the economy of the news business undergoing riotous changes, and the economies of scale a more compelling factor in negotiations now, the stage may be set for a real union of two potent newsgathering forces. It may be a marriage of inconvenience, but it’s likely to be a marriage just the same.

◊ ◊ ◊

Gabriel Sherman of New York Magazine explained what’s happening in The Daily Intel:

“The talks revolve around how the two news divisions can combine operations in a bid to cut costs and expand audiences on both sides. While such conversations have occurred over the last decade, the current news-business climate — plummeting CNN ratings, ever-shrinking evening-news audiences, major layoffs at ABC — make a deal more logical than ever before. The talks are still fluid, which means that executives would speak only on condition of anonymity, but CNN and CBS began negotiations some time ago.”

It’s déjà vu all over again. We went to the same rodeo back in early 2008. That’s when (for the second time in ten years) reports surfaced of CBS and CNN refloating an idea to create a newsgathering joint venture. That idea had first been proposed sometime around 1998, and was detailed in a cover story for the late, and underappreciated, Brill’s Content magazine.

The 2008 version of the plan ventured the notion of taking CBS news stories filed from its Baghdad bureau and piggybacking them on CNN cable feeds.

The financial rationale was a good one; it would have both saved CBS about $7 million a year and done something to advance the CBS brand into the lucrative realm of cable.

The talks fell through in ‘08, much like they went south back in ’98. But this time the stakes are higher — especially for CBS, which faces enormous challenges without a presence in the growing cable space (and whose news division reliably trails NBC and ABC in the ratings).

NBC is well-positioned in the cablescape; with MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo and Telemundo among its cable properties, NBC has become the broadcast model to follow: a broadcast network with deep reach into cable via properties NBC can call on at any time — to achieve the same cross-pollination of newsgathering resources CBS is now contemplating with CNN.

◊ ◊ ◊



Sooner or later, whether the CBS/CNN talks prove fruitful or not, the Tiffany Network will need to step up to the plate. Since 2008, and sure as hell since 1998, the playing field has changed dramatically. Multichannel News made that plain in January:

“Cable’s household share has increased every year since 2000 — the last time broadcast-network programming was watched in a majority of households. Back then, before cable networks began developing quality original scripted series and highly-rated reality programming fare, the four broadcast networks averaged a 46.8 household share compared to cable’s 41.2.

In 2009, cable’s 60.6 share was up 2% compared to 2008’s 59.2, while broadcasters’ 32.1 share was down 2% from last year’s 32.7.”

And cable properties are consistently rolling out more original programming too. Have been for years. With edgy, risky shows like “Burn Notice,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Rescue Me” and others besides, cable has a creative edge over much of what the broadcast nets roll out every year.

◊ ◊ ◊

James Poniewozik, blogging at Time.com, understood what was in the wind in 2008: “Katie was brought in on the premise that she and her star power — plus a revamping of the newscast format — could bring in new viewers to the evening news … She cannot. God cannot. It is a losing proposition. … Couric's newscast has been an expensive final refutation of the desperate belief that it is possible to reverse the slow, inexorable decline of network news.

“Network newscasts are a holding effort. They are a rearguard action. They are prisoners of demography and cultural shifts that are as irreversible as the physical laws of the universe. Namely: fewer Americans have the time or inclination to watch a half-hour TV newscast at 6:30 in the evening …”

CBS and CNN have been gravitating toward some kind of relationship for years; CNN’s Anderson Cooper has done periodic double duty as one of CBS’s “60 Minutes” crew since 2006; Christiane Amanpour filed some dispatches for CBS before she bolted from CNN recently to take on a new gig at ABC (an interesting move: from cable to broadcast!).

Television in the 21st century is a landscape of relentless changes. CNN, and CBS especially, are two examples of networks stuck in a moment they can’t get out of. Here’s hoping, maybe even betting, that this time they’ll both show up at the altar for the shotgun nuptials they’ve managed to avoid, up to now.

Image credits: CNN logo: © 2010 CNN. CBS logo: © 2010 CBS Inc. Viewer share chart: TV by the Numbers. Couric: © 2010 CBS. Anderson Cooper: CNN.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

May Day! Mayday!

Since Arizona seceded from the Union on April 23, the country has shown its true colors in populist organizations emerging to press efforts to persuade the territory’s leaders to return to the community of united states.

The blowback from territorial Gov. Jan Brewer’s signing of Senate Bill 1070 into law — ushering in a policy of interrogation and possible detention of residents of the Arizona Territory whose ethnic appearance fits a predetermined profile — has been loud and strong from all quarters. Since April 23, for example, various professional organizations have shelved or cancelled plans for meetings and conventions there. Simply put, they’re not going to the territory.

But yesterday across the country, Arizona heard from many of the rest of us when tens of thousands of Americans hit the streets to protest Arizona’s action. It was fitting, of course, that the rallies and demonstrations happened on May Day, recognized as International Workers’ Day.

But those marchers and protesters bent on overturning the Arizona law conveyed an urgency about the situation that connected May Day the observance with the other mayday, the widely recognized distress call — this time for a state whose stridently nativist immigration policies could be the bellwether of similar laws from other states in the months, maybe years, to come.

◊ ◊ ◊

Distilling the news from reports filed by The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times leaves you with nothing less than the impression that the full contours, the true scope of what’s really both a national and international story haven’t been determined yet.

From The AP:
“I want to thank the governor of Arizona because she's awakened a sleeping giant," said labor organizer John Delgado, who attended a rally in New York where authorities estimated 6,500 gathered.” ...

Police said 50,000 rallied in Los Angeles where singer Gloria Estefan kicked off a massive downtown march. Estefan spoke in Spanish and English, proclaiming the United States is a nation of immigrants.

"We're good people," the Cuban-born singer said atop a flatbed truck. "We've given a lot to this country. This country has given a lot to us." ...

At the White House, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, was among 35 people arrested in a demonstration of civil disobedience against the Arizona law.

In Dallas, police estimated at least 20,000 attended a Saturday rally. About a dozen people there carried signs depicting the Arizona governor as a Nazi and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his tough illegal immigration stance, as a Klansman. Organizers were asking sign holders to discard those placards.

Juan Hernandez, the Hispanic outreach coordinator for Arizona Sen. John McCain's unsuccessful presidential run, attended the Dallas rally. He said Arizona was once considered by those south of the border to be a model state with particularly close ties to Mexico.

“It went beyond what most states do,” he said. “Now they are a state that goes beyond what the Constitution says you should do.”

Juan Haro, 80, was born and raised in Denver, where about 3,000 people rallied. He said he thinks Arizona's new law targets Mexicans.

“This country doesn't seem to be anti-immigrant,” said Haro, whose family is originally from Mexico. “It seems to be anti-Mexican.”

In downtown Miami, several hundred flag-waving demonstrators — many with Cuban and Honduran flags, but mostly American ones — called for reforms.

 
Elsewhere, an estimated 7,000 protesters rallied in Houston, about 5,000 gathered at the Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta and at least 5,000 marched in Milwaukee. About 3,000 attended a Boston-area march.

And in Ann Arbor, Mich., more than 500 people held a mock graduation ceremony for undocumented immigrant students near the site of Obama's University of Michigan commencement speech.

In Arizona, police in Tucson said an immigration rights rally there drew at least 5,000 people. Several thousand people gathered in Phoenix for a demonstration Saturday evening.”
From the Los Angeles Times, at or pretty near the geographic epicenter of the emerging debate:
Cardinal Roger Mahony, an outspoken critic of the Arizona crackdown on illegal immigrants, had a message for Arizona officials.

“Thank you, Arizona,” he said Saturday during a May Day rally in downtown Los Angeles. “Thank you, Arizona.”

 
Mahony has emerged as one of the leading voices against the new law. Two weeks ago, he compared Arizona with Nazi Germany after the state passed a strict new law that allowed police to check the legal status of anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant.

But Mahony said the Arizona legislation might turn out to be a net positive, hastening the passage of federal immigration reform. ...

He also challenged Gov. Jan Brewer to release a set of clear criteria defining what constitutes “reasonable suspicion” that an individual might be undocumented.

“They can't,” he said. “Because you'd come up with ‘brown skin, black hair and listens to ranchera music.’”
◊ ◊ ◊

What’s striking in these and other reports is the actual grassroots dimension of what’s playing out on the streets of America. Unlike the Tea Party movement, which owes much of its genesis to conservative Washington lobbyists and their proxies and enablers in the conservative media, what took place yesterday across the nation was truly from the ground up.

You could tell by who was there. Not the drug runners and gangbangers Brewer and supporters of the Arizona law are focused on. Everyday people, with nary a suit and tie in the bunch. The people who pick your produce and mow your lawns. The ones who stock your grocery shelves and work construction in condo developments they can’t afford to live in. The people who take the early bus to work. The ones standing outside your Home Depot or Lowe’s stores right now, people who’d gladly take any bus to work. If only there was work.

One photograph synthesized the whole thing. While the governor of the Arizona Territory and her backers govern with the playbook of the past, employing the kind of paranoiac ethnic poison we’ve encountered more than once before in the nation’s history, a young man stood yesterday across the street from the Disney Concert Hall in the heart of Los Angeles, holding a sign whose message distilled where this is going, and what this is ultimately about:

LEGALIZE MY FUTURE.

Image credits: Top three rally images: Jim Stevenson, via The Huffington Post. Mahony at L.A. rally: Los Angeles Times. LEGALIZE sign: Jim Stevenson via HuffPost.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Coffee with meme:
Leslie Buck’s gift to New York

Back in the analog day of the mid-1980s, your humble narrator was a word wrangler in midtown Manhattan, working on various copy desks at the castle-on-the-Rhine headquarters of The New York Times, at that time on West 43rd Street. The Times building was its own crossroads, with a number of cafeterias and delis in hailing distance, and mercifully open at all hours (even the hours of the graveyard shift I came to know intimately).

Besides sandwiches and any number of dishes already prepared, there was always coffee available — of varying quality, from sublime ambrosia to battery acid. The one constant if you ordered coffee was the cardboard cup it came in. We have Leslie Buck to thank for that.

The man born as Laszlo Büch and Americanized as Lester Buck died on Monday died at his home on Long Island, N.Y.; the cause was complications from Parkinson's disease. Among his many accomplishments before he exited our world at the age of 87 — a survivor of two Nazi concentration camps, a refugee, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a brother, a businessman in import-export — Buck designed what must be considered the archetypal coffee cup, a signature of New York City life for decades.

◊ ◊ ◊

If you’ve ever been to New York in the last quarter-century or so, you’ve seen Buck’s handiwork: a blue, gold and white Grecian motif framing the words WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU in a font identical to that used in any ancient Greece-related sword & sandal movie made during the modern era of motion pictures. Below the words are three coffee cups, steam rising in welcome.

Margalit Fox of The New York Times (who came after I’d departed) reported on Thursday that in the 1960’s Buck joined the Sherri Cup Company, then a Connecticut-based startup, as the company’s sales manager.

“Sherri was keen to crack New York’s hot-cup market,” Fox reports. “Since many of the city’s diners were owned by Greeks, Mr. Buck hit on the idea of a Classical cup in the colors of the Greek flag. Though he had no formal training in art, he executed the design himself. It was an instant success.”

New York City is rife with what these days we call memes — signs and symbols that communicate meanings and significance beyond the signs and symbols themselves, through constant imitation and repetition of appearance. The Empire State Building is one such meme; the World Trade Center was another; its destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, became the standing meme for terrorism in America.

◊ ◊ ◊

But for millions of people, whether they know the word or not, the so-called Anthora coffee cup was a meme for New York’s everyday people: the cop on the beat looking to warm his hands with more than body heat; the legions of shoppers in the city seeking a pick-me-up … those of the shadow work force at The Times who craved a coffee (always “a coffee,” mind you, never just “coffee”) hours after the in-house cafeteria had closed.

Fox appreciates this. “Though the Anthora no longer dominates the urban landscape as it once did, it can still be found at diners, delis and food carts citywide, a squat, stalwart island in a sea of tall, grande and venti. On the street, it warms the harried hands of pedestrians. Without the Anthora, ‘Law & Order’ could scarcely exist.”

Like any worthy work of art, the Anthora saw its share of imitators, with slight variations on Buck’s original theme. But the original design held sway for years; in 1994 The New York Times reported that Sherri sold 500 million of the Anthora model. That number declined to about 200 million a year in 2005, the Times said.

◊ ◊ ◊

By then, of course, the cup had achieved what could fairly be called iconic status as a talisman of New York’s shadow urban lore. In a way, like Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup can, the Anthora cup came to symbolize a dovetailing of art and commerce — not art in a lower-Manhattan-gallery sense, but accessible art for ordinary people.

Maybe Buck’s greatest contribution was one of emotional connection. Today in New York, where Starbucks outlets litter the landscape and go-cups are likely to be bland, sterile constructions of plastic, the Anthora cup is still a sign of stability in a changing world — a happy indicator that, sometimes, things don’t change; sometimes what we value stays in place, reliable and wonderfully immobile.

I propose a toast to Leslie Buck. A light coffee, please, with two sugars and extra meme.

Image credits: The Anthora: Mike Licht/NotionsCapital.com. Leslie Buck: New York Times via Twitter. Campbell's Soup can: Andy Warhol 1964. © Artists Rights Society for the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
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