Monday, July 30, 2012

Romney in Israel:
Misreading a tale of two economies

WITH THE visit to England mercifully in his rear-view mirror, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney took his campaign aircraft to Israel, the next stop in his whirlwind international tour, in search of some kind of redemption. His arrival in Tel Aviv, a visit meant to underscore the candidate’s support for Israel and to form the backdrop for tough talk about Iran, was pre-empted in masterful fashion by President Obama, who signed a U.S.-Israeli security act into law just hours before Romney touched down.

But the Israel leg of the Romney tour seemed to start out calmly, even predictably. Given the volatility of the region, and the gaffes he’s still papering over from England, predictable would have been better than anything else. Too bad it didn’t work out like that.

In almost as many days, Romney wasted an opportunity to rebrand himself and establish his campaign’s geopolitical bona fides. With boilerplate encomiums wrapped in postcard perceptions, followed by a profound misreading of the life of the region that managed to insult Israelis and Palestinians alike, the former Massachusetts governor whiffed at the plate again.

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The miscues started before he even got there. On the flight from London to Tel Aviv, Team Romney sent out a “closed press” notice, barring the American press corps traveling with Romney from attending a Monday fundraiser at the King David Hotel. “At U.S. events, Romney's remarks to donors in communal spaces such as hotels are typically public,” reported Kasie Hunt of The Associated Press.

Hunt, noting that Romney “sometimes has given donors more policy specifics than he includes in his standard campaign speeches,” reported that some of his contributors with the deepest pockets, including casino titan Sheldon Adelson, would attend on Monday.

Fast forward to Sunday. Team Romney does the full 180, announcing that, you know what, reporters will be allowed into the fundraiser after all.

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That over with, Romney took the podium in Jerusalem’s Old City for an address on Israeli-American relations and the prospect for armed confrontation with Iran.

Romney declared Jerusalem was “the capital of Israel” and said the United States has “a solemn duty and a moral imperative to deny Iran’s leaders the means to follow through on their malevolent intentions.”

“Make no mistake, the ayatollahs in Iran are testing our moral defenses. They want to know who will object and who will look the other way," he said. “We will not look away nor will our country ever look away from our passion and commitment to Israel.”

Alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (a friend of more than 35 years), Romney was as full-throated in his support of Israel as he was, previously, tepid in his assessment of England and its Olympic Games.

Romney basically abided by the unwritten rule of not criticizing U.S. foreign policy from abroad. In a pre-arrival CNN interview, responding to a question about moving the U.S. embassy, Romney said “[m]y understanding is the policy of our nation has been a desire to move our embassy ultimately to the capital (Jerusalem). I would only want to do so and to select the timing in accordance with the government of Israel.”

Kasie Hunt of The AP reports: “In his speech, Romney said Syrian President Bashar Assad 'desperately clings to power' in Damascus in the face of an attempted overthrow, but he did not call for his removal.

“He noted that Egypt is now headed by an ‘Islamist president, chosen in a Democratic election. ... The international community must use its considerable influence to insure that the new government honors the peace agreement with Israel that was signed by the government of Anwar Sadat’ more than three decades ago, he said.”

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A RITUAL support of abiding by existing agreements. An exceedingly careful sidestep away from the volatile embassy issue. So far, so good. Oh, one comment, when he called alluded to Israel as a “the startup nation, was mildly disconcerting, and seemingly just wrong.

Young as Israel is at 64 years old, there are a number of other countries that have been created in the decades since 1948. The phrase also suggests an improvisation of identity that would seem to be at odds with Israel’s bedrock sense of itself, its government and its place in the world.

And that crack Romney made about how “[d]iplomatic distance that is public and critical emboldens Israel's adversaries” — a swipe at the Obama administration's chafing with Israel under Netanyahu —  probably wasn’t necessary, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

Romney seemed to be holding his own until the fundraiser Monday morning at the King David Hotel. That’s when the candidate, feeling his oats at a campaign fundraiser that would raise $1 million, enraged Palestinians with a callous misperception of the tale of two economies, and how they got to be that way.

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“As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” he said.

“And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

A few other things. Like the disparities of opportunity that arise after years of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, economic blockades and he ever-present risk of sudden attack, like the one that killed more than 240 Palestinians as a result of Israeli air strikes on Hamas strongholds in Gaza in December 2008.

“It is a racist statement and this man doesn't realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation," said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Romney and the UK: The gaffes he can’t walk back

FOR THE last thirty-six hours or so, Mitt Romney has endured the slings and arrows of the outraged British press and the at least mild consternation of the British government over a decidedly lackluster performance on the first stop in his international tour.

He made the mistake of expressing what seemed to be serious doubts about the UK’s readiness to host the XXX Summer Olympic Games, in statements that angered the British media and cast a pall on his readiness to assume the world stage as president.

Romney dutifully walked back his assessment this morning on the “Today” show, proclaiming that, yes, England was ready after all. Enter the phrase “Romney walks back” in a Google search; you’ll find 98.7 million results, all the ones on the first page refer to his reversing himself on his Olympic pronouncement. “After being here a couple of days, it looks as if London is ready,” the Etch-a-Sketch king told NBC’s Matt Lauer.

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End of story? Hell no, but not for the reasons one might think. Romney’s Olympian mistake might be easy to overlook in isolation, but it joins the ever-expanding blooper reel of Romney gaffes, malapropisms and unforced errors that have formed the public perception of the narrative of the Romney campaign.

The Olympic thing was bad enough. What’s worse, and so far largely underreported, is the other gaffe, the one with potentially deeper resonance, the unspinnable assessment that shows how, as Ana Marie Cox of the Guardian observed today on MSNBC, “it’s hard to apologize to people you don’t even care about.”

Romney’s Olympic misstep, it seems, was preceded by a more developed expression of how he feels about England. Some of his comments on the UK made their way into “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness,” his 2010 book. One of the more offending quotes, excerpted yesterday in the British media, would seem to be dispositive about how the candidate really feels about the UK:

England is just a small island. Its roads and houses are small. With few exceptions, it doesn't make things that people in the rest of the world want to buy. And if it hadn't been separated from the continent by water, it almost certainly would have been lost to Hitler's ambitions. Yet only two lifetimes ago, Britain ruled the largest and wealthiest empire in the history of humankind. Britain controlled a quarter of the earth's land and a quarter of the earth's population.

The Daily Kos reported today that in 2007, in the runup to the 2008 presidential election, Romney said:

“The question is whether we're going to become a stronger nation leading the world or whether we're going to follow the path of Europe and become a second-tier military and a second-tier nation.”

“I do not want to go the way of England and Canada when it comes to health care,” he said, in response to another question.

UK to Romney: Well. At least we know where we stand.

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COMMENTS LIKE that in the context of presidential aspiration are hugely destructive to the Romney brand, which has been destroying itself for months. But they’re a problem for another reason. Those statements — fully processed and articulated (if not exactly reasoned, since there’s little reason behind them) and presumably vetted by editors, lawyers, handlers and Romney himself — are something the Republican candidate can’t walk back. They're an expression of what Mitt Romney believes.

The gaffe about Olympic preparedness is, in and of itself, not an insurmountable cockup; Britons have privately and publicly aired those logistical concerns already. Romney’s earlier written and rhetorical assessments of the United Kingdom as an historical entity on the world stage are a lot more problematic.

They suggest a fundamental indifference toward that “small island” whose history surpasses that of the United States by centuries, and whose common-law underpinnings were the basis of much of our own judicial system.

Romney’s unwise revelation of having met with the head of British intelligence, made moments after concluding a face-to-face with Prime Minister David Cameron, underscores in breathtaking fashion just how tone-deaf Romney is to the subtleties of statecraft and politics at the global scale. Connected to his writing and to the previous comments, it all strongly suggests that this candidate for the American presidency doesn’t take America’s most reliable and enduring international partner very seriously.

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The Romney tour moves on, wheels down in Israel just hours from now. The campaign is certainly hoping for better weather, politically speaking. But they’re already behind the 8-ball; a few hours ago, President Obama signed into law the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act.

“[B]y highlighting his administration’s commitment to Israel’s security only hours before Romney arrives in Jerusalem, Obama is signaling that he plans to cede no ground when it comes to Israel and the debate over how his administration has treated it,” The Christian Science Monitor reports.

Your move, Governor.

Image credits: Romney: NBC News. No Apology book cover: © 2010 St. Martin's Press. Mail front page: The Mail Online (UK).

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Not ready for British Summer Time:
Mitt Romney’s foreign misadventure

I AM an unapologetic believer in the greatness of America,” Mitt Romney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday. “I am not ashamed of American power.”

Never mind how he feels about the greatness and power of the American economy — the one he’s been reluctant to invest in: the former Massachusetts governor tried to make his case with the greatest generation and its successors with that two-sentence backhanded slap at President Obama.

Like other tactics Romney’s brought to bear against Team Obama in the presidential campaign, his insinuation falls short of the mark. Romney managed to ignore, or forget, the administration’s elimination of the figurehead anathema of our time, Osama bin Laden, in May of last year.

Or the president’s deft, surgical use of military force in April 2009, when Richard Phillips, the captain of the 17,000-ton container ship Maersk Alabama, was rescued after being kidnapped by four Somali pirates. Or the president’s use of drone strikes in ways and numbers that run counter to anything that could be seen as being ashamed of American power.

“He is going to the basket with the same move the Republicans have used for 10 years or more,” said Joe Conason of, on MSNBC, alluding to Romney's use of the enduring Democrats = Weak on Defense meme the GOP has long cultivated.

Romney took his shots anyway on Tuesday, in what has to be seen as a runup to his big summer adventure, his first campaign trip abroad. With his trip to London, Poland and Israel, Romney took his road show across the pond, not so much to bolster his foreign-policy credentials as to establish them.

He didn’t get off on the good foot.

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The trip, Romney campaign policy director Lanhee Chen told CNN, would be about "locking arms with our allies." But no sooner had he hit the ground in London, site of the XXX Summer Olympic Games, than he made his first misstep, one that ironically enough was a result of his previous work as presumed miracle worker of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.

Interviewed Wednesday by Brian Williams for the NBC “Nightly News,” Romney appeared to harbor doubts about the UK’s readiness to host the Games.

“You know, it’s hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting, the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging. Because in the Games, there are three parts that makes Games successful.

“Number one, of course, are the athletes. That’s what overwhelmingly the Games are about. Number two are the volunteers. And they’ll have great volunteers here.

“But number three are the people of the country. Do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment? And that’s something which we only find out once the Games actually begin.

British Prime Minister David Cameron punched back, saying there is no doubt “Britain can deliver.”

“We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world,” he said. “And of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” a cheeky Cameron added, in what was clearly an oblique swipe at Salt Lake City’s location.

That little shot sparked a response from a spokesperson for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who told BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins in a statement that “[David Cameron] can stop by any time. We'd love to have him and are happy to send a map so he doesn't run into any trouble locating the middle of nowhere.”

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IT DIDN’T stop there. Romney managed to piss off the notoriously unforgiving British media. All in all, “not a great day at the office,” wrote The Sun.

Financial Times: “Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican candidate for the US presidency, got off to a shaky start in his effort to show a statesmanlike profile when he seemed to get into a public spat with the UK prime minister over London’s readiness to host the Olympics.”

BBC: “Mr. Romney is credited with rescuing the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, now he’s appeared to question London’s readiness to host a successful Olympics,” host George Alagiah said. “If he's here to make friends, he's got a funny way of showing it.”

Romney walked back his “Nightly News” comments, and presumably made nice with Cameron when the two met at 10 Downing Street. “It is impossible for absolutely no mistakes to occur,” Romney said. “Of course there will be errors from time to time, but those are all overshadowed by the extraordinary demonstrations of courage, character and determination by the athletes.” A tempest in a teapot, perhaps.

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Then if you can imagine, it got even worse. No sooner had he literally closed the door at No. 10 after meeting Cameron than Romney crowed that he’d had a meeting with Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, the British Intelligence Service.

From The Telegraph: “Asked about Syria by an American reporter whether he and Cameron spoke about Syria […] he replies: “I appreciated the insights and perspectives of the leaders of the government here and the opposition here, as well as the head of MI6.”

From a live blog at The Guardian (UK):

“For our American readership, this isn't like bragging you just met David Petraeus. The British take on the national secret intelligence service comes with an extra-heavy dollop of the whole secret thing. The very existence of the MI6 was not officially acknowledged until 1994.

“Good luck, Romney handlers: this is only stop No. 1 on a three-stop international tour. What will he say in Jerusalem? That when you really look at it there are some pretty daunting barriers to the peace process, like take all those Arab Israelis, how's that going to work out for a Jewish state?”

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AND OH YEAH — for good measure, Romney even found a way to rile the American media traveling with him. Jon Swaine, Telegraph’s Washington correspondent, reports: “Not content with upsetting his British hosts, Mr Romney has now also managed to enrage the travelling American press corps, who pay tens of thousands of dollars to follow him around the globe. After his meeting with [Labour Party leader] Ed Miliband, the Republican presidential challenger apparently took questions only from British reporters.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Improving black education, by executive order

IN AN ACTION certainly aimed at energizing his Democratic base, President Obama will announce today that he is signing an executive order specifically intended to improve educational opportunities for African-American students.

The president will announce the order Wednesday evening at the National Urban League Conference in New Orleans. (Watch the live webcast at 7:30 p.m. EDT/6:30 p.m. CDT.)

According to a senior administration official, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans will be a part of the Department of Education and will work with the president and Cabinet-level agencies "to identify evidence-based best practices to improve African-American students' achievement in school and college." It will also build a network of people, grassroots organizations and communities to share those practices.

In addition, the executive order creates a presidential commission on educational advancement for African-American students, with commission members advising the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on broad-stroke strategies meant to enhance educational opportunities for black Americans of all ages. ...

Read the rest at The Root

Image credit: Obama: Lawrence Jackson/The White House. The Root logo: © 2012 The Slate Group LLC. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Aurora: Jon Stewart weighs in

IT TAKES a very, very deft rhetorical hand to plunge into a national tragedy and sensitively, effectively mine that tragedy for its comedic potential — and to do it less than 50 years after it happens. Lucky for us, we got Jon Stewart.

On Monday night, the host of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” did just that, calling the question on those who’d go so far as to keep the topic of gun control off-limits before the election. The objectors protesteth entirely too much, probably because they know they’re vulnerable given the cheek-to-cheek that the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association have been dancing for years.

Stewart, though, made with his singular brand of outrage:

“Look, ten years after 9/11, I can’t still fly with a full container of fucking shampoo! … You're telling me that it's still too soon to have a conversation about it? You're telling me that to discuss the epidemic of gun violence in this country, for that there is a waiting period. Yeah, I guess you'd hate to go into a conversation about guns all hot-headed and say something impulsively you'll never be able to take back.

“Look, this is the time to talk about all of it. Everything should be on the table. Anything that could possibly help mitigate these terrible events. I'm not even saying gun control would do it, I'm just saying it's got to be part of the conversation.”

Image credit: Jon Stewart: The Daily Show/Comedy Central.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The dark side rises:
Aurora and the new political conversation

ON FRIDAY morning about 12:39 a.m., when James Eagen Holmes walked into the Century Cinema 16 theater complex in Aurora, Colo., outside Denver, kicked open an emergency exit door leading into Theater 9, and opened fire on a crowd of people gathered for a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, resetting the national political debate may have been the last thing on his mind.

But when he carried most of an arsenal of two .40 caliber Glock handguns, a Remington model 870 shotgun and a Smith & Wesson AR-15 rifle with a 100-round drum magazine into that 12:05 a.m. showing of the latest Batman movie and ultimately killed 12 people, the former University of Colorado graduate student pumped fresh voltage into a third rail of American politics, and reawakened this nation to one of the real banes of its existence.

What happens next in this rancorous election year, and what comes next from its principal actors could change the course of the gun-rights debate — for awhile, anyway — and the arc of the presidential campaign that ends in less than four months. ...

Read the rest at The Root

Image credits: Holmes: Arapahoe County (Colo.) Detention Center.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

News by a different name

WHEN IT started in 1996, was a potentially interesting and influential amalgam birthed in a very fledgling Internet age, an ambitious but rough and unpolished news–driven Web site as a joint venture that combined the resources of Microsoft and NBC News.

The intervening years were good to the marriage, as powered its way to dominating news on the Internet. By the time I left there, in June 2007, base users of the site had grown from about 10 million a month in 2001 (when I came aboard) to about 30 million. But the partners were growing apart; each was developing new interests and affinities. By the start of this year, the thrill was gone.

The divorce that’s been building for years was finalized late on Sunday, when officially became, unifying NBC broadcast and online resources under its own flagship name.

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How did it come to this? Brian Stelter of The New York Times wrote in October 2010: “The partnership was pioneering at first, with a best-in-its-class Web site owing to Microsoft’s technologists in Washington State and a companion cable news channel run by NBC’s news-gathering teams in New York. But drastic changes in the media business, differing priorities inside the companies and the physical distance between them brought them apart.”

“Another driver was MSNBC, the cable channel, which started to take on a politically progressive persona several years ago. As the image of MSNBC changed, the head of, Charlie Tillinghast, floated a name change.

The New York Times reported that month that NBC Universal and Microsoft were in “high-level talks” about a new name for the Web site that was the third most popular news Web site in the United States, behind Yahoo! and

But that was a risky proposition. As I noted that month, making a name change for internally justifiable reasons could have had drawbacks: “Just like with a TV show that finds its audience comfortable with watching it at a certain date and time, making a switch runs the risk of alienating people who’re used to the familiar — even if the familiar hasn’t changed anything but where it is.”

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Some background from my blog in October 2010: was often perceived as the little brother to MSNBC — this despite the fact of their joint provenance …, the greater speed the Web site usually employed in breaking-news stories, and the greater newsgathering versatility brought to bear by dotcom’s being a 24/7/365 live operation — unlike MSNBC, then and now.

Over the years, made the most of the in-the-shadows relationship; one of the most journalistically productive alliances in recent years was the tie-up between msnbc and MSNBC in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Given what happened in New Orleans those terrible days, you hesitate to use the phrase “total immersion” to describe news coverage.

But in this case it was true. The relentless use of the synergies between online and cable, the sharing of newsgathering resources and a common sense of journalism as nothing less than national mission, yielded exhaustive, revelatory and ultimately award-winning coverage of that seminal American event.

Other ways of integrating little m and Big M took place over the years; there was a brief flirtation with making reporting from little m's writers and editors part of the regular Big M on-air news mix. …

But little m has long had its own editorial and advertising infrastructure; the current consideration of a new name makes public, in a maybe unprecedented way, just how much little m wants an amicable divorce from Big M for what seem to be irreconcilable differences.

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Since 9/11, MSNBC has philosophically tacked to what it saw as the prevailing political wind, from right to left, restyling itself numerous times in the process. For the most part, msnbc has navigated the waters of the last eight years with fewer concessions to the perceived political mood.

With fewer resources earmarked for byline reporting indigenous to the Web site, little m used relatively impartial wire stories from the Associated Press and Reuters, and content from other external partners, for much of its daily informational diet. One reason, no doubt, why Charlie Tillinghast, the president of, called the Web site an “impartial news product” in one of the memos.

In the years since 9/11, Big M has made an inconsistent but steady shift to the political left, with hosts from Phil Donahue to Chris Matthews to Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell at the helm of programs that have been unabashedly progressive in their perspectives.

In short: Grounds for divorce. Irreconcilable differences.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

RomneyBain: First there is retirement,
then there is no retirement, then there is

NEWS OF the corporate time-travel saga of W. Mitt Romney continued over the weekend. The former Massachusetts governor and presumptive Republican nominee for president was briefly master of TV time and space, showing up on five networks on Friday to effectively double down on his stonewall strategy concerning the release of his tax returns.

But it fell to Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser and an old party hand at linguistically framing the debate, to come up with a term that tried to explain the circular illogic of Romney’s ghost-CEO status with Bain Capital, a phrase sure to find its way into the national lexicon, at Romney’s expense.

On Sunday, first on “Meet the Press” and later on CNN, Gillespie explained that Romney had “retired retroactively” from Bain Capital. He told CNN’s “Candy Crowley” that Romney “took a leave of absence and, in fact ... he ended up not going back [to Bain] at all, and retired retroactively to February of 1999 as a result. … He left a life he loved to go to Salt Lake City to save the Olympics for a country he loves more ...”

You knew this was thought through, that somebody was actually compensated for devising this bizarre locution, because Gillespie said it twice. But “retired retroactively”? What the hell is that? Maybe it means you can retire before you quit working. Maybe it means you can retire before you start working.

It was just the latest display of gymnastics from the Romney campaign, a crew thrown off message by the growing call for release of those tax returns, and the parallel questions about whether Mitt Romney did or didn’t resign from Bain Capital on Feb. 11, 1999.

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See, Romney told federal authorities in financial disclosure documents dated August 2011 that he had “retired from Bain Capital on February 11, 1999 to head the Salt Lake Organizing Committee [for the 2002 Winter Olympics]. Since February 11, 1999, Mr. Romney has not had any active role with any Bain Capital entity and has not been involved in the operations of any Bain Capital entity in any way.”

The operative words there, of course, are “in any way.” Those three words are immune to spin, foundationally problematic in explaining any role he had at Bain after that date.

Like the date that surfaced in a weekend story in the Huffington Post, which reported that “[a] corporate document filed with the state of Massachusetts in December 2002 -- a month after Romney was elected governor -- lists him as one of two managing members of Bain Capital Investors, LLC ‘authorized to execute, acknowledge, deliver and record any recordable instrument purporting to affect an interest in real property, whether to be recorded with a Registry of Deeds or with a District Office of the Land Court.’ ”

Or the range of dates MSNBC reported on Monday, dates between April 2000 and May 2001, dates on filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission identifying Romney as a “member of the management committee” (in six filings) and as “president and managing director” on another.

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MITT ROMNEY is now in the position — tactically ironic and politically problematic — of running away from his relationship with Bain Capital (the parts of it that aren’t subject to being tweaked and spun by his campaign) much the same way he’s spent the past seven months or so running away from his experience as the governor of Massachusetts.

Chuckd in the Huffington Post observed: “I think someone needs to check Romney's car elevator for a white DeLorean-- he has clearly discovered the means of time travel! If he didn't place such a high emphasis on money, maybe he could retroactively nullify some of those decisions that were made at Bain when he was on paper as the president, CEO, and sole stock holder.”

It’s becoming a serious liability, and it’s one the Romney campaign hasn’t been nimble about confronting. The candidate proved that again in his interview speed-dating exercise on Friday, when he basically reinforced what he’s already said about not releasing tax returns beyond the 2010 and 2011 returns already made public. “You can never satisfy the opposition research team of the Obama organization," Romney told CBS News on Friday.

But this isn’t being ginned up by the oppo crew at Team Obama. The call for his tax returns has become a bipartisan thing.

"He should release the tax returns tomorrow. It's crazy," said conservative political analyst Bill Kristol, on “Fox News Sunday.” "You gotta release six, eight, 10 years of back tax returns. Take the hit for a day or two ..."

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Kristol’s not alone. "If you have things to hide, then maybe you're doing things wrong," said Alabama's Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, at the National Governors Association meeting in Williamsburg, Va. “I think you ought to be willing to release everything to the American people.” Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and party strategist Ana Navarro have said much the same thing.

Conservative columnist George Will said on ABC: “I don't know why... he didn't get all of this out and tidy up some of his offshore accounts and all the rest,” Will said. “He's done nothing illegal, nothing unseemly, nothing improper, but lots that's impolitic, and he’s now in the politics business.”

“The costs of not releasing the returns are clear," Will said Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week.” “Therefore, he must have calculated there are higher costs to releasing them.”

Friday, July 13, 2012

RomneyBain: The CEO and the SEC

HONESTLY, sometimes it just feels like piling on. For an avid political blogger, the last three weeks or so have provided political junkies and analysts, late-night comedians and the public at large a treasure trove of material on the presidential campaign of Willard M. Romney, a deep and apparently inexhaustible vein of revelations.

It’s like what you feel when you walk into an incredibly messy room: You don’t know where to begin.

What we’re witnessing from the Romney bid for the White House is a new kind of bad-dumb politics animated by a panoramic arrogance from the campaign and the candidate; an arrogance of great wealth and how to achieve it and keep it at all costs; and a denial of the very documents, or their applicability,  recording the process of that great wealth taking place.

The current descent of the Romney presidential campaign is lately the result of several news reports that deeply undercut the former Massachusetts governor’s claim to electability. They suggest that, contrary to February 1999 as the presumed bright line separating Bain-era and post-Bain-era Mitt Romney, he was still in charge at the company even when he wasn’t. Even when he told the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission he wasn’t.

A growing body of evidence finds that he may not have been in the room, but he was very much in the loop.

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First there was the June 21st Washington Post story that reported Bain Capital outsourced jobs to foreign companies in India and China, “companies that were pioneers in the practice of shipping work from the United States to overseas call centers and factories making computer components, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.”

“While Bain was not the largest player in the outsourcing field, the private equity firm was involved early on, at a time when the departure of jobs from the United States was beginning to accelerate and new companies were emerging as handmaidens to this outflow of employment,” the Post reported.

Then Vanity Fair weighed in. Days ago, the magazine reported of Sankaty High Yield Asset Investors Ltd., a Bermuda-based concern described in securities filings as “a Bermuda corporation wholly owned by W. Mitt Romney.” “He set it up in 1997, then transferred it to his wife’s newly created blind trust on January 1, 2003, the day before he was inaugurated as Massachusetts’s governor.”

Though Romney said he left the firm in 1999, Vanity Fair reported, “Romney has continued to receive large payments from it—in early June he revealed more than $2 million in new Bain income. The firm today has at least 138 funds organized in the Cayman Islands, and Romney himself has personal interests in at least 12, worth as much as $30 million, hidden behind controversial confidentiality disclaimers.”

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LAST WEEK, a story by David Corn of Mother Jones found that Romney was part of an investment group that invested $75 million in Stericycle, a medical-waste disposal firm assailed by anti-abortion groups for disposing of aborted fetuses from family planning clinics.

Romney’s investment in that business, which could complicate his relationship with Republican values voters, was bad enough. But documents filed by Bain Capital and Stericycle with the Securities and Exchange Commission show Romney to have been active in the Stericycle investment long after his official exit from Bain in February 1999. “All of this undermines Bain's contention that Romney, though he maintained an ownership interest in the firm and its funds, had nothing to do with the firm's activities after February 1999,” Corn reported.

Next up: The Boston Globe, which reported on Thursday that, according to SEC records, Romney played an active role in Bain Capital affairs after 1999, when he said he left the company — contradicting what Romney wrote on reports filed with the SEC in 2000 and 2001. “Until 2002, when Romney and Bain Capital finalized a severance agreement, he remained the firm’s 'sole stockholder, chairman of the board, chief executive officer and president,' according to SEC documents. The description was applied even to the creation of five new Bain partnerships a full three years after Romney has said he relinquished all control,” the Globe reported.

Also on Thursday, Mother Jones reported that Bain Capital, under Romney’s control, was responsible for transferring American jobs to China as far back as August 1998 — conducting a form of business with foreign entities that predates the very word used in society to describe it: “outsourcing.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Anybody else? Oh yeah — on Current TV, Jennifer Granholm, host of "The War Room,” reported late Thursday that documents Current obtained from the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission, related to business entities and ownership, revealed that Romney had active participation in 11 Bain-related companies in 2002, long after his Olympian exit from Bain in early 1999.

It all suggests that while Romney may not have been in the boardroom where the Bain deals went down after his ostensible exit, Romney was present and accounted for just the same; his was the disembodied presence, the Voice of God on the conference call, the one with go/no go powers over Bain business dealings long after the call to Salt Lake City.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mitt Romney and the Vanity Fair report

BUD FOX: There’s no nobility in poverty anymore, dad.
— Wall Street (1987)

JAKE GITTES: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat, what can you buy that you can’t already afford?

NOAH CROSS: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!
— Chinatown (1974)

A NEW, exhaustive and well-written exposé by Nicholas Shaxson of Vanity Fair sheds sustained light on Romney’s financials where there hasn’t been much, as comprehensively, until now.

What’s revealed is a man whose acquisitive nature is almost rapacious; a mandarin of finance with a breathtaking blindness to the optics of his own campaign; a multimillionaire who’s been largely tone-deaf to the depth of the national economic despair.

Even excerpts from Shaxson’s reporting are illuminating.

... [T]here is a Bermuda-based entity called Sankaty High Yield Asset Investors Ltd., which has been described in securities filings as “a Bermuda corporation wholly owned by W. Mitt Romney.” It could be that Sankaty is an old vehicle with little importance, but Romney appears to have treated it rather carefully. He set it up in 1997, then transferred it to his wife’s newly created blind trust on January 1, 2003, the day before he was inaugurated as Massachusetts’s governor. ...

That’s not the only money Romney has in tax havens. Because of his retirement deal with Bain Capital, his finances are still deeply entangled with the private-equity firm that he founded and spun off from Bain and Co. in 1984. Though he left the firm in 1999, Romney has continued to receive large payments from it—in early June he revealed more than $2 million in new Bain income. The firm today has at least 138 funds organized in the Cayman Islands, and Romney himself has personal interests in at least 12, worth as much as $30 million, hidden behind controversial confidentiality disclaimers. Again, the Romney campaign insists he saves no tax by using them, but there is no way to check this.

Ed Kleinbard, a tax-law professor at the University of Southern California, told Vanity Fair that a mysterious Swiss Bank account that turned up in Romney’s 2010 returns, then vanished a year later after a Romney trustee closed it, “has political but not tax-policy resonance.”

The account, Shaxson observed, “like many other Romney investments […] constituted a bet against the U.S. dollar, an odd thing for a presidential candidate to do.”

Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said it plain Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation”: “You either get a Swiss Bank account to conceal what you’re doing, or you believe the Swiss franc is stronger than the American dollar.”

◊ ◊ ◊

One of the more damning parts of Shaxson’s piece undercuts much of the Romney = Economic Savior meme that the campaign has been cultivating for months.

“His work at Bain was unquestionably good for himself and for Bain,” Shaxason writes, “but was it also good for the businesses he acquired, for their workers, and for the economy, as he claims?

“A report by Bain and Co. itself, looking at the period from 2002 to 2007, concluded that there is ‘little evidence that private equity owners, overall, added value’ to the companies they took over: nearly all their returns are explained by broad economic growth, rising stock markets, and leverage […][i.e., use of borrowed money, which magnifies returns, while off-loading the risks onto others].”

The recent news stories about Romney’s role in outsourcing jobs to China and India are problem enough. This report, Shaxson suggests, would put the lie to Romney’s reflexive claim that private equity concerns are the lever to an enhanced grassroots American economy.

◊ ◊ ◊

SO WHAT makes Mitt Romney so electable, anyway? Is it his net worth, the power of his own deep pockets? That confronts the reality of the campaign as it’s unfolded: To this point in the campaign, Romney has invested little of his own personal income in this quest for the presidency. He hasn’t had to. Buoyed by money raised from various Super PAC donors — people tied to Bain Capital, as well as hedge funds and private sector companies — Romney doesn’t have that much skin in the game.

He spent about $45 million of his own cash in the 2008 race; to this point, according to a report from the Center for Responsive Politics, Romney has spent what amounts to chump change — about $52,500 — of his own money for the 2012 nomination. This from a man who makes about $57,000 a day on investment income.

More couch-cushion money: ABC News’ Matt Negrin recently reported that Romney and his wife Ann donated $150,000 to a joint fund with the Republican National Committee.

“By doing so,” Negrin writes, “Romney avoids the charge that he's just a rich guy who's able to run for president because he can afford to. Instead he's perceived as just a rich guy who's able to run for president because his friends can afford to donate to his super PAC.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Is it his previous experience in government? His platform or his campaign’s biographical talking points don’t have that much to do with his previous elective office. The one unassailable electoral qualification Romney has — as a leader of citizens, not a leader of employees — is the qualification Romney runs away from.

What’s made him the most electable is his perceived business acumen. But ironically, his tax returns are more central to his claim to being a sound fiscal manager than he might have thought possible. We know what Romney’s done as a macro manager, wielding big budgets for Bain and the Olympics.

But what resonates with the American people is how well you communicate the grasp of the micro — in his case, the micro of his own finances. And Romney’s done all he can to make that an unknown, and that’s problematic. At the end of the day, there’s no way to know how good a money manager he really is until we do see his personal tax returns.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Más change in America II:
The media learns Spanish

THAT SLOW-MOVING, slow-turning ocean liner we call the mainstream media has been changing course in recent years, as media orgs have begun to discover the Latino American experience. Between now and the election, and even shortly after that, several new media players will have emerged, begat from their deep-pocketed American parent companies and Latino broadcasters with singular insights into the audience. Major American mainstream media is bulking up on the Latino market, and in the process redefining the whole notion of what “mainstream” is.

NBC News has finally dropped a long-hovering shoe on July 3, with the launch of, a newsgathering venture that will include indigenous reporting and a blend of news and lifestyle content from other NBC properties.

“It’s important for NBC News to look for growth opportunities outside of broadcast news, and to continue to develop these targeted ventures that help us reach new audiences and are also a natural extension of how we operate,” said NBC News President Steve Capus, to The Hollywood Reporter. “We see NBC Latino as a huge advantage to the overall news network because of our ability to tap into and share their story pipeline with our other programs and properties.”

“The goal of NBC Latino is to take Hispanic news beyond the usual conversation, toward something more inspired, empowered and energized; to tell and reflect the Hispanic-American story with authentic voices, and make NBC the brand of choice for Hispanics across mobile, online and TV," said executive editor Chris Peña, to The Hollywood Reporter. The new channel will team up with NBC News reporters Natalie Morales, Tom Llamas and Miguel Almaguer, among others, for a variety of special projects. Content from NBC’s “Today” show and the “Nightly News” will be part of the package, as well as reporting from NBC sister MSNBC.

◊ ◊ ◊

For NBC, it’s about time: The network has long had assets that targeted the Hispanic community; it acquired Telemundo Communications for $2.7 billion in October 2001, in the process becoming the first major American television network to enter the lucrative domestic Latino television market. With that acquisition, NBC also acquired mun2, Telemundo’s sister channel aimed at a younger demographic.

All due props for NBC’s bold (and practical) move, but you have to ask why it took the network a full 10 years, and then some, to act on its initial investment and get to this level of content integration in order to reach what was for years the fastest-growing segment of the American population. What were they waiting for?

It’s not as if there hasn’t been a successful precedent. NBC previously showed its ability to capitalize on a niche audience when it acquired control of the African American-themed news website, in 2009. Since then, writers and editors for theGrio have been steadily weaved into news content for NBC and for MSNBC.

But while NBC is late in one regard, they’re early (or at least on time) in another. As the presidential campaign cranks up to full crescendo, the impact of Hispanics as a voting bloc will stay front and center in the national media discourse, and the national conversation. With vast resources and association with a flagship news brand, NBC Latino should be well poised to capitalize on that emergence.

◊ ◊ ◊

Last week, Peggy Randall, associate publisher of the left-leaning The Nation, sent an e-mail blast to “Friends” of the 147-year-old magazine announcing the launch of The Nation En Español.

“Each week, we’ll be translating an editorial, column or feature article from print into Spanish and publishing it at, where we’ll make it widely available to both the Spanish-speaking US audience as well as to numerous daily newspapers in Latin American cities like Buenos Aires, Caracas, Montevideo, Mexico City, Santiago, Quito, Lima and Bogota.

“With the help of Claudio Iván Remeseira, an Argentinian journalist and founder of the blog Hispanic New York, we hope to expand this program, perhaps eventually even publishing a Spanish-language edition of the magazine,” Randall wrote. The magazine conducted a trial run of the content translation project in March.

◊ ◊ ◊

OTHER NEWS outlets have made similar pivots, or announced plans to do so. In May, ABC News got the jump on NBC's big reveal when it disclosed plans to start a 24-hour English-language news network with former Telemundo rival Univision Communications. The channel, forecast to launch in early 2013, taks its first steps this summer with a Web site and social-media content focused on the election, the Los Angeles Times reported in May.

ABC’s gambit serves two purposes: it allies the network with another news entity, one with vast knowledge of a nascent American social and political demographic, and it gives ABC News a foothold in the cable space — territory ABC has long been absent from, in every language.

“The math is profound,” said Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News, to The Times. “That huge population surge is already happening, and we get it. It's happening in California, and it's happening in the rest of the country. We've got to figure out a way to deliver culturally relevant programming in English to this rapidly growing and very influential population.

And in January, News Corporation announced that it would launch the Spanish-language MundoFox broadcast network this year, in a 50/50 joint venture with RCN Television Group SA, based in Colombia. The network, headquartered in Los Angeles, is set to begin programming in mid-August, with big rollouts planned for media markets in California, Florida and Texas.

All these corporate moves, of course, merely formalize the obvious: that the U.S. Latino experience is very much a central force in the new American mainstream. In March, Time magazine went so far as say that the outcome of the election could well pivot on the Hispanic vote in November; its March 5 cover made that clear.

For the players in the national campaign, and the media players following the national campaign, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Image credits: NBC logo, NBCLatino logo: © 2012 NBC News. The Nation logo: © 2012 The Nation. MundoFox logo: © 2012 News Corporation/RCN Television Group SA. Time magazine: © 2012 Time Inc. Fair disclosure: I worked for for six years and wrote freelance stories for

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Another country:
Michael Luick-Thrams’ declaration of independence

CALL HIM ÉMIGRÉ: About a year ago, Michael Luick-Thrams, a Minnesota author, historian, and public speaker, said goodbye to the United States of America, for good.

This was no rash decision, nor was it something done by a man with no options, at the end of his rope. Luick-Thrams, now 49, walked away from a successful mobile museum program and an alternative farming colony in the Midwest, a home in St. Paul and his mother and two siblings, to take up a new life as a teacher in southwestern Germany.

By telephone recently, Alan Nothnagle, a Berlin-based freelance writer, interviewed Luick-Thrams for Open Salon, trying to understand “what could have moved him to take a step that many other Americans celebrating this holiday over beer and fireworks would regard as unthinkable: Declaring his own independence from the Land of the Free.”

Below, excerpts of the credo of a man for whom the salt of life in the United States has lost its savor:

Independence Day is coming up. What was the actual cause or motivation that compelled your own personal declaration of independence from the United States?

It’s a belief that we no longer live in the same country as before 9/11. I’m not at all pleased about the changes we’ve seen since then. I think that in many ways we have become the things we claim to hate: We hate terrorism and we hate indiscriminate violence. Unfortunately, over the past ten years we have been consistently practicing just that. Invading countries, kicking in the doors of innocent people. We know that soldiers acting in our name have raped and tortured. I thought at first that hopefully this would pass. But it keeps going on. We’ve had ten years of war, and I suspect that if we had the money we would wage even more war elsewhere. It has become a way of life.

I don’t like the way the country is going domestically, either. I’m very conscious of the development in Wisconsin, stripping workers of collective bargaining rights. At some point I decided I’d had enough. I’m not going to pay taxes to subsidize this madness. I’m not going to devote part of my income to building guns and tanks and fighter jets, paying to place soldiers abroad to rape people, to kill and terrorize them. I’m not going to be a part of that. ...

One common argument you may have heard from your critics is “what if everybody did it?” Do you think everybody who feels like you do should leave the U.S.? Or is this a very personal step for you?

Everyone will have to make his or her own decision. I made mine after very, very long and studied deliberation, weighing all the options and asking myself some extremely hard questions. But I think we have a fascist climate in the United States. We should stop pretending we’re a democracy. Most people have very little influence on their elected officials. So, what if everyone left? Well, that would certainly be sending a message, wouldn’t it now? The educated class should leave. What would that say to the people left behind pulling the strings? I had to leave because I could no longer stomach the nasty things I saw going on all around me. Not just the politics, but the way the political situation mirrors the kind of people we are becoming. The values we are adopting, our disengagement from one another, a deteriorating culture. Europe isn’t perfect, but in America there is simply no counterweight to mitigate all these developments. ...

Despite all of this, is there anything you miss about America?

I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss Mexican food. I miss the Midwest.

You don’t miss freedom?

I don’t think America is as free as Germany is. Freedom is the ability to make choices, to get your needs met. Look at the situation in America – the unemployment, the unaffordable college tuition, the unresponsive government. How can you be free if you can’t choose? There is freedom of speech in theory, but it doesn’t mean much if people don’t use it. The country has been shanghaied by moneyed interests. Where are “We the people”? Where is the outrage? I don’t want to live in a country where most people are passive and just muddle through. ...

You can read the full interview at Open Salon.
Image credits: Open Salon logo: © 2012 Salon. Flag image: Jasper Johns, "Moratorium" (1969) © Jasper Johns.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Romney’s new Bain problem

FOR MUCH of this presidential campaign, Mitt Romney has been joined at the hip with Bain Capital, the private-equity concern he founded in 1984. To this point, the Romney/Bain relationship has resulted in disclosures that have called into question his role as a job creator (given Bain Capital’s role in larding various companies with debt, strip-mining those companies’ assets and then shutting the companies down, idling thousands of loyal workers — and, more recently we've discovered, outsourcing jobs to overseas locations).

That's been bad enough for Romney as a campaign issue. Now, though, Romney’s ties to Bain have taken a more unsavory and politically problematic turn. A new and potentially explosive story by David Corn of Mother Jones examines a business, and Romney’s investment in that business, that could deeply complicate the former Massachusetts governor’s relationship with values voters in the Republican base he needs to be competitive in November.

Isolated excerpts of Corn’s story don’t do it proper justice; it deserves to be digested at length and intact:

Earlier this year, Mitt Romney nearly landed in a politically perilous controversy when the Huffington Post reported that in 1999 the GOP presidential candidate had been part of an investment group that invested $75 million in Stericycle, a medical-waste disposal firm that has been attacked by anti-abortion groups for disposing aborted fetuses collected from family planning clinics. Coming during the heat of the GOP primaries, as Romney tried to sell South Carolina Republicans on his pro-life bona fides, the revelation had the potential to damage the candidate's reputation among values voters already suspicious of his shifting position on abortion.

But documents filed by Bain and Stericycle with the Securities and Exchange Commission—and obtained by Mother Jones—list Romney as an active participant in the investment. And this deal helped Stericycle, a company with a poor safety record, grow, while yielding tens of millions of dollars in profits for Romney and his partners. The documents—one of which was signed by Romney—also contradict the official account of Romney's exit from Bain.

In November 1999, Bain Capital and Madison Dearborn Partners, a Chicago-based private equity firm, filed with the SEC a Schedule 13D, which lists owners of publicly traded companies, noting that they had jointly purchased $75 million worth of shares in Stericycle. ...

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Rodney King: An American life

CALL IT Hollywood irony: Rodney Glen King, a man whose brief but turbulent transit underscored the distance between himself and the realization of a life in the national dream factory, was laid to rest on Saturday at Forest Lawn, cemetery of the stars.

They marked the course of that brief American life — “Sunrise April 2, 1965, Sunset June 17, 2012” — at his “Home Going Celebration” there in the Hollywood Hills. But the world knows this was not just another brother gone before his time. A lot can happen in twenty years.

◊ ◊ ◊

He was a black native Californian, which made him rare enough from the jump. He was born in Sacramento and raised in Altadena, 15 miles from downtown L.A. “Altadena Town Council chairwoman Sandra Thomas knew King because he attended Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church, where her late husband was a pastor,” the Pasadena Star-News reported.

But he had his demons. His father, an alcoholic, died before Rodney was 30, drinking himself to death in a bathtub at the family home, the L.A. Times said. Rodney King grappled in his own way with life. A robbery conviction got him a year in jail. It was that conviction, and his own fears of the police, cultivated at an early age, that made him keep driving, keep speeding on the night of March 3, 1991. The night it all began.

Stacey Koon. Laurence Powell. Theodore Briseno. Timothy Wind. Four officers. One traffic stop. 56 baton blows. One irrefutable video. Four trials. Thirteen months.

Four acquittals.

Rage. Six days. Fifty-three people dead, another 2,500 injured. One billion dollars in property damage.

And five words from the man at the center of it all. “Can’t we all get along?”

◊ ◊ ◊

Fast forward twenty years. Despite a new fiancée, despite a $3.8 million settlement, despite a certain cachet in the celebrity culture, the demons wouldn’t let him go.

According to TMZ, King's fiancée, Cynthia Kelley, said King was at his home in Rialto all day drinking, and he smoked marijuana at some point, before she went to bed at 2 a.m. on June 17 — Father’s Day.

Kelley said she next saw King at around 5 a.m. when she was awakened by him screaming in the backyard. TMZ reported that Kelley found King naked, banging on the glass of a window or door, and she called out to him, "What's wrong, Rodney?"

Kelley said she went to get her phone when she heard a splash. She went to the backyard and found him in the bottom of the pool in the backyard and called police.

Paramedics tried and failed to bring him back. Toxicology reports are due in another five weeks or so, but for now, foul play isn’t suspected.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the MSNBC host and longtime civil rights advocate, spoke at Forest Lawn on Saturday. “People should not be judged by the mistakes that they make, but by how they rise above them,” he said. “Rodney had risen above his mistakes, he never mocked anyone, not the police, not the justice system, not anyone. He became a symbol of forgiveness.”

◊ ◊ ◊

IT FOLLOWED on what Sharpton said on the Sunday that King died. “Rodney King's case was a symbol of police abuse,” he said at a march in New York City, in a protest against the stop-and-frisk policy of the New York Police Department, another police agency with a bad reputation among minorities. “I remember before the tape of Rodney King, [when] we talked about police abuse, people thought we were making it up.”

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