Wealthy Frenchman

Monday, January 30, 2006

A False Balance


"How does one report the facts," asked Rob Corddry on "The Daily Show," "when the facts themselves are biased?" He explained to Jon Stewart, who played straight man, that "facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda," and therefore can't be reported.

Mr. Corddry's parody of journalists who believe they must be "balanced" even when the truth isn't balanced continues, alas, to ring true. The most recent example is the peculiar determination of some news organizations to cast the scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff as "bipartisan."

Let's review who Mr. Abramoff is and what he did.

Here's how a 2004 Washington Post article described Mr. Abramoff's background: "Abramoff's conservative-movement credentials date back more than two decades to his days as a national leader of the College Republicans." In the 1990's, reports the article, he found his "niche" as a lobbyist "with entree to the conservatives who were taking control of Congress. He enjoys a close bond with [Tom] DeLay."

Mr. Abramoff hit the jackpot after Republicans took control of the White House as well as Congress. He persuaded several Indian tribes with gambling interests that they needed to pay vast sums for his services and those of Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay aide. From the same Washington Post article: "Under Abramoff's guidance, the four tribes ... have also become major political donors. They have loosened their traditional ties to the Democratic Party, giving Republicans two-thirds of the $2.9 million they have donated to federal candidates since 2001, records show."

So Mr. Abramoff is a movement conservative whose lobbying career was based on his connections with other movement conservatives. His big coup was persuading gullible Indian tribes to hire him as an adviser; his advice was to give less money to Democrats and more to Republicans. There's nothing bipartisan about this tale, which is all about the use and abuse of Republican connections.

Yet over the past few weeks a number of journalists, ranging from The Washington Post's ombudsman to the "Today" show's Katie Couric, have declared that Mr. Abramoff gave money to both parties. In each case the journalists or their news organization, when challenged, grudgingly conceded that Mr. Abramoff himself hasn't given a penny to Democrats. But in each case they claimed that this is only a technical point, because Mr. Abramoff's clients — those Indian tribes — gave money to Democrats as well as Republicans, money the news organizations say he "directed" to Democrats.

But the tribes were already giving money to Democrats before Mr. Abramoff entered the picture; he persuaded them to reduce those Democratic donations, while giving much more money to Republicans. A study commissioned by The American Prospect shows that the tribes' donations to Democrats fell by 9 percent after they hired Mr. Abramoff, while their contributions to Republicans more than doubled. So in any normal sense of the word "directed," Mr. Abramoff directed funds away from Democrats, not toward them.

True, some Democrats who received tribal donations before Mr. Abramoff's entrance continued to receive donations after his arrival. How, exactly, does this implicate them in Mr. Abramoff's machinations? Bear in mind that no Democrat has been indicted or is rumored to be facing indictment in the Abramoff scandal, nor has any Democrat been credibly accused of doing Mr. Abramoff questionable favors.

There have been both bipartisan and purely Democratic scandals in the past. Based on everything we know so far, however, the Abramoff affair is a purely Republican scandal.

Why does the insistence of some journalists on calling this one-party scandal bipartisan matter? For one thing, the public is led to believe that the Abramoff affair is just Washington business as usual, which it isn't. The scale of the scandals now coming to light, of which the Abramoff affair is just a part, dwarfs anything in living memory.

More important, this kind of misreporting makes the public feel helpless. Voters who are told, falsely, that both parties were drawn into Mr. Abramoff's web are likely to become passive and shrug their shoulders instead of demanding reform.

So the reluctance of some journalists to report facts that, in this case, happen to have an anti-Republican agenda is a serious matter. It's not a stretch to say that these journalists are acting as enablers for the rampant corruption that has emerged in Washington over the last decade.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

And Now, a Word for Our Demographic



NOT all reporters have an unfinished novel gathering dust but many, including this one, do. If that isn't enough of a cliché, this novel's hero is a television anchor (always plant your pen in familiar turf) who, in the course of a minor traffic accident, bites the tip off his tongue. The ensuing speech impediment is sufficient to end his on-air career and he finds himself, recently divorced, now unemployed, at home and watching altogether too much television.

After several weeks of isolation he discovers on his voice mail a message from an old friend, the opinion-page editor of his hometown newspaper. She is urging him to write a piece about television news, which, after some hesitation, he does — with a vengeance:

The earls and dukes and barons of television news have grown sleek and fat eating road kill. The victims, dispatched by political or special interest hit-and-run squads, are then hung up, displayed and consumed with unwholesome relish on television.

They wander the battlefields of other people's wars, these knights of the airwaves, disposing of the wounded from both armies, gorging themselves like the electronic vultures they are.

The popular illusion that television journalists are liberals does them too much honor. Like all mercenaries they fight for money, not ideology; but unlike true mercenaries, their loyalty is not for sale. It cannot be engaged because it does not exist. Their total lack of commitment to any cause has come to be defined as objectivity. Their daily preoccupation with the trivial and the banal has accumulated large audiences, which, in turn, has encouraged a descent into the search for items of even greater banality.

A wounded and bitter fellow, this fictional hero of mine, but his bilious arguments hardly seem all that dated. Now here I sit, having recently left ABC News after 42 years, and who should call but an editor friend of mine who, in a quirky convolution of real life's imitating unpublished fiction, has asked me to write this column examining the state of television news today.

Where to begin? Confession of the obvious seems like a reasonable starting point: I have become well known and well-off traveling the world on ABC's dime, charged only with ensuring that our viewers be well informed about important issues. For the better part of those 42 years, this arrangement worked to our mutual benefit and satisfaction. At the same time, I cannot help but see that the industry in which I have spent my entire adult life is in decline and in distress.

Once, 30 or 40 years ago, the target audience for network news was made up of everyone with a television, and the most common criticism lodged against us was that we were tempted to operate on a lowest-common-denominator basis.

This, however, was in the days before deregulation, when the Federal Communications Commission was still perceived to have teeth, and its mandate that broadcasters operate in "the public interest, convenience and necessity" was enough to give each licensee pause.

Network owners nurtured their news divisions, encouraged them to tackle serious issues, cultivated them as shields to be brandished before Congressional committees whenever questions were raised about the quality of entertainment programs and the vast sums earned by those programs. News divisions occasionally came under political pressures but rarely commercial ones. The expectation was that they would search out issues of importance, sift out the trivial and then tell the public what it needed to know.

With the advent of cable, satellite and broadband technology, today's marketplace has become so overcrowded that network news divisions are increasingly vulnerable to the dictatorship of the demographic. Now, every division of every network is expected to make a profit. And so we have entered the age of boutique journalism. The goal for the traditional broadcast networks now is to identify those segments of the audience considered most desirable by the advertising community and then to cater to them.

Most television news programs are therefore designed to satisfy the perceived appetites of our audiences. That may be not only acceptable but unavoidable in entertainment; in news, however, it is the journalists who should be telling their viewers what is important, not the other way around.

Indeed, in television news these days, the programs are being shaped to attract, most particularly, 18-to-34-year-old viewers. They, in turn, are presumed to be partly brain-dead — though not so insensible as to be unmoved by the blandishments of sponsors.

Exceptions, it should be noted, remain. Thus it is that the evening news broadcasts of ABC, CBS and NBC are liberally studded with advertisements that clearly cater to older Americans. But this is a holdover from another era: the last gathering of more than 30 million tribal elders, as they clench their dentures while struggling to control esophageal eruptions of stomach acid to watch "The News." That number still commands respect, but even the evening news programs, you will find (after the first block of headline material), are struggling to find a new format that will somehow appeal to younger viewers.

Washington news, for example, is covered with less and less enthusiasm and aggressiveness. The networks' foreign bureaus have, for some years now, been seen as too expensive to merit survival. Judged on the frequency with which their reports get airtime, they can no longer be deemed cost-effective. Most have either been closed or reduced in size to the point of irrelevance.

Simply stated, no audience is perceived to be clamoring for foreign news, the exceptions being wars in their early months that involve American troops, acts of terrorism and, for a couple of weeks or so, natural disasters of truly epic proportions.

You will still see foreign stories on the evening news broadcasts, but examine them carefully. They are either reported by one of a half-dozen or so remaining foreign correspondents who now cover the world for each network, or the anchor simply narrates a piece of videotape shot by some other news agency. For big events, an anchor might parachute in for a couple of days of high drama coverage. But the age of the foreign correspondent, who knew a country or region intimately, is long over.

No television news executive is likely to acknowledge indifference to major events overseas or in our nation's capital, but he may, on occasion, concede that the viewers don't care, and therein lies the essential malignancy.

The accusation that television news has a political agenda misses the point. Right now, the main agenda is to give people what they want. It is not partisanship but profitability that shapes what you see.

Most particularly on cable news, a calculated subjectivity has, indeed, displaced the old-fashioned goal of conveying the news dispassionately. But that, too, has less to do with partisan politics than simple capitalism. Thus, one cable network experiments with the subjectivity of tender engagement: "I care and therefore you should care." Another opts for chest-thumping certitude: "I know and therefore you should care."

Even Fox News's product has less to do with ideology and more to do with changing business models. Fox has succeeded financially because it tapped into a deep, rich vein of unfulfilled yearning among conservative American television viewers, but it created programming to satisfy the market, not the other way around. CNN, meanwhile, finds itself largely outmaneuvered, unwilling to accept the label of liberal alternative, experimenting instead with a form of journalism that stresses empathy over detachment.

Now, television news should not become a sort of intellectual broccoli to be jammed down our viewers' unwilling throats. We are obliged to make our offerings as palatable as possible. But there are too many important things happening in the world today to allow the diet to be determined to such a degree by the popular tastes of a relatively narrow and apparently uninterested demographic.

What is, ultimately, most confusing about the behavior of the big three networks is why they ever allowed themselves to be drawn onto a battlefield that so favors their cable competitors. At almost any time, the audience of a single network news program on just one broadcast network is greater than the combined audiences of CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

Reaching across the entire spectrum of American television viewers is precisely the broadcast networks' greatest strength. By focusing only on key demographics, by choosing to ignore their total viewership, they have surrendered their greatest advantage.

Oddly enough, there is a looming demographic reality that could help steer television news back toward its original purpose. There are tens of millions of baby boomers in their 40's and 50's and entering their 60's who have far more spending power than their 18-to-34-year-old counterparts. Television news may be debasing itself before the wrong demographic.

If the network news divisions cannot be convinced that their future depends on attracting all demographic groups, then perhaps, at least, they can be persuaded to aim for the largest single demographic with the most disposable income — one that may actually have an appetite for serious news. That would seem like a no-brainer. It's regrettable, perhaps, that only money and the inclination to spend it will ultimately determine the face of television news, but, as a distinguished colleague of mine used to say: "That's the way it is."

Thursday, January 26, 2006

A President Who Can Do No Right


We should be used to it by now. There are a couple of Congressional committees trying to investigate the tragic Hurricane Katrina debacle, but the Bush administration is refusing to turn over certain documents or allow certain senior White House officials to testify before the committees under oath.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat who is by no means unfriendly to the Bush crowd, said this week, "There has been a near-total lack of cooperation that has made it impossible, in my opinion, for us to do the thorough investigation that we have a responsibility to do."

Once again the president has, in effect, flipped the bird at Congress. He's amazing. Forget such fine points as the Constitution and the separation of powers. George W. Bush does what he wants to do. He won fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000 and then governed as if he'd been elected by acclamation. He dispensed with John Kerry in 2004 by portraying himself — a man who ran and hid from the draft during Vietnam — as more of a warrior than Mr. Kerry, a decorated combat veteran of that war.

Reality has been dealt a stunning blow by Mr. Bush. The administration's high-handedness with the Katrina investigators comes at the same time as disclosures showing that the White House was warned in the hours just before the hurricane hit New Orleans that it might well cause catastrophic flooding and the breaching of the city's levees.

That was early on the morning of last Aug. 29. On Sept. 1, with the city all but completely underwater, the president went on television and blithely declared, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

This guy is something. Remember his "Top Gun" moment aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln? And his famous taunt — "Bring 'em on" — to the insurgents in Iraq? His breathtaking arrogance is exceeded only by his incompetence. And that's the real problem. That's where you'll find the mind-boggling destructiveness of this regime, in its incompetence.

Fantasy may be in fashion. Reality may have been shoved into the shadows on Mr. Bush's watch. But the plain truth is that he is the worst president in memory, and one of the worst of all time. Many thousands of people — men, women and children — have died unnecessarily (and thousands more are suffering) because of his misguided and mishandled policies.

Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser for George H. W. Bush, counseled against the occupation of Iraq at the end of the first gulf war. As recounted in a New Yorker article last fall, he said, "At the minimum, we'd be an occupier in a hostile land. Our forces would be sniped at by guerrillas, and, once we were there, how would we get out?"

George W. Bush had no such concerns. In fact, he joked about his failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Like a frat boy making cracks about a bad bet on a football game, Mr. Bush displayed what he felt was a hilarious set of photos during a spoof that he performed at the annual dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association in March 2004.

The photos showed the president peering behind curtains and looking under furniture in the Oval Office for the missing weapons. Mr. Bush offered mock captions for the photos, saying, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." And, "Nope, no weapons over there, maybe under here."

This week, as the killing of American G.I.'s and innocent Iraqis continued, we learned from a draft report from the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction that, like the war itself, the Bush plan for rebuilding Iraq has been crippled by incompetence and extreme shortages of personnel. I doubt that this will bother the president any more than any of his other failures. He seems to truly believe that he can do no wrong.

The fiasco in Iraq and the president's response to the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe were Mr. Bush's two most spectacular foul-ups. There have been many others. The president's new Medicare prescription drug program has been a monumental embarrassment, leaving some of the most vulnerable members of our society without essential medication. Prominent members of the president's own party are balking at the heavy hand of his No Child Left Behind law, which was supposed to radically upgrade the quality of public education.

The Constitution? Civil liberties? Don't ask.

Just keep in mind, whatever your political beliefs, that incompetence in high places can have devastating consequences.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Delusion and Illusion Worthy of Dickens


The Democrats will never win the White House as long as they're stuck in Bleak House. They're slipping and sliding in the same crust-upon-crust of mud and caboose-creeping fog and soft black drizzle and flakes of soot that blacken the chamber of law in the opening of the terrific Dickens novel (now an irresistible PBS series).

The lumbering pace of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce will pale compared with the time it will take the cowed and colicky Democrats to yank back power from Republicans skilled at abusing it.

The party simply seems incapable of getting the muscular message and riveting messenger needed to dispel the mud, fog, drizzle and soot emanating from Karl Rove's rag-and-bone shop on Pennsylvania Avenue.

As the White House drives its truckload of lies around the country, it becomes ever clearer that Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Al Gore are just not the right people to respond to the administration's national security scare-a-thon.

We got mired in Iraq in the first place partly because Dick Cheney and Rummy thought that, post-Vietnam and post-Clinton, America was seen as soft. One shock-and-awe session, one tyrant stomped on, they reckoned, and the Arab world would no longer see Americans as wimps. That reasoning turned out to be dangerous, flying in the face of warnings from our own intelligence experts.

But Karl Rove is still dishing out the same line, and it's still working: those who want to re-evaluate the strategy in Iraq are soft. Those who want to rein in the Patriot Act are soft. Those who question the Alito doctrine of presidential absolutism are soft. Those who don't want to break the law and snoop on Americans are soft - not just soft, but practically collaborating with the terrorists.

"Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview" on national security, Mr. Rove said last week, "and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong - deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."

But you only need to check the paper daily to see that this administration has been deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong on everything: from the promise to rebuild Iraq and the consequences of deploying a strained Army this long in an insurgent war to the failure to respond to the aftermath of Katrina, after dissembling about pre-storm alarms.

The bumbling Bush team that ignored the warning "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States" also ignored one that went something like: "Katrina Determined to Attack New Orleans." And now the White House is trying to inhibit Congressional questions on Katrina, just as it did for the 9/11 inquiries.

The administration's p.r. offensive on warrantless - and questionably effective - snooping is so aggressive that it has even risked exposing the president to an occasional unscripted, but still not tough, question. So he rambles on about steering clear of "Brokeback Mountain" and the therapeutic value of mountain biking. And he calls Barney, the Scottish terrier, "the son I never had." (Barney's dad is all bark and no bite.)

The White House is as skittish about bilked Indians as it is about billing-and-cooing cowboys. It admits it has pictures of the president with Jack Abramoff, but won't cough them up.

While he was out defending his scofflaw behavior, W. had to address the fact that the real nuclear threat (Iran), as opposed to the fake nuclear threat (Iraq), is embarrassing him. He told the Iranian people: "We have no beef with you." (State Department reporters puzzled over how that might be translated into Farsi: "We have no cow with you"?)

You couldn't turn on a TV this week without seeing Torture Guy Alberto Gonzales give all-purpose legal cover to Dick Cheney as that Grim Peeper ravages the Constitution. At a Georgetown University speech, W.'s legal lickspittle ignored a few student protesters, but he might have learned something from their banner, emblazoned with words of Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither."

In their usual twisted way, the Bushies are reducing their abuse of the law to a test of testosterone - knowing that the Democrats will play Judy to their Punch.

The Dems need to drum up a decent message so they look as if they know what the Dickens they're doing before the November election. Otherwise, they'll look like bowed supplicants holding out gruel cups to Karl Rove and pleading, "Please, sir, I want some more."

Monday, January 23, 2006

What's Left Unsaid


Have you ever talked sexy to your wife or your girlfriend - or your husband or your boyfriend - on the telephone? Would you keep talking if you thought that one of Dick Cheney's operatives was listening in?

Talk about a chilling effect.

What if you were thinking of running for Congress and you tried to bolster your understanding of terrorism by speaking with knowledgeable but controversial figures in the Middle East? How would you feel if you knew - or even suspected - that government agents were monitoring your conversations? Would you be less likely to engage in those conversations? Would you begin to censor yourself? Would your contacts still be willing to speak freely if they thought the feds were listening in?

Freedom of speech in the United States covers matters trivial and profound. The corrosive damage that is being done to the First Amendment, that cornerstone of free speech, has been largely overlooked in the controversy over President Bush's decision to permit the government to eavesdrop without warrants on phone calls and e-mail messages inside the United States.

Most of the attention generated by this domestic spying program has understandably been focused on its affront to the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches, and its brazen violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which established clear-cut rules for electronic surveillance in the U.S.

But there's an additional danger. When the government's spies are allowed to snoop willy-nilly on phone calls and e-mail in the United States, without the important legal constraint of having to seek a warrant, it means that the all-important First Amendment has developed a chill, symptomatic of a life-threatening illness.

The ostensible aim of the president's domestic surveillance program, conducted by the supersecret National Security Agency, is to home in on communications into and out of the United States that involve individuals or organizations suspected of some sort of terror connection. But, as The Times reported last week, F.B.I. officials have repeatedly complained that the N.S.A. has bombarded them with thousands upon thousands of unsubstantiated tips - names, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and so forth - that have either led nowhere, or to completely innocent individuals.

Whatever its stated goals, the N.S.A. seems to be operating the greatest fishing expedition in the history of the world.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in a lawsuit seeking a halt to the spying, warned that scholars, lawyers, journalists and others who communicate with people outside the U.S. are already experiencing a chilling effect. People who are doing nothing wrong, but who feel they may become targets of the program, for whatever reasons, are curtailing their conversations and censoring their correspondence, according to the suit.

Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, noted that people who are aware of the surveillance program and who believe that their political views may be seen as hostile by the government, may also become less candid in their telephone conversations and e-mail. Others could unwittingly become the victim of contacts by individuals that the government may be interested in.

He gave an example:

"I recently got a series of e-mails from someone, quite without invitation, that got rather scary in the sense that they started saying positive things about Osama bin Laden. I asked the person in reply to stop e-mailing me, and I got an e-mail today saying, 'Your request is permanently granted.' But in the meantime, granted or not granted, that could easily put me on some kind of targeting list."

Speaking about the potential long-term effect of widespread domestic spying, Professor Tribe said:

"The more people grow accustomed to a listening environment in which the ear of Big Brother is assumed to be behind every wall, behind every e-mail, and invisibly present in every electronic communication, telephonic or otherwise - that is the kind of society, as people grow accustomed to it, in which you can end up being boiled to death without ever noticing that the water is getting hotter, degree by degree.

"The background assumptions of privacy will be gradually eroded to the point where we'll wake up one day, or our children will, and it will seem quaint that people at one time, long ago, thought that they could speak in candor."

Iraq's Power Vacuum


In the State of the Union address, President Bush will surely assert, to choreographed applause, that he has a strategy for victory in Iraq. I don't believe him. In fact, I believe that three years into the conflict his administration refuses to admit defeat but has given up even trying to win.

To explain myself, let me tell you some stories about electricity.

Power shortages are a crucial issue for ordinary Iraqis, and for the credibility of their government. As Muhsin Shlash, Iraq's electricity minister, said last week, "When you lose electricity the country is destroyed, nothing works, all industry is down and terrorist activity is increased."

Mr. Shlash has reason to be strident. In today's Iraq, blackouts are the rule rather than the exception. According to Agence France-Presse, Baghdad and "much of the central regions" - in other words, the areas where the insurgency is most active and dangerous - currently get only between two and six hours of power a day.

Lack of electricity isn't just an inconvenience. It prevents businesses from operating, destroys jobs and generates a sense of demoralization and rage that feeds the insurgency.

So why is power scarcer than ever, almost three years after Saddam's fall? Sabotage by insurgents is one factor. But as an analysis of Iraq's electricity shortage in The Los Angeles Times last month showed, the blackouts are also the result of some incredible missteps by U.S. officials.

Most notably, during the period when Iraq was run by U.S. officials, they decided to base their electricity plan on natural gas: in order to boost electrical output, American companies were hired to install gas-fired generators in power plants across Iraq. But, as The Los Angeles Times explains, "pipelines needed to transport the gas" - that is, to supply gas to the new generators - "weren't built because Iraq's Oil Ministry, with U.S. encouragement, concentrated instead on boosting oil production." Whoops.

Meanwhile, in the early days of the occupation U.S. officials chose not to raise the prices of electricity and fuel, which had been kept artificially cheap under Saddam, for fear of creating unrest. But as a first step toward their dream of turning Iraq into a free-market utopia, they removed tariffs and other restrictions on the purchase of imported consumer goods.

The result was that wealthy and middle-class Iraqis rushed to buy imported refrigerators, heaters and other power-hungry products, and the demand for electricity surged - with no capacity available to meet that surge in demand. This caused even more blackouts.

In short, U.S. officials thoroughly botched their handling of Iraq's electricity sector. They did much the same in the oil sector. But the Bush administration is determined to achieve victory in Iraq, so it must have a plan to rectify its errors, right?

Um, no. Although there has been no formal declaration, all indications are that the Bush administration, which once made grand promises about a program to rebuild Iraq comparable to the Marshall Plan, doesn't plan to ask for any more money for Iraqi reconstruction.

Another Los Angeles Times report on Iraq reconstruction contains some jaw-dropping quotes from U.S. officials, who now seem to be lecturing the Iraqis on self-reliance. "The world is a competitive place," declared the economics counselor at the U.S. embassy. "No pain, no gain," said another official. "We were never intending to rebuild Iraq," said a third. We came, we saw, we conquered, we messed up your infrastructure, we're outta here.

Mr. Shlash certainly sounds as if he's given up expecting more American help. "The American donation is almost finished," he said, "and it was not that effective." Yet he also emphasized the obvious: partly because of the similar failure of reconstruction in the oil sector, Iraq's government doesn't have the funds to do much power plant construction. In fact, it will be hard pressed to maintain the capacity it has, and protect that capacity from insurgent attacks.

And if reconstruction stalls, as seems inevitable, it's hard to see how anything else in Iraq can go right.

So what does it mean that the Bush administration is apparently walking away from responsibility for Iraq's reconstruction? It means that the administration doesn't have a plan; it's entirely focused on short-term political gain. Mr. Bush is just getting by from sound bite to sound bite, while Iraq and America sink ever deeper into the quagmire.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito

Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito

IF James Frey hadn't made up his own life, Tom Wolfe would have had to invent it for him. The fraudulent memoirist is to the early 21st century what Mr. Wolfe's radical-chic revelers were to the late 1960's and his Wall Street "masters of the universe" were to the go-go 1980's: a perfect embodiment of the most fashionable American excess of an era.

As Oprah Winfrey, the ultimate arbiter of our culture, has made clear, no one except pesky nitpickers much cares whether Mr. Frey's autobiography is true or not, or whether it sits on a fiction or nonfiction shelf at Barnes & Noble. Such distinctions have long since washed away in much of our public life. What matters most now is whether a story can be sold as truth, preferably on television. The mock Comedy Central pundit Stephen Colbert's slinging of the word "truthiness" caught on instantaneously last year precisely because we live in the age of truthiness.

At its silliest level, this is manifest in show-biz phenomena like Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, juvenile pop stars who merchandised the joy of their new marriage as a lucrative MTV reality series before heading to divorce court to divvy up the booty. But if suckers want to buy fictional nonfiction like "Newlyweds" or "A Million Little Pieces" as if they were real, that's just harmless diversion.

It's when truthiness moves beyond the realm of entertainment that it's a potential peril. As Seth Mnookin, a rehab alumnus, has written in Slate, the macho portrayal of drug abuse in "Pieces" could deter readers battling actual addictions from seeking help. Ms. Winfrey's blithe re-endorsement of the book is less laughable once you start to imagine some Holocaust denier using her imprimatur to discount Elie Wiesel's incarceration at Auschwitz in her next book club selection, "Night."

This isn't just a slippery slope. It's a toboggan into chaos, or at least war. As everyone knows now - except for the 22 percent, according to a recent Harris poll, who still believe that Saddam helped plan 9/11 - it's the truthiness of all those imminent mushroom clouds that sold the invasion of Iraq. What's remarkable is how much fictionalization plays a role in almost every national debate. Even after a big humbug is exposed as blatantly as Professor Marvel in "The Wizard of Oz" - FEMA's heck of a job in New Orleans, for instance - we remain ready and eager to be duped by the next tall tale. It's as if the country is living in a permanent state of suspension of disbelief.

Democrats who go berserk at their every political defeat still don't understand this. They fault the public for not listening to their facts and arguments, as though facts and arguments would make a difference, even if the Democrats were coherent. It's the power of the story that always counts first, and the selling of it that comes second. Accuracy is optional. The Frey-like genius of the right is its ability to dissemble with a straight face while simultaneously mustering the slick media machinery and expertise to push the goods. It not only has the White House propaganda operation at its disposal, but also an intricate network of P.R. outfits and fake-news outlets that are far more effective than their often hapless liberal counterparts.

The selling of Samuel Alito is a perfect illustration of how our world works. From the moment Judge Alito emerged from Harriet Miers's penumbra, his supporters' story line was clear: he'd be presented as a humble exemplar of American values too mainstream to be labeled "out of the mainstream" by his opponents. In his first courtesy calls on Capitol Hill in November, we learned, Judge Alito often cited his father as a proud immigrant who instilled in him empathy for minorities and the poor - an empathy not remotely apparent in the judge's legal record. A particularly poignant anecdote had it that his father had once defended a black basketball player from discrimination in college.

Yet David Kirkpatrick of The Times reported then that "some colleagues and friends of the elder Mr. Alito, who died in 1987, said they had never heard some of the stories his son has recounted, including the episode about his support for the black student and the fact that his father immigrated from Italy as a child." No matter. If such questions couldn't stop an Oprah Book Club selection, they certainly wouldn't stop a nominee to the Supreme Court.

Once Judge Alito came before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Democrats decided to counter the Republicans' story by coming up with a fictional story of their own, or that's what they did once they stopped bloviating. Their fictional biography cast Judge Alito as an out-and-out bigot. The major evidence cited to support this characterization was his listing his membership in Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP), a conservative group founded in reaction to the upheavals of the Vietnam era, on a job application for the Reagan Justice Department.

Judge Alito testified that he had joined CAP because it supported the R.O.T.C. on campus, adding that he did not remember having "done anything substantial in relation to this group, including renewing my membership." The Democrats plunged on, betting the house (or the Supreme Court) on Teddy Kennedy's insistence that Judge Alito could be linked to what the senator described as CAP's "repulsive anti-woman, anti-black, anti-disability, anti-gay pronouncements." In one of only two dramatic moments in the whole soporific confirmation process - a "Sunshine Boys"-style spat with the committee chairman, Arlen Specter - Mr. Kennedy threatened to subpoena CAP "documents in the possession of the Library of Congress" to hunt down Judge Alito's bigotry.

There was only one problem with the Democrats' fictional story line: it had been exposed as fake on the front page of The Times weeks before Mr. Kennedy presented it to the nation. Mr. Kirkpatrick reported that he had examined the same papers Mr. Kennedy was threatening to subpoena - as well as some others at Princeton's own library - and found no trace of Judge Alito's involvement with CAP as either an active participant or a major donor. When the Senate committee did Mr. Kennedy's bidding and looked at those documents yet again, it found exactly what The Times had in November, calling the senator's bluff and ending any remote chance the Democrats had for keeping Judge Alito off the court. It says everything about the Democrats' ineptitude that when they spin fiction, they are incapable of meeting even the low threshold of truthiness needed to make it fly in this lax cultural environment.

THE Republicans would never have been so sloppy. Indeed, hardly had Mr. Kennedy's melodramatic stunt blown up in his face than they came up with a new story line prompted by the other dramatic incident in the hearings: the departure of Martha-Ann Alito from the committee room in tears. She fled while a Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, was mocking the Democrats, not when the eminently mockable Democrats were mounting their lame assault. Whatever. As Time magazine later reported, a P.R. outfit called Creative Response Concepts immediately pumped up the media volume of her supposed martyrdom, breathlessly producing a former Alito clerk to provide eyewitness testimony of her suffering at the hands of those Democratic brutes.

Creative Response Concepts did similar work for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 campaign. Its roster of clients also includes the right-wing Media Research Center, itself the parent organization of something called the Cybercast News Service. For the new year, Cybercast News has an exciting fictional project of its own: just before John Murtha, the tough Congressional critic of the Iraq war, appeared on "60 Minutes" last Sunday, it started Swift Boating him by rewriting his Vietnam history to besmirch the legitimacy of his two Purple Hearts.

If Karl Rove's White House propaganda factory is the NBC Universal or Time Warner of G.O.P. fictionalization, then the Miramax and Focus Features of the right are such nominally "independent" satellites as Cybercast News, the Lincoln Group (which places fake news stories in Iraqi newspapers), the Rendon Group (which helped manufacture the heroic image of Ahmad Chalabi) and the now-dormant Talon News (the fake Republican-staffed news site whose fake White House correspondent, Jeff Gannon, was unmasked last year).

Fittingly enough against this backdrop, last week brought the re-emergence of Clifford Irving, the author of the fake 1972 autobiography of Howard Hughes that bamboozled the world long before fraudulent autobiographies and biographies were cool. He announced that he was removing his name from "The Hoax," a coming Hollywood movie recounting his exploits, because of what he judged its lack of fidelity to "the truth of what happened." That Mr. Irving can return like Rip van Winkle after all these years to take the moral high ground in defense of truthfulness is a sign of just how low into truthiness we have sunk.

To my readers: Starting next week, I will be on a book leave, writing nonfiction about our post-9/11 fictions. See you in the spring.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Googling Past the Graveyard


I don't like the thought of Dick Cheney ogling my Googling.

Because what I'm Googling, of course, is Dick Cheney. I have to constantly monitor how Vice Voyeur is pushing the federal government to constantly monitor millions of ordinary Americans' phone calls, e-mail notes and Internet searches.

If you want to know why the Grim Peeper is willing to turn this country into a police state to take his version of democracy to other countries, just do a Google search under "antiterrorism," "government snooping," "overreaching" and "fruitcake."

It was hard to know which story yesterday was scarier: Osama bin Laden, still alive and taunting the U.S., or the Justice Department's trying to force Google to turn over a suspiciously broad array of information on millions of users' searches and Web addresses, supposedly to investigate online crime involving pornography.

The Internet is full of vile diversions, but prying without justification is just as vile. Innocent Americans - not just lonely guys in their boxers - could be swept up in the fishnet dragnet. Who decides what is porn? Will those who Google to find out-of-print copies of Lynne Cheney's juicy, cheesy lesbian Old West novel, "Sisters," be suspect? (The cheapest copy at Alibris.com is $195.)

When Fox News asked him about the fresh Osama audiotape, Mr. Cheney sounded like Mr. Moviefone. "Probably low production values," he said.

Osama may not have graduated to DVD's, but he has stayed alive, despite W.'s threat way back in the era of dial-up connections to smoke him out and hunt him down.

Officials first indicated that the U.S. had killed Ayman al-Zawahiri in a bombing in Pakistan last week - or at least his son-in-law or a friend of his son-in-law, or maybe the guy who delivered a kabob to him. Yesterday, Al Qaeda released a tape of Zawahiri's greatest verse hits - poetry for jihadists - like "Tears in the Eyes of Time." What rhymes with mujahedeen? Antihistamine?

None of the Bushies' actions in defiance of law and convention, none of the money or blood spilled in Iraq, have helped these so-called tough guys get the one guy they really need to get. That is truly galling.

W. and Vice don't even act upset about Osama's still being on the loose. Having played down his significance after they missed their chance to get him in Tora Bora, they continue to act as if it's no big deal when he hurls more threats.

Torquemada Cheney was torturing logic again in a speech to a conservative think tank in New York. "Some have suggested that by liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein, we simply stirred up a hornets' nest," he said. "They overlook a fundamental fact: we were not in Iraq on Sept. 11, 2001, and the terrorists hit us anyway."

Yeah, Dick, because they weren't in Iraq, either.

The fact that federal snoopers are all over reporters, monitoring their phone calls, shows the sorry state of our intelligence. Even F.B.I. agents feel as if they have been wasting their time rummaging through library cards and tracing numbers that turn out to be Pizza Huts.

Maybe they could make an argument that it's worth bending the Constitution into a balloon elephant if we were getting Osama's area code and smashing his connections. We don't even bother to raise the terror alarm anymore when the Qaeda mass murderer releases a tape. The scare-level color code was a more useful tool before the 2004 election.

I just don't get why it's so hard to find Osama. So what if he's in what is often described as "the impossibly rugged mountain terrain" of Pakistan? We send people to the Moon, and W. wants to send someone to Mars. What's more impossibly rugged terrain than that?

If we can brave Big Brother, we could probably find Osama's lair on Google Earth (but not Dick Cheney's - it's censored).

The White House has always seemed less compelled to capture Osama than to use him as a pretext for invading Iraq and as a political selling point. Karl Rove, coming out of his "please don't indict me" crouch, tried to chase away the taint of the Abramoff scandal with a new round of terror-mongering for 2006: "We need a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity of this moment. President Bush and the Republican Party do. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for many Democrats."

So why did the White House set aside the gravest threat of all?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Who Will Stand Up for the Constitution?


"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."-BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

"Those who expect to reap the blessing of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."

Al Gore offered a civics lesson this week for anyone willing to listen. Speaking at Constitution Hall in Washington, the former vice president said:

"As we begin this new year, the executive branch of our government has been caught eavesdropping on huge numbers of American citizens and has brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue without regard to the established law enacted by Congress to prevent such abuses."

Americans do not seem especially concerned about this incredible affront to the integrity of the government and the rule of law. The attitude of a slender majority seems to be that if the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney see fit to dismantle the heretofore sacred system of checks and balances, so be it.

A Washington Post-ABC News Poll showed that 51 percent of respondents felt that in the fight against terror, it's fine for the government to engage in the warrantless wiretapping of telephone calls and e-mail. In other words, it's fine for the president to break the law.

I find it peculiar that an awful lot of Americans who would be outraged by the burning of the American flag are positively sanguine about the trampling of the Constitution.

One of the ugliest aspects of the Bush administration is the outright deceit that is such a major aspect of its modus operandi. Tens of thousands of men, women and children are tragically dead because of the war in Iraq, which was launched from a monstrous superstructure of deceit. Why wouldn't we expect the administration to deceive the public about the illegal spying of the National Security Agency?

As Mr. Gore noted, "During the period when this eavesdropping was still secret, the president went out of his way to reassure the American people on more than one occasion that, of course, judicial permission is required for any government spying on American citizens and that, of course, these constitutional safeguards were still in place."

The president was either lying, or -- I don't know what.

So why is the president illegally spying on Americans when the administration can so easily comply with the law by secretly getting warrants from the terminally compliant court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act?

Clues can be found in a couple of lawsuits seeking to stop the illegal spying that were filed this week by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights. In addition to arguing that the domestic spying program should be shut down because it is illegal, both groups express the fear that the National Security Agency has been spying on individuals who have had nothing whatever to do with terrorism.

That fear was bolstered this week by an article in The Times that said the N.S.A. had all but overwhelmed the F.B.I. with raw tips, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, names - all manner of information - in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Hundreds of F.B.I. agents were required to check out thousands of N.S.A. tips a month.

Citing interviews with current and former officials, the article said that virtually all of the tips "led to dead ends or innocent Americans."

Warrants for domestic eavesdropping were not only easily available, but could even be obtained retroactively. Nevertheless, as Anthony Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U., remarked yesterday, "The president chose to completely disregard the rules of the road."

"That means," said Mr. Romero, "that the N.S.A. has been unleashed in a much broader way on Americans."

In a separate interview yesterday, Bill Goodman, the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, spelled out his belief that the government was using the cover of terror investigations to spy on the private conversations of law-abiding individuals.

"I think they are engaging in surveillance that they don't want even the FISA judges to see. They don't want them looking over their shoulders and seeing that they are doing things like listening in on attorney-client conversations, listening in on journalists talking to their sources, engaging in the kind of Big Brother tactics that will turn this society from a free one into an authoritarian one."

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Looking for a Democratic Tough Guy, or Girl

Looking for a Democratic Tough Guy, or Girl

The Democrats were throwing haymakers at the White House this week, but they will never succeed as long as they're perceived as the party in skirts.

Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton called the Bush administration on its apparently bottomless store of imperial sins. They made a lot of good points. They just didn't score any.

This trio, apparently jockeying for '08, are not the best messengers. They're loaded down with baggage.

Two of them, who could have stopped W. and Dick Cheney before they undid 230 years of American democracy, didn't, because they allowed themselves to be painted as girlie men. The other, a manly girl, has been so cautious and opportunistic about weighing in on everything from Schiavo to Alito and Iraq that when she finally sang out on Monday and railed against W., she sounded more soprano than basso profundo.

It was easy for the Republicans to play their usual gender games and dismiss the three Democrats as whiny, shrill and ineffectual.

After Mr. Gore and Senator Clinton went on the attack, Scott McClellan rebutted: "I think we know one tends to like or enjoy grabbing headlines. The other one - sounds like that the political season may be starting early." He rubbed Mr. Gore's nose in the fact that he is not the president fighting the terrorists, noting: "If he wants to be the voice for Democrats on this debate over national security, we welcome it."

To lead, and not just conduct campaigns that parrot the liberal elite's editorial pages, you have to shape your own identity and political destiny. And ever since the 2000 race, the Democrats have let Republicans caricature them as effeminate. The Democrats have let the G.O.P. give them their shape, and it's an hourglass.

There are moments in campaigns and policy debates when it's possible to knock the sword out of your opponent's hand. Al Gore and John Kerry whiffed. Mr. Kerry and Senator Clinton held the president's coat as he rushed to war.

This all allowed the Bushies to use 9/11 as a shield and a bludgeon. They made their own rules and cast themselves as renegade heroes.

If the Democrats are like the dithering "Desperate Housewives," the Republicans have come across like the counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer on "24": fast with a gun, loose with the law, willing to torture in the name of protecting the nation. Except Jack Bauer is competent.

The Democrats' chronic impotence led to the Republicans' reign of incompetence.

U.S. News & World Report features a menacing Dick Cheney - looking like a man who just swallowed a country - on the cover this week, with the headline "Tough Guy."

The story recounts how Mr. Cheney, as Bush I's defense secretary, derided lawmakers as "a bunch of annoying gnats." Maybe that's why he doesn't feel the need to pay attention to those silly little laws they make.

How many things do you have to mess up in the country and the world before you lose your reputation for machismo?

Al Gore, belatedly perhaps, made an uncharacteristically bold move. He made the completely valid point that "the president of the United States has been breaking the law, repeatedly and insistently."

"To eavesdrop on American citizens without a warrant, imprison American citizens on his own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can't he do?" he told an audience on Monday, denouncing Bush's power grab. He warned Republicans that they should be wary of setting these extralegal precedents because someday a leader with values abhorrent to them could put all that power to use.

Mr. Cheney, lumbering around in unreality, continues to be unapologetic as the chorus of Democratic complaints gets louder. Above the law is exactly where he wants to be. Even when he can easily - and retroactively - get snooping warrants, he doesn't want their stinking warrants. Warrants are for sissies.

"When we get all through 10 years from now," he told U.S. News, "we'll look back on this period of time and see that liberating 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq really did represent a major, fundamental shift, obviously, in U.S. policy in terms of how we dealt with the emerging terrorist threat - and that we'll also have fundamentally changed circumstances in that part of the world."

Yeah. But not necessarily for the better. Whatever else you can say about the Bush crowd, they stick to their guns, even when they can't shoot straight.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Gee, Bankruptcy Never Looked So Good


IF executive pay is out of control across America - and who would argue that it isn't? - then the compensation being paid to managers running companies in bankruptcy nowadays can only be described as insanity squared.

First came the outrageous sums sought by executives at Delphi, the troubled auto parts marker, even as they asked company workers and other stakeholders to endure huge cuts. Then, last Thursday, unsecured creditors and executives at the UAL Corporation, parent of United Airlines, agreed to a deal in which 400 executives stand to share an astonishing 10 million shares, or 8 percent of the total that the company expects to issue upon its emergence from bankruptcy. As in the Delphi case, this share grab - worth an estimated $115 million - comes after other UAL stakeholders have been asked to make severe sacrifices.

When the UAL deal was announced, it was spun as evidence that the company's managers were exercising restraint. A previous plan, after all, had called for executives to divvy up 10 million shares now and 8.75 million later. Don't ready the poorhouse for these folks, however. Only in corporate America, circa 2006, can executives agreeing to a 47 percent cut in pay still fare so spectacularly.

Bankruptcy experts say that outsized pay at troubled companies is a new and disturbing trend. "Chapter 11 was traditionally about sharing the pain," said Elizabeth Warren, a professor at Harvard Law School who specializes in bankruptcy, "but now it is more a game of feast and famine - starving the shareholders and creditors while the management team grows fat on big salaries."

How fat? Annual salaries for the top eight UAL executives, for example, will total $3.5 million after the company exits bankruptcy, according to court filings. On top of that are target bonuses, at levels equal to 55 percent to 100 percent of salary, depending upon the executive involved.

Glenn F. Tilton, UAL's chief executive, will receive a base salary of $605,625 and a target bonus equal to that amount, the filings state. This is on top of $4.5 million he has received in benefits as part of a pension agreement and a $3 million signing bonus.

Then there are retention payments of $1.39 million earmarked for seven top executives, excluding Mr. Tilton. UAL will pay club dues of $16,520 for two executives as well.


But it is the plan's stock compensation component that Brian Foley, an executive pay expert in White Plains, finds so remarkable. Not only is it rich, it is immediate. Mr. Tilton, for example, is in line to receive 822,000 options, valued at around $9 each, and 545,000 restricted shares, estimated to be worth $15 each. Awards to other UAL executives are a similar combination of restricted stock and options.


The heavy emphasis on the restricted shares under the plan increases the pay package's value, Mr. Foley said. Because options will generate gains for the executives only if the underlying stock rises, they are not as valuable as restricted shares, which have a clear value from Day 1. For that reason, Mr. Foley said, compensation experts estimate that each restricted share is equal to three stock options.

Therefore, he said, the UAL package of options and restricted stock is equivalent to a stake of around 14 percent of the company's outstanding shares for executives if options alone were used.

Mr. Foley also noted that the 8 percent stake to be received by UAL executives exceeds what was described as "reasonable" by Towers Perrin, the compensation consultant employed by the company, in court filings last fall. Those filings show Towers Perrin concluding that a reasonable stake of new shares to be received by executives ranged from 3.5 percent to 7.5 percent of stock issued.

"I don't know how they got to a potential spend of 8 percent," Mr. Foley said. "And there is nothing in the documents to preclude them from going to shareholders immediately after emergence and saying now we need a new stock plan" that bestows more options and restricted stock on executives.

According to Jean Medina, a UAL spokeswoman, Towers Perrin noted in another report it filed with the court that "the plan, which has since been reduced, was both reasonable and appropriate for United's situation."

So what's another half a percent among friends?

The vesting period of the pay plan is also remarkably short, Mr. Foley said. According to the court filings, 20 percent of the stock grants will vest after six months, another 20 percent after one year and 20 percent in each of the following three years.

Ms. Medina said in a statement: "We believe, and the official committee of unsecured creditors, which represents our creditors and unions, agreed, that this program was appropriate to enable United to attract and retain top performers. It's in everyone's interests for management to have this component of management compensation tied to the future performance of United's stock price."

Ms. Warren of Harvard said a trend of excessive pay for officials at bankrupt companies is a troubling result of the lack of pushback from other stakeholders. "The lawyers and management team are running the show," she said. "Shareholders are out of the picture and creditors are often unsure about the overall financial stability of the company. That is a perfect set of circumstances for the management to extract much higher compensation than they would get if other people were competing for those management jobs."

Mr. Foley agreed. "The basic concern here is that the players don't seem to discipline themselves as much as they should and the external forces aren't executing any braking power," he said. "And the courts don't seem to hold people as accountable as they should."

Mr. Foley said he was also surprised that Towers Perrin apparently advised both management and the board, and wondered if another consultant would have recommended the same pay package to the board. The court overseeing the UAL bankruptcy is expected to rule on the compensation plan on Tuesday. Got your airsickness bag handy?

Is Abramoff the New Monica?


THERE'S nothing this White House loves more than pictures that tell a story - a fictional story. And so another mission was accomplished when President Bush posed with the 13 past secretaries of state and defense he hustled into the Oval Office 10 days ago: he could pretend to consult on Iraq with sages of all political stripes - Madeleine Albright, yet - even if the actual give-and-take, all 5 to 10 minutes of it, was as substantive as the scripted "Ask the President" town hall meetings of the 2004 campaign.

But this White House, cunning as it is, can't control all the pictures all the time. That photo op was quickly followed by Time's Jack Abramoff cover and its specter of other images more inopportune than op. Mr. Bush's aides, the magazine reported, were busy "trying to identify all the photos that may exist of the two men together." Translation: Could a Bush-Abramoff money shot as iconic as Monica on the rope line be lurking somewhere for a Time cover still to come?

This much is certain: 1) The Abramoff scandal, so far anyway, boasts plenty of cigars but no sex. 2) It has almost everything else, including the "Miami Vice"-style rub-out of a Florida casino-cruise-ship mogul who'd had contentious business dealings with Mr. Abramoff. Not without reason is the White House on a frantic search-and-destroy mission to root out any potential embarrassments. Mr. Bush's expert stage managers are smart enough to know that this scandal may metastasize from a cancer on Congress to a cancer on the Republican Party in general and this presidency in particular.

Washington's jaded conventional wisdom will tell you otherwise. It says that Mr. Abramoff's bribing of congressmen to do his clients' bidding is the same old generic Capitol Hill scandal dating to Grant and Harding, differing only in the sheer scale of the numbers (of politicians implicated, of moolah changing hands). The many conservative pundits now deploring Tom DeLay take a similarly reductive line. "Washington power can corrupt absolutely," explained the Wall Street Journal editorial page while bemoaning that "people like Mr. Abramoff" came "to Washington to clean up Washington" and then were corrupted by the capital's evil ways. The DeLay Republicans, you see, are merely repeating the history of the decadent, power-fattened Democrats who preceded them, most especially Jim Wright, the speaker of the House who resigned in 1989.

If it's all Washington's fault, of course, it's not the G.O.P.'s fault; the scandal can be quarantined to a few (or a dozen) bad apples who were seduced by a lobbyist's skyboxes and not-so-petty Indian casino cash. But that theory of the case conveniently denies the quarter-century-old provenance of Mr. Abramoff. This scandal's particular greedy, power-crazed ethos wasn't created by Washington - it was imported to Washington by him and two pals destined to rise to the top of the G.O.P. establishment, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist. These ruthless three musketeers first converged in the College Republicans hierarchy in the early 1980's, long before they obtained the Washington power that could corrupt them (and years before the Wright scandal).

They preached a take-no-prisoners strategy and a specific ideology - do away with taxes, privatize government, free business from any regulation - that changed Washington far more than Washington changed them. Their triumph can be found everywhere today, from Halliburton's no-bid contracts in Iraq to the K Street project, a Norquist-championed and DeLay-sanctioned operation to intimidate corporations with business before Congress into hiring exclusively Republican lobbyists like Mr. Abramoff.

But it's not only the genealogy of the Abramoff scandal that separates it from its predecessors. So does the distinctive odor of its possible criminality. In its financial shenanigans and some of its personnel, the Abramoff affair doesn't so much echo Teapot Dome as the business scandal that engulfed Mr. Bush's former No. 1 corporate patron, Enron, in our new century. The Abramoff scandal's pious trappings are sui generis as well. They adhere to the Karl Rove playbook that wraps every hardball White House tactic in godliness and exploits "faith based" organizations as political machines to deliver the G.O.P.'s religious right base.

To see these similarities and synergies you don't need to know the difference between the Choctaws and the Marianas. Look instead at the Alexander Strategy Group, the lobbying outfit that is ground zero for the scandal (and that went kaput last week). Founded by Mr. DeLay's former chief of staff and personal pastor, an evangelical minister named Edwin Buckham, its early big client was Enron. And like Enron, which laundered money through sham financial entities with "Star Wars" names like Chewco and JEDI, it benefited from a shell organization with a fanciful, albeit faith-based, name: the U.S. Family Network.

The U.S. Family Network was formed by Mr. Buckham on the side, ostensibly as a grass-roots advocacy organization to promote, among other virtues, "moral fitness." As The Washington Post discovered last month, its financial backers were amoral, favor-seeking Abramoff associates, from casino operators to Russian oil businessmen. The U.S. Family Network's contribution to moral fitness and U.S. families, meanwhile, was close to nil - except for the DeLay family. The Post reported that hundreds of thousands of the network's dollars were siphoned into Mr. Buckham's lobbying shop, which in turn put Mr. DeLay's wife on salary. U.S. Family money also purchased a Washington town house used by Mr. DeLay for fund-raising. Enron's Andrew Fastow couldn't have drawn up a more imaginative flow chart for distributing dubious gains to a favored few on the q.t.

The U.S. Family Network was only one of several phantom Enron-style shams spawned or fronted by Mr. DeLay, Mr. Abramoff or their sometimes clerical cronies, from Celebrations for Children (a "charity" whose good works remain a mystery) to the American International Center (a "think tank" manned by a lifeguard in Rehoboth Beach, Del.). The Capital Athletic Foundation, supposedly set up to provide sports programs for needy urban kids, underwrote a 2002 golf outing to Scotland for Mr. Abramoff, Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, Ralph Reed (an Enron consultant in his post-Christian Coalition days) and David Safavian, the Bush administration's top procurement official, who resigned in September just before being indicted on charges of lying and obstruction of justice in the Abramoff investigation.

Abramoff & Company pursued a "careful cultivation of relations with Bush's political team as far back as 1997," according to The Associated Press. One contact was J. Steven Griles, a mining industry lobbyist who, topically enough, tried to weaken mine regulation during his government tenure as No. 2 in Mr. Bush's Interior Department. The department also handles Indian affairs, but Mr. Griles has said he does not "recall intervening on behalf of Mr. Abramoff's clients ever" when in government.

Mr. Abramoff himself served on the Interior Department's transition team after the 2000 election. Perhaps it's this steady drip of revelations, including those about his White House access as a "Pioneer" delivering at least $100,000 to the Bush campaign, that has frightened the administration into suddenly speaking out about the scandal. Scott McClellan is now also using that helpful verb recall - as in the president does not "recall" ever meeting Mr. Abramoff (an artful dodge if photos surface). Mr. Bush has disingenuously explained that the lobbyist had been an "equal money dispenser" to those "in both political parties." (To both, yes, but never equally.)

If this all sounds a little familiar, that's because it replays the White House game plan after the Enron meltdown. Mr. Bush then suggested that he had inherited his relationship with Ken Lay from Ann Richards, his Democratic predecessor as Texas governor, and suddenly took to referring to the backer he had once nicknamed Kenny Boy as Mr. Lay. You'd never guess that Enron brass had helped pay Mr. Bush's campaign expenses for the Florida recount, contributed $300,000 to the inaugural gala and attended four meetings of Dick Cheney's secret energy task force.

As fate would have it, the court appearances of Mr. Lay, Mr. DeLay, Jeff Skilling, Mr. Safavian and Mr. Abramoff could all overlap on 24/7 cable in the months ahead. There will surely be much talk of God along the way. Mr. DeLay's pastor, Mr. Buckham, and Mr. Reed were not the only prayerful players in the Abramoff casino. So were the Rev. "Lucky Louie" Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition and the right-wing Rabbi Daniel Lapin, whose Toward Tradition organization received a $25,000 check (in all innocence, we're told) from the Abramoff client eLottery. In 2002, the good rabbi welcomed the lobbyist onto the board of his American Alliance of Jews and Christians, along with Jerry Falwell and the man who loves Israel literally to death, Pat Robertson.

In between Mr. Abramoff's guilty pleas in Washington and Florida, he let it be known that he was busy writing Torah commentary. What is the inspiration for all this religiosity? Though raised by an unobservant family, Mr. Abramoff has said that he resolved to become an Orthodox Jew at the age of 12 after seeing "Fiddler on the Roof." Now that he's ratting on all his cronies to reduce his own sentence, they, too, will learn what it means to journey from the vainglorious fantasies of "If I Were a Rich Man" to the hard time of "Sunrise, Sunset."

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Wiretappers That Couldn't Shoot Straight


ALMOST two weeks before The New York Times published its scoop about our government's extralegal wiretapping, the cable network Showtime blew the whole top-secret shebang. In its mini-series "Sleeper Cell," about Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in Los Angeles, the cell's ringleader berates an underling for chatting about an impending operation during a phone conversation with an uncle in Egypt. "We can only pray that the N.S.A. is not listening," the leader yells at the miscreant, who is then stoned for his blabbing.

If fictional terrorists concocted by Hollywood can figure out that the National Security Agency is listening to their every call, guess what? Real-life terrorists know this, too. So when a hyperventilating President Bush rants that the exposure of his warrant-free wiretapping in a newspaper is shameful and puts "our citizens at risk" by revealing our espionage playbook, you have to wonder what he is really trying to hide. Our enemies, as America has learned the hard way, are not morons. Even if Al Qaeda hasn't seen "Sleeper Cell" because it refuses to spring for pay cable, it has surely assumed from the get-go that the White House would ignore legal restraints on eavesdropping, just as it has on detainee jurisprudence and torture.

That the White House's over-the-top outrage about the Times scoop is a smokescreen contrived to cover up something else is only confirmed by Dick Cheney's disingenuousness. In last week's oration at a right-wing think tank, he defended warrant-free wiretapping by saying it could have prevented the 9/11 attacks. Really? Not with this administration in charge. On 9/10 the N.S.A. (lawfully) intercepted messages in Arabic saying, "The match is about to begin," and, "Tomorrow is zero hour." You know the rest. Like all the chatter our government picked up during the president's excellent brush-clearing Crawford vacation of 2001, it was relegated to mañana; the N.S.A. didn't rouse itself to translate those warnings until 9/12.

Given that the reporters on the Times story, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, wrote that nearly a dozen current and former officials had served as their sources, there may be more leaks to come, and not just to The Times. Sooner or later we'll find out what the White House is really so defensive about.

Perhaps it's the obvious: the errant spying ensnared Americans talking to Americans, not just Americans talking to jihadists in Afghanistan. In a raw interview transcript posted on MSNBC's Web site last week - and quickly seized on by John Aravosis of AmericaBlog - the NBC News foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell asked Mr. Risen if he knew whether the CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour might have been wiretapped. (Mr. Risen said, "I hadn't heard that.") Surely a pro like Ms. Mitchell wasn't speculating idly. NBC News, which did not broadcast this exchange and later edited it out of the Web transcript, said Friday it was still pursuing the story.

If the Bush administration did indeed eavesdrop on American journalists and political opponents (Ms. Amanpour's husband, Jamie Rubin, was a foreign policy adviser to the Kerry campaign), it's déjà Watergate all over again. But even now we can see that there's another, simpler - and distinctly Bushian - motive at play here, hiding in plain sight.

That motive is not, as many liberals would have it, a simple ideological crusade to gut the Bill of Rights. Real conservatives, after all, are opposed to Big Brother; even the staunch Bush ally Grover Norquist has criticized the N.S.A.'s overreaching. The highest priority for the Karl Rove-driven presidency is instead to preserve its own power at all costs. With this gang, political victory and the propaganda needed to secure it always trump principles, even conservative principles, let alone the truth. Whenever the White House most vociferously attacks the press, you can be sure its No. 1 motive is to deflect attention from embarrassing revelations about its incompetence and failures.

That's why Paul Wolfowitz, in a 2004 remark for which he later apologized, dismissed reporting on the raging insurgency in Iraq as "rumors" he attributed to a Baghdad press corps too "afraid to travel." That's also why the White House tried in May to blame lethal anti-American riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan on a single erroneous Newsweek item about Koran desecration - as if 200-odd words in an American magazine could take the fall for the indelible photos from Abu Ghraib.

Such is the blame-shifting game Mr. Cheney was up to last week. By dragging 9/11 into his defense of possibly unconstitutional bugging, he was hoping to rewrite history to absolve the White House of its bungling. And no wonder. He knows all too well that the timing of Mr. Bush's signing of the secret executive order to initiate the desperate tactic of warrant-free N.S.A. eavesdropping - early 2002, according to Mr. Risen's new book, "State of War" - is nothing if not a giant arrow pointing to one of the administration's most catastrophic failures. It was only weeks earlier, in December 2001, that we had our best crack at nailing Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora and blew it.

What went down that fateful December is recalled in particularly gripping fashion in a just published book, "Jawbreaker," which, like Mr. Risen's book, is rising on the best-seller list at an inopportune moment for this White House. "Jawbreaker" is the self-told story of a veteran clandestine officer, Gary Berntsen, who was the pivotal C.I.A. field commander in the hunt for bin Laden. Mr. Berntsen is a fervent Bush loyalist, but his honest account doesn't do the president any favors. "We needed U.S. soldiers on the ground!" he writes, to "block a possible Al Qaeda escape into Afghanistan!" But his request to Centcom for 800 Army Rangers to do the job went unheeded.

We don't know whether the Bush order relaxing legal controls on the N.S.A. was in part a Hail Mary pass to help compensate for that disaster. Either way, all the subsequent wiretaps in the world have not brought bin Laden back dead or alive. Though the White House says that its warrantless surveillance has saved lives by stopping other terrorists since then, Mr. Bush has exaggerated victories against Al Qaeda as often as he has the battle-readiness of Iraqi troops. After he claimed in an October speech that America and its allies had foiled 10 Qaeda plots since 9/11, USA Today reported that "at least" 6 of the 10 had been preliminary ideas for attacks rather than actual planned attacks.

The louder the reports of failures on this president's watch, the louder he tries to drown them out by boasting that he has done everything "within the law" to keep America safe and by implying that his critics are unpatriotic, if not outright treasonous. Mr. Bush certainly has good reason to pump up the volume now. In early December the former 9/11 commissioners gave the federal government a report card riddled with D's and F's on terrorism preparedness.

The front line of defense against terrorism is supposed to be the three-year-old, $40-billion-a-year Homeland Security Department, but news of its ineptitude, cronyism and no-bid contracts has only grown since Katrina. The Washington Post reported that one Transportation Security Administration contract worth up to $463 million had gone to a brand-new company that (coincidentally, we're told) contributed $122,000 to a powerful Republican congressman, Harold Rogers of Kentucky. An independent audit by the department's own inspector general, largely unnoticed during Christmas week, found everything from FEMA to border control in some form of disarray.

Yet even as this damning report was released, the president forced cronies into top jobs in immigration enforcement and state and local preparedness with recess appointments that bypassed Congressional approval. Last week the department had the brilliance to leave Las Vegas off its 2006 list of 35 "high threat" urban areas - no doubt because Mohammed Atta was so well behaved there when plotting the 9/11 attacks.

THE warrantless eavesdropping is more of the same incompetence. Like our physical abuse of detainees and our denial of their access to due process, this flouting of the law may yet do as much damage to fighting the war on terrorism as it does to civil liberties. As the First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus wrote in The Huffington Post, every defense lawyer representing a terrorism suspect charged in the four years since Mr. Bush's N.S.A. decree can challenge the legality of the prosecution's evidence. "The entire criminal process will be brought to a standstill," Mr. Garbus explains, as the government refuses to give the courts information on national security grounds, inviting the dismissal of entire cases, and judges "up and down the appellate ladder" issue conflicting rulings.

Far from "bringing justice to our enemies," as Mr. Bush is fond of saying, he may once again be helping them escape the way he did at Tora Bora. The president who once promised to bring a "culture of responsibility" to Washington can and will blame The Times and the rest of the press for his failures. But maybe, if only for variety's sake, the moment has come to find a new scapegoat. I nominate Showtime.

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