Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Book Review: "Fatal Purity"

Cambridge University historian Ruth Scurr's first book might be one of the most gruesome biographies I've ever read. Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution is the tale of Maximilien Robespierre, "The Incorruptible" - one of the foremost leaders of the Revolution which would ultimately condemn even him to death.

The French Revolution is a subject I am not particularly familiar with, but having spent last semester in a graduate seminar on its American counterpart, I thought this book would at least prove interesting. It was that, and much more. Scurr has woven together an excellent narrative on the life and times of Robespierre, focusing necessarily and appropriately on the Revolutionary years. This is not a book for the squeamish - after about page 60 at least one person is put to death with every turn of the page (I exaggerate, but only slightly). It provides a fascinating comparison to the revolution in America, whose leaders somehow managed not to start chopping off each others' heads once they'd won.

I had very few quibbles with this book; I do wish that Scurr had discussed in more depth the impact of America's struggle on the French revolutionaries, but I'll set that aside. On the whole, I really enjoyed this biography of a deeply principled yet somehow just-as-deeply unlikeable man. For the casual reader of biographies, this is highly recommended; for those interested in a deeper understanding of the difficulties and trials of the French Revolution and the people who made it, I recommend Fatal Purity just as highly.

Al Gore on "Fresh Air"

Since one of the jobs I'm working this summer involves much staring at a computer screen and very little human contact (yes, it's making me slightly insane) I have been listening to a great deal of streaming NPR. Today I caught up with an interview Terry Gross did with Al Gore yesterday on "Fresh Air." It's quite a good exchange, and once again I have to ask, where was this Al Gore six years ago??

Paulson: Impressive Choice (at least so far)

I have to say, I'm pretty pleased with President Bush's choice to replace John Snow at the Treasury Department. Not only does he have significant experience with Wall Street, but he also has a track record as a deficit hawk (something really needed in this White House) and (near and dear to my heart) is a committed advocate for the environment (he chairs the Nature Conservancy and is an active birdwatcher, among other things - another point of view that this Administration could use a good dose of).

The LATimes article on Paulson today calls him "the bird-watching businessman," and notes that several right-wing groups immediately released statements worrying that the environmentalists were going to have "too much access" if Paulson is confirmed. The Times piece notes that his "brand of Republicanism recalls both the open-plains enthusiasm of Theodore Roosevelt and the pragmatism of Richard Nixon."

Now, things could change, of course - skeletons could be found, and this early expression of support should not be taken as a complete endorsement of his confirmation (yet). But so far, I like what I see. I think Paulson brings some much-needed qualities to the table, and some sorely-needed outsider (and outside) perspective.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

What's this Unity08 Thing?

I was going to write up a post this afternoon about a new effort just launched called Unity08. But Amba beat me to it, and her post is much better than mine would have been, so I'm just going to point you over there.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Book Review: "The Book of Lost Books"

British book critic Stuart Kelly took a wonderfully good idea and has turned it into mush. Perhaps it was because my expectations for The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read were so high that I was so disappointed in this book. Kelly's aim is a good one; he writes in the introduction that the book is "an alternative history of literature, an epitaph and a wake, a hypothetical library and an elergy to what might have been." I was looking forward to a fascinating compendium of works of literature that have been lost to history.

What I got instead was what the book perhaps ought to have been titled: The Book of Authors, Some of Whose Works Have been Lost. Kelly focuses far too much on the biographical details of the authors he chooses to highlight, and not nearly enough on their lost works. While his sketches of their lives are well-written and quite interesting, there were several occasions where I had to re-read an essay two or three times before I discovered what exactly had gone missing.

This is a good start, and hopefully Kelly's effort will encourage other literary scholars to examine this area of their field more closely. I hope that future endeavors will be better executed.

Happy Memorial Day

For Memorial Day, I wanted to pass along a document that I have always found particularly stirring on this occasion. It is General Order No. 11, issued by Gen. John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, on May 5, 1868.

Headquarters, Grand Army of the Republic
Washington, D.C., May 5, 1868

I. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.

If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation's gratitude,--the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.

II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.

By command of:
JOHN A. LOGAN,
Commander-in-Chief.

N. P. CHIPMAN,
Adjutant-General.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Senate Passes Immigration Bill; Now the Real Right Begins

[Note: Title is supposed to be "Fight Begins," not "Right Begins"]

Yesterday evening the Senate passed a comprehensive overhaul of American immigration policy in a remarkable bipartisan vote after lengthy debate, discussion, amendment and negotiation. The final tally was 62-36, with 23 Republicans joining 38 Democrats and Jim Jeffords (I-VT) to approve the bill. This is, for the Senate, one of its greatest achievements of the year, and is testament to the kind of workable solution that can emerge if compromise and comity are allowed to function.

Now, however, the bill faces conference with the House. I have no doubt that it would pass almost intact if submitted directly for approval; a bipartisan coalition similar in ratio to that in the Senate would almost certainly vote in favor of the bill as it stands. However, the House leadership has instituted a "majority of the majority" rule, meaning that a majority of the Republican caucus must support a given bill before the leadership will allow it to come to the floor. This prevents the kind of bipartisan cooperation that we saw yesterday in the Senate (as the WaPo points out today, if this rule were in effect in the Senate, the bill would have died), and will probably result in changes to the bill which will eliminate its comprehensive nature and probably weaken it substantially.

President Bush has an opportunity here to provide a lasting legacy for himself on this important issue. He could work as a uniter (what a concept) - and not just of Republicans - by urging the House leadership to drop its misguided "majority of the majority" rule and allow the Senate bill to be debated. However (and most unfortunately) there is no reason at this point in his presidency why the House leadership should listen to Mr. Bush, and no reason to believe that they will. He has squandered his opportunity to lead through his actions of the last six years, and even an all-out campaign from him on this seems insufficient to change the way his Administration has acted in the past.

I am hopeful that perhaps an agreement can be reached somehow that will preserve the major aspects of the Senate bill (border security, guest worker program, eventual path to citizenship). But I am also realistic, and I am afraid that the prospects at this stage seem very grim indeed. Congratulations to the Senate on a job well done, however - we saw republican government (that's small-r republican) government at its best yesterday.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

More from Eilperin: Redistricting

Just wanted to add a bit to the short post I did yesterday on the Juliet Eilperin "Fresh Air" interview, some excerpts from the transcript where she discusses redistricting.

"TERRY GROSS: You know, earlier you were talking about how you think not only has Congress become more polarized but the parties, particularly the Republicans, have become more extreme. And you talked a little bit about how loyalty tests and the whole reward-and-punishment system from the party leadership is kind of squeezing out moderates. You say that redistricting has also squeezed out moderates. In what way?

JULIET EILPERIN: Redistricting has a huge impact on how members of Congress vote. Essentially what you've had happen in recent decades is with frankly advances in technology, map makers have become much more sophisticated in terms of figuring out where Democrats and Republicans live. And shaping districts so that they can have overwhelmingly safe Democratic districts or overwhelmingly safe Republican districts. And what this does is, again, gives an edge for the people on the extreme edge of the ideological spectrum. If you have an overwhelmingly Democratic district, as a member of Congress running for office, all you care about is pleasing the most liberal members of your constituency. And vice versa for Republicans. And we've seen this happen time and time again where they create districts where members of Congress worry much more about competition in their primary election than on the general election. And as a result, the men and women who are coming to Washington tend to be much more extreme because they're really worried about a thin segment of the population but it's the segment of the population that's over-represented in their congressional districts.

GROSS: You know, one thing that I really don't comprehend is why is it that it's people from the parties who actually draw up the maps in redistricting?

EILPERIN: That's an excellent question.

GROSS: I mean, you would think that it would be impartial observers who would be, you know, looking at population change and redrawing the map. But it's not that way.

EILPERIN: There's a blatant conflict of interest there. And it's amazing that it doesn't get challenged more often. But, you know, that's the way it is in many states. There are exceptions to it. For example, one of the ideas I talk about is expanding on the New Jersey model, which is a bipartisan commission so you have Republicans and Democrats involved in the process. But then you have an independent tie-breaker in the case of New Jersey. They tend to go with an academic who tries to rein in the more extreme elements, and essentially both parties have to try and please this independent tie-breaker in order to come with the fair results.

Again, there are a few states that do have either independent commissions or bipartisan commissions. But for the bulk of states in the United States, the way it works is that you have legislatures or partisans who are doing it. And, again, for example, there is someone named David Winston, and he's a consultant here in town. And he's helped draw House districts for years. And he said, `When I as a map maker have more influence over an election than a candidate or a campaign, the system is out of whack.'"

For my prior Redistricting Watch posts, see here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Book Review: "Book by Book"

A brief divergence from the historical/political books this week (I read the latest John Dunning mystery and Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister over the weekend), to comment on book critic Michael Dirda's newest work, Book by Book. A useful little collection of quotes, short essays, lists and commentary, this book will find a happy home on my shelves, and I look forward to re-reading it many times in the future.

Dirda, a longtime writer for the Washington Post's book review, has compiled a sort of literary hodgepodge, an interesting and witty blend of advice column, self-help manual, book review, and critique of modern society's obsession with best-sellers and video games (not the same segment of society, necessarily). While some of his comments ("brush and floss") seem a bit misplaced, I fully appreciate his views on reading (particularly reading to children, piquing and allowing their interests to flourish).

Good Interview on "Fresh Air"

Yesterday on NPR's "Fresh Air," Terry Gross interviewed former WaPo congressional correspondent Juliet Eilperin, who's just written the book Fight Club Politics. It's quite a good interview discussing the precipitous changes in partisan rancor in the House of Representatives in recent years; you can listen to the whole thing here. It covers things that I write about frequently, including redistricting, the troublesome "majority of the majority rule", and various other interesting topics. Recommended listening (and I'm going to have to find the book as well).

Just Don't Come Near Our Offices

Carl Hulse's must-read piece in the NYTimes today is remarkable, if only for its uncanny overtones of the Martin Niemoller "First they came" poem. After its record of near-total acquiescence with Administration demands and applications of "executive authority" for the last five and a half years, the legislative branch finally has gotten its dander up - over an FBI raid into the offices of a House member (even one who had $90,000 stashed in his freezer).

Hulse: "Lawmakers and outside analysts said that while the execution of a warrant on a Congressional office might be surprising — this appears to be the first time it has happened — it fit the Bush administration's pattern of asserting broad executive authority, sometimes at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches."

I somehow doubt this incident is going to revive the prerogative of Congress to actually do something in the face of creeping executive power, but hey, maybe it's a baby step in the right direction.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Clinton Talks Like a Centrist at Cooper Union

Hotline On Call has the full text of former president Clinton's speech at Cooper Union's commencement today. Quite an interesting and - if I may say so - good speech. Some excerpts follow:

"Too often in the past twenty-five years our elections and political discourse have been marked by the triumph of personal attacks, baseless or irrelevant assertions, and blind ideology over evidence argument. Too often the purpose of an election has been to concentrate wealth and power by dividing the public and diverting our attention away from pressing problems to matters that excite deep political passions but that will take up less than 1% of a candidate's time if he or she is elected.

But all the attacks, accusations, and ideological diatribes cannot make the facts go away. They matter. So do thinking, reasoning, and honest respectful arguing, especially when the problems and solutions are complex.

... The great challenge of the 21st century is to build up the positive force of interdependence and reduce the negative ones, and in so doing, to build more integrated communities, locally, nationally, globally. Integrated communities require three things: shared responsibilities, shared opportunities, and shared values - everyone deserves a chance and has a responsible role to play; competition is good but we do better when we work together; are differences matters, making life more interesting and the search for answers more promising, but our common humanity matters more.

... [P]olitics and government remain profoundly important. We cannot hope to move from the present unequal and unstable state of interdependence to integrated national and global communities if we continue to fight elections on narrow grounds, with tactics assured to produce more heat than light, and to divide us into warring camps, incapable of principled compromise.

I believe the American people know this. The deep yearning for a larger, unifying politics explains at least in part the strong positive reaction former President Bush and I have received for our work together in the aftermath of the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. It explains why lawmakers like my wife and Senator McCain are trying to find common ground on climate change, and why Hillary has reached out to Republicans as well as Democrats to find common solutions to our healthcare problem, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the needs of our men and women in uniform."

Monday, May 22, 2006

Some Quick Links

I will be back on top of things sometime later today or tomorrow, but this weekend was a whirlwind and traveling back to Boston last night tired me out, so I've got just a few links this morning and then it'll be back to business.

- Our family's party made front-page news in Saturday's Oneonta Daily Star. It was a wonderful party (if not quite a beautiful day), and a great celebration of family, history, and many good friends.

- Chuck Schumer is writing a book.

- Bush & Co. think the midterm elections are the best way to "salvage his presidency," reports the Washington Post.

- Will NYTimes reports be prosecuted for publishing information about the warrantless eavesdrop program? AG Gonzales said Sunday "There are some statutes on the book which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility." He added "We are engaged now in an investigation about what would be the appropriate course of action in that particular case, so I'm not going to talk about it specifically."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Happy Achievement

Tomorrow morning I travel west from Boston home to upstate New York, where I will join three hundred or so family members and friends on Saturday in celebration of the 15oth anniversary of Brooksvale Farms, a family operation currently run by my grandfather, my two uncles, their wives (one of whom painted the beautiful new barn-sign at the top of this post), and my cousins. The land for the farm was purchased back in 1856 by my grandfather's great-grandfather William Brooks, and there have been Brooks children (and grandchildren) there ever since.

I grew up just down the road from the farm, and spent many wonderful days there throughout my childhood and beyond. Whether it was gathering maple sap in the spring and sitting up late on March nights watching it boiled down into syrup (fantastic on fresh snow, by the way), or chasing heifers from pasture to pasture, or picking potatoes in the fall, or just wandering the woods with my grandfather or cousins, there was always some fun to be had, or stories to be told, or work to be done.

It's a tough business these days, family farming. It's always been hard work (to put it mildly), but in today's world of competition from factory farms and the high costs of, well, just about everything, it's not easy to keep small farms afloat. It takes alot of blood, sweat, tears, and ingenuity, which is what makes me even prouder of the accomplishments of my family. They are the smartest, most caring, most wonderful people I have ever had the privilege to know, and I am so very glad I'll be able to spend some time with them this weekend enjoying some great food, great memories, and great company in one of the best places on earth.

It Ain't Easy Being an Incumbent

Based on Tuesday's primary results, the WaPo suggests 2006 may not be a good year for incumbent politicians. I'm inclined to agree.

Cool Link

Ah, the wonders of modern technology. CQPolitics has released a really neat 2006 Election Forecast Map, which takes a look at House, Senate and gubernatorial races for the fall and offers stats, news, and projections for each. If they can keep this updated in a reasonably timely fashion, it will be a very handy tool in a couple months. Check it out.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Book Review: Unspeak

The subtitle of British journalist Steven Poole's new book Unspeak (Grove Press, 2006) almost says it all: "How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How The Message Becomes Reality." In the tradition of George Orwell's wonderful and trenchant 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," (and, more recently, Stephen Colbert's concept of "truthiness"), Poole offers a wry analysis of political language that would at times be hysterically funny ... if it weren't such a serious issue.

Poole defines Unspeak as a term for the packaging of partisan arguments into soundbites, which then carry with them the implications of the argument without its explicit restatement. "It represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries tounspeak - in the sense of erasing, or silencing - any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem."

The majority of the examples Poole takes up throughout his text are recent ones, but he admits (correctly, in my view) that Unspeak has "been with us for as long as there has been politics." I agree with him, though, that its power is enhanced by the mass media, the 24-hour news cycle and soundbite culture, and the blogosphere. As Poole writes, "the ever-more-confining structure of television and radio newsbites, in particular, makes Unspeak the ideal vehicle for the dissemination of propaganda, because it packs the maximum amount of persuasion into the smallest space."

This is the converse argument to the "don't listen to politicians, they aren't actually saying anything at all" line of thinking - rather, Poole suggests, they are saying a great deal, but in carefully constructed ways designed to either mute or play up the impact to the highest degree.

Poole discusses the rise of a large cross-section of Unspeak terms from American and British culture in recent decades ("community," "intelligent design," "climate change", "ethnic cleansing", the use of catchy code names for military operations), but focuses most keenly on examples from the post-9/11 era: ("weapons of mass destruction," "war on terror", "abuse" vs. "torture", "enemy combatants", "freedom on the march", etc.). He describes the development of these terms and their adoption by the policy-makers, then by the press and mediators, and then eventually by the public themselves. Poole does quite a good job of examining the obfuscation and linguistic contortions it takes to make these terms stick - one example of this is just too good not to pass along.

First, a quote from SecDef Rumsfeld (September 20, 2001) on what a victory in the newly-christened "war on terror" would look like: "Now, what is victory? I say that victory is persuading the American people and the rest of the world that this is not a quick matter that's going to be over in a month or a year or even five years. It is something that we need to do so that we can continue to live in a world with powerful weapons and with people who are willing to use those powerful weapons. And we can do that as a country. And that would be a victory in my view."

Now Poole: "It is worth pausing to admire the awesome rhetorical invention on display here. Like a bebop saxophonist, Rumsfeld takes a theme, crawls into it, turns it inside out, and rebuilds it at crazy angles. Translated into simple declarative English, he is saying that the war on terror will be won when everyone is convinced that the war on terror cannot be won in any forseeable future. Victory is defined as persuading us that victory is impossible."

I don't want to spoil the ending (so feel free to stop reading now), but Poole does not believe the answer to Unspeak is more Unspeak. He criticizes those on the American left who "having witnessed the virtuoso use of Unspeak by the Bush adminstration" would resort to the same tactics themselves (this is the George Lakoff school of thought, recently embraced by Howard Dean and others). While Poole is unconvinced (as I must admit I am as well) that political leaders and interest groups will move away from Unspeak and use plain language (ha!), he suggests that the public ought to stop swallowing the terms that are fed to us.

In his conclusion, Poole writes "Unspeak itself does violence: to meaning. It seeks to annihilate distinctions ... [it] finds soothing names for violence so that violence no longer surprises the deadened mind ...." Rather than continuing to allow ourselves to be led like sheep to the slaughter of meaning, Poole argues, we must call out the crap when we see it.

Having undoubtedly committed countless acts of Unspeak both in the blog and in my everyday language, I found myself saying "hmm" at various points as I read. I agree with Poole that this is a troublesome practice, but I'm also not convinced it's going anywhere fast. Journalists who cover politics and national affairs would do well to read this book, and I think bloggers (myself absolutely included) could do with a good dose of "Un-Unspeak" as well. Poole as written an interesting and thought-provoking book, and I'm happy to recommend it.

Belated Reaction to Immigration Speech

I did watch Bush's speech on immigration the other night, and thought he did a credible job (although once again I'm sure the networks are annoyed since he was careful not to actually commit any actual news). I agree largely with the Bull Moose's take on the immigration question, particularly with the point that if immigration reform fails this year, it will be largely due to the "majority of the majority" rule the House leadership has stupidly saddled itself with.

As the Moose writes, "If the President's proposal is defeated, it will likely be because of opposition from Republican right in the House. This is a deeply ironic development. This Administration is base dependent and has largely shunned bi-partisanship. And now they are paying the price for this ideological parochialism."

I hope that the divide can be overcome and a comprehensive border security/immigration reform bill is still a possibility this year. While the political climate in Washington is defaulted to partisan (and intra-partisan) gridlock thanks to the fecklessness of this administration's tactics for the last six years, here's hoping it's not too late to get at least a little something accomplished.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Book Review: Mayflower

Having very much enjoyed Nathaniel Philbrick's earlier works, I awaited quite impatiently the release of his newest book, Mayflower. I secured a copy of it recently and shunted it to the top of my "to-be-read" pile (don't even ask how big that pile is ...), and have just finished reading it. It's a very readable, decent account of the first sixty years of Massachusetts history, encompassing not only the settlements of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, but also the horrific conflict that erupted in 1675 between the English colonists and their Indian neighbors (which has come to be known as King Philip's War).

Mayflower does a good job describing the Pilgrims' transatlantic journey and the harrowing first years of their settlement at Plymouth; every time I read a new description of that period, I grow more and more mystified at how the group survived at all. As Philbrick makes clear, that survival depended in no small part on the reaching of an understanding with the local natives, most notably the Pokanoket sachem Massasoit.

The second half of the book concerns the rapid expansion of English settlements during the decades following the arrival of the Mayflower, and the tensions that began to develop between the second generation of settlers and their native neighbors. Those tensions erupted into a cataclysmic war in the mid-1670s, resulting in massive losses of life and property on both sides, but which was particularly disastrous to the Indian tribes in the long run. It would have been quite easy for Philbrick to have lost his narrative in the complex warren of dates, names, and places, but he manages to hold his story-line together very neatly.

There are some problems with the sources Philbrick uses for his two focal characters (Plymouth governor William Bradford and later military leader Benjamin Church), as Jill Lepore points out in her excellent New Yorker review of Mayflower. Lepore, whose book The Name of War is an excellent account of King Philip's War, knows her stuff, and her criticisms of Philbrick are valid. It is unfortunate that Philbrick chose to rely so much on Church's 1716 book (published and probably written largely by his son) to reach his conclusions - this decision mars what would otherwise be an even better book.

Philbrick eschews footnotes, a practice which I normally find frustrating and annoying. He compensates (at least in part) by providing rich bibliographic essays for each chapter, which are important additions to the narrative and should not be missed. While certain elements of Philbrick's conclusion are overdrawn and may in fact be inappropriate, his overall account of New England's settlement and the war that nearly destroyed it are certainly worth reading.

Declaring Independen(ce/ts) in Texas

With the apparently successful attempts by Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn to get their names onto the Texas gubernatorial ballot for this fall's election, the Christian Science Monitor has a good look at how their entry could shape the race. It's almost certainly going to be one of the most interesting of November's elections, and I think it will be well worth paying attention to.

New Push for Stem Cell Bill

Nancy Reagan has renewed her efforts to urge the Senate to pass the long-stalled stem cell research bill, according to the NYTimes. In a May 1 letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch (who supports the bill) Mrs. Reagan wrote "the wait for United States Senate action has been very difficult and hard to comprehend ... There is just no more time to wait."

Sen. Arlen Specter, the lead sponsor of the bill along with Sen. Tom Harkin, says he is still trying to negotiate timing with Majority Leader Frist, "and expected to reach a deal by the end of this week." Debate and a vote could come before the end of the month.

The bill in question would allow funding of research on stem cell lines drawn from embryos left over at fertility clinics that would otherwise be discarded. It passed the House a year ago.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Newest Demographic: Starbucks Republicans?

This article from the Raleigh News & Observer suggests that "Starbucks Republicans" may just be this year's "soccer moms." Interesting.

h/t PoliticalWire

A Good Idea!

It is not often that I find myself wanting to write in praise of something the House of Representatives has done, but I do enjoy those rare moments when they occur. Last week, the House voted 416-6 to sponsor an "H-Prize," program to encourage research into the use of hydrogen as an alternative automobile fuel.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Inglis and co-sponsored by 26 additional members from both parties, "would award four prizes of up to $1 million every other year for technological advances in hydrogen production, storage, distribution and utilization. One prize of up to $4 million would be awarded every second year for the creation of a working hydrogen vehicle prototype," according to the AP report. "The grand prize, to be awarded within the next 10 years, would go for breakthrough technology."

Inglis called the bill "an opportunity for a triple play": increased security by decreasing the use of foreign oil, environmental improvements, and new jobs. Science Committee Chairman Sherry Boehlert (a cosponsor) said "Prizes can draw out new ideas from scientists and engineers who may not be willing or able to participate in traditional government research and development programs, while encouraging them, rather than the taxpayer, to assume the risk." Democrat Dan Lipinski, another cosponsor, added "Perhaps the greatest role that the H-Prize may serve is in spurring the imagination of our most valuable resource, our youth."

A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by Lindsey Graham and Byron Dorgan; action is expected in the near future.

This is precisely the kind of investment that is needed to spur increased interest and innovation in the energy industry and beyond. I applaud the House action, and I urge the Senate to pass the bill and send it to the president's desk.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mighty Middle on McCain

Michael Reynolds has the post that says it all about McCain's speech at Liberty University. From what I've read of McCain's speech, it was vintage Straight Talk Express - not surprisingly.

Book Review: "Rough Crossings"

Columbia University professor Simon Schama's newest offering is Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution. In his signature narrative style, Schama tackles a subject which certainly does not rank among the most popular or comfortable for American readers - the treatment of slaves during the Revolutionary era, and in particular the tension between the expressed ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the practical implications of those concepts.

The first section of Schama's book is concerned with the Revolutionary conflict proper, focusing (as one would expect from the subtitle) on the measures taken by British commanders in the southern colonies to upset the standing social order by offering emancipation to slaves who would join the royalist forces. The book covers little new ground here, relying heavily as it does on prior work by Benjamin Quarles, Woody Holton, Sylvia Frey, Gary Nash and others. The latter portions of Schama's book are more original: his coverage of British abolitionists Granville Sharp, Thomas and John Clarkson, and William Wilberforce is quite good, as is the important discussion of what happened to the escaped slaves in the years following the Revolution as they were shunted about from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone and other locations just trying to make a go of it.

While I found myself annoyed at times with Schama's frequent shifts from scene to scene, and some of his stylistic quirks bugged me (his capitalization of Certain Phrases was particularly obnoxious), in general I enjoyed the narrative. Sometimes a synthesis like this is the only way to get academic research into the public eye, and I think Schama's work will contribute to that in regard to the role of blacks (slaves and otherwise) in the American Revolution. More important still is the treatment of the Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone colonies.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Hodgepodge

- First, an update to yesterday morning's post on the DoJ ending its ethics investigation of itself in regard to the NSA warrantless eavesdrop program. The NYTimes reports this morning (in its story about the new hubbub over phone call collecting) that Senator Specter yesterday called the denial of security clearances to the DoJ's Office of Professional Responsibility "incomprehensible." He added that he will join other senators in requesting that the clearances be granted so that the probe can proceed.

- The immigration bill appears to be back on track in the Senate after a deal was reached between Senators Frist and Reid over amendments and how the Senate version would be reconciled with the much more hard-line bill passed by the House. The plan as of now is to have a vote on an immigration package before Memorial Day.

- Joe Weedon's got an excellent post up on the new phone-call controversy, as does Alan Carl at Maverick Views.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Another Shoe Drops

More information is emerging today about a classified NSA program to collect phone call records from people around the country, first reported this morning in USA Today. Joe Gandelman has the go-to post for all the news on this important new story.

DoJ Ethics Office Ends Inquiry into Eavesdrop Scheme

The papers report this morning that the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) has ended its investigation into the role of DoJ lawyers in the development of the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program (NYTimes, WaPo). Why, you ask?

OPR director H. Marshall Jarrett wrote yesterday to Rep. Maurice Hinchey, who had requested the investigation, to notify him that it was over. Said Jarrett, "we have been unable to make meaningful progress in our investigation because OPR has been denied security clearances for access to information about the NSA program. Without these clearances, we cannot investigate this matter and therefore have closed our investigation." The office requested clearance for its staff in January; the request was denied on Tuesday, so Jarrett called the whole thing off.

The Times quotes DoJ spokesman Brian Roehrkasse as calling the NSA eavesdropping "highly classified and exceptionally sensitive," adding "only those involved in national security with a specific need to know are provided details about this classified program."

Apparently investigating the program doesn't get you the need to know you need in order to, well, investigate the program. Road-blocking an ethics investigation doesn't seem to be the smartest route to take at the moment, and I hope the OPR will revisit this issue and continue to at least try to do its job. There are major questions here about the role of DoJ staff in the construction of this NSA program, and they should not go unanswered.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Kavanaugh Meets the Committee

Judicial nominee Brett Kavanaugh had his second hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday. The WaPo has a decent write-up by Charles Babington. Apparently the committee plans to vote tomorrow, and apparently from the hearing we learn that while serving as Bush's staff secretary, Kavanaugh was involved with ... well, absolutely nothing. Once again, the hearing process proves its uselessness in the face of nominees who refuse to answer any questions and senators who just like to hear themselves talk.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Book Review: "The Divided Ground"

UC-Davis historian Alan Taylor is one of my very favorite authors (his William Cooper's Town is on my mental all-time top-ten list), so I was waiting very impatiently for my classes to finish this spring in order to start his newest book. The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution did not disappoint.

Taylor's subject is one which has been rising in historical esteem and interest in recent years, helped along through excellent work by James Merrell, Colin Calloway and others. Taylor jumps ambitiously and enthusiastically into the debate over the nature of border conflict and Indian history during the Revolutionary period, and this book contributes much to the scholarship. Taylor argues convincingly that the Iroquois tribes of what is now central/western New York and southeastern Ontario province worked diligently to keep control of their lands, first by playing the British off the Americans, then by playing the federal government off the government of New York State.

Perhaps the most important insight Taylor offers is that the Iroquois tribes understood the nature of settlement, and sought to arrange leases and/or private sales of their lands to chosen buyers, rather than allowing governments to purchase large tracts and divide it up. This method, they hoped, would create a friendly buffer zone between themselves and the flood of white settlers, thereby allowing the preservation of Indian culture and space.

Taylor effectively utilizes Mohawk chief Joseph Brant and missionary Samuel Kirkland as his case studies, returning to their lives throughout the book at opportune moments. It is a depressing read to no small degree, as it portrays the insatiable hunger of the settlers for more land in the most accurate if unflattering of lights. While The Divided Ground lacks some of the narrative style of Taylor's earlier works, it is nonetheless an important book covering a fascinating topic; I recommend it highly.

Boehlert on the Issues

Today's (or at least this morning's) must-read is an interview Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (my retiring congressman) did with Claudia Dreifus of the NYTimes. Boehlert discusses the role of science in government decision-making, the increased partisanship in Washington and what it meant to be a centrist Republican trying to get things done, as well as some important issues like the need to increase fuel efficiency standards. While I wish they'd gone into more depth, it's a decent exchange and I wanted to pass it along.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Report on National Centrist Meeting

As promised, I've finally secured a few minutes to write up a brief summary of Saturday's very productive meeting of the Centrist Coalition. After quite a nice brunch at Pete's Tavern, twelve of us convened - most appropriately, we thought - in a conference room at the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace in Manhattan to discuss the need for strong centrist leadership and how the Centrist Coalition can serve to, as we agreed "Unite the Middle and Give Power to Their Voice."

Annie, Michael, Alan and Rick have all posted already on the meeting (I am definitely behind the times) - Michael's post includes some pictures and Rick is working on a webcast of the audio from the meeting which should be available within a week or so. We all enjoyed meeting with each other and with the rest of the gang, including John Avlon, the author of Independent Nation and New York Sun columnist who has recently (in fact I think today, officially) rejoined the staff of Rudy Giuliani.

We spoke by BlackBerry speakphone (remarkably effectively) with Hamilton Jordan, who was involved with the Carter campaigns in '76 and '80 and also Ross Perot's in '92. He is very concerned (as we are all) about the current polarizing trends in American politics, and believes the time is ripe for a force to bring the country together around centrist principles and changing the current paradigm. He was excited about what we're doing and I'm sure we'll continue to be in touch with him as we move forward.

This meeting was mainly a way for us to focus efforts and discuss ways in which we can be effective through the next few years, whether by raising money or support for candidates, providing assistance to various reform movements (including my constant refrain, redistricting), etc. It was a good start - of course we'll need to keep at it, but this was a good way to begin. It was also excellent to be able to put faces with the names and voices of the folks from around the country who are involved with this movement - we were a remarkably disparate group, with folks attending from Boston, New York, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, California, Texas, etc. (and as Rick has pointed out, not a single person from DC, thereby burnishing our "outside-the-beltway" credentials).

Make sure you read the other posts to get a more comprehensive feel for the meeting, and I'll pass along the link to the webcast once it goes live. Also be sure to congratulate Alan Stewart Carl for his accession (as of 4 July) to the executive directorship of the Centrist Coalition; it will, I have no doubt, flourish in his able hands, and I look forward to working further with him and the rest of the group.

Luntz Sees Third-Party Opportunity

In USNews "Washington Whispers" this week:

"GOP political guru Frank Luntz thinks 2008 could be the year for a third-party success, but only if the presidential candidate is a big name. The ideal guy: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who isn't interested. Why Mike? Luntz says he's frugal with the city budget, socially liberal, and rich enough to buy the advertising it takes to win the election. Two others: Sen. John McCain and former Secretary of State Colin Powell."

h/t PoliticalWire

Debate over Judges Resumes

Sheryl Gay Stolberg has a report in today's NYTimes which seems to suggest that we're going to be hearing a whole lot more about the Gang of 14 in the coming weeks. The debate over federal judges is resuming in DC, and conservatives are pushing for a fight that could once again lead to a debate over the so-called "nuclear option."

Part of the compromise reached last year by the Gang of 14 was that the group made no determination on the ultimate fate of two judicial nominees: Terence Boyle and Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh's confirmation is currently on the radar of Senate Majority Leader Bill "Just Don't Make Me Talk About Stem Cells" Frist, who recently pledged to hold a vote on Kavanaugh by the end of May. The seven Gang of 14 Democrats requested that the Judiciary Committee hold a second hearing on the nomination, which Chairman Arlen Specter agreed to do. That hearing will occur tomorrow.

Senator Specter's acquiescence to the request of the Democrats seems to me entirely reasonable. Of criticism he's received for allowing another hearing to go forward, Specter said "That's why my job is so difficult, to avoid the fight, because there are so many people hankering for one." Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, and several Republican senators are quoted in the article speaking favorably of provoking a fight with Democrats over judges.

The Gang of 14 is planning to meet on Thursday - after the hearing - to discuss the Kavanaugh nomination. I agree with Stolberg that a filibuster is somewhat unlikely over Kavanaugh, but that the Boyle nomination (which is still languishing, but is being pushed heavily by the right) would be a much more contentious battle which can hopefully be avoided.

Make no mistake - this is no principled push for the confirmation of judges. This is a blatantly and baldly-stated partisan effort to rile up conservative voters before the elections this fall. The American people should have none of it, and the Gang of 14 along with the leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee should have none of it either.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Quick Link

I will have more to say either later tonight (hopefully) or tomorrow morning about the weekend's meeting and other things, but for now I did want to pass on today's Ron Brownstein article in the LATimes, which I thought quite good and instructive for all of us political junkies out there.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Off to the Big Apple

I am off early tomorrow to join many other centrist bloggers and some other fine folks who are interested in the centrist movement for a grand conclave at the Teddy Roosevelt birthplace in New York. I will be back late tomorrow night and hope to post a report on the meeting sometime thereafter.

Calling the Bluff

The high-stakes intra-party/intra-branch/inter-branch staring contest (seems more appropriate than 'game of chicken' for some reason) continues in Washington. Yesterday the Senate passed the $109 billion "emergency" appropriations bill by a lopsided 78-21 margin. Now the bill proceeds to cocnference with the House, where the Senate's version was received, eh, not so well.

Speaker Dennis Hastert called the Senate bill "dead on arrival" in the House, which the NYTimes report suggests is "one of the harshest public characterizations in recent memory of legislation from his fellow Republicans in the Senate." Hastert went on to say "The House has no intention of joining in a spending spree at the expense of American taxpayers."

Support was no more forthcoming from Majority Leader John Boehner, who bluntly declared "The House will not take up an emergency supplemental spending bill for Katrina and the war in Iraq that spends $1 more than what the president asked for, period."

Or from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where Scott McClellan maintained the executive poker face: "The president has made it very clear he would veto legislation that goes above and beyond what he called for."

But the Senate bill has its supporters (78 of them, it would appear). Said Appropriations chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) "It is very important to the protection of the security interests of the people of the United States." Of the upcoming conference, Cochran added "I view it as a challenge always to work out a bill in conference with the House. We know we are going to have to make compromises, but it is hard to predict right now exactly what those might be or what the bottom level of the bill might be."

Ranking Democratic Appropriator Robert Byrd (R-WV) urged the president to "have at it" and dare to veto a bill meant to fund operations in Iraq and Gulf Coast recovery. "That is his right under the Constitution. But the Congress should not be bullied by the president into neglecting its responsibility."

At least one opponent of the bill, Senator Tom Coburn, is already urging the president to veto this bill: he said yesterday "Taxpayers want us to be serving in a spirit of service and sacrifice, not searching for new ways to raid the public treasury."

No blinking yet ... make your guesses for how this all turns out in the comments section, I'll come up with a prize for whoever is closest to the actual result. President Bush, you're ineligible.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

House Passes Weak Lobby Reform Bill

This bill should have been much stronger. Ethics training and more disclosure are not the only answers. The moment to pass strong lobbying/earmark reform is fading fast, if it hasn't passed already.

"Stop Us Before We Spend Again!"

Someone needs to cut up the Senate's credit cards.

Yesterday, that body added several additional spending projects to the "emergency" appropriations bill, sending the overall cost soaring to near $109 billion, making it now $17 billion over the $92.2-billion threshold (plus another $2 billion for avian-flu preparedness) Bush says he'll veto at. Bush reiterated his veto threat yesterday, saying "some here in Washington with trying to load up that bill with unnecessary spending. The Congress needs to hear me loud and clear. If they spend more than $92.2 billion plus pandemic flu emergency funds, I will veto this bill."

The Senate, once again, rolled its collective eyes and kept passing amendments. Yesterday's additions included $289 million to "compensate emergency workers who might be injured by experimental flu vaccines" (at the request of Senator Kennedy), "$1.6 billion for levees in Louisiana, $30 million for Gulf Coast election assistance and $30 million for forest projects." The LATimes adds that $37 million for levee repairs in California has also been added.

These are not emergencies. Neither is the war in Iraq, but apparently that ship has sailed. George Will's Newsweek column this week has some appropriate thoughts on these so-called emergencies: "Why are we funding Iraq, one of the longest wars in American history—by Nov. 25, 2006, it will be 1,347 days old, the number of days between Pearl Harbor and VJ Day—with 'emergency' bills? To hide, or at least obscure, the costs. Funding the war in dribs and drabs—as if the fact that the war costs money is a recurring surprise—spares Congress from confronting the huge cost and having to make room for it in the budget by shedding lower-priority spending." While I disagree with some of what Will says later in the piece, this paragraph is quite apt.

Apparently the senators now gleefully passing amendments that add to the cost of the spending bill are expecting those bits to be excised during conference with the House. At least one opponent of the extras doesn't think that'll happen: Senator McCain said yesterday "I hope it gets stripped out, but I'd be surprised."

Who knows what will happen in conference - the House negotiators might insist on trimming out the extra fat the Senate has added to this bill. I think it somewhat more likely they'll leave in most of it. And then the big question becomes, will the president veto? McCain says he has no idea: "We have never been down this path before with this administration, with a substantial, firm veto threat."

I asked a few days ago "Who'll Blink First?" So far, neither the president nor the Senate has batted an eyelash. The time is coming. While I continue to think in my own cynical way that this might be a contrived controversy in order to give Bush his first veto, I'm still not convinced he won't duck the issue rather than use the pen.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Few Good Links

- The gas-rebate plan discussed in my previous post now appears to have gone away. Said Senator Pete Domenici yesterday "It doesn't look to me like it is terribly alive."

- Connecticut, New Hampshire and New York will be key bellwether states for House races this year, the NYTimes suggests.

- Chris Cillizza covers last night's primary elections in Ohio. No big surprises, at least from my perspective.

- The LATimes reports progress on the immigration overhaul bill. Get it done.

- Joe Weedon has a good post on the line-item veto hearings and Senator Robert Byrd's slapdown of the proposal.

Things are winding down with classes, I will be back and able to write more substantively in the very near future. Promise.

Monday, May 01, 2006

GOP Gas Rebate Plan Panned

I've got a very busy first part of the week what with the impending end of classes for the summer and all, so I may not be able to post very much before Wednesday. But I did want to mention this NYTimes story from Monday's paper, about the vociferous and generally negative reaction to the plan proposed by Senate Republicans to send out $100 "gas rebate" checks.

"Under the proposal, $100 checks would be sent late this summer to an estimated 100 million taxpayers, regardless of car ownership. Single taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes above about $146,000 would be ineligible for the checks, as would couples earning more than about $219,000. The $100 figure was determined by Mr. Frist's office, which calculated that the average driver would pay about $11 per month in federal gas taxes over nine months." That's the plan in a nutshell. It makes no sense. If you're going to spend $10 billion, why the heck not use it on something like research and development for new technology, or funding for raising fuel efficiency, or x, y, or z? Wouldn't that be money much better spent?

Even if they're going to send out rebate checks, I also have a bit of a problem with the whole "regardless of car ownership" thing. I don't own a car. I don't buy gasoline. So why on earth would I get a rebate check? That's just ridiculous. Sure I like getting money back, this is just downright goofy. Either us it for something more productive, or give it to someone who needs it.

As the Times reports, many others feel similarly. A staffer to Sen. Cornyn says they've been getting calls from left, right and center in opposition to the rebate plan: "The conservatives think it is socialist bunk, and the liberals think it is conservative trickery." Rush Limbaugh called it "an insult" (I can't believe I'm quoting Limbaugh, I need to go wash my hands), and Brit Hume used the term "silly."

Throwing money at voters isn't going to lower gas prices. It's also not going to improve the tanking approval ratings of Congress. The American people are smart enough to see through this nonsense, and I hope the Senate opts to do something more useful with that spare $10 billion they've got stashed away (hah!).