Saturday, December 27, 2008

Pastor's A Big Hit With Singer

When Melissa Etheridge learned that she and Pastor Rick Warren would be appearing together at a Muslim Public Affairs Council conference, she called him "in the spirit of unity," and he called back:

On the day of the conference I received a call from Pastor Rick, and before I could say anything, he told me what a fan he was. He had most of my albums from the very first one. What? This didn't sound like a gay hater, much less a preacher. He explained in very thoughtful words that as a Christian he believed in equal rights for everyone. He believed every loving relationship should have equal protection. He struggled with Prop. 8 because he didn't want to see marriage redefined as anything other than between a man and a woman. He said he regretted his choice of words in his video message to his congregation about Prop. 8 when he mentioned pedophiles and those who commit incest. He said that in no way, is that how he thought about gays. He invited me to his church, I invited him to my home to meet my wife and kids. He told me of his wife's struggle with breast cancer just a year before mine.

When we met later that night, he entered the room with open arms and an open heart. We agreed to build bridges to the future.

Directors And Historians, Getting It Wrong

Richard David Boyle, writing about "Nixon" and "W" director Oliver Stone:
Roosevelt was crippled and could not walk, [and] John F. Kennedy had White House swimming pool orgies with his secretaries "Fiddle and Faddle." The press protected presidential secrets until Richard Nixon broke the law so openly, by ordering burglaries and destroying evidence, that occupiers of the Oval Office became fair game to people like Stone, who also directed the movie, "Nixon."
While I can't speak about Fiddle and Faddle, there's no proof Richard Nixon ordered either of the burglaries that destroyed his Presidency, though Boyle isn't the first journalist or historian to assert otherwise without any evidence. Respected historians Stanley Kutler and Rick Perlstein are among those whose sleight of hand with sources has earned them membership in the Non-Smoking Gun Club.

According to Boyle, Stone also reports that Bill Clinton told him that the unbearably pedantic "W" was "right on." How disappointing. I wonder how he'll feel when they make a movie about him sitting on the toilet. Here's my Oct. 31 review from The New Nixon:

In Oliver Stone's "W.," you can see George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) wipe himself after defecating. You see him eating constantly and showing hunks of food oozing between his teeth, spitting it at people as he talks, and nearly choking on a pretzel (true story). The constant sloppy drinking before he turns 40 goes without saying.

Stone and his writer mock Bush's faith, suggesting that he embraced Christianity after losing his race for the House so he wouldn't be "out-Texas'ed and out Christian'ed" again. They make up "Dallas"-like dialog between Bush and members of his family designed to show that he was jealous of his brother Jeb and obsessed with invading Iraq to show his father up as well as obtain his affection.

Everybody is a caricature except Laura ( Elizabeth Banks), the elder Bush (James Cromwell), and especially Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), shown strenuously resisting the Iraq War. Along among Bush's advisers -- Rice, Rumsfeld, and Rove are carefully rendered in cardboard -- Gen. Powell comes out of "W." smelling like a member of Barack Obama's cabinet.

And yet "W." isn't really about Bush at all. It's about the subterranean vein of bloodthirsty imperialism Oliver Stone identifies as an integral part of the American character. In "JFK," the darkness took the form of shadowy business interests whom Stone falsely said were behind the President's assassination (in which Stone disgustingly accuses Lyndon Johnson of complicity). In "Nixon," which didn't contain a single completely honest moment, the evil gremlins provoked the invasion of Cambodia.

In "W.", the third film in Stone's paranoid trilogy, the evil finally has a face. Dark America is personified as Dick Cheney, self-proclaimed architect of a new empire of oil. During a Dr. Strangelove turn in the situation room, Cheney tells the President and his aides that since the U.S., with five percent of the world's people, consumes a quarter of the world's energy, the obvious solution is an invasion of Iraq as a prelude to conquering Iran and colonizing the Middle East. "Good meeting," says Bush, who nonetheless is shown believing that there really are WMDs in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein's fall will bring democracy to the region.

As it may yet do. When Stone was making the movie and planning an autumn release, Iraq was going so poorly that everyone assumed it would dominate the election. It hasn't, both because of the economy and the success of Bush's policy over the last year. The Vietnam-obsessed Stone assumed Iraq was going the same direction as South Vietnam and Cambodia. As of now, it isn't. In this sense, W. looks smarter than "W."

As for Stone, now that he's made this mean, boring movie, 129 minutes of relentlessly detailed "Mother Jones" historical and policy analysis, maybe he'll do us and especially history a favor and lay off the Presidents. After all, no one will want to see Obama going to the bathroom while talking to his wife. Instead, Stone should use his vast influence to get Richard J. Barnett's early books back into print -- the ones about how the United States started the Cold War instead of the Soviet Union -- and finish out his career doing the work for which he was truly born: Teaching international relations at Sarah Lawrence.

Back To School With Nixon

Matt Miller in the New York Times on a Nixon policy blueprint that may have found its time.

His Suspicions Have Been Kindled

Timothy Noah is skeptical about Amazon's upbeat holiday sales reports, especially regarding the Kindle:
The New York Times reported on Dec. 23 that "the e-book has started to take hold." We "know" this "in part because of the popularity of's Kindle device," which is "out of stock and unavailable until February." The Post fronted essentially the same story in its business section on Dec. 27. But these newspapers were unable to report how many Kindles Amazon sold, much less how much revenue these sales generated, because Amazon won't release that information. We don't even know whether Amazon sold more Kindles this year than last. Amazon is famously stingy with financial numbers generally. This Christmas season, that's proving to be a winning strategy in dealing with a business press that, between layoffs and the usual holiday vacations, appears short-staffed to the point of utter witlessness.

"The Fix Is In"

Bill O'Reilly on the PE's relations with the media:
[I]f the liberal press didn't scream about the conservative preacher Rick Warren praying at the inauguration, you know the fix is in.

Quote Of The Day

The AP asked Caroline Kennedy about the elections she hasn't voted in since registering to vote in New York in 1988.

I was really surprised and dismayed by my voting record. I'm glad it's been brought to my attention.

Friday, December 26, 2008

"Doubt" About The Church's Future

You may have to love the church really to enjoy "Doubt," starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep as a priest and nun who clash over whether love or authority will prevail in Christ's earthly home. The story is set the year after JFK's assassination, as the world begins to go mad. You can't quite hear the guns in Vietnam, but the winds of change are gusting all around the parish school in the Bronx where she is principal and Fr. Flynn, played by Hoffman, is priest. (That's Hoffman above with Amy Adams, who plays Sister James, a young teacher who is tortured by her own uncertainty about him.)

Sister Aloysius Beauvier, Streep's character, is shown closing her office windows to keep the wind out. As far as Fr. Flynn is concerned, as he tells his congregation, the wind is propelling him toward new challenges. Whether those doing the huffing and puffing are church leaders covering up sexual abuse, the viewer never quite knows, which is what helps give the movie its power. The rest comes from John Patrick Shanley's story and script, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, as well as the work of two of the greatest actors in the world.

The post-Vatican II priest stands for "progressive education and a welcoming church" as well as the transcendent power of love. Complicating the picture is ambiguity over whether his enlightenment extends to man-boy affairs. Sister Aloysius is ambiguous as well -- slapping the boys upside their heads at mass while showing exceptional kindness to an aging nun as well as prophetic passion about protecting Donald Miller, an African-American 8th grader, from Fr. Flynn. She's convinced he's abusing the boy or planning to, and it's not just that Flynn's reform-minded and she's not. She really believes it; and yet you're never sure she's right. All you know for sure is that he's hiding something from his past. Then again, as it turns out, so is she.

The movie just won't let you take sides, even when it comes to civil rights vs. feminism. There's a powerful scene between Streep and Viola Davis, playing Donald's mother, who's desperate to get him into a decent high school and college and away from his abusive father. Her shy, isolated, sometimes bullied son is the first black child in the school, and he's come to depend on the priest's support. For complex reasons, even after Streep tells her that Fr. Flynn may be abusing Donald, Mrs. Miller can't bring herself to despise him. I was aching for the nun and mother to bond. Both were second-class citizens and victims of unjust systems. And yet Davis finally tells Streep, "I don't know if you and I are on the same side. I'll be standing with my son and those who are good to my son."

It's not just whether Fr. Flynn's love for the boy is appropriate. The movie also tangles with the question of whether God is just love, as some progressive Christians will tell you. Streep's character stands for the sometimes under-emphasized godly values of righteousness and discipline. As for deciding which values are supreme in the church, now, as 2,000 years ago, it's all about the sources of authority. Who decides what the rules are? Do we look to the Bible, the pope, or the General Convention of the Episcopal Church? Who's right, the progressive priest or the stern nun? It no doubt bespeaks Shanley's deep church roots that the movie won't say.

The story is set in the moment in American history when national authority also began to be up for grabs, as an accidental President is decisively elected in his own right and is preparing to escalate the war whose consequences are with us still. For most in the audience, the movie was a fascinating if frustratingly inconclusive struggle between two stubborn characters as they lived through the tensions between tradition and modernity. It's also about the continuing struggle over the governance of Christ's church. We don't quite believe in authority anymore ourselves; and yet we can't survive without it.

"Frost/Nixon" Praised By Close Nixon Colleague

Over at The New Nixon, the discerning and thoughtful Frank Gannon -- who sat at Richard Nixon's bedside taking notes when the former President thought he was dying in 1974 and, a few years later, helped him write his memoirs -- gives "Frost/Nixon" TNN's highest (and indeed first) movie rating of "five Checkers":

Frank Langella gives a serious and stirring account of RN. He wisely eschews imitation, much less impersonation. Aside from some of the obviously applied physical characteristics, and the adoption of a recognizably husky vocal timbre, Mr. Langella’s Nixon is convincing not because it is derivative, but because it is complete. In fact, quite unlike RN whose locution was formal and whose diction was precise, this Nixon speaks casually and colloquially and often even drops his “gs.” Mr. Langella uses his brain (and undoubtedly his heart) to embody the balanced elements of confidence, formality, toughness, shyness, insecurity, and vulnerability, and then renders them into a character that must move and compel even the people who knew RN, and have that high standard of comparison. Of course, that’s what acting at this exalted level is all about.

And Ron Howard, much of whose work has been open and optimistic and straightforward, has turned out to be the ideal director for this complex, essentially cerebral, and decidedly dark two finger exercise. He is above all a story teller, and he keeps his eye on Frost/Nixon’s clear, compelling, and chronological story line. And while he knows how to keep the story moving forward, he also shows a willingness —and the confidence— to slow things down and take the time it takes to let the story also sink in. This is brilliant directing — authoritative and unobtrusive.

RIP James, Alicia, and Sylvia Ortega

To talk his way into his mother- and father-in-law's Covina, California home on Christmas Eve, Bruce Jeffrey Pardo wore a Santa suit. We'll probably never know if he was also being ironic, whether he hoped to magnify his experience by delighting children and others at the party just before terrifying and murdering them. He killed nine people in all.

Whatever Pardo's intentions, irony had its way, as it so often does. As the world knows, Pardo had planned to escape to Canada after the assault, but because he'd been burned by the fire he set, he took his own life instead. Police said his Santa suit was fused to his body.

The photograph above of the home of James and Alicia Ortega, who died along with their daughter Sylvia (Pardo's estranged wife), was taken by the AP's Nick Ut, whose photo of a little girl who had been burned by napalm became emblematic of the Vietnam war.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.


Parents of little girls will immediately understand how it happened that the PE's staff appear to have misled the press pool, which is supposed to follow him everywhere, that there would be no more news today. The terse report that went out this afternoon from pool members to the rest of the media:
Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt issued the following statement to your pool: "With no further scheduled events for the day, a lid was called until further notice. The President-elect decided to take the girls to a water park and we assembled the pool as quickly as possible."

Would Two Kennedys In London Make A Right?

Steve Clemons, distinguished founding executive director of The Nixon Center, has written to friends promoting his intriguing idea that the PE should end the awkwardness created by Caroline Kennedy's senatorial ambitions by appointing her as ambassador to the Court of St. James's.

One potential problem is that her grandfather Joseph served in the same post, from which he notoriously resisted Winston Churchill's warnings about Nazi aggression, supported appeasement, tried to meet with Adolph Hitler without President Roosevelt's permission, and opposed wartime aid to Great Britain.

Londoners of a certain age may still wish to give an Ambassador Kennedy a piece of their minds.

Fancy Senator-Presumptive, Fancy House

Calling on Democrats, even as they massively expand government, to make sure it's FDR-style good government, Paul Krugman frowns:
And I have to say that Democrats are off to a bad start on that front. The attempted coronation of Caroline Kennedy as senator plays right into 40 years of conservative propaganda denouncing “liberal elites.” And surely I wasn’t the only person who winced at reports about the luxurious beach house the Obamas have rented, not because there’s anything wrong with the first family-elect having a nice vacation, but because symbolism matters, and these weren’t the images we should be seeing when millions of Americans are terrified about their finances.

Speak For Yourself, Richard

Self-flagellating nonsense from Richard Reeves:

Now, some of us, part of what history will almost certainly call a failed generation, will have to get out of the way: Many of us turned out to be more the problem than the solution. We are all in this together, but, like immigrants on the Lower East Side a hundred years ago, we are dependent on our children because they speak the new language and many of us cannot.

A Cousin In The Business

This photograph of Frank Langella and Michael Sheen from "Frost/Nixon," and all the stills from the production, were taken by my cousin Ralph Nelson, veteran of dozens of feature films. Check out his portfolio.


That's what one expert calls the umbilical link between Chinese cash and reckless borrowing by Americans that helped spell doom for the economy. Mark Landler has a complex but helpful (I think I understood it!) primer in the New York Times, part of the paper's seeming effort to lay as much blame for our crisis as possible at the clay feet of free marketeers at the Fed and in the Bush Administration.

In such articles, there's never much if anything about the irresponsibility of individuals who bought more house or more stuff than they could afford. It will be the government's job to save us from ourselves in the future, I guess, through improved economic manipulation and social engineering.

Landler's article started off sounding like a call to get mad at the Chinese. Better not, since, having allegedly helped cause the recession, they'll also be financing the recovery:

For China, too, this crisis has been a time of reckoning. Americans are buying fewer Chinese DVD players and microwave ovens. Trade is collapsing, and thousands of workers are losing their jobs. Chinese leaders are terrified of social unrest.

Having allowed the renminbi to rise a little after 2005, the Chinese government is now under intense pressure domestically to reverse course and depreciate it. China’s fortunes remain tethered to those of the United States. And the reverse is equally true.

In a glassed-in room in a nondescript office building in Washington, the Treasury conducts nearly daily auctions of billions of dollars’ worth of government bonds. An old Army helmet sits on a shelf: as a lark, Treasury officials have been known to strap it on while they monitor incoming bids.

For the past five years, China has been one of the most prolific bidders. It holds $652 billion in Treasury debt, up from $459 billion a year ago. Add in its Fannie Mae bonds and other holdings, and analysts figure China owns $1 of every $10 of America’s public debt.

The Treasury is conducting more auctions than ever to finance its $700 billion bailout of the banks. Still more will be needed to pay for the incoming Obama administration’s stimulus package. The United States, economists say, will depend on the Chinese to keep buying that debt, perpetuating the American habit.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Doggedly Resisting Snow Job

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan

The Twin Pillars Of The New Nixon

This post was originally published at The New Nixon on Dec. 25, 2008:

In the ongoing Bush vs. Nixon debate, Veteran political reporter Jules Witcover draws a distinction:
[T]hrough it all, Nixon’s image has managed to survive the kind of assault on his intellect to which Bush has had to suffer. Nixon continues to be widely regarded as having had a shrewd political mind, sustained perhaps by the books he wrote on foreign policy in his post-resignation years.
I’ve long believed that the two pillars of the restoration of Richard Nixon’s reputation in history are the recognition of his seriousness of purpose when it came to the pivotal issue of East-West relations and his effectiveness as a wartime commander-in-chief. More than a keen political mind, Mr. Nixon had a reconciling vision that contributed to a reduction in tensions between Moscow and the U.S. as well as the end of the Cold War. As for Vietnam, he and Gen. Creighton Abrams managed to turn a sure loser into a possible winner, and do so against titanic political odds.

By all accounts, “Frost/Nixon” takes Nixon seriously as an intellectual. One down. A few good books on Vietnam will help with the second pillar.

Christmas And "The Redemption Of Time"

Charles Moore on the lessons of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:

When Scrooge is shown his own name, unmourned, on his tombstone by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he repents and exclaims, "I shall honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year". And when he awakes on Christmas morning in a state of joyful commotion, he realises that "Best and happiest of all, the time before him was his own, to make amends in!"

It is a great psychological insight that after you have done something terribly wrong, and acknowledged it, you feel that you can regain your ownership of time. You feel free. In a recent newspaper interview with a nun who had emerged after 50 years in an enclosed convent to do a course as an art student, her strongest impression was that "People in London are rushing, always rushing – as if time were a tyrant rather than a gift." This Christmas would be a particularly good moment to throw off the tyranny and accept the gift. The doctrine of Christmas is that it is the redemption of time.

Hat tip to Larry Seigel

A Humanized Nixon? Bah, Humbug!

If you can't count on your home town newspaper, whom can you count on? But for its Christmas Day review of "Frost/Nixon," the Orange County Register used copy purchased via a news service from the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Colin Covert, who was appalled at director Ron Howard's worthy attempt to be fair to the 37th President:
[Actor Frank Langella gives] Nixon sympathetic, humanizing dimensions the man never possessed in real life....Ron Howard is too nice a guy to comprehend the cruelty that coexisted with Nixon's formidable intellect, so he becomes a co-conspirator in romantic revisionism.

"A New Horizon For Us All"

The Archbishop of Canterbury's Christmas sermon:
[God] he has become flesh. He has come to live as part of a world in which conflict comes back again and again, and history does not stop, a world in which change and insecurity are not halted by a magic word, by a stroke of pen or sword on the part of some great leader, some genius. He will change the world and - as he himself says later in John's gospel -- he will overcome the world simply by allowing into the world the unrestricted force and flood of divine life, poured out in self-sacrifice. It is not the restoring of a golden age, not even a return to the Garden of Eden; it is more - a new creation, a new horizon for us all.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas e-card from the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation. That's Pat, Tricia, Julie, and Richard -- and, of course, Checkers.

The Twin Pillars Of The New Nixon

In the ongoing Bush vs. Nixon debate, Veteran political reporter Jules Witcover draws a distinction:
[T]hrough it all, Nixon's image has managed to survive the kind of assault on his intellect to which Bush has had to suffer. Nixon continues to be widely regarded as having had a shrewd political mind, sustained perhaps by the books he wrote on foreign policy in his post-resignation years.
I've long believed that the two pillars of the restoration of Richard Nixon's reputation in history are the recognition of his seriousness of purpose when it came to the pivotal issue of East-West relations and his effectiveness as a wartime commander-in-chief. More than a keen political mind, Mr. Nixon had a reconciling vision that contributed to a reduction in tensions between Moscow and the U.S. as well as the end of the Cold War. As for Vietnam, he and Gen. Creighton Abrams managed to turn a sure loser into a possible winner, and do so against titanic political odds.

By all accounts, "Frost/Nixon" takes Nixon seriously as an intellectual. One down. A few good books on Vietnam will help with the second pillar.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

"Love Came Down At Christmas"

Jars of Clay, performing in December 2007

Love came down at Christmas;
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Stars and angels gave the sign.

- Christina Rossetti

Everyone Go Home And Pay NY's Soda Tax

Your host as Emperor Augustus during the St. John's annual Christmas pageant, ordering everyone in the Roman Empire to go to the place of their birth to be registered (Luke 2:1). Paul E. said the plastic sword was not scary and that Russell Crowe should not feel threatened. Photo by Mike Cribbin

Next Year, We Tax Candy Canes and See's

To help battle obesity -- and, oh yeah, raise more money for the state -- New York's governor, David Patterson, has had this inventive idea:
In 2009 consumers will have to pay an 18% tax on non-diet sodas and sugary drinks.

Perfect Songs: "Merry Christmas From The Family"

Robert Earl Keen (1994)

The Non-Smoking Gun Club

Promoting his theory that the Bushes are the Texas devils of American politics, Russ Baker writes:

One of the fastest ways to raise eyebrows in politically savvy company is to suggest that Richard Nixon was not the villain of Watergate. Everyone knows that Nixon himself set loose the Watergate burglars and then oversaw the attempted cover-up that followed. We know this because the most famous journalists of the last fifty years—Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—made their careers on that story. I thought I knew it too.

If "everybody knows" RN ordered the Watergate burglary, then everybody's been listening to historians and journalists who have said or implied as much, and without evidence. Here's more detail. Rick Perlstein joined the Non-Smoking Gun Club when, in Nixonland, he misconstrued a secondary source and made it appear as though the President had known in advance about the September 1971 break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist.

Some Good News On Christmas Eve

New York Times:

Tumbling gasoline prices gave consumers more purchasing power last month, and led to a rise in real spending, even as personal income slips and Americans worry about their jobs in a rapidly weakening economy .

The Commerce Department reported on Wednesday that consumer spending, when adjusted for inflation, rose 0.6 percent in November, its largest gains in two years. The increase followed a 0.5 percent decline in October.

While the unadjusted rate of consumer spending declined 0.6 percent last month, following a 1 percent drop in October, economists suggested that the relative increase in spending was a rare piece of good news for the faltering economy.

Time Enough For Calvary

Assessing the broad range of Christmas criticism occurring in our opinionated culture, Michael Medved, in a thoughtful column, takes issue with those who say you shouldn't talk about Christ's birth without talking about the Cross:
This seasonal recognition doesn’t mean that preachers and teachers should forever forgo all religious messages more demanding than “peace on earth to men of good will” --- but there are better occasions for those evangelical approaches than office Christmas parties (and “a time to every purpose under heaven.”) For many Americans, Christmas serves as a point of entry (or re-entry) to Godly connection...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

More Thinking, Less Understanding

Garrison Keillor on the blessing of worshiping in an unfamiliar church:
[S]lipping into St. Patrick's for Mass in Spanish is pretty wonderful. It's like a big family reunion at which I know nobody and so nobody is mad at me. Nothing said in Spanish offends me doctrinally or any other way. I squeeze into the crowd, under the placid stone faces of saints, the sweet smell of burning wax and a hundred varieties of cologne, and feel the religious fervor, and tears come to my eyes, and I light a candle, say a wordless prayer, and out into the cold I go.

It brought back memories of Christmas Eve in Copenhagen 20 years ago and how beautiful the sermons were before I started learning Danish.

A man gets a keener sense of the divine in a church that is not your own. Maybe Luther and Calvin and Jan Hus and all them were dead wrong and literacy is not the key nor an understanding of Scripture, and maybe the essence of Christmas is dumb childlike wonder and the more you think about it, the less you understand.

Allen, All In

As newly-indexed transcripts of the Vietnam-era White House conversations of Henry Kissinger go on line for the first time, researchers can get a more complete, uh, view of the antiwar movement. As the New York Times reports:

In April 1971, Mr. Kissinger accepted a call from the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who hoped to arrange a meeting between top Nixon administration officials and antiwar activists.

“Perhaps you don’t know how to get out of the war,” Ginsberg ventured.

Mr. Kissinger said he was open to a meeting. “I like to do this,” he said, “not just for the enlightenment of the people I talk to, but to at least give me a feel of what concerned people think.”

Then Ginsberg upped the ante. “It would be even more useful if we could do it naked on television,” he said.

Mr. Kissinger’s reply is transcribed simply as “Laughter.”

For This Particular Goose, Hold The Sauce

Old conventional wisdom: New York Times could imply that Sen. McCain had an affair even though there was no proof. New CW: Times won't report on alleged affair between its publisher and a possible future U.S. senator.

Watch The Guy Give Him A Dollar At The End

From "Playing For Change: Peace Through Music"

Hat tip to Gary "Boom" Baker

Secretary Of Not Eating Much Healthier

A Twitter friend, screen name food_democracy, has a link to a New York Times article saying that advocates of radical changes in the way Americans eat are disappointed by the PE's choice for agriculture secretary:
Last week, Mr. Obama appointed Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, which grows much of the nation’s corn and soybeans. Mr. Vilsack has talked about reducing subsidies to some megafarms, supports better treatment of farm animals and wants healthier food in schools. But his selection drew criticism because he is a big fan of alternative fuels like corn-based ethanol and is a supporter of biotechnology, both anathema to people who want to shift government support from large-scale agricultural interests to smaller farms growing food that takes a more direct path to the table.

A Star, A Star, Shining In The Night

It's Christmas Eve in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and on Dec. 23 in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, an evening star shines over St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church.

Moscow Benighted

Back from a visit to Moscow, Nixon Center president and "National Interest" publisher Dimitri Simes writes that while boutiques and restaurants seem as crowded as ever, all is not well outside the elite cocoon as falling oil prices and global malaise have their anticipated impact on the Russian economy:
[T]raveling by car through the Russian capital’s nightmarish traffic quickly reveals signs of trouble. The vast majority of the numerous construction sites appear frozen, with cranes standing idly and no crews in sight; pages of Russian papers are filled with obligatory bankruptcy announcements; and at the Alexander House, one of Moscow’s most prominent business addresses, there is no normal line in the cafeteria. Many employees of energy and consulting firms in the building have been put on unpaid leaves of undefined lengths. Nonprofits have been hit particularly hard. Few have any meaningful endowments, and with sponsors disappearing, many public policy and charitable organizations have had to cut their staff and programs dramatically.

With oil prices falling below fifty dollars, the figure on which the Russian budget is based, it is clear that 2009 will not be a rosy time for the Putin-Medvedev leadership.

Kome, Kindle, Kome!

The New York Times says it was the year of Amazon's amazing, market-altering, aesthetically pleasing book reader:

Whatever else it’s remembered for in the publishing industry, 2008 may be remembered as the year that e-books finally caught on. Kindles are a regular sight on my train these days, and seem poised to become as ubiquitous as iPods: due to unexpected demand (or shrewd marketing?) Amazon sold out well before the holidays and established a Kindle waiting list, elevating the device to the vaunted commercial realm of Birkin bags and Tickle-Me-Elmos. Meanwhile, executives at one publishing house recently told me they now read all of their manuscript submissions on Sony Readers, not paper, and they may eliminate bound galleys in favor of electronic review copies.
I've read 20 books on my Kindle since last Christmas, plus it's where I read the Times 80% of the time. We've been having a rainy autumn in Orange County. Some mornings my choices for the home town Register are the print edition in a leaky orange plastic bag on the driveway or the Kindle edition, which downloads to the reader on the nightstand before I awaken.

Each of those books cost $10, the newspapers no more than $15 a month. Most commentators, even the Times's Gregory Cowles, who wrote the blog item above, are principally focused on the changing aesthetics of reading. It reminds me of those who still insist that listening to a book isn't quite reading. What makes the Kindle and devices like it so revolutionary is the inevitable alteration of the pricing and financial structures bolstering print. They can save newspaper and book publishing. They can make reading cool again, especially among young people who wrongly insist that they get all the news they need by visiting the web sites they like. With their changeable font sizes, Kindles make every one of the 200,000 books available for download from Amazon accessible to those who can only read large-print books (we might ask those customers, as they survey the limited offers in large-print books compared with the Kindle, how they feel about the big aesthetic issues). And Kindles are as green as green can be.

Give one to a child this Christmas. Give one to a nursing home. And memo to the Times: Instead of just observing the Kindle, buy 100,000 of them and give them away to college students with one-year subscriptions.

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan

Restoring Domestic Tranquility

Since July's earthquake, the Nixon Library's White House East Room has looked a little bare. Martha Washington's portrait had come tumbling down, which meant we had to get them both reframed. Long story! Isn't it always? That's Max, Martin, and Adolpho doing the honors, rehanging GW. We're just glad the father of our country made it home for the holidays. And don't worry: The portraits are facsimiles of the ones in the other East Room.

The Eau Claire Sound (And Smell)

Being highlighted this week by the good folks at the most aptly named music magazine in the world, "No Depression," is Eau Claire, Wisconsin's Bon Iver, who appeared recently on David Letterman:

Writes Andy Moore:
"Skinny Love" is a gothic campfire lament that features [Justin] Vernon's wood chop-strength steel guitar strumming. The song's intensity is fueled by Vernon's bandmates, all three of whom played drums on this selection: one with sticks over his snare, the other two pounding mallets prehistorically on individual floor toms, using both the head and rims of their drums to cast emotions into the thrall of Vernon's vocal pleas.

Vernon's falsetto is anything but pretentious. On the contrary, it's as though he found this high voice under a Dunn County fieldstone and took it home to tinker with it. He's an expressionist, and the tension in his metallic and pure voice comes from a place we've forgotten, or try to avoid....

[F]or all the band's astral trajectories, Bon Iver is rooted deep into northwestern Wisconsin soil. If patchouli is the smell of a Government Mule audience, Skoal is the smell of a Bon Iver crowd.

Chelsea's Angel

Read about it here.


Old conventional wisdom: Nixon worse than Bush. New CW: Bush worse than Nixon. New Russ Baker book: Bushes destroyed Nixon.

Lights In Darkness For All God's Children

Mona Charen on Hanukkah:
It's possible that, like Christmas, it is celebrated in the dark of winter not because the events it memorializes happened in December but rather because this time of year demands a warm celebration.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Lisa's Lair

I go to church with superstar Orange County attorney Lisa Hughes, prominently quoted in an Orange County Register story about a decline in divorce filings as a result of the slumping economy.

The FBI's Coup

Why did W. Mark Felt and others in the FBI illegally give government secrets to Bob Woodward and other newspaper reporters? Because they were out to get Richard Nixon for his failure to honor the power-abusing legacy of J. Edgar Hoover. Writes Dan K. Thomasson:

Why was the FBI so obviously determined to bring all this to light outside official channels? A clear reason was the anger many of Hoover's lieutenants felt about Nixon's refusal to pick the director's successor from their ranks. The president appointed a Navy man, L. Patrick Gray, as acting head of an agency he and every other politician in town feared. The idea of continuing the Hoover legacy through the appointment of one of those the dreaded director had tutored was unacceptable. It has remained that way in a succession of directors with one exception, the appointment of former judge Louis Freeh, who had spent a short time as an agent during the Hoover years. His tenure was marked by dissension.

In the end, that fear furthered Nixon's demise. The bureau quite literally bit back.

The 900-Mile Man

Doctors said DJ Gregory would never walk. This year, he walked every step of every hole of the PGA tour. Thanks to John Barr for the link.

An Historic Couple

The New Nixon's Frank Gannon wishes David and Julie Nixon Eisenhower a happy 40th anniversary. They were married by the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale in Manhattan's Marble Collegiate Church.

"Spend Less And Give More"

Most of us base our charitable giving on what we have left over after living our lives. The Christians at Sojourners say we should should deprive ourselves so we can give more. Rachel Anderson writes:
The practice of economic discipleship has four parts: give thanks, spend justly, spend less and give more. Economic discipleship groups start with participants drawing up and sharing their household budgets. (Yes – people share real numbers with each other about household income and spending.) Members commit to personal lifestyle changes – eating out fewer times each month, walking rather than driving, avoiding impulse buys. Then groups select a recipient for a collective gift – drawn from the participants’ commitments to spend less. Altogether, the Lazarus groups have given away more than $100,000 to fund health care in Haiti, midwives in West Africa, and HIV/AIDS relief in Asia. In Boston, many participants are joining in a campaign to bring more ethically produced fair trade products to Boston – a way of working together to make our theme of “Spend Justly” more feasible.

Leave A Voice Mail. We'll Call Back.

Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. wonders if the media Zeitgeist and newspapers' dwindling resources will prevent a future Woodward and Bernstein from uncovering a future Watergate:
As newsrooms rapidly shrink, will they still have the resources, steadily amassed by newspapers since Watergate, for investigative reporting that takes months and even years of sustained work.

No worries. If a powerful federal official wants to dish government secrets illegally to get back at his boss, I'm sure he'll still be able to find someone to take the call.

Sometimes's A Courier's Just A Courier?

Bob Woodward's secret source, W. Mark Felt, who was worried that President Nixon wanted to rein in the FBI, helped destroy him by illegally leaking government secrets. As a naval officer, Woodward met Felt in the office of Admiral Thomas Moorer. Moorer and other Pentagon hawks illegally spied on the same President and his aides as they tried to end the Vietnam war and improve relations with the Soviet Union and China.

You can easily write all that and never even use the word "Watergate." Go figure.

Perfect Songs: "For Unto Us A Child Is Born" (1741)

From the Bethany College "Messiah"

Keeping The Church In Christmas

My Episcopal colleague Michael Bell, a postulant for Holy Orders, took this photograph of the church in which he now serves, St. Augustine-by-the-Sea in Santa Monica, California.

A Blogging Fool's Paradise

Earlier in the year, Matthew Yglesias left the Atlantic Monthly blogpen, settling under the wing of the progressive (I always want to write "self-styled" in front of that word; where does it leave the rest of us?) Center for American Progress Action Fund. If you click here, never again will you see such a group of highly qualified and earnest-looking young people.

At about 10:30 last night, a Fund official posted this on Yglesias's blog:
This is Jennifer Palmieri, acting CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Most readers know that the views expressed on Matt’s blog are his own and don’t always reflect the views of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Such is the case with regard to Matt’s comments about Third Way. Our institution has partnered with Third Way on a number of important projects - including a homeland security transition project - and have a great deal of respect for their critical thinking and excellent work product. They are key leaders in the progressive movement and we look forward to working with them in the future.

That's because on Dec. 19, Yglesias had written:

[Third Way's] domestic policy agenda is hyper-timid incrementalist [BS].

The brass at Third Way, another think tank, must've asked their friends at CAPAF why they were being trashed on a Center web site. After Palmieri's post, over 500 comments on Yglesias's site ensued, but none as ironic as when Sullivan, back at Yglesias' old hang at the Atlantic, said today that Palmieri's comment is:

What happens when someone mistakes a journalist for a member of some dumb-ass Politburo.

So now the blogger is a journalist again. When Sullivan was defending himself for having republished a lie about Gov. Palin, her minor daughter, and Trig on his own site, he took pains to make distinctions between the rules for journalists and bloggers. For instance, he didn't have to check the Trig Palin story out first, he said. By republishing it before checking the facts and then keeping it alive for months, he was just asking questions (which jounalists do, of course, before they run their stories).

Defending Yglesias against his web site's host's inteference, Sullivan reverts to yet another pillar of the old journalistic paradigm whereby a newpaper publisher was expected to keep his or her hands off the newsroom.

So in Sullivan's blogger's paradise, writers have it both ways. They can publish whatever they want without abiding by old-school notions about accuracy and due diligence. If by their actions they expose their publishers to libel suits (as Sullivan may have by republishing the Trig story at the Atlantic Monthly Group) or interfere with a business or collegial relationship being enjoyed by those paying the bills (as Yglesias evidently did), too bad. We'll have to see how long before paradise is lost in a courtroom.

Not To Be Served But To Serve

A moving Christmas story from Terry Paulson:
Last year, Ventura County Star reporter, Adam Foxman, covered Janice Jaynes Christensen’s Christmas Day open house. With the recent loss of both their son and a nephew, Janice and her husband, Fred, could have easily turned their home into a place of Christmas mourning. Instead, inspired by their other son's missionary work in South Africa, Janice chose to make their home a haven of holiday cheer by inviting strangers to share a home-cooked Italian meal.

At noon on Christmas Day, along with a few relatives and friends, their home filled up with strangers who had read about the open celebration in the Star. The strangers included people looking for some company on Christmas and others who were so touched by the hosts' gesture that they wanted to help.

The afternoon was filled with the aroma of homemade lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs and the sounds of a couple of dozen people chatting happily. Some called Janice an angel. She laughed and said, “I’m just an Italian New Yorker who likes food and seeing people mix.” But after a rough year, she confessed that this unique Christmas celebration had been a powerful experience. She said. "It's been really touching for me. I think when this is all over I'm going to go into a room and cry." Once again, Christ came through believers into another Christmas—“I’m not here to be served, but to serve.”

Frost On A Rainy Night

On a rainy, chilly night in Los Angeles, veteran columnist Al Martinez (not usually a movie reviewer) stays in and watches some of the first-run movies, including "Frost/Nixon," that the studios evidently send to journalists:
This is a love story between a disgraced former American president and an unemployed British television version of Regis Philbin. Peter Morgan wrote the screenplay based on his stage play based on the 1977 televised interviews in which Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) and David Frost (Michael Sheen) go at it. There is no sex in this movie and no pounding score, which means it will probably not appeal to anyone under 25. An animated remake with Brad Pitt as Nixon's voice and a sober Paris Hilton as a female David Frost voice would probably make it more palatable for those who prefer amusement over history. As is, two straight shots and a joint.

Fortune Favors The Hackosphere

James Fallows:
One of the big and really alarming trends of 2008 is the hugely-accelerating economic pressure on organizations like the NYT that support reporting rather than pure opinionizing.

U.S.: First Among Weaklings

At "The National Interest," Ximena Ortiz thinks the U.S. will continue to dominate global finance:
The global crisis will continue to profoundly impact the American. and global economy, but the demand for Treasuries will give the U.S. government broader options in dealing with the troubles, even if those options hinge on borrowed liquidity. Some countries, such as India, have proven to be more economically dependent on U.S.-fueled growth than widely presumed. China’s financial standing, meanwhile, remains largely unknown, given its opaque accounting.

It seems increasingly probable, therefore, that while the U.S. economy will suffer in absolute terms, it may not fall behind much in relative terms. The sudden brake on America’s brisk growth may just prompt global economic pain, rather than lead to a change in the global economic pecking order.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Delivering The Paperless Newspaper

Web revenue at the LA Times now more than pays for its reporters and editors. As Jeff Jarvis writes, that means the Times, and presumably other papers, could get rid of their printing presses and even their buildings and thrive anew as on-line news-gathering organizations.

No Brown M&Ms, One Bale Of Hay

The annual living Nativity at Yorba Linda Methodist Church features high school and junior high school volunteers and several veteran paid performers, including a 40-year-old donkey usually appearing at Knotts Berry Farm.

Why Felt Wanted To Take Down the President

Ron Briley on a relatively unexplored aspect of Watergate: Government officials at the FBI and Pentagon working to undermine an elected President:
...[W. Mark] Felt’s own actions as the number two man at the FBI during the 1970s raise some questions regarding the agent’s motivations. Was Felt primarily concerned about issues of democracy and civil liberties or was he more afraid that the White House might intrude upon the national security prerogatives of the FBI?

Higher Prices Are Good? Yep -- Especially Houses

Steve Chapman calls for more inflation.

Cheney Ends Up As The New Nixon, Anyway

The VP was evidently so grateful to Chris Wallace of Fox News for defending the Bush Administration against comparisons to Richard Nixon that he agreed to give Wallace an “exit interview” — ironic, since Mr. Cheney’s interview with Wallace has itself drawn a comparison by Matt Corley to RN’s famous assertion to David Frost about the President’s latitude during a national security crisis.

As TNN’s Robert Nedelkoff has noted, when Frank Langella, portraying RN, says that when the President does something, “it’s not illegal,” the script makes it appear as though he’s talking about the Watergate break-in and cover-up. In real life, Frost and the former President had been talking about the Huston Plan for wartime intelligence-gathering about domestic radicals. The plan was approved and later rescinded by the President.

It’s hard to defend illegal activity by the government under any circumstances. But it would be interesting to know how much latitude the American people would give it in the event of an imminent threat. At his appearance at the Nixon Library on Friday, Bill O’Reilly said that arguments against extreme measures would lose much if not all of their salience if the U.S. is hit again as on Sept. 11.

That doesn’t justify such actions, either. But journalists should not assume that Americans are of one mind on the subject. That’s why, at the start of the new administration, debate and dialogue would be better than the legal scapegoating of Bush Administration officials which is so intensely craved by the President’s and VP’s political opponents.

As for “Frost/Nixon” director Ron Howard and playwright-scriptwriter Peter Morgan, it would be interesting to know why they chose to misconstrue RN’s quote. Without knowing their motives, its likely that most theatergoers are more appalled by the “not illegal” formulation when it’s applied to political shenanigans as opposed to wartime national security policies.