December 2005, Part 3

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Donkeys And Elephants And Tigers And . . . Santa Claus?  Yes, Thomas Nast, the cartoonist who helped tie donkeys to Democrats, elephants to Republicans, and the tiger to Tammany Hall, is also the cartoonist who gave us our traditional picture of Santa Claus.

(If you would like to see a fancied up version of Nast's Santa, you can find one here.)

As far as I tell after a quick search, Nast was the first to use the elephant for the Republican party, but was following tradition in using the donkey for the Democratic party.  (But not a universal tradition.  Some state Democratic parties, notably Alabama's, used the rooster as a party symbol for many years.)  And using the tiger for Tammany was definitely his idea.  You can find examples of each here, here, and here.

Nast immigrated from Germany when he was a child and never lost his sympathy for immigrants, a sympathy best shown in this Thanksgiving cartoon, where he welcomes all to the United States.  Like many other German immigrants of that era, he was a strong supporter of the Republican party and of Lincoln during the Civil War.  This famous cartoon attacks the defeatism of the 1864 Democratic platform.

And he did not give up his idealism as he grew older.  The end of his life is surprising, but at the same time, fitting.
He tried to start a magazine, which failed, and in 1902 Theodore Roosevelt appointed him as United States' Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador in South America.  During a deadly yellow fever outbreak, Nast heroically stayed to the end helping numerous diplomatic missions and businesses close to escape the contagion.  At age 62, in 1902, he died of yellow fever contracted there.
A wonderful life and a heroic death.
- 12:50 PM, 24 December 2005   [link]

Life Sentences Aren't Always For Life:  It is not hard to find examples of "life" sentences in the United States that end in parole after ten or fifteen years.  And that practice appears to be even more common in Europe.  But this example from Germany is infuriating.
German officials said Tuesday that they had released a Lebanese man jailed 19 years ago for killing an American Navy diver during the 1985 hijacking of a T.W.A. jetliner, an ordeal that shocked Americans during a tense 17-day standoff.
A full "life" sentence would have been 25 years, so they did release him early — and without letting us know that they would do so.  The office that released him says it was all routine:
A spokeswoman for the Frankfurt prosecutor's office, Doris Möller-Scheu, said Mr. Hamadi's release after he had served 19 years, was a result of a normal, mandatory parole board review of his detention.

"Everything was O.K. with him, the prison evaluation, the psychologist's and the prosecutor's," Ms. Möller-Scheu said, explaining the reasons for the decision to grant Mr. Hamadi parole.
But I have my doubts.  It it hard not to conclude that whoever decided to release this brutal murderer, who will almost certainly go back to terrorism, wanted to cause problems between Germany and the United States.
- 3:13 PM, 21 December 2005
Correction:  Ralf Goergens of the Chicago Boys, who knows far more about the judicial system in Germany than I do, tells me that I was wrong to believe reports that US officials were not notified about Hamadi's release.  We were notified, and we complained, to no effect.

And he says that the decision to release this brutal murderer was made by the Hessian state (not the national government) following "standard bureaucratic procedures".  I'm sure he is right but I can not entirely rid myself of the suspicion that some on the parole board (or whatever the German equivalent is) were not disturbed by the damage that this release does to the relations between the two nations.  And I should add that Ralf himself would have preferred that Hamadi die in prison of old age.

This release gives us more reason to reject using criminal procedures to fight terrorism.  If we saw this man as a combatant in a war — which is almost certainly how he sees himself — we would understand that we should either shoot him on the spot, as the laws of war allow, or keep him in captivity until the end of the war — or, more likely, since this war will probably last a century, until he dies.
- 8:25 AM, 23 December 2005   [link]

Bush's Popularity Jumps Up:  So says the "Mystery Pollster":
Approval of President Bush, at least for the moment, appears to have increased significantly in the wake [of] the positive news stories regarding last week's election in Iraq and coverage of five speeches in 19 days.
And this earlier post has a graph showing the turnaround.  Most of the jump came from Republicans, according to the Washington Post poll.

My guess is that Bush's fight with the New York Times will help him further with the public.  The average citizen — to the extent they hear about the story — is likely to approve heartily of Bush's efforts to track those who collaborate with terrorists, especially when they learn that the surveillance program has had some successes.
- 7:32 AM, 20 December 2005
More:  This online discussion with the Washington Post's chief pollster, Richard Morin, has more information.  For instance, Bush gained 9 points with Republicans, 5 points with independents, and 4 points with Democrats. And Morin also gives us this tidbit:
Richard Morin: An impeachment demand from Ireland? Oh my gawd.  Now I'm furious.

Let me explain.

For the past eight months or so, the major media pollsters have been the target of a campaign organized by a Democratic Web site demanding that we ask a question about impeaching Bush in our polls.

The Web site lists the e-mail addresses of every media pollster, reporters as well as others.   The Post's ombudsman is even on their hit list.

The Web site helpfully provides draft language that can be cut-and-pasted into a blanket e-mail.
So Morin regularly gets floods of email on the subject, and he is getting tired of it.

As Morin notes farther down, an impeachment (he means impeachment and conviction) of President Bush would result in — President Dick Cheney.  Who would then nominate a vice president (Republican, no doubt) to be confirmed by the Republican Congress.
- 8:06 AM, 21 December 2005   [link]

Sprawl Is Universal, says Michael Barone.
Robert Bruegmann's book Sprawl: A Compact History has inspired some interesting reviews.  One is by the witty architect and architectural critic Witold Rybczynski, who has written many fine books himself.  Another is by Joel Kotkin, author of the recent The City: A Global History.  Rybczynski and Kotkin reach similar conclusions.

Rybczynski: "It appears that all cities—at least all cities in the industrialized western world—have experienced a dispersal of population from the center to a lower-density periphery.  In other words, sprawl is universal.
Why is sprawl universal?  Because people everywhere like having neighbors — and like having some distance between themselves and their neighbors.

American critics of sprawl have, Barone believes, erred by reasoning from that most atypical city, New York.  (And even that city is much less dense than it once was.)
- 4:34 PM, 19 December 2005   [link]

Sawdust Furnaces And Biodiesel:  When I was growing up, my family had a furnace that burned sawdust.  (Converted, I believe, from a coal furnace with the addition of a large hopper, and perhaps some other changes.)  Heating with sawdust worked out well for us.   In our part of eastern Washington state, there were several small logging mills that produced piles of sawdust for which there was then no significant market.  By selling it to us, and to other families in the area, they got rid of a waste product, and we got inexpensive heating.  (And, although no one paid much attention to such things in our area at that time, burning sawdust did not cause serious pollution problems because the population was sparse, as it generally is in farming areas.)

Trees are cheap to grow, and it is not hard to turn them into sawdust.  But would it make sense for a wood products firm such as Weyerhauser to grow trees to provide sawdust for home heating?  No, because the trees are worth far more as wood than as sawdust.

The same argument applies — though enthusiasts seem not to have noticed — to biodiesel.   When the fuel can be created from true waste products, it may make economic sense, but it would be foolish, at least in the near future, to raise crops purely to convert them into diesel fuel.  Corn can be converted into food for us, or fodder for our animals, or biodiesel.  For many years, it will be more valuable as the first and second than the third.

(By the way, it would not be that difficult to build sawdust fueled cars.  You would just have to burn the sawdust to drive a steam engine.  Such a car would require a rather large fuel hopper, or frequent fill-ups, but there is nothing impossible about the idea.

And you can still buy a sawdust furnace, or build your own, as you can find out here, here, and here.)
- 2:27 PM, 19 December 2005   [link]

The Barrett Report:  Have you heard about it?  Most likely not, unless you read conservative columnists or listen to conservative talk show hosts.

First, the basic facts:
The report is the work of the staff of Independent Counsel David Barrett.  He was tapped back in the Clinton days to investigate allegations that then Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros lied to the FBI and committed tax fraud in attempting to conceal money he had paid a mistress.   Cisneros pled guilty back in 1999, and that would have been the end of it had Barrett's investigators not found serious misbehavior in Justice and in the IRS related to Cisneros' problems.  Cisneros was a very promising Texas Democrat, and the Clintons did not want him to come a cropper.

When Barrett completed his report the Clintons' lawyers, led by that legendary Clinton pettifogger, David Kendall, tried to kill off the report either by gutting it with redactions or by getting it buried altogether.  Kendall entered some 140 motions pursuant to this goal.  The report has been ready for publication since August, 2004 but Kendall's nuisance tactics have worked, and now what do we hear from the Clintonistas?  They complain that Barrett has cost too much and taken too long.
So why haven't the Republicans in Congress published the report anyway?  Because they got snookered by the Democrats in a backroom deal.
Alert Republicans, pushed by talk-radio listeners and bloggers,managed to short-circuit that effort, but Democrats patiently pursued their goal.  They got what they wanted recently, when the House and Senate met to iron out differences in yet another appropriations bill.  Democrats inserted language that would prevent public release of the 120 pages of the report listing the Clinton transgressions.   They offered what may have looked like a good deal.  They promised not to object to letting Barrett continue with any prosecutions already underway.

Republicans negotiators, led by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich, took the bait.  They agreed to keep the public in the dark about the important stuff in exchange for a big, fat nothing.  Unbeknownst to Bond and Knollenberg, Barrett shut down his grand juries three years ago.
So what is in those pages that Democrats have fought so long and hard to prevent us from seeing?   Most likely, evidence that the Clinton administration used the IRS and the Justice Department to go after its political enemies.  But we won't know for sure until we see the report.  I think we can be almost certain that those pages that the Democrats want to keep hidden do not contain positive information about the Clinton administration.  And, given the vigor of the Democrats' efforts, we must suspect that what they are hiding is not trivial.

(By the way, what do you think the New York Times' position is on the Barrett report?  Are they defending the people's right to know?  Calling for the release of a report on wrongdoing by high officials?  No, in this editorial, they called for Barrett's office to be shut down and the report to be suppressed.  One would almost think that they, like me, suspect that there is something in the report that would damage the Clintons.

You can find more on the Barrett report here and here.)
- 10:31 AM, 19 December 2005   [link]

The American Media Is Biased:  Well, sure, we all knew that.  Or at least most of us knew that.  But now there is an important formal study demonstrating that bias.

While the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal is conservative, the newspaper's news pages are liberal, even more liberal than The New York Times.  The Drudge Report may have a right-wing reputation, but it leans left.  Coverage by public television and radio is conservative compared to the rest of the mainstream media.  Meanwhile, almost all major media outlets tilt to the left.

These are just a few of the surprising findings from a UCLA-led study, which is believed to be the first successful attempt at objectively quantifying bias in a range of media outlets and ranking them accordingly.

"I suspected that many media outlets would tilt to the left because surveys have shown that reporters tend to vote more Democrat than Republican," said Tim Groseclose, a UCLA political scientist and the study's lead author.  "But I was surprised at just how pronounced the distinctions are."

"Overall, the major media outlets are quite moderate compared to members of Congress, but even so, there is a quantifiable and significant bias in that nearly all of them lean to the left," said co—author Jeffrey Milyo, University of Missouri economist and public policy scholar.

The researchers constructed ADA* scores, like those used to measure voting by Congressmen, for the media outlets.  They could then compare those scores to the views of the average congressman.  So when they say that the media outlets are biased, they are saying that they are to the left (or the right in a few cases) of the average congressman.  When you think about the findings, you should remember that point.  The researchers are not comparing the media to some abstract standard of truth, but to our elected officials.  They believe that our elected officials represent, roughly, the views of the average voter.

(The methodology, as described in the press release, seems sensible to me.  I hope to take a closer look at the article to verify (or contradict) that impression.)

Which media outlets were closest to the average congressman?  The answer did not surprise me, though it it may surprise some on both the left and right.

Five news outlets — "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," ABC's "Good Morning America," CNN's "NewsNight With Aaron Brown," Fox News' "Special Report With Brit Hume" and the Drudge Report — were in a statistical dead heat in the race for the most centrist news outlet.  Of the print media, USA Today was the most centrist.

And of those five, only Brit Hume was to the right of the average congressman, though not very far.

Cross posted at Oh, That Liberal Media.

(*I assume they used scores from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action because those scores are best known.  I prefer the National Journal scores for congressmen, which separate votes into three categories, economic, social, and foreign.  But using National Journal scores may not have been practical.)
- 7:29 AM, 19 December 2005   [link]

Brokeback New York Times:  Last week's election in Iraq was, almost certainly, the biggest story of the year.  So what was the subject of Maureen Dowd's column yesterday?  A movie about two gay cowboys.  And what did the reigning queen of the New York Times columnists have to say about the movie?  Something absurd.   What she said is hidden behind the TimesSelect wall, but I bought a copy of the newspaper (so you don't have to) and can tell you that her column contains gems such as these:
As President Bush tries to shake off his dazed look and regain his swagger, he will no doubt dust off his cowboy routine: his gunslinger pose. his squinty-eyed gaze, his dead-or-alive one-liners, his Crawford brush clearing.
. . .
Can a culture built on laconic cowboys like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood survive one rough-hewn cowboy crooning to another, as Jake Gyllenhall's Jack Twist tells Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar: "Sometimes I miss you so much, I can hardly stand it.  Or, "I wish I knew how to quit you."
Yes, that's right; Maureen Dowd is arguing that because Hollywood has made a movie about gay cowboys, President Bush will be handicapped in his political arguments, and our whole culture may change.

If the New York Times still had real editors, they might have asked Dowd a few questions about this column, such as:  Does she think the United States had no tough guys before the John Wayne movies?  Does she think a movie almost no one will see will have a great effect on the culture when far more popular movies, such as Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ, did not?   Does she even understand the difference between movies and reality?

And Dowd wasn't the only one there to choose the movie instead of the Iraqi election.  Frank Rich, who is, as I understand it, the darling of Manhattan's limousine liberals, also drooled over the movie.  (Those who have followed my posts on Rich will know that he routinely botches metaphors.  So it is only fair to say that the headline, with its botched metaphor, is not in the column, though many other examples of bad writing are.)  Much to my delight, Rich even predicts that the movie will be a "runaway" hit.  Sadly, he does not offer to accept wagers on his prediction.

When a minor movie draws this much attention from supposedly serious people at the New York Times, we can see that, although there are still many fine journalists there, the back of the newspaper is broken.  The spine once supplied by editors such as A. M. Rosenthal is gone, or at least fatally damaged.

(Just in case you think I am exaggerating, let me add that today's New York Times has two more extensive pieces on the movie, which you can find here and here.

This isn't the first time I have said that movies were not terribly important; when last I made that argument I was writing about a rather different movie, from Mel Gibson.  That movie, too, I said, was "just a movie".

Should I have covered these pieces instead of something more serious?  Perhaps not, but we do need to know just how seriously damaged our newspaper of record is.  And I will get back to more serious issues shortly.)
- 1:32 PM, 18 December 2005   [link]