September 25, 2007

Stevens goes courting

Jeffrey Rosen had a not-half-bad profile of Justice John Paul Stevens in this weekend's NYT magazine. As always, it's fascinating to get a rare peek into the inner workings of the Supreme Court--including this tidbit on how Stevens entices Anthony Kennedy to join the court's liberal voting bloc:

"When he is in the majority, Stevens is careful not to lose votes that start off on his side, often assigning the opinion to Kennedy when Kennedy seems to be on the fence. “Sometimes,” he told me, “in all candor, if you think somebody might not be solid” after casting a vote in conference, “it might be wiser to let that person write the opinion,” because after defending a position at length, people “tend to become even more convinced” than when they started... In other cases, Stevens has written the majority opinion himself in an effort to shore up Kennedy’s vote. [In one case]... by citing several of Kennedy’s previous opinions in his own opinion, Stevens persuaded Kennedy to stay in the liberal camp. "

All very shrewd, but is it really wise of Stevens to explain this to the Times? I imagine Kennedy is aware of Stevens's wily ways, but I can't imagine he'd take kindly to the fact that Stevens basically told the paper of record that he's been playing Kennedy like a piano.

Another nugget:

"[When he is in Florida, Stevens] swims every day in the ocean, plays tennis at least three times a week and plays golf two or three times a week...He tries to maintain this vigorous exercise schedule when he is in Washington, playing tennis two or three times a week... He is in such good physical shape that, in 2005, at age 85, he threw the first pitch at a Cubs-Reds game at Wrigley Field and got it right over the plate."

Every time I remember that Stevens is 89, I get anxious just thinking about some of the things that would happen if he were no longer on the court. Reading Rosen's piece, however, I feel quite relieved to think that Stevens gets a lot more more exercise than I do.

September 21, 2007

George W. Bush: "scared of horses"

From the UK's Daily Telegraph:

"President Bush may like to be seen as a swaggering tough guy with a penchant for manly outdoor pursuits, but in a new book one of his closest allies has said he is afraid of horses.
Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, derided his political friend as a "windshield cowboy" – a cowboy who prefers to drive – and "the cockiest guy I have ever met in my life". He recalled a meeting in Mexico shortly after both men had been elected when Mr Fox offered Mr Bush a ride on a "big palomino" horse. Mr Fox, who left office in December, recalled Mr Bush "backing away" from the animal. "A horse lover can always tell when others don't share our passion," he said. "
(via TPM)

Will Ferrell, though, called this one all the way back in 2004.

September 20, 2007

Excellent questions

... from George Will to Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey. They include, just for starters:

"The Bush administration says "the long war" -- the war on terrorism -- is a perpetual emergency that will last for generations. Waged against us largely by non-state actors, it will not end with a legally clarifying and definitive surrender. The administration regards America as a battlefield, on which even an American citizen can be seized as an "enemy combatant" and detained indefinitely. You ruled that presidents have this power, but you were reversed on appeal. What do you think was the flaw in the reasoning of the court that reversed you?"

September 19, 2007

Why Is Bob Herbert Boring?

This piece, by my friend and colleague T.A. Frank, addresses the above question. Despite the provocative title, it's a very thoughtful essay about the numerous difficulties of writing about poverty and the disadvantaged.

September 13, 2007

Fact checking Bill Murray

I remember being horrified watching the movie Shattered Glass in which the New Republic's fact checkers got suckered by a serial fabricator because they confirmed the details of his reporting by looking at his notes, instead of, say, making a few phone calls. Thankfully, these fellows appear to be far more thorough.
(thanks, Nick.)

September 12, 2007

Zbigniew's zingers

"...I asked Brzezinski, who knows from experience, how he responds to the Clinton line that as First Lady Hillary participated in numerous important foreign policy debates and, especially, the oft-repeated fact that she has visited 82 foreign nations. "I would say my travel agent has probably been to more than 82 countries," Brezezinski said with a smile, "but that doesn't qualify my travel agent to be secretary of state or president." Moreover, he added, "Being First Lady is not the same thing as showing, on her own, that she understands what is really at stake in a situation, and to understand it early on, and not to understand it when a lot of other people have belatedly reached the same conclusion."
(via Michael Crowley at The Plank.)

I agree with Brzezinski, but he certainly has a way of putting it.

This also allows me to air a long-standing gripe I've had about the coverage of the Democratic candidates, which is: if Obama weren't in the race, both Hillary and Edwards would have to answer some hard questions about their own experience. Edwards's claim to experience is almost as slender as Obama's (and he failed the major test of his term in the Senate, the Iraq war vote). Hillary has been an witness to executive leadership, but not a participant accountable to the public--and when she was given an opportunity to acquire this type of experience (her healthcare plan) she failed too. But because Barack Obama's only previous experience in government has been as a state senator, Hillary and Edwards rarely have to answer tough questions about their rather thin resumes. This should give Democratic primary voters some pause about rejecting Obama on the grounds of his inexperience alone, because the alternatives aren't exactly FDR.

September 11, 2007

Two books

Two books getting a lot of press this week are Jack Goldsmith's The Terror Presidency--an account of his time as the head of the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel--and Charlie Savage's Takeover, a legal history of Dick Cheney's project to expand the powers of the presidency. Goldsmith's book is illuminating for its insider's insights, and Savage's is essential.

A couple of things struck me about Goldsmith's book. Goldsmith was the brave bureaucrat who withdrew the infamous "torture" memo (and a number of others) after he came to the conclusion that they were riddled with erroneous legal reasoning. I hadn't realized that withdrawing memos was basically unheard of for the OLC--and Goldsmith wound up withdrawing not just one but a "short stack." We still only know about the contents of a couple of these.

Goldsmith's book is also interesting because Goldsmith is a conservative, and so he arrives at his destination from a different direction than most liberal critics of Cheney's excesses. For instance:

"On issue after issue, the administration had powerful legal arguments but ultimately made mistakes on important questions of policy. It got policies wrong, ironically, because it was excessively legalistic, because it often substituted legal analysis for policy judgment, and because it was too committed to expanding the President's constitutional powers."

Basically, Goldsmith's point is that the administration acted as it did because there are now more international and domestic laws relating to war and national security than there were a few decades ago. However, the president was unwilling to go to Congress to ask for new authorities because of Cheney and Addington's ideological opposition to granting Congress any voice at all in the realm of national security. Instead, they opted for legal positions which were not just contorted but actually wrong.

As for Savage's book, I would urge you to read it. Although this subject has become almost a fetish in the elite media over the past year or so, it's amazing how much new information he's unearthed -- including details about Cheney's views on presidential power from the Ford administration, and about John Robert's and Samuel Alito's worrisome views on executive power, as gleaned from their careers at the Reagan DOJ.

The other thing that's laudable about the book is its tone. There are no rhetorical or partisan indulgences here, which I hope will make it easier for Savage to convinced the unconvinced or unaware that for the past eight years, Dick Cheney really has been engaged in a radical endeavor to remake the American presidency for the foreseeable future.

September 10, 2007

September 7, 2007

The trouble with columnists

Last week a colleague and I were having a conversation about columnists and I was trying to explain why I'm not a huge fan of that form of writing. Over at the Atlantic, James Fallows mentions a conversation he once had with Tom Friedman about The World is Flat that captures some of what I was trying to say:

"When I asked Friedman... why he said on virtually every page of the book that the world was "flat," when he knew very well all the reasons it wasn't, he disarmingly said: In the columnist game, you don't sell things 51-49. You decide what you think is right, and you push that all the way. So, he could have more accurately said that the world is "flattening," but that wouldn't have had the ooomph. "

Now, I'm not saying that all opinion writing is bad, but I think that Friedman's right about how the "columnist game" works. Another thing, of course, that Friedman once gave considerable oomph to was the Iraq war. On those sorts of questions, I get very nervous about the influence of a super-columnist like Friedman, combined with the career imperatives of being a professional opinion shaper.

Photo from Flickr user keso under a Creative Commons license.

A sign of the times

The American Constitution Society has posted a link to a useful document compiled by Neil Kinkopf, associate professor of law at Georgia State University, cataloguing every single signing statement President Bush has issued, along with the legislative clause he objected to, and the specific objection given. In case you don't have time to read all 229 pages, we're up to 1,047 parts of law that the President has decided that he doesn't have to follow.

September 6, 2007

Dorms like Palaces

The Washington City Paper has a pretty good story about the various extravagences of George Washington University, where tuition (including accommodation) just passed the $50,000 mark, although the school's U.S News ranking has been on the decline. The extravagences include:

* Engraved chocolates deposited on the pillows of incoming freshmen at inauguration.
* "GW ranks well on at least one list—Princeton Review’s “Dorms Like Palaces.”
* "A lighted model of the Washington Monument... soars from the basement through an atrium. (The actual monument is a short walk away.)... Changes have also come to Duques Hall, GW’s new business school building, which now features a classroom built to resemble a stock exchange, with a multitude of screens on which students can play stockbroker."

The piece also contains one of the least comprehensible responses to a journalist that I have ever read; to wit:
“But you see, all our students aren’t identical. And so what we try to do is treat each student as justly and as equitably as we can. And so it’s a little like a Procrustean bed. You know you have a 6-foot person, and you have a 4-foot bed. The choices, it seems to me, are extend the bed by 2 feet or cut 2 feet off the person...Well, what we try to extend the bed. And so we have some students who are paying—what you would call if you’re buying a car—the list price. And we have other students who are getting the car for free. And most students are in between A and Z, between Alpha and Omega.”

The Democrats and the troops

From Matthew Iglesias:
"Chris Bowers notes that 59 percent of Democrats believe that John Edwards is proposing to withdraw all US forces from Iraq within nine months. 71 percent believe that Barack Obama is proposing to do this. And 76 (!) percent believe Hillary Clinton is proposing to do so. Needless to say, none of them are, in fact, proposing anything of the sort--though I wish they would."

So, if all three candidates are wary of calling for troop withdrawal because they fear public disapproval, but the public believes that they are calling for troop withdrawal -- then the candidates might as well call for troop withdrawal. Especially as this is what voters actually want, and, even more importantly in this particular case, because there really are no good reasons to stay in Iraq, not even reasons prompted by the best possible intentions.

September 5, 2007

The Dear Leader has notes

"It turns out Mr. Kim has issued an incredible total of 11,890 instructions to North Korean filmmakers since the 1960s. For most of this period... he was issuing instructions at a rate of one a day. For one film alone, Sea of Blood, he issued 124 detailed instructions. On another film, Flower Girl, he gave "on-the-spot guidance" on 116 instances... [For example,] Mr. Kim told his filmmakers to use three cameras, instead of one, for the making of Sea of Blood. This apparently had never occurred to any of his directors."
The rest is here, via ArtsJournal.

Photo from Flickr user ManilaRyce under a Creative Commons license.

September 2, 2007

What I'm reading

I find that working in a job where I'm up to my elbows in words all day doesn't always make for good reading habits. Sometimes I read nothing at all for long stretches and get very disgruntled about it. Other times, I find myself binging on books like you wouldn't believe. Over the last month or so, I've been on a bit of a bender, reading-wise -- partly for work and partly for fun. I'll have more to say about a few of these books soon, but in the meantime, if anyone is looking for recommendations, here are some from me:
* The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross -- a history of the twentieth century through its classical music. I'm in the middle of this right now (a review copy, it's not out until September).
* Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, by Charlie Savage. Basically a legal history of the Bush administration. If you read just one book on this subject, etc.
* The Imperial Presidency, by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
* Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, which is exquisite.