No Comment — March 17, 2008, 8:42 am

More Bad Nominees

The Prison Politics of Gus Puryear
Nothing is more revealing of George W. Bush and his presidency than his choice of personnel. He has already given rise to a new term, coined by writers at the New Republic, “hackocracy.” It describes his penchant for selecting figures based not on aptitude and competence, but service to him personally and to the Republican Party. The ranks of the Justice Department and the seats of the federal bench have hardly been immune from this process. To the contrary, Bush has worked hard to uproot competent career employees and plant his political hacks deep in the fields of career service.

This week’s Time Magazine brings us a portrait by Adam Zagorin of one of Bush’s 28 pending judicial candidates: a 39-year-old lawyer named Gus Puryear IV. Judicial candidates usually have a résumé that speaks of dedicated public service—work as a prosecutor and some time on the bench. But Puryear reflects the new Rovian judicial model. His principal qualifier is dedicated service in the trenches of partisan political work. Puryear has worked in the Bush-Cheney campaign, playing a number of key roles. For instance, he served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s debate coach in both the 2000 and 2004 elections, and he’s a close personal friend of Cheney’s son-in-law, Philip Perry.

Puryear’s relationship with Perry seems to have been critical for his career trajectory in several respects. Puryear is the general counsel of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a company which operates prisons for state and federal governments, and is filled with deep cross-funding relationships with the Republican Party. Perry was the general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and DHS was, unsurprisingly, a prime customer of CCA.

Zagorin recounts that a former senior manager of CCA has recently furnished a glimpse under the sheets of Puryear’s conduct and style as a corporate counsel.

Puryear oversaw a reporting system in which accounts of major, sometimes violent prison disturbances and other significant events were often masked or minimized in accounts provided to government agencies with oversight over prison contracts. Ronald T. Jones, the former CCA manager, alleges that the company even began keeping two sets of books — one for internal use that described prison deficiencies in telling detail, and a second set that Jones describes as “doctored” for public consumption, to limit bad publicity, litigation or fines that could derail CCA’s multimillion-dollar contracts with federal, state or local agencies. . .

Jones knows CCA intimately. Until last summer, the longtime Republican was in charge of “quality assurance” records for CCA prisons across the U.S. He says that in 2005, after CCA found itself embarrassed on several occasions by the public release of internal records to government agencies, Puryear mandated that detailed, raw reports on prison shortcomings carry a blanket assertion of “attorney-client privilege,” thus forbidding their release without his written consent. From then on, Jones says, the audits delivered to agencies were filled with increasingly vague performance measures. “If the wrong party found out that a facility’s operations scored low in an audit, then CCA could be subject to litigation, fines or worse,” explains Jones. “When Mr. Puryear felt there was highly sensitive or potentially damaging information to CCA, I would then be directed to remove that information from an audit report.” Puryear would not comment on the allegations. Jones resigned from CCA last summer to pursue a legal career.

According to Jones, Puryear was most concerned about what CCA described as “zero tolerance” events, or ZT’s — including unnatural deaths, major disturbances, escapes and sexual assaults. According to Jones, bonuses and job security at the company were tied to reporting low ZT numbers. Low numbers also pleased CCA’s government clients, as well as the company’s board, which received a regular tally, and Wall Street analysts concerned about potentially costly lawsuits that CCA might face.

No business wants its seamy underside to be revealed to the public, of course, and Puryear’s manipulations can be seen as an exercise in public relations management. But a general counsel has some additional responsibilities. When his client is a public company, he has duties of fair disclosure, and he also has duties to keep his management and board of directors informed about what’s going on at the facilities under CCA management.

The Zagorin report points to a just-sweep-it-under-the-carpet approach to management that may raise fair questions about a judicious mindset. But even more troubling is Puryear’s whole résumé which is notably long on partisan politics and short on the sort of qualifications that usually go with a judicial nominee.

Wrong for Civil Rights
Under Bush, the Civil Rights Division has become an Orwellian perversion. Its function was once to protect the civil rights of ordinary citizens. But under Bush, it has been converted into a political machine to advance the electoral agenda of the G.O.P. and to disadvantage the constituency it was created to protect. Recent scandals have forced a housecleaning. But now the Bush Administration advances Grace Chung Becker to head this division. Her nomination has to be seen as “more of the same.”

The New York Times this morning reviews some of the reasons why Grace Chung Becker should be rejected:

The civil rights division has been in sorry shape for some time. At Congressional hearings last year, its former head admitted that he boasted of hiring Republicans for nonpolitical attorney positions. The division also has repeatedly taken anti-civil-rights stands. Notoriously, it endorsed a Georgia voter ID law that was widely likened to a poll tax because it charged people for the ID they needed to vote.

The Senate should only confirm a division head who demonstrates a commitment both to fixing these problems and rooting out the damage that has been done. Ms. Becker fails on both counts. When Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, asked about the department’s politicized hiring, she insisted it was improper for her to answer because an investigation is under way. That is a made-up rule. Congress, which oversees the Justice Department, has a right to have its questions answered. If Ms. Becker is this contemptuous of the Senate’s role at her confirmation hearings, it is disturbing to think how dismissive she will be if she is confirmed.

Ms. Becker has also taken stands that undermine civil rights. She signed a brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold an Indiana voter ID law that would disenfranchise many minority voters. The position she took was helpful for the Republican Party, but it hurt the people she was supposed to look out for. When asked why she signed the brief, Ms. Becker again stonewalled.

Becker’s conduct exemplifies perfectly just what has taken the Civil Rights Division down. If confirmed, she would most likely continue to vandalize the department.

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
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Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
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Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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