Washington Babylon

Washington Babylon — September 29, 2010, 11:37 am

Signing Out

This is my last post here at Washington Babylon and I’ll be leaving my position as Harper’s Washington Editor (I will remain as a contributing editor to the magazine). I’ve received a fellowship at the Open Society Institute and will also be leading special investigations at Global Witness, which has offices in London and in Washington. My work for both will focus on long-term international investigations. I moved to Washington in 1993, when a young, new Democratic president replaced George Bush and promised to reform politics and be a transformative leader. Backed by huge majorities in Congress and with public …

Washington Babylon — September 22, 2010, 10:51 am

Broder and Woodward Still on Lecture Circuit

Two years ago, I wrote about private groups offering big speaking fees and perks to David Broder and Bob Woodward, even though both had talked in the past about the impropriety of journalistic “buckraking.” Broder, for example, said in 1996, “It’s clear that some journalists now are in a market category where the amount of money that they can make on extracurricular activities raises, in my mind, exactly, and, clearly, in the public’s mind, exactly the same kind of conflict-of-interest questions that we are constantly raising with people in public life.” Deborah Howell, the Washington Post ombudsman at the time, …

Washington Babylon — September 21, 2010, 8:24 am

Incumbency: The Democrats’ Best Hope

The scenario for the midterm elections remains grim for Democrats, but they have two factors working in their favor. First, the pathetic state of the GOP and second, and more importantly, the advantages of incumbency. In American politics, it’s nearly impossible to lose a reelection race unless, to paraphrase an old line from former Louisiana politico Edwin Edwards, you’re caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. The main reasons for that are gerrymandered districts and the fundraising edge incumbents enjoy. “There are two parties now, the Ins and the Outs,” a congressional staffer told me. “The …

Washington Babylon — September 14, 2010, 4:31 pm

Plumbing the Depths: A review of Megan McCain’s new book

From Leon Wolf in the New Ledger: I initially had reservations about writing this book review at all. After all, it is clear to everyone who has read Meghan McCain’s twitter feed, her “articles” on The Daily Beast, or her ill-fated campaign blog that Meghan is not a paragon of clear reasoning, exemplar of familiarity with facts, nor a model of English language expertise. And after subjecting myself to 194 continuous pages of her “writing,” it became clear that none of the above-described works truly plumbed the depths of mental vacuity in which Ms. McCain aimlessly and cluelessly drifts. This …

Washington Babylon — September 9, 2010, 7:36 am

American Inequality: The making of a Banana Republic

From Tim Noah at Slate: When it comes to real as opposed to imagined social mobility, surveys find less in the United States than in much of (what we consider) the class-bound Old World. France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Spain—not to mention some newer nations like Canada and Australia—are all places where your chances of rising from the bottom are better than they are in the land of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick… According to the Central Intelligence Agency (whose patriotism I hesitate to question), income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly …

Washington Babylon — September 6, 2010, 9:43 am

With Congress, Charity Begins at Home

Last year I posted an item about the James E. Clyburn Research and Scholarship Foundation, the personal charity of House Majority Whip James Clyburn. The foundation’s donors included a number of companies and groups that Clyburn had supported in Congress, especially the Nuclear Energy Institute. Today the New York Times ran a story about Clyburn’s foundation and others run by members of congress. As the Times reported: Since 2009, businesses have sent lobbyists and executives to the plush Boulders resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., for a fund-raiser for the scholarship fund of Representative Steve Buyer, Republican of Indiana; sponsored a skeet …

Washington Babylon — September 6, 2010, 9:41 am

Chelsea’s Wedding and the Political Class

From Joe Bageant: How about them political elites, huh? Five million bucks for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, 15K just to rent the air-conditioned shitters — huge chrome and glass babies with hot water and everything. No gas masks and waxy little squares of toilet paper for those guys… Moneywise, Washington’s political class is richer than the working class by the same orders of magnitude as the ruling class is richer than the political class. This gives the political class something to aim for. To that end, they have adopted the ruling elite’s behaviors, tastes and lifestyles, with an eye on becoming …

Washington Babylon — August 30, 2010, 10:53 am

Another Congressional Perk: College scholarships for pals

From the Dallas Morning News: Longtime Dallas congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson has awarded thousands of dollars in college scholarships to four relatives and a top aide’s two children since 2005, using foundation funds set aside for black lawmakers’ causes. The recipients were ineligible under anti-nepotism rules of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which provided the money. And all of the awards violated a foundation requirement that scholarship winners live or study in a caucus member’s district. Johnson, a Democrat, denied any favoritism when asked about the scholarships last week. Two days later, she acknowledged in a statement released by her …

Washington Babylon — August 25, 2010, 7:30 pm

Doh! Bachmann spells name wrong in registering her PAC

As Wonkette reported earlier today, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has formed her very own Leadership Political Action Committee, the slush fund of choice for the modern politician. Like many members of congress, she incorporated her own name into the name of the PAC. Unfortunately, her first name is spelled incorrectly in the Statement of Organization filed with the Federal Election Commission. The PAC is registered with the FEC as MichellePAC.

Washington Babylon — August 25, 2010, 9:11 am

More on Obama’s Chances to Win Reelection

Nelson Hernandez (among others) took issue with my “clever analysis of President Obama’s excellent chances of re-election.” Hernandez made a number of good points, though he made several comments (for example, Obama has “an insatiable desire to promote socialism”) that make it hard to take him seriously. But here’s an edited version of his email, to which I’ll reply below: The economy is obviously in dire straits and may well be heading into a full-scale, big-D Depression which will hit us full force before the 2012 election. Even the most mainstream economic commentators are now pretty much throwing in the …

Washington Babylon — August 25, 2010, 8:25 am

About That “Year of the Insurgent” Narrative: And what new bogus storyline will the media find to replace it?

A few short months ago the media was filled with narratives about 2010 being the “Year of the Insurgent,” a storyline that was always overblown. That’s not because the public is happy with congress, but because a well-funded incumbent is awfully hard to knock off. Even in 2006, when Democrats made huge gains in the House, 94 percent of incumbents won reelection. That’s not to say incumbents aren’t going to lose a few races (and it looks like the Democrats will drop quite a few seats this fall), just that it generally takes extraordinary circumstances, given the corrupted rules of …

Washington Babylon — August 25, 2010, 7:17 am

Race and the Courts

From Stephen Bright, in the Fulton County Daily Report: The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ third ruling that a white supervisor calling black men “boy”—as in “Boy, you better get going” and “Hey, boy”—is not evidence of racial animus was issued last week by Judges Edward E. Carnes and William H. Pryor Jr. in an unsigned, unpublished opinion. Carnes and Pryor are white men and alumni of the Alabama attorney general’s office. The third judge on the panel, a visiting senior district judge from Ohio appointed by President Ronald Reagan, dissented. He would have upheld a jury verdict finding …

Washington Babylon — August 24, 2010, 11:19 am

David Broder Rushed to Hospital for Emergency Craniorectal Procedure

David Broder of the Washington Post has long had his head so far up Washington’s ass that he is incapable of understanding that there are opinions in America beyond the ten Beltway insiders he gets his talking points from. (An affliction from which much of the D.C. press corps suffers, though generally not in as advanced a state as Broder’s.) In his latest column, he attacks writer John Judis for having opinions that Broder deems out of the mainstream — meaning anything to the left of, say, Senator Blanche Lincoln. Specifically, he endorses Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs’s recent criticism of …

Washington Babylon — August 24, 2010, 11:19 am

Why Obama Will Win Reelection: Walter Mondale

With the Democrats looking to receive a solid (and well-deserved) drubbing in the mid-term elections, there’s much talk in the press about whether Barack Obama will be a one-term president. In a Sunday column, Dan Balz of the Washington Post wrote: “Throughout this long year, President Obama’s advisers have sometimes looked to Ronald Reagan for comparison and inspiration. If the Gipper could survive a deep recession, low approval ratings and an adverse midterm election in his first two years and win reelection handily two years later, then Obama could easily do the same, they reason.” But, Balz went on to …

Washington Babylon — August 13, 2010, 7:32 pm

Goldberg’s Case for War

James Fallows argues that Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic about the prospect of Israel attacking Iran is not actually an endorsement for such an attack, but that “the article hews to a strictly reportorial perspective: this is what the Israeli officials seem to think, this is how American officials might react, this is how Israeli officials might anticipate how the Americans might react, these are the Israeli voices of caution, here are the potential readings and mis-readings on each side.” Fallows adds that those who believe Goldberg is advocating for war are mainly responding to his byline rather than …

Washington Babylon — August 12, 2010, 12:57 pm

Jeffrey Goldberg’s Convenient Facts

Jonathan Schwarz and Glenn Greenwald demolish Jeffrey Goldberg’s new piece in The Atlantic. The former writes, “Jeffrey Goldberg has just written a long article about the chances of Israel attacking Iran. (Apparently it’s 50-50.) The piece demonstrates that Goldberg remains at the top of his profession—he’s still America’s greatest foreign policy propagandist.” Greenwald, elaborating on Schwarz’s post, starts his piece by citing this section of Goldberg’s new article: Israel has twice before successfully attacked and destroyed an enemy’s nuclear program. In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, halting — forever, as it turned out — Saddam Hussein’s …

Washington Babylon — August 6, 2010, 3:06 pm

Trouble for the Democrats’ Favorite Defense Lobbyist

From the Washington Post: Paul J. Magliocchetti was one of the most powerful and influential lobbyists in Washington not too long ago, known for steering campaign contributions to favored lawmakers while securing millions of dollars in projects for his clients. On Thursday, the former defense lobbyist stood accused by federal prosecutors of orchestrating one of the largest campaign-finance frauds in U.S. history… Magliocchetti, 64, the founder and owner of the now-closed PMA Group, was charged in U.S. District Court in Alexandria with eight counts of illegal campaign contributions and three counts of making false statements. He is accused of funneling …

Washington Babylon — August 5, 2010, 11:30 am

Hope and Change in the Middle East

From Laura Rozen: The 2010 Arab Public Opinion poll will be released Thursday at the Brookings Institution by Shibley Telhami, of the University of Maryland and Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy. The annual survey, conducted in conjunction with Zogby International, polled 3,976 people in six countries — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates — in June and July. The most striking finding is that while early in the Obama administration, in April and May 2009, some 51 percent of those polled expressed optimism about American policy in the Middle East; in the 2010 …

Washington Babylon — August 5, 2010, 11:30 am

Jon Stewart Gives Up

And with good reason. Which side is worse? The Republicans who voted against a bill providing health care for 9/11 first responders? Or the Democrats who used a legislative trick so they wouldn’t have to approve it? You decide.

Washington Babylon — August 4, 2010, 12:18 pm

There Go The Midterms

Afghanistan + The Economy + Health Care Reform = this: Only 41% of those surveyed Tuesday through Sunday approved of the way Obama is handling his job, his lowest rating in the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll since he took office in January 2009. In Gallup’s separate daily tracking poll, his approval was at 45% Monday. Yes, polling trends can, and almost surely will, change between now and the fall elections, but the general outlook for Democrats in the midterms is pretty grim. Afghanistan is a disaster and unlikely to turn around significantly. Obama and the Democrats can whine all they want …

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I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

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I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

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The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

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That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

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A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

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