Wednesday, January 30, 2002


Print Punditwatch

Will Vehrs

Punditwatch was okay with Al Hunt saying the Enron scandal had “more legs than a centipede,” after earlier calling it “humungous.” In that spirit, he had to agree with Cokie Roberts that the Enron story was “huge.” When Mark Shields said that Enron was setting the national agenda, though, Punditwatch began to blanch. Little did he know that Shields wasn’t even on the same playing field as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman who said, “I predict that in the years ahead, Enron, not Sept. 11, will come to be seen as the greater turning point in U.S. society.”

It was a startling prediction, especially coming from a pundit who has not spent a lot of time examining the terror attacks and who is under fire for his own connection to Enron. Earlier in the week, Krugman had responded to his critics by calling them right-wingers:

You might think that the shock of the Enron scandal — and it is shocking, even to us hardened cynics — would make some conservatives reconsider their beliefs. But the die- hards prefer to sling muck at liberals, hoping it will stick.

Sorry, guys; I'm clean. The muck stops here.

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post addressed Krugman: “Unfortunately for this argument, most of the Enron journalists are free-marketeers on the right.” Kurtz implicitly compares Krugman’s combative reaction to that of Peggy Noonan, who was paid by Enron for speechwriting:

I don't regret having done the work -- it was honest work, honestly done, hard work too, reported on my taxes, not hidden in any way. . . . But my feeling is: I have to talk about my experience in order to talk about Enron, and I have to talk about Enron because I have strong feelings about what they did.

Krugman, as dour and humorless a pundit as there is in the business, just doesn’t get it. No one really wants a pound of flesh—they just want him to acknowledge that he was a part, however small, of Enron’s fraudulent rise to the top, and what lessons he personally might have drawn. Krugman writes,

. . . the structure appeared solid: Enron wasn't a profitless dot-com, run by crazy kids. It seemed to be a company with a proven track record. Its executives seemed to be smart but solid, personable men. It seemed to be a company with a great work ethos, a sense of mutual loyalty. Then it came apart at the seems [sic?].

This would have been a perfect place for Krugman to insert that he was “taken in” by these “solid, personable men” with a great work ethos." He could have said that he regretted not discovering or suspecting their perfidy earlier, when it might have done some good. But that would have required a level of honest introspection that Krugman appears incapable of mustering.

In other Enron punditry, David Broder wants Bush to take a Teddy Roosevelt approach. Maureen Dowd writes whimsically of “Planet Enron,” Mary McGrory doesn’t want Democrats to blow their chances of showing the true nature of Republicans, Bob Novak examines the FERC angle, blaming “Bush’s dedication to the Texas buddy system” more than Enron calling the shots on the appointment of Pat Wood. Richard Cohen appears to be dazzled by the Democrats linking “Enron” to “economics.”

Et tu, Jim? Jim Hoagland says that unless the US works to develop an alternative Palestinian leadership, our commitment to the region will be viewed as “an Enron of diplomacy.”

Bush’s Sex Life Nicholas Kristof previews Bush’s upcoming trip to China by reviewing his stay there in 1975:

… he had just graduated from business school. His fellow graduates were going off to begin sparkling careers, but Mr. Bush spent the whole summer loafing around Beijing, where his father was then the American envoy.

What was he up to? Did he have some secret intelligence mission? Was he trying to use his connections to launch a business?

Nope. Mr. Bush, it turns out, took the summer off because he wanted to date Chinese women.

In more recent Bush sex news, Bob Novak quoted an airline official saying, 'The president was totally screwed.”

Another Unkind Cut Novak’s airline official was speaking of the emergency board’s controversial decision to give United mechanics a pay raise. Novak has been brutally critical of the Administration recently, but he reached a new level with this:

This episode has generated improbable nostalgia for the Clinton White House among steadfast Republicans. Clinton's personal aide, Bruce Lindsey, maintained close control over emergency boards. While Bush's national security team is justifiably applauded, his domestic advisers are far less experienced, and it shows.

Still Another Maureen Dowd gets a knife out, too:

The vice president and president are really concerned about the privacy of power. They want to do what they want to do, and be accountable to no one. The stonewalling on the energy task force and the unilateralism on Camp X-ray are two sides of the same coin.

The theme of Bush I is now the theme of Bush II: Trust us, even if we won't let you verify. We know we're right. We answer to no one.

Paging Susan Sarandon Tom Friedman says, “Mr. Arafat is a dead man walking ….”

Will “Push Polling” Come Back? George Will looks at Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s re-election prospects.

[Harkin’s] narrow victory over Rep. Jim Lightfoot six years ago was assisted by "push polling" -- spurious polling by telephone callers who asked "questions" designed not to elicit opinions but to spread defamatory rumors. Speaking this week by cell phone while driving through Tennessee to his new home in Orlando, Fla., Lightfoot said that near Election Day 1996, thousands of Iowans -- some of whom recorded the calls on their answering machines -- were asked, "Would you be less likely to vote for Lightfoot if you knew he was going to be indicted for child molestation after the election?"

"And that," says Lightfoot, "was one of the nicer ones." Ganske
[Harkin’s GOP opponent this year] expects to be similarly attacked. Harkin says, "I have no idea what they are talking about."

Snack War Michael Kelly sees the US in a critical period in the war on terror:

This is the period that will test whether a war that has been described, correctly, in epic terms is met with eventual success. The great danger in this war was never that the initial military aims would fail; it was, and is, that initial and limited success in these aims would convince a people not eager for epic struggle (no people ever are) that victory was theirs, and that it was time to open another bag of Doritos.

Tough Talk Michael Kelly calls for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, archbishop of Boston, over the much-publicized pedophilia scandal. Charles Krauthammer has some words for the Gitmo prisoners: “You join al Qaeda, you join an outlaw army. You explicitly violate -- and thus forfeit the protection of -- the Geneva Convention.”

Soft Talk Nicholas Kristof sees Gitmo a bit differently:

In short, there's no practical downside to granting P.O.W. status. But there are huge advantages to recognizing the detainees as P.O.W.'s.

Such a step would help correct a public relations catastrophe. While it seems to me that our treatment of the prisoners has been humane (they're better off at Camp X-ray than they were in caves in Afghanistan), even our allies in Britain are appalled by our efforts to wiggle out of international law.

Bob, The Times They Are A’Changin’ Bob Herbert talks to Notre Dame’s new football coach:

Moreover, Mr. Willingham is black. When I was a kid you could no more imagine a black person running the football program at Notre Dame than you could imagine, say, a black secretary of state.

If Mr. Willingham is concerned about any of this, he hasn't shown it. At the press conference introducing him as the new head coach, he was asked if the fact that he was African-American was a major issue. "No, it is not," he said.

Sunday, January 27, 2002


TV Punditwatch

Will Vehrs

Today was going to be a Sunday talk show Punditwatch feast. The elusive Vice-President, caught flush in the Enron vortex, was appearing not once, but twice. Short of video showing Ken Lay with his head under a light bulb in a dark room being interrogated by faceless rogue cops, this was the “get” of the year. Punditwatch would cleverly compare the questions asked by Fox News Sunday and ABC’s This Week, cutting through the spin, the bias, and the hype.

It was not to be. There would be no This Week.

Punditwatch’s ABC affiliate chose to run a “700 Club Telethon” hosted by the oleaginous Pat Robertson. Fill in the expletives deleted here: ______________________ and here ___________________________________________ and here: ____________.

The VP was calm but defiant on Enron. Tony Snow chatted Cheney up for ten minutes about the Middle East and Yasser Arafat, while everyone held their breath, before he got to Enron. Shortly thereafter, Britt Hume joined Snow for a seemingly truncated series of Enron questions. Bottom line: Cheney will not release the names and notes from his Energy Task Force deliberations. He charged that Congressman Henry Waxman did not want to address the substance of the Energy Report his task force released (105 recommendations), but rather the “process.” He said he had already compromised with Congress and the GAO, but that “other administrations have traded away [executive] authority and this President is not going to do that.”

Few questions were asked or pursued about other aspects of the Enron scandal. Cheney would not say if any particular recommendations in the Energy Plan were put in at the behest of Enron: “They opposed price controls. Me, too.” The Vice-President defended Army Secretary Thomas White, former executive with Enron Energy Services and subject of a scathing “Outrage of the Week” by Al Hunt on Capital Gang. White had said he was “persevering” in spite of getting a 90-day delay in divesting his Enron holdings, costing him $10 million. He still pocketed $12 million. “I know Tom White. He’s a great soldier. I have every confidence he conducted himself ethically.”

Cheney said his health was good, his ICD heart device had never gone off, his cave was better than Bin Laden’s, and that “my friend, Tom Daschle” was an obstructionist. The Powell memo on the status of prisoners at Camp X-Ray was merely a “dispute among lawyers.”

Other topics overshadowed by Enron on the weekend pundit circuit were the Middle East and the upcoming State of the Union address. Pundits are still divided as to whether it’s better to deal with the devil they know—Arafat—or the devil they don’t—his “successor” at the PLO. “Are we looking for a peace partner?” asked Mara Liasson on Fox. “We have to talk to someone, if not Arafat.” Most pundits believe Bush will spend more time on war issues than on other domestic subjects in his State of the Union message. Bill Kristol suggested the President might explicitly say that the war is his top priority.

Word of the Week “Unvarnished.” Over and over, Vice-President Cheney insisted he needed “unvarnished opinions.” White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said on Meet the Press that the President and Vice-President needed “unvarnished counsel.”

Word Games Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was questioned closely by Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation over his comment that the Republicans were “Enroning” the economy and “Enronizing” social security. Mark Shields said that “Take the money and Enron is going into the language.” Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott said, “We don’t want to Daschleize the budget.”

Winning Word Game Strategy Daschle said, “I don’t want to ‘Enron’ the people of the US.” According to Juan Williams, “This [strategy] will work.”

Report from the Hearings David Brooks said the congressional hearings on Enron were “off to a shabby start …members were incredibly rude and showboaty.” Bob Novak noted

I think it's very interesting that we have accountants taking the Fifth Amendment. Now when I first got here, it used to be communist labor leaders. So the Fifth Amendment bout has gone upscale socially, hasn't it?

Kate O’Beire then quipped, “Accountants wind up being a lot more interesting than we gave them credit for.”

A Sensitive Senator Senator Daschle was asked about Cheney calling him an “obstructionist.” Daschle, looking wounded, responded, “I don’t think the politics of personal destruction have any place … so much for changing the tone.”

Quick Revisionism “Arthur Levitt … a reviled figure, now revered.” --Mark Shields

That Good Old Time Pundit Religion Bob Novak’s microphone dropped into his vest on Capital Gang, prompting Margaret Carlson to admonish, “God was punishing you for what you were about to say.” Mark Shields said we now have “born again regulators” on Capitol Hill and Bush is now a “born again populist” because of Enron.

Wise Investments Carlson noted Bush’s comment this week about Enron:

George Bush got on the right side by conveniently and luckily finding a mother-in-law, who'd lost $8,000, the best $8,000 the Bushes ever lost. And you could see that maybe members of Congress who couldn't get the money back fast enough were looking for a cousin who might've lost money.

Did We Tell You How Big This Enron Story Is? Al Hunt says, “this story has more legs than a centipede. I mean, this is not going to stop. It's just going to mushroom. It's going to be big.” Mark Shields observes, “George Bush is no longer setting the national agenda. Enron is.”

Who is John Walker Lindh? Mark Shields asks if he’s a surrogate for Osama Bin Laden. Margaret Carlson says he’s Elian Gonzales.

Good Question “Where are our Arab partners in the war on terror?” --Bill Kristol

Something to Ponder “This war will get bigger, not smaller.” --Bill Kristol

How to Lose “We’re never going to win a war if we respond to reflexive anti-Americanism.” --Britt Hume

Wake Up “Healthcare is the sleeping giant of issues.” --Mara Liasson

End of an Era An all-male Capital Gang panel flashback from January 1991 was shown. “I am grateful that the Taliban era of THE CAPITAL GANG is over,” Margaret Carlson said tartly.” Best war predictions from the segment: Guest Al Haig and panelist Al Hunt.

Wednesday, January 23, 2002


Print Punditwatch

Will Vehrs

The thunderous pronouncements on Enron from the major syndicated columnists are slowing to a trickle now. Of those columnists who do not specialize in foreign policy, Punditwatch notes that only Charles Krauthammer has not commented on the scandal. That may only be because declaring war and invading Enron is not feasible.

This past week saw George Will turn a critical eye on the conditions that created Enron and he followed up his print column with a stinging call for muscular regulation on ABC’s This Week. Will finds plenty of fault with company management, accountants, and Wall Street analysts:

Enron thrived partly on the sloth of Wall Street analysts uninterested in details or reluctant to admit that there are things they do not understand—things like Enron’s deliberately opaque and possibly illegal relationship with various “partnerships” run by Enron officers. Problems revealed by Enron’s collapse are rooted in recent changes in the legal, financial and accounting professions.

Sandy Williams, a Foley & Lardner attorney specializing in energy matters, believes the trouble began with an epidemic of aggressiveness in the 1980s, when all three professions began to think of themselves as “can do” people—“problem solvers” who“think outside the box.”

But sometimes the box is there for a reason, such as protecting human beings from human nature. Sometimes clients need “can’t-do-that” advisers who protect clients from themselves.

Will discovers an old memo with applicability today:

Washington’s benign neglect of Enron’s pleas for help with its credit rating indicates something has been learned since 1979. Then, a New York financial consultant was asked his opinion of the Carter administration’s plan for a bailout of the Chrysler Corp. The consultant said: The danger is not that the bailout will fail but that it will succeed.

Then government policy will be to rescue all “TBTF” private-sector entities—those supposedly “too big to fail.” The consultant was Alan Greenspan. However, the primary cause of Enron’s collapse was not risky behavior arising from people’s belief in a net under them. Rather, the cause was the growing arrogance of executives who became confident that no one was looking over their shoulders, watching—and understanding—what they were doing.

Surprisingly, Will might share a small patch of common ground with E. J. Dionne, Jr.:

Are markets always self-regulating? No. Is deregulation always the answer? No. Are capitalists always well-behaved and public-spirited? No. Can we ignore the effect of our campaign money system on politicians? No. Can we be indifferent to the undue influence that certain big companies have on our government? No. Can rank-and-file employees do without the protections of law against the abuses of more powerful actors in the marketplace? No.

Some members of Congress will thus have to answer for their success in blocking the efforts of Arthur Levitt, the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to impose rational restrictions on accounting firms. Levitt -- boy, does he look good now -- thought it a mistake for firms to do both auditing and consulting work for the same client. Levitt also has argued recently that publicly traded companies need to include genuinely independent members on their corporate boards of directors. Otherwise, no one on the inside is keeping the big boys honest.

In his second piece of the week, though, Dionne scorched Ari Fleischer for the “everybody does it” defense. Trouble is, on the India power plant issue, everybody probably does defend the interests of US companies.

Bob Novak raised a criticism of Enron and Ken Lay that has not gotten much traction, positive or negative, from the usual suspects:

Enron Corp. has been widely depicted as a free market swashbuckler leveraging its political power for deregulation. In truth, the Texas energy giant and its well-connected chief, Dr. Kenneth Lay, also constituted the most active corporate advocate of the Kyoto global warming treaty.

Lay has been painted as a heartless advocate of free market economics when he actually was working behind the scenes for control of energy emissions, establishing alliances with the most radical environmentalist pressure groups.

… Lay saw Kyoto’s green as the color of money. While it flourished, Enron knew no loyalty to party, to ideology or to American consumers. It had contempt for more than its employees.

Al Hunt, perhaps sensing the scandal moving away from the Bush Administration, recapped all the connections between Enron and the GOP, concluding “... there are numerous private sector culprits; this should lead to some serious reforms. But let’s not let the politicians off the hook; they’re culpable, too.” Frank Rich railed against Bush for his comments about Ken Lay supporting Ann Richards, but also asked, “Whom can the country turn to for an honest investigation?” Bob Herbert sees Enron as symptomatic of the obsession with deregulation: “If the deregulation zealots had their way, we’d be left with tainted food, unsafe cars, bridges collapsing into rivers, children’s pajamas bursting into flames and a host of corporations far more rapacious and unscrupulous than they are now. Richard Cohen was wringing his hands over the fact that Enron paid no corporate income taxes:

In fact, I sense that everything Enron did was legal and that an entire company can collapse, some people getting very rich and others losing everything they had, and no one will ever go to jail. Enron failed because "the economics didn't work." So said Joseph Berardino, the chief executive of Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm that ought to make the three monkeys its corporate symbol.

But legal is not the same as right. It is simply not right that Enron paid no taxes while, just to pick an example, its now-broke former employees did. It's not right that an American company -- and oh, how American Enron was -- should act like a drug dealer, laundering its money so that a profit somehow becomes a loss. This is clever accounting, I grant you. It is, however, obscene.

Paul Krugman, caught up in the Enron scandal himself over his consulting fee from the company, actually had one of his more even-handed columns on Enron:

Investors must be reasonably sure that reported profits are real, that executives won't use their positions to enrich themselves at the expense of stockholders and employees, that when insiders do abuse their positions their actions will be discovered and punished.

Now we have seen a graphic demonstration that the system that was supposed to provide those assurances doesn't work. And nobody I know in the financial community thinks Enron was an isolated case.

Of course, he quickly reverted to form:

Yet all the evidence suggests that the Bush administration doesn't get it. On the contrary, until the latest revelations it was moving in the wrong direction. Harvey Pitt, the new chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, made his reputation as a lawyer who represented accounting firms — including Andersen — in struggles to maintain auditor independence. Now we've seen what Andersen did with that independence.

The truth is that key institutions that underpin our economic system have been corrupted. The only question that remains is how far and how high the corruption extends.

In the non-Enron world, New York Times foreign policy columnists found disturbing anti-US trends around the world. Nicholas Kristof went on-line in China:

"Just one word: cool!" says the first of 6,000 comments on the attacks in a chat room on, a leading Chinese-language portal. "Now the day has come for the American dogs."

Not until the 44th message is there a reproach: "Do you people here have no shame?" someone writes. "Do you have no morality?"

To anyone who deeply loves China, as I do, it is devastating to see how the deaths of thousands of Americans left many people here chortling.

To Kristof, these are not just chat room yammerings:

… there is something going on here, something more complex — and, to me, far more worrying — than simply schadenfreude at seeing America humbled. It is a rapidly increasing Chinese nationalism

Yet what I found heartbreaking is that this new openness and political maturity in China is accompanied by a dangerous sign of political immaturity: this booming, aggrieved, chip-on-the-shoulder nationalism among many ordinary people, much more so than even a decade ago.

Tom Friedman, winding up his latest overseas trip, interviewed some people with … well, interesting views:

...there was the serious Arab journalist in Bahrain who said that Arabs could never have pulled off something as complex as Sept. 11; there was the Euro-Muslim woman in Brussels who looked at me as if I was a fool when I said that the bin Laden tape in which he boasted of the World Trade Center attack was surely authentic and had not been doctored by the Pentagon; there was the American-educated Arab student who insisted that somehow the C.I.A. or Mossad must have known about Sept. 11 in advance, so why didn't they stop it? There was the Saudi businessman who declared that there was a plot in the U.S. media to smear Saudi Arabia, for absolutely no reason. And there was the Pakistani who confided that his kids' entire elementary school class believed the canard that 4,000 Jews who worked in the World Trade Center were warned not to go to the office on Sept. 11.

Friedman returns to an old theme of his in analyzing these conversations:

… while America has won the war in Afghanistan, it has not won the hearts and minds of the Arab-Muslim world. The cultural-political-psychological chasm between us is wider than ever.

The Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland concentrated on India-Pakistan issues, declaring, “The news is not India’s trust of Musharraf. That still does not go very far. The news is India’s trust of a conservative Republican president in Washington. The Bush Administration has scored its first clear diplomatic success abroad—if it can now consolidate the uneasy standdown between New Delhi and Islamabad.” Today, Hoagland analyzes a recent interview with Musharraf:

The two Musharrafs coexist easily, as if they were the same person speaking two different languages: One is a good listener, point-by-point speaker and unfailingly polite host who reflects the ingrained orderliness of thought and manner of a career military officer. He holds sway in the present and at home. The bold Musharraf speaks in the future tense, in promises yet to come due in a world that others must help to change.

His admirers compare Musharraf to Kemal Ataturk, who yanked Turkey from despair and launched it on the road to modernization. The Pakistani leader's situation actually resembles that of Egypt's Anwar Sadat, who responded with boldness and vision to pressures similar to those now facing Musharraf, and paid for it with his life. Musharraf is more cautious than that -- more likely to zigzag than head for an obvious cliff. That is a difference President Bush should keep in mind when Musharraf comes calling at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in a few weeks.

Krauthammer on America And he throws a little praise Clinton’s way, too:

The lessons of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Somalia and now Afghanistan are that America is allergic to casualties -- but only in wars that don't matter. Our history over the last century suggests a General Theory of Casualties: America's capacity to sustain casualties is near infinite, as long as the wars are wars of necessity.

In Haiti and Kosovo, Bill Clinton wisely chose casualty-free battle plans. In the absence of any strategic necessity for these adventures, he knew that with even a few American casualties he'd pull us out, as in Somalia.

The war against terrorism is different because it is our first war of necessity since World War II. When attacked, when engaged in an existential struggle, America is not just fierce. It is stoic. No one should underestimate America's capacity to sustain casualties in such wars.

Trimming Tax Cuts David Broder is increasingly shilling in support of Kennedyite repeal of future tax cuts, first using the death of WP editorial writer Peter Milius ("he") as cover:

But also he would point out some things about the Kennedy proposal: Far from being a radical suggestion, it would leave intact about three-quarters of the promised tax cuts. It would not affect any tax reductions scheduled to take effect until 2004 or later. That means it would not likely change the short-term course of the economy and it wouldn't help stem the budgetary red ink this year or next.

Today, he uses state budget woes:

… the biggest gap in fiscal policy today is not between Republican and Democratic politicians but between state and federal officials. In Washington, neither Bush nor most Democrats (with the notable exception of Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy) want to acknowledge the need to reexamine the generous tax cuts they enacted during the flush economic times a year ago, before recession and war had upset the apple cart.

Breezy Stuff William Safire essentially takes the week off with a light, but poignant reminiscence of an early TV moment with his late brother, then a none too deep piece on cloning: “No to cloning tomorrow's people; yes to cloning cells that cure today's people. Because most of us agree, that will become law and policy.” . Maureen Dowd compares Monica Lewinsky and Patty Hearst, then wonders today, “I hesitate to interrupt the victory laps, the chesty posing, the passing out of medals. But something in me really wants to know: Is the war over? Did we win it or not?”

Novak’s Hammer Robert Novak continues to hammer the Bush Adminstration, using the unkindest cut of all:

George W. Bush and John Ashcroft have given an excellent imitation of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno by withholding information from Congress. Indeed, they have surpassed their Democratic predecessors in defying the legislative branch.

Missouri, the “Show Me” Shenanigans State: George Will turns the electoral spotlight away from Florida, and toward Missouri, where suspicious activity began before election day:

The night before, Democratic Rep. William Clay had told a Gore-Lieberman rally that a lawsuit would be filed to force the polls to stay open longer than Missouri law allows. The next afternoon such a suit was filed, claiming that minorities were having trouble voting. Clay had been prescient about those troubles -- or those troubles were fictitious, and he was part of a carefully planned operation.

The suit's lead plaintiff, Robert D. Odom, complained of being denied the right to vote. But someone noted that his problem might have something to do with the fact that he died in 1999. Later, Clay said, the plaintiff should have been Robert M. Odom, a Clay aide. But Odom's complaint, if there ever really was one, was vitiated when he voted that afternoon. By the time the compliant judge ordered the polls to stay open, voters were already receiving prerecorded telephone messages from Jesse Jackson saying they could vote late.
Matt Blunt, Missouri's secretary of state, says that among 1,384 ballots illegally cast were at least 62 by felons, 79 by people registered at vacant lots, 68 by people who voted twice and 14 cast in the name of dead people. Missouri law says court orders can be issued to secure the vote only for registered voters who were removed from the voting rolls by mistake. Of 1,268 applications for court orders, 1,233 were improperly granted, many for people who admitted they had never registered but persuaded the court with written reasons that included "I was late registering due to me were going through a mental disorder," "I want a Dem. president," "For the democratic party," "I'm a busy lady w/ 7 children" and "Found out about Gore from my mother."

Sunday, January 20, 2002


TV Punditwatch

Will Vehrs

After last week's nearly 100% investment in Enron, pundits recognized the value of diversifying their portfolio and attempted to pull back from "all Enron, all the time," if only ever so slightly. Shields and Brooks and the Capital Gang led with Enron, but Meet the Press's lead topic was Donald Rumsfeld on the war and Face the Nation led with Attorney General John Ashcroft on Olympic security. MTP and FTN got to Enron quickly enough; in fact, Bob Schieffer ended his Ashcroft interview with questions about his recusal from the case and opened his next segment, with questions that led Senator Carl Levin (D, MI) to criticize Ashcroft's answers. This Week's top story was a very short interview with Secretary of State Colin Powell. Even he was asked about Enron, specifically about the India power plant. Powell remembered nothing.

If Punditwatch had to pick the most important Enron-related comment of the weekend, it would be Brit Hume's announcement at the end of Fox News Sunday that Vice President Dick Cheney would be Tony Snow's guest next week. Cheney, with multiple Enron relationships being scrutinized, came in for weekend criticism from Bob Novak, Margaret Carlson, Kate O'Bierne, Al Hunt, and Mark Shields (a clean sweep!) on CG, DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe on MTP, and Ceci Connally and Juan Williams on Fox. Shields had the most cutting remark, calling Cheney a "repo man" for his efforts on behalf of Enron's power plant in India. Cheney's appearance is the first serious indication that the White House sees the scandal as a real threat.

In contrast to last week, pundits spent more time on the business and financial aspects of the Enron case than on tying the scandal to Bush or to the "everybody does it" school. Tim Russert interviewed Joseph Berardino, head of Arthur Andersen. Berardino's slim package of talking points ("the business model failed" and "we only blessed the accounting") were no match for Russert's tough questions. Asked about the destruction of documents and the suspicious memo on document retention policies that preceded it, Berardino's meek defense was "accountants are pack rats." Cokie Roberts interviewed Harvey Pitts, head of the SEC, about his recent proposal in response to the Enron issues. Asked about those who thought he should recuse himself because of connections to Arthur Andersen, Pitts said he was a victim of "guilt by occupation." He said he was not involved in the investigation, but wanted to be involved in preventing future Enrons.

On the political front, most pundits saw the true danger to Bush and the Republicans being one of image. Before the War on Terrorism, Bush was seen as more comfortable with business than with ordinary people, and Democrats would like to revive that issue. Others saw an opportunity for the President to address reforms in his State of the Union speech. "The administration is stubborn," noted a skeptical Bill Kristol on Fox. Kristol and Paul Gigot were surprise panelists on Fox.

The non-Enron topics pundits used to diversify their portfolios weren't particularly compelling. Ashcroft had nothing of substance to say on Olympic security or John Walker Lindh. Rumsfeld largely covered familiar territory and appeared shaken by the breaking news of a US helicopter crash in Afghanistan that left two Americans dead and two badly hurt. When Russert tried to make light of Rumsfeld's "stud" image, the Defense Secretary said, "get serious, Russert." Karl Rove's speech to the RNC about using Bush's wartime leadership as a campaign issue came in for criticism as an affront to bi-partisanship, but most would probably agree with Bob Novak: "that's something you say privately, not publicly." George Will said it was "utterly unnecessary." Rumsfeld artfully dodged a question about Rove with a long discourse about war and politics.

Adults Only Mark Shields said the most startling thing about the Enron scandal "was to see politicians commit an unnatural act in public, and that is returning campaign contributions."

Heroines and Heroes David Brooks nominated Sherron Watkins of Enron, who warned Ken Lay of the coming implosion, and Peter Fisher of the Treasury Department, who did nothing for Enron, as his heroes of the scandal. Mark Shields seconded Watkins, ignored Fisher, and mentioned Curtis Hebert, Jr., former head of FERC supposedly deposed by Enron request, as "a one little fly in David's otherwise compelling ointment." [see Talking Points Memo this morning for evidence that the Dems see this as a potent issue--ed.]

Big, Really Big "This is a humungous scandal...." --Al Hunt "Huge." --Cokie Roberts, on Harvey Pitts' apparent openness to legislation regulating accountants.

Take Enron and See Me in the Morning Bob Novak, responding to Mark Shields' assessment of possible scandal fallout:

Mark said some things that are very valuable, because they really crystallize what's going on. You see, a lot of people, Mark, maybe you're one of them, look upon Enron as the silver bullet. It is the magic elixir. It creates everything. It kills privatization of Social Security. It kills are market enterprise and schemes. It kills capitals gains cuts. It kills everything in the world, the scandal. And it might even elect a Democratic Congress. So let's really, really get hysterical about Enron.

Did I Tell You I Kicked Enron Out of My Office? DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, obviously delighted to be on the other side of a campaign finance scandal for once, told Tim Russert that he had kicked Enron lobbyists out of his office. When Russert didn't follow-up on this profile in courage, McAuliffe mentioned it again.

Coming Attractions "Drama unparallelled." --George Will, on Ken Lay's expected appearance before Congress on February 4th. "Wait until you get to the fights over the World Trade Center Memorial." George Stephanopolous, after a discussion of the NY firefighter statue battle.

The Travelling Brooksberrys Self-deprecating David Brooks on his experience with air travel security:

Let me talk not as an expert, which I am about nothing, but let me talk just as a guy who travels and it's demoralizing. You go into these airports and it's always inconsistent what they ask for. I was roughing it in Key West this week. They made me unbuckle my belt as I walked through the magnetometer, and they never do that anywhere else. Sometimes they take your nail clipper, sometimes they don't. Everybody can see holes in the system we've got. They match the bag to the body on the first flight but not on the connecting flight.

So you see the government taking on this big homeland security thing and they're transparently doing an ineffective job, they're pulling off every granny who walks through. And it's just demoralizing to see the government do something badly, something important, this badly.

Mark Shields, while admitting he didn't go to Key West, disagreed that security was "demoralizing."

Worst Interview Award With Oak Leaf Cluster Margaret Carlson's interview with Senator Kennedy on CG was absolutely dreadful, almost uncomfortable to watch and devoid of substance. She has won this award before, hence the oak leaf cluster. This time, she may have retired it. One-on-one CG pundit interviews for the show are almost uniformly bad, although they are often rescued by the discussion afterwards.

Best Line of the Week Paul Gigot, commenting on Ted Kennedy's speech calling for repeal of future tax cuts: "Ted Kennedy has the courage of Tom Daschle's convictions."

Nader Again Ralph Nader, after a long period of no profile, made his second straight appearance on the Sunday talk shows. Paired on This Week with Thomas Donohue, President of the US Chamber of Commerce, Nader talked about a "corporate crime wave"(Enron was a "supermarket of coroporate crime") and claimed the business community wanted to "quarantine" Enron and not let it be the "engine for reform." Donohue defended 401K plans as Nader called for a return to defined benefit plans, and faced tough questions from George Stephanopolous about major corporations not paying taxes.

Out of Saudi and What, Me Bug? Both Rumsfeld on MTP and Powell on TW denied that Saudi Arabia has asked the US to remove its troops from their country. Neither claimed to know anything about the bugging of a Chinese plane.

Honesty in Punditry Tim Russert asked Rumsfeld about the Chinese plane bugging in several ways, finally confessing, "I'm trolling."

Wednesday, January 16, 2002


Print Punditwatch

Will Vehrs

As the Punditwatch Week wore on, the pundits slowly were drawn into the unfolding Enron scandal, including, of course, now vindicated Paul Krugman, the Enron prophet whose five columns in a row on the subject stand as a monument to results-oriented hectoring. He denounced “cronyism,” saying “while Enron has imploded, other energy companies retain the admistration’s ear.” Krugman could not be happy, however, with the emerging consensus of his brethren. Far from the “scandal” being a complete repudiation of anything and everything Bush and the Republicans ever said, did, or thought, most columnists looked at the situation with a jaundiced eye, seeing more of a systemic regulatory problem than a chance to bash one politician and one party.

There were mild exceptions, to be sure. Bob Herbert looked at the Bush angle first:

Bush administration officials are making a big deal out of the fact that calls from Mr. Lay did not result in a bailout or, presumably, any other assistance to Enron. The truth is that Enron had already gotten just about everything it wanted from the federal government. It walked right into the heart of the Bush administration and helped shape its national energy policy, even as consumer representatives and environmental advocates were largely frozen out.

But he had to concede that Republicans and Democrats were flooded with Enron cash. Richard Cohen, perhaps frustrated by the lack of a clear political bad guy, concentrated on outrage against Enron executives, writing:

No, this is not a political scandal. This is a cultural event, a systemic collapse, an outrage so breathtaking that we poor scribblers have no category for it. We do not know how to say "crook" or "thief" or "creep" in describing business executives who sold $1.1 billion worth of shares in their own company while -- possibly, allegedly and just maybe -- knowing that some $600 million in debt was hidden off the books. It was in nooks and crannies where even Arthur Andersen, the totally unaccountable accounting firm, could not find it. These executives also may have sold knowing that Enron had overstated its profits year after year.

William Safire, George Will, and Gerald Seib wouldn’t call it a cultural event, but in one way or another, all saw some measure of systemic problems. Michael Kelly did, too, although he couched his opinions in a satiric send-up of Enron and its accountants. Safire dismissed the "damned if did, damned if he didn’t" Bush scapegoat angle:

As a card-carrying scandalmonger, I am moved to ask: Where's the scandal? Democratic Representative Henry Waxman, after eight years with his eyes tightly shut, apparently thinks it scandalous that Bush's men — at the first call from Mr. Lay — did not promptly step in to save the company from the consequences of the greed or predations of its managers. Bush is thus damned for what he did not do.

But at the same time, other scandalmongers are damning Bush for what he may possibly have done — such as getting briefed by anybody on his staff and thereby "knowing," or by having taken political contributions from today's villain back when Lay was a Houston hero.

Safire zeroes in on what he sees as the real scandal, and it’s in the private sector:

This affair shows the accounting profession all too often to be in bed with the oldest profession. Accounting standards have been frequently prostituted by the new Uriah Heeps: these are executives in ever-merging firms afraid to challenge their clients' phony numbers and secret self-dealing because they might lose fees in the lucrative consulting business they run on the side.

These no-account accountants seem to forget that the "p" in C.P.A. means "public." The Big Five are silent about Andersengate because they are eager to become the Big Four by carving up their competitor's carcass. That's why it's harder to find a major bean-counter willing to condemn publicly the failures of Arthur Andersen & Co. than to find a top Muslim cleric willing to criticize Osama bin Laden.

Self-dealing; asset-hiding; insider stock-dumping — all these were supposedly beyond the ken of an audit committee and legal counsel blindly reliant on the ethics and standards of "professional" accountants. It's a scandal, all right, and wrongdoers should pay in heavy civil damages if not jail time.

George Will was tough on capitalism and surprisingly bullish on regulation:

A properly functioning free market system does not spring spontaneously from society's soil as dandelions spring from suburban lawns. Rather, it is a complex creation of laws and mores that guarantee, among much else, transparency, meaning a sufficient stream -- torrent, really -- of reliable information about the condition and conduct of corporations.

Off and on over the years, a few capitalists have done more to delegitimize capitalism than America's impotent socialist critics ever did or today's moribund left could hope to. It is the Republicans' special responsibility to punish such capitalists.
Democrats are properly put on the defensive by corruption in organized labor and the ditziness of the cultural left. Similarly, Republicans, beginning with their post-Civil War entanglement with corporate America (tariffs and all that), have had a special responsibility to police business outlaws.

Will had made the same point on ABC’s This Week, but instead of dandelions, it was crabgrass. George, call the Lawn Doctor. Gerald Seib had perhaps the most cogent analysis of the scandal and where it should go, beginning with the cardinal rule: “The real scandal usually lies not in what’s illegal, but in what’s legal.” He went on,

Enron’s demise figures to join a list of recent events, including the tragedies of Sept. 11, that are helping swing the pendulum away from the deregulatory trends of the 1980s and 1990s.

Many liberals tend to think government should protect consumers from both risk and deceit in the marketplace. Many conservatives tend to think market forces can take care of both risk and deceit. A search for a middle ground is underway.

Seib noted Will’s commentary and endorsed it, a relative rarity in the pundit ranks.

In other punditry, Tom Friedman continued to beat the drum for nation building in Afghanistan, Krauthammer hammered Arafat, and Jim Hoagland used an old columnist trick: when all the action is in one place, go somewhere else and urge that it get more attention. He praised an African country that was opening up its borders to white farmers driven out of Zimbabwe:

Africa and multiracial societies everywhere must hope that an antidote to the poisons of such racism can be developed, beginning perhaps in Mozambique. The pragmatic actions of that country's leadership deserve far more notice and support from abroad than they have received thus far.

Nicholas Kristof pulled the same trick:

If you think Iraq is scary, come here to the bleak and snowy border between the two Koreas and look north.

It's again time for a Republican president to tackle a threatening Communist power by agreeing to do business with it.

If only Presidents and Secretaries of State had the energy to do all the things recommended by the pundits, leisurely pumping out two columns a week...

Krugman’s Crusade: Paul Krugman infuriates some of his critics. Here is a possible example of why.

How bad is the state fiscal crisis? The National Governors Association recently reported that its members faced a combined shortfall — that is, a gap between projected revenue and projected spending — of at least $40 billion, and quite possibly $50 billion. The latter number would be almost 10 percent of states' budgets, a very large number indeed.

The way for these selective tax cuts was cleared not just with forecasts that made no allowance for contingencies, but with creative accounting worthy of Enron. For example, in 1999 the governor of Texas — yes, him — justified new corporate tax breaks with a budget that not only understated Medicaid costs by $550 million but hid regular payments for nursing care and other services by moving them from the last month of fiscal 2001 to the first month of 2002. Just last year, with the fiscal picture already darkening, Gov. James Gilmore of Virginia (who resigned as head of the Republican National Committee after his party lost the Virginia and New Jersey state houses) evaded a "trigger" rule that was supposed to postpone tax cuts in the event of a revenue shortfall; he booked an estimate of the entire value of future payments from tobacco companies as current revenue.

One might infer from Krugman that only states run by tax-cutting Republican governors are really hurting. Fortunately, the NYT followed up with a more balanced op-ed by William T. Pound, Executive Director of the National Conference of State Legislatures:

Legislatures in 39 states will begin their regular sessions this month facing fiscal challenges unseen in at least a decade. Some of the problem is of their own making; during the cash- flush 1990's, America's state legislators passed tax cuts totaling $35 billion. Yet they were also responding to public demand for increased spending and are the victims of a slowing economy. Now, forced to find solutions, they may provide Congress with some ideas for reducing the federal deficit.

The effect of the recession on state finances is staggering. According to a December survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 43 states report revenues are below forecasts. Spending is already above budgeted levels in 19 states, and another seven expect cost overruns.

Practically no state has escaped unscathed in the current economic climate, and in some cases the budget holes are deep. California has an estimated $12 billion gap, larger than the general-fund budgets of 36 states. While smaller in dollar terms, the budget gaps in other states are no less painful.

43 states are hurting, but Krugman only mentions two that fit his view of the world. Hmmm ….

Ganging Up on Gray Richard Cohen takes California Governor Gray Davis to task for a recent proposal:

Gray Davis has proposed that his state's police agencies be given the same authority to fight terrorism that Congress recently gave the feds. If this keeps up, there won't be an untapped phone in the nation.

Maureen Dowd visits California and finds Governor Davis struggling to be relevant:

Gray Davis, who had been criticized for trying too hard to inject himself into the story when he went on TV and announced threats against California's bridges, was again lampooned last week after his State of the State. "All four hijacked planes were bound for California," Mr. Davis told the California Assembly, adding: "No state has done more than California to protect its citizens and vital assets since the terrorist attacks."

Beside his many mentions of the attacks, The L.A. Times reported that the governor "cheapened" his speech by crowding the stage with National Guard members, the chief of an urban rescue team, his own security adviser, six sheriffs, a highway patrolman and police chief. "Many are backing his re-election," the paper dryly noted.

Cohen Tells All In the same piece that criticized Governor Davis, Richard Cohen unloads the wisdom of his experience:

Here I must state a prejudice. Having once been a statehouse correspondent (Maryland), I am underwhelmed by the competence and professionalism of state government. Most legislators are part-time, but the lobbyists are not. Often, they lead the representatives around by the nose -- offering expertise, advice and, in a pinch, a free vacation to somewhere very nice.

Similarly, state judges do not match the caliber of their federal counterparts. Unlike federal judges, who are appointed for life, state judges usually are elected. Often they are political hacks who, as lawyers, have already plundered the savings of widows and orphans, retire to the bench and stay there by pandering to the electorate. I know there are great state judges and lousy federal ones, but I know, too, that in general that's not the case.

What is true of the judiciary is also true of police departments. I have my problems with the FBI, but nothing it ever did compares to the crimes committed by certain L.A. cops in the Rampart district or, for that matter, the trigger-happy cops of Prince George's County. The combination of lazy or incompetent judges and brutal or corrupt cops ought to give anyone pause.

There is a bit of the potentate in many governors. They consider themselves presidents of their respective states. They have their planes and their cars and security details for a nonexistent threat from no one in particular. A national governors' conference has more guns than a sit-down of Afghan warlords.

Mr. Will and the Marathon Man Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall when George Will interviewed Al Sharpton?

A long-distance runner -- hyperkinetic, he travels incessantly, "mostly to B and C cities" like Flint and Tallahassee "because I'm known in A cities" -- he has put away the jogging suits he wore to hide his previous bulk. In his chalk-striped gray flannel he is more conservatively dressed than many in the Four Seasons hotel dining room. "I am conservative on everything but race," he declares with a straight face, a declaration somewhat vitiated by the fact that, for him, everything is race.

Sly, clever, witty, incapable of embarrassment and uninterested in the ceremonial politeness of national politics, Sharpton is going to have fun in 2004. Democrats, can't we all just get along? Give him at least a prime-time convention speech. On reparations.

When reminded that every four years someone says Democrats can win by turning left, he serenely replies, "Well, I'm the someone this time."

Pundit Marriage Counseling Colbert King wanders into a war zone:

I've never met Michael Jordan and wouldn't know Juanita if she winked at me across a crowded room. I know nothing of their marriage -- its pleasures or its problems.

Still, it distresses me that we are spending so much time trying to figure out what ought to be her rightful share of the fruits of his vast earning power -- and so little encouraging them to try to redeem their broken marriage, with professional assistance, if that helps.

They Don’t Get It Bob Novak continues to pound the Bush Administration on the Marc Raciot situation:

Racicot, whose long career of public service in Montana was unblemished, is not at fault for appearing blind to ethics. During an interview in the national chairman's Capitol Hill office that he soon will occupy, he seemed a little bewildered. He deserved more guidance from President Bush's staff than a cavalier attitude toward conflicts of interest.

A Fitting Tribute E. J. Dionne, Jr. mourns the passing of Washington Post editorial writer Peter Milius:

"Someone has to be willing when it is required to spoil the party -- to say that, no, these things aren't free, that they can't be done at no cost or, when the occasion arises, that the numbers being put forward are really suspect."

Honest people, he thought, should be willing to be skunks at "the congressional picnic." Peter was the most excellent skunk I've ever met. I know he'd regard that as a high compliment.

Mickey Kaus suggested Dionne as a replacement for Milius’ voice.

Where is Bert Sugar When You Need Him? Tom Friedman discovers the return of cockfighting in Afghanistan, but he’s no Bert Sugar when it comes to describing the action from ringside:

A match took place last week at Babur's Gardens, a once beautiful, now decayed botanical park. About 100 Afghan men — captured in stunning photographs by The Times's Chang W. Lee — gathered to watch two huge fighting roosters go four rounds against each other, before the match was finally called a draw.

Instead of peacekeepers, maybe Afghanistan needs Don King.

Sunday, January 13, 2002


TV Punditwatch

Will Vehrs

Jim Lehrer of The News Hour opened the weekend Punditfest with this question: "The Enron collapse, David, do you feel a major storm coming on?" It was the ultimate understatement from the always understated news reporter.

David Brooks, to whom the question was directed, picked the perfect metaphor: "It feels like the circus is coming to town." For the rest of the segment, and for each show that followed, Enron was under the big top of a three ring circus ("We have decided to dedicate the entire program to one issue ...."--Cokie Roberts gravely intoned on This Week.) In the center ring was the Bush Administration, scandalously taking Enron's calls because of campaign contributions while scandalously not doing anything. The ringmaster, President Bush himself, scandalously associated with Ken Lay and now scandalously doesn't know him. In another ring, evil accounting and executive clowns performed a business/financial scandal, while in the third ring old scandals and bi-partisan skullduggery charges were flipped on the high wire. It was the perfect pundit circus--a scandal for everybody.

Mark Shields was the leading hyperventilator, accused of a "tirade" by Bob Novak, the man accusing Enron investors of being "idiots," for this sputtering rant:

And now we see soft money at play. We see $2 million. We see the excess. Al says there's nothing wrong with -- with O'Neill and Evans -- I don't see anything wrong with O'Neill and Evans. But I'll tell you this. When you give $2 million, you get calls. You get through. And I'll tell you -- I'll make a prediction right now, and I'll bet the farm on it, and that is this is not the only contact that Ken Lay -- he had contacts with the White House. He had contacts with the White House staff. And he had contacts up and down that list. And when George Bush -- when George Bush says...

Somewhere in-between were Brooks ("What Enron was doing was playing the game as it's played here and that's why I think politically it's not going to help one party or the other."), Margaret Carlson ("But what people will remember is who won and who lost so far, and the officials and the -- and the guys who gave all the money managed to save themselves and let the other people go."), Kate O'Bierne ("A major corporation that gave a lot of money to a lot of politicians -- including a bunch to candidate Bush -- apparently cooked its books, deceived everyone, and victimized thousands of innocent people out of their retirement funds."), Al Hunt ("There are two separate issues. One, this was clearly a very sleazy company with arrogant executives who lied. The second issue is one of political influence."), and Cokie Roberts ("Democrats are in danger of overreaching.")

Defending the Bush Administration on Meet the Press was Don Evans, Secretary of Commerce, praised last week by Punditwatch for his performance talking about the economy. Evans was basically unflappable, defending his personal actions simply and vigorously, insulating the President, but steering away from questions better answered by colleagues or by Bob Rubin (I'm not going to pass judgment ....") His major defense was that Enron had already lost $50-90 billion in capitalization (he kept switching the range) before he got the infamous call from Enron CEO Ken Lay. Secretary of the Treasury O'Neill defended himself and the Administration on This Week under aggressive questioning from Sam Donaldson. He was "flappable." The Lay phone call? Lay said it would be "useful for his technical people to talk to my technical people." Rubin's call? "I would not have made the call." The ultimate defense? "I was busy fighting the War on Terrorism." Oh, and he's a "big boy," who doesn't run to the President after every phone call.

Various Democratic and Republican officeholders who will conduct hearings on Enron appeared to defend investigations. No ouvert partisan scandal-mongering guests appeared to rail against Enron, unless one counts Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader's book flakking appearance at the end of Meet the Press. No wonder Tim Russert gets the best guests--he'll always repay them when their book comes out, or remind them that he hawked their last one.

The pundits got "two-fers" by inviting Senators who just visited Afghanistan and other countries in the region--Senator Joe Biden was still in country; the rest were back. The Senators could pontificate on Enron and the War on Terrorism without skipping a beat. Senator Hagel appeared on Capital Gang and was praised for being "less combative" than Senators McCain and Lieberman over next steps in the war.

But everything was subordinated to Enron--war, peace, al Qaeda prisoners, Ford lay-offs, recess appointments, and last week's big issue--the economy.

Great Minds Think Alike, or, Stephen Ambrose, Call Your Office If you're wondering what Senator Biden said from Afghanistan, read Tom Friedman's column, dateline Kabul, in today's NYT. Or, if you're wondering what Tom Friedman had to say, read today's Meet the Press transcript.

Moi? Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation dared ask the question of Senators Lieberman and McCain: "Can Congress impartially investigate this? You two got contributions from Enron." Lieberman: "I got $2000. I don't feel compromised." McCain: "We're all tainted."

WWTRD (What Would Teddy Roosevelt Do?) "Theodore Roosevelt would not agree with Secretary O'Neill." --John McCain

Miss Marple Lost Her Life Savings Of the Enron scandal, David Brooks opined "Right now it's like an Agatha Christie novel with no body."

No Scapegoats Here "The administration has very ably blamed the recession on Osama bin Laden. You can't blame Enron on Osama bin Laden." --Mark Shields

Blame the SEC? Former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt's interview with George Stephanopoulous largely took the scandal out of the political arena and put it in the regulatory arena. Levitt noted that "some calling for reform now frustrated our efforts to get full disclosure in the past." He thinks O'Neill should have called the SEC Chairman as happened on his watch with Bob Rubin. Levitt laid the blame on a host of factors, including the larger investment community.

George Will's Observations President Bush was being "Clintonian" and "slippery" by saying Ken Lay supported Ann Richards. The Enron scandal will help Gov. Gray Davis of California--he can blame "Texans" for his energy woes again. "Capitalism doesn't spring up like crabgrass . . . capitalism is a government program."

I'm Hurting, Too Pat Buchanan confessed that he held "Enron Preferred" in his portfolio.

Nader and Buchanan Confess Tim Russert showed that in four states, Pat Buchanan's 2001 vote totals exceeded the margin by which Gore beat Bush. Buchanan admitted that, based on his disputed Florida vote totals in Palm Beach, Al Gore would have won on intent. Ralph Nader still has "no regrets."

Dance Fever Bob Novak called the Education Bill joint appearance by President Bushand Senator Kennedy "a "little kabuki dance. He added, "This bothered me ... Ted Kennedy is no Bob Bullock."

Unlawful Combatant Perks None of the Capital Gang is much bothered by the treatment of al Qaeda prisoners, labeled unlawful combatants unworthy of better conditions. Of the one prisoner sedated for the flight from Afghanistan to Cuba, Kate O'Bierne said, "I think they ought to offer 27 hour sedation on all flights." Could this be a better suggestion than "fly naked?" Remember to credit Kate first ....

Wednesday, January 09, 2002


Print Punditwatch, 1/3/02 - 1/9/02

Will Vehrs

Sometimes the pundits coalesce around one or two major issues of the day; other times they strike out in a score of different directions, calling attention to problems, opportunities, outrages, and gossip below the radar screen. The past week of punditry followed the latter model.

For those interested in the hottest of the hot issues, Bush v. Daschle, E. J. Dionne, Jr. made the best case for the Democrat's policy statement, while acknowledging the GOP area of advantage:

Daschle is being faulted for not coming right out and saying that the Bush tax cut should be repealed. But there is no point in making an abstract argument to rescind some of the future tax cuts. As long as the argument is carried out on a very general level -- tax cuts vs. no tax cuts -- the tax-cutting side has the advantage.

The argument must be framed as a choice between good things in competition with each other. That's what debates over tax cuts and spending are.

Because the president has pledged to veto any repeal of his original tax plan, there is no point in Daschle's mounting a purely symbolic crusade. It makes more sense for him to see what choices the president and his budget director, Mitch Daniels, make this February. What programs will the new budget cut? How big will the deficit be?

On the war in Afghanistan (remember that?), Charles Krauthammer remained the Vicar of Bellicosity:

Religious fanaticism thrives on its sense of inevitability, on its aura of triumph and divine appointment. Nothing, therefore, deflates it like military defeat.

How far America has come. Remember the initial post-Sept. 11 why-do-they-hate-us angst? How could we possibly defeat this powerful, fanatical, ingrained, battle-hardened, religiously grounded enemy? We discovered the answer: satellite-guided thousand-pounders with the odd daisy cutter thrown in.

What talks in the region? Power. Look around. Yemen, home to terrorists who blew up the Cole, and run by a government that had stymied American investigators, has begun a military campaign against its own al Qaeda elements. Some of the factions in Somalia have united to go after al Qaeda as well. Under heavy post-Afghanistan American pressure, both Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority have begun to put some curbs on the terrorists they harbor.

Why? A new understanding of the value of human life? A new appreciation of their enemies' grievances?

Of course not. Fear. Respect for American power. The Somalis and the Yemenis know that if they do not go after al Qaeda, the laser-guided, precisely addressed bombs might fall on them.

Tom Friedman also commented on the war, and specifically the end game:

But how will we know when we've won even round one? Simple. We will have won round one once we've killed Osama bin Laden and his allies and once the leaders of the Arab-Muslim world have killed his ideas.

. . . we have to eliminate the killers and they have to delegitimate his ideas. I fear, though, that we'll do our part, but Arab-Muslim leaders won't do theirs. And if that's how round one ends, then on your next flight keep an eye on the tennis shoes of the guy next to you.

Up to now, the Bush team has let our key Arab-Muslim allies cooperate with us secretly, while never calling on them to answer bin Laden or to tell their own people that his view of America was a sick perversion. In effect, we let these leaders carry on an illicit relationship with us, while always making sure that no one ever told their kids. We can't afford that anymore. Someone needs to tell the kids.

The stimulus debate and the war took a back seat to pet pundit issues and below the radar sightings. David Broder examined the looming crisis in health care in one column, and then the need for pre-K educational spending in another:

. . . as long as somewhere between 39 million and 44 million Americans are without health insurance of any kind, it will be impossible to solve the problems of cost and quality in the health care system.

The evidence that high-quality education beginning at age 3 or 4 will pay lifetime dividends is overwhelming. The only question is whether we will make the needed investment.

Fareed Zakaria tackled the Summers-West flap with a more nuanced view than most have managed:

One of the minor tragedies of modern America has been the transformation of the college president from public intellectual to fund-raising bureaucrat. Most presidents steer clear of any involvement in the substance of academic life -- the ideas and the scholarship -- for fear that someone, somewhere, will be offended. When Lawrence Summers was appointed 27th president of Harvard, there was hope that he would be different. But the former Treasury secretary's first few ventures in these waters suggest that the academy has gotten used to having its presidents bland and boring.

The real scandal of academic life is not that the president talked with one faculty member about his scholarly output but that he doesn't do it with more faculty members. If a man of Summers's intellect were to cast a cold eye on what passes for scholarship in many humanities departments today, the university would benefit from it.

Perhaps Summers was in Washington too long. In Washington, a politician's primary worry is of an attack from the far right. At universities, it's the opposite. . . On campus, the killer bees are all on the left.

Aspects of the Bush Administration came in for withering criticism from conservative pundits. Bob Novak blasted "petty backstage politics" for blocking Charles La Bella to be US Attorney in San Diego. William Safire decried Bush's executive privilege claim, "unprecedented in sweep." On the left, Paul Krugman sneered, "And since Mr. Bush is infallible, why should he ever reconsider his decisions?"

Pundits even looked inward. William Safire and William Raspberry tried to put themselves in context. Safire, calling attention to his much-discussed breaks with the Administration, explained:

My seeming political disloyalty (or perceived principled courage) was what media types call counterprogramming. Only anti-Communist Nixon could open Red China; only anti-conservative Clinton could throw Reagan's welfare queens out of the lifeboat; and only a card-carrying member of the troglodyte right (I inflate my importance to make the point) could provide cover to politicians and Pentagonians who knew the president was suckered into going overboard by gung-ho Ninth Street power crazies.

Similarly, only a decentralist ideologue with Clinton-deriding credentials can comfortably inveigh against Bush's recent assertion of "executive privilege" to hide past presidential blunders and prosecutorial corruptions. By expanding presidential power during wartime, F.D.R.-style, he is centralizing political authority and it is up to conservatives to rein him in.

How can I embrace this president's tax cuts, egg on his unilateralism, hail his Arctic energy exploration and applaud his expensive defense buildup — while worrying about his slowness in meeting the Iraqi threat, his abandonment of education vouchers and his resistance to making campaign finance more honest?

Easy; nobody's perfect. As a libertarian conservative Republican contrarian iconoclast, I'll take the best I can get from Bush policies and holler for more.

Raspberry questioned journalistic objectivity in a thoughtful, but slightly less egotistical piece:

Am I kidding myself when I think of myself and other moderate-to-liberal journalists not as partisan, just earnest observers?

I don't think so. It does seem to me that conservative writers are more apt to write as Republicans than liberals or moderates to write as Democrats. Do the left-leaners only pretend arms-length analysis while the right-leaners are more honest about it?

Do those of us who are generally left of center strike readers on the right as cavalier disregarders of truth, bent only on pushing our political agenda? Do the readers see all journalists -- or at least all opinion writers -- as mere propagandists?

The questions involve more than personal reputations. They go to the heart of the journalistic calling. Are we -- and are we seen as -- searchers after truth and understanding, or are we using our gifts to sell the people a bill of goods? Are we doing any good? Am I the only one worrying about it?

Yes, Mr. Raspberry, you're doing some good, and no, you're not the only one worrying about it.

We Need a New Tone in Washington! E. J. Dionne, Jr. digs up this contemporary assessment by Eugene V. Debs of current Republican hero Theodore Roosevelt: "this political pet of the plutocrats, this bogus reformer, this shrieking charlatan, this raving mountebank . . . this freak of froth and foam and buncombe, this nauseating moralizer." Guess being an "obstructionist" isn't so bad after all ....

Who Sent the Anthrax? Nicholas Kristof thinks we almost know, but it might not matter:

He is an American insider, a man working in the military bio-weapons field. He's a skilled microbiologist who did not aim to kill anybody or even to disrupt the postal system. Rather, he wanted to sow terror. Like many in the bio-warfare field, he felt that the government was not sufficiently attuned to the risks of anthrax, so he seized upon the opportunity presented by Sept. 11 to get more attention and funding for bio-terror programs like those that have been his career.

The F.B.I. may already have talked to the killer. There are not that many people with the access to germs, the knowledge and an anthrax vaccine booster shot in the last year. But the murderer showed a knowledge of forensics (apparently not licking a stamp or envelope, for example, to avoid leaving DNA), and it may be very difficult to move from suspicions to sufficient proof for an arrest.

Jive-Talking Colbert King notes Bush's "madder than heck" remark: "Aw shucks, dan, doggone and gosh-darn."

Mega Babes of TV News Maureen Dowd stops covering up in the wake of Paul Zahn's CNN ad: "It was refreshing to see somebody finally spit out what we all know but what the networks go to ludicrous lengths to deny: They hire and promote news stars based on looks and sex appeal."

That's Entertainment! Dowd also observes, "In the absence of the usual Washington back-stabbing, Fox vs. CNN is the most entertaining contest going."

That's Glowing Entertainment! Bob Novak may have an entertaining contest to supplant Fox v. CNN:

The unannounced, highly unusual appearance by Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham at a Las Vegas hearing Dec. 12 has raised hopes in the nuclear industry that this winter he will rule in favor of burying the nation's radioactive waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

Abraham stressed that he had made no decision about safety at Yucca. If he were against Yucca, industry sources claim, he would not have turned up at the last public hearing on the proposed nuclear repository.

Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid of Nevada has vowed that the Yucca site never will be approved with the Democrats in control of the Senate.

Deal With It In Paul Krugman's analysis, "American politics has become polarized because Republicans have shifted to the right, and Democrats haven't followed them. " What's that mean?

. . . the moral of this story is that the political struggles in Washington right now are not petty squabbles. The right is on the offensive; the left — occupying the position formerly known as the center — wants to hold the line. Many commentators still delude themselves with the comforting notion that all this partisanship is a temporary aberration. Sorry, guys: this is the way it's going to be, for the foreseeable future. Get used to it.

Can We Handle the Truth? Robert Samuelson tells tales out of school:

Truth be told, most economists don't understand this peculiar recession especially well. We know this because most of them didn't predict it, which wasn't surprising, because most didn't understand the preceding boom, either. They continually underestimated its strength and only belatedly recognized that some of its powerful driving forces -- extravagant investment in new technologies, widespread stock-market speculation -- were not altogether good. Forecasters' recent record has been dismal.

Dick Cheney, The Indispensible Man If you're looking for a new, cutting edge issue, how about Dick Cheney's low profile? Tom Friedman sees a big hole in US security:

At a certain point, playing hide-and-seek with our vice president isn't protecting America. Because protecting America now means preparing every citizen and every child to live in an open society with a much higher level of personal risk.

Rich Sound-Off Frank Rich returns from vacation and he's mad as heck, but this is the old theater critic at his mildest:

There's a vacuum of leadership in defining what real patriotism might be for the many Americans who are not in uniform but who came together on Sept. 11, eager to be part of a national mobilization even if they weren't packing off to war themselves. On the domestic front, Mr. Bush's most frequent call for sacrifice, woefully amplified by a Marriott-sponsored TV ad to which he lends his image, has been for Americans to take more vacations . . . The Democrats are no better; they snipe at the president's domestic priorities and offer small- bore programs for the recession's growing victims without seriously suggesting that the better-off sacrifice any of the tax cut that Democrats helped put over the top in the first place.

The Department of Transportation announced that its "new" standards for hiring airport security screeners would not require a high-school diploma, allowing thousands of the existing screeners to stay in place.
The department's motto seems to be: If it's broke, don't fix it. Never mind that even four months after the attacks, the state of passenger screening remains such that American Airlines let Richard Reid board one of its flights but turned away one of the president's Secret Service agents. Now we're asked to believe that high school dropouts are our best front line of defense against the cunning likes of Mohamed Atta, the recipient of two university degrees.

Judge, Are You Expressing Views? George Will is all over a Minnesota trial:

Like a sizable majority of states, Minnesota elects judges, which is a bad idea, but historically understandable.

Minnesota says there shall be judicial elections but that candidates for judicial office are forbidden to say anything pertinent -- and, by the way, so are candidates' family members. Really.

The code contains various provisions that are constitutionally dubious. The "announce" clause prohibits judicial candidates from announcing "their views on disputed legal or political issues." The "endorsement" clause forbids candidates "to seek, accept or use" an endorsement from any political party organization. The "attend or speak" clauses prohibit candidates from "attending political gatherings" or speaking at political party gatherings. However, they can attend and speak at meetings of other interests -- the NAACP, the NRA, the Trial Lawyers Association, etc. Go figure.

When the dust settles from the terrorism crisis, attention should be paid to the perversely selective concern some people have shown these past few months about civil liberties. The same sort of people who insist that unlawful noncitizen belligerents be accorded the full panoply of legal protections accorded to Americans accused of burglary are simultaneously eager to abridge Americans' core First Amendment right, that of unrestricted political speech. Curiouser and curiouser.

Taking a Bite Out of Reform Nicholas Kristof has left Afghanistan behind for the Far East. His early preparation was thorough:

I once came across a 19th-century Chinese account of a goldsmith who challenged the powerful craft guilds by flouting their rules so he could boost production and gain market share. The other goldsmiths were outraged, so 123 of them banded together to punish him. One had the bright idea that if they bit him to death it would not be a crime, since no one bite could be shown to be the fatal one. Thus each goldsmith took a bite out of the entrepreneur, and none were allowed to leave without showing bloody gums. It was an early setback to Chinese economic reforms.

Sunday, January 06, 2002


TV Punditwatch

Will Vehrs

On the first Sunday of the Pundit Year, the War on Terror was gleefully shoved aside as the top story. Pundits were audibly relieved to be debating on the comfortable, familiar partisan turf of tax cuts and stimulus. Dueling film clips of President Bush’s West Coast speeches and Senator Tom Daschle’s Washington speech were the order of the day. Conservative commentators delighted in jabbing at Daschle economics (“I hope [his] speech wasn’t circulated to high school economics classes”—Brit Hume), while liberal commentators looked past the specifics to the larger opportunities (Democrats have more short-term stimulus”—Juan Williams).

Tim Russert, unshackled from months of respectful national interviewing, conducted a withering interview of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. Russert charged him with missing the recession in an earlier Meet the Press appearance, aggressively sought to tie him to Cheney’s “Daschle’s an obstructionist” remark, questioned him sharply about the possibility of rolling back tax cuts, and raised the Enron bankruptcy issue in a variety of ways. In a final indignity, Russert showed O’Neill several headlines calling for his head. O’Neill kept his cool, but hardly inspired confidence in anyone looking to call off his “death watch.” Robert Rubin, defending Daschle on Face the Nation, inspired confidence, but blithely dismissed Democrats doing anything about rolling back tax cuts to save the country from the disaster they’re predicting. The Republicans got us into this mess—they need to take responsibility for fixing it, was his message.

This Week used an effective gimmick to get to the heart of the pundits’ true issue—who wins the debate in the 2002 elections? George Stephanopoulos brought together Democratic strategist Bob Shrum and Republican counterpart Stuart Spencer. Using pre-show conversations, mock ads were created by ABC. The GOP ad was described “wonderful fluff” by Shrum, but Stevens replied, “Fluff, but high quality fluff.” The Democratic ad was a hard-hitting negative attack on a composite Republican House member who voted for the tax cut, while the Republican ad was all stars and stripes.

Dental Questioning Tony Snow marveled at Brit Hume’s technique interviewing Senator Bob Graham of Florida. Hume was willing to “remove his molars trying to get an answer.”

Keep Your Daisy Cutters “I leave it up to God to protect me” --Hamid Karzai

Can Spring Training be Far Behind? Mark Shields, on a military operation against Somalia: “It almost sounds like an exhibition game, not to be casual or cavalier about it, but this is an exhibition game because it's not the real fight in Somalia, right?”

By the Numbers AIDS expert, Dr. Michael Gottleib, interviewed by Al Hunt: … in the world, only less than 0.5 percent, less than half of 1 percent of people living with HIV are homosexual or had a homosexual risk factor. So, the epidemics in these developing countries are largely due to heterosexual transmission and the use of needles, that is intravenous drug use.

Flaming Defense of the Torch Bob Novak uses his “Outrage of the Week” to blast outgoing US Attorney Mary Jo White’s verdict on Senator Robert Torricelli (D, NJ):

After more than a year of presenting its case against him on page one of "The New York Times," departing U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White announced without apology that no charges will be filed against the senator for alleged illegal fund- raising.

In a typically nasty twist, Ms. White passed the Torricelli file on to the Senate Ethics Committee. What the Senate should really investigate is which federal prosecutors leaked the unsubstantiated charges to "The New York Times."

War Imitates Movies “What we know about Somalia is from “Black Hawk Down.” –Margaret Carlson

Pooch Kick Tony Snow calls Clinton-haters “sickos” for their comments on Buddy.

Precise Numbers David Brooks says that “we have the Democrats who want to spend say 22 percent of GDP on the federal government, and the Republicans who want to spend 21 percent.” He adds, however, “I might be off by a few points.”

Novak’s Friends “Generally speaking, I like airline pilots. I don't like Secret Service agents. I think they're arrogant and obtrusive and they've gotten worse over the years.”

Profiling or Courage The Capital Gang debated the uproar over the Secret Service agent removed from an American Airlines flight. Novak and Hunt were squarely behind the agent, while Carlson and Shields were cautious. According to Shields, “I think there was an excess of testosterone on both sides. I think there's no question about that. In defense of American Airlines, they -- you know, they have really felt -- I mean if you're talking about the tragedies so far, American Airlines has borne more than the burden, and brunt of it.” On This Week, George Stephanopoulos and George Will (“the pilot ought to get a medal”) defended the airlines, while Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts seemed to side with the agent.

New Faces This Week rolled out two surprising choices to debate the Daschle v. Bush stimulus issue—seldom seen Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans and Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa. Punditwatch thought they did as well as the marquee players ….

What Could Have Been Margaret Carlson says 9/11 cost us in an unexpected way:

You know, 2002 might have been the year of AIDS had it not been for September 11. Secretary of State Powell had said he was going to make AIDS among his top priorities, and he was working with former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke on a group to get both government and private industry deeply involved. And George Soros and Ted Turner and Bill Gates have given a massive amount to the Holbrooke Organization, and yet Powell is not going to be able to devote his attention to it.

New Word George Stephanopoulos predicts the Democrats will try to slip the word “Enronomics” into the lexicon this year. Cokie Roberts says the Enron hearings might bring back the pre 9/11 perception that Bush cared more about big business than common folk.

Two Views In what might be a nod toward Glenn Reynolds’ recent “Harvardwatch,” This Week looked at the Summers v. Cornell West battle.

“Larry Summers is doing a wonderful job” --George Will

Larry Summers can be brusque.” --George Stephanopoulos

Bushspeak The Capital Gang tried to jump start the “Bushisms” feature:

Shields: Oh, sugar. Margaret, should the president be madder than heck?

Carlson: Yes siree, Bob. You bet your boot

Have I Mentioned My Manhattan Project Idea? Tom Friedman appeared on Face the Nation, slipping in an idea he advocated in a recent print column. Bob Schieffer asked him about the current debate over stimulus:

I hear politics as usual and that's very deflating. We need the country to mobilize for what I'm calling for--a Manhattan Project on energy independence.

Parting Zingers From the Bush 41 Era David Brooks says Senator Daschle’s proposals “give voodoo economics a bad name." Al Hunt said "American Airlines ought to be in deep doo-doo.”

Wednesday, January 02, 2002


Print Punditwatch

Will Vehrs

There are three kinds of columnists. One reviews his/her own work at the end of the year. Another reviews the state of the world or the nation. The third kind just keeps plugging away, oblivious to traditional summary points.

Ellen Goodman has one of the best explanations for the self-critical school:

As a certified member of the clean slate club, I traditionally end the year by purging my conscience of the error of my column ways. I offer my annual, apoplectic and apologetic media culpas.

Mind you I am not as culpable as the ink-stained wretch at Fortune magazine who named Enron one of the 10 stocks to buy for the long haul. For that matter, I didn't say Rudy Giuliani would go down in history as a loser, or that George Bush would never look presidential or that we were through forever with nation-building. You get the idea.

However, with the world in chaos, it is no time to give up on tradition. I want to greet the new year as a stand-up gal. So I stand corrected.

Of course, Ms. Goodman only stands corrected on minor errors like "here, here" when it should have been "hear, hear," and "pagan" when an outraged reader told her it should be "Pagan." Another year without an error of judgement or analysis! Nat Hentoff credits his readers:

ON the eve of the New Year, it's good for a columnist's soul, or its equivalent, to confess error, and the impetus almost invariably comes from readers.

Hentoff erred on a Roe v. Wade analogy and a Bill of Rights historical reference. Another year without a typo! David Broder, usually apologetic at end of year, defends himself:

The largest and most vituperative response was triggered by my description of retiring North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms as "the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country." The reaction was no surprise; I knew I would hear from the Helms fans. But the judgment stands.

One thing for which I need not apologize. From Jan. 31 onward, when the concept was suggested to me by two former Republican congressional staffers, Steve Hofman and Ed Kutler, and entered public debate through this column, I argued repeatedly that it would be far more prudent to rebate a portion of the existing budget surplus to taxpayers than to legislate large, permanent tax-rate reductions on the basis of a theoretical future budget surplus.

Congress enacted a rebate, but made it an add-on, not an alternative, to the Bush 10-year, $1.3-trillion tax cut. Now the surplus is gone, and next year we will start paying the price for that folly in a return to deficit spending. I'll take my goofs over theirs.

Broder's critique of tax cutting was just the beginning of a possible new offensive, discussed below.

Among those who reviewed the nation and the world was Al Hunt, offering up "three blessings" from '01: the military, Nunn-Lugar, and the New York Times' "Portraits of Grief." He also found Bush "far more presidential in the last three months than most of his critics thought possible." Robert Samuelson was not sunny:

In 2001, we suffered losses not just of people but also of some of the ideas that reassure and protect us in everyday life. It was not simply that we learned that we face terrorism or that large numbers of people elsewhere identify us as their evil. There was also a more vague and menacing lesson: The technology that we promote as a benefactor to humankind can also be its nemesis. Air travel, modern chemistry and biology, cyberspace and nuclear energy all pose innumerable threats. What ties us together can tear us apart and destroy us.

Paul Krugman liked what didn't happen:

The good news all takes the form of things that didn't happen.

The good news about the U.S. economy is that it fell into recession, but it didn't fall off a cliff.

It was good news that the World Trade Organization didn't collapse. Trade is one area in which the Bush administration is right and the Democrats are wrong;

It was good news when California's energy crisis evaporated, thanks to price controls and conservation. The Bush administration was all set to use the crisis to push through an environmentally destructive program of corporate welfare

Really big good news: To my immense relief, the absurdity of Social Security privatization became manifest before the system had been dismantled.

And one more thing to be grateful for: We didn't get a stimulus bill.

. . . there are still decent politicians, in both parties, and so far they have had enough power — just — to prevent the worst.

Michael Kelly struck a blow for optimism with the nation's new found knowledge, but issued a warning, too:

We know again what we knew in 1941 -- that we Americans are capable of the most extraordinary victories. We do not have to suffer our enemies; we can defeat them. We do not have to endure terrorism; we can destroy the terrorists. We do not have to listen to the self-haters and the self-doubters whose eternal cry is that it is our own fault and that it cannot be done. We just need to do what needs to be done. We can make the next century an American one too.

This is a fragile, ephemeral knowledge, and we could lose it. I hope we do not. I pray we will not.

Columnists who kept up business as usual, with no pause for looking forward or backward, included Bob Novak, Nicholas Kristof, Molly Ivins, Maureen Dowd, and Richard Cohen. William Safire was an anomaly, of course--his annual "Office Pool" column is all about the coming year. Safire's picks include Dems taking the House, but losing the Senate; Iraq as the next target in the war on terror, and Alberto Gonzales to the Supreme Court (predicated on Scalia as Chief Justice nominee! 2002 could be very interesting ....)

Two pundits are leading off the new year with broadsides against Bush. David Broder follows up his tax cutting disdain with this bitter critique of recent administration actions:

But when the ergonomics rules were killed, the administration promised that new, "more reasonable" regulations would be forthcoming. A phone call to the Labor Department last week elicited the information that no new regulations have been issued, and no one could say when they will be.

That is the game: Kill the rules you don't like quickly and quietly, then take your sweet time writing new ones. Don't worry about how many strained backs or stiff wrists people suffer in the meantime. And now, don't worry if the companies that tolerate unsafe conditions are getting fat government contracts at the same time.

Believe me, if Bush had been able to rewrite bankruptcy rules with a stroke of his pen, as he did with the contracting regulations, it would have happened by now.

Elections do make a difference.

Tom Friedman is even less subtle:

Mr. Bush has emerged a far better commander in chief than anyone predicted. In the war on terrorism he has shown steely resolve, imagination, leadership and creativity. Thank you, Mr. Bush.

And now, I wish Al Gore were president.

Why? Quite simply because instead of showing resolve, imagination, leadership and creativity on the domestic front, Mr. Bush has done just the opposite. He has tried to use the tremendous upsurge in patriotism, bipartisanship and volunteerism triggered by the tragedy of Sept. 11 to drive a narrow, right-wing agenda from Sept. 10 into a Sept. 12 world. It's wrong. It won't work. It sells the country short and it will ultimately sell the Bush presidency short.

What's Friedman's beef? "I don't want to be dependent on Mideast oil anymore." He wants a Manhattan Project for energy independence. These early home front salvos against President Bush by two prominent pundits could mark the beginning of a new phase of partisan conflict--compartmentalized good Prez, bad Prez messages, with "bad Prez" drowning out the war on terror unless a new war front is opened.

Stephanoupoulous Jewelry Dick Morris continues to blast the Clinton legacy on terrorism:

Liberals felt that the civil rights of suspected terrorists were more important than cutting off their funds. George Stephanopoulos, the ankle bracelet that kept Clinton on the liberal reservation, explains in his memoir "All Too Human" that he opposed the proposal to "publish the names of suspected terrorists in the newspapers" with a "civil liberties argument" and by pointing out that Attorney General Janet Reno would object.

Save Your Confederate Money After noting that Confederate flag sales were down after September 11th, George Will recommended adopting Sherman's strategy of annihilation for Afghanistan, finding justification in a letter by Confederate General D. H. Hill:

"Why has the South become so toadyish & sycophantic? I think it is because the best and noblest were killed off during the war."

Lose Your Euros Will is skeptical, to say the least, of the world's newest currency, the Euro:

The common currency serves the political objective of changing Europe's civic discourse by supplanting political reasoning with economic calculation. The euro is an instrument for producing a European superstate, which requires erasing from the nations' populations their national identities, which means their distinctive memories. Here we go again, yet another European campaign against "false consciousness," this time meaning patriotism.

In addition to a currency, the EU has a parliament, a supreme court and a passport, and it is working toward a military and a criminal justice system. It has a flag no one salutes and an anthem no one knows.

The euro is part of the EU's campaign for the dissolution of nations and the dilution of particular cultures. "To attempt to be religious without practicing a specific religion," said Santayana, "is as possible as attempting to speak without a specific language." The euro is part of Europe's attempt to be great without being anything in particular. Call it euro-utopianism.

Pundit Training Richard Cohen reveals his pre-pundit life: "Back when I was in the insurance business -- yes, the storied Cohen of Claims --"

Naming No Names For Paul Krugman, those to blame for Argentina shall remain nameless, although they are close at hand:

The people who encouraged Argentina in its disastrous policy course are now busily rewriting history, blaming the victims. Anyway, we are notoriously bad at seeing ourselves as others see us.

A Nation's Goal Nicholas Kristof speaks for a country:

Somalia's most urgent priority at the moment is to get bombed by the Americans. Then maybe somebody will finally start paying attention (and money) to our country.

My Kind of Girl "When I was little, I was a Grimms girl. Not a Hans Christian Anderson girl." --Maureen Dowd

How to Fly Colbert King might want to change his profile:

I never arrive at an international airport for overseas travel sporting explosive-lined, high-top, black-suede basketball sneakers with a wire hanging out, or without luggage and with a pocket full of cash with which to buy a one-way ticket.

Those distinguishing characteristics apparently qualified Mr. Reid for a window seat behind the wing of an AA Boeing 767 bound for Miami.

The Great Makeover Bob Novak is critical of Marc Raciot, new head of the Republican Party:

''We have succeeded in turning Terry McAuliffe into a Boy Scout,'' said one of the Republican operatives. The Democratic Party looked like it was playing with fire a year ago when it followed the urging of Bill and Hillary Clinton and selected McAuliffe, a notorious deal maker, as national chairman. But McAuliffe does not lobby. Racicot, after a long and distinguished public life in Montana culminating in eight years as governor, does lobby.

When I arrived in Washington 45 years ago, it was unthinkable that a party's national chairman would double as a lobbyist. That was long before the capital's giant law firms, which have partners who earn seven-figure incomes while never appearing in a courtroom. For them, ''practicing law'' means lobbying.

Racicot accepted Bush's offer of the national chairmanship only because he could keep his lobbyist's job. If he had to make do with the chairman's yearly pay of $150,000, the Republican community agrees that Racicot even now would turn down the party post. That is no indictment of a man who long has been dedicated to public service, but a snapshot of political values in today's America.

How is it that giving a registered lobbyist total access to the highest level of government did not seem an apparent conflict of interest for the Bush White House? Arrogance, ignorance, or both? That question could have been finessed if Bracewell & Patterson gave Racicot a handsome bonus to tide him over while he suffered through a year or two at $150,000. Instead, the president's advisers are betting their new ethical boundaries soon will be accepted in Washington.

Horse Racing Novak sizes up 2002 Senate races:

Next year's South Dakota Senate race, between Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and Rep. John Thune, is triggering what may be the country's fiercest 2002 fund-raising competition in a state with a population that ranks 46th of 50.

Private Republican polls show Cleland, a four-time statewide winner in Georgia, running only seven percentage points ahead of Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss, making his first statewide race. Cleland may suffer from his party line voting record on gun control, abortion and labor.

Cleland ranks with Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Jean Carnahan of Missouri and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota as the most endangered Democratic senators. The most vulnerable Republican senators are Bob Smith of New Hampshire, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas and James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

From Worse to Bad Nicholas Kristof gives us the saga of an Afghan doctor:

The doctor, who had been running a clinic outside Kabul, was tortured and kept in solitary confinement for a month. One day the jailers came to his cell and made him an offer. He would be freed, they said, if he would amputate the hand of a thief.

"I refused and they beat me until I lost consciousness," he said. "When I woke up it was made clear to me that these would be the last days of my life. They were going to kill me. But there was some local fighting at that time and by chance a rocket hit the prison I was in."

The prison was partially destroyed and in the ensuing chaos the doctor escaped.

His first experience in the U.S. was not a good one. He landed alone at Kennedy Airport without a visa and was promptly handcuffed and taken into custody. "At the airport they cursed me and said, 'Why are you here?' I was so upset. I began to think I was coming from one bad situation to another one."

The doctor, freed from custody, has not been harassed since 9/11, he says, although friends have been. No word on whether he's been asked to do any involuntary amputations.