Energy in the Executive

It sounds like the big line from tonight’s State of the Union address is going to be “America is addicted to oil.”

As profound insights go, this one is pretty elementary. But coming from the oil industry’s best friend in the White House in many years, it will be seen as a dramatic concession. Bush’s rationale is, apparently, that our addiction leads us into some bad neighborhoods in “unstable parts of the world.” True enough.

Some with a more isolationist view would contend the U.S. could’ve avoided the war in Iraq entirely, and perhaps averted 9/11, if our energy needs didn’t force us to be so involved in the affairs of the Muslim world. I’ve always debated this point, because no matter how much fuel independence the U.S. is able to achieve, we would also have to worry about where other countries are getting their energy. If important allies like Japan or Germany can be blackmailed by a radical Iraq or Iran, the U.S.’s insulation from energy blackmail doesn’t count for much.

No, the primary reasons to save energy and start switching to alternatives are environmental and economic.

That’s why we have to watch carefully where Bush intends to take the U.S. in its pursuit of “breaking this addiction.” Right now, according to the AP, he’s proposing something for every side of the aisle to love — and something to hate:

Bush’s primary proposal is to increase federal research into alternative fuels such as ethanol made from weeds or wood chips, instead of corn. He also is to push for construction of new nuclear power plants and increased use of wind, solar and clean-coal technologies.

When we can’t site even one safe disposal site for nuclear waste, I’m not convinced nuclear energy is going to make the big comeback others predict. Weeds and wood chips? Well, we’ve got lots of them, so I’m open to it. Wind and solar? NIMBYism is a big threat to wind power, and the president could propose some kind of federal pre-emption to ensure that appropriate wind sites aren’t blocked by selfish local interests. Solar — great, but I hope he’s prepared to invest what it’s going to take to eventually bring the cost down to marketable levels. Clean-coal? I don’t have time to do the research to back this up, but my recollection is that mining the coal deemed as clean for burning is incredibly destructive of wilderness landscapes in the mountain west. Correct me if I’m wrong.

I guess my reaction to the notion that alternative energy is going to be a major theme of the president’s speech is — cautious elation. This issue has been nowhere on the national agenda since Bush took office; and Clinton wasn’t much of a leader on it either. Big policy fights are ahead, but fights about energy are better than the apathy and neglect of the past 15 years. This doesn’t mean Bush is at all trustworthy on energy, but I’m glad he’s let the genie out of the bottle.

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Phony Precedent

It sounds like quite a threat. Republicans who see a double standard in Democratic senators voting against Samuel Alito’s confirmation — even though the Republicans overwhelmingly gave their votes to President Clinton’s two Supreme Court nominees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer — predict that when tables are turned and a Democrat holds the White House, Republican senators will no longer repeat their past deference to the president’s nominee.

The usually thoughtful conservative site, Powerline, summarizes the right’s view of this supposedly dramatic change:

This was basically a straight party line vote — 90 percent of the Democrats voted no. The vote changes the “rules” for confirming Supreme Court Justices. Under the Alito rule, Senators will vote against highly qualified nominee for no reason other than that they expect the nominee to rule contrary to their preference on major issues. Under the Alito rule, the president’s party, in effect, must control the Senate in order for the president to have top-notch nominees of his choice confirmed. When the the president’s party doesn’t control the Senate, only compromise nominees acceptable to both parties can expect to be confirmed.

It was objectionable for the Democrats to have changed an understanding of the Senate’s “advise and consent” role that has worked reasonably well for 200 years, or so. The new approach will probably produce more mediocre Justices, selected not for their intellect, fairness, or other judging skills, but because they haven’t offended anyone. But the process is not irrational, and in some ways it makes more sense than its predecessor in a world where the Court exercises as much power as it now does. In any case, the important thing is to have one set of confirmation rules that applies to both parties. Thanks to the Dems, we now have a new set.

The author of this post (Paul Mirengoff) leaves an important fact out of his analysis: It’s nothing new.

When Clinton was president and Republicans ran Congress, he won votes for Ginburg and Breyer (and most of his appellate choices) by vetting them first with then-Judiciary Committee Chair Orrin Hatch. History shows that Hatch steered Clinton away from other nominees whom he said Republicans would not support, saving Clinton and those nominees the embarassment of rejection. But the GOP majority’s influence was, nonetheless, decisive.

Nowadays, Republicans like to say Clinton’s two successful Supreme Court nominees are as far to the left as Alito was to the right. But back then, my recollection is Breyer and Ginsburg were defined as moderate liberals, distinctly to the right of equally qualified judges with pure liberal pedigrees (i.e. Judge Stephen Reinhardt).

Ginsburg’s past executive role with the ACLU is now routinely cited, but back then, conservatives were impressed that Ginsburg agreed with them on the flawed legal reasoning behind Roe v. Wade.

It is rarely the case that the party in power in the Senate gives a courtesy vote to a Supreme Court nominee from a president of the opposing party, when that nominee is seen as an ideologue.

When one party runs everything, you sometimes get sharp, ideological choices like Sam Alito or John Roberts under Bush 43, Clarence Thomas under Bush 41 and Antonin Scalia under Reagan; or Thurgood Marshall under Lyndon Johnson, Arthur Goldberg under JFK, and William O. Douglas under FDR. When the presidency and the senate are in the hands of opposing parties, you tend to get less ideological choices like John Paul Stevens (Ford), Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell and William Burger (all Nixon).

The only recent occurence of a party holding power in the Senate voting to approve an ideological choice made by a president of the other party was when a very liberal Senate voted in 1971 to confirm Richard Nixon’s choice of Justice William Rehnquist, a hard-core conservative. Today, I don’t think something like that would have happened.

The regrettable Democratic break from tradition was the filibuster threat. A successful filibuster would have set a perilous precedent, one that clearly could have roadblocked worthy Democratic court nominees in the future. Common sense prevailed this time; enough anti-Alito Democrats rejected John Kerry’s foolish call for a filibuster to kick that bad idea down the road a ways — where it will hopefully roll into a storm drain and be washed out to sea.

Folks, I don’t care how much you hate W or any other president. You don’t want a president to have to cut the kind of deals required to round up 60 votes to put a justice on the Supreme Courts — unless you want to pay for a lot more bridges to nowhere.

Can We Handle It?

The poisonous, punishing politics of 2006 are already making me queasy. How on earth are our two great political parties going to come together to deal with this?

The debate on Iran is drifting toward the ugly question that the Bush administration would most like to avoid. That is: Is it preferable for the United States to live with the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran, or with those of a unilateral American military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities?

President Bush has never answered that question; instead, he and his State Department have repeatedly called an Iranian bomb “intolerable” while building a diplomatic coalition that won’t tolerate a military solution. But two of our more principled senators, Republican John McCain and Democrat Joe Lieberman, have this month faced the Iranian Choice — and both endorsed military action. McCain was most direct: “There is only one thing worse than the United States exercising a military option,” he said on “Face the Nation.” “That is a nuclear-armed Iran.”

   

It’s easy to see why the Bush administration prefers ambiguity to McCain’s decisive judgment. After all, both options are terrible, and everyone can agree that diplomacy is worth a try. Yet Bush and both parties in Congress ought to be thinking through their own answers to the Iranian Choice, for two reasons. First, it looks more likely than not that the United States will, in the end, have to make that decision; and, second, the answer to the question ought to shape how the coming diplomatic phase is managed.

This is a heavy load of history, at a time when our fabric of our civic discourse seems frayed beyond patching; a time when the idea of reaching consensus is mocked as a sign of weakness or disloyalty.

Can the petty people in Washington put aside their spiteful grievances long enough to consider the problem of Iran as if it mattered beyond the next fundraiser or campaign ad?

Our country’s been so lucky. We thrive despite lousy leadership in every sector of society. But that’s the thing about luck. You can enjoy it, but you can’t trust it.

Jim Murray Magic

JimMurray.JPGNice to see the writing of the L.A. Times‘ best sports columnist, the late Jim Murray, back in the paper even if for only one day. Today’s crop of sports pundits, in the Times and elsewhere, can study Murray’s magic act ’til doomsday, but he will remain unique.

Murray’s topic was the first Super Bowl, and it’s brilliant as usual. He spends most of the column (originally titled “Fee, Fi, Fo — Fumble” when it ran on January 16, 1967) comparing the AFL’s losing Kansas City Chiefs to legendary underdogs like Hansel and Gretel, St. George, Little Red Riding Hood, and the NFL’s imposing Green Bay Packers to the various witches, giants and dragons they defeated. But, as Murray points out, the game was not a fairy tale, and the inferior Chiefs “just turned back into pumpkins.” Clever enough. Then Murray adds a twist:

Of course, there’s another way to look at the Super Bowl game (and you realize here I’m just looking at the thing in its broad literary aspects, not from a prosaic yards-per-carry, first-downs-on-the-goal-line kind of thing).

You have the Horatio Alger Jr. slant. Here you have poor-but-honest Harold, better known as [Green Bay Packers Coach] Vinnie Lombardi, from this small town who puts together a team by pluck and hard work and long hours, and devotion to his mother and the wall mottos in the parlor.

He finally reaches the top through this kind of perseverance. Whereupon, rich old squire [Kansas City Chiefs’ owner] Lamar Hunt comes along with all of Daddy’s money and says, “Ha! What’s so great about that? Bring me my checkbook and I’ll do it overnight.”

And poor-but-honest Harold (Vinnie Lombardi) said, “Fi on you, sir! You will not make a mockery of my devotion to thrift and loyalty and make sport of me in this fashion. I will give you a good thrashing.”

So he did.

Vince Lombardi.jpgThe Murray reprint is part of a package that includes a good story about that first Super Bowl, played at the Coliseum before 61,000 curious football fans — way below the arena’s capacity. The game that started the nation’s biggest extravaganza of sports and commercial hype was considered an anticlimax to the classic “run for daylight” battle between the Packers and Dallas Cowboys, which settled the NFL championship. The AFL had merged with the NFL before the 1966 season, but was still seen as a separate league with inferior players.

Because Super Bowl I didn’t sell out, both CBS and NBC blacked out the game on local TV. I lived in cold Connecticut then and clearly remember watching the first Super Bowl with my father and brothers. We had just gotten our first color TV, which was placed in our freshly-decorated basement den, so the game became symbolic for me of a new lifestyle around our house.

The game itself was blah, but seeing the sunlit green grass and vivid uniforms on the new TV sealed Los Angeles for me as the capital of color. A year later almost to the day, a TWA jet landed at LAX, and out came my family and me, new Californians on the way to our new home.

“Fix My Wiki”

Via Instapundit, we learn about a Stupid PR Trick that will probably catch on:

The staff of U.S. Rep Marty Meehan wiped out references to his broken term-limits pledge as well as information about his huge campaign war chest in an independent biography of the Lowell Democrat on a Web site that bills itself as the “world’s largest encyclopedia,” The (Lowell) Sun has learned.

The Meehan alterations on Wikipedia.com represent just two of more than 1,000 changes made by congressional staffers at the U.S. House of Representatives in the past six month. Wikipedia is a global reference that relies on its Internet users to add credible information to entries on millions of topics.

Matt Vogel, Meehan’s chief of staff, said he authorized an intern in July to replace existing Wikipedia content with a staff-written biography of the lawmaker.

Just don’t forget, PR staffers. What Wiki giveth, Wiki taketh away. What are the odds that the next iteration of Rep. Meehan’s Wikipedia bio will include this gambit? Pretty good, I’d say.

Bush/Cheney on Global Warming: Mommy, Make Him Stop!

Does the Bush Administration really think that if its PR people string a spool of barbed wire around U.S. government scientists, all talk of global climate change will stop?

By now, most of you have seen this morning's New York Times scoop, in which James E. Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, asserts that NASA's top brass issued a directive requiring that "his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists" be reviewed by "public affairs staff," meaning PR factotums (factota?) loyal to the president and his party.

Censorship of scientific information? Please, perish the thought, says one of Hansen's new screeners:

Dean Acosta, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at the space agency, said there was no effort to silence Dr. Hansen. "That's not the way we operate here at NASA," Mr. Acosta said. "We promote openness and we speak with the facts."

He said the restrictions on Dr. Hansen applied to all National Aeronautics and Space Administration personnel. He added that government scientists were free to discuss scientific findings, but that policy statements should be left to policy makers and appointed spokesmen.

I added the emphasis, because it contradicts Mr. Acosta's first, bogus assertion. The Bush Administration defines "policy statements" very broadly, to include facts that don't fit the party line, and, for scientists, obvious conclusions derived from research.

One of Hansen's colleagues illustrated how the Bush Administration's idea of "openness" worked in practice:

In one call, George Deutsch, a recently appointed public affairs officer at NASA headquarters, rejected a request from a producer at National Public Radio to interview Dr. Hansen, said Leslie McCarthy, a public affairs officer responsible for the Goddard Institute.

Citing handwritten notes taken during the conversation, Ms. McCarthy said Mr. Deutsch called N.P.R. "the most liberal" media outlet in the country. She said that in that call and others, Mr. Deutsch said his job was "to make the president look good" and that as a White House appointee that might be Mr. Deutsch's priority.

I assume it would be okay with Deutsch and Acosta if Dr. Hansen said things like this:

3-d chem formula.jpg

…so long as only a "policymaker" like Vice President Cheney was allowed to explain what it means.

Dr. Hansen apparently got the Administration's goat when, in December, he gave a speech at the American Geophysical Union, asserting that more aggressive efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were not only urgent, but feasible.

Obviously, Bush/Cheney disagree. And that's fine, I don't mind it if they want to take a cautious position. The economic implications of global climate change are profound. Every choice has the potential to cause mammoth dislocations. Environmentalists do their cause no help by minimizing the impact that drastic cuts in emissions would have. Like any other major economic shock, it is the most vulnerable members of society who would suffer first and most. I'm not saying those are the victims Bush/Cheney are worrying about, but I worry.

We need a big, fat, public debate about what to do, how fast to do it, and whether we should focus our resources more on reversing the climate trend or mitigating it. We also need to know more than we do about the science underlying climate change, to help us plot the most appropriate course. In an ideal world, where such research was being conducted aggressively and out in the open, we'd surely have big fights about it. Our politics could well be transformed as interest groups realigned around different solutions to allocate the costs. No doubt, it will be bloody when it happens — I hope only figuratively.

The Bush Administration apparently thinks Americans are all children and can't handle this. To repeat: Do they think the climate change phenomenon will just go away if they suppress discussion about it? This is an example of what happens when executives — political, corporate, wherever — turn into Eddy Arnold and ask their PR people to "make the world go away." But trying to silence one of the most respected scientists in the field can only have one result: Massive backlash.

Today, Dr. Hansen is more of a hero than he was yesterday, and his power has grown significantly. He will spend his next 15 minutes of fame as the martyred symbol of Bush's War Against Science. Bush Administration acolytes like the ones you find on Hugh Hewitt's blogroll won't relish having to defend their Most Admired One's brazen and foolish attempts to impose censorship on an issue of such significance.

(P.S. The bellweather on global warming policy will be property insurers. Eventually, the insurance industry will organize and drive climate change policy. Wouldn't you, if you held the policies for, say, Marina Del Rey? Rising sea levels? Gulp.)

UPDATE 1/29: For a thorough and righteously angry post on this and other current examples of Bush/Cheney wielding power inappropriately to suppress inconvenient findings of fact, and bury the careers of government officials simply for telling the truth, read this from the site Political Cortex.

Transparency Marches On

It was about 12:30 this morning when I switched our TV to the late-night replay of Oprah Winfrey. I don’t usually watch her show willingly. My wife is as reluctant to have Oprah on the TV when I’m in the room as I am to have old Arnold Schwarzenegger movies on when she is.owinfrey.jpg

But Oprah had been in the news all day for her apparent take-down of “A Million Little Pieces” author James Frey, whose fabricated memoir she promoted for three months, putting millions in his pocket for a story he sold as true, but has been proven false in many critical details. So I thought it might be worth seeing. And it was. It had the same cringe-making effect as watching “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” except this was real.

Here was Oprah, the biggest bookseller and book promoter in America, a force not to be trifled with by anyone in the publishing industry, coming up against our society’s new imperative — the scorching pursuit of maximum transparency.

The show opened with Winfrey’s ritual apology for her initial defense of Frey’s book. Then she brought out Frey, and forced him to confess his sins. While admitting he lied, he tried to psychobabble his way out of trouble, positioning his fibs as another symptom of the root personality defect that led him into drugs. That didn’t really hold water, given that we’d already been told he first peddled the book as fiction before submitting manuscript, unchanged, as a memoir — memoirs being a hotter genre.

Then, after taking his lumps, and looking (as every scribe has described him) like a bad boy sent to the principal’s office, out came the responsible adult in the relationship, Nan A. Talese, a celebrity editor with her own publishing imprint, an elegant figure very much in keeping with the New York media elite, all the way down to the sort-of British accent and refined manners. Oprah’s brutal treatment of Ms. Talese captures the spirit of our age, and the collision between the old and new ways better than anything I’ve seen in awhile. From the transcript on Winfrey’s website:

Oprah: What did you do as the publisher of this book to make sure that what you were printing was true?

Nan Talese: As the publisher of the book, I read the manuscript. I thought this was an absolutely—I would say there was an authenticity in the book. That experience that I responded to, and people have different levels of pain, and I thought, excruciating as the dentistry was, it was not impossible.

Secondly, I shared it with my colleagues. There were no questions. Then what happens with a book is the editor goes over a manuscript with an author and if there’s anything that does not seem true, we question the author. Then it goes to a copy editor. All along in the process of this book, in retrospect it might seem, you know, how could everybody be that stupid and that dumb? But in fact, all the way through in the first nine months of the book…

Oprah: That book is so fantastical, I will say, that, really, that’s not washing with me. But I just want to know because [this show is] live. So what did you do legally to make sure? Did you vet it?

Nan Talese: The book was vetted legally. It would seem that no one was libeled. But it was not…you do not bring an author…an author brings his book in, says it is true, it is accurate, it’s its own.

Oprah: But if you’re publishing it as a memoir, I think the publisher has a responsibility because as the consumer, the reader, I am trusting you. I’m trusting you, the publisher, to categorize this book whether as fiction or autobiographical or memoir. I’m trusting you.

(snip)

Oprah: We asked if you, your company, stood behind James’s book as a work of non-fiction at the time. And they said, absolutely. And they were also asked if their legal department had checked out the book. And they said yes. So in a press release sent out for the book in 2004, by your company, the book was described as “brutally honest and an altering look at addiction.” So how can you say that if you haven’t checked it to be sure?

Nan: You know, Oprah, I mean, I think this whole experience is very sad. It’s very sad for you. It’s very sad for us.

Oprah: It’s not sad for me. It’s embarrassing and disappointing for me.

Nan: I do not know how you get inside another person’s mind.

Oprah: Well, this is my point, Nan. Otherwise then anybody can just walk in off the street with whatever story they have and say this is my story.

Nan: This is absolutely true…

Oprah: That needs to change.

Nan: No, you cannot stop people from making up stories. We learn by stories.

Oprah: You can if you call it a memoir. You can make up stories and call them novels. People have done it for years.

Nan: A novel is something different than a memoir. And a memoir is different from an autobiography. A memoir is an author’s remembrance of a certain period in his life. Now, the responsibility, as far as I am concerned, is does it strike me as valid? Does it strike me as authentic? I mean, I’m sent things all the time and I think they’re not real. I don’t think they’re authentic. I don’t think they’re good. I don’t believe them. In this instance, I absolutely believed what I read.

Oprah: So did I.

nan talese.jpgIt was great television, and very instructive for anyone (especially in the PR industry) put in the position of defending a serious breach of trust. Ms. Talese is well-mannered and so managed to survive with her external dignity intact, but you could tell the guts had been kicked out of her.

“It would seem that no one was libeled” was, until recently, an acceptable standard for truth in the media. Now Talese knows differently. “We learn by stories,” was the kind of arty insight that used to impress people back when Joan Didion (or was it Janet Malcolm) first uttered those words. Now, it’s a joke. We, our society, want to know what’s true versus what’s a “story.” As Dan Rather and Mary Mapes found out, an appeal to the “larger truth” is not acceptable if the underlying information presented as fact is not factual.

In the past, one might have said a memoir like Frey’s was still valuable because it was hatched from the mind of a man who’d “been there,” strung out on drugs, so the details were no big deal. That was Oprah’s position when this started, but now she’s apologized for it. The publishing industry’s fact-checking appartus will be toughened significantly, if for no other reason than to satisfy Oprah. She can’t be ignored. Memoirists, take heed.

There’s a part of me that’s loving all this. It’s bracing to see the artifice stripped away from the institutions of culture and media. It’s awesome to watch — like seeing a glacier carve a new Yosemite Valley in real time.

But the part of me that studied English at Berkeley found myself worrying about how some of our greatest writers would fare under the new regime. Some of our most treasured literature is non-fiction. Ben Franklin’s “Autobiography.” Mark Twain’s great memoirs of travel and growing up. George Orwell. Ernest Hemingway. De Tocqueville. Jack Kerouac. Norman Mailer. Is every word in Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” true? What about “The Autobiography of Malcolm X?”

faulkner.jpgWilliam Faulkner, in my opinion the greatest American novelist, was a notorious liar when it came to any discussion of his life. Lies were essential to his existence, and the source of his genius. In his Mississippi drawl, he’d say, “I just like making things up.” Fortunately, his classic fictions won’t be challenged because he never represented them as anything but. But would Faulkner today have been hounded on the Internet for the untrue things he said about his family history, his gross exaggerations of his service in World War One? Of course he would have. It’s a different time now. We will have a different literature as a result.