This Week

Issue: "Pensacola," Dec. 20, 1997

Open and shut cases

Experts attending a week-long meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board in Baltimore did their best to convince conspiracy theorists that last July's crash of TWA Flight 800 was due to mechanical failure. NTSB officials released thousands of pages of documents, screened several computer animations, and gave frightening new details of the last seconds of the doomed plane. In Paducah, Ky., a much younger investigation also failed to produce evidence of a conspiracy. Although the local sheriff said he believed others knew in advance about the attack, 14-year-old Michael Carneal is now considered the only suspect in the prayer-meeting shooting that killed three high-schoolers. Because he used a firearm to commit a serious felony, Mr. Carneal will be tried as an adult, but Kentucky law forbids the death penalty for anyone under the age of 16.

Ecumenical Muslims?

Iran last week hosted a three-day conference to promote unity among the world's 1 billion Muslims. With delegates from 55 nations in attendance, the meeting was seen as a bid by Iran to regain international stature and to convince its skeptical neighbors-especially Saudi Arabia-that they have nothing to fear from the radical Islamic republic. But speeches by Iran's two highest-ranking leaders left very different impressions of the country's position. Moderate President Mohammed Khatemi, elected last year in an unexpected landslide, called for the protection of religious minorities and urged his fellow leaders to learn from the West. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the country's supreme leader, blasted the sins of the arrogant West, warned the U.S. to pull its warships out of the "Islamic sea" (Persian Gulf), and insisted that Islam is the world's "only remedial, curative, and savior angel."

Choosing sides

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The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Tuesday that a divorced father who became a Christian cannot share his newfound beliefs with his children if it alienates them from their Orthodox Jewish mother. A court-appointed guardian found that two of Jeffrey Kendall's three children were suffering "stress" because he was exposing them to Christian teaching while their mother, who gained custody after a 1994 divorce, wanted to raise them in the Jewish faith. The court agreed, ruling that Mr. Kendall cannot take the children to church where they would be told that non-Christians are "destined to burn in hell," in the words of Judge Neil Lynch, who wrote the decision. Mr. Kendall's lawyer denounced the ruling, noting that the court had essentially chosen the mother's religion over the father's. "The court effectively has established a religion for these three children," said Michael Greco. "That's the court intruding where it shouldn't be intruding."

Through the motions

White House officials made it clear last week they'd weighed the pros and cons of defying the Senate and were committed to move ahead with a recess appointment of Bill Lann Lee to become the government's top civil-rights enforcer. President Clinton had debated for weeks with his aides whether to jeopardize his harmonious relationship with Republicans by placing his nominee on the job without Senate approval, possible because Congress is in recess. That was before a letter from Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) warning the president of the political danger he risks in making the recess appointment. Republicans vowed to treat such a move as "a declaration of war," as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) put it. Nevertheless, as decision day neared, White House officials kept up their campaign to pressure Republicans. But it was clear that was merely a pro forma prelude to the recess appointment, which would give Mr. Lee the job without Senate confirmation for two years. "It will allow us to say we tried every which way to do it with regular order," an unidentified White House official told The Washington Post. The philosophical argument over Mr. Lee centers on the nominee's embrace of racial preferences and quotas, which Supreme Court rulings have held are unconstitutional. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said last week "it's time to draw the line" and block the controversial nominee. Democrats blocked a vote on Mr. Lee to become assistant attorney general for civil rights just before Congress adjourned for the year, fearing the nomination would be killed at the committee level.

Presidential Christmas list

President Clinton went Christmas shopping in New York for campaign cash for Democrats and for personal gifts for family and friends. After lunch, he dropped $400 on jewelry and purchased three soft-sided leather briefcases and some trinkets. The president also got three sweaters at cost, and the manager threw in three for free. That night at a $10,000 per couple fundraiser, political donors were even more generous, giving close to $1 million for Democratic candidates. The day before, Mr. Clinton marked the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a speech to a group of diplomats and foreign-policy wonks. As The Washington Post described it, White House spinmeisters billed the 15-minute address as the president's "most comprehensive exposition yet" of his foreign policy views. Mr. Clinton noted "human rights are still at risk from Burma to Nigeria, from Belarus to China." In New York, Mr. Clinton said, "We continue speaking out for human rights without arrogance or apology. As long as America is determined to stand for human rights, then free people all around the world will choose to stand with America." After berating human-rights-abusing nations, Mr. Clinton turned self-critical. Among America's human-rights "challenges," he said, were hate crimes and "continuing discrimination." As a prescription, he made a pitch for a homosexual civil-rights bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The Post reported the remark was "not in the prepared text distributed to reporters ahead of time." Prior to the trip, the president met at the White House with newly released Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, which irked Chinese communist officials. Mr. Wei spent about half an hour with the president and met with reporters afterward to provide some details of the chat. He said he warned Mr. Clinton not to be deceived by promises from Chinese communists. Mr. Wei explained to reporters why that warning was necessary: "They can make any promise and go back on any promise." Mr. Wei reported Mr. Clinton "listened and smiled" as the longtime dissident gave his advice.

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