Up in smoke
Remember that historic deal to punish the big tobacco companies for hooking millions of Americans on a dangerous habit? Looks like it's going the way of many other political promises. The agreement called for cigarette makers to pay $368.5 billion in exchange for immunity from future lawsuits. More than half that money would go directly to the states, whose attorneys general had worked out the deal. But last week, Senate leaders told the nation's governors not to expect approval of the agreement because Congress needs all the tobacco money it can get to pay for the president's budgetary wish list. Another sign the deal is in jeopardy: Several major newspapers reported last week that the Liggett Group is ready to turn state's evidence to help the Justice Department's criminal probe of the tobacco industry. Company officials want immunity in exchange.
Seven seconds in Florida
The first line of storms hit northeast of Orlando in the midnight darkness of Feb. 22. Before the tornadoes moved offshore four hours later, they had claimed the lives of 39 residents of central Florida. Scores of others were injured and left homeless. Phillip Gamble, a student traveling back to the University of Florida from Orlando, had first-hand experience with the storms. He was driving about 60 mph on I-95, listening to radio reports of tornadoes and hail, "but what was hitting my car wasn't ice-it was debris." He slowed to about 30 mph as he noticed cars around him begin to twist in the growing wind. The next seven seconds would be a lesson in applied physics. "About that time the car to my left did multiple 360s and the one to my right flipped over and slid into the ditch. I froze up, slamming on the brake and trying to hold onto the steering wheel." His car was pushed across a lane of traffic, over the curb, and onto the muddy median, where it continued to slide for 30 feet before the storm suddenly released it and moved on. "I was in shock. I didn't know what was going on for a while," said Mr. Gamble, who was able to continue his trip after other motorists helped push his car out of the mud. It didn't go so well for many others. In addition to the 39 who died, more than 200 people were injured by the series of twisters packing winds up to 250 mph. The Florida Division of Emergency Services reported 1,700 damaged buildings in four counties, including 310 that were destroyed. Damage estimates aren't due until later this week, but President Clinton wasted no time in offering federal help. Touring the devastated area, he paraphrased from Isaiah 9:10, promising, "The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with you in stones." Ironically enough, the words intended to comfort were originally written to condemn a wayward nation, and those who "with pride and arrogance of heart" had set out to rebuild. Had the president continued reading the passage, he'd have found this rebuke: "Those who guide this people mislead them, and those who are guided are led astray."
An evolutionary memory
Longtime Democratic fundraiser Maria Hsia goes on trial next month in the first of what's likely to be several criminal cases growing out of alleged campaign finance crimes in the 1996 presidential race. Ms. Hsia, a long-time political friend of Vice President Gore, organized Mr. Gore's controversial campaign appearance at a Buddhist temple in Southern California. Prosecutors charge that Ms. Hsia set up a money-laundering scheme to hide the fact that the temple, a tax-exempt religious organization barred from making political donations, was giving money to the Democratic National Committee. For his part, Mr. Gore is keeping his political and legal distance from Ms. Hsia. "It had nothing to do with me," he said last week of her indictment. But reporters have learned not to put much stock in Mr. Gore's recollections about what did and did not go on at the red-pillared, pagoda-style Hsi Lai Temple. To quote a New York Times editorial, "Mr. Gore's memories of the temple event have evolved-to use the politest possible term-as more information has emerged." The vice president initially discounted the idea that the temple meeting was a fundraiser at all, describing it as simply a "community outreach" event. When that characterization fell victim to contrary evidence found in campaign scheduling memos, Mr. Gore began describing his temple appearance as a "donor-maintenance" event, but insisted that "no money was offered or collected or raised at the event." Maybe not at the event itself, but the allegedly laundered money was rounded up within 24 hours of Mr. Gore's appearance. Perhaps the grand jury will get to the bottom of whether any "controlling legal authority" was violated by the Buddhist fundraiser. But another authority most certainly was violated. During his time at the temple Mr. Gore made a "flower offering" to a statue of Buddha. At last month's National Prayer Breakfast the vice president made a point of referring to "my own faith in Jesus Christ."
Lead us not into controversy
Democratic lawmakers in Maryland are protesting the 300-year tradition of opening each day's session of the General Assembly in prayer. They aren't opposed to all prayers-just those that ask forgiveness for the sin of abortion, for instance, or those that are closed in Jesus' name. Recently, at least three ministers have used the opening prayer to call for repentance and moral renewal. That doesn't sit well with some delegates, who see unity and reflection as the only reason for the prayer time. The Speaker of the House recently reissued guidelines asking that all prayers be "inclusive, non-sectarian, and carefully planned to avoid embarrassments and misunderstandings." One Democratic lawmaker chided the offending ministers for a showing the lawmakers a "lack of respect": "When they're addressing the House of Delegates, it's an honor and privilege," Del. Cheryl C. Kagan said huffily. It's also a privilege to pray to the ultimate addressee.
Former dissident Kim Dae-jung was sworn in as South Korea's president last week, pledging democratic and economic reforms and improved relations with communist North Korea. It marked the first transfer of power to an opposition party in South Korea's turbulent 50-year history as an independent nation, which now faces a deepening financial crisis.
Safe, legal, and rare?
Cuban President Fidel Castro spoke out against abortion last week. In a rambling speech after his "election" to another five-year term as president, Mr. Castro said, "We don't like abortion." Mr. Castro said he objected to his country's use of abortion "as an anti-birth method." He called it a health hazard and said he would use his position as a "revolutionary and public figure" to oppose it. He did not propose state remedies to curtail abortion, which is free in Cuba. The country is reported to have one of the highest abortion rates in the world.
Spare parts sale
Two Chinese citizens were arrested in New York on charges of conspiring to sell human organs. They are accused of arranging for kidney transplants inside China and exporting corneas and other body parts to the United States. One of those arrested, Cheng Yong Wang, is a former criminal prosecutor from China's Hainan province. The men claim, according to court papers, that the organs come from executed prisoners. Harry Wu, the Chinese-American human-rights activist who has made several clandestine trips into China to investigate China's trade in human organs (and was arrested in China on one trip in1995), lured the two sellers to authorities by placing want ads for the organs.
What they don't know can't hurt them
Full disclosure may be the law of the land when it comes to investing, but not when it comes to divesting oneself of an unwanted baby. A district court has ruled that the Women's Right to Know Act-Florida's first new abortion law in more than 10 years-violated the right to privacy and infringed on the doctor-patient relationship. The act required that physicians distribute state-written pamphlets on abortion alternatives as well as providing standardized abortion counseling. Women who still wanted to proceed with an abortion would have then had to sign an informed-consent document. The court ruled that the educational efforts were too restrictive of "a woman's ability to receive her physician's opinion as to what is best for her, considering her circumstances." The case is likely to be appealed. A similar right-to-know law might have saved the life of 27-year-old Sharon Hamptlon last year. The California resident bled to death after her uterus was punctured during a "safe and legal" abortion procedure. The doctor in that case, 66-year-old Bruce Steir, was ordered last week to stand trial on a charge of second-degree murder. A nurse testified that Dr. Steir made comments during the operation that indicated he knew something had gone seriously wrong. Yet he allowed Ms. Hamptlon to leave the clinic with her mother, who could not revive the young woman when they arrived home. At the time of the death, Dr. Steir was already on medical probation for other botched abortions. And in other ironic abortion news, police in southern China have arrested five people for killing two giant pandas and ten golden monkeys. With only 1,000 pandas still living in China, and a few times that many golden monkeys, both species are jealously guarded national treasures. The killers now face the death penalty-in a country known for forcing thousands of abortions every year against the mothers' wishes.
Porn and pot took a beating last week as courts on both coasts issued rulings designed to close down notorious businesses. In New York City, porn merchants lost a legal challenge to strict new zoning laws designed to shutter "adult" businesses. Times Square, which once was littered with 120 sex-oriented shops, now has just 19. The new law, which requires 500-foot buffer zones between porn peddlers, should drop that number to only a half dozen. Meanwhile, California's highest court let stand an earlier ruling that will shut down that state's "cannabis clubs" approved by voters in 1996. The original law was designed to allow marijuana use by patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, and other conditions. But the court decided last week that only doctors and loved ones can provide marijuana for that purpose, not commercial clubs. The owner of a San Francisco club vowed to stay open "until the tanks come." "It may be against the law to sell marijuana," Dennis Peron insisted, "but it's morally wrong to let someone die, and we are saving lives here." Marijuana saves lives? What's Mr. Peron been smoking?
Greater than gold
Canadian speed skater Catriona LeMay-Doan did not expect that after becoming a Christian she would rocket to the top of her sport. But that's where she ended up, if her gold medal at the Nagano Olympics is any indication. What a turnaround from the Olympics in Lillehamer four years earlier. A fall in the 500 meter event there threw her into a depression she couldn't shake until, driving down a Calgary road, she saw a billboard for Athletes in Action. On an impulse, she met with several staffers and a few days later became a believer. Since then, in addition to Olympic gold, Ms. LeMay-Doan has notched two world records. Her newfound notoriety is sure to attract media attention, giving the young Christian an effective platform for sharing her faith. Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati's gold medal came with a different kind of notoriety. He lost the medal briefly after testing positive for marijuana, only to have it reinstated after he claimed he'd inhaled second-hand pot at a party. "I'm definitely going to change my lifestyle," he promised. "Unfortunately, I'm not going to change my friends. My friends are real and I'm going to stand behind them." Just keep it upwind, Mr. Rebagliati.
Federal officials said last week they have drastically reduced the number of agents searching for the man suspected in the deadly Alabama abortion clinic bombing. Agents are concentrating on tracking down leads and checking possible sightings of Eric Robert Rudolph. Meanwhile, investigators have drawn a link between Mr. Rudolph and an abortion business bombing in Atlanta last year. Flooring nails were used as shrapnel in the Atlanta bombing; similar ones were found in a shed rented by Mr. Rudolph.
Henry Lyons, president of the 8.5-million-member National Baptist Convention U.S.A., was arrested and charged last week with racketeering and theft for allegedly opening a secret bank account and diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars in church funds for his personal use. Mr. Lyons was also accused of defrauding the Anti-Defamation League out of nearly $250,000 the group donated last year to rebuild black churches in the South that had been burned.
How do you teach the Bible in a way that is "secular, objective, and neutral"? Lee County, Fla., school officials will have to find a way, in the wake of a settlement last week that commits the school board to replace its use of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in the public schools course with one acceptable to the liberals who sued. The school board has been under fire since it voted last year to adopt the Bible curriculum.
Rio with a twist
The drunken orgy of Carnival season in Rio de Janeiro, which ended Feb. 25, got a shot of divine intervention. First, El Niño drenchings left many neighborhoods knee-deep in water just as the samba dancing was to begin. The city also lost its major airport (on Friday the 13th) when a "freak" fire caused by a short circuit destroyed the facilities and forced Carnival imports to an international airport outside of town. Christian crusaders, recognizing that rain falls on both good and evil, still came out in record numbers to spread the gospel among Rio revelers. Evangelism at the festival ranges from street preachers who set up stage in downtown Rio to neighborhood music festivals featuring samba music with scriptural lyrics. All underscore Latin America's own evangelism explosion, where 8,000 people now reportedly turn to Christ every day.
The UN diplomats came home to sip champagne. In the Persian Gulf, however, more than 10,000 U.S. troops remain front and center. CIA officials told a Senate panel, after the UN-Iraq agreement, that two fatwas, or Islamic edicts, had been published by anonymous clerics advocating attacks on American civilians and U.S. installations worldwide. The decrees were tied not just to U.S. policy toward Iraq, but to Mideast policy overall. "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies-civilians and military-is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it in order to liberate Al Aksa mosque and the holy mosque [in Mecca] from their grip," one said. "These fatwas are the first from these groups that explicitly justify attacks on American citizens anywhere in the world," according to a Feb. 25 memorandum from the CIA's counterterrorist center.
The big "if"
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan returned to the United States after brokering a deal with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein laden with contingencies. The big if, however, is whether the diplomats Mr. Annan agreed could accompany weapons inspectors to Iraq would impede the inspections, and who those diplomats would be. The Clinton administration pushed for a UN resolution to codify Iraq's agreement to allow the inspections-an exercise in uphill diplomacy. Weren't binding provisions for unfettered inspections-and Mr. Hussein's violation of same-what started the current crisis? "Another deal with Saddam Hussein?" queried Mideast expert and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. "Hmmmmm. Why does it leave me feeling uneasy-as if I had just agreed that Ted Kaczynski could be my mailman, because he's promised, this time, for sure, no more letter bombs? You just know that sooner or later something is gonna go boom."