This Week

Issue: "Cloning: Double trouble," March 7, 1998

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

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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."

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