Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Target: Taiwan," May 5, 2001

1ST WHITE HOUSE REPORT CARD: IT'S ALL ABOUT TONE
100 days: but who's counting?
Ever since the first few months of Franklin Roosevelt's record-length presidency, reporters have taken a measure of the new president at the 100-day mark. This may not be fair, considering that not too much legislation flies start to finish through Congress to the president's desk in 14 weeks. At the same time, the White House is trying to fill hundreds of political appointments through the federal establishment. But the report card has become a tradition. To help journalists with their evaluations (many had already started by Day 93), talking points distributed by TeamBush stressed, "The president's plain-spoken and straightforward leadership is helping replace a culture of gridlock and cynicism in Washington with a constructive spirit of bipartisan respect and results. In his first 100 days the president has been principled and inclusive, measured and decisive, focused and optimistic." That's the trademark White House version of reality from the very first day of the administration-its most important first product isn't new legislation as much as a new operating style and new personality traits, and boasting has never been a Bush family tradition. (By contrast, Washington wags joked that a bunch of Clinton's first 100 days was spent drawing up talking points for the first 100 days.) But Bush aides also touted congressional progress on tax and budget legislation and education reform, although nothing on those fronts has arrived for Mr. Bush's signature yet-and last week the president signaled he's willing to compromise on the size of the tax cut, saying he expects Congress to settle on something between $1.2 trillion and $1.6 trillion over 10 years. Mr. Bush's greatest challenge and greatest success has been the creation of widespread amnesia about the shadows of illegitimacy the Democrats threatened to cast over his victory in the 2000 "tie election." The first polling measure of Mr. Bush's first 100 days found his approval rating at 63 percent, four points better than Bill Clinton's in 1993. In part, this could be a function of their relative polling strength, since Mr. Bush drew 48 percent in 2000 while Mr. Clinton drew only 43 percent in 1992. -Tim Graham, at the White House QUEBEC SUMMIT: ANARCHISTS MASS TO OPPOSE MORE FREEDOM OF TRADE
World's largest shopping mall
Declaring that "open trade reinforces the habit of liberty," President Bush proposed creating a free trade area as big as the Western Hemisphere. The zone would stretch from Canada to Chile and end import and export restrictions by 2005. Known as FTAA, or Free Trade Area of the Americas, the plan would link 34 nations-every Western Hemisphere country except Cuba-and 800 million people, making it the world's largest trading bloc. Prosperous Latin nations like Brazil attending the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City expressed concern about linking disparate economies under such a plan. They also noted that the U.S. president must first win power from his own Congress to negotiate trade deals under what is known as "fast-track" authority. While the suits talked trade indoors, police had their hands full outside. Canada's finest arrested nearly 500 anti-globalization demonstrators over the three-day event, in what is becoming a global summit tradition. After black-clad anarchists and assorted trade naysayers tried to disrupt meetings, police fired tear gas and volleys of rubber bullets to take back the streets. Two hundred people, including 50 police officers, were injured. Embarrassed Quebec police said after the summit they had arrested two men for stealing security plans and confidential phone lists for the summit. The plans were later posted on a website. The final bill for protecting the heads of state will top $65 million. MISSISSIPPI RIVER CRESTS, AS OFFICIAL QUESTIONS TAXPAYER BAILOUTS OF UNINSURED
Stealing home
Home plate floated away from John O'Donnell Stadium in Davenport, Iowa, on April 25, slowly moving with the current under the Centennial Bridge. And with that, the Mighty Mississippi overpowered the minor league Quad-City River Bandits, flooding them out of their home field for the third time in the past decade. Last week, the Mississippi River crested just short of the 1993 record, causing havoc in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. The flood caused millions of dollars in damage in Minnesota and chased hundreds of people from their homes. Just upriver from Moline, Ill., in Port Byron, fire Capt. Mike Poel said the river claimed one house there and two more in Rapids City, a town of about 1,000 people. Most of the 1,500 people in Port Byron live on a bluff away from the flood-prone area, and Mr. Poel said many of the residents who still live on the riverfront have been through at least one flood and know what precautions to take: "Occasionally, the river reminds them that they're not in charge." In Davenport, the largest urban area on the upper Mississippi without permanent flood protection, volunteers and National Guard soldiers scrambled to build a clay-and-sandbag levee. Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh said the crisis could have been mitigated more easily with better preparation. "How many times will the American taxpayer have to step in and take care of this flooding, which could be easily prevented by building [permanent] levees and dikes?" he asked. One problem in the area is the lack of flood insurance even among those who can afford coverage. Agents say Iowans typically buy less insurance against water damage than counterparts in neighboring flood-prone states. "A lot of people don't acknowledge there is a flood threat out there," said Jeff Rucker of Cady Insurance in Burlington. Davenport sustained $100 million in flood damage in 1993. REGULATIONS, LACK OF REFINERIES TO BLAME FOR SUMMER FUEL PRICE SPIKE
Gas pains
Two bucks a gallon. That's where America may be headed if gas prices, as some predict, rise faster than mercury in the summer. Experts say supplies are tighter than at any point since the federal government began keeping track in 1963. That means higher costs, especially in heavily regulated areas like California and the Midwest. The oil industry blames environmental regulation for much of the problem. No new refineries have been built in the United States in over two decades. In addition, many areas require cleaner-burning reformulated gasoline that is more expensive to produce and is in short supply. The average price of gas in mid-April was $1.66 a gallon, according to the Department of Energy. A year ago, the average was $1.48 per gallon. "The gasoline market right now is a nightmare," said Ed Silliere, vice president of risk management at Energy Merchant LLC in New York. Over the winter, when gasoline inventories are typically replenished in anticipation of summer, major refiners focused on producing home heating oil, which was in short supply. Now many refineries have been forced out of service to take care of maintenance. EX-SENATOR, PRESIDENTIAL ASPIRANT REVEALS A DARK SECRET
Kerrey ordered killings
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey has admitted that a Navy Seal combat mission he led during the Vietnam War-and that gained him the Bronze Star-was responsible for the shooting deaths of more than a dozen unarmed civilians, mostly women and children. The incident took place 32 years ago in the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong, but came to light just before scheduled publication of a joint investigative effort by The New York Times and "60 Minutes II." Mr. Kerrey says he was misled by intelligence reports saying that Vietcong soldiers were hiding out where, in fact, women and children were staying. In the media accounts, however, a member of the same combat mission and a Vietnamese eyewitness say the women and children were rounded up together by the combat team, and Mr. Kerrey gave the order to shoot. After-action reports from the Pentagon, now part of the National Archives, confirm that the February 1969 killings took place under Mr. Kerrey's command and show correlating reports of "atrocities" lodged by villagers with nearby U.S. Army personnel. This was nine months before reports surfaced about the My Lai massacre, where forces under the command of Lt. William L. Calley Jr. killed 350 Vietnamese civilians. The revelations could affect future political aspirations for Mr. Kerrey. He lost part of his right leg in combat in March 1969 and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. A two-term senator, one-term governor of Nebraska, and now president of New School University, Mr. Kerrey is touted as a future Democratic presidential candidate. He campaigned for the top office in 1992, but abruptly announced that he would not run for Senate reelection last year. Mr. Kerrey told reporters the killings have given him nightmares and thoughts of suicide, but he said they did not figure into his decision to leave the Senate. WHERE HAVE ALL THE FEMINISTS GONE?
Underpopulated
Feminists are already having no fun in the Bush era. On April 10, National Organization for Women President Patricia Ireland held an "emergency action organizing meeting" at George Mason University, a few miles out of Washington. But the "emergency" drew less than 40 people (including NOW staffers), and Ms. Ireland was interrupted in mid-speech by a fire alarm. The small party moved outside, where she was drowned out again, this time by a real emergency action vehicle, a fire truck. NOW's "emergency" is the possibility of an opening on the Supreme Court created by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor or John Paul Stevens, who have both voted to retain Roe vs. Wade on a court now divided five to four on the issue. To strike fear in the hearts of wavering senators, NOW was promoting an "Emergency Action for Women's Lives" in the shadow of the Senate on April 22. But the crowd in Upper Senate Park couldn't fill a single city block. It couldn't have been the warm, sunny weather. "The goddesses have smiled on us," proclaimed NOW alumna Rosemary Dempsey from the stage. The crowd swayed to folk artist Mary Prankster, who sang a song declaring, "Gonna hook me up, to that great big suction pump, and bust that little piece of dust that's growing deep inside of me." ATTACK DOGS SMELL WEAK POLL NUMBERS ON ENVIRONMENT
The dirty-water guy
Democrats are flocking to their new Bush attack point: The president's weakest polling numbers come on environmental issues, where Democrats declare he's promulgated a "rollback" of protections at the behest of polluting campaign contributors. House Democratic Whip David Bonior recently responded to Mr. Bush's weekly radio address by declaring, "Since taking office, the president has treated the big polluters to an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of environmental giveaways." But many of these environmental "rollbacks" are reversals or delays on environmental regulations President Clinton crammed into the books in his last few hours in the Oval Office. For example, the Clinton administration waited 1,459 days before reducing the standard of arsenic in water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. When Mr. Bush set that ruling aside to explore the best scientific method to reduce arsenic levels, Democrats and environmental activists implied the new president was rolling back arsenic standards, even though the 50-ppb mark has stood for 50 years. The "treat the big polluters" line also did not mention that in many of the areas with higher levels of arsenic in the water, such as New Mexico, arsenic occurs naturally-not industrially. Environmentalists also railed at the president's decision to declare the Kyoto climate-change treaty dead. But Democratic talking points on Kyoto missed something: The Senate voted 95-0 for a resolution condemning the treaty, and President Clinton never sent it for ratification. That unpopularity may have reflected that while the Kyoto treaty limited American emissions, it made no attempt to limit other "less developed" polluters like China and India. The net change in greenhouse gases may have been close to zero. Play about corrupt theater producers sells out
Springtime for Broadway
What irony: The hottest play on Broadway right now is a comedy about a corrupt showman trying to scam the theater world. The Producers is sold out through November with theatergoers paying three-digit ticket prices to see this adaptation of Mel Brooks's 1968 satirical movie. The play presents Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the roles originated by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. They play a producer and accountant who plot to stage the worst play in history so they can run off with the backers' money. They wind up with Springtime for Hitler, a tasteless musical written by a crazy ex-Nazi. The show-within-a-show is so bad that the audience thinks it is a comedy and the scammers are stuck with a success. They wind up trying to blow up the theater to close it down. Mel Brooks had the film reworked with added plot twists, more music, and a different ending. It must be working: Even with the highest ticket price on Broadway-$100-sellouts could mean over $1 million gross per week, a huge sum for stage productions. The concept is perfect for today's sentiments: The fiendish plot aligns with many people's experience of the stock markets-being conned into buying a garbage product that sinks like a rock. Besides, Broadway has been loaded for years with super-serious blockbusters that have wallowed in their own extravagance. The Producers turns all that on its ear, showing two cynics trying to create the ultimate disaster. -Chris Stamper Costly furniture becomes a symbol of tech bubble
Take a chair
One of the biggest symbols of the New Economy meltdown has nothing to do with either technology or the stock market: It's a chair. The $799 Herman Miller Aeron is to 1990s startup companies what the $7,622 coffee maker and the $640 toilet seat were to the U.S. military: a symbol of bad management and wasteful spending. The Aeron is made of a curved mesh fabric and features lots of adjustments that make it a natural for the ergonomics-obsessed. Dot-coms justified the expense because the chair supposedly makes the work environment far more comfortable and eco-friendly than traditional foam-backed models. Herman Miller released the chair in 1995 to the cheers of the design community, and the chair even wound up in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It caught the attention of people who wanted to build a "work environment" instead of an office. The Aeron chair became a symbol of status, flash, and indulgence, along with catered meals and expensive flat-screen monitors. Today, the Aeron is a shared joke among those sifting through the remains of the tech bubble. Laid off dot-com employees wish their bosses had saved their money and kept their businesses in line. Silicon Valley consultant Nish Nadaraja told the San Jose Mercury News that he had to accept Aeron chairs in lieu of payment from startup clients who were running out of money. Even after the crash, the Aeron chair is still available through Herman Miller and its dealers. It survives as a reminder that people should at least wait until after they succeed in business before splurging on luxury goods. Bookstores settle lawsuit
Terms of surrender
Are the great Bookstore Wars over? The American Booksellers Association dropped a federal antitrust lawsuit against Barnes & Noble and Borders Group Inc. in exchange for a $4.7 million settlement. That's only a fraction of the trade association's $16 million legal bill. This is a major defeat for independent bookstores who spent much of the 1990s complaining that chain stores are killing the book trade. The position of Barnes & Noble and Borders is like that of Microsoft in the PC industry. Competitors accuse them of using their size and strength to control the book market. The indies wanted the same prices from publishers and wholesalers that the chains can negotiate due to their size and buying power. The book giants did much better than Microsoft: They gained favorable rulings from federal courts and a great deal in the settlement, while Microsoft is fighting a breakup order. "This settlement is nothing short of a total vindication for Barnes and Noble," said Leonard Riggio, Barnes' chairman.

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