Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Germ warfare and national security," June 2, 2001

Tipping the balance
The 50-50 Senate hasn't exactly been a juggernaut of lawmaking power for the whisper-thin Republican majority. But Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords provided the GOP a "hey, it could be worse" rationale. Last week, it got worse. As Sen. Jeffords, who won election to office as a liberal Republican, edged away from the GOP, Democrats on Capitol Hill could hardly contain their glee over the idea that Sen. Jeffords's defection would give them a majority. The gridlock Democrats have brought in the last few weeks to President Bush's judicial nominations and tax-cut bill may now become an all-out traffic jam. An array of conservative committee chairmen (Jesse Helms, Orrin Hatch, Bob Smith, and others) will give way to a cast of liberals (Pat Leahy, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, and reappearing on the other side, Jim Jeffords). The Vermonter waited to switch until the $1.35 trillion tax cut he worked to shrink passed the Senate with all 50 Republicans and 12 Democrats voting yes. As chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, Sen. Jeffords worked with ranking member Ted Kennedy to pass the Senate version of the education bill. The White House is counting on both bills to be ready for early June signing ceremonies. One cold comfort for Republicans: Their caucus just heaved to the right. On the bottom line of pure voting records, the Jeffords swap means next to nothing. Most press accounts described him as "moderate," but his lifetime American Conservative Union rating is a mere 27 percent-many points below Louisiana Democrat John Breaux's 47 or Maine Republican Olympia Snowe's 51, who are more numerically centrist. By contrast, Sen. Jeffords is much closer to Democratic senators like Harry Reid (21), Blanche Lincoln (21), Kent Conrad (20), and Joseph Lieberman (19). Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the Jeffords move is 98-year-old Strom Thurmond, who will no longer be the constant focus of a Democratic death watch to take power. Just a few nights before Sen. Jeffords switched, as Senate Democrats delayed the tax cut late into the night, Sen. Thurmond was visibly weary, and Sen. Joseph Biden wanted him to go home. Sen. Biden, not wanting to take partisan advantage during a crucial time, talked to Senate Democratic leaders about having one of their guys take the rest of the night off, as well. The powers-that-be nixed the idea, and the session lasted an extra half-hour with the exhausted Sen. Thurmond. Republican senators were steamed at the leadership, but praised Sen. Biden for his concern: "It's an indication there are at least some people on that side of the aisle who are compassionate," said Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. GLOBETROTTING FORMER PRESIDENT DOLES OUT ADVICE, RAKES IN FEES
Dollar Bill
In four months since he left office, Bill Clinton has added 11 countries to his passport, taking along the way a mulligan or two on Irish golf courses, a $150,000 fee or two on a speaking tour, and one egg on the chin. The egg came in Warsaw, apparently from an anti-trade protester, just before the ex-president spoke at a $1,500-a-pop seminar. In Hong Kong, he said the United States should "partner" with China and offered that he had encouraged Chinese leader Jiang Zemin to hand over the U.S. Navy's EP-3 surveillance plane. In Ireland and other European venues Mr. Clinton lectured the West for not doing enough to combat AIDS. He said the United States should be contributing about $1.5 billion to fight AIDS in Africa instead of the $200 million put forth by President Bush. Former national security adviser Sandy Berger, in classic Clinton style, uttered the following for the benefit of the press: "[Mr. Clinton] is very conscious, as he travels around the world, of being supportive of the administration and not conducting foreign policy." CHENEY RECEPTION SPURS CLINTONIAN COMPARISONS
Distinctions, differences
Few topics excite Washington reporters more than campaign-finance "reform," so when Vice President Dick Cheney held a reception May 21 at the vice presidential mansion for about 400 top GOP donors, a prelude to an RNC gala that raised a record $23.9 million, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was in for a pounding. Journalists fired 35 questions at the following day's briefing, demanding a distinction between the Cheney event and the White House coffees the Clinton administration organized to solicit large donations. Mr. Fleischer spun it this way: The Clinton strategy "was an organized, elaborate scheme involving spreadsheets and donor targets and regular meetings on a regular basis for the purpose of raising money and using the meetings in the White House to go back out and raise further money." A blizzard of "hypocrisy" stories followed. Talking-head shows on CNN and CNBC hammered the White House. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other national-circulation papers and wire services carried variations of this theme: "The tactics are reminiscent of the Clinton-era coffees," as Jeff Cronin of Common Cause put it. Mr. Fleischer didn't help himself much by failing to remind reporters of what had many congressional Republicans upset about the coffees-the presence of foreign donors, and especially donors with ties to the regime in communist China. President Bush's stated willingness to sign a version of the McCain-Feingold legislation banning "soft money" and curtailing political ads didn't help, either. It just helped reporters to wonder if the president ought to boycott his own fundraiser as a matter of principle. -Tim Graham, at the White House INQUIRING READER: TARGET BOYCOTT
For 10 years, many conservative families shunned Target stores because they funded Planned Parenthood. But World reader Candace Cotton heard that Target recently took new aim, and she's right: The Target Foundation has cut off funding to Planned Parenthood. Foundation officials say the decision was the result of a broad reshuffling of priorities that came last year, when the company renamed the former Dayton Hudson Foundation and replaced its staff. Pro-life groups are pleased. "The outcome we sought when we began the boycott has taken place," said Brian Gibson, executive director of Pro-Life Action Ministries. "We're ecstatic." Candace Cotton may not be ecstatic about the World wear cap she will receive, but we hope that she will be at least moderately pleased. PROBE FINDS NO VANDALISM BY CLINTON AIDES AT WHITE HOUSE
Barr wants a closer look
A few days after the Clintons left the White House, The Washington Post and the Drudge Report website started passing out anonymous tips that Clinton staffers had not just taken the Ws off computer keyboards but had committed serious vandalism, like cutting phone lines and crashing computers. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) asked the General Accounting Office to investigate, and the verdict came back last week: What vandalism? The General Services Administration, which oversees federal buildings, reported to the GAO: "The condition of the real property was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy." Bush aide Philip Larsen told investigators, "We have located no such [damage] records and our repair records do not contain information that would allow someone to determine the cause of damage being repaired." Clinton aides demanded apologies for the White House allegations, but President Bush and spokesman Ari Fleischer waved reporters away from the charges in those first few weeks. For his part, in a letter to the GAO, Rep. Barr said the lack of records doesn't clear the Clinton aides: "I would like to know what steps the GAO will be taking to ensure that proper records of federal government property are kept during future presidential transitions. The American taxpayers deserve better than the faulty record-keeping that has occurred in this instance." SHREK: HIGH-PRICED IN-JOKE NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILD AUDIENCES
Dreamworks' nightmare
Parents should not take their kids to this year's big animated blockbuster, Shrek (DreamWorks, rated PG for language and some crude humor). This anti-fairy tale is loaded not only with potty humor but potshots at classic Disney moments. The story concerns a stupid king (John Lithgow) who sends an ugly ogre (Mike Meyers) on a quest to save a captive princess (Cameron Diaz). The kingdom is full of characters resembling those from old stories animated by Walt Disney (Snow White, Pinocchio, Robin Hood, etc.), who wind up trashed and abused. Aside from the inappropriate and, at times, grotesque material, what shows up on screen is stale. Along for the ride is Eddie Murphy as a donkey, who tosses around bad buddy-movie one-liners. Eventually the ogre gets the girl-and in a reverse Beauty and the Beast finale, the beautiful heroine becomes something ugly, fat, and green. This is supposed to be a happy ending, a triumph for the marginalized. Studio mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg (the "K" in "DreamWorks SKG") got the chance to insult his former employer, but in the most extravagant way possible. Shrek comes off as one big in-joke for the animators and a clunky hundred minutes for the audience. MIDDLE EAST: U.S. PRESSED ISRAEL TO MAKE CEASEFIRE OFFER
First, stop shooting
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared a ceasefire on May 23, but his word was not enough to end violence. Less than 24 hours later, an Israeli was shot dead as fighting continued in the West Bank and Gaza. Deaths since the latest intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which began last fall, have now topped 500. The latest round of recriminations escalated on May 18, when Israel, for the first time since it occupied the territories in 1967, used warplanes to attack Palestinian targets in the West Bank and Gaza. Those attacks killed eight Palestinians, including a member of Yasser Arafat's bodyguards. That raid was in retaliation for an earlier suicide bombing by the militant Hamas, which killed seven Israelis in a crowded marketplace-the worst anti-Israeli attack in months. At the urging of President Bush, Mr. Sharon made the ceasefire offer. The president phoned both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat, who was in Paris. Mr. Bush stepped into the fray after announcing that he would endorse the recommendations of a fact-finding commission headed by former Democratic Senator George Mitchell and former Republican Senator Warren Rudman. The commission also included leaders and diplomats from Norway, Turkey, and the European Union. Throwing breadcrumbs along the path to get the two sides back to a negotiating table, commissioners said both leaders must first put an end to shooting before talks can resume. "Israelis and Palestinians are destined by history and geography to be neighbors, in peace or in conflict," the two ex-senators wrote, adding that "most Palestinians and Israelis want to live in peace." Arab neighbors are not exactly helping those basic steps along. Foreign ministers of the Arab League recommended that political contacts with Israel be frozen until Israel withdraws from areas it has occupied since the uprising began. But the Palestinian Authority would not stop there. When officials from Mauritania said they would not go along with the freeze, Mr. Arafat's representatives demanded that Mauritania be frozen out of the Arab League. AFGHANISTAN: TALIBAN ORDER REQUIRES HINDUS TO WEAR I.D.
An echo of Hitler?
Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia is requiring Hindus to wear a yellow piece of cloth on their shirt pockets to mark them in the strict Islamic nation. The party will also require Hindu women for the first time to wear a veil. Taliban leaders insist that the ruling will protect Hindus from the religious police who patrol the streets enforcing the Taliban's version of Islamic law. But the plan reminded outsiders of the yellow Star of David armbands Nazis required European Jews to wear in the 1930s and '40s. State Department deputy spokesman Phillip T. Reeker called the new policy "reprehensible and offensive." The criticism did not stop Secretary of State Colin Powell from approving a $43 million humanitarian aid package to Afghanistan, where 4 million people are at risk of famine. As Voyager ends a seven-season run, a new Trek series and movie prepare for launch
Star Trek: previous generation
Goodbye, Voyager. Hello, Enterprise. As the current TV permutation of Star Trek leaves the air, a new one is in the works for next season. The latest series is a prequel to the original, set in the 22nd century. Unlike Star Trek: Voyager, which was retired last week after seven seasons, the new show will be simply titled Enterprise. Paramount decided not to use the famous brand name for unknown reasons. Scott Bakula will inherit the chair formerly held by William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, and Kate Mulgrew, playing Capt. Jonathan Archer. (Sci-fi fans will remember him from another show, Quantum Leap). As in the original, Enterprise will have a Vulcan first officer, but this one will be female (played by Jolene Blalock). Critics say the Star Trek saga (which dates back to 1966) is wearing thin, but it remains one of the few popular parts of the struggling UPN lineup. While ratings for the series have been only so-so over the past years (Voyager tied with an XFL game in February), the reruns do relatively well in syndication. The network announced the new show in mid-May with the slogan: "The final frontier has a new beginning." A new angle on Enterprise will be that the setting falls between our own time and the days of Captain Kirk. "Interplanetary space travel is a fairly new thing in this era," said Marvin V. Rush, director of photography on the new show. Presumably Enterprise will continue the Star Trek tradition of trying to comment directly on the real world. Star Trek stories have often attempted social relevance, sometimes making the starships the interstellar equivalent of a UN peacekeeping force. Meanwhile, yet another Star Trek movie is in the works. The as-yet-untitled 10th movie, featuring the Next Generation characters fighting the Romulans, is set for release next year. -Chris Stamper SEC sues former Sunbeam CEO
Chainsaw massacred?
In just a few years, Al Dunlap went from being the toast of corporate America to being a legend of mismanagement. Now the Securities and Exchange Commission alleges he helped cook the books to make a sick company look healthier. Mr. Dunlap earned the nickname "Chainsaw Al" for his massive job-slashing campaign while running Sunbeam, the Boca Raton-based maker of Oster, Mr. Coffee, Mixmaster, First Alert, and other appliances. He took credit for a big turnaround at the company, but his story unraveled after Sunbeam's board forced him to resign in 1998. The company has since filed for bankruptcy, falling under the weight of a $2.6 billion debt load. The Andersen accounting firm agreed to pay $110 million to Sunbeam shareholders earlier this month to settle a fraud lawsuit over its work for the company. The SEC's lawsuit claims that Mr. Dunlap led a scheme to shift revenue to make the old management appear to lose more and his team appear to make more. Comics publisher plans to quit using the old comics code
Breaking the code
One of America's oldest ratings systems is on the ropes: Marvel Comics plans to quit using the Comics Code seal, which publishers have used since 1954 as a guide for material sold to children. The struggling publisher of Spider-Man, The X-Men, and The Incredible Hulk says it will introduce its own in-house labeling scheme for comic books. The Comics Code seal is a tiny stamp printed on a comic book's front cover. An industry committee gives it out to designate that a title is suitable for all readers, and it has been a source of constant controversy within the industry. For decades, numerous fans and artists protested that the system is censorious. The often-pornographic "underground comix" movement led by Robert Crumb in the 1960s was partially a revolt against the Code. The Code contains a general set of do's and don'ts: Comics must not disrespect authority figures, stereotype social groups, use excessive language, or glorify drugs. The Comics Code is not necessarily conservative: It mandates "sensitivity" to "sexual preference, political orientation, [and] socioeconomic disadvantages." Marvel's decision is the result of the industry's troubles. Sales are down drastically and the core audience is no longer children, but grownups who have read them for years. Dropping the Code is a drastic move to position Marvel as a hipper, edgier publisher.

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