Dispatches > In Brief

In Brief

News highlights from around the world

Issue: "House hunting," May 11, 2002

Dictator as playwright

Does Saddam Hussein have an artsy streak? Iraq's National Theater recently opened a new play called Zabibah and the King, which is based on a novel that many believe was written by the dictator. The love story features a beloved king and a married peasant woman, whose love turns the monarch into a great patriot. This makes other rulers jealous, so they plan a conspiracy against the couple. The title character Zabibah-supposedly a symbol of the Iraqi people-is raped and killed on Jan. 17, the anniversary of the start of the Gulf War. Iraqi culture minister Hammed Youssef Hammadi gushed over the melodrama, calling it "a glittering event in the record of Arab theater," and top figures from the ruling Baath party attended the play's opening. Many Iraqis suspect Saddam wrote the original novel because it contains pointed political references that might not have otherwise survived censorship. Meanwhile, American intelligence officials have reportedly examined the novel with interest.

Driving dealers up a wall

The world's largest retailer is taking a test drive into a new market. Starting this month, lots called Price 1 Auto Stores will appear near some Wal-Mart stores, featuring set prices for cars and no haggling. Customers will have up to five days to return the vehicles for their money back. Wal-Mart is leasing property next to five of its Houston stores to a company called Asbury Automotive for the test; each lot will have between 60 and 100 vehicles, including cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs. The vehicles will come with a 99-day or 3,300-mile limited warranty with no deductible. The company will evaluate the project once the six-month experiment is over-and it could become part of Wal-Mart's one-stop-shopping experience nationwide. "If it works, there will be a lot of used car dealers who will be quaking in their booties," said retail consultant Kurt Barnard.

Death of a doll maker

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Ruth Handler begat America's favorite blue-eyed blonde. The co-founder of Mattel, who invented the Barbie doll in 1959, died last month at age 85 after complications from colon surgery. Ms. Handler named the doll after her own daughter, Barbara, and brought Barbie into production over the skepticism of the company's ad executives. The 11 5-inch-tall plastic toy became its own industry, with more than 1 billion Barbies sold in 150 countries. The idea was to create a semi-mature doll that let girls play out their dreams about maturity. Barbie could go to the prom, get married (to Ken, who was named after the creator's son), and take up one of countless careers. Back in 1959, few could have predicted the backlash from feminists, who considered Barbie too white, too beautiful, and too sexist, even though Ms. Handler saw her as a symbol of empowerment. "My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be," she wrote in a 1994 autobiography. "Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices." Ms. Handler, who struggled with breast cancer, was forced out of Mattel in the 1970s. She then started a second career selling a prosthetic breast. She sold that company in 1991.

Hijacking Harry & Louise

Hollywood's cloning lobby has enlisted two old pitchmen in its campaign to reach Middle America: Harry and Louise. The fictional couple that in 1994 confounded the Clinton plan to nationalize health care is now on the side of the liberals: Their creators are using them to pitch the virtues of embryo research. In one Orwellian ad, Louise claims that cloning isn't really cloning, but simply an adult skin cell inserted into an unfertilized egg. In another, the character describes an early-stage lab technique as a "cure" for her diabetes. The propaganda campaign premiered on local Washington TV during an episode of The West Wing. The ads are sponsored by CuresNow, a pressure group founded by movie producer Janet Zucker and Lucy Fisher, a former vice chairman of Sony Entertainment. It backs cloning for research (but not reproductive) purposes, claiming this could generate cures for diabetes, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's. CuresNow wants to stop a bill offered by Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), which would ban all human cloning. The activists claim lawmakers want to criminalize science. Ms. Zucker and Ms. Fisher each have daughters suffering from juvenile diabetes. Said Ms. Fisher: "How can we explain to our children that our government is now the greatest obstacle to a cure for their disease?" A lengthy CuresNow press release quotes Ms. Zucker saying "lives are at stake" over this issue but makes no reference to whether embryos are human life. An insurance industry group commissioned the original "Harry and Louise" ads. The Health Insurance Association of America, which never trademarked the characters, disavows any connection to the cloning spots. It issued a statement saying it has "no involvement in the current advertising campaign"-and does not endorse it. (The same ad firm, Goddard-Claussen, created both campaigns.) Pro-lifers called the new ads misleading. The National Right to Life Committee's Douglas Johnson said they are a "brazen deception" and referred to the backers as "Hollywood manipulators."

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