Up in smoke
Harshbarger gets caught in the tobacco-deal backlash. Plus, Globe goodies-to-go,
tuning out Thompson, and WRKO's violent femmes.
No doubt Attorney General Scott Harshbarger expected to be called a lot of
things for helping draft a historic settlement with the tobacco industry. Such
as "a tough negotiator." Or "a protector of children's health." Even "the next
governor of Massachusetts."
That's not quite how it's worked out. Indeed, the reaction to the proposed
$368.5 billion deal between tobacco companies and 40 state attorneys general
has been so unexpectedly derogatory that Harshbarger now runs the risk of being
called something else entirely.
Like "a sellout to the merchants of death."
By failing to recognize how rapidly the ground has shifted in the tobacco
wars, the AGs seriously misjudged how the settlement would be perceived. They
should have gotten credit for winning unprecedented concessions, such as an end
to youth marketing, a near ban on advertising, and big bucks to offset
smoking's health costs -- including $500 million a year for Massachusetts.
Instead, the AGs are being portrayed in the media as naive rubes who let the
industry off the hook.
This may prove especially damaging to politically ambitious AGs such as
Harshbarger, who had hoped to use the settlement as a weapon in his 1998
Democratic-primary battle for governor with US Representative Joe Kennedy.
In part, the AGs fell victim to the political equivalent of the Stockholm
syndrome, in which hostages begin to identify with their captors. For months
the AGs met secretly with tobacco-industry representatives while having little
contact with the public-health community. Thus the AGs underestimated the
impact of the settlement's shortcomings, such as the proposed restrictions on
oversight by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the cap on liability in
future lawsuits against the industry.
"It was a process problem. You're always talking to the other guys, and you're
cut off from your constituents," observes Northeastern University law professor
Richard Daynard, a leading anti-tobacco activist.
The AGs' independence may also have been seen as a threat by those who think
the public-policy agenda should always be set in Washington. The tone in the
media was set by former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, a popular, respected
figure, and former FDA commissioner David Kessler. Koop and Kessler, in a
report to the White House, recommended that Congress not approve the deal
without significant amendments.
That in turn set the stage for the political struggle now under way, with
Congress intent on preserving its prerogatives. The AGs seem oblivious to the
need to salve some congressional egos. Harshbarger, in a July 5 op-ed piece in
the Boston Globe, criticized "the persistent failure of Congress to
impose any meaningful restrictions on tobacco." Yet the actions of US
Representative Henry Waxman (D-California), US Representative Marty Meehan
(D-Massachusetts), and others helped shake loose the damning internal documents
that sent the tobacco industry running to the negotiating table in the first
True to the bureaucratic imperative, the FDA is determined to carve out a
powerful role in regulating tobacco. The agency, after all, is currently
engaged in a heavy-handed effort to undo California's voter-approved law
allowing marijuana to be used as medicine. It can hardly be expected to back
down on tobacco, even though the industry -- in the absence of an agreement
such as the AGs' -- will attempt to block the FDA's authority through the
Flaws aside, the AGs' agreement may be too good to pass up. Critics who think
it's not tough enough forget that industry representatives nearly walked out
several times. Jacob Sullum, author of the forthcoming book For Your Own
Good: The Crusade for a Smoke-Free Society, opposes the settlement on
libertarian grounds. Yet he believes anti-tobacco activists are "fooling
themselves" if they think they can get more by scuttling the deal.
The backlash has put Harshbarger in a particularly awkward position. A
congressional source suggests that Harshbarger could transform his role into a
positive if he would publicly urge Congress to strengthen the deal. But a
Kennedy-campaign insider, clearly relishing Harshbarger's dilemma, says, "The
last thing that Scott needs is for Joe Kennedy to pat him on the head and say,
`Thanks. Now it's time for the big boys to take over.' "
A frustrated Harshbarger aide puts it this way: "This is a sellout as opposed
to what? The status quo? That's ridiculous."
This summer: Niketown, the sneaker-emporium-cum-sports-museum that just
opened in the heart of the Back Bay.
This fall: Global Village?
In September, the Boston Globe will begin managing the historic Globe
Corner Bookstore, at Downtown Crossing on the Freedom Trail. (Despite the name,
the bookstore until now has been managed by Historic Boston, a nonprofit
agency. Globe Corner Bookstores in the Back Bay and in Cambridge will remain
unaffiliated with the Globe.)
According to an internal memo obtained by the Phoenix, the
Globe's got big plans for the sleepy little storefront. To wit: a "Globe
Superstore" offering "Globe Gear," such as T-shirts and caps;
"Customized Front Pages of the Paper (Makes a great gift!)"; back issues; books
by Globe writers; and two computer terminals so passersby can jack in to
the Globe's website, Boston.com.
Also under consideration are "a turn-of-the-century hawker on the corner
barking out headlines as well as an electronic marquee that streams headlines."
(I give it a couple of hours before some wise guy explains to the hawker, "Shut
"I wouldn't classify it as a superstore," protests Globe spokesman Rick
Gulla, who nevertheless confirms that the newspaper plans to transform it into
a veritable smorgasbord of all things Globe: "Nothing is cast in stone
at this point, but we are certainly going to sell items out of that
Can Niketown stand the competition?
The collective media yawn inspired by Republican senator Fred Thompson's
hearings on campaign-finance violations has driven the conservative press to
The Media Research Center's website
in minute, daily detail the failure of the television networks to provide
The Fox News Channel -- that great newsman Rupert Murdoch's "fair and
balanced" alternative to the alleged pernicious liberalism of CNN -- trumpeted
in a full-page ad in the New York Times, "Only one network is
covering the Senate Campaign Finance Hearings live. . . .
Even pseudoliberal New Republic editor Michael Kelly, in this week's
"TRB" column, blasts the media's lack of interest in the hearings as
"breathtaking for the depth of its cynicism and the breadth of its
Certainly the TV networks deserve no kudos for their ratings-based decision
not to cover the hearings live. (C-SPAN's absence is just plain weird, although
at least it's showing the reruns during the evening.)
Yet there's little doubt that the networks' decision reflects a rough public
consensus that the hearings are a highly partisan exercise cooked up by the
Republicans to gain political advantage in the ongoing, bipartisan scandal over
the way campaigns are financed.
Rather than the Nixon gang or Oliver North appearing under the klieg lights to
be grilled about their attempts to subvert the Constitution, the Thompson
hearings are about the efforts of low- and middle-level Clinton Administration
figures -- led by the vamoosed John Huang -- to buy influence through overly
It's not that the allegations aren't serious. What's most disturbing, though,
is the familiar nature of the sleaze being unearthed. The Democrats had John
Huang; the Republicans had former national party chairman Haley Barbour. And
when Democratic senator John Glenn insists that Thompson's staff has produced
nothing much out of the ordinary, the sad truth is that he's right.
SMOKE, BUT NO GUN, proclaimed the New York Times, accurately, on page
one last Saturday.
Presidential leadership could change the status quo. Yet Bill Clinton, who
publicly backs tough reform measures, appears genetically incapable of leading
by example. Rather than eschewing special-interest money in the 1996 campaign,
Clinton set out to prove the Democrats could raise as much money as the
Republicans. He nearly succeeded -- at the cost of selling his credibility
through questionable White House coffees and overnights in the Lincoln bedroom,
not to mention the still-nebulous Asian connection. When pressed at news
conferences, he's said that "unilateral disarmament" would be folly in the
absence of real reform. The real folly, though, is his moral equivocation on
such a vital issue.
So don't criticize the media for playing down the Thompson hearings. Criticize
them instead for failing to focus sustained attention on the cancer (to invoke
the phrase of an earlier era's star witness) that's slowly destroying trust in
the political system.
In its quest for ever-more-outrageous subjects to yuk it up about, Two
Chicks Dishing (WRKO Radio, AM 680, weekdays 7 to 10 p.m.) often tests the
boundaries of good taste.
On Monday, co-hosts Leslie Gold and Lori Kramer went way over the line,
speculating on what gay man suspected serial killer Andrew Cunanan might try to
off next -- and inviting listeners to call in with nominations.
"It was done strictly tongue-in-cheek," says program director Kevin Straley,
adding he can't imagine that anyone's life was endangered by the Chicks'
Maybe so. But it was offensive and inappropriate nevertheless.