The Boston Phoenix
July 24 - July 31, 1997
[Don't Quote Me]

The Don't Quote Me archive

Up in smoke

Harshbarger gets caught in the tobacco-deal backlash. Plus, Globe goodies-to-go, tuning out Thompson, and WRKO's violent femmes.

by Dan Kennedy

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.

What happened?

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 place.

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 courts.

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,

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 up.")

"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 location."

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 distraction.

The Media Research Center's website ( documents in minute, daily detail the failure of the television networks to provide coverage.

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. . . . Why?"

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 irresponsibility."

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 aggressive fundraising.

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' shtick.

Maybe so. But it was offensive and inappropriate nevertheless.

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