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Notes and observations on the press, politics, culture, technology, and more. To sign up for e-mail delivery, click here. To send an e-mail to Dan Kennedy, click here. For bio, published work, and links to other blogs, visit www.dankennedy.net. For information on Dan Kennedy's book, Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes (Rodale, October 2003), click here.

Saturday, November 30, 2002


posted at 10:32 AM | link

Thursday, November 28, 2002

The crimes of Henry Kissinger. Christopher Hitchens has written a cogent, suitably outraged explanation for Slate on why we should all be appalled that President Bush has put the loathsome Henry Kissinger in charge of investigating the intelligence failures surrounding 9/11. Even the New York Times duly notes that Kissinger "has been called a war criminal for his role in the secret expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and an enabler of [Richard] Nixon's worst traits."

posted at 11:36 AM | link

A crisis of common sense II. I can't stand it. I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that we really do need universal health care, if only to protect people like Diane MacPherson and her husband, Mr. X, from themselves -- and from us, when the cost of their grotesequely irresponsible decision not to buy medical insurance for their families falls into our laps.

Today the Boston Globe offers us the downbeat but heartwarming Thanksgiving tale of Craig and Michelle Brenner, both of whom are unemployed as the holidays loom, but who are persevering because of their faith in God and their basic human optimism. Good for them! But there's more. The Brenners appear to enjoy a rather lavish lifestyle, and it's one of recent vintage. In 1997, Craig was making $37,000 a year managing a Bruegger's. He jumped into the burgeoning dot-com economy and, before you know it, was pulling down $135,000. The inevitable happened, and he's been without work since October 1 -- with no prospect of finding a new job that pays anywhere near that.

So what did the Brenners spend their newfound income on? A $400,000 home on an acre of land. And, judging from this photo (online today only), a spiffy new red SUV. Now, I'm not going to get all judgmental here and say that they shouldn't have bought these things. Why not? They were hardly the only ones who thought the New Economy was going to roll on forever. We'd have probably done the same thing.

But then this sentence hit me right between the eyes: "The family has no health insurance because the $750-a-month cost is too steep." Keep in mind that the Brenners have two boys, a four-year-old and a two-year-old. Hasn't anyone told them that, you know, things happen?

It gets better. Toward the end of the article, we learn this:

Finally, Michelle Brenner, who was a social worker before her husband's growing salary allowed her to become a full-time mother, is contemplating a return to the work force if Craig's emergency account -- he's socked away enough to get the family through much of 2003 -- runs out.

Michelle! You could bring home the $750-a-month cost of health insurance working part-time at McDonald's! And Craig could look after the kids. I mean, I know he's really busy, "plot[ting] out new business strategies" in his home office, but couldn't he do that after you got off work? I'm sorry to belabor the obvious, but the Brenners seem to need it.

posted at 11:14 AM | link

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Bush's sneaky Kissinger appointment. One of the best ways to bury an announcement that you're not too proud of is to make it on the day before Thanksgiving. Today President Bush named geriatric war criminal Henry Kissinger to head a commission that will investigate whatever intelligence failures may have contributed to 9/11. What a shocking and appalling insult to the families of the victims. To paraphrase what Mary McCarthy once said of Lillian Hellman, every word out of Kissinger's mouth is a lie, including "and" and "the." In 2001 I wrote an essay in the Phoenix on Christopher Hitchens's indictment of Kissinger as published in Harper's magazine; Hitchens's article was later turned into a book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger.

posted at 2:51 PM | link

Views on the upcoming war in Iraq. Judging from the paucity of e-mail traffic during the past hour or so, it seems that everyone has abandoned his or her computer in order to get a jump on the holiday. Soon I'll join them. But I did want to call your attention to this roundup of commentaries on the likely war with Iraq, published in the new Phoenix. To read my contribution, click here.

posted at 1:10 PM | link

Somerby and Gore, take 2. Russ Smith, publisher of the New York Press and writer of the unhinged "Mugger" column, sends this:

Bob Somerby, who used to run a comedy club in Baltimore (maybe still does) when I owned the City Paper there (and a very good guy) is more than a Gore "partisan" as you write today. As you know, he was a classmate, and, I believe, a roommate of Gore's at Harvard, which puts him beyond a mere partisan.

Actually, I half-recalled that Somerby had been Gore's roommate, but wasn't sure, so tried to weasel out with "partisan." My bad, and Russ was right to nail me on it. On the other hand, isn't it signficant that Somerby likes Gore after rooming with him in college? Did you like all your college roommates?

posted at 11:08 AM | link

Gore's righteous take on the conservative media. Al Gore's interview with the New York Observer is the sensation of the media world today. People are so eager to read it that the Observer's Web server has been overloaded, and it took me several tries to get in. By now, you may have already heard that Gore states the obvious: that conservative media outlets such as the Fox News Channel, the Washington Times, and Rush Limbaugh's radio show amount to a permanent cheering section that gives the Republicans an enormous advantage in framing public debate -- and, of course, in winning elections. What's unusual is that Gore, a once and possible future presidential candidate, would be willing to speak such truth. Gore tells the Observer's Josh Benson:

Something will start at the Republican National Committee, inside the building, and it will explode the next day on the right-wing talk-show network and on Fox News and in the newspapers that play this game, the Washington Times and the others. And then they'll create a little echo chamber, and pretty soon they'll start baiting the mainstream media for allegedly ignoring the story they've pushed into the zeitgeist. And then pretty soon the mainstream media goes out and disingenuously takes a so-called objective sampling, and lo and behold, these RNC talking points are woven into the fabric of the zeitgeist.

Gore's best line is when he describes Fox's slogan "We Report, You Decide" as "the current version of their ritual denial."

The great shibboleth is that the media in this country are biased toward liberals. This shibboleth was given its widest airing in a clumsy, poorly argued, yet bestselling book by television journalist Bernard Goldberg called Bias, which I reviewed for the Boston Phoenix earlier this year. Broadly speaking, the media do have a liberal bias, at least on cultural issues. But Goldberg seemed more interested in imagining Dan Rather as a cross-dresser than in offering a serious argument.

Yes, mainstream media such as the New York Times, the network newscasts, and National Public Radio are liberal on cultural issues such as gay rights and reproductive choice. But what Goldberg and his ilk miss is that they are also cautious middle-of-the-roaders on the really big issues, such as the economy and foreign policy. Moreover, the mainstream is liberal, but it is not a tool of the Democratic Party. Witness the hell that it put Bill Clinton through, from Whitewater at the beginning of his presidency to Monica Lewinsky at the end -- or witness the disingenous attacks it launched on Gore during the 2000 campaign. Read this Bob Somerby analysis of how the media treated Gore. Admittedly, Somerby is a Gore partisan, but there is a lot of truth in his contention that the media had it in for Gore, and that George W. Bush was never subjected to the same scrutiny or, for that matter, to the same sort of dripping disdain. The media may not have respected Bush, but they hated Gore.

In contrast to the conflicted liberal mainstream, the conservative media are openly and nakedly pro-Republican. There is simply nothing like it on the Democratic side. Even now, Gore admits that he's smarting from a nasty piece by liberal Times columnist Frank Rich, snarkily headlined "Do We Have To Call You Al?"

Perhaps the difference is that, because most reporters are liberals, they are hypersensitive to being accused of liberal bias, and thus gleefully pounce on the weaknesses of liberal politicians. Perhaps it's because, as Nicholas Confessore argues in a profile of Times columnist Paul Krugman in the Washington Monthly, liberals in the media overwhelmingly come from the reporting ranks, whereas conservatives tend to come from the world of partisan politics.

Whatever the reason, in terms of ferocity and influence, the conservative media have it all over the so-called liberal mainstream.

posted at 10:36 AM | link

Promising premiere. Nice debut by new columnist Howard Manly in the Boston Herald today. Manly was a longshot candidate for a metro columnist's slot at the Globe in 1998 after Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle imploded. He's a smart and interesting guy, and his column will bear watching.

posted at 10:36 AM | link

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Caveman unavailable for comment. I was doing a little research on a rare genetic condition called cleidocranial dysplasia when I ran across this:

A possible example of this disorder has been found in the skull of a Neanderthal man. (The patient could not be interviewed as to family history).

It's on a website called MedicineNet.com, which promises "Smart Medicine." If only.

posted at 4:13 PM | link

It's the monopoly, stupid! I'm a day late in taking note of this Brian Mooney story in the Globe on the state of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. As Mooney notes, the Democrats have lost four consecutive governor's races, and they've done it while trying every conceivable model: a bombastic conservative (John Silber, 1990), a liberal policy geek (Mark Roosevelt, 1994), a reformist outsider (Scott Harshbarger, 1998), and a play-it-safe insider (Shannon O'Brien, 2002).

The current battle, Mooney reports, is between moderates, who think the party has moved too far to the left, and liberals, who complain that their party's candidates have grown so cautious that there's a growing passion gap.

I'm skeptical about all of this. The truth, I suspect, is that the best way for the Democrats to win back the corner office is to let the Republicans capture a meaningful chunk of seats in the legislature, and maybe even a couple of congressional seats and a constitutional office or two. Even during the heyday of Michael Dukakis, the Democrats did not have quite the iron grip on state politics that they do today. The voters, alarmed at this one-party dominance, have not quite demanded divided government (obviously), but they have opted for at least some minority-party oversight. Voting for Republican governors has been the best way they could do that.

This year's race tells the story. Coming out the primaries, O'Brien, a capable career pol who'd done a good job of running the treasurer's office, jumped out to a significant lead over Republican Mitt Romney. The public clearly had real doubts about Romney, who, despite his moderate rhetoric, came across as significantly more conservative on social issues than his Republican predecessors, Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift.

So what turned it around? O'Brien's poor campaign, in part. The key, though, was when Romney started running against the "Gang of Three" -- House Speaker Tom Finneran (a staunch O'Brien ally), Senate president-apparent Bob Travaglini (brother of top O'Brien aide Mike Travaglini), and O'Brien herself. Voters took a second look, decided O'Brien would be one Democrat too many, and made a leap of faith by switching to Romney.

The real problem with Massachusetts Democrats is not that they are ideologically divided or out of touch, even though both of those propositions may be true. Rather, it is that they are the victims of their own success.

posted at 11:28 AM | link

Monday, November 25, 2002

A crisis of common sense. I don't mean to make fun of Diane MacPherson and her family. I'm sure they're nice people. But they've been shockingly irresponsible, and the New York Times wants you to feel sorry for them.

These Lowell residents are the showcase example in today's front-page story on how the health-insurance crisis has reached the middle and even the upper classes. The family is solidly middle-class, and at the moment they are entirely without medical coverage.

How did this happen? By the Times' account, it began when Diane MacPherson lost her job. It would have cost them $931 a month to continue it through the federal COBRA program, so they dropped coverage except for their four-year-old daughter, reducing their monthly cost to $270. Then, when MacPherson's unemployment benefits ran out, they dumped their insurance altogether.

A sad tale, but there's more, much more. It turns out that MacPherson's husband -- he is never named, perhaps because he was too embarrassed to want his identity revealed -- makes $75,000 a year in construction, although the company for which he works offers no health benefits. So there you have it: a family of three, making roughly the median income for a family of four in Massachusetts (for the math-challenged, that means they're making more than the median), has chosen not to pay for health insurance, not for themselves, not for their child.

Continuing coverage just for their daughter would cost just 4.3 percent of their annual gross income, even if Diane doesn't find another job. Yet the Times says MacPherson and her husband simply can't do it, explaining, "Although her husband earns about $75,000 a year, construction work is seasonal and they could not be assured of enough income every month to pay for health insurance." Paging Diane MacPherson and Mr. X! You can set aside more money during the fat months so that you can pay your bills during the lean ones. It's called budgeting.

My wife peered over my shoulder as I was reading this and, photographer that she is, examined the photo of Diane MacPherson and her daughter and said, "Look at the window behind them. They're in a brand-new development!" And, yes, it does appear that they've living large -- way over their heads, no doubt, especially given their new, downsized circumstances. But what this is really about is the misplaced priorities of two adults who ought to know better -- not an insurance "crisis."

Now, if I were a conservative, I would end my little morality tale right there. But I'm not, and I won't. We do need some sort of universal health care to cover the 40 million or so Americans without insurance. Some are poor. Some are sick, and the insurance companies don't want them. Some are small-business owners struggling to keep their heads above water, and the Times documents those cases, too. And yes, some are like our Lowell family, middle-class but with idiotic priorities, putting their dream home and their lifestyle ahead of their health-care needs. The point is that unless you want to live in a Hobbesian state of nature, with everyone on his or her own, we ought to make health care a basic social benefit.

Still, you can't help but cringe when you take a close look at the choices that some people make.

posted at 9:22 AM | link

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Howard Dean, President of 2003. God help us, here comes another one. This year's model of the socially liberal, fiscally conservative "reformist" Democrat who's running for president against the proverbial long odds is Vermont governor Howard Dean, profiled in today's Boston Globe Magazine by the estimable Charlie Pierce. Dean follows in the futile tradition of Bill Bradley (2000), Paul Tsongas (1992), Bruce "Stand up for taxes!" Babbitt (1988), and, arguably, Gary Hart (1984).

The good news is that unlike the self-absorbed, self-regarding Bradley, Dean actually seems to be something like a regular guy, openly ambitious, blunt (although not nearly as blunt as, say, John McCain, the Republican version of the Bradley/Babbitt/Tsongas strain), and the sort of political weasel we can all recognize, if not appreciate: he pissed off all sides in the same-sex-marriage debate by signing Vermont's civil-union law with so little fanfare you'd think he was signing pardon papers for Hannibal Lecter. The bad news, at least for the Dean family, is that he's not going to win.

But as Pierce notes, Dean is wowing the pundits, and he stands to be President of the Beltway in 2003. That's as close as he's going to come, though he could get consideration for vice-president or -- assuming George W. Bush can actually be defeated -- a Cabinet post. So do give this a read.

posted at 7:35 PM | link


Dan Kennedy is senior writer and media critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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