Saturday, October 04, 2008

Do Facts Matter?

By Thomas Sowell
October 3, 2008

Abraham Lincoln said, "You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time."

Unfortunately, the future of this country, as well as the fate of the Western world, depends on how many people can be fooled on election day, just a few weeks from now.

Right now, the polls indicate that a whole lot of the people are being fooled a whole lot of the time.

The current financial bailout crisis has propelled Barack Obama back into a substantial lead over John McCain-- which is astonishing in view of which man and which party has had the most to do with bringing on this crisis.

It raises the question: Do facts matter? Or is Obama's rhetoric and the media's spin enough to make facts irrelevant?

Fact Number One: It was liberal Democrats, led by Senator Christopher Dodd and Congressman Barney Frank, who for years-- including the present year-- denied that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were taking big risks that could lead to a financial crisis.

It was Senator Dodd, Congressman Frank and other liberal Democrats who for years refused requests from the Bush administration to set up an agency to regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

It was liberal Democrats, again led by Dodd and Frank, who for years pushed for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to go even further in promoting subprime mortgage loans, which are at the heart of today's financial crisis.

Alan Greenspan warned them four years ago. So did the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers to the President. So did Bush's Secretary of the Treasury, five years ago.

Yet, today, what are we hearing? That it was the Bush administration "right-wing ideology" of "de-regulation" that set the stage for the financial crisis. Do facts matter?

We also hear that it is the free market that is to blame. But the facts show that it was the government that pressured financial institutions in general to lend to subprime borrowers, with such things as the Community Reinvestment Act and, later, threats of legal action by then Attorney General Janet Reno if the feds did not like the statistics on who was getting loans and who wasn't.

Is that the free market? Or do facts not matter?

Then there is the question of being against the "greed" of CEOs and for "the people." Franklin Raines made $90 million while he was head of Fannie Mae and mismanaging that institution into crisis.

Who in Congress defended Franklin Raines? Liberal Democrats, including Maxine Waters and the Congressional Black Caucus, at least one of whom referred to the "lynching" of Raines, as if it was racist to hold him to the same standard as white CEOs.

Even after he was deposed as head of Fannie Mae, Franklin Raines was consulted this year by the Obama campaign for his advice on housing!

The Washington Post criticized the McCain campaign for calling Raines an adviser to Obama, even though that fact was reported in the Washington Post itself on July 16th. The technicality and the spin here is that Raines is not officially listed as an adviser. But someone who advises is an adviser, whether or not his name appears on a letterhead.

The tie between Barack Obama and Franklin Raines is not all one-way. Obama has been the second-largest recipient of Fannie Mae's financial contributions, right after Senator Christopher Dodd.

But ties between Obama and Raines? Not if you read the mainstream media.

Facts don't matter much politically if they are not reported.

The media alone are not alone in keeping the facts from the public. Republicans, for reasons unknown, don't seem to know what it is to counter-attack. They deserve to lose.

But the country does not deserve to be put in the hands of a glib and cocky know-it-all, who has accomplished absolutely nothing beyond the advancement of his own career with rhetoric, and who has for years allied himself with a succession of people who have openly expressed their hatred of America.

The Late, Great "New York Sun"

For over six years, the paper defended liberty and supported culture.

By Sol Stern
1 October 2008

As I have done every weekday morning for the past few years, I opened the door of my apartment yesterday to pick up my copy of the New York Sun. Immediately, I spotted the headline above the fold announcing the paper’s demise. No surprise, of course. All of us who counted ourselves as the Sun’s friends knew this day was coming. Still, the paper’s demise is a profoundly sad moment for the city. It feels as if a cherished and inspirational colleague has passed away and, moreover, that our democracy and civic life are diminished.

Before the Sun published its first issue on April 16, 2002, I had conversations with media wags of every political persuasion who predicted that it just couldn’t be done. After all, the newspaper business as a whole was already contracting under the challenge of the Internet, and all of New York’s other city dailies were struggling. The conventional wisdom was that starting a conservative-oriented daily broadsheet with a limited circulation base, in the most liberal city in the nation, was a fool’s mission. Founding editor Seth Lipsky seemed like one of those romantic, ink-stained newspaper wretches, a throwback to the era of Ben Hecht’s Front Page.

The fiscal realists were eventually proven right, of course, about the balance sheets. But what a romance in political and cultural journalism we have experienced over the last six and a half years. The Sun proved in the field of newspapers something I learned again and again in covering education: there are lots of talented people out there in every community with none of the traditional credentials for entry into the professional guild, but who nevertheless can become great contributors.

Lipsky was able to recruit lots of bright kids out of the best colleges by dangling the lure of instant entry into the world of big-city newspapers. With a little on-the-job training, many of those young people became beat reporters who soon ran rings around their competitors. Elizabeth Green came to the Sun a year out of Harvard and quickly become the best education reporter in the city, breaking story after story that revealed the gap between what City Hall and the state were saying about student academic achievement and the reality in the schools. Lipsky also had a knack for discovering talent off the beaten track right here in the city. Andrew Wolf was an unknown publisher of two small community newspapers in the Riverdale section of the Bronx when serendipity brought him to the Sun’s attention. Wolf’s reporting on education, the sleazy world of Bronx Democratic Party politics, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s misguided initiatives on food, became must reading for political and education junkies. Plus, his columns were often hilariously funny.

Lipsky counts Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein as friends; some of the paper’s financial backers were also Bloomberg and Klein confidants. So it’s even more admirable that Lipsky steadfastly stood by writers like Green and Wolf, even when their work drew angry complaints from the education department. After Mayor Bloomberg publicly criticized Green at a press conference for questioning the city’s data on graduation rates, Lipsky responded with an editorial backing his reporter and chastising his friend, the mayor. If only more publishers showed such courage.

Though a paper with a sharp political agenda, the Sun nevertheless provided its readers with a treasure of delightful adornments, including some of the best arts coverage and book reviews in the city; an excellent sports section, topped by Tim Marchman’s prescient analysis of why our local baseball heroes were just not up to the job this year; John Hollinger’s peerless basketball columns, and the city’s only regular soccer column; Peter Hellman’ regular wine column; and superb coverage of photography by William Meyers. I even found myself reading Amanda Gordon’s society column every morning, with its photos revealing who was out with whom at the best social events of the previous evening.

But the single greatest void left by the death of the Sun will likely be its principled commitment to telling the unvarnished truth about the great struggle of our times—the battle between democratic civilization and the forces of worldwide jihad. In some respects, the Sun was a Jewish paper in its editorial management, its financial backing, and its staff. And it didn’t try to hide its passions or equivocate about the moral imperative of defending Israel. It was openly Zionist at a time when that label has become a term of disdain in the sophisticated world of liberal opinion. It refused to be deterred by the bogus charge of “dual loyalty” hurled by academics like Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer and nervous Jewish journalists like Time magazine’s Joe Klein. Almost every week for the past six-plus years, the Sun ran a column by the brilliant Israeli (originally American) writer Hillel Halkin that invited readers to see Israeli democracy and society, warts and all, from the inside. More than any other daily newspaper of our time, the Sun helped its readers understand that in standing up for the defense of Israel, they were also standing up for the defense of America.

Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Film Reviews: "Appaloosa"

By Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times
October 2, 2008

"Appaloosa" started out making me feel the same as I did during the opening chapters of Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove," and its TV miniseries. At its center is a friendship of many years between two men who have seen a lot together and wish they had seen less. This has been called a Buddy Movie. Not at all. A buddy is someone you acquire largely through juxtaposition. A friend is someone you make over the years. Some friends know you better than you know yourself.

That would be true of Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), who for years has been teamed up with Virgil Cole (Ed Harris). They make a living cleaning bad guys out of Western towns. Virgil wears a sheriff's badge, and Everett is his deputy, but essentially, they're hired killers. They perform this job with understated confidence, hair-trigger instincts, a quick draw and deadeye aim. They're hired by the town of Appaloosa to end a reign of terror under the evil rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons).

So already you've got an A-list cast. Harris plays a man of few words, many of them pronounced incorrectly, and steel resolve. Mortensen is smarter than his boss, more observant, and knows to tactfully hold his tongue when he sees the sheriff making mistakes, as long as they're not fatal. Irons plays the rancher as one of those narrow-eyed snakes who is bad because, gosh darn it, he's good at it.

Then a lady comes into town on the stage. This is Allison French (Renee Zellweger), a widow, she says. No, she's hasn't come to Appaloosa to find work as a schoolmarm or a big-hearted whore (the two standard female occupations in Westerns). She plays the piano and the organ, and dresses like a big city lady in fancy frocks and cute bonnets. She inquires at the sheriff's office about where she might find respectable lodgings. Her budget is limited. She has one dollar.

Zellweger is powerfully fetching in this role. She wins the sheriff's heart in a split second, and he "explains" to the hotel clerk that Miss French will be staying there and will play the piano. Virgil Cole has practiced for a lifetime at avoiding the snares of females, but he's a goner. Everett looks at him quizzically. But you don't keep a friend if you criticize his women --too quickly, anyway. Is there anything about Alison to criticize? The movie has a ways to go.

Virgil and Everett reminded me immediately of Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call in "Lonesome Dove," not only in their long-practiced camaraderie, but also in their conversations about women. So smitten is Virgil that he abandons his tumbleweed ways and starts building a house for the widow. Meanwhile, Bragg sends three boys into town, who get themselves killed. A showdown approaches, viewed warily by the town leaders. Phil Olson (Timothy Spall) is their spokesman, and who better than Spall? He is the master of telegraphing subdued misgivings.

No more of the plot. What is seductive about "Appaloosa" is its easygoing rhythm. Yes, we know there will be a shoot-out; it can't be avoided. But there is also time for chicken dinners and hot pies and debates about the new curtains, and for Miss French to twinkle and charm and display canny survival instincts. What makes the movie absorbing is the way it harmonizes all the character strands and traits and weaves them into something more engaging than a mere 1-2-3 plot. I felt like I did in "Lonesome Dove" -- that there was a chair for me on the porch.

The film has been directed by Ed Harris and bears absolutely no similarity, as you might have anticipated, to his "Pollock" (2000), the story of an alcoholic abstract expressionist. Harris as a director allows the actors screen time to live. They're not always scurrying around to fulfill the requirements of the plot. They are people before the plot happens to them -- and afterward too, those who survive. He has something to say here about hard men of the Old West and their naive, shy, idolatry of "good" women.

Harris comes ready for the gunplay. He just doesn't think it's the whole point. The shootin' scenes are handled with economy. Everett observes that one shootout is over lickety-split, and Virgil tells him: "That's because we're good shots." At the end of the day, everything works out as I suppose it had to, and we're not all tied in emotional knots or existential dread. I know I want me another slice of that hot pie.

Cast & Credits
Virgil: Ed Harris
Everett: Viggo Mortensen
Allison: Renee Zellweger
Randall: Jeremy Irons
Phil: Timothy Spall
Ring: Lance Henriksen

Warner Bros./New Line Cinema present a film directed by Ed Harris. Written by Robert Knott and Harris. Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker. Running time: 115 minutes. Rated R (for violence and language). Opening today at local theaters.


By Lou Lumenick
New York Post
September 19, 2008

Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris play lawmen pals in the Harris-directed old-school oater "Appaloosa."

Rating: 3 Stars (out of 4)

THERE is perhaps no genre as full of pitfalls for contemporary filmmakers as the Western.
Last year's crop were either pretentious ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") or ramped up the violence to absurd excess (the remake of "3:10 to Yuma").

Ed Harris, though, directs the old-school Western "Appaloosa" in a refreshingly straightforward style.
It's as no-nonsense as his lead performance as Virgil Cole, a leathery gunfighter with nerves of steel. He is hired by the city of Appaloosa in the New Mexico Territory.

It's 1882, and city fathers (led by Timothy Spall) want the streets made safe for business after rancher Randall Brigg (Jeremy Irons in an intriguing bit of casting) has killed the marshal.

So they hire Virgil, who arrives with his longtime deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) and suspends the city's laws in favor of his own, much stricter ones.

Given that Harris bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Republican presidential candidate, it looks for a spell like Harris and his co-screenwriter, Robert Knott, might be fixing to offer up a political allegory in this reverse twist on "High Noon."

Fortunately, Harris heads off in a more interesting direction in an adaptation that sticks close to a novel by Robert B. Parker, including much witty dialogue taken directly from the printed page.
Virgil and Everett are two of the more talkative Western heroes we've seen in a while, and their exact relationship is intriguing.

Everett tells us in narration that Virgil's contact with women has been limited to "whores and squaws." Indeed, the new marshal's motto is "feelings get you killed."

So Everett is possibly jealous, certainly bemused and finally concerned when a piano-playing widow named Allison French (Renée Zellweger, in her first tolerable performance since "Cold Mountain") arrives in Appaloosa and his smitten pal begins building a house for her.

Things come to a head as Virgil puts Randall on trial for murder and the widow is abducted.
Harris, whose only previous directorial effort was the vastly different "Pollock," has an abiding affection and affinity for the Western, paying homage to "Rio Bravo" among more obvious sources.

Beautifully photographed by Dean Semler, "Appaloosa" is the best Western since "Open Range" (2003) and shows there's still life in this most unfashionable of genres.


Running time: 115 minutes. Rated R (violence, profanity). At the E-Walk, the Lincoln Square, the Loews Village, others.


By Mike Mayo
The Washington Post
October 3, 2008

Compared with recent westerns, "Appaloosa" is less flashy than "3:10 to Yuma," and it lacks the Rabelaisian energy of HBO's late, lamented "Deadwood." Filled with dusty light, craggy facial features and broad landscapes, it's a solid story that honors the traditions of the genre as it reworks them.It's unashamedly old-school, but an off-beat, literate sense of humor keeps the action from becoming too weighty or self-absorbed.

The premise is familiar: Freelance lawmen Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) go to the little town of Appaloosa in the New Mexico Territory in 1882 in search of work. Bad guy Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) has just murdered the sheriff and two of his deputies. The frightened townspeople want things set right. After swift negotiations over the scope of their duties, Cole and Hitch take the job and go after Bragg's gang. Enter the widow Mrs. French (Renee Zellweger), who attracts both men.

No one needs to be a serious student of westerns or of buddy films to predict where the story is going. Part of it, anyway.

Ed Harris, who also directed, produced, co-wrote the screenplay and sang a song over the closing credits, has a sure touch with material that's more physically demanding than his directorial debut, "Pollock." He balances a few economically violent gunfights against domestic conflicts and other complications. Three big scenes set on a train, in a grove by a river and in a town square work well and build to satisfying surprises. Harris also seems comfortable and even show-offy with the Texas and New Mexico locations.

The film has nothing to do with 1966's "The Appaloosa," starring Marlon Brando. This one is based on crime writer Robert Parker's novel, and at times, Cole and Hitch sound like Spenser and Hawk in their modest self-congratulatory camaraderie. Still, the characters have a comfortable fit that's not likely to bother fans of westerns.

Harris and Mortensen may not have the combined star power to push "Appaloosa" to the level of popularity of last year's "3:10," but the film is every bit as enjoyable, and, for traditionalists, more measured.

Contains violence, strong language and brief nudity.

Movie Review

Appaloosa (2008)

Lorey Sebastian/Warner Brothers Pictures

Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris in “Appaloosa,” directed by Mr. Harris.

Gunman Meets Widow. Trouble Starts.

The New York Times
Published: September 19, 2008

There are some recent movie westerns — “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” was last year’s notable example — that self-consciously address the mythology of the Old West, using the familiar features of the genre to map new territory on the borderland between history and legend. Like the expensive, prestigious A-westerns of the postwar era, these movies explicitly take up big questions about national identity, historical memory and the nature of justice.

Other films, meanwhile (like last year’s remake of “3:10 to Yuma”), try to recapture the lean, tense storytelling style of the old B-westerns. Those pictures, staples of the American moviegoer’s diet in the middle decades of the last century, approached the grand themes more modestly and obliquely, embedding them in deceptively simple yarns about men, horses and guns.

With its studiously picturesque wide-screen compositions and its stately, sober pacing, Ed Harris’s “Appaloosa,” based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, seems at first to aspire to the A-list. Thankfully, though, its gestures toward grandiosity are superficial and few.

Mr. Harris can be an imposingly serious actor, his face as hard and unyielding as quarried stone, but there is often a saving glint of mischief in his eye. And in “Appaloosa,” his second feature as director (after “Pollock”), he leavens the atmosphere of costumed rigidity and somber stoicism with sly, relaxed humor.

There is no shortage of killing — it’s a large part of how Virgil Cole, Mr. Harris’s character, makes his living — but “Appaloosa” works best as a cunning, understated sex comedy. Superimposed on the usual diagram of good guys and bad guys, with a scattering of fools, cowards and mercenaries in the middle, is an improbable romantic triangle. Virgil and his sidekick, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), are like a long-married couple, with Everett as the patient helpmeet, backing up his partner’s gunfighting bravado with quiet competence and helping him with difficult Latinate words.

The two men make their living as lawmen for hire, imposing the rule of the gun on chaotic frontier towns like Appaloosa, in the New Mexico territory. There a gaggle of bumbling town elders (including the near-ubiquitous and always welcome Timothy Spall) need help dealing with a murderous landowner named Bragg. Played by Jeremy Irons with some vocal inflections borrowed from Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” Bragg is a smooth-talking killer attended by a large retinue of unshaven thugs.

As such he causes some problems for Virgil and Everett, but the real trouble starts when they meet Allie French (Reneé Zellweger), a not terribly grief-stricken widow who — how else to put it? — has Virgil at hello. Before long Virgil, who has never shown much interest in settling down, is building a house at the end of Appaloosa’s main street and asking Everett’s advice about window treatments.

This experiment in domestic bliss is complicated by a number of developments, including some darting glances (and then a bit more) between Everett and Allie, who turns out not to be the paragon of wifely constancy Virgil takes her for. The most subversive aspect of “Appaloosa” may be the way it quietly jettisons the shopworn sexual categories the Production Code imposed on the women of the old westerns.

Respectability is a hazy concept in a half-settled world ruled by greed and violence. Everett and Virgil are honorable men who dwell in a gray area between venality and virtue, and the compromises Allie makes in order to gain a bit of freedom and security are not all that different from theirs.

The movie’s tolerant, good-humored view of its characters drains it of some dramatic intensity, but Mr. Harris seems more interested in piquant, offhand moments than in big, straining confrontations. One important gunfight goes by so quickly and anticlimactically that even Everett remarks on how fast it was over. “That’s because the folks knew how to shoot,” Virgil says, offering an implicit defense of Mr. Harris’s crafty and unassuming approach to filmmaking.

And like Virgil and Everett, everyone involved in “Appaloosa” favors professionalism over bluster. This is especially true of Mr. Mortensen, whose features are half-hidden behind facial hair that is by far the showiest thing about him. Everett says very little and spends a lot of time just watching the other, more voluble characters, so Mr. Mortensen’s performance resides almost entirely in his eyes, which register tiny, unmistakable nuances of surprise, suspicion and amusement.

These are what make the movie worth watching. It’s not a great western, and, as I’ve suggested, it doesn’t really try to be. Some potentially interesting political themes — about what it means for a polity to privatize its apparatus of justice and security, about the relationship between righteousness and force — are left for other, more earnest pictures to explore. This one shows a square jaw and a steely gaze, but also a smile and a wink.

“Appaloosa” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has gun violence, brief nudity and profanity.


Directed by Ed Harris; written by Robert Knott and Mr. Harris, based on the novel by Robert B. Parker; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Kathryn Himoff; music by Jeff Beal; production designer, Waldemar Kalinowski; produced by Mr. Harris, Mr. Knott and Ginger Sledge; released by Warner Brothers Pictures and New Line Cinema. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.

WITH: Viggo Mortensen (Everett Hitch), Ed Harris (Virgil Cole), Renée Zellweger (Allison French), Jeremy Irons (Randall Bragg), Timothy Spall (Phil Olson) and Lance Henriksen (Ring Shelton).

More About This Movie

Tickets & Showtimes
New York Times Review
Cast, Credits & Awards
Readers' Reviews (8)
Trailers & Clips

View Clip...

More Fun, Less Politics, at Toronto Film Festival (September 6, 2008)
Clips and Trailer: 'Appaloosa'
More on Ed Harris

Sarah Palin, the Winner by a Wink

Team Obama tries to understand her performance.

By Byron York
October 03, 2008, 8:40 a.m.

St. Louis — In the hours before Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden took the stage here at Washington University, Barack Obama’s top advisers went out of their way to talk up Palin’s debating skills. “I expect that Gov. Palin is going to be very effective tonight,” chief strategist David Axelrod told reporters. “She’s been working hard at this.” David Plouffe, the campaign manager, upped the ante when he called Palin “one of the best debaters in American politics.”

Maybe they were just trying to raise expectations, set about a millimeter off the ground after Palin’s interview with CBS’s Katie Couric. Maybe they really thought Palin would do well. In any event, their statements before the debate allowed them to stride into the Spin Room after the session and say, See? — I told you she was good.

Republican vice presidential nominee Alaska Governor Sarah Palin gestures during the U.S. vice presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri October 2, 2008.
(Jim Young/Reuters)

“Everybody thinks I was joking about it,” Axelrod said after the debate ended. “I was not joking about it. Sarah Palin is a good performer.”

No argument there. Despite a few weak moments, Palin delivered a strong and sure performance Thursday night. After enduring weeks of derision, Palin didn’t just beat the low expectations for her performance; she ran all over them.

But how? Superior debating ability? Commanding logic? A winning manner? No, not at all. If you listened to Team Obama after the debate late Thursday, you learned Palin accomplished her impressive performance by . . . winking.

“Don’t sell the American people short,” Axelrod told reporters after the debate. “I’m sure they liked Gov. Palin, but they need more than a wink and a smile.” Axelrod also said Biden gave people hope, “rather than offering them a wink and a smile.” And he added that, “The American people are asking for more — they want more than a wink and a nod and a smile.”

A few minutes later, I talked to Bob Barnett, the Washington lawyer who has played key roles in past Democratic debate preparation and who this time represented the Obama campaign in negotiating ground rules between the two candidates. Barnett knows how to watch and evaluate a debate, so I asked him to critique Palin’s performance. “She played her tapes,” Barnett said, meaning that Palin repeated pre-planned statements. “She came in with ten things to say and six winks to perform, and she did them.”

“Six winks?”

“Yeah. Did you see? Six. I counted six.”

“You were watching closely.”

“Well, I was counting.”

It’s probably safe to say that this was the first national debate in which one side explained that the other had done its best work by winking. By a few hours after the debate, the great wink issue had driven some commentators on the Left nearly to distraction. “The next person that winks at me, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to take it after tonight,” said MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

Republican vice presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin winks as she speaks during her vice presidential debate against Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Representatives of the McCain campaign had a different explanation for Palin’s performance. “Smart, tough, and together,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a key member of the McCain Posse. “I thought she understood where the country would go and articulated how the country would be different with McCain-Palin vs. Obama-Biden, and she had a personable nature that said, ‘I am different and new to Washington.’"

I asked Graham whether the Palin on stage seemed different from the Palin of those CBS and ABC interviews. “Yeah,” he said. “I think she just hit her stride. I think over 90 minutes you can understand who the person is . . . she had a level of confidence and likeability, for lack of a better word, that shone tonight that you’ll never see in a 15-second sound bite.”

Graham’s words brought up the complaint, going around in Republican circles, that the McCain campaign has mishandled Palin, keeping her under wraps except for those high-profile, old-fashioned broadcast network interviews. Insiders concede that there was something wrong in Camp Palin — a problem that was fixed, at least somewhat, by the intervention of top campaign officials as debate prep got underway. Now, everyone has signed on to the idea of letting Palin be Palin. “I think we ought to use her more,” Graham said. “I think one of the biggest mistakes we made was not to showcase her to the people.”

Well, she is showcased now. From the very beginning, Palin came out strong in a way that overshadowed Biden. For example, if it is vitally important in this campaign for a candidate to convey the impression that he or she understands a typical family’s economic anxieties — well, Palin passed the test easily. She was solid throughout on taxes, and even though she pressed too hard on the issue of predatory lending, she also acknowledged the role that bad personal decisions have played in today’s financial mess. “Let’s do what our parents told us before we probably even got that first credit card,” Palin said. “Don’t live outside of our means.”

For the first time in any extensive way, Palin also stressed her own experience “as a mayor and business owner and oil-and-gas regulator and then as a governor.” She talked at some length about energy, both her own record and that of Obama and Biden, and she spoke with real authority. Even when the subject was Darfur, she mentioned something she had done in Alaska.

On foreign policy in general, Palin showed vast improvement over her performance in the network interviews. But it’s not her strong suit — can you name a governor other than Reagan who has been elected president for whom foreign policy was a strong suit? — and she had less command of the issues than did Biden. On the other hand, Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, used his long experience to make some points that were simply preposterous. For example, he continued to deny that Barack Obama had ever pledged to meet with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. “This is simply not true about Barack Obama,” Biden said, pointing out that Ahmadinejad “does not control the security apparatus” in Iran.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., left, and Republican candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin shake hands at the finish of their vice presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008.
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Just for the record, in a Democratic debate on July 23, 2007, Obama was asked whether he would be “willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” Obama answered, “I would.” Any reasonable reading of that would say that Obama pledged to meet the leader of Iran — be it Ahmadinejad or someone else — without precondition. On another occasion, Obama said it specifically with reference to Ahmadinejad. So score some points for Palin even in her weak area.

On the other hand, Palin delivered some answers that left viewers scratching their heads. On climate change, she said:

I’m not one to attribute every man — activity of man to the changes in the climate. There is something to be said also for man’s activities, but also for the cyclical temperature changes on our planet. But there are real changes going on in our climate. And I don’t want to argue about the causes, what I want to argue is, how are we going to get there to positively affect the impacts?

It was one of those answers that, if you were sympathetic to Palin, you said, “I understand what she means.” If you were unsympathetic to Palin, you said it was gibberish.

Palin should also probably not have wandered into the question, explored by Dick Cheney and few others, of whether the vice president has the authority to play a greater role in the Senate than previously thought.

But if you were looking for Palin to stumble — and Democrats wouldn’t have minded that one bit, despite all their pre-show praise of Palin’s debating skills — you just didn’t see it onstage Thursday night. Palin emerged from a couple of weeks of misguided Team McCain handling with her Palin-ness intact, and she showed it onstage when it counted.

And that, for a lot of Republicans, was a deeply satisfying turn of events. “One of the reasons I feel so good for her, just as a human being,” said former Sen. Fred Thompson, “is I have never seen anybody undergo the ridicule, the slanders and the lies, and the blogosphere and what they’re doing, and breaking into her private e-mail, rumors and things about her, and now, most recently, belittling her, taking little snippets of interviews and laughing at her and satirizing her. Those people ought to be ashamed of themselves, if they’re capable of shame, because they’ve proven that what they were doing does not represent who she was and who she is. Thank goodness, just as she said, that this was an unfiltered event for an hour and a half. She could stand toe-to-toe with Joe Biden, who’s been around for all these many, many years, and basically take him to the woodshed.”

— Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Writing Between The Lines with Stephen Hunter

Between The Lines

By Carolyn Haines
September 2008

Blending a career in journalism and fiction writing is a delicate balancing act, but for a number of years, Stephen Hunter has done just that. A Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, Hunter has long made daily deadlines and also created a world of action-packed fiction with his characters Earl Swagger and Bob Lee Swagger. His books are consistent NYT bestsellers.

Hunter recently retired from the Washington Post, where he was a film critic for a number of years. His latest novel is Night Of Thunder: a Bob Lee Swagger Novel.

In this latest action-packed thriller, Bob Lee Swagger must protect his journalist daughter Nikki, who is injured while following leads that point at the Dixie Mafia. There's also a bit of corrupt law enforcement and deranged evangelicals thrown into the mix. All of this is set against a week long NASCAR event in Tennessee.

What inspired this particular plot? And I have to know, are you a fan of NASCAR?

My professional athletic poisons of choice are the Baltimore Ravens and Orioles, who between them have tried to drive me to suicide for years. (The Patriots game last year came close!) So, no to NASCAR, not a fan, didn't have policies or attitudes or favorites going in. Never even changed the oil on a car. But I went to Bristol to visit my daughter, Amy, a reporter on the Courier-Herald, during big race week (entirely by accident) and consequently stumbled not upon NASCAR but NASCAR culture. It was astonishing! It was rapture combined with tribal unity, lubricated by beer and cigarettes and it was the damndest thing I ever saw or felt in my life. I had never even suspected such a great wild festival still existed, and I realized no book or movie had ever briefed me. So the book more than anything is meant as a kind of tribute to the crazy joy of NASCAR, the cone of utter happiness and obsession its zealots generate as they gather in the glens and hollows, Bud cans in hand, and enjoy. Not being a lyric poet or a penetrating New Yorker essayist (both way above my pay grade), I could only offer a thriller in tribute. I just tried to think of ways to get the scene into the book, really to make the scene the star of the book. It was great fun.

Many of your books have inter-related characters. Earl, Bob Lee and Nikki Swagger. What are the pleasures, for a writer, of interconnected characters?

The pleasures of linked characters. . . are fabulous if completely unanticipated. I never set out to tell the generational story of the Swaggers and their friends, lovers and enemies in Polk County, Arkansas; it was never even a blip on my mind in the smallest way. I never read or enjoyed family sagas and my own family is spread from sea to sea, never again to assemble under one roof, I fear. But as all professional fiction writers know, the characters are wiser than you are by far, and they are constantly explaining things to you and showing you connections, genetic traits spread throughout the generations, ironies, pains, and secrets. Who knew Sam and Miss Connie were in love? I didn't until the exact moment I wrote it, and saw how it explained SO MUCH. Who knew that Earl and Bob would have similar but not identical talents: Earl was a small-unit leader, a sergeant's sergeant with the highest warcraft in the Corps; Bob was a solitary, no leader or charmer at all, but a man who wanted to test himself alone against the harshest circumstances. That meant, of course, that Earl was a charmer, a cajoler, a charisma merchant; Bob was the man without name or past who hardly uttered a word but watched and processed at genius level, uttered cryptic remarks when prodded, and found himself in exile. Who knew that as he aged, re-entered society, married, had children, that he would grow verbally and acquire a kind of avuncular charm, in essence becoming more like the father he mourned so even after 50 years. Who knew. They all did, and I'm lucky that they got around to telling me.

Stephen Hunter

A lot of your books are set in the South, but you were born in Missouri. What's the attraction of the South in your work?

That came about as a consequence of exposure to an urban legend (the same one Tom Wolfe discovered in his Junior Johnson piece) which goes like this: "If you are going to have to fight for your life with fists, and can chose a few allies, chose African Americans. If you are going to have to fight for your life with guns, chose white southerners." I'm sure Sicilians were included for blades, and New Englanders for frugality and so forth. But I just felt there was more courage in the south, especially the courage to use firearms in battle and Medal of Honor statistics tell that story too. Audie Murphy, Alvin York, Carlos Hathcock, William Darby: all southerners. So that got me there but what kept me there was the language. I loved conjuring a slightly more stylized southern accent, and somehow felt at home. In fact, I think I'm pretty good at it. It's a south of the imagination, I suppose, but nurturing just the same. And, for the record, I always thought of Missouri as "southern," and visited an Uncle's farm frequently in the '50s. They all talked funny-beautiful and I never forgot it, worked like dogs, were as honest as the day was long and brave as their whiskey was powerful. I never went back but I also never really left.

In several reviews, your work is noted as "violent." Do you think that's a negative description? What role do you think violence plays in contemporary fiction?

I am, after all, the son of a squalid murder victim, a man killed in the most lurid, demeaning way possible. It taught me how a murder rips through a family and even a society and if rarely spoken of, is never forgotten, and casts its shadow into the years that follow. All that is true and I've tried to get it into the books. But it's equally true that I have an imagination for the stuff and have always enjoyed its representation in movies and books. I love the guns, as is well known, and trying to portray how they were used truly instead of in a Hollywood fake way was really the raison d'etre of the whole thing, and it necessarily involved violence. And the final truth is, I have no idea how to write a book without violence in it. I wouldn't know how to plot it, I wouldn't know what direction to take it, what to build toward; my whole definition of "story" is "events building to and resolved in violent confrontation." It's my one-trick pony, it's really all I have or know.

Writing for a newspaper means having rigid deadlines, often on a daily basis. How did you manage to write fiction around the deadlines of your "day job" schedule? Did the day job requirements make you work harder?

It turns out that I'm fast. Don't know why, don't know where it came from, only know I was damned lucky to be fast. The newspaper work just somehow happened. I'd sit down and it would explode out of me, and there it was, in plenty of time. It was enormously helpful and editors knew they could always count on me to do what I said I'd do (Not doing what you say you'll do is a surprisingly large problem on every newspaper that has ever existed). So that was a "given" of my life: the commitment to getting it done. As for the fiction, it's a similar thing. I dreamed of it for 30 years and believed I had nearly enough talent to get it published, but the actual doing of the thing arose from a newspaper discipline in a strange way. For a while I was the book review editor of a paper and every Christmas, by tradition, the book review editor would churn out a giant piece that reviewed 40 or so of the leading Christmas gift books. Good god, it seemed like a killer job. So I decided to do one piece every morning for a month, just a graf or two, but as always in the course of writing, the graf would turn to four and then eight. In the end, a month later, I pasted it all together (it was done that way in those far-off times) to send by tube to composing. Holy Freakin' Cow, it was 50 pages long! I remember holding the substantial stackage of copy paper, feeling the weight, the heft, the floppiness of it all, and realized I had just written 50 pages and I wasn't even tired. That taught me the only secret of my career, which I have passed on in a variety of forums: Start now, work every day, finish. You'd be stunned how much the pages add up to in a very short time and how much a half an hour a day can amount to. That's a newspaper lesson that explains why all the geniuses of my early years are still trying to decide which form of greatness to pursue, while I've modestly published 18 books and won a Pulitzer Prize.

Has your fiction been impacted by the films you watched and reviewed? If so, how?

Of course, in many and varied ways. I once wrote an entire novel and not until somewhere late in the process did I realize it was basically "influenced," as in "stolen" from, Dr. Strangelove, almost plot beat by plot beat, with minor adjustments in point of view. Of course I immediately . . . did nothing. The book was pretty successful, and then the Russians had to go and end the Cold War and kill my shot at a movie. Agh. In other ways, it seems to me I picked up the rhythms of cross-cutting from the movies, the play of competing narrative strands against each other in order to manipulate and intensify narrative tension. Now and then there's a particular movie "quality" (don't know another word) that gets into a book, like the chaos of The Wild Bunch or the hysteria of Reservoir Dogs or the bleak rural despair of One False Move. That stuff just creeps in and when I discover it, I immediately . . . publish it. But there's another way the movies are in play: sometimes I'll write a book to rebuke a particular film or aspect of film. To take one obvious example, I saw Barry Levinson's Bugsy and liked it very much except that it bothered me in that its portrayals of Ben Siegel and Virginia Hill were all wrong--they were too refined, too witty, ironic and sophisticated. Somehow, I worked the Bugman and Ginny into Hot Springs and I tried in some way to "correct" the Levinson version: I wanted them cruder, more primal, more powerful, more violent, more rough-edged, less classy. The same thing happened with The Green Mile, an endless Frank Darabont version of a Steve King novel, which envisioned death row in a southern prison in the '30s as a kind of Harvard Department of Sociology Outreach Program, full of noble guards and empathetic prisoners and I just HATED it. It made me crazy, such a lie. So I returned to that theme and created a racist southern prison of the Fifties in a book as an upside-down, hellish vision of such a place, a primal bog, full of savagery and hatred and completely shorn of nobility and sacrifice. It gave me much pleasure to turn The Green Mile on its head in that book. Then there's an issue of action. I read something Francis Ford Coppola said about filming The Godfather with so many gangland cliches, and how to make them fresh again. He said the trick was in finding some new detail--the blood floating in mist behind Stirling Haydon and Al Leteri's heads in the scene where Michael plugs them--and building the sequence around that. So that's my mantra: I try and find some new detail--maybe the gunflashes, maybe the speed and craziness of close-quarters gunplay, maybe the way full-autos spit empty shells and fire so fast it seems almost unbelievable--when I do a set piece.

Is there an author who has greatly influenced your work? A director or screenwriter or actor?

When I was writing a book called Dirty White Boys I thought of it as a Jim Thompson novel, you know, the GREAT Jim Thompson. And then I realized I had never actually READ a Jim Thompson novel, and so I did, and I realized my book was nothing at all like it. For one thing, I actually did some research, but I guess when you're churning 'em out in two weeks driven by booze and poverty, research is a luxury, like re-writing, you can't afford. So my book was influenced by my dream of Jim Thompson, my sense of him as I had inferred his reality from other critics. That's so common with me that I realize the truth about other writers is: No. Uh-uh. This hasn't made me popular, much less one of the guys, and I'm completely apart from the culture of thriller writers, and go out into the world unblurbed (I hate the whole blurb thing, but don't get me started) and I almost never read other thriller writers or even other novelists. I loved le Carre, but I can't read him any more. I loved Thomas Harris, but the recent books have become thin and, while fun, nowhere near the dense genius of Silence of the Lambs. I read . . . nobody. Mostly magazines with things that go bang in them, snarky blogs, the occasional bio or battle history, and that's about it. It seems like a secret coping mechanism: I really don't want to read anybody who's more successful but much less talented, and I don't want to read anybody who's much more talented but less successful. In fact, I just realized that in the last five years, I've finished more books as a writer than as a reader.

When you write an action scene, which your books are acclaimed for, do you visualize it cinematically, like a film?

I love it. I think I should get a T-shirt made that reads, "Actually, I'd rather be a second unit director." That's my dream job, cooking up, then implementing gunfights in hitherto undreamed of locales with hitherto undreamed of permutations. I plan the books up to and away from the gunfights and truly enjoy finding new ways to bring drama and realism to that sort of thing. I talked earlier about finding "the new detail," so I won't repeat myself, and I talked about how I couldn't plan a book without violence (meaning, for me, action, or vice versa) so I needn't repeat that either, but there are certain rules I might pass on. The first is that the action has to be not merely organic but expressive. By that I mean, you just don't stick it in anywhere to heat things up; it has to come naturally in story and you have to care about the characters, or it's nothing but spectacle. By "expressive" I mean that each character must stay IN character during the fight and act in accordance with his personality as previously evoked. Next, you should feel death; it's a big thing and if you're exposed to death, especially by violent misadventure, it's a shattering emotional experience: you don't come back from it fast, and I hate the movie trope where somebody gets killed and none of his friends are depressed or upset about it and get back to the business of the plot without a second thought. (Heat was particularly annoying in that respect: when Ted Levine got killed, an integral member of Pacino's team, none of the survivors gave it a second thought. And when Pacino is closing in on DeNiro, it's clear that he actually likes and admires him, when De Niro is, after all, the guy who killed one of his own men.) And there's another thing: the death of bad guys should be appropriate. I hated the moment in the movie Shooter where Swagger shoots old Ned Beatty as the Senator. Please. Beatty was not a man of physical violence so dispatching him with a bullet in the forehead seemed to completely upset the moral balance of the universe. Much better if Beatty were destroyed in terms of the life he lived: by scandal, by arrest, by exposure on TV. I always try and get my bad guys the deaths they've earned; that seems to me to be one of the rules of the game.

How did winning the Pulitzer affect your fiction writing life?

This is an easy one: not in the slightest. S&S puts it on the cover, a slight marketing subterfuge that suggests I won in Fiction (it was, of course, in Criticism) and I feel so strongly about it, I intend to write them a strong letter . . . never.

And finally, you have the reputation of being a tough critic. Do you read reviews of your books, and if so, do they have an impact on you?

I have no trouble with the epic proportions of my hypocrisy here. I am two men: as a movie critic, I kicked ass, took names but not prisoners, ripped, shredded, spindled mutilated and took pleasure in the carnage I wrought. When I am subjected to same, it is one of the greatest unfairnesses in the history of man. It is wrong, unfair, rotten and whoever is doing so is motivated by envy, greed, sexual favors from female rivals, drunkenness, or stupidity. There's someone on PW right now I wouldn't mind beating to a pulp with a hockey stick, and I don't even LIKE hockey. So the answer to your question reveals the following sad truth: the writer is pathetically, tinily, inconsequentially and unsurprisingly human. Sorry about that, but as Dutch said to Pike, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Contributing editor Carolyn Haines's last novel is WISHBONES, the 8th of the Sarah Booth Delaney Mississippi Delta mysteries. She was recently named a 2009 recipient of the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence.

Rare bird: Cardinals' Pujols put up another amazing season

By Joe Posnanski
October 1, 2008

One thing that has always baffled me is how baseball scouts missed on Albert Pujols. The baffling part is not that Pujols was a 13th round pick in the 1999 amateur draft -- hey, there are quite a few late-round success stories in baseball. Jim Thome was a 13th round pick too. Ryne Sandberg went in the 20th. Heck, Mike Piazza lasted until the 62nd.

Albert Pujols finished 2008 with a .357 average, 37 HRs and 116 RBIs

There's a difference though: It took Thome, Sandberg and Piazza years to grow into stars. Pujols, though, was like a Lean Cuisine Superstar -- pop him in the microwave and a few minutes later you had a piping hot batting machine. Barely 18 months after Pujols was passed over at least 10 times by every team in baseball*, he showed up at St. Louis Cardinals spring training ready to dominate. Tony La Russa talked every day about being in awe of the guy. And Pujols went on to one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history.

*The Kansas City Royals actually picked SEVENTEEN players ahead of Pujols in '99 even though Pujols, the player of the generation, played high school and college ball IN KANSAS CITY. True, it might not be fair to single out one team for missing Pujols -- they all have scouts in every territory. But let's face it: The Royals had the star who might have changed their fortunes down the street, and they whiffed. You know that line, "God helps those that help themselves?" Well, um, yeah.**

**By the way, that line, 'God helps those that help themselves," is not, as most people think, from the Bible. It's from Poor Richard's Almanack, by Benjamin Franklin. Yes, we're a full-service operation here.

That's why the Pujols miss baffles me. Sure, baseball scouting is imprecise. Heck, life is imprecise -- politicians didn't see the financial crisis coming and fantasy football gurus didn't see the Tom Brady crisis coming. But Pujols, based on the timeline we have here, played one year of minor league baseball and promptly dominated Major League Baseball. I'm thinking a scout or two might have noticed that sort of breathtaking, just-add-water talent when Pujols was bashing baseballs for Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City (and, according to legend, not striking out once the entire year).

Perhaps there were once genuine grounds for debate about Pujols' talent. Not anymore. He is, in my mind, the best player in baseball, and I don't think that anyone approaches him. OPS+ is a pretty good statistic -- it takes a player's OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) and compares it to the rest of the league. A 100 OPS+ is exactly average.

Over the last five years, here are the Top 5 players in OPS+.

1. Albert Pujols, 173

2. David Ortiz, 154

3. Chipper Jones, 153

4. Alex Rodriguez, 153

5. Manny Ramirez, 152.

So, well, that's not especially close. OK, so you can look at runs created, Bill James' invention that basically measures how many runs a player, um, you know, created:

1. Albert Pujols, 756

2. Alex Rodriguez, 682

3. David Ortiz, 671

4. Lance Berkman, 646

5. Mark Teixeira, 627.

So, that's not really all that close either. Maybe you're old school. Maybe you don't like these newfangled statistics. Maybe you prefer batting average.

1. Albert Pujols, .335

2. Ichiro Suzuki, .332

3. Vladimir Guerrero, .323

4. Matt Holiday, .319

5. Todd Helton, .315.

And so on. He has the best on-base percentage the last five years. He has the highest slugging percentage the last five years. He has the most total bases, the most extra base hits, the most times on base. And this year, despite missing a few games, he probably had his greatest offensive season. With offense down all around baseball, the guy hit .357, walked 104 times (while striking out 54), banged 44 doubles and 37 homers, scored 100 and drove in 116. There are any number of advanced stats -- Value Over Replacement Player, Equivalent Average, Isolated Power, Offensive Win Percentage and so on -- that show Pujols was the Usain Bolt of baseball this year.

Pujols is so good you would not expect anyone to miss it. And yet, it seems, people do. When Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman asked 20 anonymous front office executives this summer to name the player they would build a team around, one (1!) chose Pujols. Heck, when you totaled up the execs' ballots, Pujols received only one more point than Joba Chamberlain. Yes, many of those decision-makers probably disqualified Pujols because he's not young (and many still think he's not even as young as he says). Still, GMs apparently have more respect for other veterans such as A-Rod and Chase Utley.

Over the last couple of weeks, I asked five baseball executives and scouts to name the best player in baseball -- nothing official, just an informal poll. One did say Albert Pujols. Three said A-Rod and a fifth offered Grady Sizemore. Those are perfectly fine choices. The interesting part is that when I brought up Pujols, TWO of them said: "Oh yeah, I didn't really think about him."

That seems to be a trend: Many baseball fans just don't seem to think about him. Pujols' greatness is so easily apparent -- he hits, he walks, he hits for power, he plays outstanding defense at first base, he makes winning plays just about every day and his teammates will tell story after story after story about how Pujols helped them with their swing, taught them a curveball, cured their sciatica, introduced them to their wives.

And maybe that gets to the heart of why he's sometimes overlooked. Maybe he's so good it's boring. Maybe Pujols' greatness, like a plane landing safely, doesn't make the news. There's no doubt that A-Rod is so much more human, you can see his mood swings, you can read about his crises, you can boo his salary and marvel at the way he flicks the bat out there and send the ball soaring. Sizemore and Curtis Granderson and Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran play a more exciting style, they play more significant defensive positions, they can wow you with their power and speed and the way they chase down fly balls in the gap or grounders in the hole. Ryan Howard and Ryan Braun and maybe even Ryan Ludwick -- lots of Ryans -- may hit with more power. Dustin Pedroia and Chase Utley and Joe Mauer may win more hearts with their scrappiness.

But Pujols is simply better than any of them.

This year, before the madness of the playoffs began, I decided to watch Pujols closely the final weekend, with the Cardinals out of the playoff hunt, with the only thing as stake being what John Updike, in describing the greatness of Ted Williams, called the "tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill."

On Thursday, Pujols went three-for-three with a walk, two runs, a homer and four RBIs in a victory over Arizona.

On Friday, he went three-for-three with two walks, two runs, a homer and two RBIs in a victory over Cincinnati.

On Saturday, he only managed one hit, but it was a homer, as the Cards beat the Reds again.

And on Sunday, he went one for two with a walk, a double, an RBI, and that was before he was pulled in the third inning. The Cardinals won again.

What did it mean? Not much. And everything. The baseball playoffs begin without Pujols again, which is too bad. This time of year I always find myself thinking about that moment in the NLCS in 2005, ninth inning, Houston up by two, their unhittable closer Brad Lidge on the mound, Pujols at the plate. And it wasn't just that Pujols hit the enormous game-winning home run -- great, good and mediocre have hit clutch home runs -- it was that with Pujols, you figured he would.

It's funny, Pujols' team didn't make the playoffs this season, and because of that there seem to be some who would not vote for him as MVP. What a shame. There are even a few who would vote for Brad Lidge, who had such a nice comeback year for Philadelphia (and even retired Pujols two of the three times they faced each other). Seems a bit odd. I've seen that match-up. I know how it turns out.


Why is there none for Democrats?

By Jonah Goldberg
October 01, 2008, 7:20 a.m.

You know the old joke about Winston Churchill seated next to a woman at a posh dinner party?
Churchill says “Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?” The socialite responds: My goodness, Mr. Churchill. . . . Well, I suppose I would.” Adjusted for inflation were talking tens of millions of dollars after all. Then Churchill replies, “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?”

Lady: “Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!”

Churchill: “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.”

It’s a joke worth keeping in mind when looking at the two political parties, particularly for those who think there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between them.

The House GOP has come under a lot of criticism for its failure to deliver on its end of the bipartisan bailout deal, including from yours truly. Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership has come in for some moderate pro forma criticism for failing to do what was necessary to see the legislation passed.

It is a funny — though not ha-ha funny — double standard: When the GOP ran the show, it was always held responsible for every “bad” outcome. Now that the GOP is in the minority, it’s still held responsible for every “bad” outcome. I suppose it’s a similar standard that somehow allows the Democrats in charge of overseeing the financial sector to whine that there hasn’t been enough oversight without even the slightest sting of embarrassment.

On that point, you know what I haven’t seen in all of the coverage of the bailout-blow-up? I haven’t seen a single interview with a Democrat who voted against this deal. I’ve seen interviews of Republicans who’ve voted for it. I’ve seen interviews of Republicans who voted against it. And, of course, I’ve seen interviews with the Democratic leadership in which they blamed the Republicans who voted against it but not the 94 Dems who voted against it.

Now I certainly haven’t watched every bit of news coverage nor have I read every story about the failed bailout vote, so I’m sure I’m missing some counter-examples. But I think the discrepancy of coverage is real. The press is eager to hear from these free market zealots, these Herbert Hoover* mini-mes, who would put their bizarre ideological concerns ahead of the country’s interests. Never mind that these alleged zealots actually believe what they are doing is in fact in the long term interests of the country. The press always knows that when conservatives refuse to compromise it’s because they are dogmatic ideologues, brainwashed acolytes in the cult of Milton Friedman and Adam Smith.

But why didn’t those Democrats vote for the bailout that their own leadership contends is vital for the financial health of the country?

That’s a question that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.

Part of the explanation stems from the combined incompetence and partisanship of Nancy Pelosi who let many of her closest allies in the Congress — including five committee chairs who owe their positions to Pelosi — vote no. (Karl Rove’s lecture on this point is extremely instructive.). Pelosi let 16 Democrats in tight races vote against the bill in order to save their seats. If that standard is good for the majority party, I would like to hear Nancy Pelosi explain why it’s unacceptable for the minority party. As Jim Geraghty says, “She’s the speaker, she controls the chamber. You can’t say, ‘vote for this bill, it is necessary’ and ‘we will target any Republican who votes for this bill’ at the same moment. Of course, you can actually say it, because that’s what the Democrats have been saying. You just can’t say it with any integrity.

But I’m interested in the Democratic equivalent of the Republican ideologues. A majority of the hyper-leftwing Congressional Black Caucus — the self-anointed “conscience of the Congress” — voted against the bailout, even though they come from some of the safest districts in America. A majority of the Hispanic caucus voted no, too. Half of the Congressional Progressive Caucus voted against the bailout.

Have you heard anyone denounce these people as “left-wing ideologues”? I haven’t.

What would have brought these people around? Renowned intellectual Jesse Jackson Jr. says that he voted against the bill in effect because it didn’t cost enough. If it was more of Christmas tree of left-wing New Deal policies he’d be in favor of a bailout. Indeed, you can be sure that most of these Democrats would have voted for the legislation if the old 20-percent-off-the-top for La Raza and ACORN provisions were still in there. Read the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s letter to Nancy Pelosi. The short version: We’ll vote for it — if it nationalizes America’s financial system.

Now, the interesting thing here is how different the motives are here, and how they run counter to the liberal conventional wisdom and the prevailing media narrative. The Mike Pence “ideologues” opposed this bill on principle even though we’re always told by the Thomas Frank crowd that those laissez-faire Republicans are merely the willing pawns of America’s financial ruling class. Their principles are mere window dressing for grasping, evil capitalists. But the financial ruling class supports this bill. They’re begging for it in fact. These right-wing ideologues believe there must be a cheaper and better way to protect the American taxpayer that preserves economic liberty.

Now look at the ideologues of the Democratic party. This crowd voted against the bailout because the government simply didn’t meet their price. If the bailout proposal came with a $100 million no-strings-attached earmark for every congressional district, does anyone doubt that Jesse Jackson Jr. would hail this “heroic” legislation? Does anyone doubt that Mike Pence would still have voted against it?

In short, we’ve already established what kind of party the Democrats are, now we’re just haggling about their price.

— Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning and editor-at-large of National Review Online.

* Just for the record. Herbert Hoover’s response to the stock-market crash was not laissez-faire (though he certainly had sympathies in that direction) and no serious historian of the Great Depression still claims as much. Hoover has become a literary device, a useful myth for liberals who claim that FDR’s activism ended the Depression. The truth is that FDR’s efforts prolonged the Depression in no small part because FDR carried Hoover’s interventionism to its logical extreme.

America's Nervous Breakdown - and the World's

By Victor Davis Hanson
October 02, 2008

Ancient thinkers from Thucydides to Cicero insisted that money was the real source of military power and national influence. We've been reminded of that classical wisdom these last three weeks.

In a manner not seen since the Great Depression, Wall Street went into panic mode from too many bad debts. The symbolic pillars of American monetary strength for years -- AIG, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Shearson-Lehman and Washington Mutual -- in a matter of hours either went broke, were absorbed or were reconstituted. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac collapsed like the house of cards that they were.

Even though the U.S. government rushed to restore trust, hundreds of billions of dollars in paper assets simply vanished. Friends and enemies abroad were unsure whether the irregular American heartbeat was a major coronary or a mere cardiac murmur. How strong really was the world's greatest economy? Was this panic the tab for years of borrowing abroad for out-of-control consumer spending? Had America finally gone too far enriching dictators by buying energy that it either could not or would not produce itself? Had the chickens of lavishing rewards on Wall Street and Washington speculators rather than Main Street producers finally come home to roost?

Allies trust that the United States is the ultimate guarantor of free communication and commerce -- and they want immediate reassurance that their old America will still be there. In contrast, opportunistic predators -- such as rogue oil-rich regimes -- suddenly sniff new openings.

We've seen the connection between American economic crisis and world upheaval before. In the 1930s, the United States and its democratic allies, in the midst of financial collapse, disarmed and largely withdrew from foreign affairs. That isolation allowed totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia to swallow their smaller neighbors and replace the rule of law with that of the jungle. World War II followed.

During the stagflation and economic malaise of the Jimmy Carter years, the Russians invaded Afghanistan, the Iranians stormed our embassy in Tehran, the communists sought to spread influence in Central America and a holocaust raged unchecked in Cambodia.

It was no surprise that an emboldened Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once again last week called for the elimination of Israel. He's done that several times before. But rarely has he felt brazen enough to blame world financial problems on the Jews in general rather than on just Israelis. And he spouted his Hitlerian hatred in front of the United Nations General Assembly -- in New York, just a few blocks away from the ground zero of the Wall Street meltdown.

Flush with petrodollar cash, a cocky Iran thinks our government will be so sidetracked borrowing money for Wall Street that disheartened taxpayers won't care to stop Tehran from going nuclear.

At about the same time, a Russian flotilla was off Venezuela to announce new cooperation with the loud anti-American Hugo Chavez and his fellow Latin American communists. The move was a poke in the eye at the Monroe Doctrine -- and a warning that from now on the oil-rich Russians will boldly support dictatorships in our hemisphere as much as we encourage democratic Georgia and Ukraine in theirs. Chavez himself called for a revolution in the United States to replace our "capitalist" Constitution.

The lunatics running North Korea predictably smelled blood as well. So it announced that it was reversing course and reprocessing fuel rods to restart its supposedly dismantled nuclear weapons program.

Meanwhile, some shell-shocked American bankers looked to our "friend" China, which holds billions in American government securities, for emergency loans. But the Chinese -- basking in their successful hosting of the Olympics, their first foray into outer space, and a massive rearmament -- showed no interest in sending cash to reeling Wall Street firms.

During this Wall Street arrhythmia, Islamic suicide bombers attacked the American embassy in Yemen and the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan. Suspected Islamic terrorists were caught boarding a Dutch airliner in Germany. And suicide bombers were busy again in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The natural order of the world is chaos, not calm. Like it or not, for over a half-century the United States alone restrained nuclear bullies, kept the sea lanes free from outlaws and corralled rogue nations. America alone could provide that deterrence because we produced a fourth of the world's goods and services, and became the richest country in the history of civilization.

But the bill for years of massive borrowing for oil, for imported consumer goods and for speculation has now has finally come due on Wall Street -- and for the rest of us as well.
Should that heart of American financial power in New York falter -- or even appear to falter -- then eventually the sinews of the American military will likewise slacken. And then things could get ugly -- real fast.

- Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author, most recently, of "A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War." You can reach him by e-mailing

Attacking "Obsession"

By Robert Spencer
Thursday, October 02, 2008

Khaleel Mohammed, a professor at San Diego State University and a popular “moderate Muslim,” burnished his credentials as a “moderate” by appearing in the film Obsession, the famous exposé of Islamic jihad activity. For several years now since the film originally appeared he seemed perfectly happy to have done so. Even when it was shown on Fox News, as far as I can tell Khaleel Mohammed uttered not a word of demurral or protest. But now that 28 million copies of the film have been distributed all over the country and it has a higher profile than ever before, Khaleel Mohammed has discovered that it is a “vile piece of propaganda,” and has apologized for appearing in it. The apology appears on the “Obsession with Hate” website.

Khaleel Mohammed

His statement is audaciously deceitful. He says, “I explained the meaning of Jihad, and its misuse by extremists,” when he must know, if he knows anything about Islamic theology, that all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree that jihad mainly means warfare (by various means, violent and nonviolent) against unbelievers in order to subjugate them under the rule of Islamic law. And when he says that the film demonizes the entire Muslim community, he is ignoring large sections of the beginning and end of the film, where the film plainly states that most Muslims have nothing to do with the jihadist program, and other elements within it -- including Khaled Abu Toameh’s assertion that his religion has been “hijacked,” which is presented without contradiction.

Khaleel Mohammed’s deceptions go deeper than just this apology. He goes around the country reassuring Jewish audiences by telling them that in the Qur’an Allah gives the land of Israel to the Jews. And it does say that. One key verse is 5:21, which promises Israel to the Jews conditionally: “O my people! Enter the holy land which Allah hath assigned unto you, and turn not back ignominiously, for then will ye be overthrown, to your own ruin.”

This sounds great, of course: it suggests that Muslims who fight against Israel are ignoring their own holy book, and that once this verse and others like it are pointed out to them, they will accept the existence of Israel. And it also suggests that the vast majority of Muslims, because of this verse, have no problem with Israel at all.

Unfortunately, the Qur’an also says that the Jews, through their disobedience to Allah, have earned Allah’s curse (2:89, 9:30). Those who are accursed forfeit whatever Allah has given them. Meanwhile, the true followers of Moses’s genuine, uncorrupted teachings are the Muslims, and so they are the ones who inherit the promises about Israel.

But that part of the Qur’anic message doesn’t make it into Khaleel Mohammed’s presentations.

Also, a few years ago Khaleel Mohammed said this about me: “He misquotes verses of the Qur’an, takes things out of context, and shamelessly lies.” Since I do not misquote verses of the Qur’an, take things out of context, or shamelessly lie, I contacted him and asked for either documentation of his charges or a retraction. (I also responded to his false charges here.) He refused to retract, even though he did not (and could not) produce even one example of my misquoting verses of the Qur’an, taking things out of context, or shamelessly lying. And he compounded matters by responding: “As for shameless lies, I stand by my assertion, especially after received material in which you claim Muhammad married his daughter in law etc.”

In reality, I did not fabricate this “claim,” and I am sure that Khaleel Mohammed is well aware of this. The notorious incident of Muhammad’s marriage to his former daughter-in-law Zaynab, far from being a “shameless lie,” is a well-known and much-discussed element of Islamic tradition. You can read about it in this section of my Jihad Watch Blogging the Qur’an series. But after I noted this at my website Jihad Watch, Khaleel Mohammed responded venomously at The American Muslim -- a reliably truth-free publication – in a piece about “Spencer and his satanic cabal.” In it, he says:

This time around he raises the red-herring and disproven nonsense about Muhammad marrying his daughter-in-law--and here, either Spencer is a bigger ignoramus than I think, or he has once again resorted to prevarication. It is difficult to figure out where he is coming from. The issue of whether or not an adopted son like Zaid is technically Muhammad’s son could be answered by any first week student of Islamic law. Perhaps Spencer should go reattend Professor Carl Ernst’s classes and get some deprogramming from a bona-fide expert on Islam.

I never had the pleasure of being a student of the estimable Carl Ernst, so Khaleel Mohammed’s “reattend” is inaccurate.

But more importantly, in this Khaleel Mohammed suggests that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, did not actually marry his daughter-in-law, because his adopted son Zayd was not to be considered his son at all -- and that I am either unaware of all this or lying about it. It is “difficult” for Khaleel Mohammed to know where I am “coming from” because he apparently has not read, or does not want his readers to know about, my discussions of this incident, in which I deal with the material he claims I ignore. See, for example, this section of my Blogging the Qur’an series, in which I wrote this:

Allah here emphasizes that an adopted son cannot be a true son, and so by extension Zaynab was never really Muhammad’s daughter-in-law at all, and there is no cause for scandal.

If Khaleel Mohammed had cared to spend even a moment on research before slinging his accusations, he might have discovered that I also discuss the issue of adoption and its relationship to the Zaynab incident on page 67 of my 2006 book The Truth About Muhammad. But he prefers to pretend that I ignore all this, out of either stupidity or bigotry, in order to portray Muhammad in the worst possible light.

Yet it is I whose scholarship is poor and who issue “poison-pen” tirades.

The bulk of Khaleel Mohammed’s piece in The American Muslim consists of the usual series of insults to my integrity and scholarship, accompanied by the usual failure to provide any actual evidence of my alleged egregious errors. He even asks his readers to take his word that what he is saying is true:

Spencer seeks to hoodwink his readers by talking of Jihad being war...and that idea, rather obviously, is not accepted by scholars of Islam (Muslim and non-Muslim). I am not even going to get into detailing that I do not deny that there are some Muslims who attempt to warp the meaning into that...but throughout Islamic history, there have always been scholars who have harkened [sic] to the true meaning.

What is that true meaning? Which scholars? What establishes that the Muslims who believe that jihad includes warfare are “warping” its meaning? Khaleel Mohammed offers no answers -- we just have to take it all on faith.

And then, displaying again the audacity of his dishonesty, he accuses me of being the one who doesn’t work from evidence:

I guess it irks you that your “scholarship” is not accepted among people of conscience and discernment. Perhaps, instead of knowledge, you rely on faith to argue against Islam and anyone who is a Muslim. Since you are such an upstanding crusader, I wonder: what would Jesus do in this situation?

What would Jesus do, Dr. Mohammed? For one thing, he would tell the truth. But that is a concept with which you are quite obviously unacquainted. In his apology for Obsession comes Khaleel Mohammed’s most audacious deception of all: “And I expect now that those who support the film will make me their target. But again: I am no diplomat, and I love a good fight. I am obsessed with the truth. Let’s get it on.” Obsessed with truth? This is a man who misrepresents the Qur’an to Jewish audiences; who has smeared me and my work with false charges that he refuses to retract; and who is either unacquainted with or deliberately deceptive about one of the most famous incidents in Muhammad’s career. Obsessed with truth? Obsessed with obscuring it, maybe. Obsessed with destroying it, fine. But obsessed with presenting it? Not Khaleel Mohammed.

I have already told Khaleel Mohammed that I accepted the challenge he issued to those who support the film. I am ready to debate him about Obsession, the meaning of jihad, the Jews in the Qur’an, and the life of Muhammad and his marriage to his former daughter-in-law. However, at The American Muslim, he contemptuously refused: “You claim to want to debate, and hope that perhaps in entertaining you, I will somehow give credence to your nonsense.” One would think, of course, that if I really were the “satanic ignoramus” he calls me in that piece, that he would accept my invitation to debate, mop the floor with me, and thereby end my baneful influence forever. But instead, he hides behind a barrage of insults, and refuses my challenge.

“Satanic.” “Ignoramus.” “Bigotry.” “Crusader.” Khaleel Mohammed’s frenzied name-calling only highlights his intellectual bankruptcy, his contempt for truthful and honest dealing -- and his increasing desperation at being exposed as the poseur he is.

- Robert Spencer is a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law and the director of Jihad Watch. He is the author of seven books, eight monographs, and hundreds of articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including the New York Times Bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His next book, Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America without Guns or Bombs, is coming this November from Regnery Publishing.