Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment.

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Bush's Own Version of the Bush Joke

| Fri Jul. 11, 2008 4:54 PM EDT

This week at the G8 summit in Japan, George W. Bush wrapped up a meeting on climate change with the words: "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter."

"He then punched the air while grinning widely," the Telegraph reports, "as the rest of those present including Gordon Brown and Nicholas Sarkozy looked on in shock."

Bush's Napoleon Dynamite moment might have been an effort to laugh off an earlier gaffe: A White House press packet at the G8 had described Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as one of "the most controversial leaders in the history of a country known for government corruption and vice." After furor erupted in Rome (Corriere Della Sera called it "a faux pas of unprecedented proportions"), the White House explained, candidly, that an official had simply lifted the passage from the Internet without reading it.

What to make of Bush's humor? Separating out the gaffes and the Bush Jokes, it seems divided between an ascendant strain of ironic-self-mockery and a still-going-strong Wayne & Garth aesthetic. From a recent event with German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

So Bush is a doofus, but why?

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Downstream of the Tar Sands, Canada Launches a Comprehensive Review of Cancer Rates

| Thu May 22, 2008 4:45 PM EDT

Canadian health authorities announced today that they would launch a "comprehensive" review of cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a small town 70 miles downstream of Canada's massive tar sands mines. In 2006, local doctor John O'Connor reported unusually high rates of cancer and other diseases in the town, where many locals subsist on fish and wild game. A few months later, when authorities filed a complaint against O'Connor for "raising undue alarm," they kicked off an epic dispute between the government and industry on one side and O'Connor, locals, and environmentalists on the other.

At the heart of the debate is whether Canada can continue to mine the tar sands, which now serve as the single largest source of U.S. foreign oil, without destroying its environment and poisoning its citizens. The impact of the tar sands on global warming is clear, but the health concerns of Native American groups may ultimately do more to curtail the sands--the world's largest strip mines. In the weeks since Mother Jones published a comprehensive story on O'Connor's fight, environmental pressure on the government has mounted. In late April hundreds of ducks were poisoned in a tar sands tailings pond, prompting renewed protests and a government pledge to investigate. The latest move by health authorities shows that the environmental health threats of the Canadian tar sands remain, to say the least, a sticky issue.

Scenes From a Nader Fundraiser at a San Francisco Dive Bar

| Sat May 17, 2008 3:50 PM EDT

The 540 Club, in an old bank building at 540 Clement Street in San Francisco, is the only bar in town to call an elephant its mascot. A 300-pound stuffed pachyderm blobs on a ledge above the front door, a cast-off inherited after the San Francisco zoo shuttered its elephant exhibit. The bar's logo, a pink elephant found on its tables, its business cards and the forearm of its soda jerk, is described by the staff as "the universal symbol of alcoholism and sloth etc," and not as any sort of inducement to Republicans. In fact, the threat, in liberal San Francisco, of being labeled a GOP sympathizer never really occurred to the owner of the bar, Jamie Brown—until this week, that is, when he found himself debating whether to supplement the elephant with a stuffed donkey. The bar was set to hold a fundraiser for none other than the Great Spoiler, Ralph Nader. "What the hell?" Brown said Sunday morning, apropos of nothing, as he dragged on a Camel and waited for Nader's entourage to arrive. "Just in general, what the hell?"

Brown had sent two emails announcing the event. One said Nader would be coming. The other said this wasn't a joke. The local media had called to ask if the fundraiser was a ploy to sell drinks. Patrons hadn't known what to think. A few days after the email went out, during the bar's "Uptown 20s Jazz and Big Band" night, one drinker had supposed Nader would read from Don Quixote; another wondered of the man: "What did he do? Was it a car dealership?"

"I still think people think it's a joke," Brown said that morning before the Pabst Blue Ribbon clock struck noon. Nader was running late. A small crowd at the bar nursed pint-sized bloody marys. Brown, who sported several days stubble and a severe bed head, excused himself for a moment. "I need a shot, sunglasses, and a pack of cigarettes," he said.

CA Gay Marriage Ban Overturned

| Thu May 15, 2008 3:59 PM EDT

The California Supreme Court overturned a voter-approved ban on gay marriage today in a ruling that will make California the second and largest state to allow gay and lesbian couples join together in matrimony.

On the steps of the courthouse in Sacramento, Stuart Gaffney and his partner John Lewis, among 19 plaintiffs in the case, were ecstatic. "I'm feeling just complete joy," Gaffney said. "Rarely is a legal decision so romantic, but this one means John and I can now be newlyweds after 21 years together."

Gaffney and Lewis were among thousands of couples married by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004 in a move that was immensely popular in San Francisco but inspired a conservative voter backlash across the country that many people blamed for hurting the electoral prospects of Sen. John Kerry. That August a California court annulled the marriages and appeals have been winding though state courts ever since.

Gaffney and Lewis, star plaintiffs in the case, have compared their fight for legal status to that faced by Gaffney's parents, whose marriage in the 1950s was not recognized in Missouri under the state's strict anti-miscegenation law. Gaffney's father was Irish and his mother was Chinese. California's landmark 1948 Perez v. Sharp ruling was nation's first to overturn such laws and had become a key precedent in the gay marriage case. More broadly, the case rested upon the California constitution's promise of individual liberty, due process, and equal protection under the law.

Although the ruling doesn't validate the 2004 marriages performed by Newsom, and conservative groups have vowed to push for another ballot measure to change the California constitution to specifically ban gay marriage, for now, gay and lesbian couples are in the clear to tie the knot. When Gaffney's mother called him today, she immediately asked, "When is your wedding day?"

"We are going to get married as soon as we can because we have waited long enough," Gaffney said. "But we are going to get married with our friends and families." He paused, fighting back tears. "I'm still just sort of floating from it," he said.

The mood was jubilant that afternoon in San Francisco, where city hall had joined the case as a plaintiff. After a triumphant press conference outside the Mayor's office, same-sex couples milled about and embraced beneath the rotunda as the PA system piped in love songs. "We were on complete pins and needles, very pointy pins and needles," said Jennifer Pizer a plaintiffs lawyer on the case. "And then we got the decision and started tearing up.

"For many of us this isn't just an exercise of the law, it's about our lives--whether we're good enough and our love is good enough." Pizer could not immediately say whether she'd now be getting married. "My partner of nearly 24 years has said yes," she added, "but I should probably talk to her first before I talk to anyone else."

The marriage party could be short lived, however. Conservative church groups have already collected 1.1 million signatures in favor of the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. If the state determines that 694,354 of those signatures are valid, the proposed amendment will qualify for the November ballot. Unlike Proposition 22, the gay marriage ban that was overturned today, the new ballot measure would be immune to court challenge. The question is how many among the 63 percent of Californians who'd supported Prop. 22 have changed their views toward gay marriage since the measure passed in 2000. "I think California has come a long, long way since then," Pizer said. "I think it changed a lot of people's minds to see how much it meant to couples to be able to marry in San Francisco."

As coincidence would have it, Robert and Amy McHale, a white and Asian couple from New York, had shown up in the city hall rotunda today in wedding dress and tuxedo, completely unaware that the Supreme Court had just passed down its landmark ruling. They'd come instead to snap wedding photos. As they stood on the granite steps bathed in the strobe of flash bulbs, a lesbian activist approached to congratulate them. "Understand that you are getting married on such a blessed and auspicious day," she said.

Robert McHale's thoughts on gay marriage? "Sure, why not?" he said. "That's fine if that makes people happy. We are all about happiness."


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