Because the rest of the world seems to be slowly going to hell (quickly, in the case of Osama Bin Laden), we've been a little slow to jump on the latest reports out of the Mississippi Valley. But the news, per Good, is pretty bad: The Mississippi River is expected to exceed its highest water level in nearly a century, and has already forced thousands of residents to head for higher ground. At the epicenter of this disaster is the embattled city of Cairo, Illinois (as in Care-o or Kay-ro), which sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and is ringed on all sides by protective levees. The river's height outside Cairo is at 61 feet, which is totally nuts, and the town has been evacuated.
To alleviate some of the pressure and save Cairo from being washed out, the Army Corps of Engineers decided the best course of action was to blast a hole in a levee further downstream in Missouri, which would leave 130,000 acres of farmland underwater. After a failed legal challenge by Missouri, the Corps blasted the levee last night, reducing the water level at Cairo by a foot. But that plan of action has, unsurprisingly, stirred some strong feelings. Here's what Missouri State Rep. Steve Tilley, the Republican Speaker of the House, had to say last week:
When Tilley was asked Tuesday whether he would rather see Cairo or the farmland underwater, he told reporters, "Cairo. I've been there, trust me. Cairo."
"Have you been to Cairo?" he added. "OK, then you know what I'm saying then."
Unless you've been to Cairo, you probably don't really know what Tilley is saying, but basically it's this: The place is a mess. Since the 1920s, Cairo's population has shrunk from nearly 20,000 to under 3,000. Just inside the Ohio-side floodwall, its historic commerical drag is entirely empty and most of the buildings are burnt-out. Tilley would be a pretty lousy representative if he didn't stand up for his constituents' property, but there's a lot more to it than that: The debate over what to do about Cairo is colored by the way Cairo's neighbors view the place—and those views are colored by the city's traumatic history.
Ret. Sgt. Evan Cole enlisted the Army when he was a 17-year-old Michigan high school student in 2001. He got out of Walter Reed Naval Hospital three months ago. He has a six-inch scar on his right leg to go with injuries to his hand and his head from his tour in Ramadi. He made up his mind to join the army after the watched the Twin Towers fall in his geography class. Cole was one of thousands of revelers who gathered in front of the White House late last night and stayed well into the early hours of the morning to celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden.
"In the last few years, it seemed like nobody even cared, like what we did over there in Iraq; nobody even talks about it anymore. It is so amazing to see so many people out here wearing red, white, and blue," Cole said. "See, that's what we were over there for—it's these people!"
Jena Passut, a writer at a trade publication in Fairfax, Virginia, was in tears when I talked to her. She had just met a man whose son had died in combat. "I really thought we would get Bin Laden but wouldn't see the body. They would just announce it." Her friend, Erin Dallas, echoed the thoughts of many in attendance: "Part of me thinks it's wrong that we're celebrating that somebody was killed, but we're celebrating because it's a relief."
The first Republican primary debate is scheduled for next Thursday in Greenville, South Carolina, and none of the cool kids are going to be there. Newt Gingrich says he's not ready, and if Newt's not going, Mitt Romney isn't, either. Mike Huckabee might not even run; Haley Barbour isn't running; Mitch Daniels needs more time; Jon Huntsman is still in China. The only serious contender who has pledged to attend the debate so far is former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who, Politico reports, is now trying to get his fellow heavyweights on board through passive-aggressive statements:
"My Presidential exploratory committee will file the necessary papers and fees with the South Carolina Secretary of State next Tuesday because it's important that Republicans show up now, talk about their records, and begin the debate on how best we can defeat this President," Pawlenty said, not mentioning any rivals by name.
But Pawlenty won't be the only GOP candidate on the stage in Greenville. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) says he'll be there. Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain might be there, too. Same goes for former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer. (Things aren't looking good for Fred Karger, though.) That's not a very glamorous ensemble. But it could make for an interseting night.
Those candidates represent three distinct, occasionally disagreeable aspects of the Republican party. Roemer is a former Democrat who has based his candidacy in large part on the need to end subsidies for the energy industry—including not just ethanol, but oil and gas too. Cain has used his platform to push the most extreme anti-Islam message of any of the candidates, at times going so far as to promise not to hire any Muslims in his administration. You know where Paul stands—anti-war, anti-Fed, pro-pot, pro-gold.
None of them will win the Republican nomination, but they stand a very good chance of saying something that will force Pawlenty to take a stand on something he'd rather avoid. What does he think about billion-dollar handouts to oil companies? How far is he willing to take his new anti-Sharia schtick? If nothing else, we'll be spared the usual monotony—some awkward one-liners, a few canned barbs, and a whole lot of forced references to Ronald Reagan.
We've done a fair bit of reporting now on the push, in Tennessee and other states, to essentially criminalize certain aspects of the Islamic faith. Two dozen states have now considered proposals to block judges from forcing Islamic Sharia law on God-fearing citizens, but no proposal is more extreme than Tennessee's. As originally written, the bill classified Islamic law as treasonous, and made material support for Islam (a loosely defined phrasing that could have potentially applied to charitable donations to mosques) a felony.
It's since been modified, and its supporters say it doesn't specifically target Islam. Well, except for the parts that do target Islam. Last week, the Tennessean published a few excerpts from a fascinating exchange between Aaron Nuell, a teacher in Murfreesboro, and GOP State Rep. Rick Womick, an avid supporter of the legislation. In an email to Nuell, Womick consistently refers to Muslims as "them," and openly wonders whether Muslims who opposed the legislation are genuinely opposed to terrorism. I contacted Nuell to see if he could send the full correspondence and he obliged. (Read it below the fold.)
This morning, in an attempt to end, once-and-for-all, the right-wing conspiracy that he is not eligible for office, President Barack Obama released his long-form birth certificate from the state of Hawaii. "The President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn't good for the country," the White House said in a statement.
But those distractions won't be going away anytime soon. I just got off the phone with Texas GOP State Rep. Leo Berman, sponsor of his state's birther bill, and a vocal proponent of the idea that the President was not born in this country. Berman, who has explained previously that he gets much of his news via "YouTubes," was not aware of the White House's release when I called him up, but his initial reaction more or less set the tone: "I wonder why it took them almost two years to release that? That seems kind of strange."
I sent Berman the White House's statement and a copy of the certificate, and after a few minutes he called back ready to talk. "If this is the true birth certificate, I'm very happy to finally see it," he said. But today's news didn't answer his lingering doubts; if anything, it raised even more questions. Berman was comparing the White House release with another birth certificate he said was from Mombasa, Kenya. "There are two hospitals [in Honolulu] at the time and neither hospital will claim him," Berman said. "Today, if you have a hospital where the president was born they'd probably take the room where he was born and make a shrine out of it." Plus, the Kenyan certificate just seemed more compelling: "When I look at the one from Kenya, there is a British lord who is the clerk for registering all births in Kenya at that time." He added, "The one from Mombasa even has a footprint on it. Like a human footprint."