2009 - %3, January

The Good and Bad About New York's New Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 10:39 AM EST

kirsten_gillibrand.jpg Now that Caroline Kennedy is no longer part of the deliberations, New York Gov. David Paterson seems ready to name one-term upstate congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand to New York's vacant senate seat. Born in 1966, Gillibrand becomes the youngest United States senator. Eve Fairbanks over at TNR runs down the merits of the pick. Here are the highlights.

The bad:

[Gillibrand] was the only New York Democrat to support the May 2007 war-funding bill; the others voted against it because it did not contain a troop-withdrawal timetable. She also voted for H.R. 6304, the FISA Amendments Act, which extended immunity to telecoms that spied on U.S. citizens at the behest of the Bush administration.
During this year's campaign, she described her voting record as "one of the most conservative in the state" of New York.

The good:

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Ledbetter Act Passes

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 3:09 AM EST

LEDBETTER ACT PASSES....Good news on the pay discrimination front:

The Senate approved landmark worker rights legislation on Thursday that will make it easier for those who think they've endured pay discrimination to seek legal help. The vote was 61-36.

....The legislation overrides a May 2007 Supreme Court ruling that [Lilly] Ledbetter, a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company employee in Gadsden, Ala., couldn't sue her employer for pay discrimination because she didn't file suit within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act.

McClatchy, naturally, doesn't bother to tell its readers the party breakdown of the vote, but it's actually an interesting one: all 56 voting Democrats supported the bill, and five Republicans joined in. Which ones? Arlen Specter plus all four of the women in the GOP caucus. Imagine that.

A Day at the Office

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 10:44 PM EST

A DAY AT THE OFFICE....When I read that Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain had spent $1.2 million redecorating his office, my first thought wasn't, "What a moron." (That was second.) It was, "How can you spend that much on one room? Solid gold wall sconces? Ashtrays carved out of moon rocks? What?" Luckily for me, Charlie Gasparino has the answer:

The biggest piece of the spending spree: $800,000 to hire famed celebrity designer Michael Smith, who is currently redesigning the White House for the Obama family for just $100,000.

The other big ticket items Thain purchased include: $87,000 for an area rug in Thain's conference room and another area rug for $44,000; a "mahogany pedestal table" for $25,000; a "19th Century Credenza" in Thain's office for $68,000; a sofa for $15,000; four pairs of curtains for $28,000; a pair of guest chairs for $87,000; a "George IV Desk" for $18,000; six wall sconces for $2,700; six chairs in his private dining room for $37,000; a mirror in his private dining room for $5,000; a chandelier in the private dining room for $13,000; fabric for a "Roman Shade" for $11,000; a "custom coffee table" for $16,000; something called a "commode on legs" for $35,000; a "Regency Chairs" for $24,000; "40 yards of fabric for wall panels," for $5,000 and a "parchment waste can" for $1,400.

Impressive! But it doesn't add up to $1.2 million. It adds up to $1.3 million just for these 19 items alone, and there were probably plenty of smaller ticket nicknacks too. Plus labor — unless that's included in Smith's fee. Probably not, I suppose, which means this monument to American capitalism must have run at least a couple million bucks. The Sun King would have been proud.

And my third question? That's easy: "Who leaked this?" Most probable answer: BofA chief Ken Lewis, the guy who fired Thain, in an effort to keep attention focused on his scapegoat of the hour. Good luck with that, Ken.

TV on the Radio, M.I.A. Top Village Voice 2008 Critics' Poll

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 9:44 PM EST
There were few surprises in this year's Pazz & Jop, the Village Voice poll that almost inevitably seems to come up with the most reliably accurate rundown of the previous year in music. TV on the Radio ran away with the album honors, with Dear Science earning 1754 points in the poll, way ahead of runner-up Vampire Weekend's 1075 and close third Portishead's, er, Third, with 1058. M.I.A. was able to take the top spot on the singles list despite the fact that "Paper Planes" came out in 2007—in fact, the poll includes 2007 votes, which propelled M.I.A. past Estelle's "American Boy" at #2 and Beyonce's "Single Ladies" at #3. Cheaters, but I'll allow it since I don't want Estelle to be #1. Accompanying essays include noted Party Ben opponent Rob Harvilla's musings on how M.I.A. captured our collective imaginations, and a more serious look at TV on the Radio from Andy Beta, who hesitantly posits that the multiracial New York combo's success may parallel our new president's.

Top 10s after the jump.

ALBUMS
1. TV On The Radio - Dear Science
2. Vampire Weekend - S/T
3. Portishead - Third
4. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Vol. 1: Fourth World War
5. Fleet Foxes - S/T
6. Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III
7. Santogold - S/T
8. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
9. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
10. Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak

SINGLES
1. M.I.A., "Paper Planes"
2. Estelle feat. Kanye West, "American Boy"
3. Beyoncé "Single Ladies"
4. MGMT, "Time To Pretend"
5. Lil Wayne, "A Milli"
6. Santogold, "L.E.S. Artistes"
7. Hercules & Love Affair, "Blind"
8. Coldplay, "Viva La Vida"
9. Kanye West, "Love Lockdown"
10. Fleet Foxes, "White Winter Hymnal"

Cheney Speaks

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 9:28 PM EST

CHENEY SPEAKS....Via Jonathan Stein, it looks like Dick Cheney has wasted no time in turning on his former boss:

Asked for his reaction to Bush's decision Cheney said: "Scooter Libby is one of the most capable and honorable men I've ever known. He's been an outstanding public servant throughout his career. He was the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice, and I strongly believe that he deserved a presidential pardon. Obviously, I disagree with President Bush's decision."

Bush's decision not to pardon Libby has angered many of the president's strongest defenders. One Libby sympathizer, a longtime defender of Bush, told friends she was "disgusted" by the president. Another described Bush as "dishonorable" and a third suggested that refusing to pardon Libby was akin to leaving a soldier on the battlefield.

Ah, I love the smell of napalm in the morning. How about you?

Obama and the Media

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 9:07 PM EST

OBAMA AND THE MEDIA....Via Mark Schmitt, John McQuaid offers this take on Barack Obama's view of the media:

Like Bush, Obama appears to view the media agenda in fundamental conflict with his own. But now, the perceived difference isn't ideological. It's programmatic. Obama (correctly, I think) sees the press representing two things that are clear obstacles to his ambitious plans: official Washington and a trivia-obsessed media culture.

First, the official Washington view [....]

Second, the media culture: The cable maw must be fed with transient panics. Feeding frenzies and micro-scandals dominate. They fuel the chat shows, opinion columns and blogs. These faux crises and dramas, which usually pass with little consequence, can knock a presidential agenda off-stride or even destroy it.

The official Washington view McQuaid talks about is the Broderesque centrism that dominates A-list punditry. This gets a ton of attention in the blogosphere, but I elided that passage because it strikes me as the less important of the two things McQuaid talks about. After all, there always has been and always will be a mainstream pull in any political culture, and I frankly doubt that Obama sees this as something worth banging his head against. It's like fighting the tide.

The trivia-obsessed culture of the contemporary media, however, is a different story. This is the kind of thing that Bob Somerby spends most of his time railing against, and it strikes me as much the more important of the two — partly because it's more corrosive and partly because it's not as inevitable. Gossip and chatter have always been part of politics, of course, but over the past decade or two, at the same time that gossip has practically taken over political journalism, it's gotten so inane that it's hard to tell where Access Hollywood ends and Hardball begins. It's nearly impossible to turn on a talk show on any of the cable nets these days and hear anything that's even remotely enlightening.

And I'll bet McQuaid is right: it probably bugs the hell out of a guy like Obama who takes politics and policy seriously. When he said in his inaugural address that "the time has come to set aside childish things," I wouldn't be surprised if he was addressing the media directly.

So how does he work to change things? McQuaid warns that tightly controlling media access the way George Bush did isn't the answer, and I agree. Instead, I'd say that he should send a consistent message about the value of serious journalism by providing the best access to the most serious journalists. Not the ones who are the most famous, or have the biggest audiences, or who agree with him the most often, but the ones who have written or aired the sharpest, liveliest, most substantive, most penetrating critiques of what he and his administration are doing. He should spar with them, he should engage with them, he should take their ideas seriously. Eventually, others will start to get the message: if you want to get presidential attention, you need to say something smart. It's too late to for this to have any effect on media buffoons like Maureen Dowd or Chris Matthews, but you never know. It might encourage a few of the others to grow up. It's worth a try, anyway.

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Norm Coleman's Heart Isn't Into His Legal Challenges

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 6:24 PM EST

He's disputing Al Franken's victory in Minnesota, but here's a pretty good sign he's just going through the motions: he's taken another job.

Just swear in Senator Al, already!

One Wonders if These Men Will Be Friends....

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 6:15 PM EST

Dick Cheney is ticked at former president Bush for not pardoning Scooter Libby, who was Cheney's right-hand man for many years. He tells the Weekly Standard:

"Scooter Libby is one of the most capable and honorable men I've ever known. He's been an outstanding public servant throughout his career. He was the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice, and I strongly believe that he deserved a presidential pardon. Obviously, I disagree with President Bush's decision."

Cheney was marginalized on a number of topics late in the Bush years. They may not have been friendly for some time...

Obama "Slams Tight" Door on Bush-Era Detention, Interrogation Practices

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 4:21 PM EST

1gitmo-graffiti-250x200.jpg

In the Oval Office, surrounded by military officers and with Vice President Biden at his side, President Obama this morning signed several executive orders effectively reversing some of the most controversial Bush administration policies propagated during its "war on terrorism." (Even that well-worn phrase was absent from the executive orders and, in a welcome change, has yet to be uttered by the new president...though White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs today denied to Mother Jones' Washington Bureau Chief David Corn that the omission reflects an official change in rhetoric.)

Obama signed three executive orders, (1) mandating that Guantanamo be closed within one year; (2) ordering that all interrogations be conducted in accordance with the Army Field Manual, even those conducted by the CIA, which had previously enjoyed greater latitude to pursue "harsh interrogation tactics" during the Bush years; and (3) establishing a special inter-agency task force to "provide me with information in terms of how we are able to deal with the disposition of some of the detainees that may be currently at Guantanamo that we cannot transfer to other countries," Obama said at the signing ceremony. The new president also signed a memorandum asking that the Supreme Court delay proceedings related to detainee Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a legal US resident, until the administration has time to review his case.

Before entering the Oval Office for the signing ceremony, Obama and Biden met in the Roosevelt Room with several retired military leaders, who had advised the administration on how to deal with the contentious issues covered in today's executive orders. Former Army Major General Paul Eaton and retired Navy admirals John Hutson and Lee Gunn spoke in a conference call this afternoon about their encounter with the new president and shared their thoughts on the impact of today's event. They were joined by Elisa Massimino, executive director of Human Rights First, which organized the call.

Has Obama Ended the "War on Terror"?

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 3:50 PM EST

Has President Barack Obama ended the "war on terror"?

On his second day in office, he signed an executive order that would prevent any officer of the US government from engaging in torture. As he placed his name on the order--keeping a prominent campaign promise--he declared that this move "effectively ensures that anyone detained by the United States for now" will be interrogated in a fashion consistent with the Army field manual, which notes that the use of force, threats, or inhumane treatment is prohibited by law. "We can abide by a rule that says we don't torture," Obama maintained. In other words, good-bye to waterboarding.

Obama signed the order in the Oval Office, surrounded by a group of retired generals and flag officers who had advocated a torture ban. It was yet another historic moment in a series of such moments this week. Obama reiterated what he said during his inaugural address: that the United States need not be forced into the false choice between protecting its values and honoring its ideals.

What was intriguing was how Obama characterized the fight against terrorism. He said, "The message we are sending around the world is the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism" vigilantly, effectively, and "in a manner consistent with our values and ideals." Notably, he did not use the term "war on terror." And moments later, he proclaimed, "We intend to win this fight and we're going to win it on our terms." Again, no "war."

Is this a purposeful shift in rhetoric? Has Obama decided to drop the war on terrorism metaphor that the Bush-Cheney administration used extensively?

At Robert Gibbs' first briefing as White House press secretary on Thursday afternoon, I asked if the president had booted the war metaphor. Gibbs replied that Obama had used language that was consistent with his inaugural address. In that speech, Obama had indeed said that "our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." But he did not use the standard "war on terror" phrase. Instead he threw the word "war" against a specific target.

At the press conference, I followed up and inquired if Obama had decided not to deploy that phrase as president. "Not that I'm aware of," Gibbs answered.

De-emphasizing the war metaphor would be a significant change. But if it is a deliberate change, the White House does not want to acknowledge it.

UPDATE: Speaking at the State Department later in the day, Obama characterized the battle against terrorists as a "twilight struggle." But when listing the national security challenges the nation faces, he quickly ran through the line-up: "the war on terror, sectarian division, and the spread of deadly technology." He's obviously not allergic to the term. But it's not the description he reaches for first when he publicly discusses the matter. Not so far in his presidency.