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SXSW Dispatch: 17 Hours in Austin

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 3:30 PM EDT

thurston.jpgAustin during SXSW is a whirlwind of tattoos, cigarette smoke, amplifiers, bratwurst, fliers, long lines, nonstop (loud) music, bad pizza, and a ton of local volunteers who are super friendly but don't often know the answer to your questions. It's chaotic, noisy, and exciting, and it never takes breaks. Here's how my first 17 hours here went:

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A Top Clinton Aide Fights a Blast from the Past

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 2:59 PM EDT

Jamie Rubin called me a few days ago, and he was upset. A top foreign policy aide in the Hillary Clinton campaign and a past assistant secretary of state for public affairs, Rubin believed he had been slimed by the Obama campaign, and he suggested I had been an unwitting party to the sliming.

Here's what happened. Days earlier, the Clinton campaign had held a conference call to blast away at remarks recently made by Samantha Power regarding Senator Barack Obama's Iraq policy. That morning, Power, a talented journalist, academic, and human rights advocate, had resigned as a foreign policy adviser to Obama after a newspaper reported she had called Hillary Clinton a "monster." And during this conference call, Clinton's senior foreign policy aides insisted that Power's comments about Obama and Iraq suggested that Obama was not truly committed to withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. During that call, Rubin, as I wrote afterward, "derided Power as Obama's foreign policy 'Svengali or guru' and claimed her remarks about Iraq were proof that Obama cannot create an efficient and effective foreign policy team, calling the episode 'amateur hour' for the Obama campaign."

Rubin and the Clintonites' interpretation of Power's statements about Obama and Iraq was debatable, and their assault on Power struck some (read: me) as overkill and ugly.

Shortly after that conference call, the Obama campaign circulated a Washington Post clip to reporters that made it seem as if Rubin himself had his own "amateur hour" moment in 2004, when he was working for John Kerry's presidential campaign. The newspaper reported that Rubin had apologized for having misrepresented Kerry's position on Iraq by stating that Kerry would have probably launched a war against Saddam Hussein had Kerry been president in the preceding four years. (The George W. Bush campaign was enthusiastically using Rubin's statement to claim there was not much difference between the two candidates on Iraq.) The Post published a statement from Rubin: "To the extent that my own comments have contributed to misunderstanding on this issue...I never should have said the phrase 'in all probability' because that's not Kerry's position and he's never said it. That was my mistake."

A-ha! the Obama campaign was saying: Rubin's now slamming Power for an action similar to one he committed in 2004. In an article on the get-Power conference call, I reprinted a portion of this Post story.

After reading my piece, Rubin was livid at the Obama gang. Why? Because the Post story was false. Or sort of. At least enough so that it was, in Rubin's view, not fair for the Obama camp to be disseminating it.

Is There Satanic Symbolism in the GOP's Logo?

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 2:00 PM EDT

GOPlogo.jpgDemocrat_logo.jpg

Something's wrong with the Republican logo. The stars are upside down. Five-sided stars that point upwards—like those on the Democratic donkey and the American flag—traditionally symbolize the forces of good. An overturned pentagram, however, represents the goat's head of Satan and the forces of evil—and there are three on the Republicans' elephant.

The GOP's stars weren't always upside down; some say the change occurred around 2000. When I called up the RNC to ask about the logo's history, staffers invariably said, "we'll have to get back to you on that" and never did. "Huh, that's interesting," said one, who clearly hadn't noticed Satan hiding in plain view.

"I have a feeling some neo-pagan democratic designed this logo," wrote a commenter on the conservative web site Free Republic. Besides like-minded rants that the design is a huge slap in the Grand Old Party's face, some online chat-room goers speculated that the inverted stars are linked to secret society symbolism.

In any case, the stars have not only turned for the Republicans: A Hillary Clinton website featured a photo of an American flag with upside down pentagrams at the time of the New Hampshire primary.

—Caroline E. Winter

Petraeus: Iraq "Surge" Not Yielding Political Progress

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 1:18 PM EDT

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When David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, respectively the top U.S. commander and diplomat in Iraq, testified before Congress last September, they effectively defused what at the time were rising Democratic calls for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. The men spent days on the Hill, responding deftly to loaded questions from hostile members of Congress about the progress of the "surge" and whether last year's increase in troop levels was giving way to political reconciliation in Baghdad—the stated of goal of putting more U.S. troops on Iraqi streets. The witnesses did their best to put a positive spin on things, rightly pointing out that, for the moment, violence in Iraq had plunged to levels not seen since shortly after the 2003 invasion. Together, they urged patience in the hope that the decline in killings might soon translate into political progress.

Petraeus is set to testify again next month, and if his recent comments to the Washington Post are any indication, this time he may bring a different message. "No one feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation," the general told reporters during an interview in Baghdad's protected International Zone.

From the Post:

The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has won passage of some legislation that aids the cause of reconciliation, drawing praise from President Bush and his supporters. But the Iraqi government also has deferred action on some of its most important legislative goals, including laws governing the exploitation of Iraq's oil resources, that the Bush administration had identified as necessary benchmarks of progress toward reconciliation.

Would English Be Eleganter Without Feminists?

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 1:15 PM EDT

little_five_points_1458528_l.jpgOver at the Weekly Standard, Yale computer science professor David Gelerntner thinks feminism has no place in the English language:

When students have been ordered since first grade to put "he or she" in spots where "he" would mean exactly the same thing…How can we then tell them, "Make every word, every syllable count!" They may be ignorant but they're not stupid.

He also complains that we're taught to use "'firefighter' where 'fireman' would mean exactly the same thing." I'm willing to concede "waiter" for "waitress," but I simply can't accept that "fireman" is superior to "firefighter." So even though my instincts were telling me that Gelerntner was cloaking sexism in the guise of linguistic purity, I paused to consider whether that "or she" appendage really is dragging us, and the English language, down the wrong path.

McCain's Support for Honest Contracting Costs Jobs

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 12:17 PM EDT

boeing_tanker.jpg The story of how John McCain backed a European-based plane maker named EADS over American-based Boeing for a $35 billion Pentagon contract to make air tankers is swirling around the internet. Additional juice for the story comes from the fact that McCain was richly rewarded by EADS for his actions in the form of campaign contributions, and the fact that a handful of McCain campaign staffers are current or former EADS lobbyists ("They never lobbied him related to the issues," said a spokesperson).

The appearance of favoritism obviously isn't good for the man who made his career crusading against Washington's politics as usual. But let's focus for a second on the fact that McCain sent $35 billion overseas while the American economy is struggling and jobs are in short supply.

If McCain feels that the federal government should select the bidder who offers the best product at the best value (and shun the bidder who just four or five years ago tried to game the federal government out of billions of dollars, as Boeing did), I understand that. In fact, I think I agree with it. The federal government spends wisely and though an American company didn't get the gig, its failure this time around will urge it to become more competitive in the future. And the whole thing certainly beats the no-bid contracts that have become so common during the Bush Administration.

But McCain has to be honest about the fact that his decision to push business to EADS instead of Boeing comes at a price here at home. At a campaign stop in early March, McCain said of the deal, "I think the bulk of that manufacturing and those jobs will be here in the United States of America." He wasn't being straightforward with his listeners. According to a Business Week analysis done by speaking to EADS and Boeing about their proposals, the Boeing contract would have created 17,000 more domestic jobs. And though the EADS contract does create some jobs in America, it does so in 2010 and later, as opposed to immediate job creation under Boeing.

Here's a comparison:

EADS Boeing
Jobs Created or Supported in U.S. Roughly 27,000 44,000
Locations Mobile, AL 300 suppliers in 40 states
When In U.S. starting in 2010 or 2011; starting immediately in France Starting immediately in U.S.

In the Democratic race, this is the sort of thing that would get a candidate killed in Ohio or Pennsylvania, where America's industrial infrastructure is rusting to the screws. But McCain is coasting along uncontested while the Democrats beat on each other, meaning that stories like this one don't get noticed. But McCain better hope that there aren't other examples like this that pop up in September and October, or Bush's failing economy, which is already a burden to McCain's electoral chances, will haunt him further.

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SXSW Dispatch: Why Lou Reed Hates Mp3s

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 11:30 AM EDT
reed.jpgLou Reed reminds me a little bit of my grandmother. He's old, he's got bad posture and a New York accent, and he's a little pessimistic. But if you stick around long enough, he'll offer up some keen insight and make you laugh.

The rock singer-songwriter/guitarist, during a SXSW keynote speech at Austin's convention center Thursday, told a packed house that his favorite movie is The Bourne Ultimatum. Why? Because of the fight scenes.

Aggression seems to be a recurring theme for Reed. "Punk is aggressive, steel, street, action. All that young guy stuff," he said. "Where else is it gonna go? It's [music] or jail." He later became more self-reflective about his attitude and his music, adding, "I have a B.A. in dope. And a PhD in soul."

John McCain Vote Skipping Leads to Laughable Hypocrisy

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 11:29 AM EDT

Everyone knows that John McCain skips more votes in the Senate than just about anyone, once going five straight weeks without voting.

The media doesn't make that big of a deal out of McCain's habit of skipping out on his day job, but this newest development can't be ignored. McCain went before a Philadelphia town hall today and called for action on law enforcement, worker education, and VA health care. But just yesterday he missed votes in the Senate that remedied problems in these three areas. See the details, after the jump:

President Bush Tells EPA How to Do Its Job; Clean Air Suffers

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 10:56 AM EDT

From the Washington Post:

The Environmental Protection Agency weakened one part of its new limits on smog-forming ozone after an unusual last-minute intervention by President Bush, according to documents released by the EPA.
EPA officials initially tried to set a lower seasonal limit on ozone to protect wildlife, parks and farmland, as required under the law. While their proposal was less restrictive than what the EPA's scientific advisers had proposed, Bush overruled EPA officials and on Tuesday ordered the agency to increase the limit, according to the documents.
"It is unprecedented and an unlawful act of political interference for the president personally to override a decision that the Clean Air Act leaves exclusively to EPA's expert scientific judgment," said John Walke, clean-air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The president's order prompted a scramble by administration officials to rewrite the regulations to avoid a conflict with past EPA statements on the harm caused by ozone.

The Post adds, "the rules that the EPA issued Wednesday will help determine the nation's air quality for at least a decade."

More Bad News For Bush's Judicial Nominee

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 10:53 AM EDT

What with his deep connections to Dick Cheney and the endorsement of lots of home-state Republicans, Gus Puryear IV should have been a shoe-in for his nomination to a federal trial court in Tennessee. But not only has Puryear run into trouble over his membership in an exclusive country club, but this week, Time magazine and the Tennessean have both published critical stories about him alleging that he abused the attorney-client privilege to prevent the release of damaging information about his employer, the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison company.

A former CCA employee has written to the Senate Judiciary Committee outlining his allegations that Puryear tried to prevent employees from giving other government entities the full details about prison riots, unexplained deaths and other negative events to which they were entitled, for fear that the information could be used in lawsuits or that it might threaten the company's government contracts. If true, it's not a pretty picture, and it might be damaging enough to make Puryear one of the rare trial court nominees to face a bona fide confirmation fight.