ellie_NMA.jpg You see that shiny elephant sculpture to the right? That's the National Magazine Award we won for General Excellence tonight (100,000 to 250,000 circulation). These pointy beauties, otherwise known as Ellies, are awarded annually in New York by the American Society of Magazine Editors. They're basically the Oscars of the magazine world. Winning General Excellence? That's like winning Best Picture.

(Check out this year's National Magazine Award-winning issues here, here, and here.)

Congratulations to all the nominees in our category: Foreign Policy, Paste, Garden & Gun, and Martha Stewart Weddings

View the full list of ASME winners and nominees here.

UPDATE: This, of course, just proves that reader-supported journalism really works. We hope you enjoy your Ellie!

Fiore Cartoon: Born to Lose

Wall Street barons have made a fortune off an unconventional strategy: blowing it. In the cartoon below, watch satirist Mark Fiore tell the inspirational American tale of winning...by losing.

Proof positive that racial justice, of a sort, can be crowdsourced: A few days ago, someone posted this photo of a rolling Inner America sterotype on the Internet, and Gawker picked it up. Apparently, a patriotic Confederate—as evidenced by his love for the stars and bars—wanted everybody behind him to know how much he hates Muslims while driving past the Philip Morris plant south of Richmond on I-95. "EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ISLAM I LEARNED ON 9/11," his slick tailgate decal reads, in block letters superimposed over explosions at the World Trade Centers, which must have been oh, such a personal blow to this south-of-the-Mason-Dixon waterdrinker.

But then the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) took a look at the photo and noticed Jebediah Q. Public's license plate: Turns out it's laden with white supremacist code. The "88" you might know: That's a popular way among yahoos of subtly saying "Heil Hitler," since "H" is the 8th letter of the alphabet. (Apologies to all you well-intending NASCAR fans of Jarrett, Junior and Geoff.) The "CV" means "confederate veteran", which is consistent with the plate's tiny confederate battle flag denoting the licensee as a Sons of Confederate Veterans member. Best of all, though, is the lesser-known "14," which is a reference to the "14 Words," a white supremacist manifesto first coined by The Order member David Lane: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." Turns out the driver of this mystery machine isn't just a racist lunatic; he's a joiner.

The already-bitter Pennsylvania Senate Democratic primary between Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak may be about to turn into an all-out brawl. First, Specter's campaign launched a negative TV ad describing Sestak as "relieved of duty in the Navy for creating a poor command climate." Then, Sestak accused Specter, who switched parties last year, of "Swiftboating" him, referring to the attacks that tanked John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. Now, Sestak is trying to drag Vice President Joe Biden into this dust-up. In a letter to the vice president, Sestak calls on Biden to make good on his September 2008 declaration that if anyone tried to Swiftboat another Democrat, "I'm going to smack 'em right square in the chops." 

Today, I am calling on you to fulfill that promise...

After the shameful political attacks we saw carried out, with unfortunate effect, against Veterans Senator John Kerry and Senator Max Cleland, you know we cannot allow even tacit approval of these tactics—not in our party, not in our country.

I understand that Arlen Specter is your longtime colleague and close personal friend, but I call on you to disavow these lies and demand that they be stopped immediately.

The Specter ad draws on a Navy Times story that states Sestak "had been sacked in 2005 by the incoming chief of naval operations, Adm. Mike Mullen, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for treating staff poorly." Sestak was reassigned to a lower position and then retired from the Navy the next year. The Navy has never officially commented on the issue. But this isn't the first time that Sestak's Navy record has served as political ammunition: in his first 2006 House race, his opponent also called it into question. 

Specter's characterization of Sestak's military experience is hardly as extreme as the allegations that Kerry had falsified his accomplishments during his service in Vietnam. But this latest kerfuffle signals that the battle between Specter and Sestak is only going to get more acrimonious—whether or not the vice president smacks anyone in the chops.

Earlier this month, an employee for the California-based US Dry Cleaning Corporation admitted in an interview that the company had funneled campaign donations through its employees to the campaign of Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). The company was angling for federal stimulus funds to help their ailing business, and allegedly reimbursed four employees for donations totaling $38,400 to Vitter's campaign committee. This, of course, would be illegal.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against US Dry Cleaning Corporation, Vitter, and his campaign committee. FEC rules prohibit corporations from making donations to federal candidates, and they also bar them from funneling money through their employees. And candidates are prohibited from accepting these illegal contributions. CREW wants the FEC to investigate "whether Sen. Vitter knowingly participated in this illegal scheme."

Why a California dry cleaning business would choose Vitter as its champion isn't entirely clear. He voted against the stimulus, so it's not clear how much he could have helped US Dry Cleaning, which filed for federal bankruptcy last month. The Times-Picayune notes that some dry cleaners are urging the Environmental Protection Agency to slow down rules phasing out the chemical perchloroethylene, which could have something to do with it. Vitter is a big foe of EPA regulations and an ardent supporter of the chemical industry, which is big in his state. This wouldn't be the first time he's gone to bat for toxic chemicals.


A US Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter provides aerial security while Iraqi army soldiers conduct an air assault operation in Taji, Iraq, on March 29, 2010. Photo via the US Army.

Last night, I was chatting with a senior White House aide—a fellow with a, shall we say, elite background—about how easy it should be for President Barack Obama and the Democrats to win the message war on Wall Street reform against Republicans in league with Big Finance. "We're gonna win this one," he exclaimed. "We've got them, we've really got them." But, I noted, Obama still had to play tough with the GOPers and the Wall Streeters—and do so consistently, in order to depict for the American public a clear narrative: we're on your side, and the GOPers are in bed with the banks. This aide noted that, given his own pedigree, he himself could not convincingly play the populist on cable TV. He did acknowledge that the White House had to signal repeatedly that it was willing to pound Wall Streeters and their allies on Capitol Hill.

Yet the White House has gone back and forth in terms of how tough to play the populist card. Some days, Obama says he's as angry as other Americans with the financial schemers; other days, he meets with banking leaders at the White House and holds polite chats with them. This internal tug-of-war between confrontation and cooption was reflected in an exchange between press secretary Robert Gibbs and a reporter that occurred at Thursday's White House daily press briefing:

Q: Robert, on that point about the President going to Wall Street, what we can expect in terms of his tone?  Various times he’s said if they want to fight, I’m ready for a fight.  He’s called bankers “fat cats.”  But other times he’s said there needs to be a balance and you need to not hurt private enterprise, basically, and he’d be careful.

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, I mean, look, the President -- I don’t think that -- I don’t think calling out obscene bonuses but also saying that we don’t want to overly or unduly burden private enterprise and American business from operating -- I think, quite frankly, financial reform -- I think that is quite complementary to financial reform.  I think there are a number of people, not the least of which are hundreds of millions of Americans who have played by the rules, even as the economy has collapsed around them.

So I think that the President will -- I mean, you’ve heard the President over the past not only couple weeks but over the last few years discuss the notion that the reason why we have to have strong rules in place, that those rules are for the benefit of the American people; that we are not incentivizing a set of risky decisions where banks reap all of the reward yet none of the responsibility for the decisions that they make.

But the President is a strong believer that our financial system is part of a larger system of commerce that we all treasure.  We just have to have rules in the road -- rules for the road in place so that we don’t find ourselves at the mercy of a series of risky decisions as we have in the past.

It's not easy being a populist if you don't want to offend.

Could Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.), a senior figure and power player in the GOP, be the 60th vote Democrats need to pass comprehensive financial reform? That's what today's passage of a sprawling piece of legislation from Senate agriculture committee overhauling derivatives, the complex financial products at the heart of the financial crisis, seems to suggest. A party-line split in the ag committee was expected, but Grassley surprised some by casting the lone GOP vote, bringing the tally to 13 to 8. The vote came as a surprise, and Grassley's support could embolden Democrats as they push for passage of their full finance bill, which could land on the Senate floor as early as Monday.

After the vote, Grassley waved off any suggestion that his derivatives vote will translate into support for the broader bill. "The derivatives piece is significant," Grassley was quoted as saying today, "but that larger bill has a number of flaws that need to be resolved before I'd support it." Of course Grassley would say that. The Iowa senator's vote today was enough of a rebuke to his peers—namely, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the agriculture committee's ranking member, whose amendment to roll back crucial parts of the bill was defeated on a party-line vote—that Grassley wasn't going to rub any more salt in the wound afterward.

Still, his defection is a significant crack in the GOP's opposition to financial reform, a subject almost entirely led by Democrats like Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Jack Reed (D-RI), and others. It wouldn't be surprising to see Democrats pounce on Grassley's vote as leverage against Senate Republicans and as a way of drumming up a few more Republican votes when the full Senate votes on financial reform in the coming weeks.

Apart from Grassley, today's vote on derivatives marked a major victory for pro-reform lawmakers and advocates. The bill passed by the agriculture committee would force derivatives to be traded on exchanges, like stocks are now on the New York Stock Exchange. Derivatives trades would also be processed through what's called a clearinghouse, where parties involved in that transaction put up collateral for each deal and where the clearinghouse guarantees the trades and lessens the huge amounts of risk in the currently opaque, unregulated over-the-counter market. In a bold statement, the bill also calls for banks to break out their derivatives trading desks into separate operations, eliminating the chance of imploding swaps deals from dragging down an entire firm. And while the bill allows for a few exemptions—a narrow slice of derivatives users like farmers, utility companies, and manufacturers wouldn't have clearing or trading requirements—the bill is seen as a very tough piece of legislation. "Under Chairman Lincoln's strong leadership, the Senate Agriculture Committee voted out a bipartisan bill that will bring derivatives trading out of the dark, provide strong oversight of market participants, and combat fraud, abuse and manipulation," Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said in a statement after the vote.

On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) went on the O'Reilly Factor to talk about Arizona's controversial new immigration law. The Huffington Post has a story on one thing McCain said:

When asked by host Bill O'Reilly if he was comfortable with the possibility of racial profiling, McCain said he wold be "very sorry" if it happened, but suggested it's justified because of "the people whose homes and property are being violated. It's the drive-by that—the drivers of cars with illegals in it that are intentionally causing accidents on the freeway."

McCain added: "Look, our border is not secured. Our citizens are not safe." But the Arizona senator did not provide any additional details to back up his assertion about cars carrying illegal immigrants "intentionally causing accidents."

So what was he talking about? While McCain often says odd things—"I never considered myself a maverick"—the claim that illegal immigrants are "intentionally causing accidents on the freeway" is an awfully weird thing to just make up. My theory is that McCain was referring to the "swoop and squat," a form of insurance fraud that involves intentionally causing freeway accidents. Mother Jones was among the first outlets to report on the scheme, back in 1993

Over the past year, the accident has become known to insurance investigators and law enforcement officials as far away as Texas, Georgia, Illinois, Florida, and New York. The incident that took place on Golden State Freeway June 17, 1992, has brought to public attention the existence of organized crime rings that stage "swoop-and-squat" accidents, in which poor immigrants (or others in need of quick cash) are paid to place their bodies in the paths of cars and trucks, playing a kind of Russian roulette with their lives and those of unsuspecting motorists around them.

The original article, by Ashley Craddock and Mordecai Lawrence, has a lot more detail (and color) on the scheme. But it's clear that stories of "swoop and squat" are still circulating in the media. There was a Los Angeles Times report on the scheme in March 2006. I haven't personally seen any chain emails about the phenomonon, but I'll bet they exist—and that they make it out to be much more common than it is. So was McCain trying to make a reference to "swoop and squat"? I've asked his office. I'll update if I hear back. 

UPDATE: I was wrong. McCain was talking about something even more obscure. HuffPo:

In an email to the Huffington Post, Brooke Buchanan, a spokesperson for the Senator relayed that McCain "was referring to a story Pinal County Sheriff Babeu told" at a press conference on Monday.

In that story, Babeu said that there had been "numerous officers that have been killed by illegal immigrants in Arizona" and that "in just one patrol area, we've had 64 pursuits—failure to yield for an officer—in one month."

 More here.

Arizona's Republican lawmakers seem bent on turning their state into ground zero for the right-wing fringe: the same day that the state GOP pushed through a radical bill that would require police to interrogate anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant, the Arizona House embraced the "birther" conspiracy about President Barack Obama. On Monday, the state's House voted for a provision that would require Obama to show his birth certificate to order to be included on the state's ballot in the presidential election.

But the birther bill could potentially backfire against the Arizona GOP if the public comes to believe that such wacked-out extremism drives their entire agenda. While the Arizona GOP has yet to explicitly link its birther bill with the anti-immigrant drive, it seems clear that both initiatives spring from the same desire to play to the right-wing base. The same GOP leaders are behind both proposals, after all: Arizona Republicans passed its anti-immigration bill almost entirely along party lines, and three-quarters of the state's GOP caucus supports the birther measure.

But as Dave Weigel notes, birther bill won’t radically empower a nation of conspiracy theorists; they’ll simply embarrass the legislators who’ve endorsed the measure by making them "the laughingstock of the nation," as one Arizona Democrat puts it. Both the birther and anti-immigrant bills are forms of reactionary hysteria, but the anti-immigration legislation could actually cause substantive harm to Arizona residents. And the more these two campaigns are linked, the better.