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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Obama's beach reads - not so trashy

The Obamas are on Martha's Vineyard - summer camp for the rich and famous - and spokesman Bill Burton earlier today gave reporters the list of books Obama brought along to read during the week.

We'll skip right past the blatant omission of Blood Passion - we can be adult about this - and look at the list itself:

- Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded
- David McCullough's John Adams
- Richard Price's Lush Life
- Kent Haruf's Plain Song
- George Pelecanos's The Way Home

Pretty ambitious. CNN counted it up: 2,300 pages in all. I bet he skips some parts. But I'm also heartened to see the range of interests. Though you have to wonder how much of these books he'll actually get through. Let's see, big plans, limited time, something has to give. Where have we heard this before? Read More 
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Presidential primaries: Who should go first?

One of the persistent rubs in presidential campaigns is that two of the nation's smallest and most homogenous states - Iowa and New Hampshire - play such significant roles in the political version of "Survivor": Who gets the major party political nominations for president.

The issue came up again the other day in San Diego, as a Republican committee looked into the party's primary calendar.

There are sound demographic reasons for moving to the head of the line any of several states that more closely reflect the national makeup. But there's more at play in the early states than reflecting diversity. We can learn how different candidates appeal to different slices of the electorate through polling (nonbinding, I know).

But Iowa and New Hampshire force the candidates through trial by fire. To win or do well in Iowa, a caucus state, a candidate has to be able to build a machine to woo supporters, and then get them to attend the evening caucus meetings. It is a test of a candidate's ability to build and run an organization - or at least hire the right people to make it work. So the Iowa caucuses vet the candidates on their ability to manage.

In New Hampshire, a primary state, the candidates get an intense round of media scrutiny. The state's proximity to Boston and New York draws exponentially more media, it seems, than in Iowa - or maybe it just feels more concentrated because of the small geographic size of New Hampshire. Still, the media scrums are intense, the questions rapid-fire and the cynicism turned on high. Some have melted under the pressure - a good thing to know at the beginning of a campaign, rather than at the end.

Together, Iowa and new Hampshire force candidates through microcosms of the two main aspects of being president - the ability to lead a team, and the ability to handle the media heat.

Leave Iowa and New Hampshire to their traditions. They serve a solid purpose. Read More 
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Oops -- military flack seems to admit abuses at Gitmo

The Washington Post had a piece over the weekend about a male Navy flack dealing with Guantanamo Bay complaining to the Miami Herald that its female reporter covering Gitmo had subjected him to sexual harassment through rude comments.

Sexual harassment, like racial harassment, sometimes lies in the eyes of the victim, so I'm willing to give the flack room to make his case. But buried in the Post story is this quote from the flack, Commander Jeffrey Gordon:

"Her behavior has been so atrocious over the years," Gordon said in an interview. "I've been abused worse than the detainees have been abused."

"Worse than the detainess have been abused." That rings like a hell of an admission by a military spokesman that the military ha been abusing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Read More 
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Barreling through the mine field

UPDATE: The ,a href="""target=_blank">911 tapes indicate the neighbor who called might not have been a neighbor, just a passerby ho had been hailed by another woman, and that she didn't delve into the race of the men at the door until pressed. The more we know, the murkier it gets.

The Henry Louis Gates, Jr.-Cambridge PD showdown caught my eye when it first cropped up -- Facebook friends might remember I posted it there -- and I planned to just ignore it afterward. But that's proven impossible, since you can't escape it. And that echo effect is what has been preying on my mind.

The back story: Gates returned to his rented home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He was with a male friend -- both of them black. He had trouble entering his own front door, so used his shoulder to force it, an action that caught the eye of a neighbor (I think she was white based on scene photo when this first broke that I can't find now). She phoned police, reporting a possible break-in.

The first cop to arrive, Sgt. James Crowley, spotted Gates -- whom he didn't know -- standing in the foyer. He identified himself through the front door, said he was investigating a possible break in and asked Gates to step outside. Gates opened the door and said, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?" The discussion deteriorated from there, all of it inside the house (Gates during the encounter eventually provided the cop with ID). Crowley's version of events are in the police report, available in several places on the Internet, including here.

Context is key. I won't pretend to know what it is like to go through life as a black man in America, but the hurdles, prejudices and lifelong encounters are pretty clear. Like all of us, Gates responded to the situation framed by his personal experience and expectations. As, one presumes, did Crowley, augmented by professional training. It seems to me as though he was doing his job fine until this point -- responding to a call, ascertaining whether there was indeed a crime being committed.

Where he stumbled was when, with Gates yelling, he asked the professor to step outside (ostensibly because Crowley couldn't hear his radio in the loud confines of the house). Once outside he told Gates, in essence, to pipe down. And when Gates didn't, he arrested him for creating a public nuisance. Gates wasn't creating a public nuisance until he obeyed the officer's request to step outside. Inside his own home, Gates was committing no public nuisance -- unless his voice really resonates (the charge eventually was dropped).

I won't go into all the political fallout from this -- it's been as much a distraction as whether Miss California hates gays -- including President Obama's decision a couple of hours ago to skin back his defense of Gates (or at least the words he used). But it's frustrating to see it soaking up so much of our attention -- driven in part by asinine media questions. I am dismayed that this caught fire after a reporter raised the issue during a press conference about health care -- why can't my fellow journos stick to a topic, rather than light a political fire that does not need lighting?

Missed in all of this is who exactly may have been guilty of racial profiling. My nominee: The woman who didn't recognize her own neighbor and mistook him for a burglar. Gates over-reacted, the cop appears to have entrapped him (asking him to step outside where his bellowing could be a crime) and now the news cycle is dominated not by efforts to fix a health care system that is helping bankrupt the country, or even over the scope of racial profiling in America, but over whether the president dissed a cop.

Please. Read More 
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A father, a Secret Son and roots of extremism

I'm about half a lifetime behind on my reading, it seems, due primarily to working on The Fear Within, which has me digging into old newspapers and reportage, trial transcripts and memoirs of Communists and anti-Communists, plus doing the freelance stuff (among other time-consumers). So my time for personal reading is pretty narrow.

Which is why I'm so late to the game in writing about my friend Laila Lalami's novel, Secret Son,, which tells the story of Youssef El Meki, raised in a Casablanca slum not knowing that his mother has lied to the world about being widowed. Youssef does indeed have a living father, and how that discovery is made and its impact on Youssef's life propels the book. The key undercurrent: An exploration of how young Muslims can become radicalized.

This is a strong book. Not as good, I don't think, as her collection Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits, which I thought was a remarkable debut. To my eye, Secret Son lacks the scope of the short stories in Hope, a function no doubt of focusing on one main story line as opposed to the intertwined lives of the characters in Hope. But it's still a good read. I recommend you grab both books and read them in succession.

And then wait impatiently for Lalami's third book, whatever and whenever that may be.

Secret Son has been widely, and generally quite positively, reviewed and the New York Times posted the first chapter as kind of a quick peak. Saves you time in the aisle of your favorite (and hopefully independent) bookstore.
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Of fish, farms, elusive water and pricey tomatoes

We're in San Francisco for a few days to give a book talk and signing copies tonight of Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West at the Modern Times Bookstore (and working on a travel piece). On the drive up the 5 -- Interstate 5 for you Easterners -- Margaret and I saw thousands of acres of usually green farmland sitting fallow and marked by hard-to-miss signs.

This is a regional issue pitting the Central Valley farmers against those who want to preserve endangered aquatic species such as the delta smelt in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins. But the regional issue taps into broader national debates over the balance between nature and human development, and it falls within that long arc of human settlement and the myth of the West as the redoubt of rugged individuals taming the land.

The Central Valley is, in essence, a desert. It is also the nation's agricultural heart, due mainly to the federal government's harnessing and diversion of water. Now, with recent years' winter snows and rains in the West running about half of the usual pace, the fight over water is getting close to the "have/have not divide." With a court ruling curtailing the water flow to farmers in favor of preserving natural habitats, the friction point has been hit. Farmers aren't planting crops they can't water and raise, and thus aren't hiring the already obscenely low-paid farm workers to work the crops. The yellow signs, obviously part of a coordinated campaign, seek to link the present with the era of the Okies, and the Dust Bowl that sent them heading West.

The problem is the Dust Bowl arouse in large part from bad agricultural practices based on greed, which ultimately led to the regional agricultural collapse (catalyzed by drought). The difference between then and now is that California's growers rely on water that doesn't exist locally. The diversion of water has allowed the agri-businesses to flourish, much to the benefit of the nation. But now we're seeing the downside of basing such a crucial component of human development -- ready access to food supplies -- in such a tenuous environment.

And that is one of the reasons tomatoes, now in season here, are running $3 a pound at the chin grocery stores. Call it the trickle down of the drought, and of overdevelopment of terrain that can't support it. And get used to it. Water fights are the future. Read More 
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Sanford takes a tango holiday

With the confession from South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford that well, no, he wasn't really hiking the Appalachian Trail, you have to wonder who's left on the Republican presidential bench.

Nevada Sen. John Ensign?

Alaksa Gov. and former veep candidate Sarah Palin?

Louisiana Gov. Bobby JindalRead More 
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So much for a 'post-racial' America

I missed the first part of this story when it rumbled through earlier this month, and only caught up with it when the second yahoo bared a rather disgusting soul.

Absolutely appalling. has a piece (thanks to friend Anthony DeStefanis for the steer) about two state level political figures -- one in South Carolina, the other in Tennessee -- who recently choked on their own racism. One referred to an escaped gorilla as an ancestor of Michele Obama, and the other emailed around -- on an official government account -- a racist cartoon (portraits of the presidents, with Obama as just a set of eyes against a black backdrop).

Both seem to have apologized, but not for being stone racists. The "gorilla" joker apologized to anyone who was offended. The "portraits" moron said she sent it out via the wrong email. Which, by extension, means she didn't see a problem with the inherent racism of the item.

So much for the post-racial America...
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Obama, the polls, and the Left

A new poll out today from the New York Times shows an interesting disconnect that should be worrisome for the Democrats. While President Obama still enjoys high personal approval ratings, the public is losing patience with his prescriptions for fixing the economy and health care.

There also is a general lack of enthusiasm for his approaches to Guantanamo Bay, and his attempts to help the auto industry.

Add to that Obama's problems with gay supporters, and the administration's persistence in maintaining secrecy despite promises of transparency -- well, there's a political collision looming out there as the aspirations of the Left, which helped put Obama in office, get short-circuited.

It's too early for this to have much effect on Obama's re-election prospects -- how these problems play out over the next couple of years will be crucial -- but this is when people begin lining up for the off-year Congressional elections. And if the public remains this skeptical of Obama's policies, the Democrats will face some serious challenges keeping controlling of the House. Read More 
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Obama, Cheney, Palin and the politics of distraction

Remember back in November, when Barack Obama won the White House, a victory equally notable for its historic context as for what it supposedly said about a nation sick of politics as usual?

Well, one out of two isn't bad.

Over the past few weeks we've seen a disappointing throwback to the politics of distraction. First some online celebrity gossip asked a real question of a Miss America contestant -- her opinion on a political issue -- and instantly created a martyr for the political right. Never mind that the context for the question, and the political weight of Miss California's answer were completely meaningless (other than as a barometer of the fact that Americans do indeed disagree on some issues).

Add a dose of Dick Cheney, who has shown a remarkable inability to fade into the sunset. So much so, in fact, that one has to wonder whether he's fighting for historical legacy or aligning himself for the future -- a 2012 presidential run, bad ticker, bad polls and all. Then David Letterman cracks a bad joke about Sarah Palin's daughter and Alex Rodriguez, which Palin and conservative commentators twist out of context to extend her 15 minutes of political life.

Now John McCain is back in the fray, spinning off a foolish comment by Leon Panetta that Cheney might be wishing the U.S. gets attacked to validate his stance on the efficacy of torture. Panetta, McCain gravely informs us, must retract his comment.

The economy remains trashed; the Obama Administration has yet to address in a meaningful way the legacy of American policies that led to Guantanamo Bay, illegal detentions and torture; no progress has been made on health care reform; North Korea is nuke-rattling; the streets of Iran are teeming with protesters -- and this is what the political elite focus on?

One unavoidable reality of democracy is that we always get the political leaders we deserve. Read More 
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