Monday, January 31, 2005

The kids aren't all right

The government shouldn't censor the media. Simple concept, right? A free press is at the foundation of a strong republic, isn't it?

A third of this country's high school students don't know that.

A University of Connecticut survey of 112,003 students conducted last spring revealed that 36 percent of respondents believe newspapers should have to get "government approval" of their stories before going to press. Thirty-two percent also said the press has "too much freedom." These statistics closely track the 2004 State of the First Amendment survey, which found that 30 percent of "adult" Americans (note the quotation marks) think the First Amendment "goes too far in the rights it guarantees."

The problem is clear: Too many Americans have a fundamental lack of understanding and respect for constitutional rights. The solutions are a little harder to nail down, but for simplicity, I'll narrow the list to two: 1) mandatory civics education in elementary and middle school, so children will learn early how important First Amendment freedoms are, and 2) widespread repudiation of politicians and pundits who attack the media to try to excuse their behavior or make a quick buck.

One of the underlying causes of many people's hostility toward the First Amendment is the belief that journalists are spreading lies all around them. That perception is fueled by opportunistic politicians and talking heads who accuse any reporter who doesn't repeat White House press releases verbatim of being part of the "liberal media." (As a refresher, let's review: Mother Jones and Air America are liberal media. The Washington Post and CNN aren't.)

These disingenuous charlatans scapegoat the press time and again until, almost inevitably, they poison people's view of the media. That has to stop. We must take the hyperbole artists and spin masters to task whenever they try to conquer by dividing us. We must demand that they stop seeking personal gain at the expense of our democracy. We must ensure that our leaders appeal not to our base emotions but to our noble ideals.

It's hard work, but the Constitution deserves our best efforts.

'A lack of capacity to make good decisions'

Alabama is No. 1! Well, at least at government mismanagement.

A survey by the Government Performance Project, a nonpartisan project based at the University of Richmond, placed Alabama in a tie with California for last place on a list of how well all 50 states are managed. The survey will be published in next month's Governing magazine. My home state received a C- overall, with a D for managing infrastructure like bridges and highways, probably because they keep blowing up as quickly as we can repair them.

A "highly placed observer" quoted in the report suggests Alabama's management problems are deep and systemic: "We have a lack of capacity to make good decisions here. The Legislature just brokers between opposing interests. And nobody is paying attention to minding the store, because there isn't any institutional capacity to do that."

Depressing. But hey, the report isn't all doom and gloom. Project editor Richard Greene rightly credits Gov. Bob Riley for making greater efforts than his predecessors to keep a close eye on agency budgets, to force greater transparency in state spending, and to raise the additional revenue necessary for the state to provide services at more than the most minimal level.

As Greene said, "The hidden story is that Alabama in a number of areas has really been improving, focusing on doing the right thing. It's a very difficult job for a state like Alabama to dig itself out of a hole that's been 100 years in the making."

Actually, it's been at least 104 years in the making, but we're working on that.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

A 70 percent favorability rating?!?

That's manna for any politician, and that's what Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley has among Alabama voters, according to a poll published in today's Mobile Register. The poll also found Baxley with a 14-percentage-point lead over former Gov. Don Siegelman in a hypothetical Democratic gubernatorial primary.

The poll shows Siegelman faces an uphill battle if he hopes to recover politically from his criminal indictment last year and the uncertainty that still swirls around him due to a continuing criminal investigation in Montgomery. The public perception of Siegelman, rightly or not, is that he oversaw an administration chock-full of scandal and underhanded activities, and television attack ads would shred him in a general-election race.

As I've said before, Democrats would be wise to nominate Baxley in 2006. More polls like the one published today might make that outcome inevitable.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Iraq the vote

Voting in the Iraq election started about two hours ago, and no major violence has occurred so far. I hope things stay that way.

Even in the absence of terrorism and insurgent attacks, though, early signs point to some election-related problems that will persist long after the next 24 hours. Iraq is still so dangerous that candidates couldn't campaign -- or even admit to being candidates -- safely. The country's interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer, predicted low turnout before backtracking on that statement later in the day. Turnout among the minority Sunnis, who controlled the country for decades, is expected to be well below 50 percent, which could leave many Sunnis under-represented, persecuted by the Shiite majority, and in a civil-war frame of mind.

President Bush said today that "[e]very Iraqi who casts his or her vote deserves the admiration of the world," and he's right. The election is an historic moment in Iraq, and regardless of one's position on the wisdom of starting the war, it's good to see people who lived under dictatorship for so long participating in a vote where the results aren't predetermined.

Still, when thinking about the Iraq election, I can't help but conjure up visions of a high-school election: a vote, closely monitored by the powers-that-be, to elect a student government that gets to make symbolic decisions but has little to no say over how the people in charge run the big show.

It's progress, of course, but it'll take more than an SGA to ensure long-term peace and stability in Iraq.

Friday, January 28, 2005

I'm so sorry to do this...

It's just that when 2,000 tons of cow manure have been on fire for three straight months, I have to tell you. Surely you understand.

A real-life law school exam question

Juan Manuel Alvarez, who parked his SUV on railroad tracks in Los Angeles and caused a train crash that killed 11 people Wednesday, will face capital murder charges. A story in today's San Francisco Chronicle says prosecutors could pursue the death penalty under a century-old California law that makes it a capital offense "to derail a train and cause death."

I link to this story to raise the question of whether it's proper to seek the death penalty in a case like this one, where police believe the man to have been suicidal but to have harbored no intent to kill anyone else. My gut instinct says the death penalty should be reserved for killers who mean for their actions to result in death, but it's still very much unclear what Alvarez intended in this case.

If the police's beliefs are indeed the correct version of the story and if Alvarez wasn't insane at the time, his level of mental culpability would have been either "knowing" or "reckless" -- enough to justify a life sentence, but not enough to justify death. Then again, it's hard to conceive that a guy could leave his SUV parked across train tracks and not intend for chaos to ensue.

I'm also quite sympathetic to the societal consideration expressed -- perhaps in jest -- by UC Hastings law professor Rory Little, who gets the honor of concluding this post: "You need to charge train wrecking, if you can, because we want suicidal people to stay away from railroad tracks. If you're suicidal, jump off a bridge and don't endanger anybody else."

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Seriously, where's my money?

Marriage is good. It's great. I know I can stretch that into a column. That's worth at least a grand, right?

The revelations of government-funded propaganda are coming daily now. Salon's Eric Boehlert checks in today with the tale of newspaper columnist Mike McManus, who took $10,000 in tax money from the Department of Health and Human Services to promote the Bush administration's marriage initiative and hid the contract from his readers when touting the plan. (See also Gallagher, Maggie; Williams, Armstrong.)

Unlike Gallagher, who embarrassed herself in The Washington Post by asking the reporter if her actions actually violated any ethical standards, McManus was unavailable for comment on his day in the sun. Regardless, you'll be fascinated to know the name of McManus' column: "Ethics & Religion."

Better shorten that name a little bit now.

Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., have reacted to this disturbing and growing trend by announcing they will introduce the Stop Government Propaganda Act next week. The bill says, "Funds appropriated to an [e]xecutive branch agency may not be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States unless authorized by law." It would also allow citizens to sue violators on the government's behalf if the Justice Department was lax in enforcing the law.

I see no reason for that bill to face any opposition. The good of the entire nation demands that we protect our media's independence.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Meter reading #3

The explanation is here. The good stuff is below.

Here's how people have gotten here since last Tuesday:

Two Google searches for "The Blount Countian" and one search for "Blount Banner."
Blount Countians crave a newspaper website to call their own. I call upon Oneonta's journalistic powers-that-be to make it so.

Nine visitors from the Political Blog Directory.
OK, forget the comments. Just keep the traffic coming.

Visitors from California, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Utah, and Washington, D.C.
Oh, and Alabama, of course. But half of those were probably me.

Visitors from Brazil, Colombia, England, Israel, Norway, Singapore, and Wales.
Scotland and Northern Ireland will make me whole one day.

A Yahoo search for "Red State Baby."
Hey, wait! You... you forgot to leave your number...

A Google search for "down women's blouses."
Wow, I should set the pervert trap more often.

Another detestable media sellout

If I say nice things about President Bush, can I get a big check?

First we learned about Armstrong Williams, the ostensibly independent radio host and columnist who touted the No Child Left Behind Act but didn't disclose the $240,000 in tax money that the Department of Education paid him to promote the measure. Today we found out that he wasn't alone on the Bush administration's media payroll.

Syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher received $21,500 from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2002 to promote Bush's marriage initiative, The Washington Post reports today. Gallagher then wrote several columns that -- surprise! -- heaped praise on the plan while neglecting to mention her contract.

Gallagher said she would have told her readers about the deal, but -- wait, you've gotta hear this -- she forgot about it. That's right: Gallagher made more than $20,000 for her PR campaign, but the poor dear was just so busy filing columns about the exact same subject she was paid to promote that she forgot all about that filthy lucre in her bank account. Besides, it was just $20,000 of public money, which is really chump change compared to what that other guy did, so everyone should just back off, OK?

Hello, loyal readers. Mr. Reality is at the door, and he wants to know the last time you forgot that someone gave you $20,000.

You'd think that since Gallagher's credibility as an independent journalist is gone, her syndicator would drop her column. You'd be wrong. The Post's story quotes a Universal Press Syndicate spokeswoman who says that while her company "would have probably liked to have known" about the payment, "[i]t probably wouldn't have changed our mind to distribute [her columns]."

I'd be outraged, but that might hurt my chances of getting some of that sweet, sweet propaganda money.

The worst kind of record setting

We've lost 36 U.S. soldiers in Iraq today, a new one-day record high death toll in this war that the Bush administration doesn't seem to know how to end. Thirty-one died in a helicopter crash and five died from hostile fire, sending the total number of U.S. fatalities in Iraq above 1,400.

Argue, if you want, about the justification, or the lack thereof, for this war. Argue, if you want, about how to measure progress, or the lack thereof, in this war. Argue, if you want, about the exit strategy, or the lack thereof, for this war.

But never forget that this war destroys lives -- American, Iraqi, and beyond -- every day. Never forget that 36 more American families will go to bed tonight, and every night, without someone who meant the world to them. Never forget that every brave soldier who puts his or her life on the line for this country is a hero worthy of our respect and admiration.

And never forget that we owe it to our troops, now and forever, to ensure they're only put in danger when absolutely necessary.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Come-uppances sure are satisfying

What do you know? Media scrutiny still works.

Marshall County Sheriff Mac Holcomb, who had posted a diatribe calling homosexuality "an abomination" on the sheriff's department's official website, told The Huntsville Times on Monday that he will move the letter to his personal website, which is where it should have been all along.

Since The Birmingham News published a story about the letter a couple of weeks ago, Holcomb's name has been in the media spotlight across the country, and not in a good way. In a written statement, the sheriff said the letter "was never meant to be an expression of official county policy." He also said he moved it to "prevent the county from having to spend money unnecessarily in defending a frivolous lawsuit," even though there's no known evidence that one was threatened.

Holcomb's rant is still an embarrassment to the good-hearted people in his county who want nothing to do with it, but at least it's no longer on an official government site.

Score another small victory for decency and equal protection.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Slash and burn

Hand out leaflets? Yes. Put up yard signs? Yes. Get out the vote? Yes. Cut the opposing side's tires to try to limit turnout? No.

The Milwaukee County district attorney charged five Wisconsin Democrats today with criminal property damage, The Associated Press reports. The charges stem from an incident in which someone slashed the tires of 25 vans that the Republican Party rented to carry voters to the polls on Election Day. If the five are convicted of the felony, they could face penalties up to a $10,000 fine and three and a half years behind bars.

In my book, voter suppression and deception are two of the most despicable things anyone can do. Unfortunately, members of both of this country's major political parties have engaged in it in the past. This incident, if prosecutors prove their case, would rank as another sad example of just how low people are willing to go to try to get their candidate elected.

The Wisconsin Five are entitled to the presumption of innocence that our system affords them, but if they're convicted, they'll deserve whatever sentence is imposed. No one has the right to try to prevent registered voters from exercising their rights.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Good night, Johnny

America lost a good man and a great entertainer today.

I missed a good part of Johnny Carson's long career on The Tonight Show, but I saw enough of it to know he was the gold standard of late-night talk show hosts. Carnac the Magnificent, the golf swing, Stump the Band, the fawning sidekick, "Here's Johnny!" -- the list of Carson's additions to popular culture goes on and on, and his comedic influence clearly lives on in David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, among others.

Above all, I'll remember Carson best for his classiness and air of decency. Even though he was a very private man with some marital struggles, he always left you with the feeling that he was a good guy who did well for himself. Most importantly, he brightened your day with laughter, and he did it better than almost anyone else. For that, Carson deserves our gratitude.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Employment malfunction

What if people knew you as the guy who overreacted to a nipple?

Such is the immediate legacy of Michael Powell, who announced Friday that he will leave his post as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in March. His replacement has not yet been revealed, and it's unclear if the new FCC leader will continue his predecessor's draconian, heavy-handed enforcement of broadcast indecency standards.

The FCC's widely publicized crackdown on indecency began after the infamous exposure of washed-up singer Janet Jackson's breast during last year's Super Bowl halftime show. Since then, just about any stray curse word or hint of sexual innuendo has been grounds for an FCC investigation and the threat of millions of dollars in punitive fines. Under Powell's leadership, the agency has been so overzealous that Fox recently decided to pixelate a cartoon character's nude posterior rather than risk a huge fine. The people whose agency was founded to parcel out bandwidths have now anointed themselves the morality police.

Powell has overseen some good things during his tenure, most notably a regulation allowing cell phone users to keep their old numbers when they switch companies. But those achievements are overshadowed in the short term by the chilling effect that his agency's fines have had on free speech. Perhaps more troubling in the long run, the FCC's recent deregulation of media ownership could allow a few large media companies to buy even more radio and television stations, which would be bad news for people who like some diversity in the content sent over public airwaves.

Powell's departure will be a good chance for the remaining commissioners to put the brakes on the FCC's runaway fines and restore some common sense to the agency's enforcement practices. But hey, if they don't, at least it'll be fun to watch television producers scramble to explain why Mommy and Daddy have to sleep in separate beds from now on.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Not that kind of Bikini Bottom

James Dobson and Ed Vitagliano are so mockable that they're not even worth our time. But hey, let's mock anyway.

In a world filled with disease, hunger, poverty, and war, these two goofballs are worried that a cartoon character might be teaching children not to hate gay people. That, of course, would be terrible and immoral and downright sinful, because the Bible says, um, well, hey, look over there, a liberal!

The perpetrator of this moral travesty is SpongeBob SquarePants, that notorious homosexual who lives in a pineapple and flips crabby patties. It seems SpongeBob and other lovable cartoon characters were drawn into a video that encourages tolerance of others, which would simply be an outrage in whatever twisted form of Christianity to which Dobson and Vitagliano adhere.

Most devout Christians know these guys are hilarious, so it's fun to sit back and watch the bemused media coverage of this "controversy." My favorite part so far is this poll:

"SpongeBob SquarePants is:

  • Promoting the acceptance of homosexuality
  • Promoting tolerance and diversity
  • Absorbent, yellow, and porous"

At last check, you'll be pleased to know, the most humorous option had 73 percent of the vote.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Praise the Lord and pass the ballots

Forget the teachers' union and the business leaders. If you want to be the next Republican nominee for Alabama governor, you'd better convince people God is on your side.

Looming large on the state's political scene, as always, is former Chief Justice Roy Moore, the consummate grandstanding demagogue with a taste for granite. He said last month that he's "considering" a gubernatorial campaign, though he emphasized that he's still "praying about it." At any rate, did I mention he's got a book coming out in March and it'd be just swell if you'd shell out a few bucks for it? Not that he intends to profit from your deeply held religious faith or anything.

But fear not, loyal readers. Gov. Bob Riley wants you to know that Jesus loves him, too, and he's got the not-in-the-least-political Washington prayer breakfast paid for by campaign funds to prove it. Riley also said he hasn't decided if he'll run for governor again, but just in case he does, he made sure to tell everyone who would listen that he's personally all for official government references to God, school prayer, prayers before football games, and pretty much anything related to Christianity.

And if all of those pronouncements weren't clear enough for you, Riley's wife, Patsy, cut to the chase, informing breakfast attendees that her husband was "hand-picked by God to be your governor at this time, at this moment in time." I was unaware we had cut the voters out of the process, but since our state constitution is approaching 800 amendments, I could well be wrong.

Lost in all of this posturing is any substantive discussion of the serious issues confronting Alabama. But sadly, it's unclear if GOP primary voters will demand that sort of talk in the race for the nomination. A political-minded friend gave his cynical take on the situation today: "Just say you're gonna put a burning bush in front of the Capitol and you've got it."

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Must be an expensive keg

Presidential inaugural festivities are a good excuse for rich people to get drunk. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann tell us they're also a tradition dating to 1789, when street vendors would offer you a good deal on commemorative George Washington inaugural fans.

Some celebrations have been far more lavish than others, of course. James Madison and Jimmy Carter held very understated, populist affairs, while James Buchanan and John F. Kennedy pulled out all the stops to paint D.C. red. President Bush has chosen the latter route for his week-long, $40 million second-
term bash this week. The good news, of course, is that you too are welcome to join the party, provided you have a spare $100,000 to chip in for the fun and games.

Sure, it may seem a little crass to focus on frivolities during wartime, but as fellow Alabamian Chris DePaul observes in a sad-but-true post, it'll be nothing new for 21st-century America.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Meter reading #2

I had planned to make this a weekly feature, but since the quirky visits to the blog are piling up rapidly, you get a bonus edition. Click here if you need a reminder of what this is all about.

Now, without further adieu, here's how people have gotten here since Saturday:

A Google search for "Red State Diaries."
Ladies and gentlemen, history has been made: It's the first Web search for this term ever conducted by someone other than me.

A Google search for "Huntsville Times" and "What's happening."
Makes sense, at least if you're looking for updates on the Rocket City's beaver situation.

A Technorati search for "Kinshasa."
Because as everyone knows, I'm your authoritative source for Congolese news.

Four visitors from the Political Blog Directory.
Still no comments, though. I guess it takes them a while to get over their shyness.

Way too many visits from spam bloggers.
No, I don't need any timeshares or adult toys. Thanks for asking.

Visitors from California, Illinois, Maryland, and New York.
Looks like I'm big in the Blue States.

Visitors from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Malaysia, Netherlands, Singapore, South Africa, and Spain.
And apparently I'm even bigger overseas.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Freedom still has some ringing to do

The question for many Alabama legislators is no longer if gays should be sold down the river. Now it's just a matter of when.

The Birmingham News today published a story in which several lawmakers take it for granted that a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage would pass both houses easily. But rather than debating whether they have the legal or moral right to relegate the state's gay people to second-class status, legislators are waging a turf war over when the statewide vote on the amendment should be held.

Democrats want the vote to come during the 2006 primaries, while Republicans want it on the general-election ballot, reasoning that the measure would help their victory prospects by attracting thousands of GOP-leaning social conservatives who would ordinarily stay home. State Christian Coalition President John Giles, whose organization actually opposed an anti-segregation amendment last year (because of taxes, it claimed), is predictably eager to strike yet another blow for regression with this measure. I suppose Giles is having too much fun playing politics to pay attention all of that "love thy neighbor as thyself" talk.

Alabama has plenty of company when it comes to open, official bigotry toward gay people, but I'd hope at least a few lawmakers would stand up and oppose efforts to enshrine even more discrimination in our state constitution. If anything good can come from the crass political gamesmanship on display in Montgomery, it's that a few Democratic lawmakers -- motivated more by political self-preservation instincts than by any sense of human decency -- nonetheless could do the right thing behind the scenes by bottling up this measure in committee.

How sad it is to learn on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that our state's legislators still don't believe in King's dream of freedom and equal protection for everyone.

Sometimes journalists make history

Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst's yellow journalism spurred the United States to launch the Spanish-American War. The work of Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, led directly to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's stories on Watergate forced a president to resign.

Freelance journalist Seymour Hersh may soon join that list thanks to his report in this week's edition of The New Yorker that the Bush administration plans to launch airstrikes against Iran during its second term. Hersh's information came from several "inside" sources who, he said, went public because they desperately want to stop the Pentagon from going to war with yet another country before Afghanistan and Iraq have been stabilized.

The neoconservative self-delusion revealed in Hersh's story is truly stunning. He reports that Pentagon officials ignore warnings that the U.S. military is already overstretched and that Iranians, whose religious leaders have preached for decades that America is "the Great Satan," would likely unite in opposition to any American attack. Instead, Hersh said, they prefer to believe that Iranians will greet U.S. troops as liberators. (Heard that one before?) "[I]f you don't drink the Kool-Aid, you can't go to meetings," Hersh said. "That isn't a message anybody wants to hear."

The White House responded to Hersh's story with much sound and fury, claiming it was "riddled with inaccuracies" and that "some of the conclusions he's drawing [aren't] based on fact." What you'll notice, though, is that White House spokesmen aren't pointing to anything in particular that they allege to be incorrect. They're just issuing a blanket denial and lashing out at the reporter's credibility, which is what subjects of investigative journalism often do when they're embarrassed about having been exposed.

Hersh seems convinced that it's only a matter of time until Bush and the Pentagon neocons attack Iran. If they don't, however, historians may some day point to Hersh as the anti-Hearst: the man who almost single-handedly kept America from going to war.

Great words from a great man

"Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

"I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!"

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Flyin' high with George W.

The Washington Post today published an extensive interview with President Bush conducted aboard Air Force One, and it provoked all kinds of reactions, ranging from happiness to outrage. As a helpful guide to this very long post, I'll label each main point with a "Yay" or "Boo."

Boo: The Post reports that Bush said "there was no reason to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or managing the violent aftermath." As Bush said, "We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections."

So after a 3-percentage-point win, Bush apparently believes he has the complete, undying, irreversible support of the American public and therefore doesn't need to take his advisers to task, no matter what a terrible job they've done. Simply outrageous.

Yay: Bush said he won't push Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, at least as long as the Defense of Marriage Act is on the books. As I said shortly after the election, gay-baiting is an effective campaign tool for social conservatives, and a constitutional gay-marriage ban would make it much more difficult for them to keep scapegoating gay people.

I also suspect Bush really doesn't care what people do in the bedroom and that he just used gay marriage as a way to get votes in November. Regardless, he's to be commended for resisting the pressure to enshrine discrimination in the Constitution.

Boo: Bush's answer to a question about why Osama bin Laden hasn't been found yet? "Because he's hiding." Well, that's certainly a good punch line to an elementary-school joke, but I doubt it's very comforting to the families of the 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Remind me again why the administration sent 150,000 troops to scour the deserts of Iraq instead of the mountains of Afghanistan.

Yay: Bush said he doesn't plan to make any changes to Social Security disability or survivor benefits. "Frankly, our discussions in terms of reform have not centered on the survivor-disability aspect of Social Security," he said. Good.

Boo: Bush intends to go full speed ahead in pushing to allow younger workers to divert part of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts. I give this one a "Boo" with some reservations, since I still haven't seen the specifics of the plan. I'm also very sympathetic to the principle underlying this proposal: making people more personally responsible for their retirements.

Still, the realities of the situation make this a bad idea. As many economic analysts have noted, Social Security will still be able to pay full benefits until at least 2042 and about 75 percent of benefits after that, so the "crisis" is nowhere near as alarming or urgent as some folks would lead you to believe.

Since our Social Security payroll taxes are spent immediately to pay current recipients' benefits instead of being set aside for our retirement, the creation of private accounts would force the federal government to borrow billions of dollars to make up for that lost revenue. Also, who would ensure that the diverted payroll taxes actually go into retirement investments? Sounds like we would need yet another expensive layer of government bureaucracy to oversee the process. I'm not a fan of going into debt or adding bureaucracy unnecessarily.

There are plenty of suggestions for shoring up Social Security without privatization, including raising the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes, which now sits at $90,000. If we're going to worry about a huge government entitlement program teetering imminently on the edge of insolvency, there's always Medicare.

Yay: Bush said he knows many traditional U.S. allies opposed the Iraq war, and he said he will send newly appointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a worldwide diplomacy tour to "[explain] our motives and [explain] our intentions." I'm not very confident that the tour will get results, but at least Bush is saying the right things when it comes to trying to mend fences.

Boo: Bush said it was good to force the District of Columbia to spend $11.9 million of its homeland security money on security for his inauguration and the related parties instead of having the federal government pick up the tab. "I think it provides [the inauguration attendees] great comfort to know that all levels of government are working closely to make this event as secure as possible," Bush said.

Well, as long as someone is paying for your awesome parties.

Make way for the Granite Calf

Here we go again.

Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, master of symbolic demagoguery and regressive thought, leads Gov. Bob Riley by 8 percentage points in a hypothetical GOP gubernatorial primary in a poll published in today's Mobile Register. The poll also showed Moore with a 72 percent favorability rating, which means he's somehow managed to convince nearly three-quarters of Alabamians that he's a sincere guy who isn't exploiting people's deeply held religious faith for personal gain. As pollster Keith Nicholls said of the GOP nomination, "It's Moore's for the taking."

The poll indicates that the ultra-conservative wing of the state Republican Party is still upset with Riley's failed $1.2 billion tax plan in 2003, but despite Moore's 8-percentage-point lead, there's still good news for Riley. For one thing, the election is almost two years away, giving him time to shore up support among the social conservatives within his party and ensure that voters from the pro-Riley business wing turn out in huge numbers. Also, unlike the incumbent, Moore has yet to enunciate an opinion on anything unrelated to granite monuments or anti-segregation measures.

If Moore wins the Republican nomination, the only hope to keep him out of office would be for Democrats to nominate Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley. She has a background as a successful real estate agent, which would endear her to moderate Republicans, and I could see her gaining strong support among women eager to elect only the second female governor in state history.

Former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman, who beat criminal conspiracy charges without a trial last year, likely will try to regain the office he barely lost in 2002. Despite the dismissal of the criminal case against Siegelman, however, the albatross of all of his administration's highly publicized ethics scandals still hang around his neck and would be easy pickings for television attack ads. Democrats would be wise to give the nod to Baxley instead.

Unfortunately, Moore is in the driver's seat in the 2006 governor's race right now. Fortunately, the green flag just dropped, and we're hundreds of laps away from the finish line.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Meter reading #1

I added Site Meter to the blog this week, and it's already performed two valuable services for me. First, I now know that way more people read this blog than I thought, so thanks to all of you. Second, some of those visitors arrive here under notable or downright bizarre circumstances, so I see it as my duty to keep you abreast from time to time of their comings and goings.

Here are a few of my site referrals since Thursday:

Two visitors from the Political Blog Directory.
Who apparently weren't intrigued enough to leave comments. Alas, you can't please all of the strangers all of the time.

Two visitors from Jen Michalski's blog, JMB.
Never talked to her before, but my blog is on her links list, so I've reciprocated. Thanks, Jen, if you're reading.

Two Google searches for "Mac Holcomb."
Fortunately, he has no jurisdiction around these parts.

An search for "Tennesse (sic) state high school basketball poll's (sic)."
Rocky Toppers, it's all right if you want to drop in, but I must insist that you at least spell your own state's name correctly. I hear UT covers that near the end of freshman comp, so there's no excuse.

A Google search for "Zoe Baird Playboy bunny."
Hate to disappoint, but you probably won't find much hot Zoe action here, buddy.

Sometimes democracy spreads itself

The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo have had it.

First they had to endure more than 30 years of brutal dictatorial rule by Mobutu Sese Seko before his 1997 ouster. Then came a civil war that killed more than 3 million people until peace finally reasserted itself in 2003. Now they've come to believe that the transition government is stalling and in-fighting and trying its best not to hold democratic elections by the June 30 deadline.

So the Congolese, tired of war and unresponsive government, have taken matters into their own hands: They've gone on strike and effectively shut down the capital, Kinshasa. The strike is also a response to the recent killings of four protesters who demanded that elections be held on time.

The Congo situation is evidence that people in countries that long suffered under dictatorial rule can pursue democracy just fine on their own. The Congolese people still face a long uphill climb, of course: More than 1,000 are dying every day from disease or malnutrition, and the country's transportation infrastructure is woefully lacking. But the Congolese themselves are the ones pushing for freedom, and their actions this week indicate they have the resolve to see the struggle through to the very end.

Never underestimate the power of the people to cast off their chains and reclaim the power that is rightfully theirs.

Friday, January 14, 2005

They like to watch

Huntsville city councilmen Thursday joined a growing chorus of lawmakers pushing for Alabama to allow the automated ticketing of drivers via traffic cameras.

A bill by state Rep. David Grimes, R-Montgomery, would permit $250 fines and mandate the erection of signs warning drivers that cameras are monitoring the intersection. Drivers wouldn't have to pay court costs, the tickets wouldn't cost points on a driver's license, and insurance companies would be barred from raising rates due to a camera-assessed ticket. The bill seems to be inspired by a desire to counter the atrocious driving habits of many Alabamians, some of whom decide on an impromptu, case-by-
case basis which traffic lights actually have authority over them.

From a public safety standpoint, this bill seems like a reasonable compromise that would help keep the more maniacal element of our society in check while not unfairly surprising people with tickets from hidden cameras. I'm still a bit troubled that drivers could be fined without an officer notifying them of their violation in person, but the provisions about court costs and insurance rates help to mitigate that concern somewhat.

One of civil libertarians' main worries about the cameras is that they would invade motorists' privacy, but courts have made it pretty clear that you can't expect much privacy when you're in your car. Of course, there's also the slippery-slope argument, noted in The Huntsville Times by Rep. Ray Garner, R-Monrovia: "Where does it stop? If they do red lights, they may move on to something else."

Oh, like staring down women's blouses and zooming in on their buttocks, you mean? Nah, surely that would never happen.

It seems like only a matter of time before enough legislators climb aboard the camera train to make automated ticketing a reality in Alabama. For our sake, I hope someone manages to keep an eye on Big Brother while he keeps an eye on us.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Separation of press and state

Despite his perplexing love of President Calvin Coolidge and his almost-creepy obsession with baseball, columnist George Will usually writes pieces that, agree or disagree with them, are worth a minute or two of your time. His latest column, on the apparently growing problem of government propaganda, is no exception.

Will laments several examples of the Bush administration's recent taxpayer-funded media manipulation, including the $241,000 payment to commentator Armstrong Williams and the fake news packages on Medicare and drug use. He also calls out Republicans for violating their core principles by using tax money for propaganda and jacking up appropriations to the Department of Education less than a decade after calling for its abolition.

Will's suggestion that Washington desperately needs another Coolidge is a bit misguided -- the guy slept about 11 hours every day -- but he's right that the government needs to stay out of the inner workings of the media. As Will writes, "[G]overnment by the consent of the governed should not mean government by consent produced by government propaganda."


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

And the show has reached a new low

On Marshall County's official website, Sheriff Mac Holcomb has posted an open letter to his constituents that expresses a nostalgic longing for the Alabama of the 1940s and 1950s, a kinder, gentler place where staunch dedication to good Christian values reigned supreme. (Unless you're talking about what happened to black people back then, of course, which would make you a perverted Northern liberal troublemaker who's up to no good, and you should probably go ahead and move to France.)

Undaunted by inconvenient historical facts, Holcomb has fond memories of a bygone time that never really existed: "During this era, love of God, family, and country abounded. Men were men and women were women and there was no mistaking which was which. Both were proud of their individual roles. Homosexuality was very queer and a despicable act... an abomination."

Ah, yes, those darn gay folks, always raising armies to break into your house and convert your children to their same-sex ways in the middle of the night. I sure am glad Holcomb's on top of that menace to society. Now, if someone could find a way to keep those uppity women in the kitchen and give those pot-smoking hippies a haircut, what a wonderful world this would be.

What kind of fellow is Holcomb? County Commission Chairman Billy Cannon is glad to tell you: "Take Rush Limbaugh, Roy Moore, and Buford Pusser and roll them together and you get Mac."

Sadly, Holcomb's vitriol probably will remain on the sheriff's department's website unless a court order forces the issue. Even worse, good-hearted Marshall County residents who want nothing to do with Holcomb's views will get a bad rap as this story spreads across the nation. One such resident is Cannon, who told The Birmingham News, "I totally believe that someone's sexual preference is their business and not mine. [Holcomb] needs to step down from his soapbox just a little bit."

Let's hope Marshall County voters do the right thing and take that soapbox away the next chance they get.

In other news, the sky is blue

The Iraq Survey Group has ended its quest to locate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq with a revelation sure to stun anyone just waking up from a two-year coma: There aren't any. But hey, it's not like the Iraq war was about WMDs in the first place, right? Oh, you say it was? Because I could have sworn it was about fighting al-Qaeda terrorists. Or maybe stabilizing the Middle East. Or perhaps bringing democracy to the Iraqi people. Take your pick.

Saddam Hussein is in jail and out of power, and that's undeniably a good thing. Unfortunately, brave Americans are still paying the price of his deposal every day, and things don't look to be getting a lot safer in Iraq any time soon.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Well, that certainly inspires confidence

Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, the man in charge of overseeing the voting in the state that decided the presidential election last year, had a bit of trouble with election law lately. More specifically, he broke it.

Blackwell sent a five-page screed to Republican activists to solicit their support for his planned 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Included in the envelope was a pledge card to allow his backers to show their love in the form of cold, hard cash. Oh, and in case you weren't sure, "corporate & personal checks are welcome."

One problem: Corporate campaign donations are illegal in Ohio, which is something you might expect the guy in charge of the state's elections to know. Blackwell said the solicitation of corporate contributions was simply an oversight. You know, kind of like all of those oversights during the November election that Blackwell won't even dignify with public testimony, and he'll call you "frivolous" and run to the judge if you try to make him.

Yep, sounds like a fine governor in the making up there.

Where's Bill O'Reilly when you need him?

It looks like our Fox News friend may have been right after all. Christmas is under attack -- by people who haven't checked the calendar in about 140 years.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans in the Mobile suburb of Saraland raised hell and gave a rebel yell and generally refused to let anyone have a moment's rest until Monday night, when they received a guarantee that they could march, in uniform, in the city's Christmas parade this year. That's right: Middle-age guys in gray rebel uniforms will wave Confederate battle flags amid decorative floats topped by Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman.

The money quote from the Mobile Register's story: "[SCV] members argue the Confederate flags they throw are more sought after than candy or beads."

Merry Christmas indeed.

Ah, how times change

Once in the not-too-distant past, Blount County officials and activists were up in arms about the Birmingham Water Works Board's efforts to raid the Locust Fork River for the Magic City's long-term water supply. Of course, that was before suburbanites from Jefferson and Shelby counties figured out that plenty of open land was available not too far north of Birmingham and decided it would be a good idea to start moving there in droves.

A decade or so later, it's Blount County that's looking north to shore up its own future water supply. The leading target is the Tennessee River, particularly the part that runs through Marshall County, and the Blount County Water Authority wants to sell whatever water it doesn't use to nearby Birmingham and Cullman. Shockingly, Marshall County officials decided Monday that giving away their drinking water and getting some environmental damage in return probably wasn't the best way to get re-elected and promptly rejected the plan.

It's funny how a few years and a population boom can turn a few of your priorities on their head.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Feeding frenzy

There's just something irresistible about kicking your competitors when they're down.

The latest media punching bag is CBS News, which fired one producer and forced the resignations of three employees today upon the release of an independent investigation of a flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday segment on President Bush's National Guard service, or alleged lack thereof, that aired Sept. 8. Central to the segment were four memoranda that suggested Bush's family pulled strings to get him in the Guard during the Vietnam War and that he then shirked his duties. The memos are now widely believed to be forgeries, and the investigation revealed that a comedy of internal errors led CBS to air the story before the memos could be verified.

The cable news networks are having a field day with this story. I've seen a couple of segments about it on CNN already, and I'm beginning to wonder if Fox News intends to cover anything other than the memos today. "There but for the grace of God go I" is clearly not in these people's list of words and phrases.

CBS News' journalistic failures were significant, and the network has some work to do to regain some of the credibility it lost due to the memo scandal. But what many people have unfortunately ignored in the rush to stone CBS is that the numerous questions about Bush's National Guard record are just as valid as they were before the memo story aired.

Shortly after the CBS scandal broke out, Eric Boehlert at Salon scoured Bush's military records and discovered more than 30 potential violations of military regulations. Boehlert's work is based entirely on records released -- or not released -- by the White House, and it's worth a look. (If you're not a Salon member, you can get a day pass by watching a brief ad. Or, if you're like me, by surfing elsewhere while the ad plays in the background.)

CBS deserves criticism and shame for violating basic tenets of journalism. But that doesn't mean Bush should get a pass on answering the many legitimate questions about his Guard service.

Let's dump them in a big hole

The libraries in two Mississippi counties have decided to take stern, decisive action to safeguard the deteriorating moral fabric of American society. How? By banning a political humor book from the shelves, of course.

That's right: If you want to read Jon Stewart's best-seller America (The Book), you'll have to go somewhere other than George and Jackson counties in our state's western neighbor. Because that book's just filthy. I mean, it's got naked Supreme Court justices in it, and first of all, it ain't none too fittin' to want to make fun of them anyhow, and besides, it might give the little ones the wrong idea about the law! Won't someone please think of the children?!?

But hey, look on the bright side: At least we've finally found a safe place to bury all of the books that Gerald Allen wants to ban.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Will the new guy be any better?

Palestinians today elected Mahmoud Abbas as their new president by a wide margin, and many political analysts said his big victory offers hope for lasting peace in the Middle East and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. CNN and other news outlets have referred to Abbas as a "moderate" who opposes terrorism and wants to achieve an independent Palestinian state through peaceful negotiation instead.

That's why it was troubling to hear Abbas dedicate his victory "to the soul of Yasser Arafat and present it to our people, to our martyrs, and to 11,000 prisoners [in Israel]." The mention of "martyrs" seems like a fairly direct reference to the suicide bombers who have killed thousands of Israelis over the years. As for Arafat, well, I've had my say on him.

I hope Abbas' comments were nothing more than the kind of gracious "thanks to my predecessors" speech that many politicians give upon taking office. It would be unfortunate if they were a signal that Abbas intends to turn a blind eye toward Palestinian terrorism. Peace in the region is impossible unless both Israelis and Palestinians can be sure that the other side is doing everything it can to end the bloodshed.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Justice is served, kinda

The Auburn football team's 13-0 season went unrewarded by the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today coaches polls, but the Tigers are getting national title attention from a few other places.

Auburn won the Peoples National Championship, determined by an online poll of tens of thousands of football fans over the last month. ESPN analyst Jim Donnan will present the trophy on the Plains later this month. Since the poll organizer was a high school student from Opelika, the results were almost certainly laden with regional bias, but a championship trophy is still a championship trophy. Besides, who's to say that the opinion of thousands of fans counts for less than that of 61 coaches or 65 writers?

To vouch at least in part for the online poll's fairness, I'll note that I voted in it once and tried to do so again, only to be told that I had already voted. I still got the same response after cleaning out my Internet Explorer cache and deleting the cookies. Double voting might have been possible if people used a different computer each time, but overall, the poll looked to be legit.

The Tigers also earned the top spot in five computer polls, including one that claims to be modeled on the RPI ratings that guide the NCAA selection committee's at-large picks for the men's basketball tournament. I still haven't found a poll that named undefeated Utah as national champion, but I'll let you know if I do.

It's disappointing that neither coaches nor sportswriters saw fit to give a 13-0 SEC champion a piece of the national title. Still, I'm glad that a few polls are trying to make up for the shortcomings of both the big-time pollsters and the Bowl Championship Series.

They're picking up bad vibrations

"Vibrators 60% off! Everything must go!"

That's one sign you'll never see in Alabama if the state's ban on sex toy sales remains in force. The law's six-year odyssey through the federal judiciary will have one final stop if the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear store owners' appeal of a ruling that upheld the ban as constitutional. A plaintiff's lawyer said he should know by next month whether the nation's highest court will review the case.

The state attorney general's office has devoted way too many public resources to defending the ban on selling "any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs." That's especially true when you consider that the 1998 obscenity law's legislative sponsor apparently lost interest in the sex toys provision long ago.

In addition, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals' decision to uphold the ban appears inconsistent with the core principles of the Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, the case that declared a discriminatory anti-sodomy law unconstitutional and recognized that "[t]he state cannot demean [people's] existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime." There's also the little matter of how the ban, as U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith wrote, seems to have "no rational relation to a legitimate state interest," but we'll save that argument for another day.

It's fine if Alabama wants to restrict the sale of sex toys to certain areas, but a blanket ban is excessive and illogical, especially since it's still perfectly legal for Alabamians to own the toys. Quite simply, we have better things to do than waste tax money on fighting fake penises.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Blog humor

If you're a nerd like me -- and why are you here if you aren't? -- then you'll enjoy this humor piece from today's Crimson White, which viciously mocks bloggers everywhere, especially the ones who don't understand basic English grammar and whose posts are downright painful to read.

But seriously, keep coming back anyway.

Something's amiss here

The Bush administration gave radio host Armstrong Williams almost a quarter of a million dollars of taxpayers' money to promote the No Child Left Behind Act on his show, USA Today reported today. Williams said he doesn't remember telling his listeners that he was paid to tout the act, an omission that would be a gross violation of journalistic ethics.

What concerns me more, though, is that a government agency apparently paid a private broadcaster to try to influence the political content of his show. That sounds a lot like government-
funded covert propaganda, which would make the contract illegal. If Williams supports NCLB, that's fine, but tax money shouldn't pay radio hosts for espousing government-approved views.

This isn't the first time the Bush administration has used questionable tactics to promote its policies in the media. The General Accounting Office condemned officials at the Department of Health and Human Services last year for using federal funds to pay for video packages in which a "reporter" touted the positives of the administration's Medicare plan but didn't mention that HHS paid for the segment. More than 40 television stations ran the video, including Tuscaloosa's WVUA. The GAO admonished the administration again this week after the Office of National Drug Control Policy produced a similar package on drug abuse that also failed to disclose that the government paid for it.

Our free press is in trouble if the government is using our tax money to put propaganda on the air without our knowledge.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

No harm, no foul

Birmingham's cameo on NBC Nightly News will have to wait. A day after folks in the Magic City got their hopes up, an NBC producer said anchorman Brian Williams will postpone his visit to the state due to ongoing coverage of the South Asia tsunami, which is clearly a top journalistic priority right now.

The news director of NBC's Birmingham affiliate predicted that Williams will come to town next month, which should give Roy Moore just enough time to orchestrate another stunt to get his name back in the news.

Jon Stewart's power is mighty

You doubt the influence of The Daily Show's host? Foolish mortal. For you see, Stewart is more than just one of the funniest men in television history. In his spare time, he's also a puppetmaster, toying with the lives of political commentators and destroying their livelihoods with a few disdainful words.

Still not a believer? Then you might want to ask conservative bowtie-wearing pundit Tucker Carlson where his job went. CNN declined Wednesday to renew Carlson's contract, and the network's chief executive, Jonathan Klein, announced plans to cancel Crossfire. You might remember that as the show where Stewart eviscerated both Carlson and liberal talking head Paul Begala in October for what he called their "partisan hackery" and then begged them to "stop hurting America" with their shouting matches. In canceling Crossfire, Klein said, "I guess I come down more firmly in the Jon Stewart camp."

Now if we could just get Stewart to bring his force to bear on Sean Hannity, Larry King, and Bill O'Reilly, it might be safe to watch cable news again.

Wow, they really did it

The Democrats just challenged the electoral votes from Ohio. It's a symbolic protest led by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, and strongly encouraged by the investigative work of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. The challenge won't overturn the results of the presidential election, but it will allow Democrats to place the details of machine glitches, tallying errors, and other voting irregularities in the Buckeye State in the congressional record for posterity.

A CNN commentator suggested a few minutes ago that the challenge came about at least in part due to Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which devoted substantial time to footage of black congressmen pleading in vain to challenge Florida's electoral votes four years ago but finding no senator willing to support their pleas as the Constitution requires. This year's challenge may be seen in a way as congressional Democrats' attempt at a make-good for their inaction after the 2000 election ended in controversy.

Regardless of the motives behind it, I hope this challenge is the starting point for a national drive to require electronic voting machines to provide a paper trail to ensure our elections are accurate and devoid of tampering. Free and fair elections are above partisanship; they are the cornerstone of our republic, and we must do everything we can to ensure them.

Fearless prognostication

A University of Alabama professor has gone out on a limb and put his professional reputation on the line with a bold prediction: Gas prices will remain above $1 a gallon throughout 2005.

Sure, common sense might have told me that, but it just wouldn't have come with the air of academic authority that I so crave.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Alabama on the air

NBC's Brian Williams plans to anchor his nightly newscast live from Birmingham on Monday. His report will focus on efforts to revitalize the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, site of a 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls.

An NBC producer said the segment's name is "Birmingham Reconciliation," which gives me hope that Williams will try to show the progress that Alabama has made in race relations since the days of fire hosings and attack dogs. I also fear, though, that the recent rejection of Amendment 2 might be about to get some more national attention.

Frickin' laser beams

Ah, the Patriot Act once again is keeping the world safe for democracy. This time, prosecutors are using it in an effort to imprison a New Jersey man for 25 years and fine him $500,000 for using a laser pointer.

Yes, you read that correctly: Apparently we have so completely and thoroughly vanquished crime in this country that we now have the time and money to use anti-terrorism laws to try to lock up a guy for a quarter-century just because he was aiming a light beam at some stars to entertain his 7-year-old daughter.

Several other incidents involving airplanes and laser beams have been reported recently, and the lasers can temporarily blind flight crews, so people should certainly be discouraged from pointing them in the air haphazardly. It's clear that federal authorities want to make an example of this guy, but why not just fine him a few hundred dollars instead of trying to put him behind bars until his daughter is in her 30s? Plenty of murderers end up serving less prison time than prosecutors are seeking to give this man.

This is ridiculous on so many levels.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Sunrise, sunset

Auburn's football team didn't beat Virginia Tech by the 97-point spread that it apparently would have taken for the Tigers to sway a few more Associated Press voters to bump them up to No. 1. Indeed, after dominating most of the game Monday night, Auburn surrendered a couple of late touchdowns that cut the Sugar Bowl's final score to a deceptively close 16-13 margin.

Oklahoma and USC, both undefeated, will play in the Orange Bowl tonight, and thanks to the Bowl Championship Series' contract with the coaches' poll, the winner will receive a crystal football that labels it the national champion. Unfortunately, AP voters will likely deny a share of the title to an equally undefeated and deserving Auburn team that had the misfortune of not being as highly regarded in the preseason as the Sooners and Trojans.

Sure, Auburn didn't blow Virginia Tech out of the water. I suppose you think you could have done better against the No. 9 team in the country. All undefeated teams have a down week or two at some point during their seasons, so it's unfair to punish Auburn for that, especially since its two closest calls came against teams ranked in the top 10 at the time. Remember, USC struggled mightily against unranked Stanford and UCLA, and Oklahoma didn't defeat Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, both 7-5, until the final play.

AP voters, whose poll withdrew from the BCS formula last month, could strike one final blow against college football's mockery of a postseason system by awarding the Tigers their first-place votes. Sadly, they'll probably march in lockstep with the BCS party line. For a few days, there will be much sound and fury in the sports world about how unfair the whole situation was to Auburn, and playoff talk will abound. In the end, the BCS formula will be tweaked again, and it'll work about as poorly as it has for the last couple of years. Other deserving teams will be deprived of title shots, and fans will continue to complain, and odds are that the sun will keep rising in the east and setting in the west.

The winner of the Oklahoma-USC game deserves a share of the national championship. So does Auburn. Until major-college administrators come to their senses and end the annual title disputes with a football playoff, any team that finishes undefeated in a major conference deserves to called "national champion."

Ignored in all of these discussions, of course, is unbeaten Mountain West Conference champion Utah, which just might be the best team in college football this year. But hey, we wouldn't want to let the little guys horn in on the action, would we?


And in a headline, no less. Thank you, Birmingham News. I'm not sure which of your gifts I appreciate more: the knowledge that long-overdue repairs are finally coming to a neglected stretch of Interstate 59 or the nerdy, grammatical fulfillment of seeing "ka-thunk" in big, bold letters above a newspaper story.

Yeah, you're right: I am sure. Ka-thunk!

Monday, January 03, 2005

Congressmen do the right thing

I know, I can hardly believe it either, but it's true. Congressional Republicans voted tonight to reverse a rules change that would have allowed party leaders to keep their posts even if they were indicted on felony charges. The rules change came in November as a move to protect House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who received two admonishments from the House Ethics Committee last year and is at the center of a criminal investigation that has led to the indictments of three of his associates on money-laundering charges.

DeLay and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., led the move to vacate the new indictment rule after facing intense public scrutiny and criticism. The Associated Press reports that Republican leaders did, however, change the rules to "make it easier for one party to block a House Ethics Committee investigation of a congressman." As you may remember, I've already had my say on that subject.

Despite the rules change that will allow either party to obstruct an ethics investigation of one of its members, I commend the GOP for reversing course and reinstating the original indictment rule. Maybe there's some hope for ethical government after all.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

A glimmer of hope in Sudan

The civil war in Sudan, which has left more than 2 million dead and has been raging for as long as most college students have been alive, may be near an end. Representatives of the African nation's northern Muslim government and its southern Christian and animist rebels agreed Friday to a permanent ceasefire expected to lead to a peace treaty that negotiators hope to get signed next month in Kenya.

Sudan has received frequent media attention in the last year, primarily due to the atrocities in its western Darfur region, which look an awful lot like genocide. Unfortunately, the deal that could end the civil war is unlikely to have much immediate effect on the Darfur conflict, which has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced almost 2 million from their homes.

Still, glimmers of hope exist. President Bush has signed a bill authorizing his administration to sanction the Sudanese government if pro-government Janjaweed militiamen don't stop killing black Africans in Darfur. The United States has pledged $300 million in aid to the region. And many observers say the peace deal that halted the civil war could be a model for resolving the Darfur conflict.

Sudan has been mired in misery for decades. At last, the beginning of the end of the bloodshed there is in sight.

Can't really blame him

Outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell says he's washing his hands of politics -- for now, anyway.

Powell, as you probably know, was one of the few voices in the Bush administration who urged caution in the Iraq invasion and who suggested the post-war situation might not be as hunky-dory as other officials believed. He was also largely ignored by the neoconservatives who ended up calling U.S. foreign-policy shots.

After four frustrating years of running the diplomatic arm of an administration that doesn't put much stock in negotiation, Powell seems ready to put the whole experience behind him and distance himself from world affairs for a while. He's earned the time off.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

New Year's irresolution

OK, so you didn't get the 2008 presidential candidate series this week as promised. I fully intended to do the analyses this week, but life gets in the way sometimes. So do bowl games, especially when they're decided on the last play. I apologize, and I assure you that I'll post the series, as promised, sometime during the next 365 days.

Or at least before the 2008 election. Maybe.