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‘Movies Are Strange, Man’: Joaquin Phoenix Talks About Not Knowing What’s Next

I don’t know. Those are the three words that Joaquin Phoenix probably says the most during our interview. He may be one of the greatest actors of his generation — possibly, the greatest — but even he seems not quite capable of articulating just how it is he does what he does. That somehow feels right. We’re talking about Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, for which Phoenix won the Best Actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a marvelous performance, but he speaks very little dialogue, and for much of the film we see him only in brief glimpses. During our chat, as the actor fumbles over his words — abandoning analogies halfway through, professing ignorance of his own talents, wondering if anything he’s done works onscreen — he reveals something of his art. Because so much of what Joaquin Phoenix does is about not knowing, both for us as viewers and for him as an actor. In his best performances, he gives off a sense of total absorption and aliveness. Everything seems possible and nothing feels predictable. No other working actor today seems more intuitive, more uncategorizable.

Don’t tell him that, however: Phoenix doesn’t watch his own movies. When I tell him how much I admired him in this film, he deadpans, “Maybe you have terrible taste.” Then when I respond that I’m a fan of his performances in general, he responds, “It looks like you do.” He says it cheerfully, but it’s also hard not to suspect that there’s some doubt in the back of his mind that he uses to rid himself of anything resembling self-consciousness or preciousness. That’s a perfect state of mind for You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay’s devastating and gripping alt-vigilante drama, in which Phoenix plays a hammer-wielding veteran who is paid to save kidnapped children and who brings all his rage and regret and self-loathing and desire for oblivion to the job. The actor is so convincing in the role that at first I was somewhat scared to talk to him. But the result was a fascinatingly open-ended discussion about acting, Ramsay’s brilliant film, as well as his turn as Jesus in the upcoming Mary Magdalene.

I’ve always found there to be something distinct about Lynne Ramsay’s characters — they’re very submerged and self-negating. You’ve worked with a lot of different directors. Was there anything about her approach that felt different to you?

Every director is different. I’ve never once felt like there’s one standard. But what is unique about Lynne…I don’t know how she worked on other films, or how she worked with other actors, but on this movie, something that we were really cognizant of was trying to fight the clichés of the genre. We didn’t really have a set way of doing things. I imagine there’s like a wildly different performance in there, in other takes, you know. Because each take was different. That was kind of a goal — to do things that might seem out of character or uncomfortable, and play with things, and improvise. We looked for a way of approaching each scene that just wasn’t traditional, wasn’t what you’d expect. If anything in the script felt like it was something that we had seen before, we’d try to change it.

Even though you’re the lead and the whole movie’s pretty much from your character’s perspective, we rarely see your face. Sometimes, we don’t even see you. There’s so much of the film where we’re watching a room that your character has just left. I’m sure some of that happens in editing, but was that always the idea behind the performance?

Yeah, a lot of that was in the script. Certainly Lynne set the tone for that from the very opening scene, creating this kind of mystery around this character — where you’re not really knowing exactly where you stand with him and who he is and what he represents. That was pretty evident in the screenplay, but I’m sure there’s stuff that she does in editing to magnify that or to lessen it.

But for you, as the guy who has to give that performance, what kinds of challenges does that present? When you know that your face is not actually going to be on screen much, or that you’re not going to have as much recourse to dialogue? Do you have to work on the character’s physicality, say, or his posture, or how you walk?

I think it’s a mistake sometimes, as an actor, to think about a movie from the filmmaker’s perspective. It’s hard not to be self-conscious, and it’s one of the struggles that you have as an actor. So, I don’t ask what size lens is there and how much of my body are you seeing. I just have to inhabit the space the way I feel is right. And how the filmmaker captures that or uses it is up to them. It was important to never feel certain of how I was going to behave. The crew was amazing — particularly the camera and sound department, you know, who have to basically follow you around and capture what it is you’re doing — but there really was this feeling that the moment you locked something in, it just started to die. So it felt like things would always have to change and you’d act differently. It was really important for the film and the energy of the character to work that way.

It’s also a pretty violent movie, but so much of what we see is the aftermath of the violence. There’s one fight near the end where we see the whole thing, but that’s about it. For the other scenes of violence, did you guys actually shoot a lot of that stuff and then cut around it in the finished film?

I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m not sure what’s in there, but it was intended that you didn’t see a lot of it. But there are probably other things that we shot and didn’t use. Lynne is a really amazing filmmaker because the more her back is against the wall, the stronger she gets, the better the ideas that come to her. She’s like this brilliant eleventh-hour kind of person. And it’s really astonishing because the story shifted throughout production. There were a couple times where I thought, “Fuck, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner and we’re totally fucked.” And she just came up with something at the last minute, you know, and it was really, really impressive. Like, the brothel sequence was originally conceived as something different, and then she got to location.… But that’s what happens; you imagine something in your head and then you have to react to the location. That’s part of what filmmaking is, right? It’s the imagination, and then it’s the reality of what you’re working with. She was great at just reacting to the environment and coming up with something that felt unique.

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The Psycho references, when you’re playfully doing the “eee eee eee” sound and air-stabbing your mom — were those always there, or were those improvised?

Does it happen upstairs in the bathroom?

It happens twice early on in the finished film — once when she’s actually watching Psycho on TV, where you do it playfully. And then up in the bathroom, when she’s yelling at you from the other side of the door, and then you do it again — and it’s slightly more sinister the second time.

We shot all of that stuff with the mom over, like, two or three days in the same house. We played around with different versions of me coming home — what that could be like. And it was three takes in or something when Judith [Roberts, who plays the mother] said that she was watching Psycho; it wasn’t written in the script. She just said that, and so I did the Psycho voice. But I didn’t know if that was the take that was going to be used, so then upstairs when we shot that other scene, it just came up again. And I didn’t know if we would use that version or not. You know, there’s probably like four or five different versions of those scenes, each different.

Those two little moments early on in the film really let us know that we’re watching something quite different from the average revenge drama. They’re funny, of course, but they’re also revealing about the mother-son relationship.

Yeah. Initially in the story there was an almost idyllic dynamic to their relationship, where I was this loving son.… But it seemed like as we got into it, the reality is that when you’re taking care of somebody like that, who has a lot of needs and is struggling, inevitably you’re going to feel frustration. We wanted to find ways to show that.

When you’ve got a character like this who is so wounded, with such a complicated and tragic backstory, to what extent do you have to connect to those kinds of feelings to feel like you’re doing justice to the part?

I don’t know. It’s a good question, it’s a fair question. Movies are strange, man. Sometimes, you hear the writer talk about it, and you read about some of this stuff. For example, we spoke to someone who actually does [hostage] extractions. He goes in with a team. Some of the stories that he told were impossible not to be affected by. But to be honest, sometimes you’re fuckin’ eatin’ Fritos, and you shoot a scene. [Laughs] And you want to take credit for stuff as an actor, but the truth is that it’s really the filmmaking, ultimately. Probably some of the greatest moments in movies the actor was just thinking what was for lunch. So, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. There are times where you feel affected by things, and it’s emotional. But there’s other times when you go, “This scene is shit, and this is not fuckin’ working.” Then somebody tells you a year later, “I really love that scene. It felt powerful.” And you’re like, “Oh, really?” It’s probably different on every movie. And I think you learn something from every movie — even if the lesson is “Well, let’s not do that again.”

There were parts of this film that were really challenging. Part of it is that we put in a lot of time, a lot of work in pre-production, and that’s about going all day long, into the night, going through and talking. Also, Jim Wilson, who’s the producer, was a really big part of that process. There were a lot of changes to the script, and when you spend your time thinking about one subject matter, it starts seeping into you. Inevitably you’re affected by it. But there are times where maybe it’s just that you’re emotionally available, and so you can go in and shoot a scene and be brought right into it. But, you know, there were times in the fuckin’ brothel where the hammer would bend, and I’d be carrying it in my hand and everybody would be laughing. And I’d go, “Oh, what the fuck’s going on?” You know what I mean? I hope it ends up being a tense sequence, but over the one or two days that we shot it, there were moments that were really tense, and there were moments where we were going, “This is a stupid line. How the fuck are we gonna say this? What is this?”

So, how do you get through that? You’ve talked about trying to avoid being self-conscious. How do you pull that off? Because you seem to do it pretty well.

[Long pause]

And I realize that probably makes you self-conscious too, me just saying that…

I don’t know. There’s not one approach. It depends on the scene. The important thing with this movie was — and I acknowledge I probably do this a lot — to feel comfortable enough to make a lot of mistakes. To be able to say there’s not one right way for him to behave. Again, it seemed like the key was not knowing what his reaction was going to be. I’m sure that sometimes we used just a really straight version of a given scene, but we filmed so many different versions. You just dive head on into that feeling. But sometimes, when you’re making a movie, yeah, your nerves wear off and you grow accustomed to it, or you get tired, or whatever. Maybe it’s a million things over the course of the six weeks. So you just go, “OK, well, this is fuckin’ shit,” and you go outside and you sit and you talk about it, and you try to connect again to what is meaningful about this moment — to try and uncover something that you can latch onto. I guess. I don’t fuckin’ know, man.

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In You Were Never Really Here, there’s a random shot, almost part of a montage, where you’re reading a book and you tear out a page as you’re reading it. Do you remember the motivation behind tearing that page, or even what book it was? It’s such a mysterious little moment.

I don’t remember the book. It was just sitting there. That was another day in which we were shooting stuff in the house, and we had all these different things that we talked about as possibilities. I don’t remember why that came up. Honestly, it was probably nothing. There probably wasn’t like a great idea behind it. Don’t know that it symbolizes anything. I think it was just in that moment, it happened.… We shot a bunch of stuff. We shot a thing with the knife [Phoenix’s character plays with a knife, balancing it in front of his face] and we decided to use that, and use this book. But I honestly don’t remember what occurred to me in that moment. Maybe it’s something that I read about somewhere, or something I did once. I don’t remember. I have no idea why I did that.

It’s a great little moment. It’s probably better that you don’t remember why you did it.

It is. I mean, those are the things that I’m most interested in and want to be open to. I’ve become less interested in mapping things out, as an actor, and making decisions. Or maybe I’m just not good at doing that. Maybe, like, once I’ve made the decision, in that moment, it becomes boring. It just feels dead to me if you say, “This is what we’re doing.” And so, it’s just trying to be open to inspiration and what happens in the moment — feeling comfortable enough to make those decisions.

I don’t know if it’s in there, but do I sing a song in the movie, to the mirror? At the Russian bathhouse. It was just another thing that we’d talked about. A song that my grandfather used to sing to me. We were just trying things in that moment, and I think we were always trying to figure out where the song might go. I don’t know whether it came from Jim or Lynne or both, but they said, “Maybe try it here.” Sometimes, you have something and you don’t know precisely where it goes or if it will work, but you just try to create the space to try those things.

It’s revealing hearing you talk about this. My job is to write about movies, and often I have to discuss why the filmmakers made certain decisions. But hearing you talk, it’s clear that so many of those decisions are intuitive. You don’t necessarily sit down and reason them out.

Yeah, I’ve had both experiences, and certainly, my preference is the more intuitive — because I do think that if you’ve done your work and you feel familiar with the character in the world, that’s…I don’t know, any analogy sounds stupid. It’s like you have all your ingredients, right, and so you know your basics, of what you’re going to put together. But in the moment, you try a few different.… Oh, man, I don’t want to say herbs or fuckin’ spices! That’s so terrible; I don’t want to use that analogy! But you understand what I’m saying. And that is a joy. When I was younger, I thought the whole key to good acting was figuring it out, and locking something in and nailing it. And I just find that repulsive now. It was really something that we went after on this — just trying to be available and open to what the scene might tell you. I like that way of working.

I haven’t seen Mary Magdalene yet; I don’t even know when it will come out in the U.S. But how exactly does one prepare to play Jesus?

Well, there is a lot of information to consume, and a lot of it seems to contradict each other. So you just start reading all sorts of shit, and you go, “OK, well, I like this, and I like that.…” For me, it was important trying to find true contemporary figures that I thought possessed qualities that I was interested in. We always think about the spirit and mythical side of Jesus, but I was trying to find the humanity. That’s what makes the crucifixion such a sacrifice, because if he was just spirit-body then it’s like, “Great, I’m goin’ back.” Oftentimes, for me, research is great. Like, it’s great to take in a lot of information; it will give you ideas, and you’ll try to focus on, you know, what your character fuckin’ ate daily or whatever bullshit it is, right? But oftentimes it’s not until I start experiencing something, at least for me, that I start feeling close to it. I don’t know what the process is, but sometimes I just have to start having the experience. There was this healing scene we did, and it wasn’t until Garth [Davis, the director] and I started talking about it when we were on set, and I was in wardrobe, and I was touching the sand, did I start thinking about it differently — sort of feeling it instead of having this idea that in some ways was…I don’t know, I don’t want to say polluted, but in some ways polluted by the research that I did. I had a particular idea, and then when I got there it started changing. And I’m sure there’s still pieces of that work that are in there, but then it becomes something else — and to me, that’s the ideal place to get to.

 

 

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Tim Tebow: Do The Jets Really Need This Guy?

The deal between the New York Jets and the Denver Broncos for quarterback Tim Tebow is now complete.

Halleluiah!

Jesus’ favorite quarterback will be wearing green next season in exchange for two draft picks — a fourth-rounder and sixth-rounder in 2012 — thanks to a deal that nearly fell apart in the late stages yesterday afternoon.

As we noted yesterday, not everyone’s thrilled with the trade — more specifically, Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie isn’t thrilled with the trade (former Jets QB Joe Namath apparently also is on the list of those not fond of the move).

Cromartie took to Twitter yesterday to let the world know that the Jets didn’t need Tebow — he literally said “we don’t need Tebow.”

As obnoxious as getting hassled by a new colleague can be, Cromartie may have a point — even if it could have been better made in the confines of the Jets’ locker room.

The Jets just signed their presumed starter, Mark Sanchez, to a three-year contract extension — despite his already having thrown 51 interceptions (including three in the last game of the 2011 season), and having an unimpressive career QB rating of 73.2, in the three years he’s already been at the helm of Rex Ryan’s squad.

As Cromartie points out, the team made the decision to stick with Sanchez, so they should do what they can to build a team around him, not hold auditions for his replacement.

Aside from the contract extension for Sanchez, the Jets just picked up former Detroit Lions backup Drew Stanton (and gave him a $500,000 signing bonus), and still have former Alabama star Greg McElroy in their arsenal of wannabe B-squad quarterbacks.

Additionally, Tebow brings with him the guarantee that the first time Sanchez throws an interception, every drunk J-E-T-S fan at every home game — and every Tebow fan on the road — is gonna start chanting “Tebow! Tebow!” until sexy Rexy throws him in the game (it’s called Rookie of the Year Syndrome — and it happened with Tebow in Denver).

In other words, with a fan-favorite like Tebow holding his clipboard, there’s additional — unwanted, and un-needed — pressure on Sanchez.

However, Tebow seems to have the lord on his side, which can’t hurt things. He’s also a nice addition if the Jets want to start running a wildcat offense more frequently, which they likely will with Tony Sporano as the team’s new offensive coordinator.

There are pros and cons to having Tebow on the team. Cons: resources were used on him that could have been used elsewhere, and he could prove to be a distraction for Sanchez, the Jets’ 40-million-dollar man. Pros: Jesus and a wildcat offense.

We want to know what you think, though: do the Jets really need Tebow?

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With Crappy Photoshopping, the Church of Scientology Risks A Fatwa

Nobody ever accused the Cult of L. Ron of PR expertise.

As we pointed out in yesterday’s Studies in Crap post, the hilariously titled promotional pamphlet “Scientology: Something CAN Be Done About It” features a doozy of a photo-illustration guaranteed to offend, say, 3/4s of the world’s religious believers.

It presents the great leaders of religious history, from Buddha to Christ, all lined up evolution-chart style beneath a dinner-jacketed Scientologist wielding his oversized official handbook.

The implication: all of religious history has been building to this schmoe measuring your thetans.

What truly startles, though, is the inclusion of Mohammed just to the left of that bored looking Bed-Sheet Jesus. Yes, only the prophet’s eyes and hands are visible, but that’s not likely to comfort followers of the Hadith rules that strictly forbid any such depiction. Remember those Danish cartoons a couple years back?

Here’s Mohammed and a friend.

When it comes to offending all faiths with garish Photoshoppery, the Scientologists hit for the cycle.

Gape at its creepy, aestheticized “photo” of the Holocaust, which manages to make concentration camp victims look like Jesus, gray aliens, and REM’s “Losing My Religion” video . . . but sexy!

Doesn’t it look dreamy? This being the Scientologists, the pamphlet blames the Holocaust on psychiatrists. Who but L. Ron’s followers could unite Jews, conservative Arabs and western atheists in outrage?

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A Studies in Crap Anniversary Clip-Show: Seven Amusing Pieces of Crap Not Worth Writing Full Columns About

Each Thursday, your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets. I do this for one reason: Knowledge is power.

It’s been just over a year since the lord first commanded your Crap Archivst to reveal to the world the great heaps of crap clogging creation. Since then, Studies in Crap has exposed the finest in crazy preachers, out-dated sex guides, existential coloring books, and Limbaugh family Jell-O recipes.

My proudest entries: How to Be Happy Though Married, Tim LaHaye’s ladyparts-smell-funny book of marital advice, and McAllister Ransom’s brilliant/scarifying run-on of a novel Fuzzy Mules, Pink Slippers Volume One: Came a Clown. Everyone else’s favorite entry: Bill O’Reilly’s filthy audiobook Those Who Trespass.

Instead of a meal, this week we have a buffet. Instead, here’s seven ill-conceived publications worth being confused by.

1. First, some good news in the struggle against Tom Cruise’s overlords!

Yes, something can be done about Scientology!

While it may look like some prank from those Anonymous protesters, this poorly written pamphlet is the full-on real Hubbard deal, straight from a Scientology center.

The highlight is this photo illustration suggesting that all of the prophets and seers in religious history are mere steps toward the spiritual perfection achieved by the Scientology twerp who looms over them.

Jesus looks a little uncomfortable, which I can understand. I mean, he is standing next to Mohammad on Picture Day.

2. Jesus also turns up in our second book, which offers a revelation omitted from the gospels.

Author Parsley explains further on the back cover:

Turns out, the King of Kings was mighty inconsiderate.

3. Not that the ladies seem to mind.

4. There’s also some Jesus in our fourth Craplet, the October 2007 issue of The Torch, the “Christians United for Israel Magazine.” Here is an article that may surprise you:

How little our religious differences matter when there’s an apocalypse to root for!

5. Bob Maddux’s 1979 fantasy novel Gem of the Wanderer from Bible Voice Incoroporated fails to live up to the three promises on its covers.

First, it’s not “As contemporary as Star Wars,” as the back cover insists.

Neither is it “As timeless as The Lord of the Rings.”

Worst of all, it doesn’t truly star John Ritter.

6. Sometimes parents worry about future problems while ignoring the ones right in front of them.

Forget finances! Tell the little punk about diabetes!

And finally:

What a column this might have been! Never before has your Crap Archivist so yearned for a book to be more funny! But sadly, the most amusing thing this not-bad guide to weight-training exercises has for us is this:

Okay, and this:

But, really, is it too much to ask for just one measly paen to the great woman bodyshaper’s favorite body part?

Ah, what the hell? Here’s one more!

Image result for who cares about elderly people jpgAnd a special head’s up to my Connecticut crew! Next time you bellow nonsense at a town hall, ask yourself: Is that Joe Lieberman or Randy Travis? I’ve wanted to write about this for months, but now I’ve just been waving it around at town hall meetings while I shout about death panels!

Thanks for a great year, everybody!

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Studies in Crap’s Chocolate Fantasies Involve Creepy Seders, Swingers, and Baby Jesuses

Your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets. I do this for one reason: Knowledge is power.

Author: Verne Ricketts
Publisher: Lieba Inc., Baltimore
Date: 1985
Discovered at: Used book store

Take a look at that cover.

Consider this candy castle’s drooping gables, leaking roofs, and red-nippled towers.

Notice the resemblance between the wavy white shingles and cursive-writing homework second graders might have scribbled in the back of a bus jouncing across train tracks.

Study the severed doll’s head festooned to the window, or the mop-haired poop warrior cemented onto a pedestal out in front.

Accept that the title is no promise of slow jams, and ask yourself: is droopy, runny chocolate truly a medium for representational — even architectural — art?

]
Sure, chocolate can capture a molded bunny or an Easter Egg.
 
But a fairyland castle? Or this scene from Driving Miss Daisy?


ichocolatefantasiescar.jpg

I’m intrigued by the white (or, I guess, high-yellow) passenger in the rear, who screams in terror at this ride down the Hershey highway.

Author/chocolatier Ricketts includes instructions to help you create your own candy diorama celebrating pre-Civil Rights race relations He demands that you have waxed paper, graham-crackers, and little aesthetic sense. I’m less interested in his instructions than I am his results, which include this ambitious denunciation of our overcrowded schools.

ichocolatefantasieschocolateschool.jpg


The kids are popping out! And Lord knows what Chocolate Medea is up to!
Ricketts also attempts a Parliament stage set:

ichocolatefantasiesuschoc.jpg


I may question his technique, but I respect his willingness to apply his artistry to challenging themes. On the subject of middle-aged swinging, he’s just a touch more sugary than John Updike.

ichocolatefantasiesottub.jpg

His ambivalent conclusion: cavort in the hot tub long enough, and your lower halves will congeal.

Shocking Detail:
If Thomas Kinkade is the painter of light, Ricketts was the sculptor of blown septic tanks. I believe this one is called “All God’s Children Best Wipe Their Feet.”

ichocolatefantasieschocolateriver.jpg


It’s also a warning: do not store unpopped corn in your fireplace.

Highlight:
Ricketts’ most daring work chocolatizes the world’s religions.
 

ichocolatefantasieschocolateseder.jpg


Who could ever pass over a chocolate seder? The trained eye can discern that the fruit, decanter and fondue set are not made of chocolate. The clue is how they actually look like fruit, a decanter and a fondue set.
 
Of course, the true artist is unafraid to stare down controversy. Ricketts does so, here, with this excremental precursor to Andres Serrano’s 1987 “Piss Christ.”

ichocolatefantasieschocolatejesus.jpg


It’s almost enough to make me pity poor Ricketts. He may have been the first with this idea, but in terms of notoriety for creating bathroom Jesuses, he’s stuck at number two.

Thanks, Ricketts! This song’s for you!

[The Crap Archivist lives in Kansas City, where he originates his on-line Studies for the Voice‘s sister paper, The Pitch.]

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Paul Weyrich, religious-right icon, dies

Paul Weyrich, called by some the founding father of the religious right, is dead at the age of 66.

America is fortunate that Weyrich was born too late, because what he could have done with the Internet, oh Jesus!

The D.C.-based Weyrich has been out of the mainstream news for years now, but he was a very big deal before and during the Reagan era’s Great Leap Backward. In those glory days, he was a combination of cruise director and mailroom supervisor for the religious right, a behind-the-scenes guy who liked to think of himself as a thinker.

Energetic and argumentative, Weyrich was known, especially to himself, as someone who was right about every issue. He spent his whole life networking with others to prove it.

Before everybody went web-mad, Weyrich was exploring every opportunity to fight God’s battles electronically. Take a look at my February 1994 story “Passing on the Right: Conservative strategists gear up for the information highway.” Miraculously, you can find the long, long ago piece online. (You can tell how old the story is by my incessant use of the phrase “information highway,” for which I apologize.)

Writing at the time for the Denver alt weekly Westword, I stumbled upon a coven of religious-right folk having some embryonic satellite broadcasts beamed into their brains by one of Weyrich’s creations: an electronic conservative video/TV network.

I talked with Weyrich at some length about his new network — it sounded staggeringly boring and wonky. Here’s how I started the piece, which was only slightly less so:

The information highway begins with a sharp right turn just outside Windsor. From the roof of the Windsor Center, a small office building on the edge of this farm town fifty miles north of Denver, your brain will board a parabolic dish paid for by beer prince Jeffrey Coors and travel 23,000 miles above the planet to an orbiting satellite.

An instant later you will beam back down to Earth and the Washington, D.C., studios of National Empowerment Television, the newborn brainchild of former Denver newsman Paul M. Weyrich, who years ago coined the term “Moral Majority” for Jerry Falwell.

Many people will remember Weyrich for his having founded — with millions in beer money from Coors — the Heritage Foundation.

I’ll remember him for producing some really bad TV.

 

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Daily Flog: Break out the campaign! Party at the Waldorf!

Count the ways that Americans are cooked: Obama and McCain roast, the markets boil dry, Google sops up the gravy.

At last we have a slogan for this century’s depression: United We Fall! Last night was a celebration of our one-party system, and what a party it was.

The Al Smith Dinner at the Waldorf was a prime example of the lame leading the blind.

Were the candidates themselves cooking?

My colleague Roy Edroso delivered the best post-dinner punch line:

But seriously, folks, these guys kinda suck. We give the edge to McCain, but that’s like saying Jeff Foxworthy is funnier than Bill Engvall.

Oh, SNAP! Still haven’t gotten a review of the dinner from the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests.

But after you take a look at the photo of Cardinal Egan heartily laughing with John McCain and Barack Obama and you read the New York Times tiresome recap (like everyone else’s) of the jokes, browse SNAP’s library of stories about abused altar boys and shuttered churches in poor areas. Or go straight to a reprint of a 2003 Times story, “Cardinal Egan Spurns Members of Review Board Studying Abuse.”

That one’s a real knee-slapper.

At least Obama and McCain were funnier than John Kerry was at the 2004 dinner. Actually, Kerry didn’t even get a chance to display his humorless personality because Egan didn’t invite the candidates. That was because of the Catholic Kerry’s stance on abortion.

And in 1996, the candidates weren’t invited because Cardinal O’Connor was pissed off at Bill Clinton over abortion.

Good thing 2001 wasn’t a presidential election year, Wall Street being bombed and all.

This year, Wall Street’s bombing itself, and more (but slower) deaths can only result from the resulting depression into which we’re sinking.

Speaking of leftovers . . .

NO PARTICULAR ORDER:

McClatchy: ‘3rd-party debate’s only confirmed participant: the moderator’

N.Y. Daily News: ‘Where you sit says a lot about where you stand at annual Al Smith dinner’

Politico: ‘McCain, Obama try to be funny…on purpose’

Washington Post: ‘Life’s Basics More of a Stretch: Inflation, Stagnating Pay Squeeze Low-Wage Workers’

McClatchy: ‘ “Birthplace of Flight” is on bleeding edge of job losses’

Wall Street Journal: ‘Financial Crisis May Diminish American Sway’

Wall Street Journal: ‘Oil’s Slide Deepens as Downturn Triggers Sharp Drop in Demand’

BBC: ‘US industrial output down sharply’

McClatchy: ‘Google’s Net Climbs 26 Percent’

McClatchy: ‘Private sector loans, not Fannie or Freddie, triggered crisis’

BBC: ‘European shares lose early gains’

BBC: ‘China press freedoms due to end’

N.Y. Daily News: ‘Nude portrait of Sarah Palin hung in Chicago tavern’

BBC: ‘Police battle police in Brazil’

Slate: ‘Dubya, Stoned’

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Daily Flog: ‘No one convicted!’; nationwide search for Obama’s mojo; McCain wallows in blood of Christ

Running down the press:

Daily News: ‘Hubby of cheating prisoner psychologist says wife is ‘ideal citizen’

What’s better news, especially on the brink of a depression, than reading about the mortification of a Wall Street investment banker? John Marzulli writes:

A Wall Street investment banker married to a former prison psychologist accused of having an affair with a reputed Bloods gang member is standing by his cheating wife.

Joshua Spitz, a vice president at Lehman Brothers, is begging a federal judge to show mercy to his disgraced wife, Magdalena Sanchez, who is facing up to six months in jail for lying to investigators about the illicit sex romps in her office at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.

In a letter to Federal Judge Allyne Ross, he writes that Sanchez “was the perfect picture portrait of an ideal citizen.”

In explaining her “loss of judgment,” Spitz said his wife was grieving over the death of her brother and that he was unavailable to her due to working long hours at the office.

Or maybe Spitz is so forgiving because, like Spitzer, he likes to picture others having sex.

This story is of national importance: The economy’s so bad that even the wives of investment bankers are finally going down.


New Yorker: ‘Let It Rain’

Clever hed, once you start reading Hendrik “Rick” Hertzberg‘s provocative piece about John McCain‘s use of the blood of Christ to try to wash away his previous sinning against the religious right. The mag’s promo helps draw you in:

With the selection of Sarah Palin, McCain completes the job of defusing the enmity (and forgoing the honor) he earned in 2000, when he condemned Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance” . . .

Post: ‘GOV GOES FOR JUGULAR AGAINST “DRACULA” POLS’

Don’t blame reporter Brendan Scott for the ludicrous photoshopped Sheldon-Silver-as-Dracula photo accompanying this piece. The Post editors were simply trying to make a feast out of a story that was nothing but a morsel:

As Sheldon Silver and other legislators prepared to do battle in today’s primaries, Gov. Paterson yesterday called state lawmakers political Draculas – “bloodsuckers” who tell constituents one thing by day before going back to their wicked ways when the sun goes down.

NY Observer: ‘Palin and the Charlie Gibson Strategy’

While we wait to see whether Sarah Palin will become either the next vice president of the United States or the next spokeswoman for LensCrafters (see Adweek), Steve Kornacki has an interesting take about the involvement of another lightweight, Charlie Gibson, in this heavyweight decision. Kornacki’s first three (long) grafs:

In theory, Charlie Gibson has the power to expose Sarah Palin as the fantastically uninformed foreign policy thinker that most Democrats — and, if primed with a healthy dose of truth serum, probably more than a few Republicans—believe her to be.

The ABC newsman, who scored the first of what will surely be scant few major media sit-downs with John McCain’s running mate, could very easily do what a mischievous Boston television reporter did to George W. Bush in 1999 and spring a pop quiz on the unseasoned politician, measuring her knowledge (or lack thereof) of some elementary facts about global hotspots.

There’s no shortage of possible questions that could be asked, and while the ethics and relevancy of playing gotcha would be debated endlessly after the fact, the sight of Mrs. Palin flailing to answer such a basic question — or even providing an incorrect response — would instantly and powerfully drive home to millions of voters the Democrats’ contention that a person who has been governor of Alaska for 20 months (and, before that, mayor of a town with fewer people than the average Arena Football League game attracts) is frighteningly ill-prepared to assume the presidency of the United States.


Times: ‘No One Convicted of Terror Plot to Bomb Planes’

In a shocking development, the Times conjured up the best headline of the morning — even if it didn’t match the story’s namby-pamby lede. Just think about the above headline. Think about it, as the first thing you see over your morning Diet Coke. But you can’t tell what the hell’s up when you read the lede graf by John F. Burns and Elaine Sciolino:

LONDON — A lengthy trial centering on what Scotland Yard called a plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners ended Monday when the jury convicted three of eight defendants of conspiracy to commit murder.

Huh? Then you read the next two grafs and you understand why there was a seemingly no-news headline when you first spotted it:

But the jury failed to reach verdicts on the more serious charge of a conspiracy to have suicide bombers detonate soft-drink bottles filled with liquid explosives aboard seven airliners headed for the United States and Canada.

The failure to obtain convictions on the plane-bombing charge was a blow to counterterrorism officials in London and Washington, who had described the scheme as potentially the most devastating act of terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks seven years ago this week. British and American experts had said that the plot had all the signs of an operation by Al Qaeda, and that it was conceived and organized in Pakistan.

Just think: If the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld troika hadn’t diverted U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2002 in order to unjustifiably invade Iraq in 2003 — and if practically all Democrats except now-dead Paul Wellstone hadn’t gone along with that scheme — those troops might very well have captured Osama bin Laden or other Al Qaeda bigwigs who actually did carry out a terror plot involving planes.

Instead, almost exactly seven years after 9/11 we have a headline that banners, “No one convicted!”


Daily News: ‘It ain’t over till the polls close, but Obama needs to get his mojo back’

I’ll read any story labeled “analysis” that contains the word “ain’t.” Though all this poll talk is generally only news because it leads to self-fulfilling prophecies, Thomas DeFrank does pretty well:

Not that long ago, John McCain was toast. Is he now suddenly unstoppable?

That’s what some breathless Republicans – and even a few jittery Democrats – whispered Monday after new polls showed McCain has vaulted past Barack Obama and leads by as much as 10 points among likely voters.

It’s time to take a very deep breath. The only thing right about conventional wisdom is that every four years, it’s usually wrong. Ask President Henry Clay, President Dewey, President Muskie, President Romney (George, not Mitt) or President Hillary.


Times: ‘Rescue of Mortgage Giants Displays Paulson’s Clout’

Once again, as on yesterday, you’re better off reading McClatchy‘s Kevin G. Hall, because the Times‘s Sheryl Gay Stolberg, pursuing the great-man theory of history-making that’s typical for her paper, ledes with:

President Bush may be the nation’s first M.B.A. president, but when Mr. Bush and a small coterie of advisers met in the Oval Office last week to complete their plan to rescue the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, there was no question who was in charge.

First mistake: Future historians might conclude that George W. Bush was smart, or his MBA wouldn’t have been mentioned. As if Bush could even conceive of or carry out a bailout plan, regardless of his business degree.

Then Stolberg again ignores reality by making the Fannie/Freddie bailout seem like another unilateral U.S. move (like the Iraq invasion) by blindly extending her great-man approach of writing instant history:

It was Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. who first proposed the idea of a government conservatorship, and broached it with Mr. Bush while the president was at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. It was Mr. Paulson who set the guiding principles for the subsequent deal; Mr. Bush endorsed them, a departure from usual White House practice, in which the president articulates principles for his underlings to follow.

It was Mr. Paulson who, in that Oval Office meeting, plotted the weekend introduction of the plan so as not to rattle financial markets. And it was Mr. Paulson, not the president, who met with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives on Saturday to deliver the unpleasant news that they were now out of jobs.

Just in case you don’t believe her, she gets confirmation from one of Bush’s flacks:

“He was all the way in the driver’s seat, and that was where the president wanted him,” said Tony Fratto, Mr. Bush’s deputy press secretary, adding, “The sentiment was, ‘You’re in charge, and I hope it works.’ ”

McClatchy’s Hall gets it right, and the following excerpt (his first five grafs), though necessarily lengthy, should explain who really has clout (hint: it ain’t Paulson):

When Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced the weekend seizure of mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, he cited the need to stabilize nervous financial markets and bolster the slumping housing market.

What he didn’t say publicly is that foreigners, among other big institutional investors, had lost confidence in one of the most vital and plain-vanilla U.S. investments. In a sense, they were losing confidence in the world’s largest economy, and he needed to reverse matters.

“That’s the unstated objective,” said Vincent Reinhart, a former chief economist of the Federal Reserve’s rate-setting Open Market Committee.

That underscores how interdependent U.S. finance has become with the global marketplace. Although they underwrote much of America’s growth in the early 19th century, in more recent times foreigners hadn’t been large holders of U.S. agency debt until about 1999, and the trend grew through much of President Bush’s term in parallel with the nation’s housing boom.

Foreigners hold an estimated 20 percent of Fannie and Freddie debt, commonly called agency debt. Since that debt is backed by U.S. mortgages, keeping foreigners buying this debt is vital if the housing market is to recover.

Note, especially, the last two grafs cited above. If Joseph H. “Joe” Blow had been Treasury secretary, he would have had to take the same step. If the Bush regime hadn’t brainlessly let the economy tumble out of control and thus heedlessly allow foreign governments to continue seizing control of our record-setting debt, we might not be in such a pickle. There goes that great-man theory of history.

Also note that the first person Hall quotes is a real person, not an Administration flack.

The Wall Street Journal, which always works hard to produce realistic business news — its target audience demands the straight scoop on how fellow goniffs are making out — has even more detail that makes Paulson out to be more of just another re-actor than an actor.

After noting that investors’ “relief” (yesterday’s report from the ER) has turned into “cheers” (today’s health news), the paper reports:

[N]ew details emerged of the pressures that led up to Treasury’s plan to take the reins of the troubled companies. In the weeks before the government’s intervention, nervous foreign finance officials barraged Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve officials to find out what was happening with the mortgage giants, according to people familiar with the matter.

Among those expressing concern were Asian investors, including the Chinese, say two people familiar with the matter. Foreign banks’ concerns were among the factors that helped prompt the government’s move on Sunday to take over Fannie and Freddie, these people say.

 

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Daily Flog: Kicking the habit but blindly drunk, hounded by Afghans, woofed at by Hillary

Running down the press:

To the dismay of headline buffs, the New York Post let a good one slip away this morning. Buried in its canned Weird But True roundup is the news that Italian priest Antonio Rungi planned a beauty contest for nuns, “Miss Sister 2008,” but canceled it under pressure.

And this isn’t a separate splash in the Post?

The tab decided to focus on the other beauty content, the one in Denver, where it managed to get in a well-justified shot at Hillary:

HILL: ‘BARACK’S MY CANDIDATE’; BUT HEAPS MORE PRAISE ON HER BACKERS THAN ON HIM

Brendan Scott and Maggie Haberman crafted a solid lede:

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton last night declared that former rival Barack Obama “is my candidate” and urged her backers to let go, lay down their swords and vote for him over John McCain.

But while throwing her political weight behind her one-time foe, Clinton said little that boosted Obama’s personal story, political résumé — nor did she defend him against GOP attacks that he’s unqualified for office.

Good piece, but the Post didn’t have to kick its headline habit by practically ignoring the beauty contest for nuns.

Christ, it merited separate pieces in outlets around the world — even in the government-controlled Kazinform in Kazakhstan.

The Calgary Sun headlined it “Sisters’ Pageant Just Nun-Sense,” and the Daily Mash in the U.K. proclaimed, “Nun Lovers Devastated” before veering off into its usual satire by “quoting” Rungi:

“I wanted to reflect the inner beauty of my holy sisters. But if you just want to look at nuns’ tits then I suggest you try the Jesuits.”

Even the mostly moribund Chicago Sun-Times found space amid its Demo convention news to weigh in with “Beauty Contest Doesn’t Have Prayer.”

Isn’t it big news when a priest is obsessed with female beauty?


Salon: ‘We drive as we live’

Kevin Berger had the good sense to hitch a ride on NYC’s mad streets and expressways with Brooklyn’s Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. (See Vanderbilt’s blog.)

Reporting from the front (seat), Berger weaves:

“You have to be careful here,” [Vanderbilt] says. “People come blazing out of the Battery Tunnel with an E-Z Pass and don’t stop for you.”

“I notice you didn’t signal,” I say.

“It’s New York drivers. It’s one thing I’ve observed from living here: They will not slow down. It’s almost like you’re taunting them. I was told in Boston that signaling is revealing your intentions to the enemy. It’s the same here. You’re better off not signaling.”


Times: ‘Clinton Delivers Emphatic Plea for Unity’

Ridiculously lame headline that doesn’t even back up the story’s angle, which is surprisingly heady, at least in the second graf. Unfortunately, even there, Patrick Healy and his editors made sure that the syntax was typically stiff and stilted:

With her husband looking on tenderly and her supporters watching with tears in their eyes, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton deferred her own dreams on Tuesday night and delivered an emphatic plea at the Democratic National Convention to unite behind her rival, Senator Barack Obama, no matter what ill will lingered.

Mrs. Clinton, who was once certain that she would win the Democratic nomination this year, also took steps on Tuesday — deliberate steps, aides said — to keep the door open to a future bid for the presidency. She rallied supporters in her speech, and, at an earlier event with 3,000 women, described her passion about her own campaign. And her aides limited input on the speech from Obama advisers, while seeking advice from her former strategist, Mark Penn, a loathed figure in the Obama camp.


Times: ‘Taliban Gain New Foothold in Afghan City After Attack’

Too bad that Carlotta Gall‘s important story from Kandahar has a feature-y lede on such a good hard-news piece. The significance of a Taliban jail break in June starts in her third and fourth grafs, and you have to give the Times credit for surprisingly using such adjectives as “spectacular” and “catastrophic” in the same sentence:

The prison break, on June 13, was a spectacular propaganda coup for the Taliban not only in freeing their comrades and flaunting their strength, but also in exposing the catastrophic weakness of the Afghan government, its army and the police, as well as the international forces trying to secure Kandahar.

In the weeks since the prison break, security has further deteriorated in this southern Afghan city, once the de facto capital of the Taliban, that has become a renewed front line in the battle against the radical Islamist movement. The failure of the American-backed Afghan government to protect Kandahar has rippled across the rest of the country and complicated the task of NATO forces, which have suffered more deaths here this year than at any time since the 2001 invasion.

Why she didn’t lede with the fourth graf is beyond her editors. And that contributed, no doubt, to the soft headline on a story carrying ominous news about what may turn out to be a watershed moment in the worsening Afghan War.


Times: ‘A Decline in Uninsured Is Reported for 2007’

As predicted in yesterday’s Press Clips, the big dailies mostly limped home in the race to report the bad economic news eructated by the Census Bureau.

But there was some good nagging. Go straight to Steven Pearlstein‘s column in the Washington Post. He cuts through the bullshit:

Hey, good news on the income front: The Census Bureau reported yesterday that median earnings for full-time male workers rose by $1,653 last year, to $45,113, after adjusting for inflation.

Another year like that, and maybe the typical male worker will finally catch up to where he was in 1973.

The Times‘s Ian Urbina focused almost solely on the health-insurance angle of the stats.

The WashPost‘s news story, by Michael A. Fletcher, takes another angle, the poverty rate.

But Urbina’s focus on the health-insurance figures is at least serviceable because he throws in the big caveats very high. (Disclosure: I’ve edited Urbina’s work and respect it.)

And Urbina got some good context that dampens the supposedly good news about the number of uninsured Americans:

Health-care experts and advocates for the poor said the report also presented an outdated picture regarding health insurance. The rate of people without health insurance declined to 15.3 percent in 2007, from 15.8 percent a year earlier.

“In 2007, at least 26 states made efforts to expand coverage, but as the economy has turned downward so have state efforts,” said Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Ms. Rowland added that insurance premiums had risen faster than wages and inflation, causing more people to seek insurance from public programs.


Daily Scotsman: ‘Young Scots risk losing their sight in bid to get blind drunk’

The best story of the day, and it’s too bad that the big U.S. papers ignored it.

The Times, for instance, limited its Scotland coverage this morning to “the Royal Bank of Scotland announced on Wednesday it appointed a trio of non-executive directors in effort to address weaknesses on its board.”

Fascinating. Now here’s the interesting news out of Edinburgh, courtesy of Craig Brown:

With one of the highest rates of binge drinking among teenagers, Scotland already has an unenviable reputation with alcohol. But now experts are warning about a new trend among young people that is aimed at speeding up the process of getting drunk – pouring shots of alcohol directly into their eyes.

Known as “one-in-the-eye”, it involves using shot glasses in a manner similar to that of eye-wash.

Despite the risk of blindness, users hope that by absorbing the alcohol via the membranes of the eye, it will enter the bloodstream more quickly and have a stronger effect when it reaches the brain.

Brown’s piece continues with a taste of history of this, like, totally insane practice, dude:

Originating in the bars of holiday resorts on the continent, the dangerous fad has caught on in university bars and nightclubs, despite potentially catastrophic consequences.

One leading doctor warned those who indulge in the craze are seriously endangering their sight.

Expect more hipsters than usual staggering around Williamsburg’s streets.


Daily News: ‘Hillary Clinton leaves no room to doubt support for Barack Obama’

Talk about going blind:

Playing the role of healer, an impassioned Hillary Clinton delivered the most dramatic speech of her storied life Tuesday night – even if it wasn’t the one she wanted to give.

Moving forcefully but gracefully to tamp down the enduring bitterness over her tough primary battle with Barack Obama, Clinton unequivocally beseeched her Democratic supporters to follow her lead and vote for the Illinois senator in November.

Ludicrous, though you can’t help but perversely love the 19th century feel of “unequivocally beseeched.”

Fill the inkwell and fetch the carriage, my good man! I warrant there’s no dearth of speechifying to report to the citizenry!

 

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Daily Flog: Campaign’s rich laughs; Bolt beats Phelps; fatal wounds to Musharraf, John Galt, Georgia, and a boxer

Running down the press:

Gross overplaying of the Phelps story all over the press — “his cellphone is blowing up . . . the hottest commodity in China right now was made in the USA,” ESPN breathlessly “reports” this morning.

No matter all the hubbub about Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals — he’s great, even though some of them were earned with the collaboration of others, and all of them were predicted — here’s the fact:

Usain Bolt: Fastest person on Earth. Unexpected, and in the most basic, fundamental athletic competition.

Next to him, Phelps is just another pretty gill.

I love to swim, and luckily I live by the ocean. But any kid who’s ever run around a playground (and that’s just about every kid on the planet who’s physically able to) can appreciate what Usain Bolt did, despite the fact that he’s a Jamaican, not a jingoized American athlete.

Simon Turnbull says it best, in the Independent (U.K.):

For 9.69 seconds, this 6ft 5in Jamaican phenomenon had taken off and touched speeds no human had ever before reached without technological assistance.

We’re assuming (and hoping) that Bolt is not on on a speed-inducing drug (or drug-induced speed).

And so what if he coasted and boasted to the finish line? What winning kid on the playground hasn’t?


Times: ‘U.S. Watched as a Squabble Turned Into a Showdown’

The paper promo’d it this way:

The U.S. seemed to have missed — or gambled it could manage — the depth of Russia’s anger and the resolve of Georgia’s leader to provoke the Russians.

In other words, George W. Bush can say, as he said in Iraq in May 2003: “Mission accomplished.”


Times: ‘In Areas Under Russian Control, Limits for Western Media’

Russian authorities have given Western journalists little or no access to villages that have been looted and burned in Russian-controlled areas of South Ossetia and northern Georgia, making a full public accounting of the aftermath of the violence here all but impossible.

Would it be asking too much — and I guess it was — to at least mention the severe limits the Bush regime likewise placed on Western journalists covering the Iraq War who weren’t embedded?

Not asking for a mention of the phony agitprop that the Bush regime sometimes tried to get away with (I broke one of those stories, in October 2005).

Just one tiny mention of the Bush regime’s censorship of press coverage in Iraq.


Post: ‘SLAIN BOXER’S ‘DANCE’ OF DEATH’

Nice job by Joe Mollica on a very brief piece:

Dancing to blaring music from his hours-old car stereo sparked the murder of rising South Bronx boxer Ronney “Venezuela” Vargas, his grieving older brother said yesterday.

Post: ‘SHELTER IS. REHAB STORM’

A proposal to open a luxury drug and alcohol rehab center on the grounds of a historic East End inn has enraged area residents, who fear the chi-chi cleanup camp will spoil their island’s tranquility.

The owners of the Ram’s Head Inn, overlooking Coecles Bay on tony Shelter Island, have agreed to lease their 18-room colonial building to an entrepreneur who hopes to have the sober school up and running in November.

“Sober school,” right. I stayed there several years ago, when it was a well-appointed, but dying and empty, hotel, and the place was as creepy as the manse in The Shining.

Maybe it would scare these rich addicts straight.


Post: ‘DA TIGHTENS NOOSE IN DEUTSCHE PROBE: GRAND JURY WEIGHS RAPS VS. CONTRACTOR’

A self-proclaimed “exclusive” on the 9/11 reconstruction-in-progress building:

One year after two firefighters died in a ferocious inferno at the former Deutsche Bank building, a grand jury has been eyeing evidence of racketeering and money laundering against the contractors in charge of the structure, The Post has learned.

Among the issues being probed is that officials from John Galt Corp., which was subcontracted by Bovis Lend Lease to raze the tower, laundered millions of dollars through various shell companies, sources said yesterday.

One angle the story doesn’t address: Who are the principals of this corporation that’s being probed?

More to the point: Who is John Galt? Waiting for Dagny Taggart‘s folo.


Daily News: ‘Safety warnings were ignored before Deutsche Bank fire’

Not too exclusively, this story has more detail, noting:

Inspectors hired to look for safety failings warned a dozen times that John Galt, the company decontaminating and demolishing the tower, did not have enough safety managers to watch for blowtorch sparks.

Wait till Dagny Taggart finds John Galt. You’ll really see some sparks.


L.A. Times: ‘Who’s rich? McCain and Obama have very different definitions’

Some rich campaign laughs, some of them at McCain’s expense, in Greg Miller‘s extremely interesting piece this morning.

Obama: “I would argue that if you are making more than $250,000, then you are in the top 3, 4 percent of this country. You are doing well.”

McCain: “I think if you’re just talking about income, how about $5 million?” He added that he knew “that comment will be distorted”; his campaign later insisted that he was joking.

What a knee-slapper.

Seriously, some of the quotes in the story are funny.

No doubt Miller’s editors insisted on the tired old dictum of making him get quotes from “experts,” but the ones he dug up are doozies:

Rand economist James P. Smith: “To be fair to both of them, ‘rich’ is an adjective. Economic science is not going to tell you that ‘this’ is the cutoff point.”

Americans are laughing all the way to the food bank.

Not mentioned in Miller’s story — I’m not being critical of him — is the “economic science”. From the Census Bureau in August 2007, some “cutoff points”:

There were 36.5 million people in poverty in 2006, not statistically different from 2005. The number of people without health insurance coverage rose from 44.8 million (15.3 percent) in 2005 to 47 million (15.8 percent) in 2006.

And what’s the official cutoff of “poverty”?

As defined by the Office of Management and Budget and updated for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, the weighted average poverty threshold for a family of four in 2006 was $20,614; for a family of three, $16,079; for a family of two, $13,167; and for unrelated individuals, $10,294.

Agence France Presse analyzed those stats this way:

The number of poor out of the total US population of 302 million was equivalent to the entire state of California — paradoxically one of the richest states — one-and-a-half times the population of Malaysia or nearly everyone in the central European nation of Poland living in poverty.

Not trying to be funny, I wrote in September 2004, during that particularly abysmal presidential campaign:

As NYU professor Ed Wolff has pointed out, the richest 1 percent of American households own 38 percent of all wealth. And as the Center for Responsive Politics notes, fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population gave 83 percent of all campaign contributions over $200 for the 2002 midterm congressional elections.

But let’s get back to the Census Bureau’s economic science: An American family of four making $25,000 a year is not officially in poverty. But here’s the good news: They don’t have health insurance, so they don’t have to spend any of their money on it.

That’s also not in Miller’s story. But his other piece of rich humor from an “expert”:

Len Burman of the research org Tax Policy Center, noting that 95 percent of people “think they are middle class”: “I guess it says something nice about America that rich people don’t want to act like they’re better than anybody else and poor people don’t like complaining about how tough it is to pay their bills.”

Of course it’s possible that rich people who aren’t super-duper rich are just being jealous while they’re relentlessly striving to want to join up with the super-duper rich. Nice.

And, poor people don’t like complaining about their plight? What do you think their dinner-table conversation is like — when they have enough food to have dinner?


Washington Post: ‘Across the Northeast, GOP’s Hold Lessens: Party’s Decline Could Worsen as More Areas Lean Democratic’

The D.C. paper’s Ben Pershing does a recon of my state and reports back:

As recently as 1998, 13 of New York’s 31 House districts were represented by Republicans. Today, just six of 29 seats are in the GOP column (the state lost two seats after the 2000 census), and four of those six are in danger of falling to Democrats in November.

Washington Post: ‘Musharraf to Resign as President of Pakistan’

Candace Rondeaux (I’ve worked with her, and she’s good) quotes the ex-strongman’s speech with a straight face. Because this is ostensibly a news story, she probably wasn’t allowed to analyze those three sentences, so I will:

“I am leaving with the satisfaction [delusional] that whatever I could do for this country I did it with integrity [no]. I am a human too [maybe]. I could have made mistakes [not only could, but did] but I believe that the people will forgive me [no].”

Post: ‘HOMING IN ON PROFITS: INVESTOR SEES NICE MARGINS ON BULK REO BUYS’

One foreign government is eagerly swooping down to make a killing on our foreclosure crisis.

But which country is it? (Actually, which government is it this time?) The story refers to a “sovereign” — see this definition — and Terri Buhl writes this press-release-sounding piece:

“If investors want to make sizeable returns they have to know their market, buy at the right price, and have a solid exit strategy,” says one mortgage consultant hired by a real estate broker working for a foreign investor. The investor, a sovereign fund, is believed to have $29 billion available to purchase some of the 750,000 or so bank-owned, or REO (real-estate owned), homes in the US.

While the sovereign fund – along with hedge funds, Wall Street banks and private investors – expects to profit handsomely from snatching up these REO properties, the deals now beginning to take place around the country will also benefit the public at large and the markets by cleaning up banks’ balance sheets, unclogging the lending pipeline and getting folks back into affordable homes.

Back into affordable homes? Now that’s funny.

At least the Post regularly has more business news than any other NYC daily (aside from the Wall Street Journal, and not counting the New York Times‘s constipated, usually uninteresting bulk).

For those who don’t know, a “sovereign” investor is a government-controlled entity — think Dubai’s investment companies, which are actually the UAE’s government, which is gobbling up NYC properties.

But, again, which country is the one in this Post story? And does John Galt live there?