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Bob Woodward, Inside Dope

CAPITAL HELL: Club Fed

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA — Nobody in Washington — and certainly not in a White House by now incapable of telling wheat from chaff, crisis-wise — is saying the obvious thing about Bob Woodward’s The Agenda, which is that the book itself is inconsequential. It’s not as if the fecklessness and crossed purposes with which Clinton’s rookie team brought forth last year’s budget went unreported at the time. Having the story regurgitate in Woodward’s familiar, dreadful, see-Jack-govern style is bombshell stuff if only the reader following the author’s lead, considers what everybody had for lunch to be the key detail, scandalously withheld. (It seems they all ordered the smoking gun.)

Yet inside the capital, you’d waste you time bringing up The Agenda‘s debatable merits as a chronicle, because here the book is being appraised more sportingly — as a chess piece that’s just been brought into play. While Woodward, as usual, declaims taking sides, he hardly needs to take one to be on one: in his hometown, whoever denigrates his work is instantly rated a Clinton apologist, which naturally no one cares to be accused of.

And yikes, me neither, although I do admit that The Agenda did get me feeling a certain sympathy for old spume-haired Bill, on purely humane grounds. The tip-off to how few scoops Woodward got on the policy front is that he’d  been touting the book’s inside dope about Clinton’s character, chiefly that the chief executive often blows his top in private and that he says “fuck” a lot. (Hortense, fetch my drool-cup.) The revelation of Clinton’s awesome inability to make up his mind, however, is a good deal more devastating, and the embassies concerned have presumably wasted no time telexing Woodward’s hot flash to Pyongyang and Sarajevo.

In fact, there’s nothing in the book that deserves to seriously alter anyone’s opinion, pro or con, of either Clinton or his presidency. Yet the overall effect is insidious simply because Woodward has chosen to put every nattering tidbit he culled between hard covers, thereby giving the mundane a frequently unwarranted air of the fraught. While the narrative’s flat, remote tone conceivably meets some abstract standard of reportorial objectivity, it’s scarcely neutral. True, Woodward interviewed every White House wallah worth talking to, but when their recollected watercooler squabbles are given the same weight as important developments, the one safe bet is that they’re going to sound like boobs — boobs in crisis.

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Woodward recounts last year’s near debacle over the hudget as the story of an education — that is, of the newly arrived Clintonites’ “slow and torturous awakening” to how Washington does business. Step by dispiriting step, he traces president-elect Clinton’s early acceptance of the conventional wisdom that deficit cutting mattered more than the economic policies he’d campaigned on, leading to a futile  scramble to salvage at least some of the budget package’s rapidly dwindling reformist components (investments in infrastructure, an energy tax) from the contending demands of the Senate, the House, and rival camps of presidential advisors. He describes how it became a crucial test of of Clinton’s presidency to pass a bill so out of whack with his original intentions that he’d already all by disavowed it to his aides. After their squeaker victory, the White House team recognizd with chagrin that they’d turned into exactly the sort of makeshift managers of business-as-usual that they’d come to town hoping to dispossess for good.

If Woodward gave a rat’s keester about the Clintonites’ abandoned goals, The Agenda would make powerful reading. But as far as he’s concerned, the point of the story is it’s happy ending, which is this pack of newcomers’ bloody-nosed acquisition of (that is, acquiescence to) insider savvy. He isn’t hand-wringingly dismayed over what happened, or even attractively sardonic: he’s approving. The book’s complacent equations of change with amateurishness, and of shrewdness with business as usual, are a little breathtaking — it’s How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the District.

Woodward, of course, is himself an old hand in institutional Washington — which means that, at least in some circles, his standing is rather more assured than Clinton’s is. To the permanent political population, all outsiders are parvenus even if they happen to be living in the White House. That’s why the permanent popula­tion is unconfessedly nostalgic for Bush: sure he stank as a presi­dent, but he was one of their own.

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But Clinton annoys them. True, he frequently caves in to their pri­orities, with an alacrity that to us bystanders looks like unseemly haste. Yet the mere fact that he has to cave in, instead of having shared those priorities from the start, keeps him suspect. He’s also what people used to call goal-ori­ented, to the somewhat manic de­gree that, when unable to choose between conflicting goals, he pur­sues all of them at once with equal heartiness. (It never occurs to him to do nothing: quite often, he ends up with worse than nothing, be­cause he’s expended so much en­ergy to so little effect.) Yet among Washington’s permanent popula­tion, results aren’t ranked all that high — like presidents, they come and go. The imperative value is the process, which is, like them, permanent. Little offends them more than some freshly elected clown’s misperception that the process is a way they get things done, and not the thing they do.

To permanent Washington’s mind, Clinton’s presidency still doesn’t seem quite valid. In this, curiously enough, they’re at one with the Christian right, which has by now merrily embraced a conviction that the outcome of the ’92 election was fraudulent. (Not the vote, just the outcome; it’s all pretty mysterious.) The curiosity is that nothing rattles permanent Washington these days like the rise of fundamentalist populism­ — though it’s the populist part, not the ideology, that gets the insiders nervous. Yet between them, per­manent Washington’s contempt and the Christian right’s broad­sides have gone a long way toward fostering a widespread if vague public perception, of a fascinating­ly unprecedented sort, that Clin­ton is somehow less than legiti­mate — an impression Clinton himself doesn’t do much to dis­courage with his chronic tendency to act as if he thinks he’s won a game show called President for a Day.

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Unlike Rush Limbaugh or even Newt Gingrich, Woodward is hardly trying to cripple a presiden­cy. (He’s already done that, right?) But like his fellow perma­nent Washingtonians, he thinks it only fitting to put Clinton in his place. In The Agenda, with nig­gling exceptions, all of the people Clinton brought to the capital with him come off badly. Every­body who was already in Washing­ ton comes off well. The atrocious Lloyd Bentsen, whose status as America’s most overrated public figure gives a fair idea of perma­nent Washington’s taste in self-­regard, is portrayed as a distin­guished and sagacious old sort even when he’s undercutting his new colleagues by making public pronouncements at odds with their strategy, as Bentsen acciden­tally-on-purpose managed to do twice during the budget fracas. Al Gore gets both kinds of treatment: he’s depicted as a numbskull when he’s being pushy about the environment and such, but viewed with new respect when he’s skill­fully carving out a niche for him­self in the White House turf wars, the latter being the kind of en­deavor that permanent Washing­ton has no trouble understanding and endorsing.

Also handled with noticeable cordiality is David Gergen — who was hired, of course, as Clinton’s desperate signal to permanent Washington that he was giving up on bypassing them. At one point, we’re urged to empathize with Gergen’s melancholy when young Clintonites tactlessly make “parti­san” — i.e., anti-Reagan — com­ments in his presence. Woodward is silent on whether Gergen’s ecu­menical sensitivities were similarly agitated by the backroom banter during his tenures in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan White Houses­ — although it is nice to know that Gergen, who accepted Clinton’s job offer with a much-praised speech about his duty to answer his president’s call, dickered be­hind the scenes for some days to make sure he’d get a high-sound­ing title.

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Last week, the White House trundled Gergen out on Face the Nation to respond to The Agenda with some welcome news. Nowa­days, said Gergen, the president was getting much better at con­trolling his temper. This was duly reported. It was also appropriate, since the book’s most damaging characterizations of Clinton’s out­bursts are written from Gergen’s perspective — “It was truly awful, on the edge of controlled violence … He had never quite seen an adult, let alone a president, in such a rage.” Presidents on the edge of controlled violence used to fire aides for such indiscretions, but Gergen leads a charmed life. He could cook Socks on a spit at the next press barbecue and the Clintons would still have to keep him on, because he’s their perma­nent-Washington status symbol­ — sort of a cross between a hostage and a trophy wife. They can only hope that when he quits, it won’t be at a juncture that will actively embarrass them.

As for The Agenda‘s descrip­tions of an administration in per­petual disarray, I’ve got no doubt that they’re accurate so far as they go. But the impression that’s conveyed of floundering bumpkinism occupies a void, because we’re giv­en no comparisons to how previ­ous White Houses handled deci­sion making. More lopsidedly, the other players in the budget-crafting process — Congress, the Republican opposition, the lobbyists, and the mucky-mucks of high finance­ — aren’t held up to the same scruti­ny. (One noteworthy exception: Bob Kerrey, who must have failed to pay Woodward due homage at a dinner party or something, since he’s depicted as an arrogant, self­-deluded prick — though just why he should be singled out on that score escapes me.) Clearly, Woodward can’t imagine any reason to view these fellow insiders critically. They may be the people who wrecked the country, but at least, unlike the Clintonites, they know their jobs. ■

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March on Washington: The View from the Front of the Bus

“There’s no place for Uncle Tom on this bus, man.” The voice of the Negro echoed down the neon bathed Harlem street as he mounted the steps of Bus 10 ready to start for Washington.

It was 2 a. m. on the morning of August 28. Anticipation hovered quietly over the 24 buses that lined both sides of 125th Street. Cars and cabs stopped more and more frequently to pour forth bundle-laden, sleepy Marchers. Black, white, old, young zigzagged back and forth across the street trying to find their assigned buses. Bus cap­tains marked by yellow ribbons and rumpled passenger lists stood guard at the bus doors. Small groups huddled around them.

Voices arose above the general din.

“You’ve got to switch me to Bus 10. It’s a swingin’ bus. There’s nothin’ but old ladies on this crate.”

“Hey, is this bus air-condi­tioned?”

“Where can I get seat reservations?”

“Hey, chick, are you on this bus?”

“Yeah.”

“Is your husband on this bus?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s all right. I’ll make love to both of you. I’m com­patible.”

“Who the hell is on this bus?” cried George Johnson, the exasperated 30-year-old Negro captain of Bus 10 and organizer of New York CORE’s 24-bus caravan. “People shouldn’t be swapping buses, especially CORE members. It only adds to the confusion. Now everybody get in a seat and stay there. You can’t save seats. This isn’t a cocktail party.”

The reaction to George’s gruffness was a tongue-in-cheek par­ody of the Mr. Charlie routine. “Yassir, anything you say, sir.”

“Don’t you fret now, Mr. George.” “Don’t you go upsetting yourself, boss.” “You knows I always listen to you captain sir.”

There was a general shuffling of bundles on the bus. Index cards with emergency Washington phone numbers were filled out and kept by everyone. “Sit-In Song Books” were passed back.

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Symptomatic Ode   

Outside the window of Bus 10 an old Negro was standing with outstretched arms reciting an impromptu ode to the Black Woman. “Black Woman, you are the queen of the universe. I would give my life for you.” This was less comic than symp­tomatic. It was just one of many signs of the racial pride which is now surging through the Ne­gro people.

A young Negro in the seat behind me, when asked why he was going on this March, re­plied, “Because it’s like your sweater. It’s Black. It’s for the cause. If my people are in it, I am going to be in it fighting, even if I get killed.”

Outside the window of Bus 10 was also a more extreme reminder of this racial pride. Young members of the Black Muslims, neatly dressed in suits and ties, were hawking copies of Muhammad Speaks. This paper is the official statement of the Black Muslim philosophy: Black is beautiful; Black is best; Black must be separate from white.

I swing off the bus to ask the young Muslim if he was going to Washington. With a faint trace of a smile on his lips, he an­swered, “No, ma’am. I have to sell papers. You people go to Washington.” The implication was clear: he was too busy working for his own cause — sep­aration — to be bothered working for integration.

An older man, converted to a Muslim later in life, was not so emotionally untouched by the March and what it stood for. When I asked him why the Muslims were not participating in the March, he gave all the prop­er answers. He said: “The Messenger has not spoke. If he says nothing, we sit still. If he says go, we go.” But then, asked if as an individual rather than a Muslim he would have gone, he replied: “I would have gone.”

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‘A Mockery’

Moving through the crowd, I encountered a Negro I knew to be a fence-sitter between the Muslim and integrationist philosophies. I asked him why he had decided to come on the March. He said, “It’s like St. Patrick’s Day to the Irish. I came out of respect for what my people are doing, not because I believe it will do any good. I thought it would do some good at the beginning, but when the March started to get all the of the official approval from Mastah Kennedy, Mastah Wagner, and Mastah Spellman, and they started setting limits on how we had to march peacefully, I knew that the March was going to be a mockery. That they were giving us something again. They were letting the niggers have their day to get all this nonsense out of their system, and then planning to go back to things usual. Well, if the white man continues to sleep, continues to ignore the intensity of the black man’s feelings and desires, all hell is going to break loose.”

Moving back toward the bus I almost crashed into George Johnson. With a certain Hollywood director flourish, he was telling the driver to rev up the engine. George was being interviewed for radio, and they wanted the sound of departure. Followed by interviewers trailing microphone wires, George shouted, “I feel good because the Negroes are on the march and nothing is going to stop us.” With that, he boarded the bus, signaled the driver, and we began to move. It was 3:40 a. m.

The 49 passengers on Bus 10 settled back. Among them were 10 CORE members, including Omar Ahmed and Wayne Kinsler, both typical of Harlem’s Angry Young Men. Present also were 10 unemployed workers sent to Washington on money raised by CORE to protest the lack of jobs. Also among the pas­sengers were Jim Peck, author of the book “The Freedom Riders,” who took a severe beat­ing on one of the first freedom rides into the Deep South; six members of the Peace Corps who were scheduled to leave for Nigeria; three interviewers from French television, with cameras and sound equipment; and a slightly jaded reporter and a cameraman from the Herald Tribune, both of whom had seen too many Clark Gable reporter movies.

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People began to talk and to question one another. Sue Brook­way, a white member of the Peace Corps, was standing in the aisle speaking to George Johnson. She said, “I think the biggest influence of the March will be to create a greater na­tional awareness of the issue and get more people to make a commitment to the cause. Although I agreed with CORE’s goals, it never occurred to me to become active before this. But now I would join if I weren’t going to Nigeria.”

Omar Ahmed, who had overheard the word Nigeria, turned around in his seat and said, “The Negro on this March has to be very glad of the existence of the Soviet Union. This govern­ment is so worried about wooing the African and Asian mind that it may even give the Negro what he wants.”

“I don’t think the Civil Rights Bill will get through,” commented George Johnson from his seat across the aisle. “I have no faith in the white man. Even Kennedy & Kennedy Inc. isn’t doing this for humanitarian reasons but for political ones.”

After a moment he continued: “CORE has been criticized for its new tactics of civil disobedience. Well, as far as I’m concerned, anything done to get our rights is O.K. It’s remark­able that the Negro has taken it this long.”

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‘A New Negro’

The whites in the group were startled at the vehemence in George’s statement. Omar, not­ing their expressions, attempted to explain. “The white power structure has bred a New Negro,” he said, “and he is angry and impatient. It’s not just the Black Muslims. It’s the man on the street. Come down to Har­lem some night and listen to what’s being said on the street corners. The cops go through and you can see fear on their faces. This isn’t Birmingham. If anyone starts anything, we won’t be passive.”

The kids in the four adjacent seats were twisted around in their chairs listening. Heads pressed together, they formed a roundtable, minus the table. Into this group came Wayne Kins­ler, a 19-year-old Negro. He perched on one of the seat arms. Some crumbled cookies and overripe fruit were passed around.

The discussion turned to the Peace Corps. Frank Harman was asked why, since he was white, he wanted to go to Nigeria. He replied, “I want to go to help these people because they are human beings.”

Suddenly Wayne shouted, “If this thing comes to violence, your’s will be the first throat we slit. We don’t need your kind. Get out of our organization.”

Completely baffled by the outburst, Frank kept repeating the questions, “What’s he talking about? What did I say?”

Wayne, straining forward tensely, screamed, “We don’t need any white liberals to patronize us!”

Other Negroes joined in. “We don’t trust you.” “We don’t believe you’re sincere.” “You’ll have to prove yourself.”

Frank shouted back, ”I don’t have to prove myself to anyone except myself.”

“We’ve been stabbed in the back too many times.”

“The reason white girls come down to civil rights meetings is because they’ve heard of the black man’s reputation of sex.”

“The reason white guys come down is because they want to rebel against their parents.”

“I’ll tell you this, proving that he is sincere when he is working in the civil rights groups is the last chance the white man has got to keep this thing from exploding.”

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Little Comprehension

The other passengers were urging us to stop the argument. Eventually we did. In the lull that followed, the reactions of the whites were mixed. The most widespread one was complete lack of understanding as to why this had all started. There was little comprehension of the effect words like “help you” or “work for you,” with all their connotations of the Great-White-Father attitude, could have on the bristling black pride. Another attitude was one of revul­sion at the ugliness which had been exhibited. Still others saw the argument as a sign that the walls between the races were beginning to come down, that people were really beginning to communicate instead of hiding behind masks of politeness. They felt that with a greater knowl­edge of one another’s sensitivities, lack of understanding, and desires, it would be easier for the white liberal and the black man to work together.

People began to relax and joke again. Gradually they drifted off into an exhausted sleep. Bus 10 rolled on in silence.

With the coming of dawn, the French TV men started blinding everyone with their lights and interviewing those people who could speak French. Being Gal­lic, they made sure to get shots of the romantic duos pillowed against one another. Not to be left out, the Herald Tribune‘s cameraman picked up his light meter and cord and started doing a mock interview of the interviewers.

Someone cheerfully yelled, “Everybody sing.”

He was quickly put down by a voice from the lower depths: “You’re nuts! At seven o’clock sane people don’t even talk.”

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On we went. Sleeping, talking, anticipating. We passed other buses full of heads covered with caps printed with their organizations’ names. On our right was a beat-up old cab with six peo­ple in it and March on Washing­ton posters plastered on all its doors.

At 10:30 — Washington. The city seemed strangely quiet and de­serted except for a few groups of Negro children on corners. They stared curiously at the unending caravan of buses. Police and MPs were everywhere. Traffic moved swiftly. We parked at 117th and Independ­ence, and the people of Bus 10 merged with the crowd moving up the street. The March was on.

The day was full of TV cam­eras, spontaneous singing, speeches, clapping, the green and white striped news tent, the P. A. system blasting “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the ominous Red Cross symbol on a medical tent, March marshals with bright yellow arm bands and little white Nehru hats, the Freedom Walkers in faded blue overalls, Catholic priests in solemn black, posters proclaiming Freedom Now, feet soaking in the reflecting pool, portable drinking fountains, varicolored pennants and hats, warm Pepsi-Cola, the blanket of humanity sprawled in undignified dignity, a Nigerian student with his head bent in prayer, and the echo of Martin Luther King’s phrase: “I have a dream … ”

It was over. The bus moved out slowly. This time there were Negroes on every doorstep. As we passed, they raised their fingers in the victory sign. They clasped their hands over their heads in the prizefighter’s traditional gesture. They clapped. They cheered. They smiled and the smile was reflected back from the buses. On bus 10 there was no one sitting at the back of the bus. All the seats were in the front.

“We’ll be back,” said George Johnson. “If this doesn’t work, we’ll bring 500,000. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll bring all 20 million.”

SEPT_05_1963_VILLAGE VOICE article about THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR CIVIL RIGHTS by Marlene Nadle

SEPT_05_1963_VILLAGE VOICE article about THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR CIVIL RIGHTS by Marlene Nadle

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Relive Washington State’s Fight for Marijuana Legalization in Evergreen

In 2012, advocates for marijuana legalization pushed Initiative 502 onto the ballot in Washington state. This year, director Riley Morton released the documentary Evergreen: The Road to Legalization, which chronicles the months leading up to the vote.

In interviews with recreational and medical marijuana users, dealers, and legislators, as well as footage from protests, rallies, and events like Hempfest in Seattle, Morton slowly builds a case for legalization. More than 40 percent of drug-related arrests in the United States are tied to marijuana.

Riley sees this as an argument in favor of the decriminalization of a substance many Americans use. One interviewee, a white man, says, “If you don’t think these kids [who get arrested] are going to be kids of color primarily, then you’re not in the real world any more.”

Morton argues that legalization will make the United States safer and fairer, even for Americans who don’t use the drug. It’s easy to feel the activist urgency in the air, across conversations and events, and it’s clear that Morton is capturing a moment of change and knows it, even if his buoyant argument has deflated somewhat in the intervening two years.

Because the battle for legalization is still being fought in most other states, the lack of an up-to-date perspective is frustrating. It’s no spoiler, two years after the vote in Washington, to say that the state legalized the possession of marijuana for personal, recreational use, up to an ounce.

Unfortunately, the film’s most fascinating moment is an offhand suggestion that each of the 50 states could act as a demographic testing ground for marijuana regulation, which seems like the idea for a movie that can’t yet be made.

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Democrats Worried About Other Democrats With Bloomberg’s $12M Ad Blitz

Yesterday, we reported on Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement to spend $12 million on a campaign set forth by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns to counter the NRA in battleground states. The move is the largest yet from Hizzoner to translate ideology into action on the topic of gun control and, in effect, will provide enough monetary fodder to keep up with the notorious Second Amendment group.

But this is probably the last reaction the mayor expected to see.

According to the Daily News, the blue side is up in arms over the ad blitz. As mentioned before, the commercials will air in states where senators are on the fence about the major gun control bill slithering through Congress. However, many of these targeted senators are Democrats. And not all of these Democrats (political lexicon: Blue Dogs) hail from regions that are fully on board with such a measure.

As much as we want to deny it, the midterm elections are next year. The Democrats will, once again, have to try their hardest to retain control of the Senate from the grasp of the Republicans. A vote for gun control could provide a fatal blow to some of these necessary elections. In other words, the Democrats are scared that the Mayor Bloomberg is threatening re-electability in the big picture.

Who knew Washington could be frightened by the mayor’s wealth, too?

 

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Sen. Schumer to Walmart: Please Stop Selling Assault Weapons

This seems like a move ripped right out of Bowling for Columbine.

As Vice President Joe Biden and his team of gun control policy thinkers finish up their legislative package this week, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York has taken measures into his hands. According to the Daily News, the politician is busy writing letters to the CEOs of Walmart and six other corporations, all of which sell assault weapons. In this voluntary memorandum, Schumer is instructing these stores to cease and desist this action as a precautionary gesture before the gun control package is released in coming days.

A reinstated ban on assault weapons is one of the major expectations coming from Biden’s office after the Newtown tragedy. The move by Schumer seeks to halt consumers from stocking up on assault weapons before Congress hears this package. Although it’s uncertain how the legislative chambers will react to the comprehensive bill, Schumer is working against time here: In December alone, 2.2 million background checks (not exactly all for guns but probably the best indicator we have of sales index) were conducted — a 58.6 percent increase from December 2011.

And this huge jump was credited to the fact that these consumers realize what could happen in coming months to their guns.

Now, Walmart is known for hearing this kind of feedback: After the Tucson shooting, it was discovered that Jared Lee Loughner had purchased the bullets he used to shoot Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford and others from the chain franchise. The store has been unwilling to compromise on the issue, partially because the national attention and upheaval towards the corporation and gun control had a knack of dissipating fast.

But, as we now know, what happened after Newtown is different. This conversation isn’t going anywhere this time; as public approval of gun control measures rises, just the idea that a bill, regardless of its fate, with is heading towards the Hill with this much momentum is enough testament to that fact. And Walmart might have picked up on that.

This past week, Biden urged the NRA and Walmart to sit down and talk about the impending gun control showdown in Congress. The NRA quickly obliged — a surprising move, given that the gun lobby usually picks and chooses its members from within Congress, not from exerting pressure on the executive branch.

At first, Walmart told Biden that the corporation was “too busy” to talk about the topic, citing some sort of scheduling conflict. Busy with what, who knows — maybe the Mexican bribery charges exhumed by The New York Times — but this refusal lasted two days or so after harsh criticism from consumers and the press. On Thursday, the corporation gave in to demands and sat down with Smokin’ Joe behind closed doors.

We’ll find out this week just what they talked about.

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Rep. John Boehner Is Sandy Victims’ Last (Half-Ass) Hope in Washington

We know. We’re sick of writing about Congress, too. Especially when it involves the inability to pass a relief package to disaster-stricken areas we know all too well.

Last week, we mentioned that a main problem of the fiscal cliff was its legislative contagion: Because of the disaster it caused in the negotiation table, House Republicans would not give spending measures the light of day, let alone a $60 billion relief package with no means of repayment for districts in the Tristate area. Hence why the fiscal cliff compromise passed two days ago only addressed the tax side of the issue, pushing the billion-dollar spending measure talk down the road for another two months.

Well, since then, the Democrat-controlled Senate has passed the enormous relief package, showing spectators that they are much more keen to dive deep into the treasury’s seemingly endless pockets, unlike their House counterparts. But, once the bill found its way to the House yesterday, it was unsurprisingly a completely different story. But Representative John Boehner is trying to fix that. Kinda.

For background, the House Republicans are not the happiest bunch in Washington right now. Their leader, Boehner, just bailed on the whole not-taxing-anything mantra that has defined Republicans since Reagan, handing President Obama a definitive victory over the party’s platform. So, of course, this meant trouble for the Sandy relief package from the start.

Almost immediately, the Republican caucus shut down the package’s fate by refusing to have the bill come to debate. This move infuriated local Republicans, including Representative Peter King of Long Island, and led Governor Chris Christie to declare at a heated press conference yesterday, “This is why people hate Congress.” Yeah, he might be on to something.

Quick reminder: The Speaker of the House decides which bills are voted on in the chamber, not his Do-Nothing compadres — a power that enables the individual to transcend intra-party conflict just like this. With that being said, Representative Boehner split with party lines to help out the hurricane victims yet again, forcing the relief package to come to the floor. But he still met them halfway: Only disbursement of $9 billion of the total $60 billion will be voted on tomorrow.

And, according to Reuters, Representative King told reporters that another $1 billion will come to a vote on January 15. Simple addition: That’s $10 billion — a sixth of the requested money. FYI, that total, even beforehand, still did not satisfy Governor Cuomo, Governor Christie, and a handful of other politicians.

The Speaker of the House has stuck his neck out for Sandy relief victims, but, at the same time, come on. His move to not piss off everyone on the Eastern
Seaboard has placed him in a position in which all hope of disbursing these
funds now lies on his shoulders. Best of luck to you, Mr. Boehner.

We are sick of talking about Congress. And this information should tell you why.

The Voice will keep you updated on whatever the hell is going on in D.C.

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The Fiscal Cliff Deal’s Impact on New York

Well, contrary to Mayan belief, America made it to 2013 without jumping off the fiscal cliff. Yesterday, at around 9 p.m. or so, the House passed a bill sent from the Senate by a 265-157 vote. After weeks of non-toiling, it’s finally over . . . but, in more ways than none, the war has only begun.

We’ve reported in the past about the fiscal cliff’s possible consequences for New York State. These ranged from billions of dollars worth in tax increases to massive school spending cuts. You can find all the details of the shitshow here and here.
Now, with this “compromise” in hand, we can address a few of its provisions that relate to these aforementioned dilemmas. And let’s just say that there’s an emphasis on the word “few.”
Before we move on, it’s important to mention that the deal passed in Washington yesterday is, for the most part, a tax compromise. President Obama said this point himself: “While I’ll negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether to pay the bills they’ve racked up.” In leaner terms, the majority of this bill is the permanence of 82 percent of the Bush tax cuts, meaning that taxes will rise (for the first time in two decades) for individuals making $400,000 and couples making $450,000, as well as for capital gains and dividends. Everyone below that tax bracket cutoff is keeping their current levels intact.
Back to New York: This compromise averts the $43 billion increase in taxes that faced 8.9 million people. Also, it stops 3.4 million New Yorkers from falling under the federal alternative minimum tax category. Hooray for more cash in your pocket.
Another huge consequence we mentioned last week was the possibility that 200,000 New Yorkers would lose unemployment benefits. Luckily, the Democrats didn’t cave on this one: The final compromise will extend these benefits into the new year. Kicking the can a bit further down the road goes a long way for those dependent on welfare, especially 200,000 of them.
The final feature of the compromise that will impact New York is, essentially, a non-feature. In other words, it’s not in the bill but, soon enough, it will come back to bite Washington in the ass.
OK, so one of the largest downturns the fiscal cliff posed to Albany was a loss of $609 million in funds and an additional $164 million cut in school spending. Immediate cuts of this caliber would have unleashed a budgetary tailspin on lawmakers upstate. Also, schools would have been forced to raise taxes 1 to 2 percent to make up for the funding void. Needless to say, it would have really sucked.
And, OK, so we mentioned before that the compromise was all about taxes. In order to pass this damn thing, Washington completely ignored the enormous spending side of this boondoggle. This was done as an effort to get it passed through the House, where Republicans there are hesitant to pass anything over $10 (this, unfortunately, includes the $60 billion Sandy relief package).
With that being said, Congress placed a two-month hold on the “sequester” — the name given to the automatic spending cuts in place, which included the Big Ones for Albany mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Now, the whole “war has only begun” thing at the beginning of this blog post might make a bit more sense to you guys.
The Hill has given itself a ticking time bomb, one that we’ll be talking about in weeks to come. In the end, the winners in New York State are limited to taxpayers and those seeking unemployment. The losers? The governmental institutions that make up New York State, many of which will have to hold their breaths (yes, agencies can be personified) until this sequester is addressed.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see what Washington has for us.
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What The Fiscal Cliff Means For New York

 

New Year’s Eve is a night to reflect on the year that’s past. It’s a night to commit to a resolution you’ll never follow, a night to face the next year with a massive hangover and a night to over-plan and over-commit to.

And, for Washington, it’s a night to jump off the fiscal cliff.

As soon as that ball drops in Times Square, America will witness the immediate expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the middle class and wealthy, as well as automatic spending cuts worth billions across the federal and state levels. It’s the dilemma that has the Hill and the White House panicking every hour and every minute of the 24/7 news cycle.
One day, Rep. John Boehner and the House Republicans are refusing to talk to the President; another day, the President is telling reporters that he’s optimistic that a compromise will be reached. And if that compromise doesn’t have higher taxes on the wealthy like the President wants? Well, then it’s a whole other story. Hellooooo, veto power.
However, if no compromise is reached, then the President will just have to wait until the ticking time bomb self-destructs. He’ll get his higher taxes for the 1 Percent but what about the rest of us? New Yorkers, here’s what the fiscal cliff means for you.
“There is real danger ahead for New York’s economy if America goes over the fiscal cliff,” New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said.
In a statement released last week, DiNapoli pointed to a few (extremely) inconvenient truths of the impending implosion: all 8.9 million working New Yorkers will see a $43 billion increase in taxes and 3.4 million people will be forced to pay the federal alternative minimum tax, joining the 500,000 who currently pay it. Overall, Albany lawmakers will witness a drop of $609 million in federal funds – an enormous migraine that could send local budgets into a tailspin.
I know you may be asking, “But what about the children?” Well, if the immature adults in D.C. can’t get their act together, New York schools may lose $164 million in Department of Education monies. According to an analysis done by the New York State School Boards Association, 87 school districts will have to raises taxes by 1 or 2 percent to make up for the huge loss.
And, at the tail end of a stagnant five years for future generations, that is the last thing we need.
This bleak scenario is one shared by all fifty states, not just New York. Hence why, last week, a group of both Republican and Democratic Governors penned a letter to the President and the Speaker of the House. In it, they urged the parties to get along and avoid a budgetary catastrophe (probable subject line: “GUYS! COME ON!“). These leaders know that this federal gridlock will bleed the already-near-death states, no matter what the politics of the situation are.
So there you have it, fellow Empire State-ers. We have two weeks before the shit hits the fan – both metaphorically and (kinda) literally. In terms of federalism, this is a situation where the federal government needs to step up to save its state subsidiaries. We’ll see what happens.
At least we have the holidays to mull us over… right?
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Where To Eat in Washington, D.C.

This is how your seven-course meal begins at Little Serow, with pig skin, fish dip, and a giant basket of local herbs and crudite.

Most New Yorkers find themselves in D.C. from time to time for business reasons, to visit friends, or as patriotic sightseers. I found myself in the nation’s capital last week for the first time in a couple of years to receive an award on behalf of Fork in the Road at the Association of Food Journalists. I shouldn’t have waited so long to visit.

Who could resist a place that looks like this late at night?

I hit the ground running on Wednesday and, apart from some convention-related events, never stopped eating till I boarded the Bolt Bus ($13 down, $17 back!) on Saturday afternoon, eating more than a dozen restaurant meals in the process.

I found a new energy to the food scene there and almost didn’t have a single bad bite. In fact, Washington, with its eclectic mix of eateries in all price ranges, beats New York in a few categories, though it pains me to admit it.

Washington hasn’t always enjoyed a reputation as a great food town. Years ago, I traveled there on behalf of Gourmet to seek out West African restaurants, of which D.C. has a greater range than New York. Even before that, I’d gone to Washington and surrounding areas to eat Vietnamese and Ethiopian food — the city has always been unsurpassed in these categories on the Eastern seaboard.

And don’t miss the ML King National Memorial, best viewed at night.

But oftentimes, I found the food lackluster there. Adams Morgan, known for its multiplicity of ethnic restaurants, had few really good ones, and the prices were elevated, and while the lettered streets north of the White House had plenty of places aimed at lobbyists, legislators, and visiting business people, most of these — with the exception of a Jose Andres place or two like Minibar — were rather unmemorable and more expensive than they should have been. Sadly, other restaurants were branches of places headquartered in other cities. And much of Washington was simply too poor to have many restaurants of any sort. (I’ve seen the same thing other places: Jackson, Mississippi, for example.)

But this visit, I tweeted requests for recommendations, consulted with friends and colleagues, and assembled a list of places that turned out to be rather amazing. Here are my suggestions for what to eat in D.C. right now.

The Metro is asset number one in getting around — though so deep underground, it takes forever to get to the platform.

1. Little Serow — This new spot is like a Thai answer to our own Mission Chinese, a place founded by cooks who are Siamese culinary scholars become obsessed with Isaan food and, instead of creating pallid examples using so-so ingredients, raided the farmers’ markets here for fresh herbs and crudite, and created a menu with verve and heat that manages to achieve authenticity by being true to its model in a new way. Expect lots of fish sauce, heat, nuts, and things that look like heaped salads on the set seven-course meal ($45), which includes way more than you can eat. Highlights of my meal: pork laab with lemongrass and sawtooth basil, the wonderfully named “phat fuk thong” (pumpkin, egg, and holy basil), and the pork ribs cooked to melting tenderness in Mekhong whiskey (above). 1511 17th Street NW, http://www.littleserow.com/

2. Fast Gourmet — This wacky sandwich shop located in a gas station is open 24 hours and staffed by Uruguayans. Already got your mouth watering, right? Among many lunatic sandwich choices, the thing everyone raves about is the chivito, a pressed hot hero sandwich served with fries that’s piled high with beefsteak, ham, bacon, green olives, eggs, and a vegetable escabeche. You won’t be able to walk back to your hotel after that. 1400 W Street NW, 202-448-9217, http://www.fast-gourmet.com/

From upper left clockwise: cappy ham, mortadella, soppressata, beef navel, bresaola, and pate campagne
From upper left clockwise: cappy ham, mortadella, soppressata, beef navel, bresaola, and pate campagne

3. Stachowski’s — The owner is Buffalo native Jamie Stachowski, who worked as a line cook in the kitchen of Jean-Louis Paladin, at one time the most revered French chef in the nation, and one who extolled local sourcing in the days when most French chefs got their raw materials from France. Now his disciple is installed in a homely corner deli in Georgetown, were he makes his own sausages, cured meats, and other charcuterie, some of it off-the-wall bizarre. Most memorable were his versions of mortadella, cappy ham, and beef navel — which is a sort of beef bacon, sublime eaten raw. The homemade pastrami (below), sliced thick and put on dark rye with mustard, is similarly incredible. 1425 28th Street NW, 202-506-3125

4. Ben’s Chili Bowl — This venerable old-timer is a late-night zoo of types from every walk of life, who come to chow down in the colorful and brightly lit interior on chili-cheese fries (below) and “half-smokes” (above) — something like a Polish sausage dressed with more of the strange, almost chalky and slightly bitter chili. Throw in chopped raw onions and “cheese” sauce, and it somehow works, and any reservations you might have about how good the food actually is vanish once you take a bite. We sat at Obama’s table (no, he wasn’t there right then) one night after a cocktail-hopping spree, and Ben’s was the perfect antidote. 1213 U Street NW, 202-667-0909

5. Toki Underground — Paradoxically located above a bar in a pleasantly cramped space that makes you feel instantly at home, Toki avoids the pretentiousness that pervades many contemporary hipster noodle parlors. It’s located on a stretch of H Street in the Northeast quadrant of the city that feels a little like Williamsburg with its mix of bars, coffee shops, and cafés. The tonsoku (pig-foot broth) is superb, deeper and denser and more brownish red than the straitlaced and doctrinaire Japanese versions here. What’s more, there’s a Taiwanese tinge to the menu that also makes the place unique. Great dumplings (below) round out the picture. 1234 H Street NE, 202-388-3086, http://tokiunderground.com/

Pachinko machines are set into the bar at Toki Underground
Pachinko machines are set into the bar at Toki Underground

6. Wagshal’s — Located in a Colonial-style strip mall on the northwestern outskirts of Washington in a pleasant residential neighborhood, Wagshal’s is a maverick Jewish delicatessen that seems to have invented its formula in the absence of any New York influence. Think you know Jewish delis completely? Drop in to Wagshal’s. First and foremost is a bodacious pastrami sandwich. Oops, did I say pastrami? It’s called smoked brisket and owes more to Schwartz’s in Montreal and Mile End in New York than to pastrami. The flesh is ruby colored and shot with fat, and they don’t care whether you like that fact or not. The sandwich is absolutely scrumptious, and the baked goods are good, too. At $7.99, the sandwich is as big as Katz’s, and half the price. 4855 Massachusetts Avenue, 202-363-5698, http://wagshals.com

Three other places I’ve visited and loved before this visit and continue to recommend, even though I didn’t re-check them on this trip: Eden Center, a Vietnamese food mall in Falls Church, VA; Dukem, an Ethiopian place on Avenue U; and Minibar, one of the country’s foremost temples of molecular gastronomy.

Check out our Baltimore or Austin guides.

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N.Y.C. Vs. D.C.: An Urban Culture Breakdown

WASHINGTON D.C. – Every year, during the hot, humid, heat waves of summer, my father and I plan a historical trip of some sort to escape the hustle and bustle of New York for a few days and surround ourselves with nothing but some good ol’ Founding Father lovin’.

Last June, we traveled to Gettysburg and Antietam to check up on the once bloody Civil War sites. After endless amounts of shirts that said “Don’t Tread on Me,” faux Confederate flags and that fine line between insanity and historical re-enactment, we left the small towns full of antebellum nostalgia and headed back to Yankee Town.

This time around, we headed down to Washington D.C. for three days vacationing in our nation’s capital. As homegrown New Yorkers, it was only natural that we stressed the fact to people where we’re from, whether it was in a hotel lobby or in the back of a cab. While we explored the federal metropolis, our city instincts began to notice inherent differences between D.C. and N.Y.C. Streets, museums and general infrastructure aide, the urban cultures of both have striking characteristics that defines what it means to be from New York… and from D.C., we guess.
And there’s more than enough to scrap them all together into this blog post. Here’s a few snippets from this tale of two cities:

D.C.’s bike share program is on point. One of the first things I noticed about D.C. was this row of red bikes right outside of Union Station – D.C.’s equivalent of Grand Central. Back in 2008, Capital Bike Share was the first city-wide attempt in America to place bikes across the city for free public use. And, with over 1,500 cycles on the streets of D.C., the red bikes are seen all over town, being rode by businessmen and partygoers alike. This makes us look bad, especially after the news that our bike share program’s start will be delayed another month. And that’s just a guesstimate.

Jaywalking here isn’t a crime – it just doesn’t exist. Giuliani would be in paradise; the street-walking ethics of Washingtonians is proper, controlled and obedient to the red light. Pedestrians there are assigned these white “walkways” where they have the right of way no matter what. Drivers were amazed when my father and I would dash across the middle of the street, willingly against traffic. Because we’re New Yorkers – that is our right of way.

D.C. folk spot politicians, not celebrities. The minute I stepped out of Union Station, Frank Luntz came flying past me with an enormous piece of luggage. For those of you who don’t know, Luntz is that pollster on Fox News who has an affinity for focus groups made up of red state senior citizens. Soon after, during my tour of the Capitol, I sat in on an empty Senate. All of a sudden, John McCain, Harry Reid and Joe Lieberman – collectively known together as the Tripod – stormed into the halls and faced off on the Syrian conflict. So, if you’re in D.C. and you happen to be a political nerd, you’ll love every minute of it. But don’t expect to see Lena Dunham on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Nobody in Washington curses. In New York, you hear the F bomb dropped five times before reaching the corner. Here, you’re lucky if someone standing next to you decides to go with “hell” instead of “heck.”

New Yorkers really are the most aggressive drivers. I found myself fuming over the fact that my more-defensive-than-my-grandma cab driver didn’t cut off the guy in front of us, who decided it was a brilliant idea to parallel park on a crowded one-way. I offered back-seat alternatives and I don’t even drive when I’m in New York.

A Washingtonian always met my claim to New York residence with an extended “Ahhhh!” To them, we are the classic urbanites, coming to a foreign city to take in, take home and brag to our friends about how D.C. is no Big Apple. Although Georgetown is not SoHo or the Village, and the streets there are as clean as a whistle, D.C. was a well-needed break from Manhattan. But they need to learn how to walk across the street.