Friday, March 22, 2002

Many Catholics are disappointed that the Pope's annual letter to priests yesterday made only passing and indirect reference to child abuse by priests, and coverups of that abuse by the church hierarchy. They may be interested in a subsequent press conference concerning the letter by the Pope's spokes-Cardinal, Dario Castrillon Hoyos, which shows the depth of the Vatican's concern:

At the news conference, the cardinal had at first said he wanted to hear all the questions reporters had before answering. He was then peppered with various inquiries: Why hasn't the pope himself spoken out on the sex issue? Was he being kept informed about the specific allegations?

But then, after hearing all the questions, Cardinal Castrillón pulled out a two-page statement and read it.

That statement said the pope had already dealt with the scandals, and referred to a one-paragraph apology to victims in a recent document on a bishop's conference held several years ago.

The cardinal said he could not deviate from his prepared remarks because "in this particularly difficult moment, I cannot improvise."

The Cardinal was indeed very concerned about a properly measured response in this difficult moment --- the moment of the release of a letter to priests:

When one reporter at the news conference called out, "We had specific questions, Eminence," the cardinal responded by saying that the correct focus of the pope's letter was not the scandals at all. The letter was, in fact, mostly a meditation on the sacrament of Penance, a topic that drew no questions from reporters.

Another reporter persisted, "But can't you answer our questions?" and Cardinal Castrillón snapped, "Excuse me, I didn't interrupt your questions, I hope you won't interrupt my answer."

He did nevertheless offer two unscripted comments. One expressed full support for Boston's Cardinal Law, who is now known to have shuffled several known abusers from parish to parish even after court settlements regarding their earlier abuse promising they would never get another parish assignment. He also observed that "It's already an X-ray of the problem that so many of the questions were in English", before an aide looked at his watch and announced that it was time to go, at which point the two stalked off in a huff. (I guess the Vatican is too traditional to use fake calls to pagers as a way of getting out of awkward spots).

So lay Catholics, take heed that the hierarchy is taking all the notice of the problem that it considers appropriate. As I've observed before, if you can't trust a Cardinal, who can you trust?

So, the appellate court nomination of Charles Pickering was voted down in committee, and the Republicans are demanding that nevertheless, Pickering should get what would be an unprecedented floor vote. In what they acknowledge as a direct response, the Republicans are trying to shut down several committees working on such things as 401(k) reform.

So, to summarize: Tom Daschle's Democrats follow established procedures to deal with a controversial issue, as far as they go. Disliking the outcome, Trent Lott's Republicans try to delay those procedures (they invoked a procedural hold on the Pickering vote for a week trying to scare up a Democratic vote), and then petulantly hold up unrelated business. This won't be remembered as a bright moment in the history of the Republic, but it certainly does clarify who is, and who is not, an obstructionist.

Thursday, March 21, 2002

I don't usually comment on dumb things people say which are interesting only because they're dumb. But I'll make an exception for dumb Pulitzer prize winners.

Let's start with a David Broder column which complains about the partisanship of Congressional Democrats:

The way back to common sense and comity is clear. Take the issue of the Pickering nomination, which would have elevated him from a district judgeship to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Judiciary Committee's 10 Democrats voted against Pickering; its nine Republicans supported him.

Fair enough. But then that same partisan majority refused to let the full Senate vote on the nomination. Majority Leader Daschle claimed there was no precedent for sending the nomination to the floor with an adverse recommendation. But even if he is correct in his claim, his obduracy on the Pickering nomination is inappropriate. The Constitution gives the power to appoint judges to the president, "by and with the advice and consent of the Senate." It does not empower any 10 members of one party to veto the choice of a president of the other party.

First off, it's not a question of "if"; it is a well-known, long standing rule in the Senate that with the sole exception of Supreme Court nominees, judges that get voted down in committee don't get a floor vote. The Constitution says the Senate shall advise and consent; it doesn't dictate procedures for them, and certainly doesn't mandate a floor vote.

As for the consequences, at least Bush gets an early resolution and a chance to find another nominee. All too often, when Republicans controlled the committee and the Senate, Clinton's nominees wouldn't even get a committee vote; the nomimations would just languish, sometimes for years, while the nominee stayed in limbo and the post remained vacant.

So it's a sign of a "looming crisis" which threatens to "jeopardize the functioning of government" when ten Democrats vote down a Republican nominee. May we infer then that it was simply business as usual when ten Republicans exercised this peculiar form of pocket veto over Democratic nominees?

Broder won his Pulitzer for Commentary in 1973.

Moving to the local stage, yesterday's Eileen McNamara column bent over backwards trying to blame Jane Swift's departure from the Massachusetts gubernatorial race on "the 'powerful men' we've heard so much about" (when Swift herself stupidly tried to blame sexism for the consequences of her own mistakes), and not on Swift's own numerous string of gaffes, saying, among other things,

The most predictable and offensive canard offered in that ''told-you-so'' tone by talking heads in the wake of Swift's withdrawal was that the first woman governor in state history had buckled under the weight of her family obligations. Didn't we warn her she couldn't have it all? Didn't we predict those babies would be too much to juggle?

The most prominent "talking head" making that claim, as it happens, was female --- specifically, Jane Swift:

In a stunning turnabout, Acting Governor Jane Swift yesterday withdrew from the race for governor, saying she could not meet the challenge from Republican businessman Mitt Romney and at the same time carry out her duties as governor and as a parent to three young children.

McNamara would not have had to look far into her own paper's coverage to discover this --- what I just quoted was the lead paragraph of their front-page story on Swift's departure. As to the rest of her claims, what let the air out of Swift's campaign wasn't just the drying up of funds, for which the unnamed powerful men might have some responsibility, but the abysmal poll numbers, which showed Swift with 12% support to Romney's 75%.

McNamara won her Pulitzer for Commentary in 1997.

Entertainment monopolies are in the news --- the record oligopoly, which shut down that hotbed of piracy, Napster, and saw its sales drop; the movie oligopoly, which is demanding total control of consumer electronics, and the subject of a few of my blog entries, Clear Channel, which has a stranglehold on commercial radio. Although it gets less publicity, Clear Channel also has a remarkable hold on live performance presentation, and has been plausibly accused of exploiting their position to beat down the artists.

But entertainment monopolies are an older story in this country. It doesn't have much relevance to current events, but it's a good story, and a Boston story, so I'll tell it.

It starts on Washington Street in Boston, where a promoter named Benjamin Franklin Keith decided to run a new kind of variety show in his Bijou Theater. Most variety shows of the day were rough, coarse, and pretty disreputable. Keith's idea, borrowed in part from a New York impressario named Tony Pastor, was to go upmarket; he was still presenting a variety of different acts, but they were to be clean, refined, suitable for the ladies. And for an extra touch of class, he gave his shows a tony French-sounding name (no one's quite sure where he got it) --- Vaudeville.

It was such a success that he had to take the show on the road. Which he did, teaming up with Edward Albee. This Albee was related to the playwright by adoption, but was himself a promoter who had already gotten rich on bootleg productions of Gilbert and Sullivan. (Which was probably legal, as the United States may well not have recognized their copyrights at the time --- this was an era where complainants about copyright law, like Mark Twain, who became notorious for it, had a legitimate beef).

Keith and Albee went from strength, to utter crushing dominance. At their peak, they controlled bookings in just about all significant theaters east of the Mississippi, which gave them immense power over the tone and content of the shows. Performers were warned that any even vaguely off-color material would leave them permanently blacklisted (the standards were inspired and to some extent enforced by Keith's notoriously bluenose wife); theaters were on notice that if they booked acts not supplied by the Keith/Albee organization, that organization would never book at the theater again. When performers tried to organize, Albee broke the union, and substituted his own, which was entirely an organ of management.

What felled this mighty empire? Partly the emergence of alternatives to live theater, like movies, phonographs, and in later years, radio, and partly Albee's response to it. By the 1920s, Keith had died, but Albee retained control of the organization; his response to the competition was to cut rates to the performers, and splurge instead on a series of new, extraordinarily lavish theaters. The public, seeing a cheapened product in a gilded package, did not respond (well, not the way Albee would have liked), leaving Albee's organization in an extraordinarily weak condition. Albee was forced to seek new investment; what he got instead was one of the first hostile corporate takeovers in the history of finance, as none other than Joseph Kennedy bought his theater chain as a venue for the movies produced by a studio which was an earlier purchase (though, by some accounts, Kennedy was actually less interested in the movies per se than in Gloria Swanson). The once mighty name "Keith" withered to the "K" in "RKO", from whence it eventually vanished altogether.

All that remains of the Bijou theater, where this all started, is the facade and the first floor; the theater proper was on the second floor, and after the notorious Cocoanut Grove fire, the city's new fire codes made it illegal to stage a production there, for lack of fire escapes. Most of the first floor is occupied by a video game arcade, but if you wander in and bear left, you can see the remains of the ornamental plaster in what was once the lobby (some particularly lavish work is visible only through a ventilation grate). If there is a plaque to memorialize the site, I must have missed it.

Two doors west stands the Paramount Theater, another derelict, from the time when movie studios owned theater chains, before the Supreme Court, in U.S. v. Paramount, forced them to divest. As part of a general sprucing up of the area for the new Ritz hotel, the facade has been cleaned up and the lights are working again, but the theater itself is closed.

And on the other side, right next door to the remains of the Bijou, stands what was once the crown jewel of Albee's empire, the masterpiece of one of America's great theatrical architects, Thomas Lamb, the biggest money pit in Albee's building splurge of the '20s, the B.F. Keith memorial theater. It was in the executive offices of this very building that Albee signed the papers giving Kennedy control of his organization; it was here that Kennedy told Albee, "Didn't you know, Ed? You're washed up; through". The theater operated for a time as the RKO Keith, mostly a movie theater; after the studios had to sell off the theaters, it fell into the hands of Ben Sack, who ran a chain of movie theaters, and operated the former Keith as the Sack Savoy. Sack eventually sold his theater chain to Sony, but the Savoy (nee Keith) wasn't part of the deal; its was last used by Sarah Caldwell's chronically insolvent Boston Opera Company. The last show there was an appearance by Yanni in the 1980s.

The theater is now vacant, but mostly intact; the ornamental plaster ceiling is crumbling in places due to damage from leaks in the roof, which has seen no major repairs since it the building was put up. Plans are afoot to refurbish and reopen it, though, once certain legal hangups are resolved; in order to fit current broadway productions, they need to expand the stage, which would encroach on the road in back, grandly known as Mason Street (though elsewhere in town, boulevards of yet greater grandeur bear such proud names as "Public Alley 425"), and the inhabitants of the condo in back are extraodinarily jealous of being able to drive their cars both ways out of the garage.

When this deal was first put together, the new owners were to be a small group of theatrical promoters out of Houston. But as the legal fight dragged on, there was buyout after buyout, until the theater ended up in the possession of a much bigger fish --- one, in fact, that controls theater bookings all across the country, and has been accused of using that power against the interest of the performers. When the B.F. Keith memorial theater actually does reopen (possibly once again under that name), the new owner will be Clear Channel Entertainment.

These guys are, like Albee, in a weaker financial position than they look, unprofitable and $9 billion in debt. But if they succumb, like Albee, it will probably be to a buyout from someone just as nasty. So, in one form or another, they're likely to be a blight on the landscape for some time to come. Literally, as it happens --- Clear Channel also does billboards.

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Tom Friedman argues today that the only way to peace in Israel is for America to police the West Bank and Gaza. He describes this as a way to create a Palestinian state that Israel could live with, but would require the Palestians to accept, as a condition of its creation, that it be immediately occupied by U.S. troops.

That's not how he phrases it --- he actually proposes that Palestinians handle internal security, and a joint U.S./Palestinian force would guard the borders. But the parcels of land involved are so tiny --- the Gaza strip varies from nine miles wide down to four --- that in the presence of serious, determined resistance forces, that would amount to a distinction without a difference. At least initially, the U.S. force would have to be large, and being large, pervasive; there simply isn't physical room for a border zone which could fit a large U.S. force without getting in the faces of the Palestinian citizenry as a whole. Which, in turn, would make claims of Palestinian sovereignty ring as hollow to the Palestinians themselves as the autonomy which they now supposedly enjoy.

And even if you believe the territory is large enough to fit separate zones of jurisdiction for a border force and internal police, you still have to find internal police who you can trust not to harbor terrorists. Between the Karine A affair and the various affiliates of Fatah who keep coming out of the woodwork, the current Palestinian Authority has some problems there.

And of course, the forces in the Arab world which are trying to play the "Crusader" card in fomenting war with the U.S. would get to cut out the middleman --- an explicit part of Friedman's plan is for the United States to occupy Jerusalem, including the holy sites.

So, that's the proposal of "the most important opinion journalist in America", according to Slate. (To call him a columnist would be insufficiently grand).

Here's a suggestion from one of the Internet's less important whiners: if you're going to propose an externally imposed force in the territories as a guarantor of Israeli security, perhaps you might want to find one that's a little more culturally appropriate. Consider Jordan.

Of course, part of the deal would have to be that the Israelis would have to trust the Jordanians to restrain Palestinian terrorists. Which means that they'd have to trust King Abdullah to treat terrorists threatening them the same as his father did when Arafat's crowd became troublesome to him --- to make a long story short, he kicked them out.

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Breaking news from Boston: woebegone governor Jane Swift announced earlier today that she has withdrawn from the gubernatorial race, in a development which shocked everyone involved, not least her own campaign staff, who were still trying to figure out a debate schedule with Swift's not-yet-announced Republican challenger, Mitt Romney (who formally entered the race a few hours after Swift bowed out). A poll released Sunday showed Romney with 75 percent support to Swift's 12, numbers which, as local commentator Jon Keller noted, are ordinarily reserved for politicians who are caught strangling newborn puppies on live TV.

Another guy who was presumably surprised by the withdrawal of Swift was her mentor, former governor Bill Weld, who made the front page of the Boston Globe this morning endorsing her reelection bid, with particular praise for her "tough and relentless campaign skills".

Swift had put those skills in full effect the previous Friday, at the first of several St. Patrick's day roasts that are an important political tradition around here. It's traditional for even non-Irish politicians to put on a touch of the green; vertically challenged Democrat Robert Reich promised to be the State's first leprechaun governor (it's as believable as any other promise from Reich). As for Swift ("Williams could tell that this was one of those deals where a tall man was called Shorty, or a fat man Slim" --- Terry Bisson, Talking Man), she regaled the crowd with the Patty O'Furniture joke.

Swift's withdrawal leaves the Republican nomination to Romney. Political commentators around here are already showing signs of nostalgia (in the Boston Herald, Margery Eagan is already complaining that Romney is too perfect), but their fears are exaggerated. There is no danger that any local political humorist will need to work at writing original material, anytime soon.

In response to the Bush steel tariff, the Europeans are apparently considering politically targeted trade retaliation, targeting products of swing states, like Florida citrus, and of course the products of the steel mills that the Bush administration was trying to protect.

Well, fair's fair; our trade representative has now conceded that the steel tariff was itself domestic politics --- "We are committed to moving forward with free trade, but ... we have to manage political support for free trade at home. We have to create coalitions." He apparently did not explain why Bush needs to do impose punitive tariffs to defend free trade, but Bill Clinton didn't.

(European sanctions link via Nick Denton)\.

Monday, March 18, 2002

Ad Peeve du jour:

"Coming tomorrow, the return of Disney's Quasimodo in a new adventure!"

This is, of course, the kind of originality which it is so important to protect that Disney needs to dictate the design of all electronic devices to do it.

Note well that this is Disney's Quasimodo. Victor Hugo had nothing to do with it.

News from Boston: the Public Library had signs out front today explaining that it was closed for Evacuation Day, helpfully explaining that the holiday (celebrated only in Boston) commemorates the departure of the British troops that were laying seige to the city in March of 1776.

It's just a coincidence that Evacuation Day coincides exactly with St. Patrick's Day, and mere happenstance that the notice describing the holiday was printed on green paper.