The Bottom Line: Bogus

Public libraries have become the new poster children for governmental impecunity. Pick a town, any town, and the library, that great nexus of egalitarian self-improvement, is currently in trouble. Oakland, Calif. Swanson, Neb. York, Maine. Richland, Pa. Closings. Layoffs. Shortened hours. Canceled programs. Matters had gotten so bad in the outposts of borrowed books that the reference librarian in Franklin, Mass., which a sign identifies as home of the first public library, asked a reporter, perhaps only half kidding, how much the sign might fetch on eBay.Yet at a meeting of the American Library Association, members were shown a letter from Laura Bush, a former librarian herself, assuring them that her husband's budget would include a substantial increase for library funds. What the First Lady didn't say was that the increase was yet another aspect of a kind of Washington legerdemain that can be summed up in a single word: bogus.Bogus is the name of the game, and not just in...

Say Goodbye To The Virago

Hillary. Now that I have your attention, here's the inside scoop on the book, from someone who hasn't read it yet but knows the subject: she worked hard, she did well, she had doubts, she made mistakes, she didn't know, she found out, she freaked out, she went on, she worked hard, she did well.Yep, it's the story of Everywoman. And once again the former First Lady, the junior senator from New York, the uber-author, the lightning rod, will be held to account for Everywoman's compromises, changing roles and inevitable shortcomings. Not to mention Everyone Else's discomfort with all of the above.In the process the unremarkable will be made astonishing. The wife of a womanizer who didn't know and then forgave! The brilliant helpmate with her own ambitions! The public servant who wanted to make some big bucks from a book! Be still, my heart! Television pundits suggested that this is designed to abet Senator Clinton's push toward the presidency, as though writing a memoir was a nefarious...

A Correction: Not A Crisis

How many civilians can ask the same question about your business before you start to pay attention? In the strange and horrible case of Jayson Blair and The New York Times, the query is ubiquitous. "Isn't everyone overreacting to this a little bit?" one woman said with a puzzled frown at a charity lunch while those around her nodded.The answer is yes.There's no need to recap the story of the reporter and his heinous print rip-offs. The guy was brought along too quickly at the greatest newspaper in the country. He was black and he was a suck-up and, depending on whom you listen to, one or the other or a combination of the two led higher-ups to elevate him way beyond his experience, his ability and his work ethic. He had more corrections on his work at the Times in three years than many reporters have in a lifetime.Depending on whom you listen to, he was either too lazy, too broke or too coked-up to go out on assignment, so he stayed home and piped, as we say in the trade. Nonexistent...

Say Farewell To Pin Curls

This balmy stretch from Easter until the end of school in June always reminds me of my mother messing around with my hair. Too often the kitchen smelled like the wallpaper was being chemically removed because of the fumes from Tonette, the home permanent for little girls. Afterward my head looked perpetually surprised. The thick straight bangs belied the ebullient frizz on either side, so that my face was a window with a flat shade and ruffled cafe curtains. We all had bangs then, so that our hair would not be in our faces, a habitual complaint by the mothers and the nuns. When my hair was in my face my mother referred to me as Veronica Lake.Easter, May procession, class pictures, graduation. Pin curls, braids, ribbons, rollers. There exists not a single photo of significance from my childhood that shows my head as it was in nature. Occasionally the day was warm or wet enough to cause the phony curl to release before the end of the afternoon. This is why I look more or less normal...

Tort Reform At Gunpoint

Under cover of darkness--or a relentless media focus on the Iraqi war, which amounted to the same thing--the House of Representatives recently passed a bill that made a single industry largely immune from lawsuits.That industry is the one that makes and sells guns.If a hospital leaves a sponge in your midsection, you can sue. If a car dealer sells you a clunker it hadn't properly inspected, you can sue. Of course, it may be that your suit will get nowhere. Witness the jurist who threw out the action by parents who argued that fast food made their kids fat, and who did it faster than you can say, "Do you want fries with that?"But judges and juries and responsible litigants will be out of the loop and out of luck if what the National Rifle Association likes to call the "Reckless Lawsuit Pre-emption Legislation" passes the Senate. The people whose loved ones were allegedly shot by the D.C. snipers can forget about holding responsible the gun shop that was the chief enabler. Even though...

The Sounds Of Silence

Last month a United Way chapter in Florida disinvited the actress Susan Sarandon from a fund-raising luncheon at which she'd agreed to speak. This was scarcely surprising. Many charities are happy to use celebrities to attract donors to their events, but they like them to be as decorative and inoffensive as the flower centerpieces. And with war looming, the Oscar-winning actress, who has been outspokenly liberal on a variety of social issues and consistently critical of the invasion of Iraq, must have suddenly seemed akin to a cactus.It was an early salvo in the difficult and painful war here at home. The rules of engagement were clear. If you had early doubts about the use of American power in Iraq, you should sit down and shut up because you might imperil the eventual result. If you continued to have doubts about our foreign policy while the war was ongoing, you should sit down and shut up because you were giving aid and comfort to the enemy.And, trust me, if you still have doubts...

Not So Safe Back Home

When the news broke that the rape of female cadets had become nearly as commonplace at the Air Force Academy as midterms or maneuvers, it came as a shock to most Americans accustomed to thinking of the service colleges as bastions of the very best.But for those familiar with sexual assault in the military, and the role of women in the armed forces, the horrifying stories had an inevitable tinge of same-old same-old. And the administration reaction, of distress and the determination to make things right, had the scent of both hyperbole and hypocrisy.There are surely those who think that this moment, with soldiers in the Iraqi desert and an internationally unpopular war being waged by the United States, may not be the best time to talk about the institutionalized prejudice in the nation's fighting forces.But it is exactly the right time.In times of peace the powers that be may conveniently forget how many women there now are on the battlefield, how hard they work and how well they...

Some Strange Spring Break

Weirder than anything you've seen on "Cops," scarier than the Sci Fi Channel, more changes of plans than "Trading Spaces," more Francophobe comments than "National Lampoon's European Vacation": welcome to Spring Break '03!Or: how Kissimmee, Fla., suddenly seemed more attractive to those intent on travel than Tuscany.Below, a more or less accurate representation of some of the dialogue on the telephone, in e-mail exchanges, at airports and in family rooms on the subject of the much-beloved midsemester vacation for schoolkids, college students and their parents, this year at a time of particular national peril and tension.(In the event of actual war most or all of what follows is subject to change, as well as subject to hysterical italicized communication among family members.)"As soon as you get to the hostel, find out where the American Consulate is and mark it on your map. Just in case.""Does anyone know how Holland voted on the war resolution in the United Nations?""What about...

Waiting, One Hand Behind

I am waiting for something. I'm not sure exactly what it is until my father calls. He is equal parts exasperated and anguished, a man who reads history voraciously and yet is now flabbergasted by current events. "We don't attack first," he says. "That's a given. A professor of mine once said, 'Democracy fights its battles with one hand tied behind its back.' The nature of a true democracy is that it is never the aggressor."My father's politics are more moderate than my own, although the poles are closer than they were 30 years ago, during Vietnam and Watergate. "You were right about Nixon," he says sometimes to describe the scales falling from his eyes. He is a veteran of the Korean War, a former master sergeant who suffered a skull fracture in a car accident en route to Fort Dix. When he is alarmed by American foreign policy it is worth paying attention, especially because I suspect he is part of a great uneasy silent majority, to use a Nixonian turn of phrase, on the subject of...

'Are You Hot?' Is It Nuclear?

The morning after the Michael Jackson interview aired in the United States, the Feds raised the terror-alert level to high. The connection is apparent. Only people living in a panic caldron set to simmer could sit through two hours of the faded pop star's insisting on the normalcy of his own weird existence behind a surgically altered mask more stylized and impenetrable than those he makes his children wear in public.What a long strange trip it's been, these past 18 months. After America's sense of security was blown up in its two most important cities, its people became their best selves, or tried to be. Worshipers who had fallen away returned to churches. Comfort foods were back in vogue, potpies and macaroni and cheese. Flag sales tripled at Wal-Mart. Everywhere people vowed to hug harder, call more often, keep in touch, stay home. It was a time when the term "hero" got a workout, and for good reason. And then, almost effortlessly, the nation segued from heroes to bachelors. If...

Here's To The Little People

Most Americans could be forgiven some confusion during the State of the Union address when the president said solemnly, as though he were reciting a key section of the Constitution, "I ask you to end the unfair double taxation of dividends."Given the price of gas, the price of meat and the price of a teenager's North Face jacket, the average citizen had probably not focused as closely as George W. Bush on that particular financial hardship. The linchpin of the president's so-called economic-stimulus package has been ditching taxes on corporate dividends. By all statistical measures this is a gift to the affluent, and it's generally agreed in Washington that it's a nonstarter from a legislative point of view. But it showed up in the big speech nevertheless, along with worthier initiatives like AIDS relief for Africa and more pressing issues like the case against Saddam Hussein.The deficit is growing, economic growth is slowing: it's indisputable the economy is in a mess. The...

Out Of The Time Warp

The must-see movies were "The Poseidon Adventure" and "Deliverance." The average new car cost more than $4,000. "You're So Vain" was the No. 1 single on the record charts. Airlines began a new practice: inspecting carry-on luggage.It was the beginning of 1973, and in some ways it seems a very long time ago. Yet the most important event of that period is somehow frozen in amber. Thirty years ago this week the Supreme Court ruled that American women had a constitutional right to privacy that included legal abortion. Roe v. Wade has become the starting point for every discussion about the issue ever since.How Americans feel has changed very little in polls over the past three decades. According to Gallup, "Americans believe abortion should be legal, but on a somewhat limited basis." But everything has changed in the lives of American women. Those changes will set the stage for abortion politics in the years to come, at least as much as--perhaps more than--the decades-old decision of...

Getting Rid Of The Sex Police

Wedding announcements track American social history. Once they were the purview of the well-to-do, and the stereotypical division of roles was in the published details: the groom's work, the bride's gown. Point d'esprit, sweetheart neckline, Alencon lace: how quaint it all seems. In the blink of an eye, historically speaking, the dress disappeared and in its place was a working woman, sometimes one who was keeping her own name. The idealized gave way to the real. A previous marriage had ended in divorce. The ring bearer was the 5-year-old son of the bride and groom. And couples of all classes, religions and races eventually smiled out from the pages of the daily papers.So it said something about how the world works today when newspapers began to run announcements of the commitment ceremonies of gay men and lesbians. Although about 10 percent of America's dailies now do so, The New York Times got the most mileage from the decision because of its position as the industry gold standard...

Begone, Buzz! Be Still, Soul.

The streets of Manhattan are an anthill of frantic life. On Madison Avenue the shoppers push by one another, a clutch of bags with luxury logos fanning in their hands. The tourists peering down into the rink at Rockefeller Center and up at the lights of the monumental tree line up four and five deep, with occasionally a native, on the way to an appointment, dipping into the throng and then New-York-walking away, head down, shoulders forward, feet sure.And all over town the deliverymen come and go from offices and apartment buildings, carrying cases of wine, trays of hors d'oeuvres, arrangements of flowers, amaryllis and poinsettias and sprays of evergreens, all the holiday accouterments that in mid-January will seem so beside the point, an esthetic hangover.Amid all this Father Robert J. O'Donnell sits in the parish offices of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, a mile north of Times Square, slightly southwest of Lincoln Center. A person searching for unctuous sermonettes about new...

Becoming A Secret Santa

What if you had something that you didn't need and giving it to another person would save his or her life?It seems an apt question in this, the putative season of giving, when it's become axiomatic that much of the holiday run-up consists of the joyless pursuit of something that may well be unwanted and unused.By contrast, that gift that keeps on giving is something you already have. In other words, organ donation.If you just thought "what a downer," listen to Roger Altman:"It's the closest thing I've ever encountered to an authentic miracle. It's the supreme religious experience of your life. You don't say to yourself, boy, is that technology amazing. It's deeper than that, more of a spiritual experience than a physical one."Altman is no touchy-feely past-lives guru. He's a former deputy secretary of the Treasury and the chairman of an investment-banking firm. Last year the holidays were tough on his wife and three children. His heart condition had deteriorated so much that doctors...

The Sand Trap Of Inequality

That Tiger Woods: what a disappointment. Sure, the guy is one of the greatest athletes of our time. And unlike others who trade superhuman eye-hand coordination for big cash, he has never felt the need to pound his significant other, buy vast quantities of blow for himself and his hangers-on or drive a convertible over the speed limit after a smorgasbord of Jell-O shots. What Tiger seems determined to do is to devote himself to golf. Who does he think he is?A polite and well-spoken young man who is a genius at getting a little ball in a little hole. No more, no less. Yet Woods has come under fire this year for being a bust at civil-rights advocacy. According to critics, he has been neither strong nor outspoken enough about gender discrimination at Augusta National, the all-male golf club where the Masters Tournament is held.To understand why this is such a big deal, it's important to remember one thing about Tiger Woods: he's black. He was expected to speak out on the Augusta issue...

Where Do We Go From Here?

I am pleased and proud to live in the people's republic of the Upper West Side, a Manhattan neighborhood so historically liberal that one day I arrived at the supermarket to find a fierce young woman handing out leaflets on the horrific treatment of factory-farmed chickens. Luckily, I myself was looking for a nice piece of brisket.This aberrant slice of America was predictably unhappy the morning after the big election. But along with the anger there was shame. Heard on the street--and in the gourmet store for which a friend says the motto ought to be "Why pay less?"--was an unthinkable whisper. Some of our neighbors had gone Republican for the first time in their lives.Since last week, when the GOP gained control of the Senate, the House and the White House for the first time in half a century, the operative emotion of most loyal Democrats has been rage: rage at their own party, at its lackluster performance, at its absence of direction and leadership. The sense of blinding defeat...

Young In A Year Of Fear

In some weird way, it was Thanksgiving dinner that was most disquieting. The week before, the president had been killed, murdered, shot in the head in the back seat of that long black convertible. And then, incredibly, the man they said had shot the president had been shot himself, gut-shot in front of everyone with a look on his face of bewildered pain. The world had blown open, then narrowed to one long funeral procession in the nation's capitol, history distilled to a nervous horse with an empty saddle and the thick mesh of the First Lady's veil, her swollen eyes dark stars behind it.Then, as though it had never happened, the next week there were the yams and the pies and the turkey, brown and savory as ever. The wishbone. The white tablecloth. A new president. Things seemed back to normal as 1963 crept away.But what if normal was terrible all the time, one savage rip of history, one unimaginable string of indelible violent events after another? What if, in one generation, a...

A Simple One Word Answer

A report on the abortion rate in America just released by the Alan Guttmacher Institute straddled the good-news/bad-news divide. In the good-news column, the rate plummeted among teenagers, falling by almost 40 percent. But the bad news was that among the poorest women in the country, abortions were way up; although the rate has dropped overall,for women below the poverty line it has increased by 25 percent.Many of those in the business of women's health said they were perplexed and concerned by that second result. And the researchers at the Alan Guttmacher Institute said it would take more work to explain the increase in abortions among the poor. But those working closely with actual patients said that one word goes a long way toward explaining both the good news and the bad.Contraception. It's been the rallying cry of those who favor keeping abortion legal for years now. As the bitterest public-policy (and personal privacy) debate of the 20th century refused to resolve itself,...

Strong As The Gusting Wind

The wind was strong, strong as a riptide, so that it pushed and pulled, a powerful capricious current. In the pit where the buildings had stood it whipped up the dust, so that from above the area appeared to be wreathed in smoke, as it had been for so many weeks after the buildings fell.Some of the people gathered the dust in boxes or bags, and some tilted back their heads as if to receive it, the wind blowing the women's hair over their faces like veils.They stood in a circle, holding photographs and flowers. They had become talismanic over the last year, sitting amid the ruins of their lives, proffering their stories. They are what's left of the lost.Where do leaders come from? Boardrooms, backrooms, Wall Street, Main Street, the school board, the zoning board, the bank board, the board of directors? America hasn't done so well by the modern political Stations of the Cross, the polling data, the PACs, the political parties. Sometimes those who emerge seem to flagrantly represent...

One Day, Now Broken In Two

September 11 is my eldest child's birthday. When he drove cross-country this spring and got pulled over for pushing the pedal on a couple of stretches of monotonous highway, two cops in two different states said more or less the same thing as they looked down at his license: aw, man, you were really born on 9-11? Maybe it was coincidence, but in both cases he got a warning instead of a ticket.Who are we now? A people who manage to get by with the help of the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane, the old familiar life muting the terror of the new reality. The day approaching will always be bifurcated for me: part September 11, the anniversary of one of the happiest days of my life, and part 9-11, the day America's mind reeled, its spine stiffened and its heart broke.That is how the country is now, split in two. The American people used their own simple routines to muffle the horror they felt looking at that indelible loop of tape--the plane, the flames, the plane, the fire, the...

In Search Of A Grown-Up

A good defense attorney uses what he's got, and what David Westerfield's attorney had was what is euphemistically called "lifestyle." Much of the evidence didn't look good for Westerfield as he stood trial in San Diego for the murder of a 7-year-old girl. Experts testified that little Danielle van Dam's fingerprints and hair were found in the RV he took into the desert the weekend she disappeared and that her blood was found on a jacket he brought to the dry cleaner first thing Monday morning.So Westerfield's lawyer tried to counter that forensics mess with another sort of mess, the messy lifestyle of Danielle's mom and dad. It was a little difficult to keep it all straight, but it seems as if Damon van Dam had had sex, in the presence of assorted spouses, with both of the women with whom his wife, Brenda, went out drinking on the night that their little girl went missing. That night the women had smoked marijuana in a garage fitted with a special lock intended to keep the kids from...

Danke Schoen, Mr. Las Vegas

In their heart of hearts, most writers would welcome being plagiarized. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then wholesale theft is genuflection. Deep inside, I hoped someday someone would covet my work enough to steal it.I just never imagined it would be Wayne Newton.Actually, I'm going to refuse to use the P word here. I prefer to think of what happened as a tribute, although that's not how the Las Vegas Review-Journal put it when its editors were caught in one of those was-our-face-red moments. "Several paragraphs of concepts and identical phrasing." That's what the clarification regarding Wayne's column said.I know. You're thinking to yourself: Wow! Wayne is a writer, too? The man appearing nightly at the eponymous Wayne Newton Theater at the Stardust Hotel and Casino, the guy who put the head in headliner? Actually, no. But Wayne is a Samaritan, and when columnist Norm Clarke was on medical leave Wayne was one of the local celebrities who filled in on Norm's column,...

And Now For A Hot Flash

Want to clear a crowded room? Try starting a discussion about menopause. I know; I did it several times before I got the message to sit down and shut up. Or, as one friend finally leaned in at lunch to say, sotto voce, "Just take the Premarin." Now the whole world knows that that mantra simply will not do. Since the news broke of a government study showing that hormone-replacement therapy does more harm than good, there's been discussion aplenty. Will those women who took hormones find other remedies? Will they stick with the combination of estrogen and progestin that the women in a federal test were urged to abandon? Will they sell their stock in Wyeth, the drug company whose shares tumbled on the news that its biggest-selling product might cause breast cancer, heart attack and strokes?But if the discussion merely concerns menopause and hormones, it will have been a huge missed opportunity. Instead this is the ideal time to confront the issue of one-size-fits-all health care, which...

Indivisible? Wanna Bet?

Every year somebody or other finds a way to show that American kids are ignorant of history. The complaint isn't that they don't know the broad strokes, the rationale the South gave for keeping slaves, the ideas behind the New Deal. It's always dates and names, the game-show questions that ask what year the Civil War began and who ordered the bombing of Hiroshima, the stuff of the stand-up history bee. But if American adults want to give American kids a hard time about their dim knowledge of the past and how it's reflected in the present, they might first become reasonable role models on the subject. And the modeling could begin with the members of Congress, who with few exceptions went a little nuts when an appeals court in California ruled that the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional.I don't really know whether that is an impermissible breach of the firewall between church and state. The proper boundaries 'twixt secular and sacred have been argued...

Staring Across A Great Divide

In the 1970s the president of Haverford College became a totem for those who believed there was a schism between one America and another. John Coleman was a labor economist who took a sabbatical, not just to write a book but to live a life, or several of them. He dug ditches and picked up garbage, worked on a drilling rig and mined marble. When he later wound up in New York City running a foundation, he joined the auxiliary police force, worked as an emergency medical technician and one winter lived on the streets for 10 days to imagine, albeit briefly, the lives of the homeless.The Coleman experiment, in which one man tried, in his own words, "to walk in other people's shoes," resonates as the administration considers welfare reform. Emboldened by the success of the 1996 measure, which led to a sharp decline in the welfare rolls, Washington politicians want to act again, forcing states to further decrease the number of those entitled to benefits. They are emboldened, too, by the...

Doing Nothing Is Something

Summer is coming soon. I can feel it in the softening of the air, but I can see it, too, in the textbooks on my children's desks. The number of uncut pages at the back grows smaller and smaller. The loose-leaf is ragged at the edges, the binder plastic ripped at the corners. An old remembered glee rises inside me. Summer is coming. Uniform skirts in mothballs. Pencils with their points left broken. Open windows. Day trips to the beach. Pickup games. Hanging out.How boring it was.Of course, it was the making of me, as a human being and a writer. Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don't believe you can write poetry, or compose music, or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity.And that, to me, is one of the saddest...

From Coffee Cup To Court

Here is a story that tells you why DNA evidence is the greatest advance in crime and punishment since the invention of the jury: A teenage girl is raped in Harlem, and the police know they've got their guy. He'd just been released from jail for a sex crime in--get this--the same area in which the girl was raped. He'd been seen in the neighborhood just before the rape; just after, too, in different clothes. And he'd been picked out of a lineup."I think any number of people in my office could have gotten a conviction," says Linda Fairstein, who until recently ran the sex-crimes unit in the Manhattan district attorney's office. "A conviction for a crime he didn't commit."That's right; the right guy was the wrong guy. A comparison of his DNA with that taken from semen the rapist left behind showed that he hadn't done the crime. But the DNA did link that rape to another, and then to the unsolved rape-murders of three teenage girls in East Harlem. And when the cops became suspicious of a...

Horrors! Girls With Gavels!

Not long ago I spoke at a meeting sponsored by a company's women's networking group. Like most other American corporations, this one had a lot of women in entry-level jobs, a fair number of women in middle management and a few women in the top ranks, in a pyramid configuration that has become commonplace.Commonplace, too, was the response of the majority males at the top to this particular evening event. It rankled, this meeting, closed to them in the same way the ranks of management had once been closed to their distaff counterparts. It rankled, even for one night. Apparently none of them saw it as a learning experience, the possibility of imagining for just a few hours what it had been like to be female for many, many years.This immediately called to mind Take Our Daughters to Work Day, which comes around again at the end of this month in what is its 10th anniversary. It's amazing how the event has become an institution in only a decade, with thousands of companies and millions of...

Patent Leather, Impure Thoughts

In the middle of last month Cardinal Edward Egan, who leads the Archdiocese of New York, lamented that the Roman Catholic church was "under siege" and threatened with a situation that might put it "out of business."Each day brought new revelations of pedophile priests, each morning new stories of young Catholics victimized by the men they had been raised to call Father. But the cardinal was sounding the alarm about something altogether different. In the midst of the greatest scandal to engulf the church in his lifetime, he was irate about legislation that would require mandatory health-insurance coverage for contraceptives in New York state. His anger brought to mind the Gospel of the Sunday before, in which Jesus gave a blind man back his sight while one of the Pharisees criticized him because he had performed the miracle on the Sabbath.Missing the point has become the stock in trade of many of those who purport to lead the world's Catholics. And they are about to miss it again as...

THE AXIS OF RE-ELECTION

When the president first used the phrase "axis of evil" in the State of the Union address, it smelled of the speechwriter. That's OK; many of the most memorable oratorical flourishes of the last century were crafted by writers but ascribed to their political masters. But as the weeks have passed, the repeated use of the term to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea has begun to stink of spin. That's par for the course, too; political speeches usually have political aims. But this is the wrong time and this is the wrong issue on which to use fighting words for political gain.When George W. Bush first linked the three nations in the rhetorical red flag that was the centerpiece of his speech, he bewildered some of those within the foreign-policy community and threw a few of America's allies into an overnight swivet. The alarm bells rang so shrilly that at one juncture on his recent Asian trip the president was obliged to say that he had no intention of invading North Korea. Using the...

Pages