The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday Times, so you don’t have to: Feb. 21

Friends have pointed out that in these weekly synopses of The Times, my liberal leanings seem overly obvious. I can’t apologize for that, I come by it honestly: Every time I visit my parents in Ohio, they have the TV tuned into Fox News. Loudly tuned in.

1, Alexander Haig, Dick Nixon’s chief of staff and Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, died Saturday at age 85. Haig wanted very badly to be president, and is perhaps best known for a moment that Reagan aid Lyn Nofziger once said would be “the third paragraph of his obit.” That would be when Haig declared himself acting president in the hours following the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan. The scene was reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove, as Haig stood behind a lectern and told the American public watching it all unfold on TV that “I am in control here, in the White House.” That proved to be inaccurate; three other men were in the line of succession ahead of Haig. And where in the obit does The Times report on that incident? In the third paragraph, of course.

2, The Last Train From Hiroshima, a recent book about survivors of the atomic bomb blast that hit that Japanese city, will be made into a movie by James Cameron. One snag has emerged. Actually, it’s one giant chasm in the story that’s emerged. A story about how an undisclosed accident during the preparation of the bomb, known as “Little Boy,” killed one American, irradiated others and “turned the famed weapon into a murderous ‘dud,’ ” are based on the comments of a man who appears to have made it all up. Author Charles Pelligrino – who is a well-known and accomplished writer – concedes that his informant, who died in 2008, was never on the bomber, and that he will re-write the book for its release in paperback and for foreign editions. Quite frankly, I’m sure this kind of thing has happened before, and probably many times. I don’t know if this puts the kibosh on the movie deal. But if I were Pelligrino, I’d explore this possibility of leaving the fellow in the book, as a way of exploring the fragile tissues that historical reporting is frequently based on, and why men so often feel compelled to create fictions of history.

3, Big Brother has many siblings. “A Pennsylvania school district accused of secretly switching on laptop computer webcams inside students’ homes is under investigation by federal authorities,” The Times reports. All of the 2,300 students at the two high schools in Lower Merlon, a wealthy Philly suburb, receive laptops. According to a federal lawsuit filed by a student and his family, the student was told by a vice principal that a webcam secretly watching him led to the discovery that the student was “engaged in improper behavior in his home.” In his home, mind you.

4, In “The Fat Lady Has Sung,” Thomas L. Friedman notes we have officially moved from 70 years of prosperity to the lean years. He quotes Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum, who says this new era is about “the great task of government and of leadership is going to be about taking things away from people.” He’s talking about the kind of socialist programs we’ve come to take for granted – Friedman uses the example of a small community in California which is now charging for each medical emergency 911 call made by a resident.

5, In a looooooong op-ed piece, retiring Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh pulls from his pocket a laundry list of Congress’ ills: The Senate filibuster, increasingly long campaign seasons that remove the lawmaker from lawmaking, blah, blah, blah, we’ve heard them all. He writes, “In my final 11 months, I will advocate for the reforms that will help Congress function as it once did….” OK, Bayh has been a senator since 1999. Why did it take him a decade to get to work on that?

6, In Sunday Styles, we learn that one of the most-resilient of fashions is preparing for yet another surge: battle gear. “You can’t really improve on a field jacket,” says designer Marcus Wainwright. “It’s a silhouette that’s going to be cool forever.” No word yet on the always-possible return to the dance floors of World War II era German coal-scuttle style helmets.

7, There’s a collection of photos of Jeff Bridges, star of the film Crazy Heart, in the magazine. Photo No. 8 shows Bridges and a friend tap dancing in an empty room for Ryan Bingham, who wrote the Crazy Heart theme song, “The Weary Kind.” I ran into Bingham in the bar at Pane Vino late last year when he was playing in town. He was wearing the same knit, striped skull cap then that he’s wearing in the photo. It’s not even battle gear.

8, In reviewing Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue, a look back at the Bill Clinton-Kenneth Starr duel over Monica Lewinsky, reviewer Richard L. Berke draws out a number of sobering points. Among them, “In today’s world of suicide bombers  and a ravaged economy, it all seems not merely frivolous, but ludicrous. And it’s especially disconserting to think that while so many were preoccupied by Clinton’s “distinguishing characteristic,” Osama bin Laben was most likely proccupied with attacking the United States.” And, “…the most consequential result of both Clinton’s behavior and the Starr investigation was the election of George W. Bush. Clinton’s would-be successor, Al Gore, was embarrased to campaign alongside Clinton, especially in the Bible Belt, and ended up losing states where Clinton was still popular.”

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