The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: April 15

Today’s coffee is the last of the Mexican Oaxaca. Sigh. First music of the day: The late jazz drummer Paul Motian’s Flux and Change.

1, “White House Opens Door to Big Donors, and Lobbyists Slip in,” is the lead story today. Sounds alarming. Obama, like the Republicans he is running against, is courting big-money donors, many of whom have visited the White House. These guests bring along lobbyist friends. Yet, as the first president to regularly release the White House visitor logs (former Vice President Dick Cheney notoriously ordered his visitor logs destroyed), Obama is not acting like a man who has something to hide. After reading the long story, I didn’t find a smoking gun pointing to rampant influence peddling. In fact, The Times story seems to shoot itself in the foot when it concedes, “it is clear that in some cases the administration came down against the policies being sought by the visitors.” It’s a reality that influential people will always have access to the president, and they like to write big checks. Another reality is, Obama lives in the political machinery that we invented.

2, Rich Chinese tourists are coming to America to buy shoes! On average, they spend $6,000 each on every trip here (visitors from other countries average $4,000) and the Commerce Department says their No. 1 activity is shopping.

3, “The economic downturn that has shaken Europe for the last three years has also swept away the foundations of once-stable lives, leading to an alarming spike in suicide rates,” The Times reports. It is a phenomena that “some European newspapers have started calling ‘suicide by economic crisis.’ ”

4, Lester Breslow died at his Los Angeles home last week. His statistical studies proved that people live longer if they have healthy habits. The Times obituary reports that “a 45-year-old with at least six of the seven healthy habits Dr. Breslow chose as important had a life expectancy 11 years longer than someone with three or fewer.” Those healthy habits? “Do not smoke; drink in moderation; sleep seven to eight hours; exercise at least moderately; eat regular meals; maintain a moderate weight; eat breakfast.” Dr. Breslow was anecdotal evidence of his theory’s truth; he was 97.

5, Your taxes will go up in 2013. Social programs will be cut. It is inevitable.”The tax increases and spending cuts are the result of Washington’s having previously kicked the can down the road, to use a phrase that is popular here,” writes Times Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt. “Rather than pass a plan to cut the deficit, policy makers have put off tough decisions. With the Bush tax cuts, lawmakers deliberately made them temporary, to avoid running afoul of budget rules intended to hold down the deficit.” In short, we’re screwed because our decision makers were afraid to do what we sent them to Washington to do: make tough decisions.

6, Nicholas D. Kristof opens his column with this stunning statement: “For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands.”

7, In the Book Review, writer David Sedaris is asked what writer, living or dead, he’d like to meet. “I’m horrible at meeting people I admire, but if I could go back in time, I’d love to collect kindling or iron a few shirts for Flannery O’Connor. After I’d finished, she’d offer to pay me, and I’d say, awe-struck, my voice high and quivering, that it was on me.”

8, In Bernie Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, we learn of “spadefoot toads, chorusing together to confuse predators of any individual location,” reviewer Jeremy Denk writes. “When a jet flies overhead, the toads get out of sync. The temporary lack of ensemble proves deadly: soon hawks swoop down on the individual choristers.”

9, On this 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic are a few new books, including Andrew Wilson’s Shadow of the Titanic. “Life after the Titanic was rife with repression, depression, social withdrawal and ‘survivor guilt,'” writes reviewer Holly Morris. “At least 10 who escaped in lifeboats comitted suicide in the ensuing years.”

10, MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow’s book Drift is positively reviewed. Maddow’s basic thesis is, war is now too easy. The citizenry never feels the cost, in either dollars or blood. We should raise taxes to properly pay for our wars, Maddow argues, because “going to war, being at war, should be painful for the entire country, from the start.”

11, The magazine explores 76-year-old Pulitzer Prize winning writer Robert Caro, who has, the story’s headline tells us, “spent 36 years and 3,388 pages telling the story of Lyndon Johnson. He is nowhere near done.” Johnson is an amazing story, often overlooked as president, but consider the era in which he dominated Washington: civil rights, the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination.  Next month Caro’s fourth volume on Johnson will be published. “In his years of working on Johnson, Robert Caro has come to know him better – or to understand him better – than Johnson knew or understood himself,” writes Charles McGrath. “He knows Johnson’s good side and his bad: how he became the youngest Senate majority leader in history and how, by whispering one thing in the ears of the Southern senators and another in Northern ears, he got the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through a Congress that had squelched every civil rights bill since 1875; how he fudged his war record and earned himself a medal by doing nothing more than taking a single plane ride; how, while vice president during the Cuban missile crisis, his hawkishness scared the daylights out of President Kennedy and his brother Robert. Caro has learned about Johnson’s rages, his ruthlessness, his lies, his bribes, his insecurities, his wheedling, his groveling, his bluster, his sycophancy, his charm, his kindness, his streak of compassion, his friends, his enemies, his girlfriends, his gofers and bagmen, his table manners, his drinking habits, even his nickname for is penis: not Johnson, but Jumbo.”

12, Also in the magazine, Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, does a Q&A. I don’t care at all for that show’s moronic patter; Co-host Joe Scarborough sometimes surprises, but generally takes the low Republican road. And the guests are unreliable pundits such as Mark Halperin and, until recently, the demonstrably racist Pat Buchanan. But Brzezenski comes off as the anti-perky morning host. “I proudly own that,” she says of her ornery streak. And I loved this response to a question of growing up as the daughter of Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and how her mother served a high-profile dinner party roadkill meat from a deer she had found dead on the street and butchered herself:  “She absolutely knows who she is, and doesn’t give a damn about what you think. She came here during World War II and starved for a year eating nuts in an orphanage. You don’t waste good meat. And if anyone wants to argue with her on that, I would suggest you don’t do it while she’s holding a chain saw.”

13, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays the vice president in the HBO comedy Veep: “We live in a culture now where it’s almost like we are used to being lied to.”