The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times so you don’t have to: Oct. 14

Today’s coffee is a beautiful Guatemalan. First music of the day: Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd.

1,While Mitt Romney received a boost from his debate performance against Barack Obama – you may read my use of the word “performance” as a euphemism for my preferred phrase, “deception-filled” – the Times reports, “There is little sign, however, that Mr. Romney’s rebound has translated into races for the Senate.  Although Republicans have made modest gains in a few Senate races, the polls have been poor for them on a whole. Some races have already gotten away from them, while others are on the verge of being lost.” One forecast model, which predicted in August that Republicans had a 68 percent chance of winning the Senate, now lists that probability at just 16 percent. Mitch McConnell must be turning over in is grave.

2, Governor, we hardly knew ye: A Times examination of Romney’s schedule during his four-year term as governor of Massachusetts shows that he spent one-fourth of that time out of state. Seventy percent of that time was spent on personal or political trips unrelated to his job as governor, including activities laying the groundwork for a future presidential run. Critics of Romney’s performance in Massachusetts – actually, you’d have to call that non-performance – say this is proof he was more interested in getting the job than in doing it.

3, Bruce Springsteen had said he was staying out of politics this year, after working hard for Obama in 2008. But, borrowing from the familiar Romney campaign strategy known as the “Flip-Flop,” Springsteen is now joining the Obama campaign, with a Thursday appearance in the battleground state of Ohio.

4, Interesting story on juvenile killers on page 1A. Maurice Bailey is serving a life-without-parole sentence for the 1993 murder of his 15-year-old girlfriend, who was pregnant with their child. “I go over it pretty much every night,” says Bailey, now 34. “I don’t want to make excuses. It’s a horrible act I committed. But as you get older, your conscience and insight develop. I’m not the same person.”

5, The school superintendent of El Paso, Texas, has been sentenced to prison for a scheme to artificially inflate the school system’s test scores in order to keep it eligible for Federal funds under the No Child Left Behind Act. In Texas, student success is measured by the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, a test administered when they are sophomores. “Students identified as low-performing were transferred to charter schools, discouraged from enrolling in school or were visited at home by truant officers and told not to go to school on the test day,” the Times writes. “For some, credits were deleted from transcripts or grades were changed from passing to failing or from failing to passing so they could be reclassified as freshman or juniors.”

6, Texas seems intent on demonstrating why states are often not best left to their own decision-making processes, despite the desires of non-regulatory advocates. Seven more cancer scientists have resigned in protest what they call “politically driven” decisions made by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. The Associated Press story doesn’t say how many scientists had previously left the program, which is the second-biggest cancer-research funding agency in the country. The scientists are critical of the absence of scientific review before dispensing taxpayer money for what they call a “politically driven, commercialization-based mission.”

7, In an unusually long editorial, the Times makes a convincing argument for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan. Not in 2014, as Obama promises, but immediately. “America’s global interests suffer when it is mired in unwinnable wars, in distant regions,” it writes. “Dwight Eisenhower helped the county’s position in the world by leaving Korea; Richard Nixon by leaving Vietnam; President Obama by leaving Iraq.” The corrupt alchemy of government and religion there cannot  be undone. Our largest concern, that al Qaeda would find “safe haven” in an Afghanistan that has no U.S. presence ignores the fact that al Qaeda enjoys safe haven in countries like Yemen. And wasn’t bin Laden living withing the borders of our alleged friend, Pakistan?

8, The founder of the Principality of Sealand has died. A half-century ago, Roy Bates took possession of an abandoned concrete-and-steel British military outpost off the coast of England and declared it a sovereign nation. This was being done by other DJs in the 1960s, with the intention of setting up pirate radio stations beyond the reach of  British broadcasting regulations. Curiously, the British government itself seemed to concur with Bates’ right to do such a thing, and never interfered with the operations of Sealand, which funded itself by renting titles to people and selling stamps.

9, In The Sunday Review, two compelling personal stories shed light on two big election issues. Nicholas D. Kristof introduces us to his former Harvard roommate, Scott Androes, who quite his job as a pension consultant and was working as a seasonal tax employee – the kind of job where insurance isn’t built into your employment. Now at age 52, Androus has stage 4 prostate cancer. “President Obama’s health care reform came just a bit too late to help Scott,” Kristof writes, “but it will protect others like him – unless Mitt Romney repeals it.” Kristof also writes, “In other modern countries, Scott would have been insured.” Referring to the derogatory term chosen by anti-Obamacare critics, Krisftof adds, “Is that a nanny state? No, it is a civilized one.”  And Frank Bruni interviews Helen LaFave, the step sister of Michele Bachmann, and the “member of our family” who the Minnesota Congresswoman sometimes references during her attacks on gay and lesbian people. We also meet LaFave’s partner, Nia, as they discuss with heartbreaking sadness how Bachmann is leading a war against them.

10, If you’re old enough – let’s say mature enough – you’ll remember the sensational trial of Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army doctor who was convicted in 1979 of the murder of his pregnant wife and two daughters nine years earlier at their home in Fort Bragg, N.C. Books have been written about the crime, and a movie made about it. MacDonald blamed the attack on a seemingly improbable gang of drug-crazed hippies. Now 68 and still in prison, MacDonald is getting yet another hearing. Errol Morris has just published another book on the murders, pointing to the MacDonald prosecution’s suppression of evidence and intimidation of witnesses. Particularly the testimony of a woman who – and DNA evidence apparently confirms this – says she was in the apartment at the time of the crime. She was a drug informant known to the narcotics cops. Her boyfriend at the time also confessed he was there. A witness, a paramedic, places her near the crime scene. Her attorney then testified this week that, yes, Helena Stoeckley had indeed told him at the time that she was at the crime scene. “Now there is a mountain of evidence supporting Mr. MacDonald and debunking the case against him,” Morris writes in an opinion piece. It really was, he claims, drug-crazed hippies.

11, In the Book Review, essayist Jim Arndorfer recalls when John Steinbeck was being recruited in 1958 to write a novel about a presidential candidate who was actually a thinly-veiled  Richard Nixon. Steinbeck declined the offer, reasoning that an attack novel would have little impact on the 1960 election (Steinbeck’s favorite candidate, Adlai Stevenson, lost the Democratic nomination to JKF anyway). A memo from the affair reveals that the literary plotters believed that books carried a weight that newspapers, TV and radio couldn’t duplicate. “It retrospect,” Arndorfer writes, “it’s easy to feel superior to their short-sighted sentiment – but who could have predicted the power of 140-character messages in today’s political environment? And who can predict the media that will make Twitter seem old hat?”

12, Interesting trivia from a review of Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. Just like Johnny Cash and prisons, the singer-songwriter included stops at mental institutions during a 1970 tour of Europe.

13, The magazine’s food issue is like grocery shopping: Don’t go in there if you’re hungry. Mark Bittman offers “Bacon 25 Ways.” With tofu, with popcorn, with sage and beans. My friend Dick left some home-ground sauerkraut at the house, that’s going in bacon today.