The Week/the Spin

Veni, Vidi, Veto

The United States is suing major tobacco companies. The suit aims 1) to penalize the industry for concealing the risks of cigarettes and 2) to recover billions of tax dollars spent on smoking-related health care. Last year, Congress rejected legislation that would have settled the government’s claims against the industry for $516 billion. The industry’s spin: The government can’t claim innocence after years of subsidizing tobacco and promoting overseas sales. The government’s spin: Even if our hands are dirty, the industry should pay for the medical costs of its product. The industry counterspin: Then we should pay nothing, since smoking saves money by shortening lives.

Tension is rising in East Timor. U.N. peacekeeping troops exchanged gunfire with militiamen and renegade Indonesian soldiers. The U.N. forces are securing the region to make way for relief efforts for refugees facing disease and starvation. Monday’s U.N. spin: This operation could be a cakewalk. Today’s U.N. spin: We brought the guns for a reason. (See the Sydney Morning Herald for extensive coverage of the crisis.)

President Clinton vetoed the Republican tax cut. The bill, narrowly passed by Congress, would have used the projected budget surplus to eliminate $792 billion in taxes over 10 years. Both sides have hinted that a smaller tax reduction would be acceptable. Clinton said the country could not afford a return to “the failed policies of the past.” Republicans charged that Clinton’s tax-and-spend philosophy would do just that.

A second man was sentenced to death for the Texas dragging murder. A unanimous jury condemned avowed racist Lawrence Russell Brewer for killing James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged alive for three miles behind a pickup truck before his head was torn off by a concrete culvert. Another defendant was found guilty in February, and a third is awaiting trial. The prosecution spin: The jury sent a message that not all Texans are racists. The defense spin: Juries should evaluate facts, not send messages.

Hope for more earthquake survivors is fading in Taiwan. The death toll from the initial 7.6-magnitude quake has topped 2,000 and is expected to rise as rescuers search for 2,300 people believed to be trapped in the rubble. Hundreds of thousands remain homeless, and water, electricity, and food supplies are cut off on much of the island. Experts warned that Taiwan is a sign of things to come: Earthquake damage will increase everywhere with urban development and population growth. (Slate’s David Plotz assesses Mother Nature’s power.)

Actor George C. Scott died. He was best known for portraying Gen. George Patton and for refusing to accept the Best Actor Oscar for the role. Film critic David Thomson said Scott was once “the great threat in American acting–he had such drive and bite, such timing and authority.”

Ronald Reagan’s biographer wrote himself into the story as a fictional character. The forthcoming book portrays author Edmund Morris as Reagan’s contemporary. Historians called the technique dubious. Maureen Dowd labeled Morris ” barking mad.” Morris explained that “after several years of deep research I was, in an almost occult sense, there when Reagan was younger.”

President Clinton defended his grant of clemency to Puerto Rican nationalists. He denied Republican allegations that the move was aimed at building support for his wife’s Senate campaign. Separately, FBI Director Louis Freeh revealed that he had ” unequivocally opposed” the offer. The White House spin: Clemency is about justice, and the prisoners’ punishments did not fit their crimes. The Republican spin: Clemency is about security, and the prisoners’ release sends the wrong message about terrorism.

The Senate reported that the United States is prepared for Y2K. The report says that thanks to preparation by large companies and federal and state governments, the computer bug will cause few disruptions in most Americans’ lives. Last year’s spin: Confused computers could cripple basic services. This year’s spin: Panicked consumers could wreak havoc on banks and stores.

The East Coast is recovering from Hurricane Floyd. The storm killed at least 68 people and caused damage worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Nearly a third of North Carolina remains shut down by flooding, and the state now faces water pollution due to animal carcasses and sewage. Last week’s spin: Whew!--Floyd was milder than expected. This week’s spin: North Carolina is the new Atlantis. (Slate’s David Plotz examines the weather reporting industry.)