The Week/the Spin

Full Moon Fever

The State Department issued new security warnings for Americans overseas. It cautioned that those participating in New Year’s festivities might be targeted by terrorists. Domestically, the FAA buckled down on airport security, and the Border Patrol increased staffing at all checkpoints. Two Algerians–one of whom was carrying bomb-making materials–have been arrested in the last week while trying to enter the United States illegally from Canada. The nervous spin: There’s no safe haven from millennial terrorists. The calm spin: Then we might as well relax and hope for the best.

Floods and mudslides devastated Venezuela. More than 100,000 are homeless and 5,000 to 25,000 are feared dead in what most are calling the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. The Venezuelan press accused President Hugo Chávez’s government of being ill-prepared for the storm. The Chávez administration countered that the press was ” contributing to the anguish and confusion” by speculating about the damage without firm figures. The only bright spots: 1) Reconstruction will create hundreds of jobs; and 2) urban overpopulation will be reduced as refugees are relocated to rural areas.

Wednesday’s full moon appeared bigger, brighter, and longer-lasting than any in the previous 133 years. The event resulted from the rare coincidence of three phenomena: 1) the moon was at its yearly closest to Earth; 2) the Earth was near its closest to the sun; and 3) it was the winter solstice–the longest night of the year. Astronomers estimated that the moon appeared 7 percent to 14 percent larger than normal and 3 percent to 7 percent brighter. In Internet chat rooms, it was hyped as 1) a once-in-a-lifetime event; and 2) yet another reason to view the millennium as extraordinary. Astronomers demurred, comparing the visual effect to the difference between a 100-watt and a 107-watt light bulb: “Statistically, it’s a neat thing, but visually it’s a dud.”

The Clinton administration announced stricter auto pollution controls. The regulations will 1) make oil companies reduce the sulfur in gasoline; and 2) require sport utility vehicles and small trucks to meet the same emissions standards as cars. The measures, which will be phased in beginning in 2004, are a compromise aimed at splitting the cost of emissions reductions between automakers and refineries. Environmentalists’ spin: This is the biggest clean air victory since the phaseout of leaded gas. Car and gas companies’ spin: Consumers will pay for these changes at showrooms and service stations. Environmentalists’ counterspin: Great–the added costs will reduce pollution even more.

The Vermont Supreme Court granted gays greater partnership rights. The unanimous ruling held that “the state is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law.” The court left it to the legislature to determine whether gay couples will get these rights through marriage or domestic partnership. Opponents of gay rights called the decision a “deeply disturbing” blow to the institution of marriage, but they promised to limit its effects to Vermont. Gay rights activists deemed it a triumph of “our common humanity” that paves the way for similar rights nationally.

Russians elected a new parliament. Communists will retain the largest number of seats in the lower house, but the Kremlin-backed Unity party made large gains. Russian analysts said the results reflected popular support for the Chechen war, strong leadership, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Western observers worried that the vote signaled an increase in Russian nationalism, but they drew hope from the increasing routineness of elections.

John McCain and Bill Bradley made a joint appearance in New Hampshire. They pledged support for campaign-finance reform and promised to forgo unrestricted donations (“soft money”) if they won their respective nominations. The spins, in order of increasing cynicism: 1) McCain and Bradley crossed a “partisan and ideological divide” for the sake of reform; 2) they strengthened each other’s images “as political outsiders who speak their minds and could shake up the system in Washington”; and 3) they ganged up to take pot shots at the front-runners.

Israel and Syria agreed to continue peace talks. The negotiations between Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak were the highest-level talks ever. They did not address substantive issues but did set a schedule for discussions next month aimed at ending their 50-year-old disputes. Syria aims to win Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which it lost in 1967. Israel wants official recognition from Syria and increased security along its border. Optimists said 1) the talks so far have achieved their goals, and 2) a successful accord could spread peace throughout the Middle East. Pessimists countered that 1) setting a schedule wasn’t much of an achievement, and 2) both sides signaled little willingness to compromise. (See “International Papers” for more on the talks.)

Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz is retiring. He is 77 and has colon cancer. He said he was leaving “to focus on my health and my family without the worry of a daily deadline.” The comic strip is nearly 50 years old and is carried by 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries. Fans attributed Peanutsenduring popularity to its gentle humor, universal themes, and sympathetic portrayal of the “little man.” Cynics attributed it to the strip’s $1 billion merchandising juggernaut. Cartoonists lauded Schulz as a pioneer.

Willie Brown was re-elected as San Francisco’s mayor. Brown, the city’s first black mayor, won 65 percent of the vote in a runoff election with fellow Democrat City Supervisor Tom Ammiano. Ammiano, who would have been the city’s first openly gay mayor, forced the runoff after launching a write-in campaign just three weeks before the November election. Ammiano ran on a platform of tenants’ rights and reduced gentrification. But Brown painted him as “an inexperienced free spender.” The gloomy liberal spin: Even in San Francisco, a true liberal can’t win. The rosy liberal spin: Only in San Francisco would Brown not be considered a true liberal.