Today's Papers

Hysterical on Ice

The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal world-wide news box all lead with the rather stale news that the House has passed the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform legislation. (Yesterday’s papers had to be put to bed just before the final vote.) The articles recount the post-victory press conferences and congratulatory speeches, as well as jittery analyses about the future direction of campaign finance (“we are…in the land of unintended consequences,” says one staffer in the Post) and concerns about new prospects for a Senate filibuster. The Los Angeles Times, which stayed up late to run the final vote story the night before last, leads with a similar wrap-up article plus a survey article on the role of Judge Advocate Generals (JAGs) in the Afghanistan campaign. USA Today also stayed up late, but doesn’t deign to follow up and leads instead with the Olympic ice skating controversy.

The campaign finance vote articles have a lot of ground to cover: a giddy press conference with Shays, Meehan, McCain, Feingold, and the Democratic leadership early yesterday morning; explanation of the fact that the Senate still needs to vote on the House’s changes to the bill before it gets sent to the White House; and Speaker Denny Hastert’s mid-afternoon message that he will “promptly” send the bill over to the Senate (thus, apparently, repudiating the inter-chamber procedural gamesmanship that temporarily delayed the McCain-Feingold bill from reaching the House last year).

All the articles discuss the possibility of a new filibuster by Senate Republicans, noting that the Senate vote on McCain-Feingold last April was only 59-41—but 60 votes are needed to override a filibuster. Thus, much time is spent on Sen. Ernest Hollings’ announcement that, in a reversal, he now supports the reform bill, and Sen. Ted Stevens’ similar announcement that he now does not. The articles worry that this leaves the bill a vote short. Of course if the truevote last April was only 59-41 it would have been filibustered, just as it was from 1996 to 2000. McCain and company obviously had the votes to break a filibuster—at which point, how senators chose to vote for the record was their own business. Perhaps the same anonymous backers will help push the current bill through. Sen. John Breaux, one Democrat who opposed the bill last year, tells the WP he is “reserving judgment.”

But the question remains: Will Sen. Mitch McConnell attempt a filibuster? McConnell tells NYT and others he will use the upcoming congressional recess to “study the bill.” He tells WP, “If 41 Republicans were to conclude that it is a terrible, terrible bill for Republicans, then I don’t think it would be a problem to get 41 Republicans to [vote] to go to conference.” In other words he has until the end of recess, Feb. 25, to discover something terrible, terrible.

All the papers front Slobodan Milosevic’s first day of arguing vigorously in his own defense before an international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. He appears to be directing his performance to appeal to the television audience watching back in Serbia, speaking entirely in Serbian (earlier he spoke in English), wearing a tie striped with Serbian colors, and touching on Serbian nationalist sore spots, like the territorial contiguity of Kosovo. He now characterizes his warmongering throughout the 1990s as a “war against terrorists,” specifically the Kosovo Liberation Army. The LAT also reports that “Milosevic may have scored a point when he said prosecutors unfairly quoted a snippet of a 1989 speech to make him sound warlike. He read other excerpts of the text that extolled ethnic harmony and called for a nonviolent ‘battle’ for prosperity and progress.”

Most papers tell the story of Colin Powell’s recent experience on MTV, where he answered the questions of Gen X/Yers in a live audience and via videoconference in cities across the globe. MTV “reaches 375 million homes in 164 countries, including many where Washington is trying to combat anti-American militancy,” notes NYT. Great dueling headlines on this story. The NYT glows: “WITH CANDOR, POWELL CHARMS GLOBAL MTV AUDIENCE.” The Post,on the other hand, digs up a fight: “POWELL URGES CONDOM USE.” It opens: “[Powell] strongly advocated condom use to prevent the spread of AIDS yesterday, setting himself apart from President Bush’s views on sex education …” The articles also remind why it’s so important to have national political figures interviewed on occasion by people other than Tim Russert. The MTV questions came from the ground up and from out of the blue. Powell was asked how it felt to be a representative of the “Satan of contemporary politics”; he was asked about his skin tone, and his relationship to the “white power structure.” And even if the Sunday morning talk shows were interested in his views on condoms and public health policy, he probably wouldn’t or couldn’t be so forthcoming.

All the papers front the testimony of Sherron Watkins before a House oversight committee. She seems to have substantiated the Ken-Lay-duped-by-his-lieutenants theory at the expense of the Ken-Lay-as-evil-mastermind theory. According to Watkins, Lay “didn’t get it”; he “did not understand the gravity of the situation the company was in.” This despite repeated memos and private sit-downs with Ms. Watkins herself.

But with Mr. Lay playing the part of the avuncular old gentleman, the evil mastermind part necessarily falls to either CEO Jeffrey Skilling or CFO Andrew Fastow (or both). Skilling’s lawyer, Bruce Hiler, was understandably going near berserk throughout the proceedings, as evidenced by his comments in the articles. “The hearings [are] insuring that no one involved could get a fair hearing or trial because of the prejudice being created by misstatements and mischaracterizations,” he complains to NYT. “Anything Ms. Watkins is saying is based on hearsay, rumor and opinion,” he tells the LAT. Unfortunately, you can’t leap up and yell “Hearsay!” during a congressional hearing—especially when the committee members are relishing the testimony, as they clearly were yesterday. Hiler’s defensive thesis seems to revolve around an Oct. 30 memo in which Watkins encouraged Lay to lay the blame on Skilling and Fastow. That, Hiler tells NYT, “was not the memo of a whistle-blower, but a memo inviting him to participate in a plan for public relations spin control and scapegoating.”

All the papers stuff the unveiling of Bush’s replacement for the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol, which he pronounced “dead” last March. “Not until now has his cabinet been able to agree on substitute proposals,” says NYT. “The speech was delivered shortly before Bush departs this weekend for a lengthy swing through Asia and and was aimed at addressing rising concerns overseas,” argues the Post. The articles slog their way through the new policy’s details about voluntary, not mandatory, emissions standards and the numerous conservation and clean technology tax credits. NYT has Paul Krugman’s column noting that Bush pledges to bring down “greenhouse gas intensity” not greenhouse gas emissions. The former, he explains, “is the volume of greenhouse gas emissions divided by gross domestic product. The administration says that it will reduce this ratio by 18 percent over the next decade. But since most forecasts call for G.D.P. to expand 30 percent or more over the same period, this is actually a proposal to allow a substantial increase in emissions.” A LAT news article tries to bite as hard with the following politically salient but utterly irrelevant observation: “The expected announcement appears to be a formal rejection of the commitment made by the president’s father, then-President George Bush, at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.” Is global climate change now a filial piety issue? The relevant rejection is not the 1992 statement—it’s the renunciation of the U.S. signature on the 1997 Kyoto treaty itself.

USAT leads (and everybody fronts) the latest Olympic skating controversy, which has, predictably, turned into something of a mass hissy fit. The Canadians are outraged that Salé and Pelletier didn’t win the gold; the Russians are insulted at the suggestion that their team didn’t deserve it; the French are angry that International Skating Union officials are considering replacing their judge’s scores with those of a backup judge, even though France’s top Olympic official had previously suggested that the French judge may have been “manipulated.” (He quickly disavowed the comment.) The ISU is upset at the International Olympic Committee’s  pressure to speed up its investigation; the IOC seems miffed that the ISU has claimed exclusive jurisdiction in the case. The Post finds a top U.S. coach who insists the whole system is “so dirty” and that basically, everybody’s doing it: “The Canadians are involved, the French are involved, the Italians are involved…” But the real question remains: Who will star in the TV movie?