Today's Papers

Weighing the Pros and Conclaves

The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post both lead similar stories, right down to the same front-page photos, on the conclave that will be convened this afternoon in the Vatican to elect a new pope. The New York Times leads, and the Wall Street Journal fronts, the quickly souring mood on Wall Street, where fears about sluggish corporate earnings, falling consumer confidence, and rising oil prices pushed stocks down 3 percent last week. “I’m nervous,” said a quote-grubbing analyst. “This feels a little bit different. Maybe it’s the violence of it.” USA Today’s lead blames rising gasoline prices, which have ballooned to $2.28 per gallon, for the lack of consumer confidence, which is at a 19-month low. President Bush plans to address the issue in a speech this week, although an aide concedes that his boss, sadly, has “no magic wand.”

The LAT conclave story spends the most time handicapping possible outcomes, while its East Coast namesake goes instead for a rote, but detailed, explanation of what exactly the cardinals will be doing once they enter the bug-swept Sistine Chapel, down to burning smoke canisters in an extra stove installed to make sure observers in St. Peter’s Square can tell what color issues from the telltale chimney after each ballot. The WP and USAT cover stories each split the difference.

Everyone is, of course, careful to say that a higher authority may have a say in selecting the pope (“It would sure be nice if the hand of God just came down from the ceiling and said, ‘This one,’ ” LA’s Cardinal Mahoney said), but the WP cannot resist adding dryly, “The history of conclaves in the last half of the 20th century also shows marked similarities with the formation of governments by fractured parliaments.”

And although Pope Gregory XIV outlawed betting on papal elections, both USAT and the NYT Op-Ed pages offer pleasantly sacrilegious looks at betting on the proceedings. “I think he was being shortsighted,” one bookie said of Gregory in USAT, before adding, “I will need to go to confession after this week.”

The NYT fronts, and others stuff, news that the hostage-cum-ethnic-cleansing crisis in the Iraqi town of Madain, southeast of Baghdad, is likely “nothing but a tissue of rumors and politically motivated accusations.” Over the weekend, reports emerged claiming that more than 100 Shiite hostages were taken from their mosque by Sunni extremists, who demanded that all Shiites abandon the town. The papers picked it up yesterday, as the political rhetoric escalated to talk of civil war, although the NYT exhibited some admirable skepticism, talking to a Shiite in the town: “No one is harassing us here,” he said. And then, yesterday, some five battalions of Iraqi troops and police moved through and uncovered only three hostages, one of them a Kurd. “And they were kidnapped because they were working for Americans, not for the reason they were talking about,” a police official told the Post. USAT really gets out in front of the debunking: “200 REPORTEDLY TAKEN HOSTAGE IN IRAQ; OFFICIAL DISPUTES CLAIM.”

Not that sectarian battles are far-fetched these days: In Baghdad, the WP reports that the Shiite alliance that leads the new Iraqi government is going to demand a complete purge of all top Saddam-era officials, a move sure to raise the ire of Sunnis. “These people are threatening us with a warlord system that will destroy the country,” said the spokesman for a coalition of groups that boycotted the election.

The papers all mention briefly that at least four U.S. soldiers died over the weekend (the LAT says six), three in a mortar attack in Ramadi late on Saturday and another after a roadside bomb detonated south of Baghdad. In addition, a 28-year-old American aid worker was killed Saturday when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of security contractors passing by her unarmored car.

Pushed, apparently, by Sunday’s talk-show chatter, the NYT checks in on the festering impasse over House ethics rule changes that the Republican leadership pushed through in January to weaken the bipartisan committee. But the WSJ, which tops its world-wide news box with partisan squabbles, has the better story (subscription required): Apparently some Repubs (led by some former lawmakers who call themselves, ahem, “the revolting elders”) are now pushing House Speaker Denny Hastert to consider compromises, arguing that the issue benefits the Dems especially by denying Majority Leader Tom DeLay a process by which he could clear his name.

The papers cover continuing leaks about boorish behavior from President Bush’s pick for U.N. ambassador, John Bolton. The NYT says he  tried to fire intelligence agents who disagreed with him, the LAT says he harassed colleagues with whom he had disputes, and the WP says, perhaps most damningly, that he intentionally kept valuable information from Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to help prosecute turf wars during his time at the State Department. “I have been troubled with more and more allegations, revelations, coming about his style, his method of operation,” said Chuck Hagel last night, according to the LAT, raising the specter that Bolton won’t pass a Foreign Relations Committee vote scheduled for Tuesday.

The buck stops elsewhere … President Bush on the new White House-approved policy that will require U.S., Canadian, and Mexican citizens to show passports even for quick cross-border trips: “When I first read that in the newspaper about the need to have passports,” he told some editors last week, “I said, ‘What’s going on here?’