Today's Papers

Bubble, Bubble, Mortgage Trouble

Pre-election violence in Iraq tops the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsbox. In the most serious of several reported incidents, Ayad Allawi, the former interim Iraqi leader who is widely seen as the United States’ preferred candidate in the Dec. 15 elections, was attacked by a mob in Najaf. The New York Times—along with every other paper—stuffs Allawi and instead goes with a news feature on the dangers of being a Sunni politician in today’s Iraq. The Los Angeles Times leads with the dramatic increase in mortgage fraud across the nation, as swindlers capitalize on inflated house prices and regulatory laxity. USA Today touts a big hike in spending on highways. And the Washington Post leads with efforts by the American Red Cross to recruit more minorities after complaints about its alleged racial insensitivity during the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

Allawi was on a campaign swing through Najaf when a crowd of angry young men, chanting “God cursed the Baathists!” set upon his motorcade wielding knives, shoes, bricks, and perhaps guns, the WP reports inside. An outraged Allawi called the incident an “assassination attempt.”

From what the NYT says, Allawi, a Shiite, has nothing on Sunni politicians when it comes to dodging assassins. With endorsements from soccer players and sheiks, the Iraqi Consensus Front, a coalition of three Sunni-dominated parties, is expected to make a strong showing in the election, the paper reports. For party leaders, the real challenge is staying alive until then. Caught between Shiites who hate them and insurgent die-hards who think they are sellouts, “perhaps no one has more enemies than [these] Sunni Arab politicians”—which obviously is really saying something in Iraq.

The WP off-leads a story saying foreign-policy specialists within the Democratic Party are giving Iraq some serious thought and basically have no friggin’ idea what to do.

Reports of mortgage fraud have tripled during the last two years, the LAT reports, and the cost to banks has quadrupled to roughly $1 billion. Such cases range from simply fudging income statements to elaborate schemes involving stolen identities and straw buyers. Mortgage brokers, relatively new and unregulated players in the financial industry, are often the instigators. There is little government oversight of the mortgage market, and lenders keep quiet about fraud so as not to expose themselves to scrutiny. Honest homeowners end up footing the bill, the paper says, because “lenders build the cost of fraud into the loan rates, much the way retailers raise the price of items that frequently are shoplifted.”

USAT says that government spending on roads jumped 12 percent during the first nine months of this year, to more than $66 billion, reversing a three-year downward trend. The big increase has come from state governments, many of which were previously diverting highway money to schools or health care. But politicians want to appease cranky commuters with bigger and better roads.

The Red Cross says that some of the alleged examples of its callousness—a black minister tells the WP that many Katrina refugees “felt like they were being herded like cattle” at overcrowded shelters, and the paper adds that “black people were offended that Red Cross volunteers running the Astrodome facility in Houston wore latex gloves”—are “issues of perception and not cultural insensitivity.” Nonetheless, the organization is making an effort to hire more minority staff and to recruit more black and Hispanic volunteers through churches.

Everyone stuffs word that in yesterday’s elections in Venezuela, the party of President Hugo Chávez took “overwhelming control” of the country’s legislature, rolling up such a huge majority that the populist strongman can now amend the country’s constitution at will. Parties opposed to Chavez boycotted the elections, and the NYT says the result means “Venezuela’s opposition has, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist in an organized form.” Considering that Chavez is a major antagonist of the Bush administration in Latin America, and the fact that he sits on serious oil reserves, couldn’t this real news have found it’s way onto someone’s front page—especially on a day when nearly everyone leads with nonperishable fare?

The WSJ fronts a long and harrowing feature on the Chinese health-care system. The story’s central character, a 7-year-old boy from a rural area, has treatable leukemia, but like two-thirds of all Chinese, his family lacks health insurance. Chinese hospitals demand payment upfront for their services, so the boy’s entire village has had to pitch in for his $18,500 treatment. At every turn, doctors meet his family meet with indifference or outright disdain. “Now you’ve lost all your money and you’ll lose the boy too,” one tells the family as she scolds them for falling behind on their payments. The boy is still alive, but his family lacks money to complete his treatment. The story’s author, Andrew Browne, encourages anyone with serious interest in helping out to contact him via e-mail.

USAT’s “cover story” tackles the fast-shrinking politician once known as “Big Time.” The story dubs Vice President Dick Cheney the “Velcro veep”: “unwilling to admit mistakes, wedded to secrecy and increasingly embattled.” His friends say he couldn’t care less what the public thinks of him, which, as Slate’s John Dickerson recently argued, may not be such a great trait in the nation’s second-highest ranking official.

The LAT off-leads a deep look into the not-so-deep psyche of disgraced Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif. Cunningham came to Washington as a war hero, succeeding a predecessor who was plagued by scandal, and leaves in handcuffs. What’s striking about him, the story says, is his brazenness: “Honest graft” has become the norm on Capitol Hill (as Michael Kinsley pointed out in his recent Slatecolumn), but whereas other lawmakers bend the rules on the sly, Cunningham deposited checks for tens of thousands in bribes in his account at the congressional credit union and partied on a defense contractor’s yacht christened, in his honor, the “Duke-Stir.” The paper speculates that some of his below-decks mischief may have gotten him in trouble with his wife, and that that in turn may have led to his sudden need for “the lavishly furnished mansion … to make things up.”

The NYT fronts a compelling yarn about a troubled Kentucky couple that won a $34 million lottery jackpot in 2000—but still couldn’t escape their demons. The husband ended up dying of complications from alcoholism in 2003. The wife, who is said to have turned her geodesic dome-shaped mansion into a drug den, died of a possible overdose shortly before Thanksgiving. Between them, they had squandered much of their fortune.

If at first you don’t succeed … The WSJ fronts a feature on the notoriously difficult California Bar Exam, which, critics say, is “capricious, unreliable and a poor measure of future lawyering skills.” How hard is the test? More than half of the would-be lawyers taking it last month failed—including Kathleen Sullivan, a former dean of Stanford Law School and eminent constitutional scholar who has argued cases before the Supreme Court. (She was already licensed in New York and Massachusetts.) She refused comment; the story says her new law firm “said she wasn’t reachable over the weekend because she was at a remote location.” Cramming, presumably.