Today's Papers

A Drop in the Bucket

The Washington Post leads with economists’ doubts that the “sprawling” housing bill currently headed for President Bush’s desk will do much to soften the crunch. The bill makes the front page in all three papers, but the Middle East also gets plenty of face time: The New York Timesleads with the “profound weakening” of the Mahdi Army, Iraq’s Shiite milita, “in an important, if tentative, milestone for stability in Iraq.” The Los Angeles Timesturns the spotlight on the war on terror in Pakistan, leading with a grim portrait of “a counter-terrorism campaign … that has lost momentum and is beset by frustration.”

The Democrat-sponsored housing bill received 72-13 Senate approval in a rare Saturday session, giving the Treasury Department sweeping authority to prop up the country’s two largest mortgage finance companies and potentially costing the government billions of dollars. “The bill raises the national debt ceiling to $10.6 trillion … the first time that the limit on the government’s credit card has grown to 14 digits,” the NYT reports. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., mentioned in both stories, told the WP that that the Treasury’s new authority “crosses the line into socialism”; John McCain and Barack Obama both support the bill. The Post’s economist sources say that the end of the crunch won’t come nearly as fast as the bill’s passing. In fact, one says, the 400,000 households the bill hopes to assist are “a drop in the bucket.”

The Mahdi Army’s decline is “part of a general decline in violence that is resonating in American as well as Iraqi politics,” the NYT reports. The anti-American fighters were the primary defenders of poor Shiites in Iraq, but the miltia’s violent tactics weakened its appeal “to the point that many quietly supported American military sweeps against the group.” The army formerly held large portions of Baghdad but was forced back by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s military operation this spring. The weakening is a victory for Iraq’s government and particularly for the prime minister, who is increasingly seen as a legitimate national leader. Seventeen Iraqis in formerly milita-controlled areas, each interviewed by the Times, say the group’s grip on the local economy has slowly “ebbed”—cooking gas, for example, now costs less than a fifth of its former price under the Mahid Army.

If that’s the good news, the LAT has the bad: CIA operations against al-Qaida fighters in Pakistan are all but fruitless. “Dozens of interviews” with (anonymous) senior security officials give a bleak picture of the CIA’s attempts to straddle an uneasy dichotomy in Pakistan, a nation that is by turns an ally and a threat. In the current state of affairs, officers are “confined largely to a collection of crumbling bases in northwestern Pakistan. Most are on remote Pakistani military outposts, where they are kept on a short leash under an awkward arrangement with their hosts—rarely allowed to leave and often left with little to do but plead with their Pakistani counterparts to act.” The piece is filled with depressing quotes from CIA officials, such as one’s observation that “everyone who serves in Pakistan comes back frustrated.” The only thing that might change the agency’s approach? “Another attack on the homeland,” a high-ranking counter-terrorism official says.

The war on terror shares front-page real estate with Barack Obama, whose recent world tour gets A1 analysis in both the WP and the LAT. The Post wonders if the trip, widely considered a success, will have any real payoff for Obama. The candidate himself openly told the paper he hoped it would have an impressionistic effect on voters later in the game: “Hopefully, it gives voters a sense that I can in fact—and do—operate effectively on the international stage,” Obama said. “That may not be decisive for the average voter right now, given our economic troubles, but it’s knowledge they can store in the back of their minds for when they go into the polling place later.” The LAT piece quotes Obama strategist David Axelrod, speaking with a remarkable frankness about the theater aspect of the trip (“Any campaign, in part, is about whether people can picture a candidate in that role”). The Times also notes that a Thursday Fox News poll shows Obama slipping to within a “statistically insignificant” margin over John McCain.

A column by WP ombudsman Deborah Howell examines reader reactions to the paper’s 13-part series on the unsolved murder of D.C. intern Chandra Levy. “All but two” readers who called or wrote were critical of the series that, in one’s phrasing, “pushe[d] real news off the front page for 13 days.” One reader who did like the series compliments the appeal of serial reading, adding to the anticipation of opening the morning paper. Howell ultimately sides with the majority, concluding that “to me, the project wasn’t worth 13 days, all on Page 1, and the new information wasn’t highlighted sufficiently.”

A piece in the NYT’s Arts & Leisure section eulogizes album packaging and liner notes, which are increasingly scarce in the digital music age. “Scanning the small-print data crammed into album packaging can be tremendous fun, revealing aspects of an artist not always evident in the music,” the pieces muses, amid quotes from various experts who don’t seem too worried about the disappearance of physical liner notes. The best part about album booklets?  They “are the domain of too-much-information moments,” like when Gwen Stefani told her husband, in her latest album’s credits, “I still want you all over me.”