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The Mouthpiece

New York Times Magazine on the next press secretary.

New York Times Magazine, Dec. 21 A profile depicts press-secretary-in-waiting Robert Gibbs as the man behind Obamaland’s strict opacity and occasional hostility to the press. On the trail, Gibbs was a top adviser and confidante, but he soon may find himself shut out of decision-making as he takes over “the podium job.” An article explores Oportunidades, Mexico’s “de facto welfare system,” which compensates the poor for behavior likely to break the cycle of poverty. For example, a family receives $27 per month if they attend regular health checkups. A similar pilot program began in late 2007 in New York City with private funding. Conservatives insist that cash, even conditional cash, fails to ingrain ambition and responsibility in its recipients. But the author argues that the Mexican program’s apparent success points the way to a poverty solution that blames neither society nor the poor.

Time, Dec. 29”It’s unlikely that you were surprised to see Obama’s face on the cover,” one author understates in the Person of the Year issue. In an interview, Obama discusses the “Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Kashmir-Iran problem” and says he is trying to make the Oval Office bubble more permeable although “between the lawyers and the Secret Service and the bureaucrats, I’m not sure I’m winning that battle.” No-drama Obama says he does, in fact, get angry; he’s just not a “shouter.” Obama’s brother-in-law, Oregon State basketball coach Craig Robinson, explains what the president-elect’s game says about the man: “[H]e’s competitive yet inclusive. He’s unselfish … classy, efficient and considerate.” Obama is also “extremely left-handed”—on the court, that is. A brief but memorable dispatch depicts the young medical students and doctors of the Red Cross who tend to the dead and wounded in Mexico’s horrific drug war. Mexican narco-traffickers have taken more than 5,300 lives this year.

The Economist, Dec. 20 An editorial worries that a contraction in global trade will lead most countries to adopt protectionist policies, which, if history is a guide, would make the current recession “much nastier.” Voters will call for subsidies and tariffs for national industries once demand is too weak to prop them up by itself. Therefore, the editors conclude, “[t]he best insurance against protectionism … is macroeconomic stimulus.” An article describes Somalia as “Africa’s most utterly failed state.” The Islamist militia Shabab, which controls Mogadishu and much of the south, is destabilizing Kenya, permitting jihadist training camps, and perpetuating what the U.N. calls “the world’s worst humanitarian emergency.” The United States will likely neither negotiate with Shabab nor launch an intervention. In a proposed e-mail to Obama’s BlackBerry, the magazine asserts that preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is crucial, but that failure to do so may be better than undertaking military action. That said, U.S. bombs remain preferable to Israeli ones.

Texas Monthly, January 2009
An El Paso writer profiles Juárez, Mexico, his hometown’s sister city across the Rio Grande, where drug violence has resulted in 1,300 murders this year alone. Experts fear Mexico is destined for failed statehood. The author marvels at U.S. complicity, citing a crash in 2007 of a plane then carrying three tons of cocaine but thought to have been previously used by the CIA for extraordinary renditions. “Iran-Contra, anyone?” Kinky Friedman imparts his “cowboy wisdom” to Obama in an open letter. On dealing with past associations: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t wipe your friends off on your saddle.”Barack, which means blessed in Swahili, sounds a lot like baruch, which means blessed in Hebrew, which means Obama is “a fellow Red Sea pedestrian.” “May all your wishes be little gefilte fishes,” Friedman well-wishes. The letter is signed, “Yours in Christ, Kinky Friedman.”

New York Review of Books, Dec. 18
An article weighs whether Obama’s victory signaled a broad political realignment. The author says it’s too soon to tell: How Obama and his party handle the economy will determine if “Democrats will still be running successfully against George W. Bush in 2028.” Meanwhile, demographic trends—specifically the famed white working class’s declining share of the electorate—have put the Republican Party in a decidedly precarious position: “[I]t has to moderate its views on immigration, race, and certain cultural issues.… But institutionally, it is hard pressed to do any of these things.” A review of 2666, Roberto Bolaño’s “overwhelming” 900-page novel, casts the dead author’s magnum opus as defiantly “post-national.” “[I]f 2666 contains a lesson it is that people are always from some confluence of factors more bizarre than a country.”

Must Read
If at times a tad too hopeful, the New York Times Magazine article on Oportunidades combines clarity and solid reporting. It uses abstract ideas about poverty and welfare to illuminate this specific effort to lift up Mexico’s poor and, in turn, tests those ideas against the program’s “astonishing success.”

Must Skip
Though much of Time’s Person of the Year package is solid—particularly Craig Robinson’s piece and those amazing black-and-white photos of a 20-year-old Obama—the lead story tells you nothing you don’t already know—and takes 5,300 words to do it.

Best Politics Piece
Newsweek profiles Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, whose most appealing trait in the post-Bush era is “competence.” “Satisfy the right with your personal convictions; sway the center by actually solving problems.”

Best Culture Piece
Newsweek asked several of its reviewers to name the cultural artifact that best stands as a “singular emblem” of the Bush years in America. One cites Battlestar Galactica, which has used allegory to be “honest about the psychological toll of the war on terror.”

The Quality of Mercy
TheNew Yorker reports from Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School, where a professor restaged the trial of Shylock, from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, in front of a distinguished panel of legal and literary scholars. Antonio’s lawyers attempted to link the money-lender to “predatory lenders,” but to no avail: The judges voted 5-2 to award Shylock his money.