Sunday, February 20, 2005

Sunday Reading

  • Sam Roberts in the New York Times Week in Review finds hope for Democrats in local politics.

    It took 14 weeks of recounts and litigation before Nicholas A. Spano finally won re-election to the New York State Senate this month. By carrying his district in the Westchester suburbs of New York City – by all of 18 votes – Mr. Spano, now known as Landslide Nick, helped maintain the embattled Republican majority in the State Senate.

    But he also achieved a more curious distinction: He broke a nationwide dead heat in state legislative seats. Counting Mr. Spano, the 2004 election made the count 3,657 Republicans and 3,656 Democrats; before last November, Republicans led by 64 seats.

    That Mr. Spano was caught in such a squeaker illustrates an important truth: Republicans may be triumphant now at the national level, but that doesn’t mean the party is doing well in the states, where all politics is local.

    New York State has been something of an against-the-odds success story for Republicans. In national election-map parlance, it is obviously a blue state: it hasn’t backed a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan in 1984 (though President Bush did better in New York against John Kerry than against Al Gore). Enrolled Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 5 to 3. In Congress, Democrats hold 19 of the 29 House seats, and they easily won both Senate seats.

    Switch to local politics, though, and the state looks much redder. The state has had a Republican governor for all but 24 of the last 60 years, including George E. Pataki’s three terms so far. The Democrats last controlled both houses of the Legislature in 1965. The last two mayors of solidly Democratic New York City have been Republicans. The state’s small towns and rural counties have overwhelmingly been in Republican hands, and until recently, so were the suburbs.

    But lately, even as Republicans have been gaining ground nationally they have been losing it in New York, and in some other states around the country as well. The reasons are many, ranging from population shifts to an erosion of party identification. But one thing it does not necessarily seem to be about is ideology.

    Voters look at national and local candidates through very different lenses, and party labels can mean different things. The accommodations of day-to-day governing at state and local levels mean that elected officials must often run afoul of party oratory just to get things done…

  • Michael Kinsley on privilege and presumption

    American democracy is a conspiracy of special interests against the general interest, but every special interest thinks that it is the general interest. Journalists often see this firsthand. They talk to a farmer about farm price supports and report back amazed at the ferocity and self-righteousness of the farmer’s views. A farmer really believes that large government checks to farmers make America a better place, and can get very annoyed if you suggest otherwise.

    How can they believe that their special interest in receiving large checks from the general taxpayer coincides with the general taxpayer’s interest? Partly it’s self-deception. Partly, though, it is self-selection. Farmers believe in the nobility of farming because people who believe in the nobility of farming become farmers.

    And people who believe in journalism become journalists. Belief in journalism is not widespread in the general population these days. People think journalists are biased, that they make things up, that they are arrogant, self-involved and self-important. But the folks who become journalists (including me) are more likely to regard journalism as a noble calling that serves the nation, its values and the world. That is why, even at this low point in public esteem, many journalists are unembarrassed to assert that they are above the law.

    That is essentially what the journalistic profession is claiming in the current controversy over the special prosecutor’s investigation of White House leaks. Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time have refused to testify about their conversations with government officials that might have concerned who leaked the identity of an undercover intelligence agent to columnist Robert Novak. Last week a federal appeals court ruling upheld a lower-court order that Miller and Cooper must testify or go to jail.

    That is a travesty. These two public-spirited journalists promised anonymity to sources at a time when the law about “journalists’ privilege” was unclear. Having made that promise, they feel obligated to keep it. If they shouldn’t have made that promise, society should have sent them a clearer message to that effect. The message is still a muddle. Why these two, who never published the secret name, and not others, including some who did? Before we start jailing journalists for keeping promises, we need to decide when such a promise should be made…

  • A touch of the poet, Michael Suib, in Key West.

    Common sights, related by circumstance, waylay me every day, each as starkly incongruous as day and night.

    In a city full of riches and wonders, an island paradise, there is a woman who walks along North Roosevelt Boulevard. She carries an assortment of black plastic bags, several in each hand. Her belongings overflow the bags, but somehow manage to be tucked in just well enough to stay in place.

    Her hair, clothing, skin, all equally black, highlight her, stark and pronounced against the turquoise sea and pale blue horizon. The expression on her face is one of hopelessness, her eyes soulful and weary.

    Above her, high in the Key West sky, are turkey vultures, hundreds of them, circling like black specks of pepper against a bleached mountain of white cotton clouds. Below, the woman slowly circles the island, and the birds swirl higher and higher, almost begging Icarus to take them home before their ache of hunger becomes too great.

    A red convertible slides along the roadway, laughter and music blaring, lengths of hair streaming in the rush of air behind the four occupants whose faces are flushed from the wind, the sun and their exuberance, their luggage protruding from the vehicle’s tied-down trunk.

    Along tree-lined Truman Avenue, just past the entrance to St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Catholic church, a man sits in a wheelchair, moving it, heliotropically, a few feet at a time to stake his claim to the warmth of the changing stations of the sun. He wears camouflage-style military pants and a sad story on his face, punctuated by draws from a bottle of clear alcohol.

    His posture is taut and almost expectant. Waiting, always waiting. He will sit for hours along this stretch of avenue, the traffic buzzing by him, with only a thin ribbon of sky visible through the royal poinciana trees, his window to the light above him. The turkey vultures, obscure blurs, silently tumble past the tall trees, unannounced.

    A couple walks by, their hands intertwined, beach towels draped around their necks, bulging backpacks slung over their shoulders. Two small children trail behind them, giggling and poking each other, perhaps trekking to their plot of sand and sunshine. Several blocks away, another man sits in a wheelchair.

    He is slumped over, catching sleep on the corner of United and Duval streets where there is a broad band of sky that the street is open to. The man looks like he is in danger of tumbling out of his seat.

    As he sleeps, bundled under several blankets that are wrapped around his huddled shoulders even on warm days, you can tell that he is not well.

    A festering foot, face shining beet-red, his physical condition depleting each day, he, too, stakes his claim to a spot in the sun. As people walk by some give him a wide berth; others place dollar bills or change on his lap.

    The man remains motionless. I stop to see if he is breathing, and see that he is, and I add some money to his lap.

    I would like to ask if I can help, but can not push myself today to disrupt his sleep.

    A Conch Tour Train glides by, filled with pale people enjoying the sites and sounds of Key West’s sub-tropical nirvana, their cameras snapping, but paying little heed to the man so precariously perched in his wheelchair. Overhead the turkey vultures continue to circle.

    Perhaps tomorrow, if tomorrow comes for the man, and the sun again shines, I’ll try to wake him.