politics

The Distinguished Gentleman Who Speaks for the Trees

In 2007, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works questioned EPA administrator Stephen Johnson about issues like emissions regulation and toxic release tracking. The EPA was also shutting some of its public libraries. Committee Chair Barbara Boxer was critical of this, while ranking Republican James Inhofe said it was a good and necessary step. Here, an excerpt from the hearing:

Senator INHOFE. Administrator Johnson, I want to make sure I understand, the purpose of the library modernization effort is to make all the EPA materials more readily available and all of this. I want to ask you if the following books are still available at the EPA libraries. The first one I would like to ask you about is Lorax. Is this available?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes.

Senator INHOFE. About how many copies are available?

Mr. JOHNSON. I understand that there are nine.

Senator INHOFE. Are any checked out right now?

Mr. JOHNSON. Not that I am aware of.

Senator INHOFE. The author?

Mr. JOHNSON. Dr. Suess. [sic]

Senator INHOFE. Dr. Suess, very good. Next we have WordStar made easy. Is this available?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes, sir.

Senator INHOFE. I understand that this is a computer software book for pre-1983 computers, is that correct?

Mr. JOHNSON. That is correct, published in 1982.

Senator INHOFE. Published in 1982. A lot of demand for this book? Never mind. The next one is Memoirs of a Geisha. Do you have this available?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes, sir.

Senator INHOFE. OK. How about Bonesetters Daughter?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes.

Senator INHOFE. What collection is this in?

Mr. JOHNSON. It is in our technical library in Region 8.

Senator INHOFE. OK, great demand? Here’s one, how about this one. This is called Fat Chicks Rule: How to Survive in a Thincentric World. Do you have this?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes, sir.

Senator INHOFE. How about Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror? Do you have this?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes, sir.

Senator INHOFE. That is interesting. How about more of the items, the video, Fern Gulley, is that in? The Last Rainforest, do you have that?

Mr. JOHNSON. I believe we have it on video tape.

Senator INHOFE. I believe that is a children’s movie, is that correct?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes.

Senator INHOFE. How about a health issue, do you have a video, Windsor Pilates Ab Sculpting?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes, we do have Windsor Pilates Ab Sculpting.

The Lorax has become a kind of shorthand for environmentalism, sometimes to prove a famously anti-environmentalist senator’s point. Still, the Lorax has only been invoked nine times* in hearings or the Congressional Record. And of those nine, only about half are actually in an explicitly environmental context. Among the other reasons for citing the Lorax are to illustrate the importance of community service (John Kerry, 2002), as a cartoon character voiced by a deceased voice actor (Fred Upton, 2005), and as intellectual property (Jim Moran, 2010). From the record:

During the Trademark Expo, costumed trademarked characters will introduce themselves during the opening ceremony and make appearances throughout the Expo, joining the USPTO’s own Trademark character, T. Markey. A new cast of characters, including Clifford the Big Red Dog®, Lorax®, GEICO’s Gecko®, Chick-Fil-A’s® cow, The Berenstain Bears®, Dippin’ Dots®, and a 5-Hour Energy® bottle character will join veteran Expo characters Pillsbury’s Doughboy®, Hershey’s Kisses®, Hershey’s® milk chocolate bar, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups®, Crayola® crayons’ mascot Tip, Betty Boop®, Dennis the Menace®, Popeye®, Olive Oyl®, Curious George®, and Sprout®.

Only once has The Lorax been cited in Congress in an explicit effort to increase support for environmental protection. That was in 1999, and it wasn’t even by a Congressman, but Chris Jeffers, who was the city manager of Monterey Park, CA:

I wish to conclude with some well-known words that convey the need for municipal Superfund legislation and our hope that the ability of Congress to move this ahead—these issues ahead now. And if I may, too, I sort of brought one of my child’s books, called the Lorax. And what Dr. Suess sort of said in here is, ‘‘Now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear; unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.‘‘

So good on Mr Jeffers, for remembering the Lorax’s lesson. Though his former constituents in Monterey Park may better remember him for the dust-up following his retirement, when he reportedly cashed out more than $400,000 of accrued vacation time.

*Since 1994, which is as far back as the Government Printing Office’s online database will search.

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disaster, politics

Quick Note on PIPA, SOPA, and the Cyber Senator

I am disappointed in Pat Leahy.

The good senator from Vermont and I probably agree on more issues than disagree. But we do disagree on his Protect Intellectual Property Act, also known as PIPA. You may have heard of PIPA, or its more notorious House counterpart, SOPA.

Many notable web sites have gone dark or posted messages of opposition to the proposed legislation due to its potential pernicious consequences. (There are plenty of analyses of the effects of this legislation; this one, for example). Suffice it to say that SOPA and PIPA represent credible threats to free speech and innovation.

Senator Leahy introduced this bill. I’m disappointed that Leahy, in particular, introduced it. Yes, he’s a longtime supporter of intellectual property protections. Fair enough. Nothing wrong with that; after all, I benefit from copyright. Of late, he’s taken a defensive position on it: It’s interesting to see his webpage on the topic of IP is full of PIPA justifications and clarifications, and some of his recent press releases have stated outright that Wikipedia, reddit, et al, wouldn’t be affected by PIPA. To which point, again, I point you to this analysis.

The irony in all of this, for me, comes from Senator Leahy’s professed enthusiasm for technology. His use of the web has been a point of pride, and his office still reminds people that he is “the second senator to launch a website.” He’s called—or calls himself—the “cyber senator” for goodness sake (I’ve associated that label with him for years). Why? For “his ongoing leadership on issues related to the Internet and technology.”

Indeed. It must be confounding for the Cyber Senator to be responsible for legislation that, under its current proposed status, is merely anathema to the tech industry, but, if passed and enacted, could be poison to it.

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energy, politics

Comic Sans Controversy

Fine, fine we’ve all beaten up on Comic Sans at one point or another. It’s inspired loads of discussion online, most of it quite ferocious ridicule. (You can see some hilarious examples at Comic Sans Criminal.)

Still, we’re all pretty accustomed to it, no? In LOLing e-mail forwards and cobbled-together personal websites, that kind of thing.

I was browsing through some PDFs of evidence from the November 17th Congressional hearing on Solyndra (weekend reading) and saw this e-mail from George Kaiser:

Email from George Kaiser about Solyndra. Text is as follows: Sounds good, writes Kaiser. I assume that we would not move ahead without the offering without full DOE approval or would you issue while you are under due diligence? BTW, a couple of weeks ago when Ken and I were visiting with a group of Administration folks in DC who are in charge of the Stimulus process (White House, not DOE) and Solyndra came up, every one of them responded simultaneously about their thorough knowledge of the Solyndra story, suggesting it was one of their prime poster children.

Much hay was made of these e-mails by Republican partisans. George Kaiser, according to Forbes, is worth some $10 billion, and is the 89th richest man on the planet. He’s also a major Obama supporter, and his foundation reportedly owned a third of the famously failed solar panel manufacturer Solyndra. The conspiracy-minded among us (and you don’t even have to be all that suspicious) might see the potential for inappropriate benefits when it came to the federal government’s pre-bankruptcy support of Solyndra.

In any case, there are a few Kaiser e-mails sprinkled throughout the evidence that House staffers threw online. Yet the partisans failed to point out the detail that would have dealt the most devastating blow: His e-mails are all in Comic Sans.

Email from George Kaiser. Text reads as follows: Yeah but the other issue is how we they prepare themselves for Congressional investigation of the loan award by DOE.

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Asia, politics

More Korean Political Fisticuffs

As an addendum to the previous post, I discovered that the Seoul city council had a brawl of their own over the very school lunches that triggered the latest political turmoil in the country:

And a bonus example of politicians behaving badly from 2009 when opposition were upset at the GNP’s relaxing media ownership rules:

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Asia, politics

Could Lunch Derail the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement?

Probably not, but a controversy over mid-day meals makes it a little more complicated for Korea.

Lee and Obama in Detroit.

Earlier this month, the president of South Korea visited the United States. Remember that? They went to a General Motors plant. They had a state dinner featuring Texas rib eye. Harold (of Harold and Kumar) sat across from Barack Obama.

Just before Lee arrived, Congress had ratified the Korean-US Free Trade Agreement, considered the largest such agreement in the US since NAFTA. Korea has not yet approved it and when a Korean reporter asked Obama if he was concerned given the political opposition in Korea, Obama said he had President Lee Myung Bak’s assurances that it would be passed by the National Assembly. (They don’t call Mb “the bulldozer” for nothing.)

The agreement was set in motion by Lee’s predecessor, but Lee has had his eye on this deal for years. His decision to lift South Korea’s ban on American beef (sparked by the discovery of mad cow disease in the US beef supply five years earlier) is believed to have been a strategic move to make the prospects of a trade agreement more appealing to the US. It also led to the great Seoul beef protests of 2008 and the ensuing political and civil rights fallout. You get a sense of the scale of these protests in the photo of candle-carrying demonstrators below (image from WBUR).

Protest at night

But still, the fractured opposition parties, along with labor, environmental, farming, and other groups are steadfastly opposed to the FTA in its current form. And while Lee’s Grand National Party will almost certainly be able to ram the agreement through parliament over their objections, if need be, they might be a little leery of such a move at this moment.

This is where the lunches come in. School lunches, more precisely.

This summer, Seoul was in the grip of a political firestorm over whether or not the city should provide children with free lunches. On one side was the city council and liberal politicians, who had passed a free lunch program to cover every one of the more than 800,000 primary and middle school students in the city. On the other side was Mayor Oh Se Hoon, a member of the conservative Grand National Party (like President Lee), who argued only the neediest students should qualify. It was an issue that played on concerns over class, economics, and social welfare. Mayor Oh tearfully staked his career on the issue, pledging to resign if voters rejected an August referendum to block the larger plan. They rejected it. He resigned.

Seoul contains about a fifth of the entire population of Korea, so running the city is an influential position. Before he was president, Lee was the mayor of Seoul.

The political gamesmanship in the runup to the election centered mainly on three contenders: Na Kyung Won, the Grand National Party and establishment candiate (who would have been Seoul’s first female mayor); Park Won Soon, an independent, liberal candidate who is a civil rights lawyer and community activist; and Ahn Cheol Soo, an MD/PhD physiologist-turned-software tycoon-turned-professor who is basically every Korean parent’s (or aspiring youth’s) dream-vision of professional achievement. Among his 11 books is one titled “My Mother, Who Fostered My Ability.” He would likely have been the leading mayoral candidate and is considered a viable presidential candidate.

But he didn’t run, and instead threw his support behind Park, who then won last Wednesday’s special election. (The main opposition party failed to muster a candidate of its own, suggesting just how fractured and shambolic the non-GNP political spectrum is, and making the Park victory that much more impressive.) The fallout has been interesting. Mayor Oh obviously hurt his chances for higher office due to his miscalculation. Na, the GNP mayoral candidate, had won the endorsement of Park Geun Hye, a politician and daughter of an assassinated president; Na’s loss is viewed as hurting Park’s chances in the 2012 presidential election. The results are viewed as an expression of disapproval of Lee’s current government (Korean presidents only get a single five-year term). The opposition is feeling emboldened. And Ahn’s own status has obviously been boosted even higher for backing the winner. As the JoongAng Daily notes, it has GNP politicians worried:

The Grand National Party’s defeat in the Seoul mayoral by-election has scared the party off from pushing through the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, and its ratification is more imperiled now than ever.

It’s not clear just how imperiled it is (probably not very much). The opposition itself isn’t new; these groups have been unhappy at the prospects for years, though Park’s victory is a reason to feel recharged. The consensus—among the media, at least—is that passing the FTA is going be a real brawl. Not in some metaphorical way. We’re talking fists, furniture, maybe even fire extinguishers and hammers.

The JoongAng explains:

In Korea, the minority in the assembly resorts to physical brawls when the majority party tries to railroad through bills, using violence as a kind of filibuster. But the brawls are unpopular with the public, which blames the majority party for not trying hard enough to compromise with the opposition.

After losing the mayoral by-election this week, GNP lawmakers are much too fearful of losing their seats in next April’s general election to be seen in a brawl over the FTA.

Reporters are positively rubbing their hands in anticipation. As the lede of a Wall Street Journal blog post says, “The Korean-U.S. free trade agreement started with brawls and protests in the streets in 2006. And it now appears certain it will end with brawls and protests in the National Assembly next week.”

So what does Korea’s physical politics look like? A good example comes from 2008, when the GNP worked on FTA details behind closed doors. Closed doors that they then blocked with furniture:

So we’ll see if any viral video comes out of next week’s Korean National Assembly. As for those school lunches, Mayor Park signed free-lunch funding into law on his first day. And President Lee probably never knew that his visit to America coincided with our own National School Lunch Week.

[Bonus: I just found some old video of Seoul’s city council members pushing each other around over school lunches! I’ve embedded it in the next post, along with video of 2009’s notorious (but unrelated) parliamentary media-law brawl.]

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anticipation, dissipation, history, politics

Why Elections Matter

American soldiers in Iraq walk past the word VOTE spray painted on a blast wall. From New York Times.

Apologies to Joao Silva/New York Times for using their photo. But look: American soldiers walking past a
spray-painted blast wall in Al Awad, Iraq, yesterday.

The first time I voted in a presidential election was in the 2000 election. I was a senior in college in New Hampshire. I voted absentee in Alaska. Before election night, the campaigns had seemed like exercises in pure politics. The country was doing well, the government was running a surplus, and the U.S. seemed pretty invincible, in spite of apparent anomalies like the recent USS Cole bombing and the earlier African embassy explosions. Bush was promising humility, compassionate conservatism, and explicit opposition to nation-building. Gore’s posturing, on the other hand, showed up in his physical performance. We seemed headed for a bland, bureaucratic age in which politicians were interchangeable functionaries. In college, we learned about the end of history. My cohort was restless, believing we would inherit a world marked by anomie. Friends were going to rallies for Ralph Nader–Ralph Nader–who gave young people something to rally around, a promise to Shake Up the Status Quo. And then Florida, outrage both real and manufactured, and an election put to rest by a split Supreme Court vote. The age of aimless political gamesmanship was upon us. The next summer we were preoccupied by shark attacks.

All this didn’t last another year.

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Alaska, corruption, crime, influence, money, politics

Alaska, Re-factored

12.30 in the afternoon, North Pole, Alaska, Dec 2004
When Ted Stevens was found guilty of all seven charges of failing to report gifts last week, the conventional wisdom, at least in the Lower 48, was that the Republicans had lost another Senate seat.

I’m inclined to agree. But with reservations. Because if there’s any place that will surprise you politically (other than Minnesota, maybe), it would be Alaska.

Alaska politics seems to have a special knack for getting muddy, if not outright weird. Take the ongoing saga of Stevens’s trial, where the weirdness seems to have spread: a juror took a break from deliberations because her father died, except that he didn’t actually die, and she was not answering her phone because she had, in fact, left D.C. for a horse race in California. As the AP notes:

She apologized for lying, and then started a long rambling story about horses, which included references to horse breeding, the Breeders’ Cup, drugs, President Ford’s son Steven and her condo in Florida being bugged.

Fair enough, I suppose. This after Stevens himself gave some head-scratching testimony, such as calling a massage chair from a supporter that sat in his Washington residence for the last seven years a “loan.” (In a kind of contrapuntal twist, Stevens was questioned by a Justice Department prosecutor; fifty years ago, he was himself a U.S. attorney for the Justice Department.) As the Anchorage Daily News reported:

In fact, Stevens said, he planned to ship the chair back to Persons in Alaska with other furniture from Washington to use in [Stevens’s] Girdwood house, but there wasn’t any room in the “chalet” – the place was filled with Allen’s stuff, he said.

Where was his original furniture?

“Bill Allen stole our furniture and put his in our chalet,” Stevens said.

“Why didn’t you call the police?” Morris asked.

“It never crossed my mind to call the police at that time,” Stevens said. “I might now.”

I kind of wish Jay Hammond were around to paddle up in his canoe and tell us what he thought about all this.

Today, the state personnel board cleared Governor Palin of any wrongdoing in Troopergate, meaning both sides get a report stating what they want to hear, and neither will ever be satisfied. But whether Palin becomes vice president or not, Alaska will soon be pried from its cozy niche in the American political system. And that is why I’m writing about Stevens. 

Because Stevens’s era, and possibly Don Young’s, is over, or almost. (And it seems to me that Palin can’t go back to her governorship and expect to accomplish much meaningful, having burned so many bridges in this campaign.) That Alaskans would take a gamble and reinstall a convicted felon as senator in the hopes that he will continue to bring home the bacon would not be a shock. But the gamble comes in what the Senate does with Stevens if he gets another term. Alaska is a state normally ignored when it comes to national politics, which helped during earmark time. This year, it’s at the center of the storm with the problems that Stevens, Young, and Palin are having. It’s a make-or-break year for Alaska, in terms of the Washington influence it has quietly built up over decades. They’ve got to go all in.

The Times recently wrote:

Some state Republican Party leaders have countered this concern [over Stevens’s convictions] by urging people to vote for Mr. Stevens as a tactical move. They say re-electing him will allow for a special election to replace him should he later resign or be expelled. Otherwise, Republicans would be ceding the race to Mr. Begich [the Democrat].

A tactical move. Politicians like Young and Stevens seem to have stayed in power because of a go-along-to-get-along mentality. There is no great orator or charmer between those two. But with so much seniority, and with Republicans previously in the majority–or at least not marginalized–during their careers, these politicians were not so much inspirations as investments when it came time to cast a vote.

This was an argument I often heard for voting for the incumbents; they have influence built up (meaning: they can keep the federal funds flowing north). Alaska’s political power in Washington has long rested in its Congressional delegation; Palin is an outlier. But now? If Young and Stevens were to win, they’d be shunted to the sidelines in a Democratic Congress. Young has become an object of national ridicule and derision from all sides–this because of Palin and McCain and his Bridges to Nowhere. Stevens will be roundly considered a disgrace for his convictions. And if Palin should become VP, she shouldn’t expect any favors from the new Congress if she tries to send a few more federal dollars to Alaska. Attempting to do so would run counter to one of her ticket’s primary messages, anyway.

But all may not be lost. FiveThirtyEight lists Stevens’s seat as “safely Dem;” RealClearPolitics notes that Young’s House seat “leans Dem.” Maybe Alaskans will come to believe that “investing” votes in a Democrat or two could bring many rewards to the state as a Democratic White House or Congress or both shower the new guys, and thus Alaska, with influential committee spots and other goodies that will help in 2010 and 2014. Tactical moves all over the place from everybody.

And even if they’re Democrats, they’ll still push to open ANWR.

****

Stevens is reportedly airing a two-minute commercial explaining his vision for Alaska (or, I suppose, after 40 years, reiterating that vision), among other things, during the six o’clock news across the state. It’s not online yet, and I’m not sure through which of the internet tubes it will hurtle. I’m sure it will be on the YouTube. But it’s not there yet. In the meantime, here’s thirty-one-second commercial, “Sticking with Stevens.”

New Order fans will recognize the opening strains of “Ceremony” playing in the background. Not sure that Senator Stevens is a fan of the post-punk, New Wave genre. But I love it. New Order also has songs called “Temptation,” “Regret,” and “Times Change.”

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history, politics, race

The Wallace Clarification

The news these days is the sort that inspires a lot of confusion, and when there’s confusion, there is no shortage of arm-waving, all-of-a-sudden experts buzzing around. You know what I mean: the street-corner authority: the pedestrian who sees a house on fire or a car accident, and then when anyone asks, “Hey, what’s going on?”, he’s the one who answers like he knows it all.

Every political talk show, dinner party chatter, phone call home makes at least glancing reference to the Economic Crisis. Inevitably, someone says, “You know, I still just don’t get.” And inevitably one person will say, “Well, here’s how it happened.” If you’re really lucky, you’ll be at dinner and two or three people will all vie for the resident expert crown and they’ll get into it full force. Pretty soon, your nice dinner has been hijacked by Hank and Neel and Ben, and and the best resolution is the simplest. More wine!

Before September 2008, the casual authority opined on terrorism or global warming, possibly both. Before 2001, they waxed on the New Economy (and the Dot-Com Bubble). Or, if you were really lucky, the perennial favorite: quantum physics. Possibly all of those. In the novel Making History, Stephen Fry alluded to the armchair experts who could recite ego-stroking theories they’d memorized from pop physics books. In the novel White Noise, Don DeLillo includes a scene in which a family begins to talk about theoretical physics and pretty much gets it all wrong:

Steffie said in a small voice, “How cold is space?”

We all waited once more. Then Heinrich said, “It depends on how high you go. The higher you go, the colder it gets.”

“Wait a minute,” Babette said. “The higher you go, the closer you get to the sun. So the warmer it gets.”

“What makes you think the sun is high?”

“How can the sun be low? You have to look up to see the sun.”

“What about at night?” he said.

“It’s on the other side of the earth. But people still look up.”

“The whole point of Sir Albert Einstein,” he said, “is how can the sun be up if you’re standing on the sun?”

I wonder what Sir Albert would make of the state of today’s world.

There’s a smaller tempest of interpretation occurring in the politics of the day in regard to some comments of Congressman John Lewis, in which he brought up the specter of George Wallace and the McCain-Palin rallies.

I have to confess, comically, that I was very confused about George Wallace when I was younger. I’d heard that he was a terrible racist. But then the only George Wallace I’d ever seen was the black comedian, who I thought was hilarious, and is currently playing the Flamingo in Vegas. And so when you’re hearing about these guys, starting in junior high or so, it all gets a little mixed up.

But it turns out that I’m not the only one confused about George Wallace. Luckily, we have Russ Rymer, a great journalist of race in America (and, quite often, of science).

On Friday, Russ published an op-ed in the Times with his explanation of the George Wallace comparison. It’s fun to read, and informative, and, at the climax, cinematic. Up front, Russ’s clarification: “The context of Mr. Lewis’s critique is not as has been presented: a saint of the civil rights movement likening a decorated war hero to an infamous racist. Rather, it was a collegial (if rough) caution from one brother to another, about a third, politicians all.”

I don’t want to steal Russ’s thunder, so take a look.

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irony, politics

The Oswald Cobblepot School of Debate

A forward link landed in my e-mail yesterday. It led me to a 13-second lark trying to portray John McCain as Oswald C. Cobblepot, better known as the Penguin, from Batman. You can see it here:

The Penguin is surely one of the more entertaining Batman villains–my favorite, if we’re working from the 1960s television series, where he showcased the talent of Burgess Meredith. Burgess Meredith, sneering behind that cigarette holder, was right on with his swaggering greed, the casual entitlement papering over the insecurities of a truly desperate character. (All the showcase villains from that show were surprisingly good: Frank Gorshin/Riddler, Eartha Kitt/Catwoman, Cesar Romero/Joker.)

The modern iteration of the Penguin in today’s politics has been identified by John Stewart, for the last few years, as Dick Cheney, whose mimicked utterances Stewart punctuates with the occasional side-of-mouth squawk. But the McCain parallel drawn above put me in the right frame of mind to appreciate another bit of Penguin scenery chewing. This video, posted on Marc Ambinder’s worthy politics blog, hits the right notes for the current campaign’s meta-narrative.

Anyway. Watch and learn:

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journalism, politics

Following up on Calling It

A few days ago, the Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed toward a brief CNN discussion on how best to call the candidates out. The reporter Candy Crowley prevaricates, pointing out that Obama’s side tells its share of the inaccurate statements about McCain. But Mark Halperin clarifies that McCain’s inaccurate statements are much more central to his campaign. As Coates wrote:

I get what she’s saying, but saying that Barack Obama stretches the truth to, doesn’t really address the fundamental argument–that the media should check these mo-fos when they lie….The point isn’t that the media should be harder on just McCain, it’s that they should do their job with all candidates. Saying “Well the other guy does it to” isn’t a “get of your job free” card.

Here’s the video:

And, following up on the earlier post, Call It as You See It, Chris Matthews seems to feel he’s struck gold, uncovering a vein of denial among some of his Republican guests:

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