Mitt, Rick And…

March 24, 2012

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Boston Globe Magazine:

THE TRAINING BEGAN when the boy was just 9. His father, a Polaroid executive who prized precision, would tell the boy: Go to the encyclopedia, choose a topic, and then give me a one-minute speech about it. The boy would do as he was told. When he was ready, he would stand in the living room, planting himself between the fireplace and his father’s wing chair, and deliver his speech for an audience of one. When the boy was finished, his father’s response would always be the same. Do it again.

So young Grover Norquist would do as he was told. Again. Again. Again.

Fifteen times the boy would repeat this exercise, honing his message a bit more and referring to his index card of notes a bit less with each run-through. Only after the 15th attempt would the father begin to offer his firstborn son detailed critiques.

As the night wore on, the boy’s mother would charge into the living room, complaining: “Enough! This is child abuse! It’s time for him to go to bed.”

Her husband would wave her off, and she wouldn’t protest too much. Although she wanted Grover to get his sleep, like her husband she tended to view her children as budding adults who should be challenged, not delicate creatures who should be coddled.

With that, the training regimen would resume. Again. And this time make eye contact. And use your hands to emphasize the point.

In time, the boy could claim a supreme confidence in public speaking that matched the confidence he felt in his own intellect and his emerging view of the world. Compared with his grade school classmates, who sweated and stammered and fumbled through their class presentations, young Grover was an outlier of Gladwellian proportions. After he delivered one flawless talk, his teacher approached him to inspect the index card he was clutching, perhaps expecting to find the full text of the speech somehow crammed onto the card. She was stunned to find it was blank. He had held it just for show. After all that practice in front of his father, notes were no longer necessary.

Still, elementary school offers only so many opportunities for public speaking. So Grover remained on the hunt for others.

He loved nothing better than to leave his home in the affluent west-of-Boston community of Weston and start walking, along the hilly block of handsome houses, through the woods dense with vines and thick with pines, and finally up a rocky ledge. There, the precocious boy who had so much to say would find a receptive audience, and one that couldn’t fit into a single wing chair. The ledge led to a cliff overlooking a pig farm, which sat just over the town line in Waltham. Grover learned that simply by standing on the cliff and speaking clearly and confidently, he would attract the notice of the pigs that were fenced in on a muddy, rooted-up plateau 30 feet below him. So he would give speeches of all types. As the words left his lips, 40 or so of the swine would give him their rapt attention. “They’d come listen to you,” he recalls. “I liked that.”

This desire to be listened to would remain undiminished as that boy grew into a Harvard student and then into a sharp-elbowed Washington activist and lobbyist. Over the years, he has refined his speeches and toughened his attacks, but the substance of his message has not changed across more than three decades. It’s the same message that first gestated in his mind when his parents would take him and his younger siblings for ice cream after church on Sundays and his dad would confiscate large bites out of each of their cones, explaining, “This is income tax” or “This is property tax.” And it’s the same message that came into clearer focus when Grover was at Weston High School in the early 1970s and read with admiration about a colorful New Hampshire politician named Meldrim Thomson, who rode an “Ax the Tax” campaign of bumper sticker simplicity straight into the governor’s office.

Through the decades, as president of the advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), Grover Norquist made his case against taxes to anybody who would listen. With his willingness to spend liberally to support politicians who backed his views, and even more liberally to punish those who didn’t, he became a player in Washington, admired by some and loathed by others. Yet outside the Beltway, he remained largely unknown. Until last year.

As bipartisan attempts to confront the government’s yawning deficit broke down, one after the other, from the Bowles-Simpson debt reduction commission’s recommendations to the “grand bargain” negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, to the debt-ceiling brinksmanship, to the congressional supercommittee charged with making the excruciating decisions the full Congress had dodged, 55-year-old Grover Norquist somehow became the face of the crisis. That’s because whenever someone floated a compromise involving any tax increases, even in exchange for far deeper spending cuts, Norquist was there to remind Republican lawmakers that their answer had to be no.

The Senate majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid, complained publicly that Republicans were being “led like puppets by Grover Norquist.” Senator John Kerry blasted his Republican counterparts on the supercommittee for allowing the unelected, unappointed Norquist to function like their leader, and he told me that he repeatedly heard Republicans on the panel talking about how they needed to “check with Grover” for his Solomonic ruling on whether he would sanction or reject various proposed tax code changes. But criticism came from Republicans as well. Boehner, trying to beat back the suggestion that Norquist’s power had eclipsed his own, referred to him as “some random person in America,” a curious phrase that seemed only to suggest the House speaker viewed him as anything but that. And Alan Simpson, a Republican former senator who cochaired the bipartisan debt commission that bore his name, called Norquist a “zealot” who had somehow become “the most powerful man in America.”

NORQUIST’S MEANS OF ASCENT was something he calls the Taxpayer Protection Pledge but which everyone else in Washington calls simply “the pledge.” By signing it, politicians commit to: “ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and, TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

Norquist devised the pledge in the summer of 1986, the year after aides to President Reagan tapped him to start Americans for Tax Reform. The nonprofit advocacy group was formed to seed support for Reagan’s massive overhaul of the federal tax code, which closed loopholes and lowered the top individual tax rate from 50 percent to 28 percent. Once the overhaul passed, Norquist saw the pledge as a way to prevent congressional backsliding on taxes. Signing it would be particularly valuable to little-known candidates looking to advertise their fiscal conservatism. And if they won, their signed pledges would be extremely useful for Norquist in reminding them of their commitments, should they ever entertain second thoughts.

Norquist was just 29 at the time, though he had already run a similar group called the National Taxpayers Union before returning to Harvard for business school and working in the trenches for Reagan’s election. Like many prominent Republicans these days, Norquist plays up his personal connections to Reagan and downplays those areas where Reagan departed from the contemporary GOP’s Rushmore-ready biography of him. Norquist keeps a large bust of the Gipper in his office, and ATR literature stresses how he started the organization at the personal request of Reagan. But when pressed, Norquist concedes his dealings with Reagan were limited, and he doesn’t talk much about the 11 tax hikes the Gipper signed into law during his occupancy of the Oval Office.

In 1986, after the dust had settled on that first midterm election of the pledge’s existence, Norquist could count 100 congressmen and 20 senators who had signed. The pledge faced its biggest test six years later when President George H.W. Bush, who had signed it during the 1988 presidential campaign, ran for reelection after having broken his ATR pledge and, more memorably, his “read my lips” vow. Norquist, the definition of a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, was pleased when Bill Clinton ousted the elder Bush. It proved there were consequences for breaking the pledge.

But as long as politicians fall into line and sign the pledge, Norquist holds no grudges. After Bush’s son signed it in the 2000 campaign, Norquist threw his support behind George W. Following Bush’s win, Norquist enjoyed the most robust access to power of his life, conferring regularly with the president’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, and becoming a frequent behind-the-scenes visitor to the White House and a public defender for administration policies. From the younger Bush, Norquist got what he was looking for: huge, sweeping tax cuts, including an end to the estate tax…

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Boston Globe:

It might have seemed naïve to an outsider, but one of the great hopes among the revolutionaries who humiliated Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago was that the country’s strongman regime would finally yield to a democratic variety of voices. Both Islamic revolutionaries and secular liberals spoke up for modern ideas of pluralism, tolerance, and minority rights. Tahrir Square was supposed to turn the page on a half-century or more of one-party rule, and open the door to something new not just for Egypt, but for the Arab world: a genuine diversity of opinion about how a nation should govern itself.

 “We disagree about many things, but that is the point,” one of the protest organizers, Moaz Abdelkareem, said in February 2011, the week that Mubarak quit. “We come from many backgrounds. We can work together to dismantle the old regime and make a new Egypt.”

A year later, it is still far from clear what that new Egypt will look like. The country awaits a new constitution, and although a competitively elected parliament sat in January for the first time in contemporary Egyptian history, it is still subordinate to a secretive military regime. Like all transitions, the struggle against Egyptian authoritarianism has been messy and complex. But for those who hoped that Egypt would emerge as a beacon of tolerant, or at least diverse, politics in the Arab world, there has been one big disappointment: It’s safe to say that one early casualty of the struggle has been that spirit of pluralism.

“I do not trust the military. I do not trust the Muslim Brothers,” Abdelkareem says in an interview a year later. In the past year, he helped establish the Egyptian Current, a small liberal party that wants to bring direct democracy to Egyptian government. Despite his inclusive principles, he’s urged the dismissal from public life of major political constituencies with whom he disagrees: former regime supporters, many Islamists, old-line liberals, and supporters of the military. He shrugs: “It’s necessary, if we’re going to change.”

He’s not the only one who has left the ideal of pluralism behind. A survey of the major players in Egyptian politics yields a list of people and groups who have worked harder to shut down their opponents than to engage them. The Muslim Brotherhood — the Islamist party that is the oldest opposition group in Egypt, and the one with by far the most popular support — has run roughshod over its rivals, hoarding almost every significant procedural power in the legislature and cutting a series of exclusive deals with the ruling generals. Secular liberals, for their part, have suggested that an outright coup by secular officers would be better than a plural democracy that ended up empowering bearded fundamentalists who disagree with them.

When pressed, most will still say they want Egypt to be the birthplace of a new kind of Arab political culture — one in which differences are respected, minorities have rights, and dissent is protected. However, their behavior suggests that Egypt might have trouble escaping the more repressive patterns of its past.


IN A COUNTRY that had long barred any meaningful politics at all, Tahrir’s leaderless revolution begat a brief but golden moment of political pluralism. Activists across the spectrum agreed to disagree — this, it was widely believed, was the very practice that would lead Egypt from dictatorship to democracy. During the first month of maneuvering after Mubarak resigned in February 2011, Muslim Brotherhood leaders vowed to restrain their quest for political power; socialists and liberals emphasized due process and fair elections. The revolution took special pride in its unity, inclusiveness, and plethora of leaders: It included representatives of every part of society, and aspired to exclude nobody.

“Our first priority is to start rebuilding Egypt, cooperating with all groups of people: Muslims and Christians, men and women, all the political parties,” the Muslim Brotherhood’s most powerful leader, Khairat Al-Shater, told me in an interview last March, a year ago. “The first thing is to start political life in the right, democratic way.”

Within a month, however, that commitment had begun to fray. Jostling factions were quick to question the motives and patriotism of their rivals, as might be expected from political movements trying to position themselves in an unfolding power struggle. More surprising, and more dangerous, has been the tendency of important groups to seek the silencing or outright disenfranchisement of competitors.

The military sponsored a constitutional referendum in March 2011 that supposedly laid out a path to transfer power to an elected, civilian government, but which depended on provisions poorly understood by Egyptian voters. The Islamists sided with the military, helping the referendum win 77 percent of the votes, and leaving secular liberal parties feeling tricked and overpowered. The real winner turned out to be the ruling generals, who took the win as an endorsement of their primacy over all political factions. The military promptly began rewriting the rules of the transition process.

With the army now the country’s uncontested power, some leading liberal political parties entered negotiations with the generals over the summer to secure one of their primary goals — a secular state — in a most illiberal manner: a deal with the army that would preempt any future constitution written by a democratically selected assembly.

The Muslim Brotherhood responded by branding the liberals traitors and scrapping its conciliatory rhetoric. The Islamists, with huge popular support, abandoned their initial promise of political restraint and instead moved to contest all seats and seek a dominant position in the post-Mubarak order. The Brotherhood now holds 46 percent of the seats in parliament, and with the ultra-Islamist Salafists holding another 24 percent, the Brotherhood effectively controls enough of the body to shut down debate. Within the Brotherhood, Khairat Al-Shater has led a ruthless purge of members who sought internal transparency and democracy — and is now considered a front-runner to be Egypt’s next prime minister.

The army generals in charge, meanwhile, have been using state media to demonize secular democracy activists and street protesters as paid foreign agents, bent on destroying Egyptian society in the service of Israel, the United States, and other bogeymen.

Since the parliament opened deliberations in January, the rupture has been on full and sordid display. The military has sought legal censure against a liberal member of parliament, Zyad Elelaimy, because he criticized army rule. State prosecutors have gone after liberals and Islamists who have voiced controversial political positions. Islamists and military supporters have also filed lawsuits against liberal politicians and human rights activists, while the military-appointed government has mounted a legal and public relations campaign against civil society groups…

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History Today:

In Babylon on June 11th, 323 bc, at about 5pm, Alexander the Great died aged 32, having conquered an empire stretching from modern Albania to eastern Pakistan. The question of what, or who, killed the Macedonian king has never been answered successfully. Today new theories are heating up one of history’s longest-running cold cases.

Like the death of Stalin, to which it is sometimes compared, the death of Alexander poses a mystery that is perhaps insoluble but nonetheless irresistible. Conspiracy buffs have been speculating about it since before the king’s body was cold, but recently there has been an extraordinary number of new accusers and new suspects. Fuel was added to the fire by Oliver Stone’s Alexander, released in 2004 with new versions in 2006 and 2008: a film that, whatever its artistic flaws, presents a historically informed theory about who killed Alexander and why.

Few events have been as unexpected as the death of Alexander. The king had shown fantastic reserves of strength during his 12-year campaign through Asia, enduring severe hardships and taking on strenuous combat roles. Some had come to think of him as divine, an idea fostered, and perhaps entertained, by Alexander himself. In 325, fighting almost single-handed against South Asian warriors, Alexander had one of his lungs pierced by an arrow, yet soon afterwards he made the most arduous of his military marches, a 60-day trek along the barren coast of southern Iran.

Consequently, when the king fell gravely ill and died two years later, the shock felt by his 50,000-strong army was intense. So was the confusion about who would next lead it, for Alexander had made no plans for succession and had as yet produced no legitimate heir (though one would be born shortly after his death). The sudden demise of such a commanding figure would indeed turn out to be a catastrophic turning point, the start of a half-century of instability and strife known today as the Wars of the Successors.

Events of such magnitude inevitably prompt a search for causes. It is disturbing to think that blind chance – a drink from the wrong stream or a bite from the wrong mosquito – put the ancient world on a perilous new course. An explanation that keeps the change in human hands may in some ways be reassuring, even though it involves a darker view of Alexander’s relations with his Companions, the inner circle of friends and high-ranking officers that surrounded him in Babylon.

Ancient historians have reached no consensus on the cause of Alexander’s death, though many attribute it to disease. In 1996 Eugene Borza, a scholar specialising in ancient Macedon, took part in a medical board of inquiry at the University of Maryland, which reached a diagnosis of typhoid fever; Borza has since defended that finding in print. Malaria, smallpox and leukaemia have also been proposed, with alcoholism, infection from the lung wound and grief – Alexander’s close friend Hephaestion had died some months earlier – often seen as complicating factors. But some historians are unwilling to identify a specific illness, or even to choose between illness or murder: two Alexander experts who once made this choice (one on each side) later changed their opinions to undecided.

With historical research at an impasse, Alexander sleuths are reaching out for new ideas and new approaches. Armed with reports from toxicologists and forensic pathologists and delving themselves into criminal psychology, they are re-opening the Alexander file as an ongoing murder investigation.

The idea that Alexander was murdered first gained wider attention in 2004, thanks to the ending of Stone’s film. In its epilogue Alexander’s senior general Ptolemy (played by Anthony Hopkins), looking back over decades at his commander’s death, declares: ‘The truth is, we did kill him. By silence, we consented … Because we couldn’t go on.’ Ptolemy then instructs the alarmed scribe recording his words to destroy what he has just written and start again. ‘You shall write: He died of disease, and in weakened condition.’

The idea that Alexander’s generals felt pushed too far by their master and colluded in his murder in order to stop him did not arise out of Stone’s famously plot-prone imagination. There is some evidence that not even Alexander’s senior commanders were willing to follow him anywhere. In India in 325 bc, at the eastern edge of the Indus river system, Alexander’s army staged a sit-down strike, when ordered to march eastward towards the Ganges. Even the highest ranking officers took part in the mutiny. Stone considered this episode a forerunner of the later murder conspiracy, since Alexander was again planning vast new campaigns at the time of his death. ‘I can’t believe that these men were going on with Alexander’ to Arabia and Carthage, he said in a 2008 interview at the University of California, Berkeley.

Stone likewise drew on historical research for the idea that Ptolemy masterminded a cover-up of Alexander’s murder, but the waters he is wading in here are very murky indeed. The account Ptolemy tells his scribe to compose at the end of Alexander apparently represents a controversial ancient document called the Royal Journals. Though now lost it was summarised (in different versions) by Arrian and Plutarch, two Greek writers of the Roman Empire, who endorsed it as the most reliable record of Alexander’s last days. Some scholars, led by the Australian classicist Brian Bosworth, believe the Royal Journals were falsified to make Alexander’s death appear natural, just as Stone’s film represents (though in Bosworth’s view the culprit was Eumenes, Alexander’s court secretary, rather than Ptolemy). Others disagree, taking the Journals to be just what Arrian and Plutarch thought they were, an undoctored, day-by-day eyewitness account.

The debate over the Royal Journals has huge implications for our understanding of Alexander’s death, because Arrian and Plutarch describe that event very differently to other ancient sources. Both authors say that Alexander became feverish after leaving a drinking party at the home of a friend named Medius. His fever grew worse over the course of 10 or 12 days (the two accounts differ in chronology), leading finally to a paralytic state in which the king could neither move nor speak. As his troops shuffled past his sickbed, Arrian reports, Alexander could only shift his eyes to say farewell to each one. Death followed the next day…

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Silencing The GOP

March 24, 2012


Political Pipeline

March 24, 2012

Via Newsday


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