IW: I'll tell you a little story.
I live in one of the most hard-left leaning areas of France. We have an enormously popular Communist Party deputy, the only new CP member to be elected in France in the Chircac-Le Pen runoff. In the last election when Sarko came to power, his majority even increased to around 75%.
Local politics isn't about left or right, it's about people. A mayor has a list of 11 people to be councillors, you cross off who you don't like, you add the name of some individuals who might be standing on their own, without a counter-party list of 11 names themselves and that's it. Many communes have no opposition lists. The fix is in, the consensus is kind of understood. We go along and vote, and maybe get something off our chests about someone who slighted us, or give a pat on the back to someone we like.
Down in town, there's a little bit of a left/right going on, but not much. It's people, but people and personalities that tip the balance, their connection with our shared 'pays'.
In the last municipal elections earlier this year, an extremely successful and popular mayor of our local town, who had been responsible for a wide number of high profile, successful and broadly used social and infrastructure projects, lost power.
Why? I don't know.
I do know that there are people in positions of elected power and state authority that say that it was because the mayor added a black man and a Frenchman of Turkish origins to his list.
And that's here in one of most hardcore left wing voting parts of France. Forget Iowa or Florida.
I've already said Obama is going to lose in the voting booth, partly because he is black, and I still think that's the case. Suddenly, as Obama begins to pull away in the polls, the IHT/NYT are all over this issue. Why so late?
I don't know the answer to that either.
With goat, a rancher breaks away from the herd
By Kim Severson
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
BOLINAS, California: Bill Niman is not the rancher he once was.
Last year Niman walked away from the meat company he started in the 1970s with not much more than a handful of cattle and a political philosophy built on self-sufficiency.
Niman Ranch, which takes in annual sales of $85 million, was founded on the notion that the better an animal is treated, the better the meat will be. His beef was so good that in the early 1980s Alice Waters made it the first proper-noun meat on the menu at her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. His pigs, raised humanely by 600 family farms in Iowa, provide pork for the Chipotle chain's carnitas. Niman Ranch bacon, hot dogs and sausage fill grocery cases around the country.
But Niman is no longer a part of the company. Angry and discouraged after prolonged battles with a new management team over money and animal protocols, he left in August 2007 with a modest severance check and a small amount of stock.
He can't use his surname to sell meat, and he had to surrender the small herd of breeding cattle that lived on his ranch here, about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. The cattle were direct descendants of the ones he tended back in the days of counterculture, not profit margin.
But Niman, 63, is done licking his wounds. With a herd of goats and a young vegetarian wife he nicknamed Porkchop by his side, he is jumping back into the meat game.
"I think I am returning to my original roots," said Niman, who still lives in the little house he built on ranchland that kisses the Pacific Ocean.
Niman was raised in Minnesota, and moved to California to teach poor children. It was better than being drafted. In 1968, he headed north to Bolinas, a refuge for poets and intellectuals, to practice the counterculture movement's back-to-the-land philosophy.
He got his first cattle from local ranchers in barter for the tutoring his first wife, who has since died, gave their children. He has never left Bolinas, although now he watches over 1,000 acres instead of 11, and the land was turned over to the Point Reyes National Seashore.
He and Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer, were married five years ago, and now they are raising what they hope will be the best-tasting animals around. They have a handful of premier cattle that fatten only on pasture and a flock of traditional turkey breeds they personally chauffeured from Kansas to Bolinas last spring. Niman also has an organic pig project going in Iowa.
But he hopes goat will be the cornerstone of his comeback. That's in part because he has more of them around, and because he sees a wide-open market for pristine, pasture-raised goat meat. The guy is, after all, a businessman.
"I don't need to get 10 percent of the market anymore," he said. "I just want to be the best."
Chefs on both coasts are fast discovering his goat meat, although it is still available only in limited amounts, under the name BN Ranch.
In June, Niman stopped by Eccolo in Berkeley with a piece of shoulder, a loin, a leg and a rack of ribs. The chef and owner, Christopher Lee, now breaks down one or two of the 30-pound goat carcasses a week.
"It was succulent," Lee said. "It was mild. It was just perfect."
Like other chefs who have begun to cook with goat, Lee predicts a bright future for the meat.
"We've all cooked every part of the lamb a million times and we all know about grass-fed beef and aging beef," he said. "The goat is the next thing."
The meat Niman and a handful of other boutique farmers are producing is more delicate than the older, imported goat that is served at Pakistani curry houses, Jamaican jerk stands and taco trucks all over New York.
At a recent goat tasting in the Blue Hill at Stone Barns kitchen in Pocantico Hills, New York, Niman's young goat was compared to pan-seared and roasted loin and shoulder cuts from both a small Vermont grower and what the chef Dan Barber called "commodity goat."
The commodity goat was slightly musty and chewy. The Vermont goat was as tender and mild as lamb. The Niman goat was like lamb, too, but a lamb with a big personality. The meat was sweet and vegetal. The fat, what little of it there was, tasted rich but felt lighter than olive oil.
At Thyme for Goat, a recent collaboration between four goat farms within 25 miles of each other in Maine, goat is taking off, in a small way. People are attracted to the way it is raised and its healthful properties. Goat meat doesn't have the tallow of lamb, and contains about half the fat of chicken, according to a Department of Agriculture analysis.
"A lot of folks said nobody in Maine is going to buy goat meat," said Marge Kilkelly, who does marketing for the group. "We've found just the opposite."
The breed of goat is important. Like the Maine collective, Niman raises some stout, muscular Boer goats. But he is particularly fond of meat from lighter framed Spanish goats, which sometimes mix with the Boer.
"What Bill is so good at is the genetics," Barber said. "He's the master."
For about half the year, Niman lets the goats roam his California ranch. In the summer and fall, when the California grass is brown, they move to Oregon. He also works with ranchers raising two other herds to his specifications in California and Oregon.
Goats and cattle work particularly well together in a pasture. Goats don't like clover or rye grass, which the cattle love, but they make fast work of scotch broom, poison oak and other plants that can take over good grassland.
"Nature is so perfect," Niman said.
His longtime followers may be surprised that he is now raising his cattle entirely on pasture, without switching to a diet of grain a few months before slaughter.
He built Niman Ranch on the idea that raising a quality, year-round beef supply was like making dessert. You bake the cake with grass and frost it with grain. The method produces well-marbled meat with that traditional corn-fed flavor most Americans grew up eating. And it provides beef year-round. Animals that feed on pasture are fat enough to be slaughtered only at certain times of year.
But just as Niman Ranch was becoming a big, nationally recognized brand, Niman fell victim to a move toward meat purity that he and Orville Schell, his former partner, had started. Several chefs and food writers came to believe that a diet of corn was ruinous for cattle's health and the environment.
Although Niman's beef was quite different from conventional corn-fed beef, that he fed his animals with any grain at all was unacceptable to some chefs. Waters decided to drop it from the menu in 2002 and turn to more seasonal, all-grass options.
"It made me very sad but I just said we are at a moment in time and I just can't do this anymore," she said, adding that she "couldn't be more delighted that he's come back to his senses."
Still, Niman continued to build the company. He took on a parade of investors. A new management team took over in 2006, led by Jeff Swain, who had been at the company that produces Coleman Natural Beef, Niman's biggest competitor.
With the new team came changes, many of them made over Niman's protests. The company sold its custom butchering plant in Oakland and prepared to sell its high-end feedlot in Idaho. Niman Ranch began to purchase cattle ready for slaughter from feedlots over which the company had little control, a practice that Niman said was "against my religion."
Niman said feed standards dropped and animals were transported distances longer than 500 miles, which he said stresses them too much.
Swain said feed and care standards for the 400 head of cattle they process a week have not dropped. Contractors follow a list of protocols that are similar to those Niman developed.
And although some animals are being transported longer than 500 miles for slaughter, he said they are allowed to rest for 24 hours before they are dispatched.
The real issue, Swain said, is that Niman was a poor businessman. The cattle portion of the program was a money-loser, unlike the pork business, which processes about 3,200 animals a week. That remains unchanged, Swain said. "When we got involved, Niman would raise money and go through it and raise money and go through it," he said. "Any change to Bill's business model he didn't like. We needed to make the company financially sustainable."
The more Niman complained that the protocols he developed were being eased out, the more marginalized he became. Finally, Niman walked away, heading back to focus on the ranch where he has lived since the 1970s. Nicolette, 22 years his junior and a devout vegetarian, was there to comfort him. "It was such a dark time for Bill," she said.
While Niman fought his battles, his wife learned how to work the ranch. She also finished her book, "Righteous Porkchop" (Collins Living, March). It is part memoir and part exposé, focusing on her work fighting industrial meat companies as a lawyer for the Waterkeeper Alliance, Robert Kennedy Jr.'s environmental organization.
So how does that vegetarian thing work out? She accepts the role animals play in the human food chain, and he never pressures her to eat meat. She doesn't cook meat at home, but doesn't forbid Niman from throwing some chorizo on a slice of homemade pizza. He tends to go out for steaks, especially when he travels.
The one place they compromised was over a couple of her favorite cattle. She became emotionally attached, so he promised the cow and steer will not die for meat.
"You've got the rancher who came back home and the lovely, smart animal welfare girl who is 20 years younger and has really gone to work on him," said Betty Fussell, who writes about Niman in her new book, "Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef" (Harcourt, October). "It is the story of the cowboy and the lady, in a way."
Other people at his stage of life might be planning how to ride off into the beautiful Pacific sunset, satisfied with having made a real change in how people eat. But not Niman, who acts as if he's just getting started.
"It's the first time I've had a true partner at my side," he said of the last five years. "I feel like together, we are pioneering the next generation of animal husbandry."
Tap water's popularity forces Pepsi to cut jobs
By Andrew Martin
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Tap water is making a comeback. That's bad news for PepsiCo's profits.
The company, which makes Pepsi, Doritos and Quaker Oats cereal, announced on Tuesday that its quarterly earnings were down 10 percent in part because of declines in sales of soda and bottled water in the United States.
In response, the company is planning to eliminate 3,300 jobs and close as many as six plants to cut costs and to refocus its efforts on stabilizing its domestic beverage business.
"Revitalizing this business is a huge priority for us," said PepsiCo's chief executive, Indra Nooyi.
Pepsi reported net income of $1.58 billion for the third quarter, compared with $1.74 billion a year earlier. Excluding losses related to commodity hedges, the company's earnings were $1.06 per share. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters were expecting $1.08 per share.
The company's stock price dropped $7.37 to close at $54.40 on Tuesday. The stock has fallen 28 percent since the beginning of the year, most of that in the last two weeks. PepsiCo's stock on Oct. 1 was $71.64.
Sales of carbonated soft drinks have been declining in the United States for several years, as consumers turn to a growing number of new beverages like enhanced waters, sports drinks and energy drinks. But the problems have accelerated in a volatile economy, with consumers eating at restaurants less and buying fewer grab-and-go beverages.
In addition, consumers are increasingly choosing tap water over other beverages at restaurants and at home to help save money and the environment, according to PepsiCo and industry analysts. Research by William Pecoriello, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, found that 34 percent of consumers say they are reusing plastic bottles more often and 23 percent say they are cutting back on bottled beverages in favor of tap water or beverages in containers that create less waste.
Information Resources, a research firm, found that sales of water filters increased 16 percent in the first half of the year.
PepsiCo said volume for beverages in North America declined by 4 percent in the third quarter, which ended in Sept. 6.
In recent years, noncarbonated beverages were an engine of growth as soda sales slipped, but no longer. Volume for noncarbonated beverage sales dropped 5 percent in the quarter, led by double-digit declines in Aquafina and Propel, a flavored and vitamin-enhanced water drink.
Carbonated soft drink volume in North America declined by 3 percent in the quarter.
In response, PepsiCo is creating new packaging and logos for many beverages, and plans to introduce new products in the coming year.
"Because of the economy, there is some movement, probably temporarily, back to tap water," said John Sicher, publisher of Beverage Digest, an industry publication. He predicted that both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola would ratchet up their efforts to improve beverage sales in 2009.
"Unless both Pepsi and Coke do something quickly, they could lose a generation of carbonated soft drink consumers," Sicher said.
To increase sales in the United States, Nooyi said, would take a "breakthrough" product. Both Pepsi and Coke are hoping for a breakthrough when they introduce beverages that use a natural, low-calorie sweetener derived from the stevia plant.
Despite the lackluster beverage sales in North America, Nooyi said international growth remained robust, particularly in the Middle East, India and China. Revenue for PepsiCo's food businesses in the North America grew by 12 percent in the quarter, and profit increased by 9 percent.
Tajik farmers enslaved where cotton is king
By David L. Stern
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
SHAARTUZ DISTRICT, Tajikistan: Farhod, a farmer in this dusty southwestern spit of land pushed up against the Afghan and Uzbek borders, said that he had committed a subversive and potentially punishable act this growing season. He planted watermelons in addition to the usual cotton.
Such is the precarious position of growers throughout this impoverished republic of seven million that Farhod refused to be photographed or to give his real name. He fears the authorities will destroy his crop, even though they had assured him that he could plant whatever he wanted this year.
"They press down on us from all sides," said Farhod, a father of eight, as he looked out on his neatly planted rows of millionaire, shakira and maistros watermelons. Cotton is king in Tajikistan, at least as far as the government is concerned. In fact, say agricultural experts, the regal metaphor is apt: the system is close to feudal.
Farmers are shackled to the land - "like slaves," one European official says - and forced to grow cotton through a complex system of debts and obligations.
The fact that cotton is often grown to the exclusion of other crops could have catastrophic implications this winter. After a dry summer, Tajikistan and possibly other Central Asian countries are facing severe food shortages, and international aid organizations are girding for a possible crisis.
Cotton is at the core of Tajikistan's economy and, reportedly, corruption. Companies associated with President Emomali Rahmon's inner circle monopolize the business, diplomats and industry experts say, paying taxes that account for 25 percent of the country's annual budget.
The cozy arrangement contributes to what the International Crisis Group, a private research organization, called in a 2005 report "political repression, economic stagnation, widespread poverty and environmental degradation."
Cotton growing, the group said, is "simple and exploitative."
For instance, Tajikistan's and Uzbekistan's governments have traditionally mobilized tens of thousands of university students and children as young as 10 to pick the harvest by hand, since many men from the work force emigrate to other countries for seasonal work.
For Farhod, as for other Tajik farmers, the problems began from his first days as an independent farmer three years ago, when the local collective farm, which dated from the Soviet era, was broken up. He was allotted, but does not own, 16 hectares, or 40 acres, of land and a $5,000 debt carried over automatically from the farm's arrears.
Each year most of his profits go to working off the debt, which was assumed by a cotton trading company. The company maintains a monopoly over all cotton trade in the Shaartuz region and sells Farhod his supplies on credit - at inflated prices, he said - and then buys his production at below-market prices.
Under this system the farmers are perpetually strapped, as they never see any cash. Farhod and others say that what little they earn goes for food and other essentials, but since they have no money in hand, they are forced to buy from the trading company at inflated prices.
"They pay us, but only 14 months later when they sell the cotton," Farhod said. "Each year the debts get bigger and bigger."
The government works in tandem with the trading companies, say Western experts, who spoke off the record because they need to work with Tajik officials. Until recently, officials enforced an unwritten law requiring farmers to devote 80 percent to 90 percent of their arable land to cotton production. When farmers have tried to grow something else, officials and the companies have claimed breach of contract and plowed the field under, farmers say.
Cotton's significance was underlined early this year when the International Monetary Fund revealed that the Tajik government had secretly diverted its hard currency reserves to use as collateral for $240 million in foreign loans for the cotton trading companies.
The scandal broke just as the country was paralyzed last winter by a heat and electricity crisis, which laid bare what many Western experts saw as the Tajik government's ineptitude and inadequacy.
Following a crippling civil war in the 1990s, international donors funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the country, but now are beginning to question this policy.
Carlos Pinerua, an IMF official formerly responsible for Tajikistan, said in a telephone interview that the bar was set high for the Tajiks to regain the trust of the international multilaterals, which are multinational organizations that finance development.
Noting that the Tajiks had lied to the IMF over a 10-year period, he said, "We will have to look at how to help the country - they are an IMF member - but financing will be very hard."
With Tajikistan's currency reserves now close to zero, the country is highly vulnerable to economic shocks, like the current credit crisis, Western diplomats say. Also complicating the picture is Tajikistan's endemic governmental dysfunction and corruption.
A case in point is the fate of one of the government officials at the heart of the loan scandal, the governor of the central bank, Murodali Alimardon. Far from being fired, Alimardon was promoted to deputy prime minister, and put in charge of agricultural reforms.
This year the Tajik government issued a decree guaranteeing farmers the right to cultivate their land as they see best. Farhod says that he has been planting about 12 hectares of the 16 hectares in cotton and the rest in other crops.
Other farmers say that the cotton quota remains in effect, though slightly lower at 70 percent.
But few here place much trust in a decree. "So far, they're not against the melons, but we'll see," Farhod said.
China recalls more dairy products
By Edward Wong
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
BEIJING: The Chinese government ordered a recall on Tuesday of all milk products produced before Sept. 14 that are still on the shelves so the products can be tested for the toxic chemical melamine.
Melamine, a substance illicitly added to watered-down milk to artificially give its protein count a boost, has led to the deaths of at least three babies; at least 53,000 other children have fallen ill. Those statistics are weeks old, though, and the government has yet to release updated numbers, which are believed to be much higher.
The government announced limits for allowable traces of melamine last week. If the recalled products meet the new standards, they will be put back on the market, the government said. Dairy products thought to have a real risk of melamine contamination were already recalled weeks ago, right after the milk crisis first emerged. The recall announced Tuesday was an effort by the government to show the public that it was enforcing its new trace melamine limits.
Meanwhile, a lawyer based in Shanghai has filed a lawsuit in the northwestern Gansu Province on behalf of a family whose 6-month-old son, Yi Kaixuan, died in May after drinking tainted baby formula. A handful of lawsuits have been filed on behalf of parents whose children have died or fallen ill from drinking tainted dairy products, but so far no court has accepted a case.
Separately, the Ministry of Health and the State Food and Drug Administration announced last Thursday that the brand of herbal drug suspected of killing three people recently was "tainted with bacteria," Xinhua, the state news agency, reported. The drug, Siberian ginseng or ciwujia, was made by Wandashan Pharmaceutical, based in northeastern China.
Melamine found in Thai condensed milk
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
BANGKOK: Thailand's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Wednesday it had found "very high" levels of melamine in a sample of unsweetened condensed milk produced and sold in the country.
The FDA ordered Thai Dairy Industry Co. Ltd. to stop production of "Mali" unsweetened condensed milk and requested retailers pull it from their shelves.
Tests found 92.82 milligrams per kilogram of melamine in a 385 gram can of milk, "which is very high," the agency said in a statement.
Thai Dairy Industry Co. Ltd. is a joint venture between Thai and Malaysian businessmen and the Australian Dairy Corp, according to the company's website, www.thaidairy.co.th.
The FDA said the company had told the agency that the raw materials used to make Mali condensed milk were imported from several countries, including Belgium, Switzerland, Australia, Germany and India.
Thailand is the latest country to find traces of melamine in a widening health scandal after the industrial chemical was found in milk and milk formula in China.
The FDA said it was conducting more tests of Thai Dairy Industry's products and ordered a recall of "the suspected product and others using the same raw material."
Tuesday, Thai restaurant and bakery S&P withdrew a line of milk cookies sold in Thailand after reports that Swiss officials had found traces of melamine in the biscuits.
Thai newspapers reported that Swiss authorities had pulled the S&P milk cookies, as well as other products from China and Sri Lanka, after tests showed they were tainted by melamine.
S&P said it only used milk powder imported from Australia and condensed milk from a Thai milk producer to make its cookies.
Fossil fish shows complexity of transition to land
By John Noble Wilford
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
In a new study of a fossil fish that lived 375 million years ago, scientists are finding striking evidence of the intermediate steps by which some marine vertebrates evolved into animals that walked on land.
There was much more to the complex transition than fins morphing into sturdy limbs. The head and braincase were changing, a mobile neck was emerging and a bone associated with underwater feeding and gill respiration was diminishing in size — a beginning of the bone's adaptation for an eventual role in hearing for land animals.
The anatomy of this early transformation in life from water to land had never been observed with such clarity, paleontologists and biologists said in announcing the research on Wednesday.
The scientists said in a report being published Thursday in the journal Nature that the research exposed delicate details of the creature's head and neck, confirming and elaborating on its evolutionary position as "an important stage in the origin of terrestrial vertebrates."
In that case, the fish, a predator up to nine feet long, was a predecessor of amphibians, reptiles and dinosaurs, mammals and eventually humans. The fossil species was named Tiktaalik roseae, nicknamed "fishapod" for its fishlike features combined with limbs similar to tetrapods, four-legged land animals.
The new research on the head skeleton of Tiktaalik (pronounced tic-TAH-lick) was conducted primarily at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
"The braincase, palate and gill arch skeleton of Tiktaalik have been revealed in great detail," said Jason Downs, a research fellow at the academy and lead author of the report. "By revealing new details of the pattern of change in this part of the skeleton, we see that cranial features once associated with land-living animals were first adaptations for life in shallow water."
Several skeletons of the fish were excavated four years ago on Ellesmere Island, in the Nunavut Territory of Canada, 700 miles above the Arctic Circle, by a team led by Neil H. Shubin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum. The Devonian-age rocks containing the fossils indicated that the fishapod lived in shallow waters of a warm climate. It may have made brief forays on land.
Since the discovery was reported in 2006, Downs and two specimen preparators, C. Frederick Mullison of the academy and Bob Masek at Chicago, spent more than a year prying deeply into the skulls of several fishapod skeletons. The results were also analyzed by Shubin and two other co-authors of the report, Ted Daeschler of the academy and Farish Jenkins Jr., an evolutionary biologist at Harvard.
"Our work demonstrates that the head of these animals was becoming more solidly constructed and, at the same time, more mobile with respect to the body across this transition," Daeschler said.
Shubin said that Tiktaalik was "still on the fish end of things," but it neatly fills a morphological gap and helps to resolve the relative timing of this complex transition.
For example, fish have no neck but "we see a mobile neck developing for the first time in Tiktaalik," Shubin said.
"When feeding, fish orient themselves by swimming, which is fine in deep water, but not for an animal whose body is relatively fixed, as on the bottom of shallow water or on land," he added. "Then a flexible neck is important."
One of the most intriguing findings, scientists said, was the reduction in size of a bony element that, in fish, links the braincase, palate and gills and is associated with underwater feeding and respiration. In more primitive fish, the bony part of what is called the hyomandibula is large and shaped like a boomerang. In this fossil species, the bone was greatly reduced, no bigger than a human thumb.
"This could indicate that these animals, in shallow-water settings, were already beginning to rely less on gill respiration," Downs said, noting the specimen's loss of rigid gill-covering bones, which apparently allowed for increased neck mobility.
In the transition from water to land, the researchers said, the hyomandibula gradually lost its original functions and, in time, gained a role in hearing. In humans, as in other mammals, the hyomandibula, or stapes, is one of the tiny bones in the middle ear.
As Daeschler said, "The new study reminds us that the gradual transition from aquatic to terrestrial lifestyles required much more than the evolution of limbs."
Charting the losses - of species
By Verlyn Klinkenborg
Verlyn Klinkenborg is a member of the New York Times editorial board
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Like everyone, I have been reading the graphs and looking at the numbers that measure the convulsions in the global financial markets.
And as I do, I keep hearing the echo of another frightening set of numbers - the ones that gauge the precipitous declines in the species that surround us. The financial markets will eventually come back, but not the species we are squandering.
Last week in Barcelona, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released results of a global survey of mammal populations. It concluded that at least a quarter of mammal species are headed toward extinction in the near future.
Don't think of this as an across-the-board culling of mammals. The first ones to go will be the big ones. And among the big ones, the first to go will be primates. Nearly 80 percent of the primate species in southern Asia are immediately threatened.
The causes are almost all directly related to human activity, including, for marine mammals, the growing threat of ocean acidification, as the oceans absorb the carbon dioxide we emit.
The numbers are not much better for other categories of life. At least 22 percent of reptile species are at risk of extinction. Perhaps 40 percent of North American freshwater fish are threatened. In Europe, 45 percent of the most common bird species are rapidly declining in numbers, and so are the most common bird species in North America.
Similar losses are expected among plants. What is especially worrying is how much the rate of decline has increased over the past half-century as the human population has increased.
These numbers are shocking in their own right. But they don't begin to tell the whole story. These are projections for the most familiar, best studied, most easily counted plants and animals, which, all told, make up less than 4 percent of the species on Earth. It is only reasonable to assume that many, if not most, of the legions of uncounted species are doing as poorly.
What complicates matters further is a simple lesson we might also draw from the present financial crisis: Everything is connected.
No species goes down on its own, not without affecting the larger biological community. We emerged, as a species, from the very biodiversity we are destroying. At times it seems as though the human experiment is to see how many species we can do without. As experiments go, it is morally untenable and will end badly for us.
The good news here is the same good news as always - the resilience of nature. Given even the slightest chance, declining species often find a way to recover. But the bad news is also the same bad news - human irresponsibility. In our myopic pursuits, we characteristically overlook the possibility of giving species the chance to recover.
We are watching a global, international effort to stabilize the financial markets. It will take a similar effort to begin to slow the rate at which species are declining. The bottom line is that what is good for biodiversity is also good for humanity.
This includes protecting habitat and finding ways to reduce human pressure on other species. It also includes a concerted effort to slow climate change, which, unchecked, could have a devastating impact on the entire planet.
What we need, really, is a new ability to think selfishly in a slightly different way.
Instead of saving the Sumatran orangutan or the Iberian lynx for itself, it may make more sense to think of saving them for ourselves - not as resources to be harvested somewhere down the road or even as repositories of genetic difference, but as essential elements in the biological complexity from which we arose and in which we thrive.
Without them, we are diminished.
Falling crude prices slow to show up at European pumps
By Tom BerginReuters
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
LONDON: European motorists are seeing only slowly the benefits of the collapse in prices of crude oil since July, but oil companies deny that they have been taking advantage of the drop to increase profit margins.
Gasoline prices in Britain averaged £1.07 a liter, or $7.11 a gallon, Sunday, and diesel cost £1.19 a liter, according to data from Experian Catalist.
These prices are down 10 percent and 11 percent, respectively, from a peak in pump prices July 17.
Gasoline prices in many other European countries, including Italy, Greece and Germany, have fallen less than 10 percent since July, according to data from the British motorists' group, AA.
The price of crude oil, meanwhile, has fallen about 44 percent from its July 11 peak above $147 a barrel.
"Prices have come down, but we'd like to see them come down faster and by more," said Adrian Tink, strategist at another British motorists' group, RAC. "Prices seem to go up far faster than they come down."
Motorists' groups acknowledge that with about 70 percent of European fuel prices being made up of taxes, the drop at gasoline stations will be less extreme than that in benchmark crude prices.
But though oil prices were at almost the same level 12 months ago as they are today, gasoline prices in Britain are now 10 percent higher than they were then and the price of diesel is 19 percent higher.
Fuel retailers said the relatively muted drop since July reflected a six- to eight-week delay between crude changes and pump prices.
"We bring our prices into line as soon as we can, but drops in oil prices take a while to work through the system," said Mark Salt, a spokesman for BP.
Higher costs and weaker currencies are the reason why pump prices are above levels from a year ago, said a spokesman for the Petrol Retailers Association of Britain.
The pound and the euro are both down sharply against the dollar, the currency in which oil is traded, since July and compared with October 2007.
Nonetheless, operators are benefiting from lower oil prices, said Stephen Brooks, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie.
"Margins aren't looking too bad," he said. "As oil prices drop, margins tend to be a little higher than one would normally expect."
Analysts at investment banks said they expected big oil companies to report a recovery in profit margins at the retail level later this month.
M&S to expand into power market
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
LONDON: Retailer Marks & Spencer said on Wednesday it is preparing to expand into the household gas and electricity supply market following a partnership with utility Scottish & Southern Energy .
"Marks and Spencer has partnered with Scottish and Southern Energy ... providing electricity and gas to your home," the high street giant said on a new Website marked 'coming soon.'
A report in The Guardian newspaper said M&S shoppers would be able to buy power in stores and on-line, and would pay the same as SSE customers who take both gas and electricity via direct debit payments.
The company, which is facing increasingly tough market conditions, is expanding its offering beyond its core clothes and food ranges.
SSE is one of six major power suppliers in the UK, alongside British Gas-owner Centrica , RWE-owned nPower , E.ON UK , Iberdrola-owned Scottish Power and EDF Energy .
LETTER FROM EUROPE
In German-French relations, looks can be deceiving
By Judy Dempsey
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
BERLIN: Saturday, in the thick of the global financial crisis, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France went before the cameras in the quiet village of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, the home and burial place of Charles de Gaulle.
There, Europe's two most important leaders had reached agreement over measures to try to restore public confidence in the markets and banking system. At a euro zone summit meeting in Paris the next day, Merkel and Sarkozy managed to persuade their fellow Europeans to follow suit before markets opened on Monday. As they emerged from their meeting, both were smiling and chatting, even giving the impression of friendship.
Nothing could be further from reality.
"Let's put it this way. Merkel and Sarkozy have incompatible personalities," said Hans Stark, director of the Study Committee for Franco-German Relations at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris.
But Colombey-les-Deux-Églises might finally be the start of a new relationship between Berlin and Paris. After a week of squabbling publicly over how to deal with the crisis - a spectacle that contributed to weakening confidence and pushing markets lower - Merkel and Sarkozy put aside their differences. There was too much at stake, possibly even the future of the euro.
"They have to cooperate out of political necessity," said Frank Bassner, director of the German-French Institute in Ludwigsburg. "There is no European integration without France and Germany working together. They are the motors for European unity." Indeed, without France and Germany, Europe would have no internal market, no euro, no Airbus, no European Central Bank.
But today, with Europe economically weakened as a result of the global financial crisis, and divided over energy security, relations with Russia, further enlargement and internal reforms, there are compelling reasons for Paris and Berlin to provide leadership.
The problem is that Merkel and Sarkozy have a "conflictual relationship," according to Bassner. Both want to be leader of Europe.
When Merkel was appointed chancellor in late 2005, she moved quickly to reassert Germany's authority in Europe which had eroded under her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. She mended relations with the United States which Schröder had almost torn apart in his opposition to the U.S.-led war against Iraq. By mid-2007, with Merkel heading the EU and the Group of 8 industrial countries, Germany's standing in Europe and in the trans-Atlantic alliance was restored.
Then came Sarkozy.
"Sarkozy was determined to bring France back to the center of things," Stark said.
The chancellery was taken aback by Sarkozy's style. He canceled bilateral meetings at short notice. He annoyed Merkel by calling for a summit meeting of Mediterranean leaders without including all EU countries only to change his mind after Merkel told him off. When Ireland rejected the Lisbon treaty that would have strengthened the EU's foreign policy role, it was a blow for Merkel. She had lobbied hard for a treaty she believed would increase the credibility of the bloc. While she called for patience after the Irish rejection, Sarkozy slammed Dublin and called for a two-speed Europe in which reform-minded countries would press on with integration, which Merkel publicly opposed.
"Sarkozy's way of doing things is not Merkel's style," said Klaus-Peter Schmidt, an expert on Franco-German relations. "But at the end of the day, they have to get on with each other."
France and Germany first realized this after 1945. Only a rapprochement between the Continent's centuries-old enemies could spare Europe another war. De Gaulle and Germany's first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, established the base of Franco-German friendship, a feat that Merkel and Sarkozy celebrated last Saturday in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, where the rapprochement began 50 years ago.
But relations between later French and German leaders were not always easy. Georges Pompidou, a conservative, and Willy Brandt, a social democrat, were barely on speaking terms.
Francois Mitterrand, a socialist, and Helmut Kohl, a conservative, needed two years to find a modus vivendi. When it happened, it led to the historic handshake between both leaders in 1984 when they met at the cemetery at Verdun, France. An estimated 700,000 soldiers from France and Germany had been killed around Verdun during World War I.
Mitterrand and Kohl later worked for the introduction of the euro, although with different motives. For France, suspicious of Germany becoming even stronger after its reunification in 1989, a euro would do away with the strong Deutsche mark and so restrict Germany's room for maneuver. For Kohl, giving up the mark was the price for further EU enlargement and integration in which successive German governments have passionately believed.
Kohl never managed to establish a similar relationship with Jacques Chirac, and Schröder and Chirac started out rocky as well. But both men clicked. At an EU summit meeting in 2002, they unexpectedly agreed on the bloc's agricultural budget for the next five years. With Paris and Berlin now in the driver's seat, the other member states nodded the budget through.
Schröder and Chirac later became a potent duo.
With Vladimir Putin, they created an alliance to oppose the war against Iraq and form a counterweight to the United States - which nearly pulled Europe apart. When Merkel took over the chancellery nearly three years ago, she began to repair the damage, establishing her claim to European leadership in the process.
As president, Sarkozy has also mended relations with Washington and reached out to the new EU member states from Eastern Europe, whom Chirac ignored. Above all, as current president of the EU, he brokered a cease-fire between Georgia and Russia.
Sarkozy's energy and initiatives have won only reluctant praise from Berlin, where officials fear that Merkel is being upstaged. But it is possible that the financial crisis, in demonstrating the appalling price of political disunity, has taught both leaders a lesson. With so few ideological differences between them now, analysts say Merkel and Sarkozy should be able to pull together. "Imagine what it would be like if these two leaders really did get on," said Stark. "Imagine what it would mean for Europe."
Eurostar sales rise despite tunnel fire
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
PARIS: Eurostar, the high-speed passenger train service linking Britain to mainland Europe, reported a 2.4 percent rise in third-quarter sales on Wednesday despite the Channel Tunnel's closure for two days in September due to a fire on a freight train.
Eurostar said sales rose to 152.3 million pounds, and passenger numbers rose 6.4 percent.
The company said it carried 2.27 million passengers from July to September, adding the rise occurred "despite Eurotunnel's closure of the Channel Tunnel on September 11 and 12, which caused a reduced level of Eurostar services for the rest of the month."
Tension with Italy as France refuses to extradite ex-Red Brigades member
By Elisabetta Povoledo
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
ROME: A decision by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France not to extradite a former member of the Red Brigades, the group that terrorized Italy throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, has provoked outrage in Italy and stirred dormant tensions between the two countries.
The decision also raised questions about the role played by the first lady of France, Carla Sarkozy, who had visited the former member, Marina Petrella, last week and personally assured her that she would not be extradited.
Petrella was convicted of involvement in murder and other crimes in Italy, and in 1993 fled to France, where President François Mitterrand had a policy of granting asylum to leftist Italian militants if they renounced violence. But later French governments moved away from that policy, and Petrella was jailed in August 2007.
Last August, she was released after her health deteriorated because of severe depression. She had stopped eating, her lawyer, Irène Terrel, said by telephone on Tuesday. "She just wanted to die," Terrel said.
Sarkozy announced over the weekend that Petrella, 54 and hospitalized in Paris, would not be extradited for what he called humanitarian reasons.
Sabina Rossa, a center-left lawmaker whose father was killed by the Red Brigades in 1979, said on a morning radio talk show on Tuesday that Sarkozy's justification was unacceptable. "It's saying that Italy is a country at risk, without democratic certainties, where a person's health is not evaluated seriously," she said.
Rossa said that France had a distorted view of what life was like in Italy during the years of terrorism. "There are people who committed atrocious crimes and left a trail of blood, but in France there are those who see them as victims of political persecution, with an aura of the romantic hero," she said.
The Red Brigades' most notorious crime was the kidnapping and killing of a former prime minister, Aldo Moro, in 1978.
Petrella was convicted of involvement in various Red Brigades activities in Rome from 1977 to 1982, including the kidnapping and murder of Moro; the murder of General Enrico Galvaligi, the head of anti-terrorist forces in northern Italy; the murder of a police commissioner and the kidnapping of a magistrate.
Since her arrest last year, groups in France have protested her expected extradition. Several high-profile personalities, including the French first lady and her sister, the actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, have sympathized with Petrella.
Last Wednesday, Carla Sarkozy visited Petrella in the hospital to personally reassure her that she would not be extradited. "We could not let this woman die," she told the French paper Libération this week.
A group representing victims of Italian terrorism said that they would protest in Paris later this month, and demand that Sarkozy reverse his decision. The president of the group, Bruno Berardi, whose father was killed by a Red Brigades member in 1978, said that he had already initiated a hunger strike.
10 detained in France in Taser spy ring inquiry
The Associated Press
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
PARIS: Ten people, including police officers and the head of a company that distributes Tasers, have been detained in an investigation of alleged spying on a far-left politician who had denounced the use of stun guns, a police official said.
Olivier Besancenot, leader of the Communist Revolutionary League and a candidate in the presidential election last year, denounced what he called an "operation of spies, of crooked cops" and said that there was "cooperation between private eyes and police."
France-Info radio and BFM TV reported that 4 of the 10 detainees were eventually freed but not the head of the Taser distributor, Antoine Di Zazzo, whose company has filed a suit against Besancenot.
Others detained included a customs official and the head of a private detective agency, according to a police official who requested anonymity. He asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the investigation.
The detentions were the result of a legal complaint filed by Besancenot in May after the news weekly L'Express reported that his wife had been followed and their bank accounts had been consulted from October 2007 until January 2008.
The prosecutor's office then opened an investigation, which led to the detentions Tuesday.
Besancenot has called for a moratorium on Tasers and claimed at a news conference that investigators "appeared to have made a link" between his criticism of the stun guns and the alleged spying. His statement could not immediately be confirmed.
Di Zazzo heads SMP Technologies, which distributes Tasers in France, including to the police. The firm had filed suit against Besancenot for "defamation" after he alleged the stun guns were responsible for 150 deaths in the United States.
Besancenot received 4.08 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections in April 2007 - nearly 1.5 million voters.
He is preparing to start a new party that would bring together far left groups in France.
Second Taliban attack strikes major Afghan city
By John F. Burns
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan: Afghan government troops repulsed a fresh attack late Tuesday by Taliban fighters massed outside the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah in southwestern Afghanistan and killed at least 18 of them, the provincial governor's office said Wednesday.
NATO spokesmen said the attack, the second in four days, underscored the growing capabilities of the Taliban, who have increased the tempo of their attacks as the seventh anniversary of their ouster from power in Kabul approaches.
The Taliban threat has led to a wide-ranging review of war strategy in Washington, and to insistent calls from American commanders for more troops.
NATO officials said the two attacks at Lashkar Gah showed how the Taliban have grown into a far more formidable force than in the early years of the conflict: an ability to mass fighters in large groups, sometimes in the hundreds, with an array of small arms and heavier weapons, and to coordinate attacks more effectively, often involving simultaneous thrusts from different directions.
Western diplomats here said the attacks on Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, about 340 miles southwest of Kabul, also demonstrated an increased political sophistication. Although both the Saturday and Tuesday attacks failed, with heavy Taliban casualties, they said, the Taliban might count them a success for the attention they drew to their ability to seriously threaten an ambitious target.
In Lashkar Gah, they targeted a city that lies at the heart of the Helmand river valley, and the linchpin beginning more than 50 years ago of a major American aid effort to develop agriculture along the river, which flows southwards through the desert from the mountains of the Hindu Kush. In recent times, the province has been the center of Afghanistan's opium industry, which supplies more than 80 percent of the world's heroin.
United Nations drug experts calculated that more than half the 7,700 metric tons of opium that Afghanistan produced this year came from Helmand, and NATO commanders have said that the $4-billion in annual revenue generated by drug trafficking within Afghanistan is a major source of funding for the Taliban and their allies in Al Qaeda. That in itself makes Helmand a major battlefield, the more so since NATO defense ministers agreed last week to include attacks on drug traffickers aiding the insurgency in the NATO mandate here.
The attack on Lashkar Gah on Tuesday evening lasted several hours and left 18 attackers dead, according to Dawood Ahmadi, spokesman for the governor of Helmand province. On Sunday, Ahmadi said 62 Taliban fighters had been killed in fighting with Afghan and NATO troops after a previous attempt to break through the city's defenses. On both occasions, the attacks were launched from several different points simultaneously.
In a further indication of the war's intensity in Helmand, a NATO statement on Wednesday confirmed that "precision air strikes" had been carried out on Monday evening against "a small group" of Taliban commanders in the Baram Cha district, about 100 miles south of Lashkar Gah. Ahmadi, the governor's spokesman, said 70 Taliban had been killed by those strikes.
Ahmadi offered an alarming picture of the situation around Baram Cha, saying it was out of government control.
"The militants are gathering in large numbers there, helped by the proximity of the area to their sanctuaries in Pakistan," he said. The militants included "large numbers" of foreign fighters, including Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks, he said.
Afghan government claims of Taliban casualties have often been exaggerated, and spokesmen for the NATO command said they were unable to confirm Ahmadi's figures. But after the first Taliban attack on Lashkar Gah, launched at nightfall on Saturday and finally repulsed only after daybreak on Sunday, the NATO command estimated the Taliban losses at 50 to 55 men killed, close to the Afghan government figure.
A reporter for The New York Times who reached residents of Lashkar Gah by telephone found that at least some were not reassured. The residents reported that villagers living in the Bolan district, a few miles northwest of the city, had been ordered by the Taliban to abandon their homes and shops, and that they had fled into Lashkar Gah or northwards up the Helmand valley to the Gereshk district, about 30 miles away.
One resident of Lashkar Gah, Abdul Bari, 40, laid the blame for the Taliban pressure on the city on the coalition troops, who are part of what NATO calls Task Force Helmand, commanded by a British general and centered on a British force of nearly 8,000. "People in the city are terrified at what will happen in the Taliban get into the city," Bari said. "We don't understand why the international troops, and the Afghan army, didn't take action earlier, when the Taliban began gathering in these districts around the city".
The spokesman for the task force, Lieutenant Colonel Woody Page of the Royal Marines, said that although Taliban forces in Helmand had grown in numbers and sophistication, there was no threat of Lashkar Gah being overrun. "Lashkar Gah is home to nearly 50,000 people," he said. "It is a well-governed city, with a strong military force to defend it, and cities like this don't fall into insurgents' hands. That will not be allowed to happen. The insurgents will not gain a foothold here."
Afghan governor says air strike kills 70 Taliban
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
KABUL: About 70 Taliban fighters were killed in an air strike by foreign forces in the southern Afghan province of Helmand near the Pakistan border, the provincial governor said Wednesday.
The attack took place late Tuesday in Helmand's Baram Cha district. Violence in Afghanistan is running at its highest rate since the U.S.-led invasion to wrest control from the militant Islamist Taliban movement in 2001.
White House memos endorsed CIA waterboarding says report
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
WASHINGTON: The Bush administration explicitly endorsed the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods against al Qaeda suspects in a pair of secret memos to the CIA in 2003 and 2004, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday.
The previously undisclosed classified memos were requested by then CIA Director George Tenet more than a year after the start of the secret interrogations, the newspaper reported, citing administration and intelligence officials familiar with the documents.
A White House spokesman had no comment on the report.
According the newspaper, intelligence officials sought cover from the White House because they were worried about a possible backlash if details of the interrogation program became public.
Justice Department lawyers signed off on the agency's interrogation methods beginning in 2002, but senior CIA officials were troubled that White House policymakers had never endorsed the program in writing, the Post reported.
Repeated requests by the CIA chief for a paper trail reflected growing worries within the agency that the administration might later distance itself from decisions about the handling of captured al Qaeda leaders, the Post said, citing former intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The officials told the newspaper Tenet first pressed the White House for written approval in June 2003 during a meeting with members of the National Security Council.
A few days later, Tenet received a brief memo conveying the administration's approval for the CIA's interrogation methods, the officials were cited as saying.
Tenet made a second request for written approval in June 2004, after the public outcry over the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the Post said.
Administration officials confirmed the existence of the memos, but neither they nor former intelligence officers would describe the still classified documents in detail, the newspaper reported.
(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)
Reversing a downward spiral
After years of denial and negligence, President Bush and his aides are finally waking up to the desperate mess they've made in Afghanistan. They have little choice, since the alarms are coming from all corners.
In a rare moment of agreement, America's 16 intelligence agencies are warning that Afghanistan is on a "downward spiral." Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is predicting that next year will be an even "tougher year."
A draft intelligence report blames three problems for the breakdown in central authority and the Taliban's rising power: rampant corruption, a booming heroin trade and increasingly sophisticated attacks from militants based across the border in Pakistan. Unless all three are addressed quickly, the war in Afghanistan could be lost.
Under pressure from the United States and other NATO governments, Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, appointed a new interior minister over the weekend who will be charged with cleaning up and strengthening the country's police force. Karzai now must cut all ties with corrupt officials. He must take a hard and credible look at allegations that his brother may be involved in the heroin trade that is pouring $100 million annually into the Taliban's coffers.
The United States will also have to send more troops and persuade its allies to send more. It's chilling to watch America's defense secretary, Robert Gates, begging NATO - and the White House - for help. Germany's commitment of another 1,000 troops is commendable but marred by its refusal to deploy them in southern Afghanistan where the fighting is heaviest. NATO members that can't or won't send more troops must contribute money to build Afghanistan's national army and finance local development.
NATO's recent decision to authorize its forces to go after drug lords and drug labs is a (much belated) start, but it still has far too many strings attached.
The Bush administration must drop its resistance to working with tribal leaders to fight the Taliban. The time for worrying about undermining Karzai is long past. Reconciliation talks should also be explored with members of the Taliban - if they forsake violence.
Washington must also come up with a better mixture of incentives and pressures to persuade Pakistan to shut down Taliban and Al Qaeda havens. The country's new civilian leaders and army chief say that they understand the threat posed by militants and are willing to fight them. That must be encouraged, including with more carefully monitored military and economic aid.
Imagine if Bush had not invaded Iraq in 2003 and instead put all of America's resources and attention into defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even optimistic analysts say that things have now gotten so bad that, with the best strategy, it could take another five to 10 years to stabilize Afghanistan.
That is one more reason why the next president must plot a swift, orderly exit from Iraq and begin a swift and serious buildup of troops and aid in Afghanistan - the real frontline in the war on terror.
In voting booth, race may play a bigger role
By Adam Nagourney
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
WASHINGTON: With less than three weeks until Election Day, a big question is looming over the campaign for the White House, and it has nothing to do with the economic crisis or the caustic exchanges between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain over character and credentials.
It is race.
Obama and McCain almost never talk directly about it. In some cases, like the condemnation of the Republican ticket issued last weekend by Representative John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat who is a civil rights leader, the topic has come up openly: Lewis invoked George Wallace, the noted segregationist, in rebuking McCain as tolerating political rallies marked by crowds yelling insults and threats at Obama.
But more often, it is found only in sentiments that are whispered, internalized or masked by discussions of culture or religion, and therefore hard to capture fully in polling or even to hear clearly in everyday conversation.
Political strategists once assumed that polls might well overstate support for black candidates, since white voters might be reluctant to admit racially tinged sentiments to a pollster. Newer research has cast doubt on that assumption. Either way, the situation is confounding aides on both sides, who like everyone else are waiting to see what role race will play in the privacy of the voting booth.
Harold Ickes, a Democrat who was the Rev. Jesse Jackson's senior adviser when he ran for president and who worked in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in her race against Obama this year said that when he looked at polls now, he routinely shaved off a point or two from Obama's number to account for hidden racial prejudices. That is no small factor, considering that Obama and McCain are separated by very thin margins in many polls in battleground states.
"If he were white, this would be a blowout," Ickes said. "I think the country has come a long, long, long way since the 1960s. I think everybody would agree with that. But if you talk to people in certain states, they will say there are impulses that do not benefit Barack Obama because of the color of his skin."
Saul Anuzis, the Republican chairman in Michigan, said he had become accustomed to whispered asides from voters suggesting they would not vote for Obama because he is black. "We honestly don't know how big an issue it is," Anuzis said. But Representative Artur Davis, an African-American Democrat of Alabama, said race was no longer the automatic barrier to the White House that it once was.
"There is a group of voters who will not vote for people who are opposite their race," Davis said. "But I think that number is lower today than it has been at any point in our history. I don't believe this campaign will be decided by race; there are too many other important issues. Jesse Jackson would not have been elected in 1988. But we've changed."
But it is hard to tell, as Ickes and Anuzis said, to what extent voters who are opposing Obama might seize other issues his age and level of experience, his positions on the issues, his cultural and ideological background as a shield.
And if Obama is losing support simply because he is black, that is not a one-sided equation. A crucial part of Obama's theory for winning the election is turning out blacks in places like Florida and North Carolina, a state that Obama's advisers view as in play largely because of the significant African-American population.
Obama works for the working-class vote
By Matt Bai
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
This article will appear in this Sunday's Times Magazine.
For a guy who just four years ago was running his first statewide campaign, Barack Obama has made startlingly few missteps as a presidential candidate. But the moment Obama would most like to take back now, if he could, was the one last April when, speaking to a small gathering of Bay Area contributors, he said that small-town voters in Pennsylvania and other states had grown "bitter" over lost jobs, which caused them to "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them." That comment, subsequently posted by a blogger for the Huffington Post, undercut one of the central premises of Obama's campaign, an argument he first floated in his famous 2004 convention address that he could somehow erode the tired distinctions between red states and blue ones and appeal to disaffected white men who had written off national Democrats as hopelessly elitist. Instead, in the weeks that followed, white working-class primary voters, not only in industrial states like Pennsylvania but also in rural states like Kentucky and West Virginia, rejected his candidacy by wide margins, and he staggered, wounded, toward the nomination.
"That was my biggest boneheaded move," Obama told me recently. We were sitting across from each other on his plane, the one with the big red, white and blue "O" on the tail, flying some 35,000 feet above Nebraska. "How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they've been ignored. And because Democrats haven't met them halfway on cultural issues, we've not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition."
Obama was wearing his classic starched white shirt (how many of those shirts does he have, exactly?), along with a tie the color of a robin's egg. One on one, he has a crisp and effortless conversational style; his answers are thoughtful, but you rarely glimpse the thought process itself, the internal calibrations that every politician is constantly making. The only outward sign that Obama is laboring over his formulations is the way he will often elongate the word "and" for several seconds, a processing hitch that enables him to preview in his own head what he is about to tell you, like one of those five-second delays the networks use so they can bleep out profanity.
"I mean, part of what I was trying to say to that group in San Francisco was, 'You guys need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong,' " he continued. "Because, in fact, if you've grown up and your dad went out and took you hunting, and that is part of your self-identity and provides you a sense of continuity and stability that is unavailable in your economic life, then that's going to be pretty important, and rightfully so. And if you're watching your community lose population and collapse but your church is still strong and the life of the community is centered around that, well then, you know, we'd better be paying attention to that."
In a few minutes, Obama would arrive in Colorado for a campaign stop, followed by another in Nevada two critical states that neither of the previous two Democratic nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, came all that close to winning, largely because of their abject failure to connect with white men, especially lower- and middle-class men in rural and exurban counties. A few weeks earlier, I watched Obama campaign in the coal country of Appalachian Virginia, where no one I talked to could remember ever seeing a Democratic nominee come through town. I asked Obama how he thought he could convey to these voters that he was not, in fact, an anthropological observer of the culture. Four years ago, Kerry, a man who was once actually pretty comfortable holding a semiautomatic weapon, donned his hunting gear and traipsed into the woods of Ohio, trailed by cameras, to shoot some geese. The stunt made him look absurd, like an investment banker at rock-'n'-roll fantasy camp.
"First," Obama said, "you have to show up. I've been to Elko, Nevada, now three times."
"Elko?" I asked twice, straining to hear him over the engine noise.
"E-L-K-O." He sounded vaguely annoyed, as if I had just confirmed something about the media he had long suspected. "That, by the way, is the reason we got more delegates out of Nevada, even though we lost the popular vote there during the primary. We lost Las Vegas and Clark County, but we won handily in rural Nevada. And a lot of it just had to do with the fact that folks thought: Man, the guy is showing up. He's set up an office. He's doing real organizing. He's talking to people.
"No. 2 is how we talk about issues," Obama went on. "To act like hunting, like somebody who wants firearms just doesn't get it that kind of condescension has to be purged from our vocabulary. And that's why that whole 'bittergate' episode was so bitter for me. It was like: Oh, this is exactly what I wanted to avoid. This is what for the last five or six years I've been trying to push away from."
As we talked, consequential events were reshaping the world below. At that very moment, Republicans in Washington were scuttling a $700 billion emergency plan for Wall Street, causing the markets to hemorrhage more value in a single day, in terms of sheer dollar amounts, than at any time in American history and dragging the economy back into the center of the campaign precisely where John McCain and the Republicans didn't want it. And yet, what Obama and I were discussing, this cultural disconnect between Democrats and large swaths of white men, remained a lingering and crucial question. It now appeared that the only thing that could still threaten Obama's march to the presidency was the same resistance from these voters that had, at the last moment, dashed the dreams of both his Democratic predecessors. Gore and Kerry tried, somewhat dutifully, to prove their cultural affinity for regular white guys; when that didn't work, they tried to change the subject to policy platforms instead, hoping in vain that voters would just sort of forget about all that guns and church stuff. In both cases, that failure translated directly into defeat. According to exit polls in 2004, Kerry lost white men by a crushing 25-point margin.
Given the fact that he is not, in fact, a white male, Obama would seem to face an even-less-forgiving landscape among white-male voters. While voters overall give Obama the advantage over John McCain when asked which candidate is better equipped to navigate these tumultuous economic times, Gallup polls throughout the summer and into the fall consistently showed McCain with a double-digit lead among white men who haven't been to college.
And yet Obama has persevered, devoting far more time and money than either of the last two Democratic nominees on an effort to persuade working-class and rural white guys that he is not the elitist, alien figure they may be inclined to think he is. The Obama campaign has more than 50 state offices throughout Virginia, a state no Democrat has seriously contested since Obama was a teenager. In Indiana, there are 42 offices; in North Carolina, another 45.
Mathematically, Obama can probably win the election without winning any of these states or Nevada or Montana or any of the other conservative states where he has campaigned in the past several months. What he probably can't do, if he doesn't convert enough voters to throw at least a few traditionally red states into the blue column, is get beyond what he dismissively refers to as the "50-plus-1" governing model, the idea that a president need only represent 50 percent of the country (plus 1 additional vote) to command the office. From the start, Obama has aspired not simply to win but also to stand as a kind of generational break from the polarized era of the boomers, to become the first president in at least 20 years to claim anything more than the most fragile mandate for his agenda. Absent that, even if he wins, Obama could wake up on Nov. 5 as yet another president-elect of half the people, perched uncomfortably on the edge of an impassable cultural divide.
WHEN LYNDON JOHNSON SIGNED the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he famously predicted that his party had just signed away the South for a generation to come. In truth, the outcome was more profound than Johnson could have imagined. The culture war, whose Bunker Hill was the campus quad of the 1960s, soon spread to just about every region of the country, where rural and working-class white voters, already anxious over economic change, recoiled at the vehement strain of antimilitary, antiestablishment liberalism that took hold of the Democratic Party in the era after Selma and Saigon. The effect, especially on the presidential level, was immediate and drastic. In the 32 years before Johnson made his pronouncement, Democrats controlled the White House for all but 8 of them, and only twice in 1948 and 1960 had the Democrat won by what could be considered a narrow margin. In the four decades since, only two Democrats have managed to get elected, and only one has claimed a majority of the popular vote. (This was Jimmy Carter, who eked out exactly 50.1 percent without winning a single state west of Texas.) By the turn of the century, almost completely driven from the South and West, Democratic presidential candidates had taken to focusing all their efforts on an ever-shrinking pool of coastal and industrial states.
Obama, though, has talked from the beginning about running a "50-state" campaign, and he has spent considerable time and money in more culturally conservative parts of the country where Democrats rarely, if ever, venture, from Elko and Appalachia to Billings, Montana, and Las Cruces, New Mexico To a large extent, this reflects Obama's personal conviction about modern politics, which he first laid out in his 2004 convention speech when he talked about worshiping "an awesome God in the blue states" and having "gay friends in the red states." He told me, when we talked, that Washington's us-versus-them divisions had made it impossible for any president to find solutions to a series of generational challenges, from Iraq to global climate change. "If voters are similarly polarized and if they're seeing two different realities, a Sean Hannity reality and a Keith Olbermann reality, then we're not going to be able to get done the work we need to get done," Obama said.
It is also true, however, that a series of circumstances beyond his control have conspired to make a truly national campaign more feasible for Obama than for any Democrat since Carter ran in the dark days after Watergate. First, of course, there is the national sense of despair over the Bush era, which has made the president more of a uniter than he ever intended and which has enabled Democrats to get a hearing in parts of the country where they were being run off the land 10 years ago. Then there's the advent of the Internet as a veritable money vacuum, which has enabled Obama to raise more money than any Democrat in history (about $460 million, at last count), meaning he can afford to pour some resources into states he has only a remote chance of winning. Perhaps most important, though, Obama's campaign has also been able to take advantage of a drawn-out Democratic primary campaign that came through all 50 states before it was over a draining experience that nonetheless established networks of volunteers and newly registered Democratic voters in states that in any other year would have been overlooked. In three states Texas, Indiana and North Carolina more people voted in Democratic primaries this year than voted for Kerry on Election Day in 2004.
For Obama's political advisers, expanding the electoral map is not about making a philosophical statement; it is simply a strategic imperative. Presidential campaigns, after all, are about getting to 270 the minimum number of electoral votes needed to win. In relying on the same 20 or so winnable states over the past few elections, Democratic nominees have given themselves almost no margin for error. By contrast, Obama's campaign, in addition to fighting for the usual complement of about a dozen swing states, has shifted considerable resources into a group of states the list has, at one time or another, included Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Georgia that haven't been strongly contested for at least three elections, if not longer. (Alaska was on the list, too, until McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.) The idea here is that the more states you put in play, the more permutations there are that lead to victory.
"If you expand the map, you improve your chances," David Axelrod, Obama's lead strategist, told me recently. "We didn't want to be in that same dreary position where the entire election hinges on three states, and you stay up all night waiting to see who won them."
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Obama starts with the same relatively safe 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) Kerry won in 2004, along with Iowa, which Gore won and where polls have shown Obama comfortably ahead. He could actually prevail without winning either of the two big perennial battleground states, Ohio and Florida, simply by winning Indiana by itself or by winning both New Mexico and Virginia. It is McCain, in fact, who, having earlier this month abandoned a foray into blue-collar Michigan, seems now to be facing the more restrictive map, betting on the notion that he can hold just about every reliably Republican state while also winning in battlegrounds like Florida and Ohio.
At times during these final months of the campaign, though, Obama's optimism about the impermanence of blue and red shading has run up against the hard reality that after 40 years of culturally divisive politics, colors don't easily bleed. Before the conventions, for instance, most polls in North Dakota showed McCain in front by only a few points. When I spoke to Byron Dorgan, the Democratic senator from North Dakota, last month, he sounded ecstatic about Obama's multiple trips to the state and the more than $400,000 the campaign had already dumped into ads there. "I think it's the first time you've turned on a television set and seen a persuasion ad for a Democratic candidate," Dorgan said.
Not a week later, however, a new round of post-convention polls showed McCain opening up a double-digit lead in North Dakota, and the Obama campaign abruptly pulled its ads. Dorgan called me back. "I do think this is going to come back to be a fairly close race in North Dakota, but I understand we need the resources in some of the other battleground states at this point," he said, sounding resigned. "I just called to say, 'Never mind.' "
THE ONE STATE THAT NO ONE expects Obama to surrender before Election Day is Virginia, which may be the most critical of what the Obama campaign labels its "nontraditional" battleground states, both symbolically and mathematically. Like North Dakota, Virginia hasn't voted for a Democratic nominee since Johnson beat Goldwater. (It was the only state of the Old South to go with Gerald Ford over Carter in 1976.) But the onset of the postindustrial economy has probably wrought more change on Virginia in the last 15 years or so than the state saw in the half-century before that. The new technology corridor running along I-66 in Northern Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, is one of the nation's most vibrant, and the self-sustaining exurbs growing up around it have rapidly transformed horizons of farmland into expensive town-house clusters and strip plazas. (The area now boasts such high-end stores as Tiffany, Gucci and Hermès.) New exurbs in the central part of the state aren't far behind, populated by commuters who work in corporate offices in Richmond, the capital of the old Confederacy. Of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the country, 6 of them are in Virginia.
The influx of new residents many of them highly educated, some of them recent immigrants has created in Northern Virginia one of the nation's more reliable and rapidly expanding Democratic voting blocs. In the more socially conservative south and southwest of the state, however, where manufacturing towns once thrived and coal miners once worked the Appalachian seam, the population has been falling steadily as high-school graduates strike out in search of stable work elsewhere. Not surprisingly, the number of statewide voters identifying themselves as Democrats has risen sharply over the last two years, far outpacing Republican growth. The last two governors have been Democrats, and come January when Mark Warner, the former governor, is widely expected to replace John Warner (no relation) in Washington both of its senators will likely be Democrats, too. John Kerry lost the state by nine points in 2004, but that was a relatively small margin when you consider that he never bothered to contest it. The McCain campaign is concerned enough about holding onto Virginia, where polls this month showed Obama pulling ahead, that it recently opened 10 new offices there.
Any Democrat who wants a general blueprint for how to win Virginia need only look to election maps from the last few statewide elections, in which the voters narrowly installed Tim Kaine as governor and Jim Webb in the Senate. First, you have to pile up huge margins among liberal voters in the state's Democratic strongholds, most notably the inner suburbs of Northern Virginia, where Kaine captured more than 60 percent of the vote in his race. (In the southeastern part of the state, black voters are a major Democratic constituency; overall, African-Americans could account for close to a fifth of the statewide vote.) Next, you want to pull off wins in the exploding exurban counties in Northern Virginia and at least come close in the exurbs outside Richmond. Finally, in order to make the overall math work, you have to hold down your losses in the rural areas to the south and southwest. That probably means capturing at least 40 percent in the economically devastated, gun-loving countryside that borders North Carolina and Tennessee to the south and Kentucky and West Virginia to the west.
Obama should have at least a good shot at achieving the first two of those objectives. His campaign says it's on pace to register as many as 200,000 new voters in reliably liberal parts of the state, and most analysts expect black voters to come to the polls in higher numbers for Obama than they have for other Democrats. For turnout, the campaign is relying on some 10,000 volunteers in the state, who are being trained to work in "neighborhood teams" that go door to door registering and lobbying voters. Obama's campaign seems to have patterned its turnout effort after George W. Bush's 2004 campaign, which employed a fervent volunteer network to churn out the suburban votes that put Ohio, among other states, into the Republican column.
In the mostly white exurbs, meanwhile, the economy alone should guarantee Obama a better hearing than Kerry could have expected. Like their counterparts in other states, young Virginians began moving into the exurbs over the last decade in search of something closer to their parents' version of the American dream. In the cities and suburbs where many of them grew up, housing prices were rising so rapidly that they couldn't afford to live in the towns with large lots and great schools. Farther out, however, in the brand-new exurbs that used to be farming towns, they found lower taxes, sprawling malls and affordable mini-mansions with driveways big enough for a couple of SUV's. For some Virginians, the extended commuting time to Richmond or Washington was worth the extra quality of life.
Perhaps no one is feeling as disoriented by the economic reversal of the past few years as these exurban voters, whose paradises are fast becoming prisons. They're watching as the value of their stocks and homes plummets, even as the cost of filling up the tank and heating the house soars. Traffic congestion along the state's main arteries has become a potent political issue, but fixing the problem requires more tax dollars. L. Douglas Wilder, the former Virginia governor and now mayor of Richmond, has seen the desperation rise. "They're saying, 'I'm working as hard as I've ever worked in my life, but I can't save any money and I have to cut back, so what's gone wrong here?' " Wilder told me recently. "People who think they had it made doctors, lawyers, engineers everybody is feeling the pinch."
FOR A NATIONAL DEMOCRAT, the hardest part of the electoral formula is probably the last piece holding one's own in the sea of small towns in the southern and Appalachian regions of the state that are far more similar to the rest of the Deep South than they are to Virginia's northern counties. Voters here haven't known economic expansion in decades, and they seem to have decided long ago that neither party was especially serious about stopping the decline, or even knew how. There is a strong sense in these communities, and not unreasonably, of suffering endless condescension a feeling that urbane America has already written off the rural lifestyle as a relic or, worse, as a joke. For that reason (and this is actually the point Obama says he was trying to make in San Francisco), cultural issues matter far more in the rural areas than they do in the exurbs, because voters see those issues as a test of whether politicians respect their values or mock them a construct that Republican strategists have become expert at exploiting.
Democrats running for governor or the Senate can spend a lot more time shaking hands in these parts, working to distance themselves from the national party's smug image, than can a presidential candidate, who also has to carry all of the extra baggage of the party's stands on social issues especially if he happens to be the first black nominee of either party. It probably isn't encouraging for Obama that in this year's Virginia primary, which he won easily, Hillary Clinton nonetheless dismantled him in the rural southwest. In tiny Dickenson County, along the western border with Kentucky, Clinton received 1,491 votes to Obama's 210. Next door in Wise County, it was Clinton 2,310; Obama, 459.
Obama has responded to this challenge principally by doing precisely what he told me he had to do: he has shown up. The first thing he did as his party's presumptive nominee in June, two days after closing out the final primaries in South Dakota and Montana, was to get on a plane and come to Bristol, Virginia, on the Tennessee border. He has returned twice more since then to the southern part of the state, and Joe Biden recently headlined a mineworkers' rally there. Local Democrats told me that Obama's campaign office in the old manufacturing town of Danville was so unusual for a candidate of either party that its opening was treated almost as a curiosity, as if a smoldering meteor had smashed into the town green.
No Virginia Democrat knows more about how to win over white rural voters than Mark Warner, whose "Virginia story" is now legend for national Democrats. Running for governor in 2001, when Republicans had a virtual monopoly in Virginia, Warner visited the southern areas of the state dozens of times, promising to revive local economies by bringing broadband lines through the region and luring high-tech companies. He not only cut his losses in those remote counties; he carried many of them outright. His proudest achievement as governor, or at least the one he talks about with the most enthusiasm, came just weeks before the end of his term (Virginia is the last state in the union to limit its governors to one term), when he induced two large high-tech companies to open facilities in the tiny southwestern town of Lebanon, bringing more than 700 jobs with them.
When I asked Warner, who has campaigned with Obama, what Obama needed to say to earn the trust of rural Virginians, he suggested Obama spend less time talking about economic despair and more time reminding voters of the hopeful things happening in southern Virginia.
"Celebrate Lebanon," he said. "Celebrate that we've got a place for your community in the 21st century." "Change" was a good slogan, Warner told me, and people surely wanted it, but you also had to give them a sense that you understood the challenges specific to their communities. "I'd like to hear him talk more about infrastructure, about broadband," Warner said. "I think he's still got to make the case that your kids shouldn't have to leave your hometown to find a world-class job.
"People make a judgment about whether you really care or not. Is it just a drive-by, or are you really going to invest?"
IF YOU WANT TO GET TO LEBANON, a town of about 3,200, the easiest way is to fly into the Tri-City Airport on the Tennessee side of the Appalachians, then drive about 45 minutes northeast through some of the most gorgeous hill country in America. The back road that leads to Lebanon High School is lined with trailer-size houses on the edge of collapse, their front porches buckling in the sun. But then, as you approach the school, you see a few neat rows of brand new town houses, with prices in the high $200,000s the unmistakable landscape of the new economy. Lebanon is slowly becoming a symbol of hope for towns all over the region that dream of turning southwestern Virginia, with its abundant land and cheap labor, into the next high-tech hub. Local counties have raised up a half-dozen "shell buildings" essentially empty warehouses already connected to sewers and broadband lines to attract businesses looking for ready-made space. Inspired by the influx of tech jobs, officials in the area have started what they call the Return to Roots program, in which they aggressively seek out qualified graduates who have moved away for other jobs and try to lure them back home.
Barack Obama came to Lebanon High for a town-hall meeting with voters on the Tuesday after Labor Day, marking the first time any presidential candidate stepped foot in the area since Jimmy Carter came to nearby Castlewood in 1976. The campaign made tickets available to its local offices a few days before the event, and a lot of the roughly 2,400 attendees waited in line to get them. As a result, most of the voters in the school gymnasium seemed to be committed Obama backers already.
The program opened with the validators. This is a critical part of Obama's small-town strategy getting respected surrogates to stand up and say that Obama is a guy you can trust. The first person on stage was Ralph Stanley, the 81-year-old legendary bluegrass musician, who was born in nearby Stratton and makes his home in Dickenson County. He unfolded a piece of paper and read, in a shaky voice: "I want to endorse Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. Thank you very much!" The gymnasium exploded. (When the candidate met Stanley backstage, Obama told him that he had some of Stanley's banjo music on his iPod. Stanley nodded appreciatively, but a few minutes later he turned to a friend and asked, "What's an iPod?")
Stanley was followed by Cecil Roberts, the white-bearded president of the mineworkers' union, who preached as if he were at a revival, putting Obama's early years into a framework that southwestern Virginians could understand. "Moses was a community organizer!" Roberts thundered. "And yes, Jesus was a community organizer!" Then came Rick Boucher, the owlish congressman who represents Lebanon and its surrounding counties in Washington. "Senator Obama is a friend of coal and the thousands of jobs it brings to Southwestern Virginia," Boucher assured the crowd. In fact, he repeated this line "Barack Obama is a friend of coal" no less than five times in 10 minutes.
Obama finally bounded onstage to an ovation that rocked the bleachers. He delivered a newly sharpened version of his basic rally speech, pacing the stage as he spoke, his pitch rising as he punctuated each point in a long list of indictments against the Bush years and John McCain. He stressed his own American story the mother on food stamps, the grandfather who fought in "Patton's army," the father-in-law who worked a shift job with multiple sclerosis and never missed a day. The speech wasn't appreciably different from one he would have given at an arena packed with 20,000 people in Philadelphia or St. Louis.
It was only after the speech, prompted by questions from the audience, that Obama tried to reassure the crowd without ever referring to the "bitter" comment, of course that he was not some San Francisco liberal who pitied rural people for their religiosity and their pastimes. One man wanted to know what Obama thought of those who looked down on Sarah Palin because she was evangelical. No doubt thinking of the persistent rumors still flying around the Internet that say he is a closet Muslim, Obama reiterated, for about the seven millionth time this year, that he, too, is a practicing Christian. "This is a nation of believers," he said, "and I'm one of them."
A teenage girl asked Obama what he might do specifically for rural America. I found it odd that Obama had to be prompted to address this question, but he warmed to it immediately, ticking off a list of public investments that his administration could bring to the region: broadband lines, school financing, the development of biodiesel fuels. He talked about creating more jobs for local students, "so when they graduate from college those kids can stay here and live in Lebanon instead of having to go and work someplace else."
Having finished that thought, Obama suddenly straightened up, as if something else important had just occurred to him. "One thing I want to make clear while we're on this topic of rural America," he said, looking around the gym. "There are a lot of folks who come up to me and say, 'You know, Barack, I like your economic plan, and I'm tired of George Bush, but you know, I got my NRA mailing, and I'm worried you're gonna take my gun away.' " Obama likes to do this to momentarily inhabit the mind of some composite character and act out his side of the conversation and he was met with knowing chuckles.
"I just want to be absolutely clear, O.K.? I just don't want any misunderstanding when you all go home and you talk with your buddies, and they say, 'Oh, he wants to take my gun away.' You heard it here, and I'm on television, so everybody knows. I believe in the Second Amendment. I believe in people's lawful right to bear arms. I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won't take your handgun away.
"So if you want to find an excuse not to vote for me, don't use that one!" Obama said, eliciting laughter and cheers from the crowd. "It just ain't true!"
OBAMA ACHIEVED his main objective in Lebanon: he showed up where no modern Democratic nominee had before, taking on social issues and planting himself squarely in the mainstream, and he hit on the list of issues that Warner and others urged him to mention. When I caught up with Congressman Boucher not long after the event, he told me it had been "terribly important." Boucher had recently commissioned a poll in his district, which he gave to the Obama campaign, and while he wouldn't tell me any of the specifics, he did volunteer that McCain was "significantly ahead." Still, the poll showed an unusually high number of undecided voters perhaps not surprising given that in the Republican primary McCain lost badly to Mike Huckabee in the southwestern counties. "People are not enthusiastic about McCain," he told me. "They want to get to know Barack Obama better. They're waiting to be persuaded.
"The grapevine is the single most powerful form of communication in my district," Boucher continued. "All those people in that gymnasium, I'll bet every one of them went out and told 10 people, 'Hey, he was terrific.' "
Still, it occurred to me that during his appearance in Lebanon, Obama did little more than briefly nod to a series of local concerns, as if he had been carrying around a list that needed to be checked off before he got back on his plane and headed east to Norfolk. "Keeping jobs at home" was a great applause line, but Obama didn't betray any awareness of the novel public programs that might make that goal possible, like the shell buildings or the Return to Roots campaign. Far from celebrating Lebanon, as Warner suggested, Obama made only passing reference to the new jobs that were revitalizing the town, a success story that would seem to have justified his coming there in the first place. Obama mostly made the same general appeal he was making in more diverse and liberal parts of the country, with a few perfunctory detours along the way.
It is often said in politics that a candidate's strength is also his weakness. Obama's greatest asset as a candidate, the trait that has enabled him to overcome both a thin résumé and the resistance of his own party's establishment, is his placidity. Even more than through his ability to give a rousing speech (plenty of other candidates, from Ted Kennedy to Howard Dean, could do that), Obama has differentiated himself from recent Democrats by conveying a sense of inner security that is highly unusual in a business of people who have chosen to spend every day asking people to love them. He does not seem like a candidate who's going to switch to earth tones in his middle age or who's going to start dressing up in camouflage to rediscover his inner Rambo. Obama is content to meet the world on his terms, and something about that inspires confidence.
And yet that same lack of pathetic neediness may in fact be a detriment when it comes to persuading voters who, culturally or ideologically, just aren't predisposed to like him. I once heard a friend of Obama's compare him with Bill Clinton this way: if Clinton sees you walking down the other side of the street, he immediately crosses over to shake your hand; if Obama sees you coming, he nods and waits for you to cross. That image returned to me as I watched Obama campaign in Lebanon. Clinton wouldn't have wanted to leave that gym until every last voter had been converted, even if that meant he had to memorize the scheduled sewer installation for every home in Russell County. Mark Warner, a similarly tenacious glad-hander, went to rural Virginia again and again because, deep down, he needed to change people's perceptions of who he was. Obama doesn't connect to the world that way, which is probably why his campaign has always preferred big rallies to hand-to-hand venues. Obama gives the impression that he's going to show up and make his case, and if you don't fall in love with him, well, he'll just have to pick up the pieces and go on.
In some other election year, that probably wouldn't have been enough to sway the subset of undecided voters who came to see Obama at Lebanon High. But this isn't any other election year. Bush's approval ratings are the lowest on record, the Republican nominee is an ertstwhile foe of the NRA and taxpayers are doling out loans to Wall Street while their own credit suddenly dries up. As this campaign's symbol of change (the word is all but tattooed on his forehead), Obama has become, in a sense, the default candidate the guy you choose if he can clear even a modest threshold of acceptability. Voters in places like Lebanon were not, as Obama joked, looking for excuses not to vote for him; they were looking for reasons they should. The uncommitted voters in the gymnasium might not have run back home to tell their friends how "terrific" Obama had been, but they may well have said that Obama didn't seem alien or condescending that he wasn't the contemptuous, tax-loving liberal they had heard so much about. And maybe, this time, that would be enough.
A WEEK AFTER OBAMA VISITED Lebanon and Norfolk, I went to see Jim Webb in his Capitol Hill office. Obama's campaign considers Webb, a war hero and former Republican, to be one of its most critical validators all over Virginia, specifically because he appeals to white men who are skeptical of Democrats in general. In fact, Webb's Scots-Irish family hails from coal country. Not long after he entered the Senate, he became embroiled in a mini-controversy when an aide accidentally carried one of Webb's favorite guns onto the Capitol grounds.
I was surprised, then, when Webb told me that while he was enthusiastic about Obama and would campaign for him, he did not intend to vouch for him on social issues. "I believe that Barack Obama has the temperament and the intellect and the ideas to be president," Webb said. "But I don't talk about his positions, and I don't defend his positions." When I commented that Webb wasn't where Obama was on gun rights (Obama favors what he calls some "common sense" restrictions), Webb cut me off. "No, he's not where I am on guns," he said pointedly. It occurred to me that this was probably the kind of validation Obama could do without. (Webb appears to have softened his stance. A few weeks later, he decided to tape an ad promising voters in southwestern Virginia that Obama would not, in fact, confiscate their guns.)
Webb and I discussed the conventional wisdom taking hold in discussions not only about Virginia but about Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan as well that white men weren't breaking Obama's way mostly because he's black. Webb disagreed. When it came to white working-class and rural voters, Webb said, what mattered was whether Obama seemed to share the same basic small-town values. "Does he understand me?" Webb said. "Can I trust him?"
At one point, when we were talking about the southwestern part of the state, Webb suggested, half seriously, that I should talk to his cousin Jimmy, who writes a column for The Lebanon News. (The number of Webb's cousins is something of a joke in Virginia; he's basically related in some way to the entire western part of the state.) So when I got back to my office, I tracked down cousin Jimmy, who, it turns out, is 78 years old and knows Virginia politics as well as he knows the old coins he sells to collectors. Jimmy Webb told me he was a strong Obama supporter, but he had a slightly different take on things than his famous cousin.
"When you get past Roanoke and out this way," he told me, "in southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee, blacks are just not that popular. That's one of Obama's problems. I've had Democrats tell me that they're not even going to the polls." I heard much the same thing from Steve Cochran, the Democratic committee chairman in Montgomery County. (Believe it or not, Cochran, too, is somehow a distant cousin of Webb's.) "I think if the people of southwestern Virginia had the opportunity to meet Barack Obama and see how intelligent he is and how genuine he is and how caring he is, there would be no question," Cochran said. "But there is still this little bit of skepticism in Appalachian Virginia, as there is in a lot of other parts of the country, that this guy is still just a little bit not like me. I see people having a little trouble getting around that color barrier."
How race affects Obama's effort to broaden the electoral map is the most persistent question surrounding his campaign and perhaps the least answerable. A bracing poll released last month by The Associated Press and Yahoo, in conjunction with Stanford University, concluded that Obama might be losing as many as six percentage points nationally because he's black. This was based on the finding that 40 percent of white Americans admitted to some negative views toward blacks. Such polls are frequently cited as proof that Obama would be walking away with the election were he more than half white.
And yet from all available data Obama isn't actually doing any worse with white men than the last two Democratic nominees, both of whom also ran at a time when the national climate offered considerable advantages Gore because the country had enjoyed a long period of prosperity, Kerry because of the failing war in Iraq. According to exit polls, Kerry lost the overall white vote by 17 points in 2004. Recent Gallup tracking polls, while somewhat erratic from week to week, have shown Obama running above that level; polling in early October had him down by only eight points among white voters. "Obama's doing better than Gore or Kerry," says Dee Davis, who founded the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky "And I think both of those guys were white the last time I looked at the paper." According to exit polls, Kerry received only 27 percent of the white-male vote in Virginia in 2004, a figure Obama is poised to surpass, according to a pollster from another campaign who is working in the state.
Perhaps the problem with this entire discussion about race is that it begins with the wrong question. Most polls focus on determining the prevalence of racial bias among white voters and whether it will affect their choices on Election Day. This may be the best way we have to measure the impact of race, but it is hardly revelatory; no one should be surprised to learn that racial stereotypes exist, particularly among lower-income and less-educated white men, or that such stereotypes affect the way voters see Obama. The more important question is not whether race is a factor in people's votes but whether it is a determinative factor that is, whether Obama's being black is the disqualifying fact for white voters that it might have been 20 years ago or whether it has now been reduced to one of those surmountable obstacles that any candidate has to overcome.
When Al Smith, New York's Democratic governor, ran for president in 1928, his Catholicism was a deal breaker. When John F. Kennedy ran in 1960, the prejudice remained, but it had lost its defining intensity. Kennedy felt sufficiently disadvantaged by his religion to address it in a major speech, just as Obama did on race during the primaries, but in the end, some sizable segment of Protestant voters who had concerns about pulling the lever for a Catholic did so anyway. In other words, it may be possible for racial prejudice to exist, as all the polls suggest it does, but for it to be only one significant influence among many, including voters' views on the economy and on McCain as an alternative.
There is another parallel in the Kennedy example that may prove relevant if Obama's strategists have their way. While Kennedy undoubtedly lost the votes of some Protestants who feared papal influence over the White House, their numbers were more than canceled out by the Catholic voters who came to the polls at a level never before seen. Obama's strategists accept that there will be some number of voters particularly white men who will reject Obama solely because he is black. But they are betting, first, that most of these voters wouldn't have voted for a Democrat in any event and, second, that the groundswell of black support for Obama will produce enough new African-American votes in a lot of states to offset them.
In 2004, 60 percent of voting-age black Americans went to the polls (compared with 67 percent of white voters), and about 88 percent of them voted for Kerry. Those are pretty impressive numbers, historically. And yet, with Obama on the ticket, it is not unrealistic to think that black turnout could increase by as many as five points and that Obama could increase the Democratic share of that vote to well over 90 percent. All of which means that if Obama can perform at least as well as Kerry among white men in some of the reliably red states he's trying to turn blue, most notably Virginia and North Carolina, race as an overall factor in the election could end up winning Obama more votes than it takes away.
WHEN I SAT WITH OBAMA on his plane, just three days after his first debate with McCain and not quite a week since the nation's credit system went into meltdown, the White House must have felt, finally, within his reach. National tracking polls showed him holding a consistent lead of four to six points for the first time in the campaign. In a string of familiar battleground states where Obama had been struggling to capitalize on anti-Bush sentiment and economic angst, a new round of polls showed him breaking out at last. He had finally put some distance between himself and McCain in Pennsylvania and Michigan, and he was on the verge of driving the Republicans from the latter state altogether. In Ohio and Florida, states that Bush carried twice, Obama appeared to have broken a stalemate and moved solidly into the lead. Such readings were merely snapshots, of course, subject to change at any moment, but even so, both campaigns seemed to sense that McCain's window for taking command of the campaign was beginning to close.
In Virginia, according to both private and public polling, the shift was especially pronounced. Several polls would soon show Obama pulling ahead of McCain by a significant margin, and two would have his lead in the state soaring into double digits. More staggering was the data concerning white voters and, specifically, men. According to a random telephone poll by SurveyUSA (though often derided by rival pollsters, the outfit compiled a surprisingly strong track record in the primaries), McCain was leading among men in Virginia by 10 points just after the conventions; by the beginning of October, Obama was leading by 11. Among white voters in the state overall, McCain's 22-point September lead had shrunk to single digits. In the rural Shenandoah Valley region, running along the state's western border and down into coal country, McCain had led by 24 points in September. Now he and Obama were tied.
And yet it seemed fair to question whether anything about this sudden movement actually validated Obama's central argument about American politics this notion that the cultural fault line in the electorate can somehow be bridged by a generational change in leadership or whether it spoke to some more immediate, more desperate impulse in a shaken electorate. The campaign had become pretty much a referendum on the current economic carnage and eight years of mostly bad news turning to worse, and for the moment, at least, the crisis on Wall Street appeared to have accomplished what Obama's strategists had been unable to do for months leading up to it: change the focus from Obama's readiness and supposed elitism to George W. Bush's myriad failures. In 2004, voters in the newly influential exurbs chose cultural identity over their concerns about war and the economy, and this choice cost John Kerry Ohio and the presidency; this year, it seemed increasingly likely that those voters might tip the other way and take the election with them.
OBAMA WOULD gladly take that outcome, of course. But it would not be the transformational victory he envisioned when he set out to run, the one in which white men in exurbs and rural counties wouldn't just grudgingly vote for a Democrat out of frustration with the alternative but actually come around to the idea that a Democrat can share their values. "If I'm able to change this," he told me on his plane, meaning the cultural breach in our politics, "then it's probably going to be most powerful after I'm elected, when you're no longer in the context of day-to-day battle, and I can prove it by what I do."
I asked Obama if it was frustrating to have seen, throughout the campaign, so many polls that showed him trailing badly among white men with lower incomes or less education.
"It's not frustrating," Obama said, shaking his head. I found this believable; Obama seems almost impervious to frustration. "There are a couple of things at work here. No. 1, let's face it I'm not a familiar type." He laughed. "Which means it would be easier for me to deliver this message if I was from one of these places, right? I've got to deliver that message as a black guy from Hawaii named Barack Obama. So, admittedly, it's just unfamiliar.
"Which, by the way, is a different argument than race," Obama continued, pausing to make sure I understood. "I'm not making an argument that the resistance is simply racial. It's more just that I'm different in all kinds of ways. I'm different even for black people. I went through similar stuff when I ran against Bobby Rush on the all-black South Side of Chicago." In that race, a Democratic primary for Congress in 2000, Rush, the black incumbent, handed Obama his first and only political defeat. "It's like: 'Who is this guy? Where'd he come from?' So that's part of it.
"The second part of it is that I'm trying to do this in an environment where the media narrative is already set up in a certain way. So it's hard to not be dropped into a box."
He reminded me that back in March, for instance, he accepted a spontaneous invitation from a voter in Altoona, Pennsylvania, to bowl a few frames, and it turned out Obama was basically a god-awful bowler. Some commentators gleefully used this deficiency to portray him as out of touch with the common man, in a John Kerry-windsurfing sort of way. (Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC, used the word "prissy.") To Obama, this brought home the bleak reality that, as a Democratic nominee, he was going to be typecast, fairly or not.
"I am convinced that if there were no Fox News, I might be two or three points higher in the polls," Obama told me. "If I were watching Fox News, I wouldn't vote for me, right? Because the way I'm portrayed 24/7 is as a freak! I am the latte-sipping, New York Times-reading, Volvo-driving, no-gun-owning, effete, politically correct, arrogant liberal. Who wants somebody like that?
"I guess the point I'm making," he went on, "is that there is an entire industry now, an entire apparatus, designed to perpetuate this cultural schism, and it's powerful. People want to know that you're fighting for them, that you get them. And I actually think I do. But you know, if people are just seeing me in sound bites, they're not going to discover that. That's why I say that some of that may have to happen after the election, when they get to know you."
Hearing him say this a second time, it seemed to me a remarkable admission if not a retreat from his driving vision, then at least a deferral. Normally, in political campaigns, you hope people get to know you and then decide to vote for you; Obama now believed that perhaps only the inverse was possible. Once, he might have thought that if he could only win a bunch of red states and pile up 350 electoral votes, he could obliterate the red-blue paralysis of the last decade and wield his mandate like a machete against the culture warriors in Washington. Now, it seemed, he understood that even a Reaganesque triumph wouldn't suddenly erase the effect of 40 years of exploiting peoples' darkest fears or ignoring their legitimate anxieties, the twisted and bipartisan legacy of a lost political generation. If he won, Obama would likely start out as a 50-plus-1 president, no matter what the map had in store. And then the campaign would begin again. After midnight at an automotive plant in Indianapolis in May as a late shift ends.
For some, uncertainty starts at racial identity
By Adam Nossiter
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
MOBILE, Alabama: The McCain campaign's depiction of Barack Obama as a mysterious "other" with an impenetrable background may not be resonating in the national polls, but it has found a receptive audience with many white Southern voters.
In interviews here in the Deep South and in Virginia, white voters made it clear that they remain deeply uneasy with Obama with his politics, his personality and his biracial background. Being the son of a white mother and a black father has come to symbolize Obama's larger mysteries for many voters. When asked about his background, a substantial number of people interviewed said they believed his racial heritage was unclear, giving them another reason to vote against him.
"He's neither-nor," said Ricky Thompson, a pipe fitter who works at a factory north of Mobile, while standing in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store just north of here. "He's other. It's in the Bible. Come as one. Don't create other breeds."
Whether Obama is black, half-black or half-white often seemed to overshadow the question of his exact stand on particular issues, and rough-edged comments on the subject flowed easily even from voters who said race should not be an issue in the campaign. Many voters seemed to have no difficulty criticizing the mixing of the races and thus the product of such mixtures even as they indignantly said a candidate's color held no importance for them.
"I would think of him as I would of another of mixed race," said Glenn Reynolds, 74, a retired textile worker in Martinsdale, Virginia, and a former supervisor at a Goodyear plant. "God taught the children of Israel not to intermarry. You should be proud of what you are, and not intermarry."
Reynolds, standing outside a Kroger grocery store, described Obama as a "real charismatic person, in that he's the type of person you can't really hate, but you don't really trust."
Other voters swept past such ambiguities into old-fashioned racist gibes.
"He's going to tear up the rose bushes and plant a watermelon patch," said James Halsey, chuckling, while standing in the Wal-Mart parking lot with fellow workers in the environmental cleanup business. "I just don't think we'll ever have a black president."
There is nothing unusual about mixed-race people in the South, although in decades past there was no ambiguity about the subject. Legally and socially, a person with any black blood was considered black when segregation was the law.
But the historic candidacy of Obama, who has said he considers himself black, has led some voters in the South to categorize him as neither black nor white. While many voters said that made them uncomfortable, others said they were pleased by Obama's lack of connection to African-American politics.
"He doesn't come from the African-American perspective he's not of that tradition," said Kimi Oaks, a prominent community volunteer in the Mobile area, with apparent approval. Oaks, along with about 15 others, had gathered after Sunday services at Mobile's leading Methodist church to discuss the presidential campaign. "He's not a product of any ghetto," Oaks added.
At the same time, however, she vigorously rejected the idea that race would be important in the election, a question met with general head-shaking from those assembled; Oaks said she was "terribly offended," as a Southerner, at even being asked about this.
Jim Pagans, a retired software manager, interviewed in a strip mall parking lot in Roanoke, Virginia, said that while Obama was "half-Caucasian," he had the characteristics of blacks.
"But you look at his background, you don't think of that," he said. "He's more intelligent and a smarter person than McCain."
Bud Rowell, a retired oil field worker interviewed at a Baptist church in Citronelle, Alabama, north of Mobile, said he was uncertain about Obama's racial identity, and was critical of him for being equivocal and indecisive.
But Rowell also said that personal experience had made him more sympathetic to biracial people.
"I've always been against the blacks," said Rowell, who is in his 70s, recalling how he was arrested for throwing firecrackers in the black section of town. But now that he has three biracial grandchildren "it was really rough on me" he said he had "found out they were human beings, too."
In generation seen as colorblind, black is yet a factor
By Shaila Dewan
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
LEXINGTON, Kentucky: William Osborne, a sophomore political science major and member of the currently all-white University of Kentucky chapter of FarmHouse, an international fraternity, is naturally soft-spoken. But when asked if he had heard people say that they would not vote for Senator Barack Obama because he is black, his voice dropped to a barely perceptible level.
"I might have heard something like that," he said.
Asked if what he had heard was hard to talk about, Osborne stopped talking altogether and simply nodded, looking miserable.
Throughout this campaign season, many commentators and politicians have proclaimed today's youth to be a colorblind generation in which racial prejudice has receded and diversity is embraced.
But in two days of interviews here and north of the Ohio River in Cincinnati, most young people acknowledged or even insisted that race was still a powerful if subtle factor among their peers.
At the University of Cincinnati, Anthony Galarza, a graduate student in urban planning, said he had heard off-color jokes about an Obama presidency that suggested the White House would become "more ghetto" with "barbecues on the front lawn."
"I would think on a college campus we would be a little more liberal," said Galarza, 29. "To hear it so openly talked about, it's disturbing it really is. I don't think anyone who is colorblind would make a comment like that."
The significance of race as a powerful factor among the young is supported by statistical data. Most polls show that Obama is far more popular among younger voters than his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain. But in exit polls conducted by Edison/Mitofsky this year, younger Democratic primary voters were no less likely to say that race had been an important factor in their vote than people 30 and older. And in two states Georgia, where African-Americans dominated among younger voters, and Illinois young voters were actually more likely than older ones to say that race had been important.
Some data have also found that young voters are less likely than older ones to say the country is ready for a black president, though these data make it hard to tell whether the young are more influenced by race or simply more realistic about its power. In a nationwide New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in July, more than two-thirds of voters said the country was ready for a black president. Among voters 30 or older, 23 percent disagreed, compared with 34 percent of younger voters.
"There's a whole lot of students that are excited about the election, but what I've noticed is there's a whole lot of students that are iffy about Obama," said Kanetha Mack, a black freshman at the University of Kentucky, where the undergraduate student body is about 9 percent black. "People don't want him to be president, because America's used to a white Christian man. And he's black, so they're going to sit up there and try to make it seem like he's something that America doesn't want."
Asked about the influence of race in the campaign, several white students at both the Kentucky and Cincinnati campuses were quick to say that it helped Obama, but seemed not to consider that it might hurt him.
Whit Chafin, a 19-year-old white sophomore at Kentucky who has not yet chosen a candidate, said: "I think it's playing a heavy role, honestly, because Obama's taken that side pretty much, like he's got it on lock. I went to a high school where I was pretty much a minority in the school. They're all for Obama."
Adam French, a 21-year-old white senior and supporter of McCain, said: "It would be interesting to consider if Barack Obama had the same credentials but was John Smith, a white guy from Texas, that he would be in the same position to run. I don't think anyone with his credentials could come anywhere close to being on a presidential ticket" without being black.
French is the president of the FarmHouse chapter, where all but one member are McCain supporters. The exception is Kevin Mattingly, who said that his parents, dairy farmers, were Democrats and that he was leaning toward Obama.
"I don't have any problem with a black president," he said. "I think it would be fine, because a lot of things people stereotype black people with, I don't think Obama has any of them."
A debut novel about India wins the Man Booker prize
By Victoria Young
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
LONDON: Aravind Adiga, 33, won the 40th Man Booker prize on Tuesday night for his debut novel, "The White Tiger," a vivid exploration of India's class struggle told through the story of a village boy who becomes the chauffeur to a rich man.
Adiga, who lives in Mumbai, was born in India and brought up partly in Australia. He studied at Columbia and Oxford and is a former correspondent for Time magazine in India. He is the second youngest writer to win the award; Ben Okri was 32 when he won for "The Famished Road" in 1991.
Michael Portillo, a former cabinet minister and the chairman of this year's panel of judges, praised Adiga's novel, saying that the short list had contained a series of "extraordinarily readable page-turners." However, Adiga's book had prevailed, he said "because the judges felt that it shocked and entertained in equal measure."
Adiga said his book was an "attempt to catch the voice of the men you meet as you travel through India the voice of the colossal underclass."
"This voice was not captured," he added, "and I wanted to do so without sentimentality or portraying them as mirthless humorless weaklings as they are usually."
When he accepted the award, Adiga dedicated it to "the people of New Delhi where I lived and where I wrote this book." When asked what he would do with the money , Adiga joked, "The first thing I am going to do is to find a bank that I can actually put it in."
The Man Booker prize, Britain's best-known and most generous literary award, is given annually to a novel written by an author from Britain, Ireland or the Commonwealth nations and is accompanied by a check for £50,000 about $86,000 as well as an inevitable increase in sales.
This year's list of finalists was one of the least star-studded in recent years. It included two first-time novelists, and several of the favorites were snubbed by judges. Joseph O'Neill's critically acclaimed "Netherland" was omitted from the short list, as was "The Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rushdie.
As a result, bookmakers were divided over the likely winner, oscillating between Adiga and the Irish writer Sebastian Barry, 53, whose book "The Secret Scripture" is the story of an Irish patient in a mental hospital sharing her shocking family history with her psychiatrist.
The other books on the shortlist were "Sea of Poppies" by Amitav Ghosh, "The Clothes on Their Backs" by Linda Grant, "The Northern Clemency" by Philip Hensher and "A Fraction of the Whole" by Steve Toltz.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
BUCHAREST: Romania's supreme court sentenced two top communist-era generals Wednesday to jail for 15 years for attempting to suppress the 1989 revolution which toppled Nicolae Ceausescu.
Former deputy defence minister Victor Atanasie Stanculescu and Mihai Chitac, former head of the army's chemical weapons department, were first sentenced in 1999 on aggravated murder charges for ordering troops to fire on protesters.
But ever since they appealed the ruling. Wednesday's decision by a nine-judge panel is definitive, the court said.
Stanculescu was appointed defence minister in Romania's first post-communist government while Chitac served as interior minister for a short time after the execution of Ceausescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day 1989.
Ceausescu, as supreme military commander, had ordered the two generals to the city of Timisoara, on Romania's border with Yugoslavia and Hungary, to arrest and shoot protesters.
Seventy-two people were shot dead and 253 injured in the Timisoara in street battles between protesters and troops and police between December 17 and 20, 1989, when the city was declared free of communism and troops dispersed.
The revolt spread to Bucharest on December 21 and Ceausescu fled the capital the following day. He and his wife were captured and executed after a summary trial.
Both men, now in their 80s, said during the years-long trial they had only carried out their superiors' orders.
Dozens of high ranking communist party officials, including Ceausescu's son Nicu, were sentenced to long jail terms for ordering the shooting of protesters. All have since been released on health or age grounds. Nicu Ceausescu died in 1996.
(Reporting by Radu Marinas; Editing by Dominic Evans)
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
By Jon Hopkins
The top share index lost 7.2 percent on Wednesday, ending a two-day rally, as commodity stocks slumped amid growing fears of global recession.
The FTSE 100 ended down 314.6 points at 4,079.6, erasing a big chunk of the near 12 percent rebound seen in the previous two sessions after plummeting 21 percent last week, its second worst weekly fall on record.
"It's all or nothing with the FTSE at the moment, with yet another large one-day movement," said Tim Hughes, Head of Sales Trading at IG Index.
"The comedown after the euphoria of the multi-billion pound bail-outs earlier this week seemed inevitable, although a sharp rise in the latest UK unemployment figures hasn't helped matters," he added.
Miners were the biggest losers, as base metal prices fell and after Rio Tinto warned of slowing Chinese demand for commodities and signalled a possible delay in plans to sell $10 billion (5.8 billion pounds) in assets.
Rio Tinto shares lost 16.6 percent, while Eurasian Natural Resources dropped 25.2 percent, Kazakhmys shed 22.3 percent, Anglo American slumped 20.1 percent, and Xstrata sank 19.6 percent.
Weaker oil prices weighed on heavyweight energy stocks, with BP , Royal Dutch Shell , BG Group and Cairn Energy dropping between 6.8 and 12.2 percent as crude shed another $3 a barrel.
Banks were also big fallers, with the FTSE 350 banks index down 5.7 percent as heavyweights HSBC and Standard Chartered lost 6.5 and 11.9 percent.
Lloyds TSB ended down 0.7 percent having seen gains earlier on newspaper reports the government was considering a U-turn to allow dividend payments to shareholders while still taking advantage of its 37 billion pounds bank bailout scheme.
Asked if talks were taking place, a Treasury spokesman said: "The details were set out clearly by both the government and the individual banks on Monday."
HBOS , which Lloyds TSB is taking over, was one of only two FTSE 100 risers, up 0.5 percent, with tour operator Thomas Cook the other, up 1.2 percent.
Insurers fell after The Times said the Financial Services Authority had stepped up its scrutiny of leading life assurers amid concerns that crumbling investment markets were putting their solvency levels under pressure.
Negative sector comment from Deutsche Bank also weighed, with the broker cutting price targets and earnings estimates and highlighting possible dividend cuts.
Old Mutual , Prudential , Aviva , Friends Provident and Standard Life fell between 8.4 and 18.1 percent. Friends Provident also traded lower as new buyers no longer qualified for its next dividend.
RECESSION FEARS MOUNT
Worries about a deeper recession mounted as unemployment figures showed their biggest rise in 17 years in the three months to August, taking the jobless rate to its highest level in eight years.
Across the Atlantic, blue-chip stocks dropped 3.5 percent Wednesday as recession fears intensified after U.S. retail sales in September recorded their biggest monthly drop in more than three years.
Among mid caps, broker comment coupled with recession fears had an influence on two engineering groups.
Ceramic materials firm Cookson shed 18.9 percent as Goldman Sachs cut its rating to "neutral" from "buy" and chopped its target price to 350 pence from 819.
Industrial engineer Charter lost 19.5 percent as Panmure Gordon downgraded its stance to "hold" from "buy" and slashed its target price to 615 pence from 1,160.
"Today is one of those days that is indicating we are not at the end of a bear market," said Angus Campbell, head of sales at Capital Spreads.
"There are still recessionary fears. There are still fears about the global outlook for equities. You would get big, big rises after big, big falls, but the big, big rises won't be able to cancel out all the falls that we see for quite a while."
By Peter S. Goodman
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
U.S. stock markets plunged anew on Wednesday, nearly wiping out the record gains of Monday and sending another wave of wealth destruction washing over American households.
The government's rescue of the banks has been widely embraced, but the frenzied selling, which pushed the Dow Jones industrial average down 733 points, underscored how the economy's troubles are too broad to be fixed by the bailout of the financial system.
Investors are recognizing that the financial crisis is not the fundamental problem. It has merely amplified economic ailments that are now intensifying: vanishing paychecks, falling home prices and diminished spending. And there is no relief in sight.
Wednesday's rout began in the morning with the latest evidence of the nation's economic deterioration reports showing that retail spending slipped in September and broader signs of a pullback among suddenly thrifty American consumers.
Selling picked up momentum in the afternoon as the Federal Reserve's chairman, Ben Bernanke, cautioned Americans that the bailout would not swiftly lift the economy and that continued weakness was certain.
"Stabilization of the financial markets is a critical first step, but even if they stabilize as we hope they will, broader economic recovery will not happen right away," Bernanke said in a speech to the Economic Club of New York. "Economic activity will fall short of potential for a time."
By day's end, the Dow had surrendered most of Monday's 936-point gain, dropping 7.87 percent. The broader Standard & Poor's 500-stock index was down 9 percent, and the technology-heavy Nasdaq was down 8.47 percent. Expectations that a worldwide slowdown will reduce demand for oil pushed prices below $75 a barrel. Signs of improvement continued in the credit markets, making it somewhat easier for companies and states to secure financing, but interest rates remained elevated.
Bernanke's remarks offered in the sober tones of a man cognizant that a stray syllable may prompt the loss of more billions on Wall Street underscored the reality that the economy's troubles go well beyond the financial crisis. The United States and many other major economies are almost certainly headed into a slog through economic purgatory, one that could last many months.
"People have focused so much on the immediate financial crisis that they haven't realized how much the real economy is going down, largely independently," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. "I don't think there's a way we can get out of this without a full-fledged recession and a lot of people losing their jobs. All we can really talk about is ameliorating it, making sure the people who are hit have support."
On Monday, as the Dow posted its fifth-largest one-day percentage gain in history, some investors found quantifiable proof that the crisis was solved. Yet an unpalatable historical detail complicated that idea: The four previous largest percentage gains occurred from October 1929 to March 1933, in the early days of the Depression.
Then, it must be noted, the markets swung far more widely than they do in this era, and an epic collapse would still be required to bring the United States anywhere near a comparable depression.
Bernanke, a leading academic expert on the Depression, offered pointed assurances that no repeat of that disaster would unfold on his watch. The Fed stands ready to use all its tools to battle the financial crisis, he said. He exuded confidence that the American economy "will emerge from this period with renewed vigor."
But when? Bernanke could not say. That uncertainty added to the gnawing worry gripping the economy.
"Ultimately, the trajectory of economic activity beyond the next few quarters will depend greatly on the extent to which financial and credit markets return to more normal functioning," he said.
Strikingly, Bernanke expressed concern about how huge amounts of capital are increasingly concentrated in a handful of enormous financial institutions.
"The real concern that we have is that we have got and developed, in this country, a very serious 'too big to fail' problem," Bernanke said. "And that problem, we've just recognized now in the current situation, how severe it is."
It seemed a curious concern for a man whose central bank has worked with the Treasury to engineer a series of shotgun corporate weddings, such as Bank of America's purchase of Merrill Lynch and JPMorgan Chase's acquisition of Bear Stearns deals that have further concentrated money in fewer hands.
Bernanke's prognosis and the latest carnage on Wall Street lent urgency to the debate over what the government should do now to soften the blow to the economy.
In Washington, and on the campaign trail, conversation centers on putting together a second round of so-called government stimulus spending, following the $152 billion unleashed this year via tax rebates to households and tax cuts for businesses.
Democrats in the House are drafting a roughly $150 billion package of spending measures aimed at spurring the economy, according to senior aides, including aid for states, large-scale construction projects to generate jobs and the expansion of unemployment benefits. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic presidential nominee, is urging $175 billion worth of relief measures.
The Republican nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, has declined to outline his own proposal, though his senior economic adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, said he is "open to any measure that genuinely stimulates the economy."
Republicans on Capitol Hill have emphasized tax cuts for businesses in any stimulus package, a stance that puts them at odds with Democrats, though recent signs suggest greater potential for a compromise.
"We need fiscal stimulus," said Douglas Elmendorf, a former Treasury and Federal Reserve Board economist, and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The outlook is much darker than it was even a few months ago."
The checks the government sent to households last summer appear to have kept the economy growing, but economists are skeptical such a course could work again.
"The spend rate will be really low because people are scared to death," Baker said.
When economists met with House leaders on Monday to suggest a course, the favored means appeared to be aiding state and local governments, whose property tax revenues are diminishing as home values fall. Local governments are a crucial source of employment and social services relied upon by the poor.
"The states are taking steps right now that are deepening the recession, through no fault of their own," said Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "They're forced to either raise taxes or cut services. Neither of those are where we need to be right now."
The crisis on Wall Street has sown fears that banks would hold tight to their dollars and starve the economy of capital, preventing businesses from securing finances to hire people and expand. If the bailout succeeds in restoring confidence, that should eventually get money flowing and lift economic activity.
But regardless of Wall Street's travails, a broader set of difficulties has been taking money out of the economy, putting the squeeze on American households and businesses.
The economy has lost 760,000 jobs since the beginning of the year, and millions of workers have seen their hours cut, shrinking paychecks just as plunging real estate prices prevent households from borrowing against the value of their homes.
In short, American spending power is declining, and this has become a downward spiral: As wages shrink, workers spend less, and that limits demand for workers at the businesses that once captured their dollars.
Many economists now assume that unemployment, currently at 6.1 percent, will climb to 9 percent by the end of next year. Some now envision it could reach 10 percent a level not seen in 25 years.
"At this point, the thing has probably just got to play out," said Martin Baily, a chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I don't know that there's anything that we can do to avoid a mild recession. The question is what can we do to avoid a very severe recession."
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
BERLIN: The financial markets crisis will spur a new debate in Britain about the country adopting the euro, Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the Eurogroup of EU finance ministers, was quoted as saying on Wednesday.
In an interview with German newspaper Rheinischer Merkur, Juncker said it was more difficult for EU nations outside the euro such as Britain to address the crisis. "This will stimulate debate in some countries about the introduction of the euro," he told the paper. "When the storm waters have subsided, the British will think about whether they should not be represented on all bodies on an equal footing."
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