Archive for January, 2009

Tom Daschle’s Real Problem

Posted on January 31st, 2009 in Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

The Washington Post (and others) report that Daschle, the former senator and current nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, recently paid $128k in unpaid taxes. 

Some of the money at stake comes from deducted charitable gifts that, it will almost certainly be established, Daschle either never gave or vastly overstated the value of.

But much of the money came from a car service provided by someone who hired Daschle as “a consultant” after he left the Senate.

The car and driver were provided by Leo Hindery Jr., a media and telecommunications executive who had been chairman of YES, the New York Yankees regional sports network. In 2005, Mr. Hindery founded a private equity firm known as InterMedia Advisors. Mr. Daschle was chairman of InterMedia’s advisory board.

In a financial disclosure statement filed this month with the Office of Government Ethics, Mr. Daschle reported that he had received large amounts of income from InterMedia, including more than $2 million in consulting fees and $182,520 in the form of “company-provided transportation.”

The Times reports this unskeptically. (Shocker.) But it raises all sorts of questions, such as: Why does Daschle, who lives in Washington (YES is based in New York), need a driver? A “consultant” needs a driver? 

(I put that term in quotes because Daschle was obviously not a consultant, but a lobbyist. Was he characterized as a consultant just to avoid the grimy label, or because legal restrictions on his post-Senate career forbade him to lobby during the time he was hired by Hindery? Hmmmm…..)

As a general rule, Democrats—are you listening, Larry Summers?—should never have chauffeurs. And Democratic lobbyists with chauffeurs? Ugh.

Here’s another rule: In Washington, “consultant” is to “lobbyist” as “driver” or “car service” is to “chauffeur.” Which is to say, the same thing.

And here’s the really important question: What was Daschle doing for Hindery that justified $2 million in “consulting fees”?

Leo Hindery turns out to be a pretty interesting guy, by the way. Not to mention, very possibly a liar.  Hindery has certainly been sprinkling money around the Democratic Party. Why would a private equity fund pay Daschle $2 million?

Are he—and Daschle—really the kind of people who signify the change Obama wants to bring to Washington?

The answer is no. Daschle should withdraw his nomination. Because you know there’s a there there.

More Power to Her

Posted on January 31st, 2009 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

After having called Hillary Clinton a “monster,” Kennedy School prof Samantha Power is now joining the Clinton State Department

(Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on that wall?)

Well, if Barack Obama and Clinton can heal their divisions, Clinton and Power certainly ought to be able to. And Samantha’s voice (she’s a friend of mine) is too important to be left out of foreign policymaking because of one impetuous comment….

A Letter from Lee Bollinger

Posted on January 30th, 2009 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

The Columbia president circulated this letter on the university’s finances yesterday [emphasis added]:

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

I write because we are now entering the University’s season for preparing next year’s operating budgets, and it is therefore an appropriate time to provide an update on the economic environment we face and the context in which next year’s budgets will be crafted.

We are all aware that the global capital markets and the nation’s economy continue to experience significant problems, with resulting financial challenges for businesses, governments and universities across the country. At Columbia, it is difficult to give a general picture of the impact of the current conditions because each of our schools and administrative units has a different set of revenue sources and expenses. This fiscal diversity means that our schools must identify their own ways of achieving a sound financial equilibrium. To the extent I can, however, I want to offer some general observations and specific information about our university-wide experience and the future we will face together.

In the last six months, Columbia has maintained its impressive momentum as one of the world’s great research universities. Across our schools, applications for admissions for the coming year are extremely strong, reflecting the competitiveness of both our undergraduate and graduate programs. Our physicians remain the doctors of choice for patients who need the best health care, and patient care revenues have grown significantly in the first half of this year. Columbia’s research community is competing successfully for grants even in a time of a decline in real federal funding. Sponsored research has substantially outpaced the prior year’s performance for the same period. The bonds with our alumni and friends have never been stronger, nor has their generosity been greater. For the first six months of this fiscal year, gifts and pledges exceed last year’s record pace, and The Columbia Campaign passed the $3 billion milestone — ahead of schedule.

Yet encouraging as all this is, it tells only part of the story. The nation, New York State and the City are all confronting serious financial challenges, and the consensus is that matters will not improve in the short term. We must, therefore, plan with the assumption that the rapid pace of gifts to the University may slow and that the financial health of our students and their families may necessitate an increase in financial support from Columbia. Columbia’s greatness is built on our tradition of attracting remarkable students regardless of their financial situation, a commitment that is unqualified.

Furthermore, Columbia’s endowment, like most investment portfolios, has declined, although we believe that we have fared reasonably well under extremely difficult market conditions. For a variety of reasons, October 31st has become a date when some other universities have offered reports on their investment performance. Our performance in that period was a decline of 11.8%. [Blogger: Huh? What period?] Using the most current information available, and in the normal form of tracking investment performance, during the six-month period ending December 31st, the total return of the University’s investment portfolio declined by approximately 15%. [Blogger: Wow--far less than Yale and Harvard.] Given the volatility of capital markets, one cannot accurately project what will unfold in the spring.

It is important to recognize that although certain parts of the University (such as the central administration) are significantly dependent on endowment for operating revenue — and will therefore have to meaningfully constrain spending — the University as a whole counts on its endowment for only 13% of operating budget. Our relatively small collective dependence on endowment means that the current market downturn hurts less than it does for some of our peers. But let there be no doubt, we still have to face hard choices in the months ahead. To facilitate a smooth transition to these new financial realities, we are asking all budget units to model an 8% decline in endowment funds available for operations next year. Hopefully, by accepting and planning for this new reality, we will be in a position to move forward in strength.

Let me conclude by saying that we enter this new environment after a strong period of rapid growth in both resources and enhancement of our academic mission.  Without doubt, the global economic scene is forcing us to pull back in our personal and professional lives. I am completely confident, however, that by addressing our challenges in a forthright manner and by focusing our resources on sustaining the core of our intellectual life we will emerge even stronger in the years to come.

Sincerely,

Lee C. Bollinger
President

Monday Morning Zen (Special Friday Edition)

Posted on January 30th, 2009 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

My cousin Lucy Keith, who’s a naturalist working with the Wildlife Trust and Wildlife Conservation Society in Gabon, took this remarkable photo of a breaching humpback whale….

Leave Steve Jobs Alone

Posted on January 29th, 2009 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Writing on TheBigMoney.com, Mark Gimein has a thought-provoking piece about why the press should stop poking into the medical condition of Apple’s founder….

When I sat down to write this story, I agonized over where exactly to begin. A history of Steve Jobs at Apple? A discussion of the raging national debate about the privacy of medical records? Jobs’ open letter on Apple’s Web site explaining that he was suffering from a hormone imbalance with a “relatively simple and straightforward remedy”? The stunning back-and-forth about Jobs’ health on CNBC? It quickly became clear to me, however, that the best way to start was, in fact, by asking folks to step into Steve Jobs’ shoes.

It’s an important perspective.

Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Man

Posted on January 29th, 2009 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Not long ago, I was on Facebook trying to track down one of my best friends from grade school, and I thought I found him but couldn’t really tell from the picture.

So  I sent him a message saying, “Is this the John Smith who grew up on Moss Ledge Road in Westport?”

And he wrote back:

Only if this is the Richard Bradley who, when one of our 7th grade teachers told our unruly class, “I’m driving this bus”, replied, “No you’re not, we’ve hijacked it. Take us to Cuba.

I have no memory of this, but it does make me smile….

P.S. I pointed out to my friend, who went to Harvard, that when he stayed in my New Haven suite in the fall of 1983 for The Game, he vomited quite profusely in my bathroom sink, which never fully recovered. He, not surprisingly, had forgotten that.

Boston Is Depressing

Posted on January 29th, 2009 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

At least six months of the year, a truism. But apparently the situation is even worse than usual.

More on Shrinking Book Worlds

Posted on January 29th, 2009 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Over at TNR.com, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the closing of the Washington Post Book World section. 

Alas, another nail in the coffin of literary culture in our country.

Yeah, maybe. I can certainly attest to the fact that writing a book—or, more accurately, promoting it—is an extremely challenging and often deeply frustrating and disappointing process. 

Still, I can’t help but think that the failure of book review editors to change with the times has much to do with the diminishing viability of these stand-alone sections. No matter how important the subject, people read newspapers for lots of different reasons, and education is just one of them, and not necessarily the highest.

In this, I am partly influenced by one of my earliest and most important experiences in journalism.

When I was in college, I spent a summer interning for a congressman from New Haven, Democrat Bruce Morrison. I wasn’t getting paid, so I took on temp jobs as I could to help pay the rent. One of them was as a weekend telephone operator in the circulation department of the Washington Post. I’d arrive at 6 AM, sit down in front of a computer, and drape a telephone headset over my head. For the next six hours, with a bathroom break or so, I’d take one call after another from Post subscribers with a delivery complaint. Click! A call. Deal with it. The caller would hang up. Click. Another call. And so on.

It was actually a pretty interesting job,  because it posed a significant challenge: You knew from the get-go that the people on the other end of the line were pissed. “Good morning, sir. How can I help you today?”

That f’ing paperboywhere the hell is…?what is wrong with you people

It was great practice at learning to manage and respond to other people’s anger; listening skills were clearly at a premium. If you could take a caller who was looking for someone to scream at, and by the end of the call have him politely thanking you for your help, well, that was an oddly satisfying thing.

But the process was also fascinating because of what people complained about, particularly on Sundays, when the most common grievance was that a particular section of the paper was missing. If so, we would either have the section redelivered or mail the customer a copy of it, depending on how late in the morning it was. (Both options were far more expensive than any money earned on the paper, so accurate delivery was highly valued.)

And what was the section whose absence people most complained about? The front page? Op-eds? Book World? 

Nope. It was the Sunday comics. By a landslide.

And after that, it was “TV Week.”

And after that, sports.

If anyone ever complained about not getting their book review, I don’t remember it. 

All of which made me think quite a bit about human nature and the reasons why we read, particularly on a Sunday morning….and reminded me that, as highbrow and high-minded as we journalists would like to be, you can’t forget that people read the paper for lots of reasons, many of which are not the same reasons people write and publish things.

Click

 

 

Another Book Review Bites the Dust

Posted on January 28th, 2009 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

The Washington Post is closing its stand-alone Sunday section, “Book World,” and folding book reviews into other sections of the paper.

That leaves only two papers, the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, with separate sections devoted to book reviews.

The explanation given for this is that the sections lacked enough advertising to make them financially viable. Maybe so. But let’s be honest: The reason the sections lacked advertising is because nobody reads them, and nobody reads them because they are boring.

This will never happen, so I can safely say it without torpedoing my chances: If I were to have another job other than my own, I’d love to edit the New York Times Book Review. It is terrible. The NYTBR is so boring, it not only makes me not want to read it, it makes me not want to read books altogether. The choice of books is boring, the choice of writers is boring, the format is boring, the presentation is boring. It feels like homework on a Sunday morning, and who wants that? There’s a lot of other good things you could be doing on a Sunday morning.

(I feel the same about the NYT Sunday Mag, by the way. Dreadful.)

Here’s the litmus test I’d offer—and did once, in a job interview with the NYT mag, which, predictably, didn’t go well: If people didn’t get the Sunday Times book review/magazine with the rest of their paper, how many of them would actually get it?

In other words, if you gave people a chance to get the Times mag in their Sunday paper or any other magazine they could choose—which is a pretty good idea, actually—how many of them would actually keep getting the Times mag?

Maybe 50%, I’d bet, at first, because of force of habit. But over time, that number would dwindle to, oh, ten percent.

You have to edit a magazine so that people want to read it, not because they feel like they should read it, like eating their broccoli…. And I’m sure I’ve failed in this mission myself from time to time, but that awareness that is a sine qua non for publishing an interesting journal, and I think you lose it when the thing just shows up on people’s doorsteps once a week whether they want it or not.

Introduce color to the book review, both literally and figuratively. Interviews. Debates. Columns. Charts. Short pieces. All the things you find in, well, magazines. Give it some decent design and photography; print it on decent paper. Make it lively! Not just: Here’s one review. Here’s another. Here’s another. Here’s the bestseller list. Here’s another. The end. Make people want to read it, and then you can turn to advertisers other than publishers.

I’ll now wait for that call from the 556 prefix…..

“Some Guys Got It, Some Guys Don’t”

Posted on January 28th, 2009 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Here’s a video that makes me like George H. W. Bush less and Bill Clinton more…