Friday, December 31, 2004

As the Millennium Turns (Revisited)

New Year's Eve seems a particularly appropriate time to revisit a book review that begins with the question, "What are you doing New Year's Eve?"

It's hard to believe, but six years ago, millions of people around the world were gripped with near-panic over the Y2K phenomenon -- the fear that, when the clock struck midnight+one second on December 31, 1999/January 1, 2000, computers everywhere would fail, airplanes would fall out of the sky, credit card accounts would disappear ... and on and on the fright night would continue.

In the months leading up to "Y2K," a readable and informative book appeared, which described the approach of the second millennium, the year 1000. I reviewed the book for The Metro Herald on March 25, 1999. Here is how it appeared. (One update: As you would expect, the book's ranking is no longer 100; as of today, it was listed as #633,893.)

As the Millennium Turns

Review of The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger (New York and London: Little, Brown and Company, 1999). $23.00, 256 pages.

What are you doing New Year's Eve? This question takes on new meaning this year, as excitement brews over the advent of the new millennium. Technically, of course, the second millennium -- and the 21st century -- will not begin until one minute after midnight on January 1, 2001. To admit this is not pedantic, it is simply acknowledgment that there is no Year Zero in the Christian calendar.

Still, the anticipation we feel about the calendar changing all four numbers in the year is unique. Neither our parents nor grandparents ever had such an experience, nor their parents and grandparents before them, nor their parents and grandparents before them.

No, to find anyone who experienced anything like this before, one must reflect on life one thousand years ago. One thing is certain: no one was worried about the dislocations caused by the "Y1K problem" in the year 999. In fact, few people in that largely illiterate an innumerate society even knew that a new millennium was about to dawn and, if they did, they had no microchips with date bugs in them -- they didn't even have Arabic numerals yet, and the abacus had not yet reached Central Asia, much less the Europe from which we inherited the bulk of our culture.

In this fascinating and readable look back at what life was like at the turn of the last millennium, British writers Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger help us to inhabit the minds and bodies of our predecessors in medieval England. Lacey is author of several books on Tudor history and biography as well as a profile of the current House of Windsor and Danziger is an award-winning journalist for British quality newspapers like The Independent and The Sunday Times.

Lacey and Danziger take as their starting-off point the "Julius Work Calendar," an illustrated document that shows a different scene of daily life for each month -- agriculture, commerce, feasting, religious observance, hunting, and so forth. Reproductions of the illustrations begin each of their chapters. This document is significant because it is "the earliest surviving example of an Englishman laying out life in a daily routine, juggling time, the schedule of the earth, and the life of the spirit."

The authors offer some surprising, unexpected tidbits of information. For instance:

-- "If you were to meet an Englishman in the year 1000, the first thing that would strike you would be how tall he was -- very much the size of anyone alive today. It is generally believed that we are taller than our ancestors, and that is certainly true when we compare our stature to the size of more recent generations. Malnourished and overcrowded, the inhabitants of Georgian or Victorian England could not match our health or physique at the end of the twentieth century.

"But the bones that have been excavated from the graves of people buried in England in the years around 1000 tell a tale of strong and healthy folk . . . . Nine out of ten of them lived in a green and unpolluted countryside on a simple, wholesome diet that grew sturdy limbs -- and very healthy teeth."

-- "It was a warmer world. Archaeological evidence indicates that the years 950 to 1300 were marked by noticeably warmer temperatures than we experience today, even in the age of ‘global warming.' Meteorologists describe this medieval warm epoch as the ‘Little Optimum' . . .

". . . During the ‘Little Optimum,' Edinburgh enjoyed the climate of London, while London enjoyed the climate of the Loire valley in France, a difference of 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit -- the equivalent in modern American terms of San Francisco's climate moving north to Seattle."

-- "There was no spinach. This did not appear in European gardens until spinach seeds were brought back from the Crusades in the twelfth century. Broccoli, cauliflower, runner beans, and brussels sprouts were all developed in later centuries by subsequent generations of horticulturalists. Nor were there any potatoes or tomatoes. . . . and though the recipe books describe warm possets and herbal infusions, there were none of the still-to-be-imported stimulants -- tea, coffee, or chocolate."

-- "The historian who would examine such a private subject as sexual behavior in the years around 1000 has virtually nothing to work with beyond a group of sentences in the Life of St. Dunstan, describing the decadent King Eadwig, who scandalised the great of the land by failing to appear at his coronation feast in 955 A.D. When Dunstan dared to enter the royal bedchamber, he found the jewelled crown of England disrespectfully thrown on the floor, and the king energetically enjoying the charms of a young lady who, for all we know, could well have been the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a White House intern -- with her mother cavorting in the same bed beside her."

And so it goes. The Year 1000 is a joy to read. It is not written in a dense, academic style, but rather with the average (but curious) reader in mind. Lacey and Danziger anticipate the sort of topics that will interest a reader on the cusp of the 21st century, and address each one in turn. For those who find the book intriguing, a set of acknowledgments and extensive bibliography are available to aid further research. Perhaps these qualities explain why The Year 1000 is already ranked number 100 among purchases on

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Here's the Letter You've Been Looking for ...

Dear Friends and Family:

It's customary, I believe, for letters like this to be inserted into Christmas cards sent through the postal service. Instead, as most of you know, I simply inserted a card with a message to visit That is, I hope, what brought you here.

It's also customary, I believe, for letters such as this to be arranged chronologically.

Scratch that: What was interesting in my life in 2004 didn't occur chronologically. So I'll note things by a different sense of priorities.

The travel highlight of the year was my September trip to Las Vegas to attend my sister Cathy's wedding. Unusual in many ways, perhaps most notably by the fact that I met my future brother-in-law, Bryan Biermann, just a few minutes before the rehearsal dinner.

Most significantly, perhaps -- aside from the wedding itself, which was a lovely sunset ceremony in the courtyard of a wedding and banquet facility that caters to Las Vegas locals (no Elvis impersonators presiding at this ceremony -- was seeing so many family friends and relatives whom I had not seen in many, many years. There were people there I had quite literally not seen in more than a quarter-century. It was a real pleasure to catch up with aunts and uncles and cousins who live scattered throughout the country. (To be fair, there was a huge contingent of guests from Wisconsin, the ur-location of the Sincere and Michalak families.) Most everyone stayed at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, which must have delighted in hosting so many congenital gamblers among the wedding guests.

After all the festivities had ended, and I had some luck at the blackjack tables (thanks to my sister, the new Mrs. Bryan Biermann, who staked me to $100), I spent an extra day in Las Vegas just being a tourist and consumer.

I visited two museums the Monday following the wedding: the world-famous Liberace Museum on Tropicana and the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society. I had visited the Historical Society once before. It's off the beaten path for most Las Vegas tourists , located in the beautiful Lorenzi Park off of Bonanza, but it's well worth a visit. In fact, were I forced to choose only one of those two museums to tour again, it would be the Nevada State Museum. The exhibits are well-laid-out, the explanatory matter is easy to read, and there are many items of interest whether you are more interested in politics or culture or natural history. (There are dinosaur bones as well as "Rat Pack" displays.) Most fascinating to me was discovering how World War II, in addition to the building of Boulder Dam, was a key to the growth of Las Vegas.

I won't dismiss the Liberace Museum entirely. It's a microcosmic study of the immigrant experience in America, telling the story of how the son of Polish and Italian working-class immigrants can become the most fabulous entertainer in the world. If you like kitsch and camp, it's there. Considering the number of awards the Museum claims to have won, however, it was disappointing to see things like misspellings and grammatical errors on the museum's explanatory matter. And why, for instance, is a photo of Liberace with Ronald and Nancy Reagan (and a fourth, unidentified man) not captioned? It's clear the photo was taken in the late 1950s or early '60s, but some explanation would have been useful.

The material on Liberace's early life in Milwaukee was tantalizingly sparse. It showed some pictures of what purported to be Mitchell Street or another commercial district on the Milwaukee South Side, but it did not look familiar to me; it really could have been a generic photo from any future Rust Belt city in the 1930s, from Buffalo to Cleveland to Pittsburgh.

Nonetheless, I was charmed enough by the Liberace Museum to leave the gift shop with a CD recording of Christmas songs from the Liberace TV show of the 1950s, as well as a sparkly tree ornament, which is hanging now on my Christmas tree.

* * *

Politically, the most significant news of the year was my appointment to the Electoral Board for the City of Charlottesville. I succeeded Leroy Hamlett, who had served on the Board for more than 25 years, and he was kind enough to guide me in the month before I took his seat, as well as afterward, as my colleagues -- B. Stephanie Commander, Secretary, and Joan Schatzman, Vice Chair -- and I supervised two elections, the May City Council election and the November general election.

Although the local GOP ran two strong candidates for City Council, Ann Reinicke and Kenneth Jackson, who were both endorsed by the Daily Progress (Charlottesville's only daily newspaper), they were -- there's no other word for it -- trounced by the Democratic slate on Election Day. This really came as no surprise, since the Democratic Party has such a large majority in Charlottesville. (For example, Charlottesville voted 3-1 in November for Democratic congressional candidate Al Weed against incumbent Republican Virgil Goode, precisely the opposite of the two candidates' vote totals in the rest of the Fifth Congressional District.)

The past year has seen a robust debate in Charlottesville about the sort of electoral system the city should have. Currently, Charlottesville elects its five City Council members at-large in elections every two years. Rob Schilling, the sole Republican serving on Council, launched a discussion of reforming the system to allow council members to be elected by wards (districts), a system that was much more widespread until Jim Crow laws of the early 20th century eliminated ward elections and replaced them with at-large elections in a (largely successful) effort to dilute the votes of newly enfranchised blacks and recent immigrants.

A Task Force was appointed by City Council to explore the ward system and other electoral reforms. The Task Force sponsored a series of eight public forums in September and October to solicit citizen input, and its final report is due to be presented to City Council on January 3, 2005.

One of the perks of being on the Electoral Board is the annual meeting of the Virginia Electoral Board Association at The Homestead spa and resort in Hot Springs (Bath County), Virginia. The Homestead has been in existence since 1766, and it is one of the most elegant resorts I have ever visited. The VEBA meeting takes place in early March, so it is not possible to take advantage of all the activities the Homestead has to offer (at least in terms of outdoor sports, hiking, and so forth) but the indoor pool -- fed with natural hot springs -- and spa are enough to entertain anyone.

The State Board of Elections also held training in Richmond in May, which was informative, especially since the first head of the new federal Election Assistance Commission, Dr. DeForest B. Soaries, Jr., spoke at the luncheon. (Still, the conference facilities at the Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Richmond were not quite up to the standards set by The Homestead.)

In December, Charlottesville hosted a meeting of the Hart InterCivic users group. Hart InterCivic manufactures the voting machines used in Charlottesville and a few dozen other jurisdictions around the country. The meeting focused on a lot of technical issues, but it was useful nonetheless. It was particularly useful to speak with election officials from across the United States about problems they encounter and the solutions they devise. Comparing notes with people from large jurisdictions (e.g., Orange County, California) and smaller ones (several tiny counties in Washington State and Ohio, for instance) was quite informative.

Coming fast on the tail of the Hart users group meeting, also in Charlottesville, was the annual meeting of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia (VRAV). This meeting attracted registrars and assistant registrars from most of the 130+ jurisdictions in Virginia, and was ably put together and hosted by Charlottesville General Registrar Sheri Iachetta and Albemarle County General Registrar Jackie Harris. A number of election equipment vendors came to hawk their wares; whether any sales resulted remains to be seen.

At the opening banquet of the VRAV conference, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Jim Heilman, the former registrar in Albemarle County, who now works as an international elections consultant. Earlier this year, he helped run the first democratic elections in Afghanistan, and he had just returned from Ukraine, where he was an observer in the disputed second round presidential election. He was planning to go back to Ukraine to observe the rerun election on December 26, which resulted in a victory for Viktor Yushchenko. (Small world department: I found out from a Wall Street Journal article by John Fund that Yushchenko's wife, the new Ukrainian first lady, is a Ukrainian-American named Kateryna Chumachenko Yushchenko. Back in the early 1980s, I worked with the then-Kathy Chumachenko at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, before she went on to take positions in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.)

* * *

On the cultural scene, I took advantage of my position as theatre critic for The Metro Herald to see many productions in both Charlottesville and Washington. (To be perfectly candid, I wrote reviews of fewer shows than I saw.) Among the better plays and musicals I saw this past year:

* The Producers at the Kennedy Center
* Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, also at the Kennedy Center
* Ragtime, at the Heritage Repertory Theatre in Charlottesville (my fifth time to see that remarkable musical
* Three Days of Rain, part of the Live Arts Summer Theatre Festival in Charlottesville, which includes the definitive monologue about the Oedipus myth
*Allegro, a scaled-down revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's ambitious 1947 flop, at Signature Theatre in Arlington
*The Highest Yellow, a great example of why the Broadway musical genre is not dying, with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, also at Signature

A letter I wrote in response to a cranky article by Terry Teachout about the decline of the Broadway musical appeared in the September issue Commentary magazine. I'll try to post the text of that letter later, since it's not easily accessible on the Web.

I also attended the Virginia Film Festival and saw far more movies than I could count. I have already mentioned Paper Clips (see entry, below, for December 17), but I was also quite impressed by David Gordon Green's Undertow, Nicole Cassell's The Woodsman, and Angels, a locally-produced movie by Oscar-winning director Paul Wagner still looking for a distributor. All in all, the Virginia Film Festival is one of the best cultural events Charlottesville -- indeed, all of Virginia -- has to offer.

As for bad movies, the worst I saw this year were Christmas with the Kranks and Troy. Troy had to be the absolute worst, since it was the only film I saw that I wanted to walk out of. I recall that, while watching Troy, I kept saying to myself, "This can't possibly get worse, this can't possibly get worse." But it did. Christmas with the Kranks might be justified as a lark, but Troy has no redeeming characteristics.

The funniest book I read this year was Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss. Originally a best-seller in the United Kingdom, who would have thought that a book about punctuation could be so gripping and so laugh-out-loud hilarious at the same time? The sad thing is, Truss's book shows how much we need better copy editors and proofreaders on both sides of the Atlantic.

I read three books in a row that, coincidentally, involved people I know (or knew). The first was The Lavender Scare : The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, by David K. Johnson (who happens to be a college classmate of mine). One of the key figures in the book is Frank Kameny, whom I also know and who is one of the pioneers of the modern gay rights movement, who fought the government Goliath and emerged a victorious David. The book, which I plan to review in full, tells the amazing story about McCarthy-era witch hunts against gay men and lesbians, who lost jobs in far greater numbers than anyone accused of being Communist did during the same period.

The second book in this series was The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics, by John A. Andrew. As the title indicates, the book traces the beginnings of the modern conservative movement. Although I should have expected it, the book is full of names of people I have known in my personal and professional life. One who looms large is the late Marvin Liebman, who practically invented direct-mail fundraising, but among other friends and acquaintances whose names come up in the book are Dick Cowan (who was at Sharon in 1960 and who later became national director of NORML), former Congressman Bob Bauman, John Buckley (my successor as chairman of the Libertarian Party of Virginia), and David Nolan, founder of the Libertarian Party. These are just a few of the familiar names in the text, people who were instrumental in the development of the modern conservative and libertarian movements.

The third book I finished was Bringing the Market Back in: The Political Revitalization of Market Liberalism, by John L. Kelley. This book goes back farther than Andrew's book on the Sixties and traces the roots of the conservative/libertarian movement to the 1940s, with Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom as a touchstone, along with his founding of the Mont Pelerin Society. In a rare move for an academic historian, Kelley focuses seriously on the history of the Libertarian Party as he looks at the rise of "market liberals" within the U.S. political system. He traces the "market liberal" movement through the early 1990s (the book was published in 1997) with a special emphasis on the Reagan years. Once again, there are many people I know who play important roles in the book, including former LP presidential candidate Ed Clark, the Cato Institute's Ed Crane and David Boaz, early libertarian activist Don Ernsberger (now chief of staff to U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher), and many others.

It should come as no surprise that I enthusiastically recommend all three of these books.

* * *

In addition to all this, I continued singing in the 11:30 Sunday morning Mass choir at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Charlottesville. Choir director Rob Schilling has put together a wonderful group of people, at least two vocalists for each of the SATB parts, as well as musicians who play a range of instruments, including the basic guitar and piano, as well as violin, flute, cello, trumpet, and tambourine. We sing a good variety of music, mostly contemporary, some of Rob's own composition, and it seems the congregation appreciates our efforts.

* * *

I am sure other things happened during 2004. Now that it's New Year's Eve, however, it seems more appropriate to look forward to 2005. Much will happen. You can rely on that.

Happy New Year to one and all!

-- Rick

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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Bartlett on Bloggers

Syndicated columnist Bruce Bartlett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, began writing about blogs and bloggers in a column two years ago, and his observations have become an annual exercise for him. His latest piece on what he calls "the most interesting new Internet phenomenon" appeared in the Commentary pages of Wednesday's Washington Times as "Upward blog mobility."

In his first jab at the subject two years ago, Bartlett pointed to Andrew Sullivan, Matt Drudge, and Mickey Kaus as examples of journalist-bloggers, and mentioned that several magazines, including The American Prospect, National Review, and Reason, had started blogs.

Last year, he focused on academics who had begun blogging, noting Brad DeLong of the University of California at Berkeley, Eugene Volokh and Steve Bainbridge of UCLA, Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee, Steve Antler of Roosevelt University, and Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University in Northern Virginia.

In his latest column, Bartlett hones in on the many bloggers in the fields closest to his own interests: economics and tax policy.

Among the tax-policy bloggers he cites are Paul Caron of the University of Cincinnati, James Maule of Villanova University, Daniel Shaviro of New York University, and Kerry Kerstetter, a CPA.

In the broader field of economics, Bartlett mentions a joint blog produced by George Mason University's Donald Boudreaux and Russell Roberts. He calls Daniel Drezner of the University of Chicago "indispensable" on the topic of international trade. Bartlett says that Andrew Samwick of Dartmouth College is "must reading" because of his expertise in Social Security privatization.

Bartlett also holds some bloggers in high regard, despite their being on the opposite side of the policy-wonk fence from himself. He says the best of these is Kevin Drum of Washington Monthly magazine.

Bartlett concludes by saying that he believes "the Internet has barely scratched the surface in using blogs to analyze and disseminate information. I look forward to their continuing evolution."

By the way, Bartlett is too modest to mention he has his own blog.

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Monday, December 27, 2004

Pushing the Season?

I was in Kroger on Christmas Eve, looking for a last-minute Christmas card, when I noticed that about one-quarter of the greeting card display was devoted to .... Valentine's Day cards!

Isn't that rushing things just a bit?

And besides, is there any human who would actually purchase a Valentine's Day card anytime before, say, Super Bowl Sunday?

Sunday, December 26, 2004

2004 End-of-Year Letter (Coming Soon)

If you received a Christmas card from me with an invitation to visit and to read this year's Christmas letter, please come back soon -- after the letter is written.

Happy Christmas to all!

Friday, December 24, 2004

OK, Perhaps the Anti-Christmas Attitude Has Gone Too Far

From my friend Chuck Muth's daily e-newsletter, Chuck Muth's News and Views, comes this story:


From “A parent of a Hampton Academy Junior High School (Hampton, NH) student says the principal of the school told his son to leave the school’s holiday dance on Friday night because the boy was dressed in a Santa Claus costume, which was politically incorrect. . . . Principal Fred Muscara said he told the boy he couldn’t get into the dance because he was wearing the costume. ‘It was a holiday party,’ said Muscara. ‘It was not a Christmas party. There is a separation of church and state. We have a lot of students that go to Hampton Academy Junior High that have different religions. We have to be sensitive to that.’"

Hmmm. This appears to be a public school. Who’d a thunk it?

Chuck's report seems to be true. You can read the original newspaper article at "Boy in a Santa suit asked to quit dance" (Hampton Union Local News). The article features a photograph of the young man in a totally inoffensive Santa suit.

Chuck also posted the telephone number and email address of Principal Muscara, but I won't be responsible for any annoying phone calls to Hampton Academy Junior High. (If you're really interested, check out Chuck Muth's News and Views.)

Thursday, December 23, 2004

"Affordable Housing" We Can Ill-Afford

A news story in the Washington Post today caught my attention. It reported that Arlington County (Virginia) -- my former home -- plans to appeal a court ruling that “said the county overstepped its legal authority in guidelines it established to encourage developers to create more affordable housing” (“Arlington Might Appeal Ruling on Affordable Housing,” Thursday, December 23, 2004, p. VA03).

The report explained that the “guidelines asked developers of residential buildings to voluntarily set aside 10 percent of floor space for the county's affordable housing program. Such programs generally aim to help lower-income residents keep their housing payments to 30 percent or less of their income. On Dec. 10, Arlington Circuit Court Judge Joanne F. Alper ruled that the request was mandatory and that, as a result, the county had exceeded its legal authority under Virginia law.”

The debate over “affordable housing” has raged in Arlington County for so long, it seems nobody remembers when it began. That fight has probably lasted longer than the one in Charlottesville and Albemarle County regarding the building of the Meadowcreek Parkway. (That road is still not started after more than 35 years of discussion, debate, delays, and indecision.)

I decided to dust off an old article of mine, written while I still lived in Arlington, which was published in both the Arlington Journal and The Metro Herald in May 1997. One notable update: then-County Board Member Al Eisenberg is now a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Other communities, in Virginia and other states, are facing similar questions. I hope this old article contributes to their debates, as it when I was active in Arlington County politics in the 1990s.

Here it is, from more than 7 years ago, relevant today as much as yesterday:

"Affordable Housing" We Can Ill-Afford

A recent report in the Arlington Journal (May 12, 1997) relates the revival of a longstanding debate in Arlington County about subsidized housing and other efforts to create a stock of "affordable housing" in the county. The report characterized the issue as "divisive," with County Board Member Albert C. Eisenberg facing off against civic leaders and fiscal watchdog groups.

The issue is as divisive as it is perpetual. Arlingtonians will recall that "affordable" housing was a key issue in the County Board race of 1991, and again in the 1993 special election in which Ben Winslow defeated Jay Fisette (who are both hoping for a rematch this fall). Underlying the debate is a simple question: Why does housing in Arlington seem expensive compared to other places?

The number one reason: Arlington is an attractive place to live. Many people want to live here because of its proximity to Washington, because of its fine schools, because of good parks and restaurants, because of various ethnic enclaves -- and this is just the beginning.

When a lot of people want to live in a place that's only 26 square miles, demand outstrips supply. By the most basic laws of economics, the laws of supply and demand, this means prices are driven upward.

The second reason housing costs are high in Arlington is that taxes are high -- despite the protestations of current officeholders, objective studies show that Arlington levies some of the highest property taxes in the country, with another tax increase approved by the County Board this year -- and high taxes raise the overhead for owners of rental units. The cost must be passed down to renters and other consumers.

Moreover, Arlington suffers many of the same problems that communities across the United States do. Housing policy expert William Tucker explained in Reason magazine that "researchers estimate that zoning delays and building- code requirements add some $15,000 to $30,000 to the price a new home in many parts of the country. ‘Starter homes' -- simple, no-frills structures that first-time home buyers can afford -- are almost impossible to build in exclusive suburbs. Apartments are fought everywhere. . . . Then people wonder why we have an 'affordable housing problem.'"

We need to reframe the debate by removing the term "affordable housing" from our lexicon. "Affordable housing" is a weasel word that confuses more than it assists us in discussing housing policy. All housing is affordable to somebody. We should rather talk about low-income or moderate-income housing. That's the real issue.

Most low-income housing in Arlington was once owned or rented by middle- and upper-middle income residents. Colonial Village and Buckingham, for instance, were built almost 60 years ago to house well-paid New Deal bureaucrats who came to Washington from around the country and needed a place to live.

Over the past six decades, that housing has deteriorated and lost its value for upper-income people. It has therefore become available to lower-income groups. This scenario has been played out across the country. In cities like Philadelphia, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Richmond, houses that were once mansions owned by rich people have been subdivided into apartments for low- income tenants.

County Board Member Eisenberg and others would like to see a greater emphasis placed on low-rent units today, so that 10 percent of the county's housing stock falls into that category. Can you imagine what low-rent units built for 1997 will look like in 50 years? They will decay so rapidly that by 2047, they will be -- as one homeowners' advocate so aptly put it -- "mere shells," inviting disintegration, grime, and crime. Such decay may happen even sooner.

The flexible and adaptable housing market provides better long-term prospects. Whenever a developer builds a rental unit for a middle- or upper- income tenant, he frees up a unit that tenant formerly occupied for a lower- income resident to move into. That resident's former apartment then becomes available for someone from an even lower income group.

When government intervention -- whether in the form of subsidies or rent control -- takes place, the housing cycle becomes disrupted. The supply of housing does not circulate fully or smoothly, driving prices up. This makes rents and mortgage payments higher for everyone. Even Washington, D.C.'s limited rent control illuminates this process. That law discourages landlords from improving their property or investing in more than just a few units. Forcing developers to build low-rent units when they really don't want to do so is similarly disruptive.

The best way to solve any shortage of low- or moderate-priced housing is to let the market work without hindrance. Get the government out of the housing business. Landlords, tenants, and homeowners can perform quite well without the interference of the Planning Commission, the Arlington Housing Corporation, or the County Board itself. A truly free market will provide an adequate supply of housing at reasonable prices.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Folkskunde Returns! (at least temporarily)

Charlottesville has a quite vibrant music scene, whether one prefers classical, choral, jazz, rock, pop, bluegrass .... name your genre, Charlottesville has it.

One of the more interesting and talented young bands to emerge in recent years has been Folkskunde, which fits the classic definition of "garage band" -- in all the best senses of the term. Folkskunde originally came together to play in the fringe area of the Live Arts Summer Theatre Festival. Several of its members are also actors who have appeared in both Live Arts main stage productions and in LATTE productions (that's the Live Arts Teenage Theatre Ensemble, Live Arts' educational arm).

Because Folkskunde's members left high school and moved on to colleges around the country, the group disbanded. Yet an email arrived to say that Folkskunde is reuniting for two performances during Christmas break:

December 22
At the Gravity Lounge
"Song-Off With Folkskunde & Friends"
Each of the members of Folkskunde will be playing their solo repertoires (the songs they've been producing while apart) as they partner with each other and various musician friends.
Door opens at 7:00 PM
$5 Door

January 7
at Starr Hill
"Folkskunde Reunited!"
Back in full force and ready to rock the night away! A rare appearance before they have to head back to college for the next semester. You won't want to miss it!
Opening for Folkskunde: Body 4 Karate and TRMNSPRX
Door opens at 8:00 PM
$5 Advance/$7 Door

Folkskunde consists of Adam Smith, Justin Wolf, Malcolm Perkins, Jacob Wolf, Conner Lacy and Tucker Duncan. Each member writes his own music, which the band performs, and the band as a whole shows a remarkable capacity for improvisation, whether playing on stage as Folkskunde-in-concert or simply backing up poetry readings at the monthly Poetry Lounge (also just ended after nearly two years of gracing the Charlottesville arts scene).

A review earlier this year in The Hook said: "Folkskunde is rarity in local recorded music. It's daring and most importantly, it's fun, a nice break from the monotony of all this hard core jazz that has gotten to be a little bit out of control."

You'll be hearing about Folkskunde again, whether from the band as a whole or from each individual member.

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Gossip, Gossip

Seen in Washington's new place-to-be-seen, the David Greggory Restau Lounge on M Street, N.W.:

On December 6, the day after the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, actress Bo Derek and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge came to DG for a quiet dinner.

We're told NBC White House correspondent David Gregory -- one G, please -- has visited his namesake restaurant for lunch on more than one occasion, but the CBS News team are more frequent customers, since CBS has offices less than a block away. Earlier this month, in fact, for the second year in a row, CBS News rented out David Greggory for the annual office Christmas party.

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Worst Christmas Song Ever?

Driving back to Charlottesville tonight from the Log Cabin Republicans (of Virginia) Christmas party, I was listening to "As It Happens" from the CBC.

"As It Happens" is an informative and entertaining radio program that I hear only when I'm in my car jn Northern Virginia between 11 p.m. and midnight, because the public radio stations heard in the Charlottesville area don't carry it. (WAMU-FM in Washington does.)

The hosts of "As It Happens" were talking about a "contest" they've been sponsoring, asking listeners to nominate the worst Christmas song of all time. Apparently they've been getting some pretty repulsive nominations, including a rendition of "White Christmas" by Neil Diamond.

Tonight's featured song was by John Denver, from his album A Rocky Mountain Christmas, entitled "Please Daddy (Don't Get Drunk on Christmas)." Yes, you read that right -- and the lyrics are even worse than the title. One wishes it were possible to ask the late Mr. Denver if he was being purposefully trashy for a laugh. In any case, a short excerpt from the song is available here. It must be heard to be believed.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Is There an Anti-Christmas Conspiracy?

Two emails, from separate sources, arrived in my box today. They echo various other messages that have arrived in recent days. What do they say? They accuse contemporary society -- schools and government in particular -- of trying to suppress Christmas, replacing it with some vague winter holiday.

Here's what the Family Foundation of Virginia said in part (in "Information Alert: Skipping 'Merry Christmas'"):

When was the last time you heard anyone outside of church say "Merry Christmas"? In a nation that has become so secularized, and where the ACLU and mainstream media have browbeaten Americans into thinking that any public recognition of God is a violation of the Constitution, Christmas is becoming something of an underground holiday.

Examples of anti-Christmas bigotry, particularly in American public schools, are so abundant we could write books listing them. Just this year we have seen:
A school board in New Jersey banned all Christmas music, including instrumental versions.

A school district in Texas has banned candy canes with with a religious message, pencils with the name Jesus on them, and, incredibly, any red or green decorations, saying everything must be white.

A school in Oklahoma removed a nativity scene from a school play, but kept symbols associated with Kwanzaa.

One Fortune 500 company refers to the Christmas holiday as the "25th of December." Their calendar for this year says that, "because its on a Saturday, the '25th of December' holiday will be on the 24th."

Macy's and Bloomingdale's have encouraged their employees to say "happy holidays" instead of Merry Christmas because "these were in common use in a multicultural, diverse society."

A group of students in Wisconsin were told they could not distribute Christmas cards to fellow classmates because they had a religious message.
And here's what Alan Keyes, a spectacular failure as a Senate candidate despite his keen mind and exceptional intellect, had to say on the same topic (note the similarities with the FFV, above. This is from "Christmas is Under Attack - Fight Back," dated December 20:

We've already told you about a number of the most blatant examples of attacks on Christmas this year -- but here's even more that have occurred:

* In Palm Beach County schools in Florida, teachers were warned not to allow any Christmas decorations to be displayed.

* In a New Jersey elementary school, a class trip to see the Broadway play "A Christmas Carol" was cancelled under threat of a law suit.

* Across the country children have been barred from giving out Christmas cards and some banned from using the greeting, "Merry Christmas".

* An Oklahoma Superintendent recently ordered the students and faculty at Lakehoma Elementary School to remove the nativity scene and not sing "Silent Night" at this year's "holiday" play.

* At a Jefferson County school in Colorado, an elementary student had her Bible confiscated from the playground when she was caught sharing some Bible verses with a friend.

* In a Plano, Texas school, parents were prohibited from using red and green plates and napkins -- they could only bring white decorations for "winter" parties!
And there's more. In a commentary dated December 20 (but distributed on December 17), Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation writes:

Here in the Washington, D.C. area, Safeway has announced that it will be open on Christmas day. Safeway employees who formerly enjoyed a day off at Christmas won't get to do so. That will, of course, put pressure on the competition. By next year all major food stores will, no doubt, also be open. Radio stations which used to play genuine Christmas carols at this time of the year (there are two in the Washington, D.C. area which claim they play Christmas music 24 hours a day) no longer play "Silent night" or "Angels we have heard on high." Rather, it is winter music: Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, The Boston Pops. You get the picture. What little Christmas is left has nothing to do with Christ.

But the real shift has simply been the disappearance of the mention of Christmas. If I hear "Have a nice holiday" one more time I may just scream. If we majority Christians tolerate this, then we get what we deserve. When are we going to stand up and say to this militant minority, "You don't have the right to take Christmas from us." What is happening is because we have become tepid. We have been conditioned to think that if we insist on celebrating Christmas, other than perhaps in the inner sanctum of our own homes, we will be offending someone. Utter nonsense. If they are offended, it is their problem, not ours. In the current parlance we should just tell them "We're here. We are not going away. Neither is Christmas. Deal with it."
Is there truly a trend toward erasure of the "Christmas spirit" with "Happy Holidays" and "Seasons Greetings" supplanting it? And, if so, is this a new trend? Or have the conservatives just found a new fund-raising bull to ride? (The Alan Keyes email quoted above includes a web address for sending donations twice, at the beginning and the end of the screed. Question: Having lost his Senate race so ignominiously, just what is Alan Keyes raising money for?)

Frankly, I think the conservatives are plain wrong on this. People say "Merry Christmas" frequently -- and certainly do not limit such greetings to the inside of their churches. When Weyrich says radio stations only play "winter songs", he obviously has not been listening to any of the all-Christmas, all-the-time stations found in almost any reasonably large market. These stations do indeed play traditional -- i.e., religous -- songs. Unfortunately, they tend to be contemporary covers that butcher the music. (Still, it's not rare to hear Bing Crosby, Perry Como, or Johnny Mathis crooning "Silent Night" as well as "Home for the Holidays.")

As for schools banning Christmas celebrations, the worst they can be accused of is being overcautious out of fear of lawsuits from zealous church/state separationists. They are mindful of the bottom line, since litigation can be a costly proposition. They're wrong, too, since most of the complaints above refer to schools or governments imposing their will on individuals acting individually (e.g., pupils passing out Christmas cards to their classmates), rather than imposing reasonable restrictions on the actions of the institutions themselves. (Government schools should not be seen to endorse particular religious beliefs; neither should they silence their students when the students act on their own behalf and volition.)

The fact is, Christmas began its secularization process hundreds of years ago. The Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas because it seemed too heathen to them. Charles Dickens' classic story, A Christmas Carol, says barely a word about the religious aspects of the holiday. (Bob Cratchit once mentions going to church with Tiny Tim, and there's Tim's famous line, "God bless us, every one!" That's it.)*

Popular culture has always walked both sides of the fence here. Bing Crosby could star as a nightclub singer in Holiday Inn in 1942 and two years later star as Father O'Malley in Going My Way. During the same period, he made classic recordings of "Silent Night" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" in the same sessions he did "Jingle Bells" (with the Andrews Sisters as back-up) and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Then of course there's "White Christmas," written by a Jewish immigrant for transplants in Southern California who long for their wintry northeastern homes.

An anti-Christmas, anti-Christian trend? Perhaps -- but of such long pedigree that the conservatives' latest complaints strike me as being of the same class as Captain Renault's shock at the gambling going on in Rick's Cafe Americain.

Next year's conservative fundraising gambit: Madalyn Murray O'Hair is trying to shut down religious broadcasters, from beyond the grave.

* A tip of the hat to Tim Hulsey for pointing out this fact about A Christmas Carol.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Return of Aluminum Christmas Trees?

The front page of Sunday's Washington Times had an article reporting that aluminum Christmas trees, that marvel of the 1960s, are enjoying a revival of sorts ("Nostalgia stirs renewed appeal of 'tacky' trees," December 19, 2004).

In it, reporter Jennifer Harper notes that current marketers of the once-all-the-rage, later-repudiated-and-mocked decorations

heed the advice from "Conny of Alcoa," the official home-design hostess of the Aluminum Company of America, circa 1961.

"Decorated with plain ornaments and inexpensive spotlights, aluminum trees develop a spectacular ethereal beauty," Conny counseled in a booklet boasting photos of bouffant-haired women in shirtwaist dresses and stiletto heels, earnestly intent on their aluminum trees.
I remember aluminum Christmas trees. Conny was right: they did possess "ethereal beauty." More than that, they were a respectable replacement for "live" trees, which had a tendency to shed needles and become fire hazards (especially in the days of big, bulky bulbs on frayed electrical wires). At the time, artificial trees that could "pass" as real trees were rare and expensive, if available at all. Developments in plastics manufacturing didn't make realistic fake trees possible and economical until the 1970s.

The aluminum trees made no pretense of realism. They were fake, and obviously so.

In December 1964, just a few days before Christmas, my family moved into a new home, the first one we owned. My sister was still six years from being born, and I was a 5-year-old only child. I still remember that, before doing anything else -- arranging furniture, unpacking boxes, hanging pictures on the walls -- my mother assembled and decorated a "tacky" aluminum Christmas tree and stood it in the bay window of our suburban Milwaukee home. The branches were silver and the balls hanging from them were a uniform pink. But they glowed in the primary colors of the spotlight with the revolving color wheel. And the new neighbors were suitably impressed by this display of priorities.

Believe me, to a 5-year-old in a strange house surrounded by snow -- this was Wisconsin in December, after all -- that aluminum tree was awesomely beautiful.

By about 1968, that particular tree became frayed and lost its lustre. We tossed it out and replaced it with a tacky green tree that no one could believe was "real." My grandparents, on the other hand, doggedly used authentic trees until 1972, when my grandfather brought one home that immediately shed approximately 80 percent of its needles. That one ended up in the fire and a tall, fat artificial evergreen took its place.

As for myself, I have never bought a "real" Christmas tree and I have a real fake tree now. Most people who see it don't suspect that it is plastic and wires -- that is, until they touch it or smell it. Someday I may redecorate my entire home in a retro-60s look (my house was built in 1959, and I have this dream of decorating it as it might have been decorated by the original owners -- something on the order of the furnishings and style of the Petrie house on the Dick Van Dyke Show). If I do, I'll acquire a tacky aluminum tree and bathe in its space-age luminescence.

As I look at the date, to my surprise, I realize it was precisely 40 years ago today that my mother set aside unpacking our household for more important things: setting up that tacky, metallic tree in an otherwise empty room so Santa would have a place to leave presents for us, underneath its shiny branches. For that, I'll forgive the bouffant hair-dos and paper Yellow Pages dresses that were also the fads of that era.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

A Moral Case for Christmas Commercialism

Back in 1995, I wrote the following article to point out that "commercialism" during the holiday season is not something to be derided or avoided. The article was published in a surprisingly large number of newspapers across the United States, including in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Las Vegas Review-Journal on Christmas Eve (December 24, 1995).

A few years later, I was invited to appear on a Canadian radio program called "Cross Country Check-Up" to discuss my article. At the urging of my friend, Steve Foerster, I revised the article slightly and re-syndicated it, making sure to bring certain pop-culture references up-to-date and changing some of the examples I used to illustrate my argument. Once again, several U.S. newspapers picked it up.

So, every three or four years, I tweak the article a bit and send it out to see who uses it. Most recently, in December 2003, the article appeared in the Madison Times in Wisconsin. That version of the article can be seen here. (It was found by local Charlottesville video artist Alexandria Searls when she googled her own name a few months later, who brought it to the attention of City Councilor Rob Schilling, who in turn told me about it.)

Here is the original, 1995, version of "A Moral Case for Christmas Commercialism":

(ARLINGTON, Va.) --- Around this time of year, we routinely hear complaints about the "excessive commercialism" of Christmas. People complain about the barrage of advertising, the crowded malls, the rush of retailers to have the earliest holiday displays.

Some complaints run deeper, of course. They reflect our fear that carnal desires are outstripping our quest for a wholesome soul. "To perceive Christmas through its wrapping," said E. B. White, "becomes more difficult with every year."

Such complaints are not new, of course. They have been voiced for generations. Nearly forty years ago, adman Stan Freberg skewered his colleagues on Madison Avenue with the devastating musical satire, "Green Chri$tma$," famous for lines like "Deck the halls with advertising; now's the time for merchandising." Generations earlier, the Puritan rulers of Massachusetts prohibited the celebration of Christmas in reaction to the excesses of the colonists.

Perhaps the most trenchant criticism of Christmas commercialism is the one that suggests that immoderate eating and drinking, buying and selling — what Thorstein Veblen called "conspicuous consumption" — divert us from the needs of those less fortunate, and indeed (put most starkly) steal food from the mouths of the poor.

These criticisms often accompany the appeals we receive each December, solicitations to give our time or money to voluntary organizations that house the homeless, clothe the naked, teach the ignorant, cure the ill, or feed the hungry. Such organizations are the backbone of a free and compassionate society, for they perform the corporal works of mercy that many of us, in our busy daily lives, are unable to perform individually. They deserve our support.

We need to address, however, the message of guilt implied in these appeals. Sometimes it is not so implicit. Last Sunday at church, I heard a sermon that specifically condemned our consumerism — not only at Christmas, but year round — as an assault on the poor. Conspicuous consumption becomes, in a word, a sin.

Let's consider this for a moment, because I want to make the case stated so succinctly by the philosopher Maimonides: "Anticipate charity by preventing poverty."

Simply remember that every time you buy a Christmas gift — a toy, a CD- player, a spice rack, a hunting rifle — you are helping to pay someone's wages. Millions of such purchases, made every day in the Christmas-shopping season, keep factories open, keep workers employed, keep families fed.

Think about who depends on Christmas to make a living. Santa and his elves, of course -- but also all of their "helpers" around the world. There are the printers of gift catalogues; postal workers and UPS drivers who deliver packages; loggers who cut the trees to make the paper for holiday cards and wrapping paper; turkey farmers and cranberry growers ... the list is literally endless.

Take this example: Because shops are open extra hours and must deal with many more customers this time of year, they hire extra help. Many part-time sales clerks during the holidays are college and high school students earning money to help pay their tuition and expenses. Without that money, some of them would have to drop out of school altogether. The fresh-faced girl behind the cash register at the Hallmark store could win the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2045 — or perhaps not, if low sales cause her to be laid off.

Imagine, for a moment, who benefits from your purchase of a woolen sweater. The wool came from sheep raised by a shepherd in the mountains of Nevada. The raw wool was processed into yarn at a textile mill in North Carolina. Dyes came from a chemical plant in Michigan. The yarn was woven into a sweater at a factory in Ohio. A trucker from Idaho drove the finished product to a distribution center in Colorado. There it was packaged and sent to stores around the country, where stockboys and sales clerks bring it to the ultimate purchaser. How many individuals earn a living from that single sweater? How many communities avert poverty because you, the individual shopper, choose to buy it?

This argument is not meant merely to assuage our guilt about "conspicuous consumption." It states the case that commerce, by creating wealth and eliminating poverty, has a substantial moral – even spiritual – component. Creating wealth makes charity – those corporal works of mercy -- possible. As Margaret Thatcher once noted, "No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions. He had money as well."

Charity to those who cannot care for themselves is good. Giving them the means to care for themselves is better. Best of all is to engage in commerce: buying the goods they provide for a mutually agreeable price. This prevents poverty and trims the lists of the needy at Christmas and always.

Three cheers for Christmas commercialism! And Happy Holidays!

Preserving Election Integrity Through Federalism

In March of this year, I became chairman of the Electoral Board for the City of Charlottesville. The appointment to the Board came by way of nomination by the chairman of the Charlottesville Republican Committee, Bob Hodous, with confirmation and formal appointment by the Circuit Court.

Electoral Boards serve in each jurisdiction of Virginia. The Boards consist of three members, two who belong to the current Governor's party (now Democrat Mark Warner), and one from the party whose candidate for Governor placed second in the last election. The Chairman and the Secretary of the Board must come from different political parties. So at the first meeting of the new Board in March, I was elected Chairman by my colleagues.

The Electoral Board oversees the office of the General Registrar and supervises elections. Virginia has frequent elections, with federal elections in even-numbered years and state elections in odd-numbered years. In 2004, Charlottesville had a Democratic presidential primary in February, a City Council election in May, and the general election in November.

In the weeks leading up to the November 2 election, a small number of Charlottesville voters (along with others around the country) began raising questions about the security and integrity of electronic voting systems. In an effort to address those questions, I prepared the article below. It appeared in The Hook, a Charlottesville weekly, on October 28 and in The Metro Herald in Alexandria on October 29. An abbreviated version of the article appeared in the online edition of The Free Liberal, a libertarian publication based in Fairfax, Virginia, on October 22.

(Charlottesville, Virginia) --- There is no such thing as a national election in the United States.

This may come as a surprise to many people, who believe that Americans will vote for president on November 2 in a national election.

Instead, there will be over 3,100 simultaneous elections taking place that day. When we aggregate the votes, the nation as a whole will elect a president and vice president.

This fact is important because this diffusion of elections is the best protection we have against voter fraud through corruption, intimidation, or -- the most recent worry -- computer hacking.

According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), federal elections are conducted locally by 3,140 counties and independent cities. (Only Delaware runs its elections at the state level.) In all of these thousands of jurisdictions, election rules are made and administered locally, in accord with comprehensive state laws and a few federal laws designed to guarantee that elections are free, fair, honest, and transparent.

The levels of protection are so numerous that even the most vociferous attempt to change the results of an election against the will of those who cast votes has an infinitesimal chance of success.

The most basic level of protection is that each jurisdiction -- each county or city or town with responsibility for conducting elections -- chooses and maintains its own voting equipment. In 1998, for instance, according to CRS, 410 counties used paper ballots; 480 used lever machines; 635 used punchcards; 1,217 used optical scan ballots; 257 used electronic machines; and 141 had mixed systems.

A new federal law requires that by January 1, 2006, each state and locality must meet certain standards that effectively prohibit punchcard technologies. Consequently, many jurisdictions have already purchased new equipment to replace those machines that made the terms "butterfly ballot" and "hanging chad" so infamous four years ago.

Most jurisdictions are moving toward electronic voting systems, using direct recording electronic devices, or DREs. These machines operate in a number of fashions, but the easiest comparison is to automatic teller machines (ATMs). Some of them use touchscreen technology, some use buttons, some use mouse-like wheels to move a cursor on a screen.

For all these technologies, there are numerous companies that build and sell them. Among these companies are Advanced Voting Solutions, Diebold Election Systems, Election Systems & Software, Hart InterCivic, Sequoia Voting Systems, and Unilect Corporation.

The use of machines made by these various companies is distributed randomly across the United States. Neighboring jurisdictions are unlikely to buy machines and software services from the same vendor. In Virginia alone, 22 different types of equipment will be used in the 2004 general election.

Are these machines trustworthy? The Wall Street Journal's John Fund, who is highly critical of election security procedures, notes in his new book, Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy (Encounter Books), that “in the twenty-plus years that these machines have been used, in many counties all across the country, there has never been a verified case of tampering.”

Even the most determined election-stealer would have to know what kind of equipment is in use by dozens, if not hundreds, of jurisdictions, in order to alter their hardware or software in an attempt to change the results of an election.

Supposing that a determined fraudster were able to get that information and figure out a way to hack into the systems; he also would have to obtain the assistance of those charged with maintaining the integrity of elections.

The number of election officials varies from place to place, of course, but to give one example:

In Charlottesville, Virginia, this flim-flammer would need the cooperation of the Electoral Board (currently made up of two Democrats and one Republican), the General Registrar (who is non-partisan), the technicians who service the voting equipment, the Chief Election Official and Assistant Chief in all eight precincts (each from a different political party), and the other Election Officials (who also represent the Republican and Democratic parties).

He also would have to involve the technician from Hart InterCivic who helps the Registrar set up the machines before the election, and the company's consultant who helps in the vote count after the election -- different individuals whose assignments vary from election to election and from client to client.

Moreover, he would have to gain access to sealed voting machines kept in a locked room inside the locked Registrar's office inside a locked City Hall Annex building, with 24-hour surveillance cameras monitoring him.

This means that to steal an election even in a small city like Charlottesville (with about 22,000 registered voters), effective election fraud would depend on a conspiracy involving no fewer than 25 people -- or more than 100 (when all the precinct-level election officials are included).

Multiply this by 3,139 other counties and cities across the United States, and you can see what a sisyphean task massive voter fraud would be.

Is every American election fraud-free? Of course not. Scattered reports of fraud occur after every election. While this fact requires vigilance, it does not undermine the substantial integrity of the electoral system across the nation. Reports of fraud are notable because they are so rare.

The integrity of elections in the United States is protected primarily by the most fundamental aspect of our republic: its federal character, defined by a dispersal of authority and choices made in a diffuse system of state and local governments.

We should remember this on Election Day when we vote, not in a national election, but in one of 3,140 elections for President of the United States.

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Saturday, December 18, 2004

White House "Strategery" Chief

I was surprised while reading the Washington Post earlier this month to find an article about my old colleague from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Pete Wehner. Pete and I were co-editors, along with Zbigniew Brzezinski and Marin Strmecki, of Promise or Peril: The Strategic Defense Initiative, which was published in the fall of 1986, just before I headed off to graduate school in London. Pete later left EPPC to join the staff of William Bennett, and he stayed with Bennett for a good many years after that.

Although we haven't been in touch with each other for more than a decade, I knew that Pete worked at the White House from a reference to him in Peggy Noonan's book, When Character Was King (about Ronald Reagan). What I didn't know was what a dream job he has in the Bush Administration.

According to the Post ("Resident Thinker Given Free Rein In White House," December 13), Pete heads up the "White House Office of Strategic Initiatives (or the Office of Strategery, as it is known inside the building after a "Saturday Night Live" skit spoofing the president's mangling of the English language). The OSI was [Karl]Rove's idea, created shortly after President Bush was elected in 2000. It is the smallest unit in the Rove empire, with six employees, and represents the closest thing the White House has to an in-house think tank."

Imagine -- being paid to work at the White House and all you have to do is read books and articles and think about what they mean and how they might influence public policy.

The only question remaining: Does the Bush Administration pay attention to anything Pete Wehner (or anyone else in the Strategery division) thinks about?

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Friday, December 17, 2004

One Red Flower Blossoms in Arlington

(This review of a new musical produced by Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, appeared in The Metro Herald in October. Its late appearance on this blog is due simply to my procrastination in creating "Rick Sincere News and Thoughts")

"Will they want to hear about it, or just forget the whole thing ever happened?" asks one of the soldiers in One Red Flower, a new musical about the Vietnam War, now playing at the Signature Theatre in Arlington.

The answer, of course, is yes. Yes, Americans want to hear about it and yes, Americans want to forget the whole thing ever happened. Psychic dissonance, perhaps, but necessary for the health of the nation.

For 25 years or more, it seemed that Americans wanted to forget about Vietnam -- the longest war, the only war America lost, the war that divided the nation as none had since the Civil War a century earlier.

Vietnam became irrelevant, a historical footnote, not even a historical curiosity -- except for those who were there and those who knew them intimately.

One Red Flower tells these people's stories.

Viewed through the prism of the present, the Vietnam War seems more contemporary than ever.

While it is possible the creators aimed to see it staged in time for next year's commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Communist conquest of South Vietnam and the fall of Saigon, it is even more striking that One Red Flower had its world premiere amid headlines that make us feel as if the war -- at least its domestic components -- is being fought all over again.

Two presidential candidates, differing tales of honor and heroism, recriminations as inescapable as they are irrelevant: Could playwright Paris Barclay or director Eric Schaeffer have known in advance how timely their new play would be?

A history lesson as well as an entertaining musical drama, as emotionally moving as it is intellectually stimulating, One Red Flower is, at base, an anti-war play. But it treats divergent points of view with respect and affection even as it maintains its own.

Barclay, best known as a television director (notably for NBC-TV's The West Wing), is a triple threat: he wrote the book, music, and lyrics for One Red Flower, adapting the words from the anthology Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, edited by Bernard Edelman for the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission.

Musically, the score can best be described as pastiche. What Stephen Sondheim did for George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Sigmund Romberg in Follies, Barclay does for Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Crosby Stills Nash & (especially) Young in One Red Flower. He evokes the Sixties without stealing from it (save a few stray musical quotations here and there).

Even a song about the holidays, "(There Will Still Be) Christmas" is written uncannily in the mode of so many "I'll-be-missing-you-but-the-tree's-still-lit" ballads -- some memorable, some forgettable -- that made their way onto the annual holiday TV specials hosted by Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Bob Hope, or Andy Williams.

The score is not musically challenging. For that, we will have to wait for Signature Theatre's next offering, The Highest Yellow, by Michael John LaChiusa. Barclay is no Sondheim, no Guettel. But he has produced a tuneful, emotionally balanced score in which there is not a wasted or inappropriate note.

Schaeffer has selected a cast that fulfills all of Barclay's promise, both musically and dramatically. Out of the six men and one woman (Florence Lacey), only Lacey is old enough to remember the Vietnam era. She shimmers in the part of a mother who is also meant to represent all the loved ones left behind on the "home front." Her burden is heavy but she carries it effortlessly.

Of her six male castmates, there is not a harsh word to say about any of them.

Kurt Boehm, a Catholic University student in one of his first professional roles, has star quality written all over him. In the early scenes, he is playful and energetic along with the other soldiers, but for most of the play his is separated and confined to a small platform as a POW. As such, he can observe the rest of the action but must remain oblivious to it. (Boehm's role might be compared to the title role in Floyd Collins, which requires the actor playing it to be physically constrained, nearly motionless, through almost the entire play.) His character first exhibits the nervous energy of a caged tiger but, over time, wearies with the boredom and deprivation of prison life. Boehm shows us this almost exclusively through body language and increasingly blank facial expressions. While the rest of the soldiers are singing in amusement about the wonders of Asian B-girls and barhopping (in "Saigon Tea"), Boehm's darting eyes convey a vacant disengagement precisely and ironically in silent counterpoint to a witty and raucous song.

The other cast members, all young, show talents far beyond their years:

Joshua Davis plays a Southern boy who feels strongly that the War is right and he is doing his proper duty to defend his nation. Despite the anti-war context of One Red Flower, Davis does this without condescension or caricature, both options available to him because of the way we so easily accept negative stereotypes.

Clifton Alphonzo Duncan displays pride in his men as the only officer among these recruits. A strong voice and confidence propel him into their, and our, hearts.

Charles Hagerty, as a helicopter pilot, has an unusual burden as an actor -- he is part of an ensemble but must remain off stage for more than half the play. Like a good soldier, however, he does his duty, making us wish we could see more of him.

Josh Lefkowitz, who plays a medic, is able to bounce his character's thoughts and emotions off of Davis's, because he is a soldier who becomes totally disenchanted with the war, questioning not only the war but his country's aims and values.

As the play's closest thing to a narrator or central character, Helen Hayes Award-winner Stephen Gregory Smith has the hardest job to do. He does it. Outstandingly. It helps that he is the putative son of Florence Lacey's mom, but that is not the only reason he deserves notice; those reasons are both multiple and unlistable.

While all of this acting and singing is going on, it might be possible to overlook the production's design elements. Possible, but unlikely. Actually, impossible: Schaeffer's design team has integrated sets, lights, props, sound, special technical effects, and visual projection into a stunningly effective whole. Set designer Eric Grims, lighting designer Chris Lee, sound designer Tony Angelini, properties mistress Elsie Jones, and particularly projection designer Michael Clark are owed any accolades they receive for One Red Flower.

If there is any flaw in this production -- and every show has at least one -- it is that sometimes the rock music from the hidden band overpowers the singers, who must wear body microphones despite Signature's intimate stage. I am not a big fan of amplification in any case -- even in the Kennedy Center Opera House, if it can be avoided -- so to see mics here was a disappointment.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Paris Barclay's political views as expressed in One Red Flower, one cannot deny that he expresses them well and beautifully. I hope that One Red Flower advances to a stage at which a cast recording is made, because Barclay's music and lyrics should be preserved and heard by far more people than those who can squeeze into Signature Theatre to see this world premiere production.

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