Friday, September 30, 2005


Four years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I went back to see what I wrote in the days and weeks immediately following those events. I found this review essay, published in The Metro Herald on September 28, 2001, under the general heading of "Fathoming the Unfathomable." (I meant to post this on that date, but I had to re-type the whole thing and just got around to it a few hours ago.)

Book Round-Up:
New Publications Achieve Unintended Relevance
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Most publishing companies plan their seasonal lists far in advance. The lead time for a typical new book is at least a year, if not longer. Exceptions are made, of course, when current events dictate: Several “quickie” books came out after last year’s protracted election, for example, and we are no doubt going to see a number of books in the next few weeks about Osama bin Laden, terrorism, and Afghanistan that were either completely unplanned or in their early production stages when the events of September 11 caught us all (including publishers) by surprise.

It is rather chilling, then, to discover books on this fall’s lists that have remarkable relevance to the world since September 11. Here are a few of them.

Dr. Seuss Goes to War

The surge of patriotism in the wake of the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and severely damaged the Pentagon has reminded more than one observer of the immediate aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. December 7 and September 11 are no two dates “that will live in infamy.” In putting the United States on a war footing, President Bush has invited comparisons to President Franklin Roosevelt, despite the fact that it is fairly clear that the 21st-century war against terrorism will not involve the sort of mass mobilization of the general population that characterized World War II.

With these parallels in mind, it is fascinating to examine – “read” is not the most appropriate word here – the new paperback edition of Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel, edited by Richard H. Minear (New York: The New Press, 272 pages, $17.95). The publication date was set for September 28 [2001].

Before he became the world’s most famous author and illustrator of children’s books, Dr. Seuss was a successful advertising artist, working in New York for Flit®, an insecticide as well-known in the 1930s as Raid® and Off® are today. (“Quick, Henry, the Flit!” was a popular catchphrase.) Living on a comfortable income from that steady job during the Great Depression, Dr. Seuss became concerned as war broke out in Europe, and he began submitting editorial cartoons to PM, a short-lived (1940-48) New York daily newspaper with a decidedly left-wing bent. PM was associated with the “Popular Front” of pro-Communist, anti-fascist organizations, many of which were headquartered in New York at the time and which fed, and were fed by, a network of New York intellectuals. While Dr. Seuss apparently did not share his publisher’s pro-Communist sympathies – some of his cartoons actually lampooned Stalin – PM was happy to have his sharp wit and sharp pen contribute to the debate.

Dr. Seuss’s career as an editorial cartoonist was brief, barely two years, from January 1941 to January 1943, when he joined Frank Capra’s film unit of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. But in that short period, he created about 400 separate cartoons and caricatures. He viciously attacked the expected villains, such as Hitler and Mussolini, as well as people that we today, far removed from the moral and intellectual climate of the times, would find unexpected: Charles Lindbergh, for instance, who as part of the America First movement seemed to favor Germany and who was said to espouse anti-Semitic views.

Dr. Seuss also attacked slackers on the home front, whiners, windbag politicians, and racists and bigots. Several of his cartoons criticized employers who refused to hire blacks or Jews for war industries. At the same time, his characterizations of Japanese and Japanese-American figures were nothing but racist themselves. These not-so-benign Dr. Seuss cartoons are striking reminders of a dark time in U.S. history, when American citizens were herded into concentration camps simply because their skins were a different color, and their ancestors came from a different continent, than those of the majority.

What’s most fascinating, in looking at Dr. Seuss’s cartoons of 60 years ago, is the way they reflect the political debates at home in the months leading to Pearl Harbor, when the United States could not decide between assiduously protecting its neutrality and leaning towards Britain through the Lend-Lease Act, and continuing debates about how best to conduct the war in the months after Pearl Harbor. Just as today there are calls for national unity in the face of the terrorist enemy, so there were in December 1941 and throughout 1942 – calls that would not be necessary if there were not factions threatening that unity in word and deed.

It should be added, unfortunately, that much of the explanatory text provided by the book’s editor, Richard Minear, is unnecessary. For readers unfamiliar with the times, a bit of historical context is necessary, and Minear does a fairly good job in doing that. He goes overboard, however, in describing in detail cartoons that are included in the collection (as well as some that were left out; why any were left out remains a mystery), leading to a soporific effect. Another fault of the book is that the cartoons are not arranged in a simple chronological order; instead, they are grouped according to loose themes that seem to be idiosyncratically chosen. Despite these misgivings, this is a book worth recommending; it would even be interesting in the absence of historical parallels between 2001 and 1941.

The Brand New Kid
While Dr. Seuss Goes to War is not a children’s book, despite its title, The Brand New Kid is. Written by NBC News anchor (and Arlington County, Virginia, native) Katie Couric and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, The Brand New Kid was published by Doubleday late last year (hardback, 32 pages, $15.95). We include it here because it is, as Couric notes in a brief introduction, “a springboard to talk about the importance of basic human kindness and compassion in our daily lives.” She wrote the book as a way to help parents “do a better job helping our children learn about tolerance and inclusion.”

Given the way in which Americans of Arab, Near Eastern, and even South Asian ancestry have come – literally – under attack in recent weeks, Couric’s book will be welcome in many classrooms and homes as it opens up discussion about how we treat people who are “different.”

In the case of The Brand New Kid, the protagonist – Lazlo S. Gasky – is not Arab, but vaguely Eastern European (perhaps a refugee from the upheavals of the fall of Communism?) who dresses funny and smells funny (to the other children in his new school). Before long, however, some of his classmates take the brave step to make friends with him, risking being made fun of themselves, and – this comes as no surprise, since Couric makes no attempt to be cynical – it turns out he’s not so “different” after all, and all the kids get along. An important lesson, told perhaps too simplistically, but one that needs repeating far too much.

Is Tolerance Possible?
A book intended for adults – indeed, for educated readers – asks whether religious tolerance is truly possible, even in a pluralistic society. In Getting Over Equality: A Critical Diagnosis of Religious Freedom in America (New York University Press, 214 pages, $45), Notre Dame University law professor Steven D. Smith points out the conundrum of religious tolerance: People who truly believe in their religions cannot admit the validity of other religious beliefs, which leads inevitably to a climate of intolerance.

The paradox of American history has been that, for most of the past 225 years, we have achieved a degree of religious tolerance unequaled elsewhere and in any other time. In a chapter entitled “The (Compelling?) Case for Religious Intolerance,” Smith points out:

“To the modern mind, at ease in a pluralistic culture, religious intolerance seems an anomalous and anachronistic vice, like dueling or racial bigotry. Human association is a presumptive good, after all, so why on earth should anyone be reluctant to accept and associate with others merely because they adhere to different faiths (or to none)? How does it hurt me if you profess a different creed than I do? The classic expression was Jefferson’s: ‘[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.’

“From this perspective, religious intolerance seems a manifestation less of outdated thinking than of a failure to think at all; intolerance is an expression of that quintessential (although unexpectedly resilient) modern vice – ‘irrational prejudice.’ It is nonetheless important that we understand the case for religious intolerance, in part because an understanding will help us appreciate the development by which tolerance can evolve from a character flaw into a virtue, and in part because toleration is not a completely secure achievement; it is something that still needs defending.”

Indeed, recent events underscore the salience of Smith’s last sentence. We are learning today the price of religious intolerance worldwide, and the fragility of tolerance even in our own country. Smith asks about the American experience of general religious tolerance: “How has this achievement been accomplished?”

He replies, in part: “The answer is no doubt multifaceted, involving a combination of political, legal, religious, and cultural factors, and probably a certain amount of plain good fortune.”

Steven Smith has written a provocative book that deserves further attention in this time of religious and cultural introspection.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Finally, in the fortnight following September 11, Americans have raised and contributed more than half a billion dollars (that’s $500,000,000) to assist the recovery from the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. That’s an incredible accomplishment and serves as an experiential rebuttal to the argument made by David Wagner, a professor of social work and sociology at the University of Southern Maine in his new book, What’s Love Got to Do With It? A Critical Look at American Charity (New York: The New Press, 210 pages, $18.95 paperback).

In a new-Marcusian mode, Wagner argues that charity in America is something of an illusion, “that America’s ‘virtue talk’ has a great deal to do with obscuring how little we as Americans actually do for people who find themselves in adverse circumstances. More subtly, America’s worship of giving, volunteering, and nonprofit human service work as the center of moral acts and heroic achievement allows the two other sectors of American life – the for-profit business sector and the government – to be legitimized.”

Wagner’s book deserves a more thorough review at a later time, but the juxtaposition of this month’s immense generosity and his crabbed vision was too much to ignore.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

If I Had a Hammer

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

The Washington Post reports that, due to an indictment on campaign-finance-related conspiracy charges, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas has stepped aside, at least temporarily, until his legal problems are cleared up. In his place, the House Republican caucus selected Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri.

According to the Post:

Conservatives objected to House Speaker Dennis Hastert's choice of California Republican David Dreier as a replacement for DeLay.

There was one big problem: When DeLay's indictment was unsealed yesterday, conservatives in the GOP caucus immediately erupted in anger over rumors that the selection of Dreier, whom they regard as too moderate, was being presented as a fait accompli.

As the conservatives met to vent frustrations and plot options, Hastert was changing course in a separate meeting on the second floor of the Capitol. Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the majority whip, was making a personal appeal for the promotion. Hastert agreed, forestalling a possible revolt by conservatives, who regard Blunt as one of their own.
There's another, far more obvious and unfortunately more sinister explanation for the conservatives' revolt: David Dreier is widely rumored to be gay, something acknowledged frequently in the British press (facing, oddly enough, far more plaintiff-friendly libel laws than the American media faces) and something that, it goes without saying, is unacceptable to social conservatives in the Republican Party. (Just ask Congressman -- and former Senate candidate -- Mark Foley.)

For instance, The Scotsman, in reporting that Prime Minister Tony Blair's son, Euan Blair, would be interning for Dreier, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, said:
Mr Dreier, who will be the 21-year-old's mentor during his internship, has been accused of hypocrisy for opposing legislation to stop discrimination against gay couples when questions have been asked about his personal life.

He is believed to live with his male chief of staff and has refused to comment on his sexuality.

However, campaigners have accused him of double standards, pointing to his voting record in which he has opposed legislation to ban discrimination against gay people in employment and supported a ban on gay and lesbian couples adopting in the district of Columbia, as well as rejecting hate-crimes legislation intended to protect gays.
And The Independent, a center-left quality paper based in London, had this to say on the same topic:
David Dreier, the Republican congressman expected to mentor Tony Blair's eldest son Euan during a summer internship in Washington, is a hypocritical homosexual with an anti-gay voting record, critics allege.
(My personal favorite was the June 26 headline in a blog called "Gay Orbit": "Blair’s Son to be Mentored By Gay Congressman.")

The political worlds of London and Washington are close enough that such rumors, even if they were being reported in tabloids alongside Page Six girls, are always close the surface and affect political decisionmaking.

Whoever succeeds DeLay, however, should not concern conservatives very much. It is widely acknowledged among lobbyists and other Washington insiders that even though DeLay has given up his titular leadership in the Republican caucus, he will still be standing in the shadows and giving orders through his erstwhile deputy, Blunt. DeLay is not the sort of politician who easily gives up power and he is not about to do so, even if he has to be the man behind the curtain pulling the levers and flashing the lights to make us believe that Blunt -- or even Hastert -- is the "great and powerful Oz." (Too bad Blunt comes from Missouri instead of Kansas; wouldn't that make the analogy too precious for words?)

Frankly, I'm surprised that conservatives of any stripe would be upset by DeLay's departure from the scene, as temporary or as phony as it might be. As recently as last week, DeLay fed the Washington Times a line that even the most gullible Republican envelope-stuffer would find hard to swallow:
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said yesterday that Republicans have done so well in cutting spending that he declared an "ongoing victory," and said there is simply no fat left to cut in the federal budget.

Mr. DeLay was defending Republicans' choice to borrow money and add to this year's expected $331 billion deficit to pay for Hurricane Katrina relief. Some Republicans have said Congress should make cuts in other areas, but Mr. DeLay said that doesn't seem possible.

"My answer to those that want to offset the spending is sure, bring me the offsets, I'll be glad to do it. But nobody has been able to come up with any yet," the Texas Republican told reporters at his weekly briefing.

Asked if that meant the government was running at peak efficiency, Mr. DeLay said, "Yes, after 11 years of Republican majority we've pared it down pretty good."
I was not the only Republican who was incredulous at DeLay's statement. David Keene of the American Conservative Union was shocked, too, and in the same article, Representative Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), one of the heroes of true conservatives (and libertarians) in Congress, said:
"This is hardly a well-oiled machine," said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican. "There's a lot of fat to trim. ... I wonder if we've been serving in the same Congress."
Tom DeLay is a perfect example of Stan Evans' oft-quoted epigram that "when our friends get elected, they cease to be our friends."

Add to this DeLay's bizarre statements of the past year -- taking issue with Supreme Court justices for using the Internet to do legal research and by complaining about the use of his name as a throw-away line within a fictional TV show -- and you have an array of reasons why conservatives should be glad to see him go, not just from his leadership position, but from Congress itself.

Conservatives should be happy to replace DeLay with someone who can do a better job at leading the party on Capitol Hill in a principled, responsible manner.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Back to School Again

With just about six weeks to go before the November 8 election, proponents of an elected school board in Charlottesville are gearing up for a full-scale campaign to make their case to the voters.

Although the elected-school-board option has succeeded some 105 out 108 attempts when put to Virginia voters as a local referendum, those favoring the shift from an appointed to an elected board are not complacent.

Here's an excerpt from an email circulating among Charlottesville citizens, which apparently originated with City Councilor Rob Schilling, who was elected in 2002 running on a platform that called for an elected school board:

Now that the elected school board referendum has been qualified to be placed on the November ballot, we need your help to get the word out and to make sure that it passes resoundingly!

Here’s what you can do to help:

1. Make a donation to the referendum committee. Checks should be made out to "Citizens for an Elected School Board" or “CFESB” and sent to : CFESB, c/o Rob Schilling, 1406 Holly Road, Charlottesville, VA 22901 (Donations will be used to pay for bumper stickers, yard signs, and ads. We need to raise several thousand dollars - donations in any amount are welcome!)

2. Let me know how many bumper stickers and yard signs you would like, and I will deliver them to you as soon as they are ready.

The debate over an elected school board is already unveiling fissures within the local Democratic party. In an email to George Loper, former City Democratic Committee chairman Lloyd Snook wrote:
If I thought that electing a School Board would assure better decisions, or a better education for our children, my view would be very much different. But I am afraid that what we would actually get would be a greatly elevated level of political activity, with much more speechifying and grandstanding, with no discernible improvement in the quality of education that our children receive. If we elect School Board members, I expect that we will end up with School Board candidates raising and spending thousands of dollars each to get themselves elected, but I doubt very seriously that the electorate will be any better informed when making their choices than the City Councilors who make the selections now.
(Snook's lengthy argument is worth reading as a whole.)

In response, Democratic activist Jeffrey Rossman -- who, along with Councilor Schilling, spearheaded the petition drive to put the school board measure on November's ballot -- wrote:
*Lloyd apparently has less faith in the voters of Charlottesville than I do. I trust the voters of the city -- 72 percent of whom voted for John Kerry -- to choose a diverse group of well-qualified candidates for the school board. A city that repeatedly gives the most votes to African-American city councillors is a city that is committed to diversity. Moreover, creationists and intelligent designers are not going to get far in this blue university town, Lloyd's fears notwithstanding.

*Lloyd and I have very different views about the nature of democratically elected institutions. I believe that such institutions tend to be more responsive, to operate more transparently, and to pursue policies that enjoy public support. These beliefs derive from my years of studying democratic and nondemocratic regimes. For all its faults, the democratic system is more stable and, ultimately, effective.

*Lloyd and I also have different views about the democratic political process, which he dismisses as so much "speechifying and grandstanding." By contrast, I believe that the democratic political process, for all its flaws, trains candidates to think about challenging issues and to communicate with and educate the public. This process is one that our schools and the community at large will benefit from if we transition to an elected school board.
(Again, this short excerpt does not do Rossman's full argument justice, so I recommend visiting to read the whole thing.)

In the meantime, a current member of the Charlottesville School Board has been musing that the U.S. Department of Justice may not approve the shift from appointed to elected school boards in the preclearance process required by the Voting Rights Act. In an email to the City Attorney, this board member writes:
The preclearance process is intended to prevent any change in voting that constitutes a retrogression in minority voting rights. Given Charlottesville's history of substantial minority representation on the appointed school board, I think that there is a fair argument that any system for electing board members--whether at-large or by election district--would be likely to reduce minority representation on the board and thus would constitute impermissible "retrogression."
This is an odd argument to make. Given that no voters, minority or otherwise, have a chance to elect school board members under the current system, how can that possibly constitute "retrogression in minority voting rights"? This can only be seen as an enhancement of minority voting rights, moving from zero rights to some rights.

We'll see how this all plays out between now and the first week of November. I hope to see a robust -- but civil -- debate throughout the campaign season.

And, by the way, what do our candidates for the House of Delegates in the 57th District think about all this? David Toscano and Tom McCrystal, Charlottesville voters want to know your position on an elected school board.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

You're So Vain

Broadway and television veteran Mandy Patinkin returns to series TV this week on Criminal Minds, a new CBS crime drama. (The series previewed last week but premieres in its regular timeslot on Wednesday, September 28). Writing in the Washington Post, critic Tom Shales gave this capsule review of the new show:

Criminal Minds asks the rhetorical question, "Will people ever stop imitating 'Silence of the Lambs' "? Jeez Louise, it was just a proficient thriller, not "Citizen Kane." Nevertheless, the pilot for this unspeakably pretentious crime series involves a sexually maladjusted killer and rapist and dwells on the suffering of his latest bound and caged captive in obvious "Lambs" style. Mandy Patinkin, most prominent of the leads, plays a cop recovering from a "major depressive episode," which is a good phrase to describe the premiere of this ghastly ordeal. (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Sept. 28 with a preview airing Thursday, Sept. 22 at 10 p.m.)
Meanwhile, over at Newsday, Diane Werts finds the show's portrayal of women problematic:
Watch - or don't, please - as CBS unleashes "Criminal Minds," whose pilot episode is a repulsively fetishized close-up of yet more woman-victimization....

"Criminal Minds" is led by Mandy Patinkin as a haunted profiling whiz who may be as nuts as his weekly quarry. He's been through one of those professional Waterloos that TV loves, with colleagues dying due to his actions, and is now struggling to regain his equilibrium. Straight-arrow Thomas Gibson ("Dharma & Greg") gets the thankless task of being Patinkin's FBI minder. Daytime heartthrob Shemar Moore ("The Young and the Restless") is the team's Mr. Slick, who uses his profession as a babe magnet, with Matthew Gray Gubler as the resident young intellectual genius-social buffoon. The token woman is Lola Glaudini, whose character naturally gets saddled with having been victimized herself years earlier, since this is apparently the only defining trait this sad subgenre allows anybody female.
Mandy Patinkin's return to network television made me want to revisit a review I wrote of one of his concert performances, in this case at the Kennedy Center three years ago. Here is the review as it appeared in The Metro Herald on July 12, 2002:
Mandy Patinkin: Vocal Gymnastics on Exhibit
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Mandy Patinkin is annoying.

This is not to say that the star of stage, film, and television is not talented. He is. Immensely so. The problem is, he behaves like he knows it.

Patinkin’s self-absorbed concert act was on display at the Kennedy Center last month, one of the productions under the umbrella of the Sondheim Celebration. He sang an intermissionless 90 minutes of Stephen Sondheim songs (one with music by Richard Rodgers) with aplomb, vocal agility, and irritating self-satisfaction.

This characteristic of Patinkin is not new. It showed through his early solo recordings, Mandy Patinkin (1989) and Dress Casual (1990). On those CDs, you can hear Mandy Patinkin use a microphone the way an Olympic gymnast uses a pommel horse. Lots of flash, impressive muscles, and an adrenalin rush – but when it’s over, you just have to think, “There’s no there there.”

Despite relatively smooth delivery of 33 songs divided into five medleys, plus an encore, Patinkin’s detachment from his audience – he plays on stage as though he’s alone in a studio – is just one factor in his disappointing, almost disembodied performance. To say the best element of the production is the lighting design is not so much an insult to the “star” as it is a compliment to the lighting designer, Eric Cornwell, who has created atmospherics that make the whole evening bearable with color (mostly reds and blues), haze and fog, and contrasts and gradations of light and dark. You could say the smoke and mirrors save the show.

Patinkin isn’t always like this. When he plays a character, directed by someone else, he is able to subordinate his ego to the larger work and achieve the brilliance for which he is capable and so well-known. He has shone as Che in Evita (winning a Tony Award®) and he won an Emmy® for his work on the TV series Chicago Hope. He practically defined the role of George/George in Sunday in the Park with George. In all those cases, however, he was part of a collaborative team and succeeded by following direction and working with his cast and crew toward a common goal. As a solo performer, Patinkin faces no such constraints and suffers for it.

How irritating it is for a singer to sing both parts of a duet (or multiple parts of a trio or choral number) without acknowledging that he is, in fact, playing two different characters? Patinkin’s rendition of “Beautiful” from Sunday in the Park with George makes no sense like this.

His performance borders on the histrionic, trying to demonstrate both his vocal range – baritone to tenor, and what a falsetto! – as well as his acting chops. “Look at me!,” he says, “I can prodce a lot of emotions on demand! I’m sad, I’m frantic, I’m happy, I’m adorable!”

He doesn’t have to do that.

What a contrast to Barbara Cook’s solo Sondheim show (returning to the Kennedy Center in August). Cook possesses genuine warmth for her audience. She also really, really likes the songs she sings. She brings you into her heart, and an evening of her in concert is like an evening of her in her home. Patinkin is distant, technical, cerebral in the way that Sondheim detractors claim the composer is.

Patinkin’s run in the Terrace Theatre ended on June 30. You didn’t miss much.
When I get around to it, I'll post my corresponding review of Barbara Cook's Sondheim concert. The contrast is stunning.

Monday, September 26, 2005

It's a Privilege to Pee

Here is my Metro Herald review of Urinetown, now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. People have been asking about it, so I should have posted it weeks ago.

Please note that Signature has extended the run of Urinetown through October 16 and has added two Saturday matinee performances. Check the Signature web site for details.

Urinetown: Just Go
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

(ARLINGTON) — Urinetown makes a mockery of the American musical theatre – and does a damn fine job of it.

Now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, the winner of three Tony® awards (out of nine nominations) took New York by storm four years ago and it is about to sweep the country, as regional theatres across the United States begin to mount local productions.

What is Urinetown? That all depends on what your definition of “is” is.

Too deep to be parody, Urinetown is too original to be pastiche. Its targets are too diffuse to call it satire, and if it’s sarcastic – well, the play winks at its audience as if to say, “don’t take us too seriously. But watch out for what’s coming around the corner!” You could say Urinetown is sardonic, but despite its dark, pseudo-Brechtian exterior, it’s too lighthearted for that. Urinetown is what results from producing an essentially unproducible show.

Urinetown takes the cliches of musical theatre, twists them around, knocks them on the head, strips them of their costumes, and leaves them moaning in the gutter – barely breathing but enough for us to know they’ll live to play another day.

Urinetown is that rare animal that makes fun of the theatre without making any explicit reference to show biz. Post-modern? It’s one step removed from that. Call it post-post-modern.

For the fan of Broadway musicals, however, the subtle references to previous works – some hugely popular, some cult favorites – are too numerous to count. The references come in every form – musical, visual, dialogue, plot devices – and I can imagine a sort of parlor game developing out of “Name That Show (based on hidden clues in Urinetown).” From Fiddler on the Roof to Les Miserables, from The Threepenny Opera to Ragtime, from Anything Goes to Sweeney Todd, there is hardly any significant musical play or musical comedy of the past 75 years that is not a target of Urinetown.

The plot of Urinetown, in a nutshell, is this: In some vague time in the distant future (or is it the recent past?), a drought forces the government to ban private toilets. People who need to urinate must do so at public facilities owned by a private monopoly, and must pay to do it. (Hence the song, “It’s a Privilege to Pee.”) Eventually, the people rebel against this oppressive regime and everyone lives happily ever after – or do they?

While the subject matter of Urinetown may seem off-color and off-putting – and purposefully so, according to librettist/lyricist Greg Kotis and composer/lyricist Mark Hollman -- the play really deserves nothing more than a PG-13 rating, if that. There is no lewdness or harsh language in Urinetown, and despite the suggestion of violence, its subject matter is suitable for older children and young teenagers, though its sophistication (in a musical and literary sense) means it will be most appreciated by an older audience with many years’ experience of theatregoing.

At times Urinetown seems to take its cues from the world of Saturday morning cartoons (the kind of cartoons we watched in the 1960s, or on Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” today). Whether they know it or not, Hollman and Kotis learned more than a few things from the likes of Rocky & Bullwinkle (in fact, they have learned much more than did the producers of the live-action Rocky and Bullwinkle movie of a few years ago, but that’s fodder for another essay entirely). For example, the cartoonish device of having a highly visible sign that says “Secret Hideout” at the entrance to a, well, secret hideout is one used by some high school friends and I in a movie we made for an English class project back in 1976 – but it is no less funny for being well-worn.

As we have come to expect from Signature, director Joe Calarco has assembled a stellar cast, both from among the regular members of Signature Theatre’s repertory company – Will Gartshore, Donna Migliaccio, Evan Casey, and others – and from newcomers to Signature, such as Anthony Aloise and Stephen F. Schmidt.

The actors get to play characters with such delicious names as Caldwell B. Cladwell (the role for which Broadway veteran John Cullum earned a Tony® nomination, here played by Christopher Bloch), an obvious take-off of Marc Blitzstein’s Mr. Mister in The Cradle Will Rock, and the policemen, narrator Officer Lockstock and his sidekick, Officer Barrel.

Set designer James Kronzer makes good use of Signature’s raw space inside an old auto-body shop. Stripped to its bare walls, the Signature stage is gloomy, industrial, and goth-like. The lighting design of Chris Lee adds to the dreary equation.

Of course, the creative costumes designed by Anne Kennedy really make the show. They suggest the Depression era without being too specific, so we can still imagine that Urinetown is anytime, anyplace.

Urinetown’s run at Signature Theatre has been extended through October 16. Tickets may be hard to come by. If you miss this production – and I hope you don’t – Live Arts in Charlottesville will be mounting Urinetown in the summer of 2006, replacing the venerable Live Arts Summer Theatre Festival. Go now or go then, just go.

Performances of Urinetown are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. at Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington, Virginia. Tickets are priced from $31 to $55 and are available by calling at 800-955-5566 or 703-218-6500. Tickets may also be purchased online at

The Urinetown original cast recording, libretto (with quite interesting introductory material by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman), and vocal score are all available through

Saturday, September 24, 2005

A Hero Is Coming

It may be hard to believe, but more than 50 years after the war ended, the President of the United States yesterday presented the Congressional Medal of Honor to a hero of the Korean War, Tibor Rubin -- who is also a Holocaust survivor.

The Washington Post reports in this morning's editions:

Rubin was 15 when U.S. soldiers opened the camp at Mauthausen, Austria, and he recalled yesterday that his 14 months there ended with a solemn promise: "I was going to go to the U.S. and join the U.S. Army to show my appreciation. . . . It was my wish to fight alongside them."

More than half a century later, President Bush yesterday bestowed the nation's highest military honor on Rubin, who not only joined the U.S. Army but also saved the lives of dozens of fellow American soldiers during the Korean War. Rubin used his survival skills from the brutal concentration camp to help nurture his U.S. comrades in a communist prisoner-of-war camp in the early 1950s, the White House said, giving hope and sustenance to soldiers who otherwise would likely have died in the custody of Chinese troops.
Yesterday, NPR's "All Things Considered" carried an interview with Rubin -- with warnings of graphic language -- that suggests Rubin's story is worthy of a screenplay, if not a cable-TV miniseries.

Describing his life in a Chinese-run prisoner-of-war camp, NPR's Michele Norris reported:

Food was so scarce that Rubin began to sneak out at night to steal whatever he could find -- barley, millet, animal feed.

Rubin had picked up essential survival skills in the concentration camps. The most important of those lessons, he said, was that the mind could prevail even as the body suffered. He kept his fellow soldiers going through pep talks.

"You just cannot give up," Rubin says he told them. "I don't think the Lord is going to help you; he's only going to help you if you help yourself. You have to try and you have to get home somehow."

More than 1,600 POWs died that winter at Camp 5 in Korea. Rubin's fellow detainees say his actions kept at least 40 prisoners alive. Over the next decades Rubin was nominated several times for service medals, including the Medal of Honor.

But there were always problems with the paperwork. The Pentagon now says that someone in his chain of command may have stymied the process because Rubin was a Hungarian Jew.

But he says that "after 55 years, I never figured I'm going to get it, so I'm very happy."

The Post concludes its report:

Rubin said that he stole food from his captors to feed his sick friends, and that he nurtured the weak through the hardest times. He said he knew that survival was mostly mind over matter, and that he tried to get his fellow soldiers to think positively.

"I tried to brainwash them, telling them they had to stay strong, not to forget their parents, that they have to get home and to not give up," Rubin said. "It wasn't easy on them. For someone that young, it's a nightmare. But I had been through it once, and that's why I came through and helped them.

"My mother used to tell us that we're all brothers and sisters, and in the Jewish religion, if you do a mitzvah -- nothing but a good deed -- that's better than if you go to temple and beat your head and ask the Lord to help you," he said. "I helped people because I could."

A Hell of an Election

By way of The Coffeehouse Soapbox (who mentions our mutual friend, Nigel Ashford, in the process) and Boi from Troy, I have learned that a Log Cabin Republican activist is challenging a sitting member of Congress in the 2006 GOP primary in New York's 19th District.

Boi from Troy links to an article in The Hill that explains how 26-year-old Jeff Cook, who is openly gay, has thrown down the gauntlet to Representative Sue Kelly, first elected in the "Contract With America" class of 1994:

In the Hill article, published on September 22, reporter Peter Savodnik -- who, if memory serves, used to cover local politics for the Daily Progress here in Charlottesville -- writes:

Training his sights on Kelly, Cook portrayed the congresswoman as having lost sight of the Contract With America, which she endorsed when she was first elected to Congress, in 1994.

He cited the recently passed transportation bill, which was loaded with thousands of local spending items, or “pork,” and was supported by the congresswoman.

The American Conservative Union has taken issue with Kelly’s opposition to a conservative budget resolution, support for funding of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, and other issues.

“I have become really concerned in the last couple of years about the direction of some of the leaders in our party,” Cook said. “If the Republican Party is unwilling … to stand up to the trappings and the temptations of big government, then who will? We’ve got to have a dividing line. There’s got to be a party to stand up for the taxpayer.”
Sounding a couple of libertarian notes, Cook explains how being gay and being a conservative Republican are not irreconcilable:
Cook maintained that being gay would not hurt him in a Republican primary. He added that he opposes the Federal Marriage Amendment on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional and contrary to his small-government philosophy.

Striking a careful ideological balance, Cook said families, not government, should make life’s most important decisions — about schools, for instance — but offered an expansive view of “family” including adoption by gay couples.

“The reality of life in America is that many gay and lesbian couples are raising children,” he said. “I do not have children. I hope one day to have children.”
A currently unavailable web site for the "Jeff Cook for Congress Exploratory Committee" says:
This fall I will meet and visit with residents of New York's 19th Congressional District. I look forward to sharing my conservative vision of less government, individual opportunity, and a secure America with voters in Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, and Westchester Counties. My candidacy brings strong leadership and a new voice to in these times. I hope that you will join me in bringing accountablitily and responsibility.
It adds: is under construction. Please check back here in October to view my completed website.
This race should be increasingly entertaining as it develops.

The House I Live In

It comes as no surprise, but even this poorly-designed on-line quiz pegs me as a libertarian:

You are a

Social Liberal
(81% permissive)

and an...

Economic Conservative
(90% permissive)

You are best described as a:


Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid

We Shall Not Be Moved

QandO (Questions and Observations), a self-described "neo-libertarian" blog, has a report on a recent congressional hearing on the question of whether the Federal Election Commission should regulate bloggers like us -- those who talk about political issues. (This was, alert readers will recall, a primary topic of discussion at the first Virginia bloggers' conference hosted by the Sorensen Institute last month.)

QandO contributor McQ writes:

...there are two schools of thought here. One that takes up Toner's theme that blogging should be exempt and that Congress should legislate that exemption under the auspicies of free speech rights.

There are others who say that the argument gives credence to the right of the government to regulate bloggers that they really don't have under the First Amendment and that we should instead be telling them to butt out (under the provisions of the First Amendment) and essentially ignore anything they come up with. Or said another way, continue with business as usual, and if they pass a law restricting or regulating blogging, ignore it by engaging in massive civil disobedience.

I'm inclined toward the latter response for a number of reasons. First, I completely agree that it is a free speech issue and it is McCain-Feingold which is the problem here, not political blogging. The entire point of the free speech portion of the First Amendment was to protect political speech. Now we see an attempt to regulate it. I see that M-F as an illegitimate law which infringes on the basic right of a blogger to espouse freely his or her political opinion as guaranteed by the Constitution.
He goes on to say something which I would be hardpressed to gainsay:
I'd suggest we'd (bloggers) only run afoul of "legal problems" and "the red tape of regulation" if the mass of political bloggers recognize and then adhere to them. Massive civil disobedience in the face of a threat to First Amendment rights is the popular side of the fight. Oppressive regulation is the unpopular side. Guess how long those regulations will last if it starts to impact your local Congressman or woman's reelection chances?

I'm not buying we're at the mercy of the FEC. I see it the other way around on this particular issue. . . .

The FEC may not be "speech police" but any regulation of bloggers sure is going to make it seem like they are. And that is why the issue is a winner for bloggers and a loser for the FEC, McCain-Feingold and government overreach.

I think we (bloggers) should push it.
As the political bloggers' pledge says, "If the FEC makes rules that limit my First Amendment right to express my opinion on core political issues, I will not obey those rules."

We shall not be moved.

A Little Priest

For many years, before it became socially acceptable to be openly gay, the best way for gay Catholic boys (and men) to escape bothersome questions from grandmothers and other family members like "Are you seeing any nice girls?" and "When are you going to get married?" was to join the priesthood. Nice Catholic boys who became priests never had the reasons for their celibate lifestyle questioned by nosy relatives.

Being a priest meant never having to explain why you're not married. And there's no one prouder than a Catholic grandmother who can pull out a snapshot and beam to her bridge club "This is my grandson, the priest!" (Well, that was the case while I was growing up; things have changed a bit in recent years.)

The existence of gay men in the Catholic clergy is not exactly news. Writing more than 20 years ago in the anthology Homosexuality and the Catholic Church, Robert Nugent said in a chapter entitled "Homosexuality, Celibacy, Religious Life, and Ordination":

I suspect that it comes as no surprise to read that the Roman Catholic Church has historically always numbered among its ordained clergy and vowed religious women and men individuals of a homosexual orientation. . .

If we accept Carl Jung's description of the homosexual personality, we could argue rather convincingly that there are many valid and honorable reasons to account for what many people suspect is a higher percentage of homosexual people in religious and church vocations than in the general population. According to Jung, homosexual people possess a particular receptivity to spiritual realities, a richness in religious feelings, a sensitivity to past values, and a conservative temperament in the best sense of that term (Jung, 1959). Other commentators have noted that lesbian and gay people seem drawn to nurturing professions such as teaching, nursing, and ministry and that many show a real concern for future generations in ways other than biological reproduction.
That "higher percentage" was addressed in a report from the Commission on Social Justice of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in July 1982, called "Homosexuality and Social Justice." Chapter 6, "Lesbian Women and Gay Men in Religious Congregations/Orders, and Priesthood" notes two then-recent studies:
Edward Molloy, C.S.C., raises the question as to whether there are, in fact, more homosexuals in the Roman Catholic priesthood than statistical probabilities would lead us to expect. He quotes Richard Wood, O.P., as saying that a rather conservative estimate of the number of homosexual men and women in the Catholic priesthood and religious life falls around 30%, with a proportionate number in the Protestant ministry, and the Rabbinate. On the other side of the issue, Molloy quotes John Harvey as saying that homosexuality is not greater among priests and religious than among the general population, although the same data suggests [sic] that the incidence of latent homosexual conflicts is greater among seminarians and male religious.
(The citations are from Edward Molloy, Homosexuality and the Christian Way of Life, published in 1981. So the statistics are old, but that is my point -- this is not a new issue by any stretch of the imagination.)

Now the Washington Post and other media outlets are reporting that the Vatican is about to publish a document that will lead to the purging of seminaries the world over, in an attempt to cut down on the number of current and future homosexual priests.

Nicole Winfield, writing for the Associated Press, reported on Thursday:
A Vatican document will be released in the coming weeks that reaffirms the Catholic Church's belief that homosexuals shouldn't be ordained priests, a Vatican official said Thursday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the document has not been released, said the "instruction" from the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education would contain "some new things and some old things" and would be released well before the end of the year.

That timeframe means the document will be released just as a Vatican-mandated evaluation of all U.S. seminaries, ordered in the wake of the U.S. clergy sex abuse scandal, gets under way.
On Friday, the Post's Alan Cooperman expanded on this report, adding:
Experts in Rome and the United States cautioned yesterday that its practical impact on candidates for the priesthood would depend on its precise wording and implementation, both of which remain to be seen.

But the document's symbolic impact is already rippling through the Roman Catholic Church and beyond, hailed by some as a much-needed antidote to a gay clerical subculture and derided by others as a misguided attempt to blame homosexuals for the church's pedophilia scandals.
Cooperman quoted a gay priest who, for obvious reasons, preferred to remain anonymous:
A U.S. priest who says he is gay but celibate, and who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his job, predicted that the document would push homosexual seminarians and priests further underground and ultimately be self-defeating.

"If you're not going to allow people to speak openly with their rectors and spiritual advisers and friends, if you drive it underground, you'll have less psychologically healthy men, not more healthy ones," he said. "In their effort to address the sexual abuse crisis, they're re-creating the precise kind of environment that gave rise to it."

The gay priest also said he deeply resented "this attempt to blame the whole pedophilia scandal on gay priests rather than on the bishops" who moved sexual abusers from parish to parish instead of reporting them to police.

"People like myself -- if we're not allowed to be public, and the bishops aren't able to acknowledge that there are gay but celibate priests who, frankly, are doing a lot of the work of the church -- then all they're going to see is pedophiles," he said.
There may be another effect, which may be getting discussed in church circles, though I have not yet seen it in the news media.

To someone, like me, with eight years of Jesuit education who attends Sunday Mass at a Dominican parish, it's natural to wonder if one of the unintended consequences of the "new" Vatican policy will be to drive more gay priests into religious orders and away from diocesan seminaries.

Groups like the Jesuits and the Dominicans run themselves fairly autonomously -- though in theory they are under the authority of their local bishops wherever they operate. They have their own novitiates (as opposed to "seminaries") and set their own criteria for admissions as well as create and implement their own curricula.

In coming years, these orders may become refuges for gay priests and gay seminarians who want to escape the reach of diocesan discipline. And not just the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans): let's not forget the Paulists and Maryknollers, who have liberal reputations; I know of at least one prominent Paulist priest who used to be a minister in the Metropolitan Community Church, a largely gay evangelical denomination. (See Edward Allwood's 1998 book, Straight News; look closely in the photo sections and those who know to whom I refer will find him there.)

For good or ill, the controversy that will be sure to result from the new Vatican document, and from any actions that follow it, will be the mark that defines the new papacy of Benedict XVI.

Now, why is it that I keep finding stories that underscore the theme, "everything old is new again"?

Friday, September 23, 2005

Everything Old Is New Again

With the approach of Hurricane Rita toward the Texas Gulf Coast, it should come as no surprise that we are still talking about Hurricane Katrina and its vast effects along the Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana coasts -- and especially what Katrina did to the city of New Orleans.

More precisely, Topic A is the government's response to Katrina, and whether the Bush administration did all at could in terms of relief and recovery. Others might ask whether the Bush administration, especially the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was simply incompetent or actually malevolent.

In that context, I found a piece called "FEMA: Everything Old Is New Again," in the September 20 issue of "What We Now Know" (WWNK), a weekly trend letter from Casey Research. I recommend this article -- and not just because it quotes some of my long-ago congressional testimony -- and reprint it here with permission of Casey Research.

FEMA: Everything Old Is New Again

Consider the following:

“FEMA has been accused of being a ‘political dumping ground filled by the Bush administration with inexperienced appointees who [have] mismanaged the agency, misled Congress, and funneled contracts to their friends,’ to quote the Washington Post.

“... the question of what to do about FEMA will remain. Recent major disasters caused by [hurricanes] have raised much criticism of the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In a Post interview, Stickney admitted that FEMA’s performance ‘fell below public expectations’ but he argued that the agency acted as swiftly as it could given its limited powers. This ‘limited powers’ argument stems from the wording of the Disaster Relief Act in which the Federal Government steps in only after a State Governor declares that the effects of the disaster are beyond the capacity of the State to cope and requests Federal assistance....

“What will [the President] do about FEMA? Don’t expect anything to happen in a hurry.... A likely move is to appoint a caretaker and establish a committee to study the problem for a year.”

What did you just read? Were these excerpts from an editorial in the New York Times? A scathing fundraising letter from the Democratic National Committee? A Government Accountability Office report?

Actually, those comments come from an article written by former emergency management official Jerry Strope and published in a 1993 issue of the Journal of Civil Defense. The “hurricanes” mentioned were Andrew and Iniki, and “Stickney” was Wallace Stickney, the outgoing FEMA director at the end of the first Bush administration. The "President" was the about-to-be-inaugurated Bill Clinton.

As the song goes, "everything old is new again."

Criticism of the federal disaster response agency is anything but new. A December 1989 article, also in the Journal of Civil Defense, noted that, after Hurricane Hugo hit the Atlantic coast, “One irate editorial castigated FEMA for not sending out promptly federal teams to help restore power to communities in South Carolina. FEMA has no such teams and the electric power companies have a well-organized mutual aid capability. Senator [Ernest] Hollings called the agency ‘a bunch of bureaucratic jackasses.’”

That last comment contains a hint that deserves further attention, the important yet underrated role of the private sector in disaster mitigation—in this case, how private electrical utilities have extensive disaster response plans that cross state lines and permit cooperation even among companies that normally might be seen as competitors. But that’s not the sole example.

In recent days, we have seen the same sort of response from the private sector, not just non-profits like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities, but even profit-making companies like Wal-Mart. (The White House has compiled a list of private contributions totaling more than $516 million.) Their examples demonstrate, by contrast, that the private sector is more flexible, more responsive, and less hidebound than government bureaucracy.

Public-choice economics teaches us that government bureaucrats have nothing to lose by standing still and everything to lose by taking risks (that is, making choices). New Orleans Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss put it succinctly in a radio interview: Preparing effectively for disasters, he said, “requires a nimble bureaucracy, and I have yet to encounter a nimble bureaucracy.” In contrast, private businesses—and non-profit organizations—can turn on a dime, if necessary.

Interviewed on National Public Radio, the mayor of Kenner, Louisiana, said:

“FEMA couldn't get here. Red Cross couldn't get here. Homeland Security couldn't get here. The only one who could get here was the Wal-Mart Corporation. We were—we are—extremely appreciative and extremely grateful for them, and we'd certainly suggest that maybe some of those other folks go over and meet with the Wal-Mart people so that they can learn distribution and logistics.”

Wal-Mart had trucked in hundreds of trailers filled with water and ice (some of which, upon entering New Orleans, were reportedly turned back by FEMA personnel). The company’s emergency response coordinator, Jason Jackson, told NPR that his crew had been prepared more than three months ago in anticipation of hurricane season:

"We had already, for instance, staged over 160 trailer loads of water in a number of different distribution centers throughout Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas because we knew that they would be needed.”

And despite getting the most publicity, Wal-Mart has only contributed $3 million in cash and goods so far—but that doesn't include the company's decades-long investment in logistics and inventory control that made its prompt response possible.

If FEMA never learns from its experience, perhaps it is time to move in a different direction—one relying more heavily on the private sector and expecting less from the federal government.

Let’s remember that planning for disaster response is primarily a local activity. There is not much need for a central role to be played by the federal government, even in terms of funding. It makes much more sense for local authorities in Miami to make contingency plans for hurricanes, or for authorities in the Missouri River basin to prepare for spring floods, or for Buffalo to get ready for blizzards. Contributions to these efforts by bureaucrats in far-away Washington are limited.

It is but a short step from here to suggest that disaster planning—particularly in regard to locally contained natural or manmade disasters—can be performed mostly by the private sector. In many ways, this is already done. Architects and engineers who build homes and office towers in earthquake zones already take into account ways to quake-proof their structures. Mormon families, in keeping with their religious tradition, stockpile at least a year's worth of provisions—in part a reaction to their community’s collective memory of the hardships in the early years of frontier life. And despite their eccentric reputations, “survivalist” groups offer inexpensive, practical suggestions for preparing households for temporary or long-term crises.

Given the manifest, systemic weaknesses of the federal government in this arena, market forces must more fully come into play. First, individuals, families, and businesses will have to judge the probability of potential disasters that might affect them. Second, they will weigh the costs of preparing for disasters against the opportunity costs of not preparing.

Those who believe that planning and preparations are a worthwhile investment will seek out or establish institutions that can aid them in that endeavor, either profit-making businesses (such as firms that make easy-to-store provisions) or non-profit entities (like the Red Cross or the American Civil Defense Association). Insurance companies should offer special disaster policies to those with good plans; underwrite voluntary, community-based efforts to prevent disaster; and explore efficient yet humane ways to deal with disasters after they occur.

In congressional testimony over two decades ago, Richard Sincere of the American Civil Defense Association said: "With its extraordinary natural and economic resources, the United States does not need dictatorial control to protect its people. The interstate highway system, the number of automotive vehicles, wide areas of open, rural land, a strong economy—all these could contribute to effective civil defense. The natural freedom and mobility of the American people, their democratic spirit, their respect for law and order, their many skills and talents—these are assets without equal in the modern world."

All this remains true today. Despite the anomalous behavior of some people in New Orleans after Katrina, expectations that Americans respond well in the face of disaster have not diminished. Human and economic resources may still be applied in times of crisis without the heavy hand of government controlling them.

This article originally appeared in the weekly e-letter, What We Now Know (WWNK) -- published by, and used here with permission from, Casey Research, LLC. Click here to sign up for a FREE subscription to WWNK, or check out past editions in the WWNK archives at

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Keep It Gay!

At first, I just thought I was (mis)hearing things. But I checked with others, and they said they heard the same thing.

Here in Virginia, Democratic candidate for governor Tim Kaine is running a TV commercial touting his support for government schools -- higher teacher pay, pre-K education for all, etc.

The last line in the ad, delivered by a female narrator, is "Keep Gangs Out of Our Schools." This is accompanied by a graphic with those exact words.

Yet each time I heard the ad on television, the last line sounded to me like "Keep Gays Out of Our Schools." By the time I decided to ask for other people's opinion about the commercial, I had heard the Kaine ad at least three times, and each time I did a double-take to look at the screen to confirm what I thought I had heard.

Thinking I just needed to see a doctor about my hearing, I asked some other people (in other parts of Virginia and in the D.C. media market) if they heard the same thing. They agreed -- it appears that the narrator is swallowing the "ng" sound on her line, so it sounds like "keep gays out of our schools."

Whether the Kaine campaign did this on purpose is a question I am not able to answer. But it certainly is suspicious. In a state like Virginia, it doesn't pay to be perceived as too pro-gay, but Northern Virginia voters, soccer moms, and -- yes, Virginia, we do exist -- gay citizens might not respond too positively to out-and-out anti-gay rhetoric. Hence, an attempt at subliminal seduction. (And not the first attempt, either.)

Listen to the ad for yourself. It's on the Kaine campaign web site. I recommend listening with your eyes closed, first, then listening again and watching at the same time.

Let me add that I delayed posting this reflection for more than a week and a half, until I had time to ask more than a few people if they heard the same thing I did. When I got feedback that indicated I was not alone, I thought it was appropriate to go public with my musings.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Signature Blues

An article in Thursday's Washington Post caught my eye just as I was about to turn the Metro section page to look at the obituaries. Given my current position on the Electoral Board for the City of Charlottesville and my continuing concerns about election law, the headline was sure to grab me: "D.C. Election Fraud Case Advances." I was unaware of any recent charges of election fraud in the Nation's Capital. Reading along, I realized this was an update on an old story. It began:

Three years after a petition scandal rocked the reelection campaign of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, prosecutors are moving forward with criminal charges against three campaign workers accused of violating city election laws.

* * *

The charges recall a tumultuous time for the mayor, who in 2002 was seeking his second term. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics took him off the Democratic primary ballot that year, saying that though he apparently had more than the 2,000 valid signatures that were required, most were collected by campaign workers who might have violated city election law. The board later levied a $277,700 fine against the mayor's campaign. Williams won the primary as a write-in candidate and easily won reelection.

By coincidence, soon after the petition problem emerged, I conducted an interview with Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, to explore that very topic. Here is that article, as it appeared in The Metro Herald on August 16, 2002:

Mayor Williams and the Ballot Access Situation
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Charlottesville Bureau Chief

The political surprise of the summer came when DC election officials denied incumbent Mayor Anthony Williams a place on the Democratic primary ballot, after political activists (both Republican and Democrat) found discrepancies and fraudulent signatures on the Mayor’s nominating petitions. Mayor Williams’ appeal to the courts failed, and he will seek the Democratic nomination for his reelection as a write-in candidate.

In order to look more deeply at how this situation could come about, The Metro Herald’s Rick Sincere interviewed Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, a monthly newsletter published in San Francisco (and available online at A recent article in the Washington Post described Winger as “America’s leading authority on ballot access.”

Here are Winger’s answers to ten questions posed by The Metro Herald:

The Metro Herald: Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington, D.C., recently was denied a place on the District’s Democratic primary ballot because of flaws in his nomination petitions. Is this a unique situation? That is to say, are you aware of other cases in which incumbent candidates have failed to get on the ballot for either primary or general elections?

Richard Winger: I can’t think of any incumbent Democrats or Republicans who were ever left off the ballot as they tried to run for renomination before Mayor Williams. Generally when something bad happens to major party candidates, the law that caused the problem is quickly eased. For example, in 1990 the Democratic Party of Virginia lost its status as a qualified party, but the legislature was called into special session early in 1991, and the law that presented the problem for the Democratic Party was quickly changed.

The only incumbents that I can think of who couldn’t get their names on the ballot were the first Communist Party city councilman in New York City (he was elected in 1937 but his petitions were successfully challenged in 1939) and the Libertarian Party members of the Harris County, Texas, county Board of Education (elected in a nonpartisan election in 1981, the legislature changed the office to a partisan office, due for the next election in 1984; since the Libertarian Party of Texas failed to get on the ballot in 1984, its incumbents couldn’t run for reelection).

MH: To get on the ballot as a mayoral candidate in Washington requires 2,000 signatures. How does this compare to requirements in other cities?

RW: Washington, D.C.’s petition for mayoral candidates to run in a primary is more severe than in most cities. In most cities, candidates don’t even need a petition; instead they pay a filing fee.

MH: Some states have particularly burdensome ballot-access requirements. Could you offer some examples?

RW: The worst ballot access in the United States is the Georgia law for minor party and independent candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives. It has existed since 1943. It has never been used by a minor party candidate and hasn’t been used by an independent candidate since 1964, and back in 1964 the law was somewhat more lenient than it is today.

MH: Alternatively, some states have rather liberal ballot-access laws. Do these laws result in crowded ballots or confusing ballots, as some proponents of stringent requirements argue?

RW: There have been crowded ballots in some states. But any state that requires at least 5,000 signatures for statewide independent or minor party candidates has never had a crowded ballot. In all history, no such state has ever had more than eight candidates on the ballot (including the major party nominees), except there were nine in Ohio in 1976 (5,000 signatures were required) and also New York has had some crowded ballots (while requiring 15,000) but only because that state allows candidates to appear on the ballot under two or even three party labels.

MH: Of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, which do you think offers the best model for ballot-access laws?

RW: Delaware has the best law for minor-party ballot access. There are no petitions. Any group [that] has voter registration membership equal to one-twentieth of 1 percent is automatically on the general election ballot (it nominates by convention unless its membership is 5 percent of the number of registered voters).

MH: How do other democracies (for instance, Canada or the United Kingdom) deal with the issue of ballot access? Do they also require petitions, as in much of the United States, or do they use another method?

RW: The United Kingdom requires only 10 signatures to run for House of Commons. It also requires a filing fee of 500 pounds, but the money is returned if the candidate gets at least 5 percent of the vote. The only nations with sizeable petitions are nations [that] were once part of the Soviet Union.

MH: In the August 11th edition of the Washington Post, law professor Jamin Raskin suggests that nominating petitions and signature gathering should be replaced by another method, such as having candidates prove that they participated in a certain number of hours of community service. Do you think Raskin’s suggested replacements are workable?

RW: Raskin is right to criticize signature gathering. I would replace signature gathering with filing fees. Of course there must be an alternate method for people with no money. But when states offer a choice, 99 percent of all candidates choose the filing fee method.

MH: Are ballot-access laws designed to hobble third-party and independent candidates?

RW: In some states, yes. The worst states are Georgia, Alabama, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and North Carolina.

MH: The significant flaws in Mayor Williams’ petitions were discovered by Republican party activists, who brought them to the attention of DC election officials and the press. Do you think that challenges of nominating petitions by activists from another political party can escalate into a sort of arms race? Is it possible, for instance, that DC Democrats will seek revenge by challenging Republican candidates in future elections?

RW: I don’t know. I don’t believe in a challenge system. If a government requires signatures, the government ought to check them for validity itself. If it’s too much work to check them, then delete them from the law.

MH: Do you have any other comments on ballot-access laws that may shed light on the Mayor Williams case?

RW: The cost of counting all the write-ins that will be cast in the DC Democratic mayoral primary next month will be high. Tax money will be spent foolishly. By contrast, if DC has filing fees for ballot access, not only would the election cost less to administer, the city would even get a bit of revenue from the fees.

MH: Where can our readers learn more about ballot access and other election laws? Do you recommend any recent books or periodicals that deal with this subject?

RW: The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America, published in 2000, has a great article about the history of ballot access laws in volume I.

I tried finding The Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America on Amazon, but had no luck. Wikipedia says that it was published by Sharpe Reference in 2000 and edited by Immanuel Ness and James Ciment. Amazon does have a listing for Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America, by Earl R. Kruschke, but that was published in 1991. They are clearly two different reference volumes. It's odd that the more recent book would be unlisted while the older one is available for purchase.