March 31st, 2010

God Decides Not To Wait Until Afterlife To Begin The Punishing of John Edwards

by Philip Baruth

The ironies don’t get much crueler, for a guy who cheated on his terminally ill wife, fathered a love-child blamed on another man, and attempted to take his Party down with him. CNN knows how to bring the pain, certainly. Favorite element of this carefully constructed bit of knife-twisting? “Click to Play.” Well, Edwards can tell himself that he’ll always have the sane and comforting Rielle Hunter.

March 30th, 2010

New York Regulators on Enexus Proposal: Entergy Can Go Right Straight To (S)hell!

by Philip Baruth

In all the healthcare hullaballoo, this brilliant story slipped by almost undetected, and it’s a big, big bit of brilliance: regulators in New York State nixed Entergy’s proposal to create the now-infamous spin-off, Enexus. If you remember, the idea was that Entergy would create an LLC called Enexus, a shell corporation, which would in turn borrow billions for no other reason than to hand them back to Entergy, in exchange for its six aging nuclear plants and all their clean-up and maintenance issues into perpetuity.

Not a bad deal, for the folks in Louisiana anyway. How do you work out a deal like that? Make sure you’re both buyer and seller. That’s key.

But now there’s a fly in the ointment, and the fly has a New York accent. Regulators determined, after much thought, that there was essentially nothing in it for taxpayers or ratepayers. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, nuclear activists and critical Vermont lawmakers have been saying for years now.

And that raises a final interesting question. If New York regulators don’t like the deal, and Vermont lawmakers don’t like the deal, and voters who get wind of the deal don’t like the deal, why does Governor Douglas like the deal?

Right. Because he’ll be long gone when that particular deal goes down. Always thinking, that Uncle Jim. Always thinking.

March 29th, 2010

Michael Steele Is Paranoid AND They’re Out To Get Him, Because That’s How He Rolls

by Philip Baruth

We brought you coverage of the plot to get Michael Steele a few weeks back, and argued that with the elite of his party so clearly gunning for him, Steele had until May Day or thereabouts before he’d be packing his bags at the RNC. Right on time: today’s damaging spending reports, especially charges rung up at a California bondage club. Steele claims (with cause, we would argue) that someone’s out to get him.

But let’s face facts. When Steele took over last year, the RNC had $22 million and they’ve raised $96 million since. Which is a total of $118 million. How much left today, just 365 days later? Less than $10 million.

Which is ballgame, friends.

March 29th, 2010

Sarah Says Your Arms Are Your Vote, But In The Peaceful Sense of Arms That Just Hug

by Philip Baruth

Sarah Palin tries so hard to blow the dog whistle, but it just takes a little more nuance than she can manage, finally. So if you listen to her long enough, you’ll find the revealing and the ugly always come tumbling out. Case in point: Palin in Searchlight, Nevada, trying to simultaneously whip up the Tea Partiers and rewrite the current narrative concerning violence on the Right. But right in the middle of it all, nuance be damned, she just comes right out with it:

Here’s the money quote, in at about 3:34 or so. She’s responding to criticism of her Facebook page, which put targets on the pictures of health-care friendly Democrats:

“Now media: try to get this right, okay? That’s not inciting violence. What’s that? What that’s doing is trying to inspire people to get involved, in their local elections and in these upcoming Federal elections. It’s telling people that their arms are their vote. It’s not inciting violence.”

Oh, VDB sees. If it’s only telling people that their arms are their vote, then never mind. End of story. All better.

March 23rd, 2010

Welch Stars In Post Healthcare Tick-Tock

by Philip Baruth

We do love us a tick-tock here at VDB: longer investigative pieces that trace the moment to moment development of a crucial news story. It’s the closest you get to the novel, in the world of journalism. And the Post has a piece up today that you have to love, detailing the healthcare bill’s return from the dead. One hero of this novelistic snippet? One Peter Welch (D-Vermont). Enjoy. — PB

“A few hours after his speech in the East Room, Obama threw a party with an ulterior motive.

“Under a 19th-century French chandelier, he and a few dozen lawmakers toasted the enactment of a law imposing “pay as you go” budget restrictions. As tuxedoed waiters passed hors d’oeuvres and a bartender poured drinks, Obama, Vice President Biden and a trio of senior advisers worked the room, moving from one clutch of Democratic deficit hawks to another.

“The search for votes was on.

“In one corner, Biden reminisced about the late congressman John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) with Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.), Peter Welch (Vt.) and Lincoln Davis (Tenn.). The president ambled up to the group and praised the lawmakers’ support of the legislation, dubbed paygo.


“‘This is so extraordinarily important for the country. We have to get back in fiscal balance,’ Obama said. ‘Paygo is the tool to help us.’”

“But the real reason for the president’s schmoozing quickly became evident. Looking toward Welch, an enthusiastic supporter of the health-care overhaul, he said: ‘And you know what else would help us with the deficit?’

“Without missing a beat, Welch turned to Altmire, who voted against the bill in November but was on the fence in March.

“‘Yes,’ Welch said, ‘health-care reform.’”

Then Obama draped one arm over Altmire’s shoulder, turned away from the others and leaned in close to his intended target.

“‘Peter’s right, Jason,’ Obama said. ‘We have to do this. It is essential to bringing down the deficit.’”

As we say, you have to love that: Peter’s right, Jason. Not a bad thing to be able to tell your grandkids when they ask what you were doing to make healthcare a right for all Americans, that you were working hand in glove with the President, persuading people one tough vote at a time.


March 22nd, 2010

Another King Delivers Speech Full of Warm Warmth and Caring Compassion on the Occasion of the Health Care Reform Vote

by Philip Baruth

It feels good to win a big fight every once in awhile. Democrats tend to forget that because so often we trip ourselves on the one-yard line, and then spend years telling random strangers in bars about how close we came to this watershed moment or that. So last night’s House vote meant something for me personally. But it felt even better in contrast to the absolute lunacy ginned up by the other side. Cake-taker? Rep. Steve King of Iowa, bar none.

Here was Representative King’s thoughtful take on last night’s events, as delivered to a crowd of sober and insightful Tea Party activists gathered outside the Capitol:

“You are the awesome American people . . . . If I could start a country with a bunch of people, they’d be the folks who were standing with us the last few days. Let’s hope we don’t have to do that! Let’s beat that other side to a pulp! Let’s chase them down. There’s going to be a reckoning!”

Brings tears to your eyes.

March 19th, 2010

How That Spelling Bee Thing Shook Out

by Philip Baruth

A quick update for those of you interested (even mildly) in the State Spelling Bee: it was won by a kid from Craftsbury named Mael Le Scouezec, and it was a triumph of persistence. Mael won third place two years ago, and second place last year. An amazing kid, but then, weren’t they all? Winning word: ornithoscopy. From the Greek, they tell me.

Photos by Ryan Mercer, Free Press.

March 17th, 2010

Gird Your Loins, Yeoman, For The Day of The State Spelling Bee Finals Is Upon Us

by Philip Baruth

It’s a very serious spelling day here at VDB: I’ll be over at St. Mike’s, acting as pronouncer at the State Finals for the National Spelling Bee, and if you blow even one syllable or a homonym, basically your name is mud in the spelling community forever after. Especially since the rules also require me to watch out for anyone who, “in the process of spelling, utters unintelligible or nonsense sounds.” But it reminded me of this piece I did a few years back, on judging another spelling bee with Vermont First Lady Dorothy Douglas. Might help kill the tail end of a dull lunch hour.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #158: Let It Bee

It’s 1974, I’m twelve years old, and I’m in the final round of the Spelling Bee at the Booneville Fair. Suddenly I get the word “guarantee,” a word I know very well. I proceed to blow it: G-u-a-r-e-n-t-e-e.

I’m quickly hustled off the stage.

But not before the moderator slips in a little joke, to the effect that making it into the finals is no guarantee you’re actually going to win. Everyone in the grandstands thinks this is hilarious.

I’m silent on the way home. But once there, I eat three big sad bowls of Captain Crunch, followed by a pack of Ho-Ho’s and a liter of Dr. Pepper.

Even today I’m pretty bitter about it.

So when the Vermont Humanities Council asked me to judge the final round of their Spelling Bee for Literacy, some dark force inside me jumped at the chance.

Because I realized that one of two things was going to happen: either I’d finally lose the chip on my shoulder and come to love spelling again, or I’d have the power to make thirty other people cringe for the rest of their mortal lives every time they hear some simple everyday word they thought they knew how to spell.

Of course, there’s a catch. My word won’t be final: Vermont’s First Lady, Dorothy Douglas, is the other judge. But I figure at a key moment in the last round, I’ll seize total power.

The Spelling Bee is held at St. Michael’s College, and like everything St. Michael’s does, it’s done with real class. The McCarthy Recital Hall is packed, and the spellers are immediately broken out into three rooms.

Each room is running the same word lists, so if you jump between them, you get this weird sense of parallel linguistic universes. In all of these universes, the people who get the word calzone seem very happy; the people who get arachnophagous seem less so.

But it’s a mistake for me to watch these early rounds because I start pulling for these people.

They’re teams of three, lots of students and teachers. But even the all-adult teams, composed of real word people — lawyers, writers, librarians — even these teams look like kids when they face the microphone.

Because the fear is very real. There are always moments in a spelling bee when the speller has never seen the word before — when not one person in the entire audience has ever seen the word before. In terms of memory, the room is in total darkness.

And still the speller has to intuit the shape, mold it by the light of their imagination alone. When and if the judge blesses this shape, it’s more like a good séance than anything else, and you get a ripple of chills up your back.

So by the final round, the ancient chip on my shoulder is nearly gone, and I decide not to seize total power from Dorothy Douglas.

It’s a good decision, because Dorothy Douglas turns out to be an extremely decent woman, who cares deeply about illiteracy in Vermont. Even when one of the final words actually turns out to be empleomania, which means “an excessive desire for holding public office,” I don’t have the heart to turn and make a joke about it.

The very last word of the day is chrysanthemum, and that’s my heart when all of the spelling is done: a fresh bud, beaded with the morning dew.

[This piece aired previously on Vermont Public Radio. You can find the audio archived here.]

March 16th, 2010

“We Will Be The Dynamite That Removes Them”: The GOP He-Said/She-Said Strategy, and Douglas’s Current War With The EPA

by Philip Baruth

About 30 years ago, Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon had a pretty nifty idea. Since the Washington Post had been an unsympathetic outlet dedicated to straight news and reporting, why not create a blatantly partisan shadow paper called the Washington Times? Make it he-said/she-said?

The implication would be that since one leaned Right, the other must lean Left, so in a heartbeat Moon could achieve two objectives: create a pet outlet for conservatives, and weaken the credibility of the paper associated with post-Watergate investigative journalism. Murdoch pursued the same tactic with Fox News, with spectacular success.

And this tactic, because it was successful, was not limited to the news. When George W. Bush set out to privatize social security, he found that the AARP was standing in his way. Answer? Hire the same team that produced the Swiftboat ads to demonize the AARP as the “liberal seniors advocacy group” and set up a competing and blatantly partisan counter-group, USA Next.

“[The AARP] are the boulder in the middle of the highway to personal savings accounts,” the GOP consultants were quoted as saying, “and we will be the dynamite that removes them.”

This is now standard GOP operating procedure, for discrediting reality-based institutions, and it produces reflexive political movement nationwide. Even here in Vermont. Say you’re a lameduck Governor, and your eight-year effort to clean up Lake Champlain has not borne fruit, to put it very politely.

What to do? Attack the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I think to be perfectly honest the credibility of the EPA regional office in Boston is called into question right now,” Douglas told reporters.


Douglas’s argument is that the Agency is jumping the gun, because the approved clean-up plan only went into effect 8 years ago, and hasn’t had a chance to prove its worth yet.

Or put another way, after eight years, the plan is still failing, and the EPA would like to consider strengthening it.

Which is beautiful environmental branding: Vermont, the state in whose waters you cannot swim, and whose Governor will fight to the death any stepped-up attempt to make them swimmable.

Expect this fight with the EPA to continue until Douglas exits the scene. Douglas has no intention of making any more difficult choices, not on the downslope to November. Reflexive GOP boilerplate will more than occupy the gap between now and November.

But it does raise the question, in fact a series of questions: What will Dubie do? What will Dubie do on strengthening the state’s pollution plan for the lake? Lead a charge on phosphorous run-off or the EPA? What will Dubie do on Yankee?

Every political reporter in this state knows how Dubie campaigns: in the reclining position. The plan is to say and do as little as possible. Which means that every political reporter in this state has a profound responsibility going forward: to inform voters about the extent to which Dubie will continue the policies of the Douglas Administration.

dubie plants a seed

A story like Douglas’s attack on the EPA should tail off with a follow-up story about the approach Dubie might take, with on-the-record quotes, and the approach the Democratic field might take, also with on-the-record quotes.

Anything less allows Douglas to muddy the waters, in pretty much every sense of the word.

March 14th, 2010

From the Dept. Of Too Cute By Half

by Philip Baruth

What’s not to love about this? Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife, Ginny, an average self-proclaimed Conservative “patriot,” announced yesterday that she feels “called to the front lines” and so will launch her own Tea Party-themed non-profit lobbying group, to lobby and stuff.

In addition to the donations of individuals, the group will be fueled by precisely the sort of unlimited corporate contributions greenlighted by her husband in the now-infamous Citizens United ruling.

To which VDB says loudly and proudly: God Bless America.

You know, in the way your grandmother used to say it, when she dropped a hot casserole on the kitchen floor while trying to wrestle it out of the oven.

Oh, and for old time’s sake, here’s a little bit of satire we wrote years ago about Thomas and the Supremes. Even unearthed the audio, at the end of the piece. Enjoy.

Outward Bound With The Supremes

Like most everybody in this economy, I got a fourth job a while back to make ends meet — but it’s not like work, really, it’s like getting paid to go camping. I work for Outward Bound, and I lead these expeditions that are designed to build tolerance and team-work and problem-solving skills. We take kids from the city with no outdoor skills whatsoever and in a week they’re building rope bridges across perilous chasms, that kind of thing.

So last Thursday, I go out to Swanton to the rendezvous point to meet a four-day weekend group. All I know from my supervisor is that it’s nine people with real serious togetherness-issues. They don’t have time for the regular seven-day course, he tells me; they want me to jam them through the group work and the solo overnighter in half the time.

But as if that’s not bad enough, when I get to the rendezvous, I find out it’s a group of adults, not teenagers, and these nine adults are all wearing these long black robes that look like something out of the Salem witch trials.

Sure enough, the leader, this guy named Roberts, tells me that they’re all judges for some court in Washington, D.C., and they’ve decided to come to Vermont to try Outward Bound because they’re about to tear one another to pieces and they just don’t know what the heck else to do.

I figure, well, I’ve seen worse, and I ask him if they’ve read the Outward Bound manual, and Roberts kind of smiles and says that I can be pretty sure of that.

Then I ask if they plan on wearing their robes all weekend. And Roberts says yes, they do.

So I start the way I always start, with the Circle of Trust. I have the nine of them get behind me in a semi-circle, and I tell them I’m going to fall back into their hands and just trust that they’ll catch me.

But when I let myself fall, four of them immediately reach out and five of them immediately pull back and next thing I know I’m flat on my back in the dirt. The four who reached out start screaming, “Can’t you see he needed help?!” And the five who pulled back are screaming, “Nothing in the manual authorizes us to help!”

And that’s my first inkling that things are gonna get, you know, loopy this weekend.

These people can’t get together on anything. When we go skiff sailing, this little woman named Ruth uses my high-tech bilge-pump to spray water into this guy Clarence’s skiff, and Clarence is soaked and he’s yelling, “This is a high-tech drenching!”

And when it’s time to sack out, sure enough they divide up into two groups, but this woman Sandra Day keeps shuffling her sleeping bag from one group of four to the other, and then back again. Weird.

Finally, I get them to the last afternoon, when they start their solo overnighters. They have to find their own cave and spend the night contemplating their view of the world.

“Who’s first,” I ask, and this stocky little guy Scalia immediately grabs his pack and starts trudging toward the caves. Then before I can say anything, Clarence grabs his pack and starts following Scalia, and I have to remind him it’s a solo and that he has to find his own cave.

I’m not proud to admit it, but once I had them all farmed out to their nine separate caves, I split and drove back to Burlington. I’ve worked with a lot of dysfunctional types in my day, and I’ll work with a lot more, but there are just some separations between some people that no rope bridge in the world is ever going to be able to cross.

[This piece aired first on Vermont Public Radio. Audio of the commentary is available here.]

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