Thursday, May 05, 2005

Senators Try to Reach Compromise on Bolton probe

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), tonight privately reached out to at least one Democratic Senator, pledging that he would more forcefully press the Bush administration to comply with requests for information as the committee readies to vote on the nomination of John R. Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations, according to senior congressional staff. Lugar's staff has also relayed the same message to foreign policy staffers for other Democratic Senators, the same sources told me tonight.

"Everyone wants this resolved," one senior congressional staffer told me, "There is a lot more to the appearance of gamesmanship than the actual thing-- or so we hope." A senior Democratic staffer was less hopeful, but told me that there was room for a compromise and for the vote to go forward as scheduled.

The effort by Lugar to reach out to his Democratic counterparts came as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) suggested that he might attempt to delay a vote on Bolton's nomination if the Bush administration does not turn over critical documents Democrats on the committee requested last week. As things stand, the committee is scheduled to vote on Bolton's nomination on May 12.

Bolton's chances for Senate confirmation are further not expected to be advanced tomorrow morning as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee formally interviews former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson. Powell himself has previously expressed strong reservations about Bolton's fitness to serve in private conversations with two Republican members of the panel, Sen. Lincoln Chafee, of Rhode Island, and Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska. Wilkerson in the past has been quoted as saying that Bolton would make an "abysmal ambassador" to the United Nations.

The information sought by Biden includes details of several instances in which Bolton had requested intercepts by the National Security Agency of the private conversations of U.S. government officials. There has been speculation that Bolton requested access to the intercepts to obtain derogatory information on his rivals in the the State Department and elsewhere in the bureaucracy. A Democratic staffer told me: "If what Bolton did was so routine and there was nothing sinister to going on, why don't they just turn over everything that they have and dispel everyone's suspicions? They're the ones who can put this to rest and aren't."

In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Biden wrote: "My Democratic colleagues and I would consider the failure to produce the requested documents in a timely manner a lack of cooperation." Biden also underscored that he only agreed to schedule a vote on May 12 "predicated on my expectation... that the executive branch will cooperate in providing access to witnesses and documents." Implicit in his comments was a threat that Democrats might attempt to delay the vote.

In direct contradiction of what my sources have told me, the New York Times has posted a story on its website tonight reporting that Lugar has "declined to endorse a Democratic request that the State Department turn over documents" requested by Biden.

Lugar has said requests for documents by Democrats on the committee have been "extremely broad" and "may have marginal relevance to specific allegations".

The Times story also informs: "The move was a blow to Democrats on the panel, who have focused on the dispute as a central part of their effort to defeat Mr. Bolton's nomination."

So are my sources wrong if the Times story is correct? Not so fast.

Nobody really has a clue right now what is going to happen. There is a good cop, bad cop aspect to the contradictory posturing by both Democrats and Republicans on the committee, and also between the White House and the Hill. The conventions of journalism dictate that journalists speak with authority; the conceit and agenda of sources also leads them to intimate they are in the know as to what is going to happen.

So all that I am going to say here to my blog readers is that right now I have absolutely no clue what the outcome is going to be. It is next to impossible to know anything when none of the key players do either-- as they preen and posture-- in part for the media.

Perhaps it is best that the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and other major news organizations not feel obligated to report every insignificant development of this saga and similar ones... as if they were bloggers or something! In the end, we are not better informed. And if they really must behave like bloggers, perhaps they would be best served to drop the voice of authority.

I for one am more than willing to enjoy the Bolton saga for now for what it is-- a cliffhanger. Events are currently so fluid that not only does anyone know whether or not Bolton will be confirmed but even whether or not the vote on his nomination will go forward as scheduled. If anyone claims otherwise, absent a Republican Senator saying he or she will vote against Bolton, pay no attention.

Besides, cliffhangers are from my point of view-- and should be to journalists-- the desired state of being.

The indefatigable Steve Clemons of the Washington Note earlier today spoke to Lugar press secretary Andy Fisher, who told him: "We anticipate that sufficient discovery, information and due diligence will be completed in a timely manner for the vote to occur next Thursday as agreed."

That clears things up once and for all!

One of Clemons' well informed readers makes this observation regarding Lugar's press secretary's comments: "This sounds like the equivalent of a non-denial denial.

"Do we have an immovable and irresistible force? Will somebody blink?"

"How many Republicans on the SFRC really care about the perogatives and responsibilities of the United States Senate?"

Another of his readers posted this comment: "The clock is ticking and the suspense mounts."

And what is so wrong about that?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

RIP, Baron Edward Von Kloberg III, 1942-2005

Edward Von Kloberg is dead. The former public relations man to Saddam Hussein and Mobutu Sese Seko, while on vacation in Rome, leapt to his death from the parapet of a castle, a State Department spokesman said late last night. A suicide note written by the self described "Washington representative to the damned" was found at the scene, but has not yet been made public.

Speculation as to why Von Kloberg might have killed himself revolved around the fact that he was in failing health. My surmise is that his conscience finally caught up with him.

That last comment might appear on its face to be somewhat cruel and insensitive, considering my words have been written so soon after his passing. But before anyone jumps on me for my insensitivity (We don't want a headline in the New York Post declaring "Bloggers Decry One of Their Own for his Incivility", do we?) I should say I knew Edward Von Kloberg quite well. Well enough to know that if he were here now reading this post, he would almost certainly heartily laugh, and say as he was apt to do, when we spent time together, "Well said, young man... Well said, indeed!"

The only story that I have found so far online about his death, is this one appearing on the front page of tomorrow morning's Washington's Post, the lede of which says:

"As part of Washington's image machinery for more than two decades, Edward Von Kloberg III did his best to sanitize some of the late 20th century's most notorious dictators as they sought favors and approval from U.S. officials."

The Post is right to say that Von Kloberg was paid the big bucks by his foreign clients-- several of whom were mass murderers and war criminals-- to "sanitize" their image among U.S. policy makers. (In fairness to Von Kloberg client Saddam Hussein, the since deposed Iraqi dictator has been indicted for war crimes, but has not yet stood trial.) But the Post in its front page tribute to Von Kloberg need not "sanitize" his life the way he sanitized the misdeeds of his clients.

(Update: Several bloggers have since chided the Post for sanitizing Von Kloberg's life. This particular blogger called the Post's front page story a "odd obituary", adding: "[Post reporter] Adam Bernstein shouldn't be writing paeans to a man like Von Kloberg. The Post should be writing exposes to shame [such men] back into the shadows.")

As someone who personally knew Von Kloberg quite well, I believe that inside the man whose life was spent white washing the worst of humanity was a truth teller trying to escape.

I now imagine him once again reading these very words, sitting across from me at the dinner table at the Jockey Club, as I blog in real time, declaring emphatically, as he often did when we met: "Well said, young man. Well said, indeed!" (Would they allow you to bring a laptop into the Jockey Club? Blogging would be banned in such a place, I would think. I dunno.) I have to admit that I rather enjoyed his company on such occasions, liked the man, and disliked myself for liking him. I still like him so much (and will sorely miss him) that I now dislike myself for writing here so truthfully about him. (Enough for self loathing blogging!)

The Post also writes of him: "Von Kloberg embraced the slogan `shame is for sissies' as well as an unabashedly Edwardian style of living. He arrived at balls and galas wearing black capes, and he traveled with steamer trunks. He added the name `Von' because it sounded distinguished. (I do not know whether Von Kloberg was a real life Baron as he claimed, but I will find out, and update my post.)

"His voice, said one friend, was marked by an `almost Rooseveltian, high class accent.' He drove enormous black cars and draped foreign medals (Zaire's Order of the Leopard among them) across his tuxedo. At night, he sported one of two favorite black capes: one with red lining, the other with the print of doves."

Even in death he was over the top: He flung himself in full fury off the parapet of the Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome. This was the very same site of Tosca's suicide in the Puccini opera. Italian newspapers have speculated that he was distraught after a failed reconciliation with his Lithuanian gay lover. (His family believes that failing health also played a role.)

Von Kloberg adopted a persona so thoroughly convincing that it was difficult for even him, I think, over time to know where the persona ended and the real person began, until one fully become the other. One evening at the Jockey Club, I noticed he was not eating, when he confided that he had already had dinner with someone else just before me, and when we were done, he was going to have a third dinner with yet someone else. Despite such a social calendar, I believe deep down that he was a very lonely man. Perhaps it is because I just want to think the best of him, hold on to any reason at all really to think well of him, that I can believe that he was so needy and lonely that his late nights drinking brandy with Mobutu were the result of a Clintonesque fear of being alone for even a single moment.

(I think I should just stop romanticizing this not-so-nice man. I feel horrible on the one hand about saying unkind things about someone I know who just died, and yet so even more guilty about romanticzing him. What to do?! What to do? I will do both! In typical blogger "tradition"-- LOL-- I am sharing my every thought with my readers as they pop into my head-- in real time!-- once again begging the question: "Is this a blog or a parody of blogs and blogging?")

Von Kloberg was indeed every bit as theatric as his last notices have portrayed him. The capes, steamer trunks, even the flinging himself off the parapet of a castle from a Puccini opera, spoke of a man who although was not always openly sexually gay was clearly culturally gay. He was tolerated by conservative Republican friends (as he tolerated them, and sadly tolerated their prejudice) even as they openly expressed their hatred of gays. They explained away the black capes he wore with red lining and the prints of doves as only the sign of an eccentric man.

(One can only imagine how Saddam Hussein or Mobutu Sese Seko would have reacted if they knew their American propagandist and confidant was gay. In Mobutu's case, one might also further consider how betrayed the murderous tyrant might have felt, that after having awarded Von Kloberg Zaire's "Order of the Leopard", his American friend would utilize the medal as a gay kitsch fashion accessory.)

But his flamboyant behavior, such as his adopting "Von" as his middle name, also had another use. It was the sign of a consummate confidence man. Among other things, he had once pleaded guilty to faking letters of support from two ambassadors, both of whom were clients, to obtain a $60,000 bank loan. He received five years probation and 100 hours of community service for that one. (Even Saddam Hussein was at one time a mark, as I will explain shortly.)

On another occasion, when a new Pakistani ambassador arrived in town, she received a letter from Von Kloberg welcoming her and soliciting her business. In the letter, Von Kloberg claimed that the partners in his firm included four former members of Congress, a former mayor of Washington D.C., and a couple of ambassadors. The only problem was that three of them turned out to never have had any association whatsoever with Von Kloberg. One, former Rep. Edward Feighan, Democrat of Ohio, was so infuriated that he sued Von Kloberg for $3.5 million alleging "wrongful appropriation of [his] name."

The faking of letters of two clients to obtain a bank loan was not the only time he betrayed a client. This particular incident has not been previously reported until now (An investigative reporter's heart still beats in this blogger body): When he represented Saddam Hussein, according to Foreign Agents Regisration records Von Kloberg himself filed with the Department of Justice, he billed the since deposed Iraqi dictator for several op-eds in the New York Times and other newspapers that advocated a U.S. tilt towards Iraq in its longstanding conflict with the ayatollahs of Iran. Von Kloberg took credit for the op-eds, and asked to be, and was, compensated for each and every one by Saddam. The authors of the op-eds, all of them (including a then-Congressman) told me that they had never heard of Von Kloberg. One was more amused than angry, telling me: "I guess everyone has to find a way to make a living."

Baron Edward Von Kloberg III defrauded Saddam Hussein. Who is to say that was a good thing or a bad thing? Von Kloberg was fortunate that I never wrote about the incident (by way of explanation, there are always too many good stories competing for the interest of most journalists, including me, and this one didn't pass muster). But what if I had written the story? Would any jury have convicted him? Would prosecutors even have considered charging him with a crime? Absent justice by other means, would Saddam Hussein have somehow found his way to the Small Claims branch of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia?

When I confronted Von Kloberg about this con, he simply laughed, telling me: "If I was doing my job for Saddam Hussein, you would condemn me for that as well, wouldn't you? Maybe it is best that I not do my job so well all the time." It was difficult for me to argue the point.

But let it not be said that there were often times he did produce results for his clients. In 1989 and 1990, Rep. Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, inserted lengthy statements into the Congressional Record praising Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Around that time, Von Kloberg had paid Burton $4,000 in honorarium for giving talks to his clients. (Can one imagine how Dan Burton, the congressional inquisitor would react, if Bill Clinton had praised a foreign tyrant like Mobutu after receiving speaking fees from a registered lobbyist from the same said foreign dictator?) The Burton statements praising Mobutu, Von Kloberg boasted to me, were ghost written by Von Kloberg and his staff. Burton's office did not return calls seeking commnets regarding the allegations.

Von Kloberg was right when he said it was perhaps for the best that he not always do his job so well.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Gossip from the White House Correspondents Dinner (Not really.)

For yet another year, I have not attended the White House Correspondents dinner. Instead, I spent the evening with a woman I really, really like. We went to see a play and rode around the city listening to Van Morrison. I can't provide any further details about the evening because her friend reads this blog.

For those who want to know more about the dinner, I'll leave that to Wonkette.

First, one note of interest regarding the Wonkette post. The details of First Lady Laura Bush's appearance at the dinner by Wonkette differs from that of most other media accounts in one major detail. The Wonkette account contains a joke supposedly made by the First Lady regarding her husband-- the President of the United States-- and a horse of his same gender. The joke itself is too tasteless to repeat here.

But the fact that it appeared in Wonkette and not elsewhere begs a question: Was this yet another example of Ana Marie Cox simply making something up, blending fact and fiction, as a means to lampoon (often quite well) the powerful? Or did Laura Bush indeed tell the joke in question, and most news organizations simply not report it because their readers might consider it to be offensive or tasteless? I will promptly research the question and then update this post. (Update: Laura Bush indeed make the comments in question-- M.S.W.)

In the meantime, Ana Marie Cox, through a spokesperson, has said Ms. Cox will personally address this issue at a panel discussion at the Brookings Institute, before explicating further on the Charlie Rose show. The Charlie Rose show will examine how one can sound high minded in pursuing the low brow.

The White House Correspondents dinner, for those who know little about it, is a joyful celebration by the Washington media elite... of itself.

It's yet another example of why the media has lost the respect and trust of the public. There was once a time when being a journalist was about something more than whether or not you were invited to the Bloomberg party; to do your job meant learning your way around the file room of the country courthouse instead of the green room; the story was about those you covered instead of yourself; and your role was to uncover new facts instead of expressing opinions about things of which you knew nothing. And attitude was what you gave your editor rather than something you displayed on MSNBC. Those days are long gone. (Not that the good ol' days of journalism were really that good anyway, but that is for another time...)

George Will recently published a column in which he lamented the fact that we might be passing into a "post-journalism age", writing:

"If you awake before dawn you probably hear a daily sound that may become as anachronistic as the clatter of the horse's hooves on urban cobblestones. The sound is the slap of the morning paper on the sidewalk."

[In contrast, if you are reading this post, the sound that you are most likely hearing is clicking of your mouse.]

Will paints a bleak picture for those of us who believe that vibrant and independent newspapers are essential to democracy: "Circulation of daily newspapers is 55.2 million, down from 62.3 million in 1990. " Sixty percent of those 65 and older say that they regularly read a newspaper; 23% of those 18-29 read a daily newspaper.

Will also points out: "The combined viewership of the evening newscasts is 28.8 million, down from 52.1 million in 1980. The median age of viewers is 60. Hence the sponsorship of news programming by Metamucil and Fixodent."

George Will blames the public and their purported shallow nature for their paying less and less attention to people like George Will. That is not surprising. Anyone involved in a failed relationship usually blames the other party.

But if newspapers are going to flourish they might consider entering an already ongoing discussion in the public square as to how they might be themselves responsible for their own predicament. Those who run newspapers bounce around from the manic extremes of one day writing less for their readers than for the juries who award journalism prizes to then empaneling focus groups to figure out how to pander to their readers.

Newspapers do not have to pander to their readers so much as to engage them. The failure to engage their readers (i.e., writing for the juries of those journalism awards) results in their audience eroding further which leads them to pander to their readers (i.e., utilizing focus groups to determine how to bring back their alienated former readers). Pandering to their readers only leads to them alienating their most serious readers, leading to even further erosion of their circulation.

There are old school newspaper editors who take pride in the distance between themselves and their readers. They mistake engaging with their readers with pandering to them, only to end up having to pander to them anyway in desperately seeking their return.

I have had the good fortune for having written for and worked for some of the nation's leading newspapers and magazines. I could write a hundred front page news stories (which I did) without ever talking to, or engaging in any manner, with a single reader. That is not possible any longer if you want to write a blog like this one. And if is one of the reasons that many of the folks who used to read newspapers are instead reading this post now.

Writing a blog, I hear back from my readers almost immediately. Many of them often disagree with what I write, but are still respectful and appreciative. I quote from one post from a blogger, not because it is favorable to me, but because after having it read it, I felt better than if I had won a Pulitzer Prize. It makes me want to raise early in the morning and post again. And it is much more important than I win the respect of my readers-- such as this-- rather than any Pulitzer board. This person writes:

"There's tons of good learnin' to be gleaned [from this blog]. I've read about half his archive... I was thinking on it... comparing him to Wonkette... She actually has equal knowledge of the corridors of power, having once been the senior editor of the American Prospect, but she has put on a false persona of being a cynical prescient ingenue hipster. Waas does it so much more grown-up.... Wonkette, of course, will continue to be hot, because she doesn't require an attention span by the reader."

(The person who wrote the above is not a relative-- I swear!)

That I care more about my readers think rather than a Pulitzer jury is the reason that estranged readers of the Washington Post are (this very moment) reading this blog instead of the Post. Donald Graham, the chairman of the Washington Post, is also a former chair, and current member, of the Pulitzer board. In his role as the former, he might consider less worrying about trying to satisfy the later. Indeed, his dual roles only exemplify the insulatiry and remoteness of what was once a popular media evolving into an elite media. In the process, he might no longer have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for focus groups to learn how to pander to the readers he and his newspaper have lost. (To my many friends who work at the Post, lose the focus groups.) Instead, engage your readers in a meaningful way and on a regular basis and they might just someday return to you.
A book officially recommended by this blog....

Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation officially made the New York Times' Best Seller's list this morning. (The list is actually circulated to paid subscribers much earlier, thus the use of the word "officially" in that last sentence.)

Long, long overdue and well deserved for this particular author.

As this reviewer of Assassination Vacation wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Sarah Vowell is a cultural critic with a taste for old-fashioned leg work. In search of material to riff on, she ventures beyond bookstores, newsstands, libraries, theaters, and flatscreens." In other words, she is not afraid to play gumshoe before fashioning her opinions. And the genius of her writing is that she takes the reader along with her during her research, the end result being that she produces books that are one part travelogue, another part entertaining history lesson, and a third which is informed social criticism.

One criticism of this otherwise engaging book is that she sometimes lacks confidence in her own story telling and leg work, doubling back to make sure that readers know what they almost certainly have already extracted on their own. She would at times be better served by allowing her work to speak for itself. As she observes about herself in the book: "I'm dormant, dormant, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the sides of my silence and then, boom, it's 1980. Once I erupt, they'll be wiping my verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota."

The success of any writer is convincing someone else to finance your descent into your own personal obsessions. An even greater success is convincing readers to share it with you. The greatest success is having your readers adopt it as their own. By these standards, she is the both the most fortunate and successful of writers.

Disclosure: Geoff Kloske, the executive editor of Simon & Schuster, and who edits Vowell's books, is an acquaintance/friend.

Even fuller disclosure: I once long ago had a wicked crush on Sarah Vowell (*red face*) but only met her one time, at a book reading she gave at Politics & Prose, along with David Eggers, as well as a third writer, whose name I cannot remember. I introduced myself to her hoping that there was a remote chance we might have had some mutual acquaintances or she might have heard of me. (Investigative reporters are for the most part anonymous figures. I was not yet the famous blogger that I am today! ) I was taken aback when she looked up and responded: "Of course I know who you are. But I didn't know you actually existed in real life. I thought you were some superhero action figure who only existed in people's imagination." I totally blew it when I responded: "Are you sure you don't have me mixed up with someone else?" (I still think it was quite possible that she did.) David Eggers, who was doing the book signing with her, shot me an expression that seemed to say: "What a lame ass response, dude." It's one thing for your friends to point out that you have said some lame ass thing. It's quite another when some very famous person shoots you an expression that you have. That was the last that I ever saw her (*sadness*).