Monthly Archives: February 2010

Alexander Haig, 1924-2010

Alexander Haig

Alexander Haig, a longtime Media Nation favorite, has died at the age of 85. My high regard for Haig is based on the three most famous incidents of his career. I can’t pretend to know what Haig was thinking, but my strong suspicion is that his contributions to the nation were never fully understood or appreciated.

First, as Richard Nixon’s chief of staff during the final days of Nixon’s presidency in 1974, Haig paved the way for Nixon’s peaceful departure from office — no sure thing at the time. There have been suggestions, never proven, that Haig was in on secret discussions with the Pentagon to disregard any orders from Nixon that could lead to a military coup or a nuclear strike. At the very least, Haig served as an honest broker between Nixon and then-vice president Gerald Ford, who may have promised a presidential pardon during this tense, dangerous period.

Second, Haig sacrificed his career as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state by reassuring a jittery public following the attempt on Reagan’s life in 1981. Haig may not have realized it at the time, but his words before the television cameras — often misquoted as “I’m in charge” — were misinterpreted by his enemies (deliberately, I would argue) to make it sound as though he was attempting his own coup, superseding then-vice president George H.W. Bush. (Haig’s actual words: “As of now, I am in control here, at the White House.”) Haig deserves credit for stepping up at a moment when others were running around like Chicken Little. As it turned out, that moment effectively marked the end of Haig’s public service; he left office the following year.

Finally, and I say this at least partly tongue-in-cheek, Haig entered the 1988 Republican presidential primaries for the sole purpose of sparing the country from George H.W. Bush. Haig had to know he personally had no chance of winning. Thus my suspicion is that he hoped to do enough damage to Bush in order to steer the nomination to Bob Dole. Haig’s classic putdown of Bush in a 1987 debate — “I never heard a wimp out of you” — was aimed at playing off a famous Newsweek cover story about Bush headlined “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.'” And when Haig, inevitably, pulled out of the race, he endorsed Dole. Bush prevailed, of course. But Haig did what he could.

Three major loose strands in Bishop case

Tomorrow marks the one-week anniversary of the Amy Bishop case. And it seems that we may not have even reached the starting line of this story, which began when the University of Alabama professor was accused of killing three of her colleagues at a faculty meeting.

There are three major strands, only one of which is being thoroughly explored at the moment. Give it time. We’ve only just begun.

1. Why was the 1986 Seth Bishop killing not thoroughly investigated? For the moment, this is the only aspect of the story getting a good airing. It simply makes no sense that a 21-year-old woman could shoot her 18-year-old brother, flee the scene, threaten others with a gun, and then have the whole thing explained away as an accident.

Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory has called for Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint “an independent prosecutor to investigate whether local and state authorities were corrupt or completely incompetent.”

At the very least, we are talking about a scandalous level of ineptitude. A proper investigation could implicate everyone from members of the Braintree police department all the way up to U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, who was the Norfolk County district attorney at the time.

2. Who sent a letter bomb to Harvard Medical School professor Paul Rosenberg in 1993? Bishop’s husband, James Anderson, says he and Bishop were questioned and cleared. But there was never an arrest. And now Anderson has been caught saying something rather suspicious.

The New York Times reports that Anderson said they had received a letter from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that said: “You are hereby cleared in this incident. You are no longer a subject of the investigation.” But former U.S. attorney Michael Sullivan, who was the interim head of ATF at the time, tells the Boston Globe that it would have been highly unlikely for such a letter to have been sent out, especially given that Bishop had not publicly been identified as a suspect. Sullivan adds:

There probably were one or two times during my career as a federal and state prosecutor where I felt an obligation to give that type of letter because a person’s reputation was harmed through no fault of their own and there was an exoneration of the individual.

3. What did officials at the University of Alabama know and when did they know it? Given that Bishop was not charged in either the 1986 or the 1993 incident, I can certainly believe officials there had no way of knowing about her dubious past. But her odd behavior as a professor on the Huntsville campus is becoming an issue.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a colleague had said she was “crazy,” which may have been a factor in both her not receiving tenure and in a gender-discrimination complaint she filed. The professor asked not to be identified because he fears for his own safety. According to the Chronicle:

The professor, who was a member of Ms. Bishop’s tenure-review committee, said he first became concerned about Ms. Bishop’s mental health “about five minutes after I met her.” The professor said that during a meeting of the tenure-review committee, he expressed his opinion that Ms. Bishop was “crazy.” Word of what he said made it back to Ms. Bishop….

The professor was given the opportunity to back off the claim, or to say it was a flippant remark. But he didn’t. “I said she was crazy multiple times and I stand by that,” the professor said. “This woman has a pattern of erratic behavior. She did things that weren’t normal.” No one incident stands out, the professor said, but a series of interactions caused him to think she was “out of touch with reality.”

When he first heard about the shooting, the professor adds, his initial thought was “Oh my God. I bet it was Amy Bishop.”

According to the Associated Press, Bishop’s students knew there was something off about her as well.

Finally (for today), the Huntsville Times is compiling an archive of Bishop coverage that is well worth perusing.

A better year for BlackBerry users?

BlackBerry Tour

I like to tell friends with iPhones that my BlackBerry can do everything their phones can do — just worse. I lusted for an iPhone last summer, when I had finally decided to take the plunge on a smartphone. But I would have had to switch carriers, racking up hundreds of dollars in penalties and lost credits. So I instead became the semi-proud owner of a BlackBerry Tour.

Now we iPhone-enviers are getting some good news. In just the past few days we’ve learned that we’ll be able to run Amazon Kindle software, just like an iPhone, and that sometime later this year we’ll be getting a new Web browser. That’s critical, because the current browser is miserable. I use Opera Mini whenever I can, but it’s not the default, and the default can’t be changed. So if a click on a link in e-mail or ÜberTwitter, it automatically calls up the BlackBerry browser, with invariably poor results.

To be sure, a BlackBerry is a pretty good tool for instant on-the-ground journalism. I’ve covered several news events using the (mediocre) built-in camera to post to Twitter. Although I haven’t tried it, I should be able to post instant video as well — even a livestream via Qik. But BlackBerry’s roots are as a business tool — not as a journalist’s best friend. (Here is my TwitPic photostream.)

Certainly there are some things to like about the BlackBerry. By every measure I’ve seen, Verizon’s connectivity is more reliable than AT&T’s. Since I already had Verizon, the BlackBerry was definitely the nicest smartphone I could get. E-mail is very slick with BlackBerry, and typing on the physical keyboard is pretty easy — though I’d trade it for a bigger screen and a good virtual keyboard, like the iPhone has. (I decided against a BlackBerry Storm because I didn’t like the virtual keyboard.)

And now it looks like RIM, which manufactures the BlackBerry, is determined to close at least some of the iPhone gap.

Scott Brown versus economic reality

“Failure should be admitted in Washington, and not repeated. With last month’s news that we lost another 85,000 jobs, and with unemployment stuck in the double digits, it’s time to admit that while the $787 billion stimulus had the best of intentions, it failed to create one new job.”

— Scott Brown, Boston Globe, Jan. 14

“Perhaps the best-known economic research firms are IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody’s They all estimate that the bill has added 1.6 million to 1.8 million jobs so far and that its ultimate impact will be roughly 2.5 million jobs. The Congressional Budget Office, an independent agency, considers these estimates to be conservative.”

— David Leonhardt, New York Times, Feb. 16

Public radio’s new local focus

Good news for fans of quality local radio: WBUR (90.9 FM) is expanding its “Radio Boston” program from one day a week to five. Along with Emily Rooney‘s and Callie Crossley‘s new shows on WGBH (89.7 FM), that’s three hours a day of local programming on the city’s two largest public radio stations. Adam Gaffin has the news, and Adam Reilly has more.

WBUR’s other news and public-affairs programs, “On Point” and “Here and Now,” are excellent but lack a local focus, as they are both nationally syndicated. By going daily, “Radio Boston” plugs a hole at WBUR that was left in the 1990s, when Christopher Lydon‘s legendary program “The Connection” went national.

My disclaimer: I am a paid weekly panelist on “Beat the Press,” a WGBH-TV (Channel 2) program of which Rooney is the host and Crossley is a regular.

Live and local, all from a cellphone

The Valley Independent Sentinel, an affiliate of the New Haven Independent, live-streamed a Fat Tuesday pazcki-eating contest this morning from a bake shop in Ansonia, Conn. You can view the clips here.

How did they do it? They used a Motorola Droid cellphone connected to Qik. Consider this yet another sign that a journalist can no longer walk out the door carrying just a notebook and a pen.

The Tea Partiers’ dubious ties

This New York Times story on the Tea Party movement starts slowly but gradually gains momentum. In the first half, reporter David Barstow seems intent on showing that many of the new Tea Party activists are nice folks, if a bit misguided. In the second half, he really lets it rip, writing about the movement’s ties to far-right extremist militia groups that have been around for years.

As Barstow makes clear, there is no one single Tea Party organization. Tea Party activism was crucial to Scott Brown’s victory, and neither he nor they (with some exceptions) could be considered extreme.

But Barstow reports that a large segment of the movement is far-right, dedicated to Obama-hatred and conspiracy theories. There may come a time when the Republican Party and Fox News regret egging them on.

More on real names

I just trashed two long, well-written comments from someone who thought he (she?) was entitled to post under a pseudonym. I wasn’t kidding, folks. And yes, I do understand that sometimes there are reasons for not posting under your real name. It’s just that you’re not going to be doing it here.

The biggest Boston story in 20 years*

Amy Bishop

The strange case of Amy Bishop is rapidly morphing into the biggest Boston news story in many years — the biggest, perhaps, since 20 years ago, when Charles Stuart murdered his pregnant wife, Carol, and jumped to his death as authorities were closing in.

At first, the story appeared neither to be local nor all that atypical as such things go. Bishop reportedly shot three colleagues to death at a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama, supposedly in response to not having received tenure.

But soon the Boston Globe broke two mind-boggling stories — that she had killed her brother with a shotgun when she was just 18 21 years old, and that she had come under suspicion in the attempted mail-bombing of one of her professors at Harvard University.

(Today we even learn there’s a Northeastern University angle. Bishop and her husband, James Anderson, are said to have met when they were undergraduates at Northeastern. From what we know so far, she apparently was not weaponized during her time as an undergrad.)

I’ve been thinking hard about whether there has been a bigger local story in the post-Stuart years. Yes, the 9/11 attacks began at Logan Airport, but that angle was quickly subsumed into the larger national story. Louise Woodward? A big one, yes, but not nearly as big as this may become.

At moments like this, it always makes sense to think about what we’ve learned from the past and how that might apply in the present situation. The Stuart case, you may recall, was a media fiasco. Nearly everyone went along for the ride when Stuart blamed the shooting on a black man who set up on him and his wife as they were driving home from a childbirth class at Brigham & Women’s Hospital.

In fact, Stuart had shot his wife for insurance money so he could open a restaurant, then shot himself. That neither law-enforcement officials nor the media questioned his initial story set back race relations in a significant way, and stained the legacy of then-mayor Ray Flynn, who’d made racial harmony his top priority.

In the Bishop case, no one is questioning that she shot fellow faculty members on Friday. Still, the fact that she was never charged — never mind convicted — in the earlier incidents ought to give us pause. (The killing of her brother was ruled an accident, though the reasons are unclear. A Boston Herald story about a man who says Bishop threatened him with a gun right after the shooting certainly raises questions.)

The Globe showed a lot of enterprise in digging out those stories about Bishop’s background. But it may be a while before we know how they fit into the larger picture.

*Update: Andy Smith asks, “wasn’t that priest thing kind of a big deal?” Indeed it was, and I’m glad I threw this out there before writing a more-considered version for the Guardian tonight.