By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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Murder, politics and mental illness

Gabrielle Giffords

One day in 1993, when I was managing editor of the Boston Phoenix, I received a letter from a man named David Taber, who claimed that the CIA and his father had conspired to implant a computer chip in his brain so they could monitor his thoughts. Such letters are not as unusual as you might suppose; what made this one stand out was that it was well-written enough that it took me a couple of pages to realize the writer was mentally ill.

Not long after that, Taber showed up at the Phoenix, looking for me, in order to discuss when we might publish his letter. I couldn’t be found, and didn’t know about his visit until after a colleague had talked him into leaving.

And then, within a few weeks, Taber walked into an elementary school in the Southeastern Massachusetts town of Acushnet, took hostages and murdered the school nurse.* Unfortunately, I had discarded his letter.

It’s because of that experience — and, frankly, because of common sense — that I’m put off by those who are trying to politicize yesterday’s carnage in Arizona, which included the attempted murder of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of federal judge John Roll and a 9-year-old girl, Christina Green.

The suspected shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, appears to be very mentally ill. If you haven’t seen this video yet, take a look. I was especially struck by this Loughner statement: “I’m able to control every belief and religion by being the mind controller!” That kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

Now, by no means do I want to let anyone off the hook. I was appalled to learn that Giffords’ district was among those targeted on Sarah Palin’s truly demented gunsight map. I hope yesterday will bring the whole Palin phenomenon to a long-overdue end. And I scarcely know where to begin with this piece of incendiary garbage.

As Tucson Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said, careless rhetoric can have consequences. But that rhetoric did not create Jared Loughner. If he hadn’t gone after Congresswoman Giffords, he might have gunned down a school nurse instead.

*After posting this earlier today, I searched the Boston Globe’s archives and found a story published on April 17, 1993, that reported the details of Taber’s rampage in Acushnet. I’ve updated this post to include what I learned in that article.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Right complaint, wrong picture

palin_doll_20091119A number of critics, including Sarah Palin herself, are going after Newsweek for running a cover shot of her in a sexy running outfit. Palin calls it “sexist.”

I can’t get too worked up about it. Palin, after all, posed for the shot, which was originally intended for Runner’s World. (At Beat the Press, Ralph Ranalli writes that Newsweek may have violated Runner’s World’s exclusivity deal with the freelance photographer.)

But Palin and other critics have a legitimate complaint about Newsweek’s inside photos. I haven’t picked up a Newsweek in many months, but Media Matters has the pictures — a back-to image of Palin’s shapely legs, something she most definitely did not pose for; and a photo of what Media Matters accurately describes as a “Sarah Palin-as-a-slutty-schoolgirl doll.” The latter was used to illustrate a piece by Christopher Hitchens, who is almost as overexposed as Palin herself.

The treatment is further evidence of Newsweek’s plunge into irrelevance. The New York Times this week described the magazine as repositioning itself for a smaller, more intelligent news audience.

But with garbage like this, and with recent cover headlines like “Is Your Baby Racist?”, the only thing editor Jon Meacham seems to be repositioning his magazine for is rack space next to People and Us.

Sarah Palin quote of the day

From Sarah Palin’s Facebook page:

How sad that Washington and the media will never understand; it’s about country.

Uh, huh. No doubt folks from the pro-American parts of the country will understand.

Another good day for Mitt Romney

Now that South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s national ambitions are a thing of the past — left behind on the extreme southern stretch of the Appalachian Trail — it’s interesting to think about the number of up-and-coming Republican stars who’ve been taken off the board in the past year. Five (including Sanford) come quickly to mind.

Two — Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — were damaged by their own party, pushed in front of the public long before they were ready. Hype-versus-reality questions aside, Palin and Jindal were routinely described as rising stars until, suddenly, they weren’t.

Jindal can certainly recover from his poor performance in delivering the Republican response to President Obama’s national address last February. All he has to do is not act like a dork the next time. But the arc of Palin’s post-running-mate political career has already been determined: hero to the right wing of her party; pariah to everyone else.

Sanford’s finished. So is Nevada Sen. John Ensign, although at least his sexual indiscretions do not include a secretive flight to Argentina. I must confess I’d barely heard of Ensign before learning that (1) he’d been unfaithful in his marriage and (2) he was a possible presidential candidate.

Finally, there is former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, chosen by Obama as his ambassador to China. Huntsman hasn’t been tainted (except possibly in the eyes of a few partisan Republicans), but he’s not going to challenge Obama in 2012.

As Rich Lowry observes at National Review (via Talking Points Memo), Mitt Romney may be the last candidate standing by the time the ’12 campaign rolls around in earnest.

William Ayers reconsidered

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that the McCain-Palin campaign’s careless, ugly lies about Barack Obama and William Ayers did not merely smear Obama — they also smeared Ayers, a founder of the radical Weather Underground movement in the 1960s.

There is no evidence that the Weather Underground ever killed or injured anyone other than themselves. For instance, despite what you may have heard, Katherine Ann Power and Susan Saxe, the radicals who were responsible for the 1970 death of Boston police officer Walter Schroeder, were not affiliated with the group.

Now, despite his McCarthyite tactics, John McCain has been welcomed back into polite society, while the Ayers family must content with death threats that Ayers himself says have only escalated since Election Day.

How the right went wrong

Brilliant essay in the Wall Street Journal on how conservatives squandered their authority by embracing know-nothing populism — culminating in their fatal embrace of Sarah Palin. Mark Lilla says of the right’s anti-intellectual intellectuals:

They mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders. They ridicule ambassadors and diplomats while promoting jingoistic journalists who have never lived abroad and speak no foreign languages. And with the rise of shock radio and television, they have found a large, popular audience that eagerly absorbs their contempt for intellectual elites. They hoped to shape that audience, but the truth is that their audience has now shaped them.

You should definitely read the whole thing. (Via Hub Blog.)

Hoax doesn’t affect Palin story

A number of observers seem to misunderstand the meaning of the revelation that a man who claimed to be Carl Cameron’s source for some of his Sarah Palin dish has turned out to be a fraud.

Citing unnamed sources, Cameron reported on Fox News last week that Palin, among other things, didn’t know that Africa was a continent and couldn’t name the countries in NAFTA — or, for that matter, in North America.

Now I’m hearing that the exposure of the fake Martin Eisenstadt shows that Palin really isn’t that stupid. Except that this AP story, posted on the Fox News Web site, reports that Eisenstadt — or “Eisenstadt” — was not Cameron’s source, and that Fox is standing by Cameron’s story.

For what it’s worth, I never believed Palin didn’t know Africa was a continent. But if you want to believe it, there’s no reason to stop now.

Friends like Sarah Palin’s

In my latest for the Guardian, I salute John McCain for flying one last mission on behalf of his country. The McCain campaign-fueled orgy of anonymous recriminations over Sarah Palin has proved in a way nothing else could that the media had little to do with bringing down the Republican ticket.

Defending Sarah Palin (really!)

Can you name all the countries in North America? I’m the sort of geek who always chooses geography questions in Trivial Pursuit, but I’m not sure I could do it off the top of my head. Let’s see:

  • Canada
  • United States
  • Mexico
  • El Salvador
  • Honduras
  • Belize
  • Nicaragua
  • Costa Rica
  • Panama

How did I do? (Whoops — I just looked at a map, and I missed Guatemala.)

Since Carl Cameron reported on Sarah Palin’s ignorance, the media have been having a field day with this. Trouble is, we don’t know whether she committed the equivalent of missing Guatemala or if she told Steve Schmidt that Antarctica is the capital of Siberia.

I’m more interested to know who’s leaking this stuff, and why.

Sarah Palin’s real enemies

If nothing else, I hope Sarah Palin’s partisans come to realize that her supposed enemies in the media were a bunch of wimps compared to her supposed friends in the McCain campaign.

Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast” … going after William Ayers before the campaign had made a final decision on whether to do so (how’d that work out?) … didn’t know Africa was a continent … “so nasty and angry at staff that they would virtually be reduced to tears.”

Stay tuned. I think we’re going to hear a lot more.

P.S. Robert is skeptical. Frankly, I am, too. The only thing this stuff proves for sure is that elements of the McCain campaign despise her.

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