WHAT'S LOFTILY called "the national conversation" is more like a simmering pot of soup. Weighty matters and nutritious morsels sink to the bottom, out of sight. Scum and froth rise to the top and bubble merrily.
Important questions and important answers fade from public consciousness all the time, but I've never seen the amnesia cycle spin so fast as in the past three months.
The real recount. The hasty consensus on the media-commissioned Florida recount was that Bush still would have won if the U.S. Supreme Court hadn't squelched the partial recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court. But the Orlando Sentinel's David Damron and Roger Roy, who looked at the results more closely than the national media, make a compelling case that Gore probably would have won, though not for the reasons he had hoped. (The pregnant chads split evenly between him and Bush. Check it out at www.orlandosentinel. com, with further explication by Jacob Weisberg and Mickey Kaus at Slate.) So why did the nationals rush to ratify President Bush, however spuriously? 'Cause we're all rallying around a war president—upholding his legitimacy and ardently hoping he doesn't screw up.
What did they know, and how did they blow it? Soon after Sept. 11, a flurry of rumors, wild-sounding claims, and even a few news reports surfaced alleging that informants had warned of an imminent attack or that various military and federal officials had canceled travel plans or warned friends not to fly that week. Bin Laden himself told an Arabic-language paper that a major attack was coming. Britain's Telegraph reported Sept. 16 that in August two Mossad experts warned the CIA and FBI of a cell of as many as "200 terrorists said to be preparing a big operation [and] linked the plot to Osama bin Laden." Maybe these trails went cold, or it seemed ghoulish or disloyal to follow them while rescue workers were bringing out New York's dead. But 60 years after Pearl Harbor, scholars and conspiracists still debate what inkling Roosevelt may have had and how the military managed to overlook a decoded message disclosing that attack. Will they likewise debate the run-up to the War on Terrorism in 2061?
The real tribunals. Bush's peremptory scheme for trying noncitizens has been getting ink and airplay, but much of the debate—even in semielite media like NPR and The New York Times—is obscured in euphemism. The issue, the administration cannily declares and the media obligingly report, is whether "military tribunals" should try "suspected terrorists." Sounds good, right? We all love the military these days.
But the issue is very different, and very scary. Military tribunals might make sense for Al Qaeda operatives captured in overseas war conditions. But what Bush has authorized, without consulting the judicial or legislative branches, has nothing to do with military justice as practiced in this country or any other aspiring to the rule of law. These would be secret trials, with no choice of attorney or right to see evidence, for any of the 18 million noncitizens residing in this country who the administration alleges are associated, even unwittingly, with any organizations it deems terrorist. Never mind that the Constitution recognizes the rights of persons, not "citizens." Forget juries; two-thirds of the judges on such a tribunal could sentence to death, with no appeal.
And forget about the United States having legal or moral standing to admonish, say, Peru or Russia on civil and legal rights. No wonder Bush buddies up so nicely with Putin, the wily KGB strongman who's busily massacring Chechens and suppressing dissent and press freedom in Russia. He looked in Vlad's soul and liked what he saw.
Cromer bumped. Tough time for newspaper chiefs. Five weeks ago, longtime Seattle Times president Mason Sizemore suddenly resigned. Last week, short-time Seattle Weekly publisher Alisa Cromer did. Whether and why Sizemore jumped is still fuel for speculation. But Cromer was pushed, by Village Voice Media president David Schneiderman, who came to Seattle to do the deed. Schneiderman says the change was prompted by long-standing issues over Cromer's "communications and relationships" with members of both the parent company and the Seattle operation. Financial performance in this "lousy economy" wasn't a reason, he adds: "I don't fire a publisher because of financials." And anyway, he avows, the various Voice papers are all profitable, though "this has not been a growth year." So is Seattle Weekly a particular problem child? "It's not that it's a problem child," says Schneiderman. "It's just needed more attention." To provide that, he will spend "at least a week a month, maybe more" in Seattle for an "indefinite" period. "I need to be on scene to get a sense of the market."
Cromer gives a diplomatic statement: "I was hired with a corporate mandate for change, and I'm very proud of what our team has accomplished. I'm just sorry I won't be there to continue the progress."