LA Weekly

The Mysteries of Munich

There will be no press junket, no premiere and, most importantly, no blowout Oscar marketing campaign for Steven Spielberg's certain-to-be-controversial movie, Munich.

Given the immensity of today's spin-or-be-spun promotions to land Golden Boy nods, the decision to have little traditional publicity for the film before and even after it opens December 23 is dicey -- yet it is the director's decision alone. Right now, Spielberg doesn't intend to give press or broadcast interviews -- not even to the usual suspects, like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and 60 Minutes. But the movie may create a big fanfare all on its own -- perhaps even international protests -- given its controversial subject matter.

"The official strategy is for the movie to speak for itself," an insider told me last week. "All they're going to do is just show the movie to people. You have to be Steven Spielberg to get away with that."

But competitors mutter that's because Spielberg's Munich may have snagged the coveted cover of Time magazine. (I'm told a final decision is pending.)

For months now, Munich has been touted as the Oscar front-runner, even when no one had seen the film.

The secret Mossad hit squad that over a period of years assassinated the Palestinian terrorists who directly or even indirectly carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich is the movie's subject matter and its political minefield. Specifically, it all comes down to how the film portrays its principal characters: Will the Israelis be seen as too bloodthirsty? Will the Palestinians be seen as too stereotypical? Insiders say Spielberg and his screenwriters, Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, worked hard to create multidimensional characters. But will that play in Peoria?

Hollywood has long been loath to portray any Arabs as villains, much less Muslim extremists, mostly because its movies make a lot of money in the Middle East. Needless to say, this has not gone unnoticed. Already I've been inundated with e-mails from civilians predicting Spielberg will "produce a watered-down, politically correct piece of propaganda that gives the Palestinian Olympic killers credibility" or "depict both the Israelis and the terrorists as morally equivalent. This will be done to hide the fact that the Israelis were totally justified and the terrorists were, well, terrorists (that is to say, bloodthirsty savages)."

As one messager put it: "Hollywood (including Spielberg) doesn't have the balls to tell the truth. Hollywood will give aid and comfort to the enemy, and they'll get rich doing it."

Spielberg has assembled a team of pro advisers to confront the protestations that are sure to occur.

The team consists of Dennis Ross, a well-known U.S. diplomat who played a leading role in shaping Middle East policy in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations and is now the Washington Institute's counselor and Ziegler distinguished fellow; Mike McCurry, President Clinton's White House spokesman, now a for-hire political strategist; and Allan Mayer, a crisis PR specialist with Los Angeles-based Sitrick and Company who has advised Spielberg for several years.

The director has been deliberately vague as to the origin of the much-disputed facts conveyed in his movie. He has said it comes from multiple sources, and not just from "Vengeance," the controversial book by George Jonas. (HBO adapted that book in 1986.)

Both Palestinian terrorist Abu Daoud and Israel's former Mossad spy chief Zvi Zamir have gone public with their anger about not being consulted beforehand by Spielberg about the film. During the summer, Spielberg issued this carefully worded statement to an Israeli paper, an Arab TV station and The New York Times:

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In Conversation with Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch does not enjoy the image of Kate Moss wearing a beard any more than I do. But that's what we've been confronted with, on the glossy cover of a Hollywood-lifestyle magazine placed, no doubt by the Gideons, on the coffee table in Château Marmont's Suite 69. It's very unsettling.

"And it's kind of freaking me out," says Jarmusch.

"Here," I offer, rising from my comfy spot on the floor. "Allow me."

I do what I must: extract the shiny magazine from the coffee table, walk it through the dining room to the kitchen and stash it somewhere safe.

"Did you put it in the fridge?" Jarmusch asks when I return.

"In the freezer."

"Good."

Now we can concentrate.

Jarmusch and I replant ourselves in the comfortable living room, and I propose terms for the rest of our one-hour relationship.

"In theory," I say, "you should be the accomplished artist who says complex and interesting things, and I'll be the benevolent parasite who encourages you and pretends to understand what you're talking about."

"In theory," says Jarmusch, sucking down a healthy dose of smoke. "We'll see about that."

I'm Jarmusch's first interview of the day. Afterward, he'll go back downstairs to his room, then return to this suite, back and forth, until sundown. Then on to other hotels in Seattle, Chicago, New York and abroad.

"Usually you feel like a whore in a hotel room," he says. "The next one comes in to fuck you, then the next. Next! And you don't even get paid. You were lucky to even get to make the film! Now shut up and take it! Well, actually, no--they don't treat me like that. But, you know, often [interviewers] already have an idea of what they want me to be, so that's what they're going to make me. You know?"

"The outsider. The control freak."

"Yeah, yeah. Aging punk rock indie whatever. And quirky. Don't forget quirky."

"Quirky. Check. Within six words of sensibility."

"I did an interview in England, and then I read that I spoke as though I were English. Like, 'Yes, I'd just popped 'round to the local pub to meet my mates'--stuff like that--when I'd actually said, 'Yeah, I met some friends at a bar.' They changed it into their vernacular, as if that was the way I spoke. They didn't really misquote me, they just retranslated it."

"Fucking cunts."

"Fucking ’ell."

In art school, one of my painting instructors took our class to see a film called Stranger Than Paradise. That was Jarmusch's first commercial release, and I became an instant fan. Over the next two decades, I followed faithfully as Jarmusch continued to create these heroically small, inimitably patient pictures, filled with austere absurdities and precise, silent punch lines: Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995), the Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert film/documentary Year of the Horse (1997), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), which he'd begun in 1986 as a series of black-and-white shorts. One of those shorts featured Bill Murray, star of Jarmusch's newest work, Broken Flowers, which recently received the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.

"Did you know Bill Murray before Coffee and Cigarettes?"

"Yeah, but not really. I wrote a script for Bill in 2001, and even raised most of the money for it. Then I came back from Europe and read the script again, and I thought it was a good story, but it needed work. And I hate rewriting scripts. I just do one draft and then start going.

"So I went to Bill's house and said, 'You know, Bill, I got a weird thing. I think I got the money to pay for this, but I don't feel like doing it. But I have this other idea I want to throw on you.' So I told him the basic idea for Broken Flowers. I hadn't written it, but I'd been carrying the idea around for some years. And he said, 'I like that one, too. I like that as much as the other one. You wanna do that?' And I was like, 'Thank you!' So then I wrote this script--really fast, in less than three weeks--and brought it to Bill, and we just went ahead and made it."

Murray's Broken Flowers character is one Don Johnston, a retired computer executive and ex-manslut who receives a mysterious pink letter (no return address) warning that he may have unknowingly sired a son almost 20 years ago, and that this son might now be seeking him out.

"It came from an idea that some friends of mine gave me years ago," says Jarmusch. "Just a vague idea that a guy got a letter from a former lover--he'd had a lot of girlfriends in the past--saying, 'We had a kid, maybe he's looking for you now.' And it throws the guy for a loop. That was it. I was carrying that idea around for a number of years. And then at some point I thought, 'Ah ... okay. I'd like to develop this for Bill.' So then I came up with the character.

"But I first met Bill maybe 10 years ago. I'd seen a film in the afternoon at Lincoln Center, I was walking on Columbus Avenue, and I see Bill Murray walking right toward me. And I'm like, 'Whoa -- that's Bill Murray.' And he walked right up to me and said, 'Hey, you're Jim, right?'

"And I said, 'Yeah. You're--you're Bill Murray!'

"'Yeah, yeah, yeah. You wanna get a cup of coffee?'"

"I was like, 'Sure!' So we went into a luncheonette and talked for about 45 minutes about ... I don't know. All kinds of stuff. We had some mutual friends, and he was friends with Johnny Depp. So then he said, 'Oh, man. I gotta go. Hey, it was great meeting you--I'll see you around sometime.' Then I never saw him again, for like five or six years, when I approached him with that other script."

Bill Murray's ability to reveal Johnston's simultaneous anxieties and exhaustion without discernibly moving a muscle is a constant and solid pleasure to behold. It's some of his best work. The same expression passes over Johnston's face when he regards a young girl annoying him with her toy horse on an airplane as when he finds himself painfully alone with an ex's daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena), parading through the house in the altogether. Same expression, but the one appearance wields fatherly authority as clearly as the other betrays vulnerability, lust and fear. How the hell did Murray do that?

"He's a master of that minimal thing," says Jarmusch. "Which is kind of odd for someone initially known for painting in broad comedic strokes. And then to see him work with a tiny, fine, one-haired brush like that, you know? He's really pretty amazing. He can go either way, as far as you want him to."

Outside, fellow citizens are melting in triple-digit heat, but here in film-promotion world, it's barely 70. In the arena of motion-picture marketing, putting the interviewer and his prize victim in a comfortable room with a well-stocked bar increases the likelihood of a successful interview.

"Ten years ago I stayed here," Jarmusch says. "I was promoting Dead Man, and I had a smaller suite downstairs. Iggy Pop, who I've known for a long time, was also staying here. And Joe Strummer was in L.A. We were all just hanging out in my room, and Iggy was complaining about how he had the room below the one that had all the balconies. He was saying, 'Yeah, they didn't even give me the better room, you know? I think Slash is staying there.' He was sort of in a snarly mood, and we were laughing at him, saying, 'Well, you know, Iggy. Slash's records make more money than yours.' Then Joe Strummer said to me, 'Just think, Jim. Your film's black and white. If you make the next one in color, you'll move up a floor!' "

In general, Jarmusch makes films wherein the pauses and inactions are as important as what transpires between them. But it's difficult to describe inactions in a script, and a venerable Hollywood equation--one page of script equals one minute onscreen--generally prevents studios from investing in such things. As a rule, no studio will even consider producing, for example, a 59-page script as a feature. Won't even look at it.

"The Huns cross Europe, raping and pillaging," says Jarmusch. "You know? That's only half a line, so that must take 12 seconds."

"The cells divide," I propose, "and the race wipes itself out. Five seconds."

"World war decimates the planet."

"But you don't have to deal with that anymore, do you?"

"No. Because I go straight in from the beginning and say, 'Look. I have to have these things to make this film. I get final cut. I have all control over casting and crew. No notes for my script. No financing people on set. Nobody comes in my editing room. I don't show you the picture until I have it locked. And if you don't want to negotiate any further, I understand.'"

"And the usual response?"

"They act like I'm out of my mind. Who does he think he is? But, I mean, my films don't cost that much. And that's just my way. I don't work by committee. I don't tell the people putting in the money how to run their business, so why should they tell me how to make a film? It just seems odd.

"My criticism of Hollywood is not that they make films that way, or that films are commercial products in their minds. That doesn't bother me. That's the nature of the 'entertainment industry,' or whatever. My real criticism is that they're so timid. They just force shit down people's throats because of their very conservative marketing analysis and all that. But it's always mysterious, what people are going to like. Even just on a business level--wouldn't it make sense to have a wider variety of products that cost less to produce? Wouldn't you have a better chance of increasing your profit margin? But I don't know. I'm not a business guy, so maybe I'm completely wrong."

In Broken Flowers, Don Johnston ends up dropping in on the four ex-girlfriends deemed by his amateur-sleuth next-door neighbor (Jeffrey Wright) to be the likeliest sources of the mysterious pink letter. These long-estranged former lovers now live in disparate regions and circumstances, the most disturbing of which is a sparsely planted neighborhood of prefabricated tract mansions, such as one might find in...

"Wayne, New Jersey," says Jarmusch. "And shooting in it was very depressing. Because everyone has the same stuff, you know? The same TV, the same cars, their kids dress the same. But then the people in the community were really, really nice to us. Very enthusiastic and kinda lovely. But before that human connection, it was just depressing to me, to be in that kind of hermetically sealed community. I think a lot of people actually live in places like that, more and more."

"In a hundred years," I say, "after the plants get a chance to grow and the houses fall apart--those houses are only built to last 30 years anyway--then I could imagine those places being, theoretically, places where I could live."

"Yeah," says Jarmusch. "Maybe people like us will live there in the future, when they're all overgrown and rundown. And there's, like, coyotes walking through."

Man of the Dead

Produced piecemeal on a shoestring budget, George Romero's debut feature, Night of the Living Dead (1968), was a fever dream of EC Comics and old Universal horror, crossbred with the fleet realism of the television newsreels Romero had once bicycled from a Pittsburgh film lab to local affiliates.

The tightly framed black-and-white images of walking corpses consuming the flesh of live humans shocked many. But already it was obvious that, for Romero, the real horrors of society needed no special-effects amplification. His undead were merely a prism through which to examine human behavior at a state of heightened anxiety. And by casting a black actor (Duane Jones) as Night's selfless hero, the film became, among other things, a blistering portrait of homeland race relations in the year of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination -- its final image, of Jones being gunned down by a posse of zombie-hunting yahoos, as potent a symbol of the blown-out American dream as the ending of Easy Rider.

The film became a midnight-movie phenomenon, ensuring that Romero's primordial creatures would long continue to walk the earth. In contrast to Night's chiaroscuro terrors, its first sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), was a Day-Glo assault on American consumerism at the outset of the shopping-mall era, with asides on classism and feminism. One of the great films of the 1980s, Day of the Dead (1985) is a poetic, Hawksian horror picture (with allusions to the Frankenstein story) that questions what it means to be human while anticipating the coming culture wars between scientific rationality and religious faith.

By then, Romero was fully enshrined as a cult movie deity, and the ensuing two decades would see more than its share of respectful homages (28 Days Later), comic send-ups (Return of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead) and blatant rip-offs (the Resident Evil video game franchise and its subsequent film versions) of his work, though, curiously, only four new features by the master himself. "Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated," Romero deadpanned in a July 2000 welcome letter to visitors of his Web site. But, kidding aside, it was a low moment for the iconoclastic auteur, coming at the end of seven years spent on retainer to an assortment of major studios, during which time he watched several high-profile projects all come within a hairsbreadth of getting made. Eventually, with French financing, Romero managed to make Bruiser, a scabrous satire of the corporate workplace and the suburban American dream that couldn't help but seem influenced by its maker's own season in "development hell": In the film, the main character's figurative facelessness becomes a literal condition, allowing him to exact revenge on those who have sought to turn him into an emasculated drone. Like Romero's earlier Jack's Wife (1973) -- in which an underappreciated housewife liberates herself by becoming a witch -- the movie was so merciless and mordantly funny as to make American Beauty look like an I Love Lucy episode. Not surprisingly, no American distributor dared touch it.

In truth, Romero and Hollywood have never made for easy bedfellows. Only four of his 14 feature films have been released by studios, and one of those (his 1993 Stephen King adaptation, The Dark Half) became an unfortunate victim of the Orion Pictures bankruptcy. The rest of the time, he has worked from his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh to create a body of work as truly independent (both financially and ideologically) as any in American movies. And so it may be that no one is more surprised than Romero that his latest film, Land of the Dead, is being released today by Universal Pictures, on several thousand screens, at the zenith of the summer blockbuster season. "It was very frustrating in those years that I never got pictures made," says the tall, ponytailed, rail-thin Romero, who calls money "dough" and refers to his collaborators as "cats." "But at the same time," he continues, "I did work on some very big things, so I didn't feel like I was out of the game. It took me a long time to realize that, after a while, you really do drop off the radar."

Romero's return to movie and radar screens was consecrated last month by a standing-ovation tribute at the Cannes Film Festival, which included a sneak preview of Land's first 15 minutes -- an occasion that, for all its triumph, also pointed up the dismissive treatment genre fare like Romero's has long received from festivals and critics alike. "Even for a lot of the industry, George Romero is a name, nothing more," notes Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux. "When I was 17 or 18, I used to stay up all night with friends watching videotapes of horror movies, which was where I discovered George Romero. And to me, having him onstage was as important as having Abbas Kiarostami or Woody Allen. I like the fact that Woody Allen loves Bergman's movies and Bergman loves Westerns. This is something very important -- that to love cinema is to love all of cinema."

Romero paints with his boldest brushstrokes yet in Land of the Dead, blurring the line that separates zombies from humans while sharpening the one that divides society's haves from its have-nots. Set again in Pittsburgh, the film unfolds in and around a luxury high-rise called Fiddler's Green that has become the last outpost of moneyed (and white) high society in a world where money ceases to have any meaning (other than that ascribed to it by its bearers). Overseen by a venomous gatekeeper called Kaufman (a tip of the capitalist hat to the wealthy Pittsburgh department store entrepreneur), the Green towers above a Hooverville-like slum inhabited by those deemed unworthy of admission to Kaufman's shining planned community. All is enclosed by an electrified fence that has, until now, kept the undead at bay, forcing them into outlying areas where they are shot for sport by the rogue bounty-hunter types who keep the Green supplied.

But as Land of the Dead begins, the oppressed flesh-eating masses show unprecedented cognitive signs, and stir with revolutionary fervor as they rally behind a zombified gas station attendant called Big Daddy. For Romero, these once-fearsome adversaries now seem to represent all of the world's displaced, disenfranchised people, from the streets of America to the contentious cities of the Middle East. "It's more a reflection of the times than it is criticism," Romero says. "I guess I was trying to say something about complacency, which has always been the case in America -- this idea that we're protected, that we don't have to worry about things. As for the imagery, I don't know if people will pick up on all of it, but some of it is obvious to me -- the financial center being a high-rise, and a tank riding through a little village and mowing people down while we wonder why [the zombies] are pissed off at us." Indeed, in the world of Land of the Dead, it's not just the zombies who must learn to be human again.

How often does a director on the wrong side of 60 get the budget and the resources he deserves for the dream project he's been longing to make? Not often, but Romero has done so and done it brilliantly. Land of the Dead is fast, mercilessly funny, gleefully gory and uncommonly thoughtful about the times in which we live -- a horror picture to shake audiences from the complacency engendered by so many Rings and Grudges. Promoted as Romero's "ultimate zombie masterpiece," Land is a rare case of truth in advertising, little dulled by its arrival in the midst of so many other comers to Romero's throne. "You know," Romero muses, "people ask Stephen King, 'How do you feel about these directors ruining your books?' And Steve says, 'They didn't ruin them. Here they are right now, on the shelf here.'" Last week, during his stop through L.A. en route to yet another career tribute (this time at Las Vegas' Cinevegas festival), I talked with the director about the latest chapter in his ongoing zombie epic.


The use of the original Universal Pictures logo at the start of the film is a nice touch.

It's a way of saying, "Guys, this is going to be a little old-fashioned here!"

This is your first Dead movie in 20 years. Was it challenging to find a new approach to the material?

I always wanted to do another one and then we got hung up, my partner and I, in that seven or eight years -- stuck on projects. I fled after all of that and made this little film called Bruiser which nobody's seen. Then I started working on this script mid-2000 and finally got a draft and sent it out days before 9/11 -- after which everyone wanted to make soft, friendly movies. So I took it back home and, sometime after the invasion, dug it out and twisted it around a little bit.

Though the film is set in Pittsburgh, budgetary matters dictated that you shoot most of it in Canada.

I wanted to shoot in Pittsburgh. If we would get smart here, productions wouldn't keep going to Canada, but they offer such incentives over there, and they also take care of their personnel. The regs that we all complain about when we go up there keep those people working. I think they do a fabulous job.

Often, particularly in a film like Martin (1977), your work has contemplated the Pittsburgh landscape as a kind of Norman Rockwell town that never was, or that was once and then vanished.

Which it is. When I got there -- I went there to go to college and I've lived there ever sinceˇ -- the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, "The mills will reopen someday. Don't worry about it." It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there's a little bit of that in this movie too -- it just so happens that it's now a reflection of the entire country.

Though the zombies have always been human on the outside, this is the first movie where we really sense them being human on the inside as well.

Exactly. I tried to throw that big ace out there right away, because I've always had an African-American lead in the other three, which was a conceit. So this time I said, "Okay, I'm gonna switch sides with this guy." I do have this idea in my mind that if I go on, if I live to do another one, that the humans are getting nastier and the zombies are getting a little more human. I've tried to follow a pretty clean line with it, though. Even in Dawn, some of the principals that get turned into zombies are showing cognitive signs, and at the very end of the film there's a zombie who's been dragging a rifle around not knowing what it is, who grabs the hero's rifle and decides, "That looks better!" And then Bub in Day of the Dead -- he's an experiment, but he's basically imitating the scientist. "Push the button, Bub." And he pushes the button. So now, there're other zombies that are imitative, up to a point, but they have Big Daddy to imitate now. So I don't think this has taken a giant leap forward. It's just the idea that they're getting more dangerous.

Michael Moore notwithstanding, it still seems risky to make a movie this political in what is effectively a risk-averse Hollywood climate. I'm thinking particularly of those scenes where we see captive zombies turned by their human captors into Abu Ghraib-style sideshow freaks.

I'm not sure if you showed this movie at the White House that anybody would get it, except when the money burns at the end -- then they might feel a little pang of sadness.

You were making short films from a very early age.

But I never thought I could have a career in it. I went to Carnegie-Mellon to study painting and design. My dad was a commercial artist, and I realized I wasn't very good. They happened to have a theater school, so it was just on impulse that I decided to transfer there. But then I had to take, you know, movement and speech and all of that shit. Pass! So I walked. Back then, cities the size of Pittsburgh at that time had film labs. I had an uncle who supported me, got me an apartment for a year. So I just went and spent a year hanging out at this film lab, back when the news was on film -- journeymen guys with cigarettes hanging over the flammable glue pots gluing together the shots.

One of the most distinctive aspects of your films, the early ones in particular, is the way they achieve movement through the cutting of what are mostly static shots. How did you develop that technique?

It's a little bit of a throwback to Michael Powell's stuff, the war movies that he did, which were very much staged that way. It was also a little bit of ass-covering, in the early days, when I couldn't afford dolly track or a dolly. So I would just shoot a lot of coverage, and I developed more of an editing style than even a shooting style. It was really only with The Dark Half that I started to feel more confident, to shoot longer dialogue scenes and do things more efficiently. You know, you start learning some tricks. John Ford, after 150 films, probably had a bag full of tricks. I'm still learning them.

Land of the Dead is the first of your films to be shot in the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio.

I've always loved the frame. I grew up on all of those movies too: Ben-Hur and all of that stuff. It's always been either a little too expensive or a little hard to achieve. But now with the digital intermediate process, we shot film and did all the finishing digitally. That enables you to change the frame, do whatever. It's really like a darkroom; you don't have to time the whole shot -- you can go in and touch things up. That was fun, and we had a wonderful d.p. who got it and I think did a beautiful job with it.

Even with the comeback they've made in recent years at the box office, horror films still tend to be looked down upon by many so-called serious film aficionados.

It's a shame, but I have to say that there aren't a lot of people out there who are doing stuff with real heart. John Carpenter did a few things that I thought were wonderful. I loved They Live and The Thing. But there's not a lot of people doing Caligari these days.

How do you personally view the zombies?

I think of them as a primitive society. It's the quest for fire, putting two and two together. I always tell the actors, "Just think of yourselves as infants discovering things for the first time," like when Big Daddy is looking at the real building and its reflection in the water. But they're almost an external force. It's this incredible sea change in the world.

The End of Solidarity?

The hardest thing to explain is how labor got here. How it reached the point where it now looks as if we may have two separate and distinct labor federations come September.

After all, it's not as if the two groups wanted to represent different elements within the work force, as was the case in 1935 when a largely white, Protestant (and Irish) AFL took a pass on representing the unskilled workers -- many from Eastern and Southern Europe -- in factories, and the CIO came forth to organize them. It's not as if the two groups had political or ideological differences.

Indeed, the differences within the new Change-To-Win Coalition (the thankfully provisional name of the group that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and UNITE-HERE, among others, have formed) may be sharper than those within labor as a whole, since the SEIU and UNITE-HERE are among the leftmost of unions, while the Teamsters and the Carpenters have a long history of flirting with Republicans. It's not as if one side had the unions that organized and the other the unions that didn't: Both sides have unions with great track records, and with god-awful ones.

And yet, here we are: The SEIU, the AFL-CIO's largest union, and the Teamsters, the third largest, have left, and the UFCW looks sure to follow. There's been a little more reticence of tone among the leaders of UNITE-HERE, the clothing and hotel workers union, since their union owns the Amalgamated Bank (in which unions deposit -- and from with they can withdraw -- their funds), and needs support from other unions when they're boycotting hotels. Terry O'Sullivan, who heads the Laborers' International Union of North America, has been the most circumspect of the dissidents, as his union depends on collegial relations with other building trades to get construction-site agreements.

But anything resembling middle ground is eroding fast. On Monday, when SEIU president Andy Stern and Teamster president Jim Hoffa announced their unions' disaffiliation, they began for the first time to outline what looks to be a rival federation. Hoffa pledged to direct half of the dues he'd otherwise pay to the AFL-CIO ($10 million) to the new entity, which apparently will develop an organizing staff of its own, much like the old CIO. The creation of a whole new entity will make it harder for unions whose leaders intended to maintain joint memberships to do so: Emotionally and financially, the costs of dual membership will be very high.

For one thing, the departing dissidents leave in their wake some mightily pissed-off labor leaders, who believe that much of what Stern and his allies were calling for was in fact incorporated in the convention's resolutions. The positions ultimately backed by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney on, for instance, coordinated organizing, says American Federation of Teachers president Ed McElroy, "took their issues into consideration, and ours [the Teachers]. He didn't back anyone's ideas entirely. But there are a few leaders who want to dictate terms to the AFL-CIO with just 25 percent of the membership. I won't buy that; my union won't buy that. We won't have things dictated by a minority."

The mood in the Sweeney camp -- and even among some of the dissidents -- is even darker when they contemplate the damage the defections will do to the Federation. The fate of a joint Wal-Mart organizing project, backed by the Federation, with the UFCW and SEIU as the key internationals, is now a mystery. The International Affairs Department, probably the planet's most important proponent of a social-democratic model of globalization, has already been dismantled.

And the political program -- which both sides acknowledge is the glory of Sweeney's presidency and the one indispensable element in American progressive politics -- is clearly endangered. So much so that last Sunday, in between announcing the SEIU's non-attendance at the convention and its departure from the Federation altogether, Stern told me that he'd offered to have the SEIU continue to "help the AFL-CIO with its political program."

"They can keep some of the best aspects of our work," Stern said. "The AFL-CIO is making a huge mistake if it chooses not to work with us."

This policy of selective engagement, which renders the Sweeney people understandably ballistic, will be particularly tested in the central labor councils -- the city and county AFL-CIO bodies (of which the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor is widely thought the most effective) that run labor's election-season political operations. Sweeney's position is that unions cannot choose to be part of, and benefit from, just those AFL-CIO programs they like, and he has said he'll enforce a ban on state and local participation by the defectors. But in California and Los Angeles, the dissident unions constitute roughly half of the AFL-CIO's membership. "Our state will be affected the most," says California Labor Federation Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski.

"We need these unions to do politics," says one L.A.-area labor leader. "But some unions are so angry, they'll say, 'Don't let 'em in the room. Fuck 'em.' "

The journey from "Solidarity Forever" to "Fuck 'em" remains hard to explain. I doubt if any of the dissident union leaders other than Stern -- whose SEIU is so large and successful that it can clearly stand alone -- figured that they would be where they are today. When I interviewed UFCW president Joe Hanson in February, he said he expected to support Sweeney's re-election. But mistrust and frustration have grown in both camps, despite the desire of many of the key players to avoid just this kind of crackup. "There's been a massive failure of leadership on both sides," one union leader close to both the Sweeney and dissident camps told me on Sunday. "The movement's already on life support. It's mind-boggling that we are where we are."

But we are.

Requiem for a Hollywood Reporter

In the movies, reporters are mostly made out to be sleazy louts (It Happened One Night) or bumbling fools (Absence of Malice). Hollywood moguls even portray good journalists (All the President's Men) as egotistical, obsessive, not-very-nice people. Or maybe it's just payback. After all, good journalists usually portray Hollywood moguls as egotistical, obsessive, not-very-nice people. Combine the two, and a good Hollywood journalist means a double dose of all those qualities that make a person insufferable.

That, in a nutshell, was veteran movie industry reporter Anita Busch.

"Was" is the operative word here because she has abandoned the profession she zealously plied for nearly 20 years. Not just because she was sniffing around a story that ended in her fearing for her life, not just because she burned her bridges at the major media outlets, but also because the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood press corps turned their backs on her when she came under what we now know was a genuine threat.

"She told me she's never going to work as a journalist again," one of her closest friends told L.A. Weekly. "It's not so much what happened to her but the whole way this went down. How she was treated left a sour taste."

She is gone and, worse, she is near-forgotten, an inconspicuous end to an esteemed career. So I, for one, am going to apologize to Busch on behalf of everyone who covers Hollywood: Yes, we are at fault. Yes, we didn't take this seriously at first, second or third. Yes, we made the mistake of putting personality before principle. Shame on us -- especially now that this ongoing Hollywood puzzle is starting to fall into place.

On Friday, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office announced that celebrity private eye Anthony Pellicano, already in prison on federal weapons and explosives counts, was charged with conspiracy and threatening Busch. The man he allegedly hired to do the dirty work, Alexander Proctor, already had been charged with one count of making criminal threats against Busch in a case filed in 2003. Still unclear is who hired Pellicano. Busch, who's been in contact with the FBI and the D.A.'s Office all this time, has tantalizingly whispered to friends that her case could lead to a big Hollywood name.

Busch wouldn't return my phone calls. (Though a guy called me anonymously and warned repeatedly, "You're being monitored. Everything you say about Anita Busch.") Also not talking to me was the literary agent for the novel she's supposedly writing, and the lawyer for the civil lawsuit she filed two years after the incident against nearly everyone she claims was involved. Those who are in contact with her say she's obsessed with every facet of the ongoing Pellicano taping scandal and talks about it constantly.

She also hasn't worked for the Los Angeles Times in years, and left there disappointed that the paper's management "didn't back her up" more, according to one pal. "She didn't find them as supportive as she would have liked. They turned the matter over to the Human Resources administrative people. This was very offensive to her."

To refresh your memory, the long-time trade paper reporter-editor was newly hired as a contract writer by the Los Angeles Times when she was threatened while working on a story about has-been action star Steven Seagal's alleged ties to the mob. That's when Anita in LaLaland fell down the rabbit hole and never came out again.

Separating fact from fantasy seemed impossible given the wacko stuff that happened that June 10, 2002, involving an actor, the Mafia, a hit man, a note that said "STOP," a shatter mark on her car windshield -- alleged shenanigans by Proctor and Pellicano. The street where she lived was evacuated so the bomb squad could investigate the contents of the mystery package left on her auto; it contained a dead fish and a rose but no explosive device. "People didn't take it seriously because it sounded like a movie script," another friend says. "That's why few people felt sorry for her."

Blame that on Busch herself and her reputation first as a Hollywood queen, and then as a drama queen. Over time, she went from the reporter relentlessly pursuing stories to reversing course and becoming the story. She was schmoozing media writers for high-profile treatment in stories about Hollywood coverage, sitting for a portrait and profile in the LAT when she became editor of The Hollywood Reporter, or slithering around in evening dress for an Elle magazine feature on "Hollywood After Dark." The dead fish experience was seen as just another peril to befall Anita: She'd had as many as Pauline over the years, culminating in the bottle of MSG she claimed was sent to her by Michael Ovitz because of her lethal allergy to the food additive.

The Hollywood trades gave short shrift to the intimidation story. Why? Because Busch had worked for both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, then left bad-mouthing the ethics of her former bosses. Not only didn't it endear her to them, but it started their vendetta against her.

Then, the Washington Post repeated LAT insider talk that Busch was "the Tawana Brawley of the newsroom," where her fish tale provoked eye-rolling.

Now-defunct alternative paper Los Angeles New Times even questioned Busch's veracity. "Do Gambino greaseballs read West Coast papers, and even if they do, why would they give a rancid cannoli about Anita Busch? The stuff she and [co-writer Paul] Lieberman were reporting was public record, part of a federal indictment and was also covered on June 5 by both the New York Daily News and The New York Times. The Busch-Lieberman team didn't break the story, nor any new ground."

It didn't help that several reports said she was staying at fancy hotels, at LAT's expense, and taking other extravagant security precautions. The Washington Post even had to issue a correction after a Times spokesman clarified that Busch "spent only one night at a hotel, and stayed at other locations afterward."

Damage was done to Busch's reputation because of it all. "People acted like she was a perpetrator, and in fact she was a victim," says one of her pals. "The publicity was devastating to her. She's a little paranoid anyway, and it made her more paranoid."

Busch also made enemies of almost every reporter who tried to write about her during this time by threatening libel suits and demanding top-to-bottom corrections. Then again, the high-strung journalist tended to come undone whenever anyone turned the tables and wrote about her. She was known as a wonderful friend to have, and a terrible foe; the only problem was that, somewhere during her career, the line blurred and she became increasingly combative. One of her biggest bête noires was early blogger Luke Ford, whose scathing online portrait of "rageaholic Anita" drove her to near-batty behavior.

It wasn't always so. A Midwesterner, she drove to Los Angeles in 1990, with her sister and cat for company, and described covering Hollywood in those early days like "being thrown naked into the heart of Times Square." From the start, she was known for her take-no-prisoners style of reporting and fierce spirit of competition on the entertainment beat. A stilted writing style and a mania for industry minutiae prevented her from successfully moving beyond the ghetto of the trade papers. When she did try gigs at Premiere and Entertainment Weekly, she didn't last long. When she scored the L.A. Times gig it was something of a shock. She was there less than a year.

Again and again, the rap on Anita was that she didn't play well with others, and complaints about her behavior from inside and outside the media mounted. A lot of this was just Anita being, well, Anita. Typical is this anecdote from a new employee at Variety, who on his first day tried to introduce himself. "I didn't know she was on the phone. I walk up to her and say, 'Hi, I'm . . . ' And just as I'm about to say my name, she starts shouting, 'Oh yeah? Well, fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.' Every time she says 'Fuck you,' she is slamming her headset on the desk. She flings it away and it breaks into 20 pieces. She puts her hand out and says, 'Hi, I'm Anita.'"

You either liked her or you hated her. There wasn't much room in the middle. But almost everyone respected her reporting. For a journalist, that's an epitaph to be proud of.

The New Blacklist

Spurred on by a biblical injunction evangelicals call "The Great Commission," and emboldened by George W. Bush's re-election, which is perceived as a "mandate from God," the Christian right has launched a series of boycotts and pressure campaigns aimed at corporate America -- and at its sponsorship of entertainment, programs and activities they don't like.

And it's working. Just three weeks ago, the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA) announced it was ending its boycott of corporate giant Procter & Gamble -- maker of household staples like Tide and Crest -- for being pro-gay. Why? Because the AFA's boycott (which the organization says enlisted 400,000 families) had succeeded in getting P&G to pull its millions of dollars in advertising from TV shows like "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

P&G also ended its advertising in gay magazines and on gay Web sites. And a P&G executive who had been given a leave of absence to work on a successful Cincinnati, Ohio, referendum that repealed a ban on any measures protecting gays from discrimination was shown the door.

"We cannot say they are 100 percent clean, and we ask our supporters to let us know if they discover P&G again being involved in pushing the homosexual lifestyle," growls the AFA's statement of victory over the corporate behemoth, "but judging by all that we found in our research, it appears that our concerns have been addressed." The Wall Street Journal reported on May 11 that "P&G officials won't talk publicly about the boycott. But privately, they acknowledge the [Christer] groups turned out to be larger, better funded, better organized, and more sophisticated than the company had imagined."

But the P&G cave-in to the Christian right is only the tip of the iceberg. In just the past year and a half, AFA protests and boycotts -- or even the simple threat of boycotts -- have been enough to make a host of American companies pull their ads from TV shows the Christian right considers pro-gay or salacious. "Desperate Housewives" has lost ads from Safeway, Tyson Foods, Liberty Mutual, Kohl's, Alberto Culver, Leapfrog and Lowe's after the AFA's One Million Dads campaign targeted the show's sponsors. "Life as We Know It" got the same AFA treatment -- and lost ads from McCormick, Lenscrafters, Radio Shack, Papa John's International, Chattem and Sharpie.

And it's not just programs on the broadcast networks and their local affiliates that are feeling the heat from the Christian right. When the AFA targeted Comedy Central's "South Park," the popular cartoon satire saw ads on the show pulled by Foot Locker, Geico, Finish Line and Best Buy.

Nissan, Goodyear and Castrol stopped running ads on "The Shield" after AFA complaints. Sonic Drive-In pulled its ad support from "The Shield" after a single email request from AFA's Rev. Wildmon. S.C. Johnson and Hasbro ordered their ads taken off "He's a Lady" when it got the AFA treatment. And the list goes on ..... Call it a new, 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not advertise" if the religious primitives smell sin.

Just two weeks ago, the AFA undertook a new letter-writing campaign aimed at Kraft Foods (makers of Oreo cookies, Maxwell House coffee, Ritz Crackers and the like) for supporting the "radical homosexual agenda."

Kraft's crime? It's a corporate sponsor of the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago. Founded in 1980 by Dr. Tom Waddell -- a 1968 Olympic decathlete -- these Gay Games VII will bring gay athletes from all over the world to the Windy City for a complete catalog of Olympic-style competitions. The honorary chairman of the Chicago Gay Games? The city's mayor, Richard Daley, who declared that he is "committed to the success of the 2006 Gay Games because it is an expression of international goodwill and a celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, which are important to Chicago."

But, following the AFA's lead, another conservative Christian group -- the Illinois Family Institute (IFI) -- has asked its members to take on Kraft and five other Illinois companies that are sponsoring what it calls the "Homosexuality Games." Proclaimed the IFI: "By allowing their corporate logos to be used to promote the 'Gay Games,' Kraft, Harris Bank and other sponsoring companies are celebrating wrong and destructive behaviors, and showing their disdain for the majority of Americans who favor traditional morality and marriage."

Here's a nice touch: The IFI's Web site features a statue of Abraham Lincoln, who some historians now credibly say was gay or bisexual. Will Kraft stand up to the pressure? The company's answer to this protest campaign is, for the moment, yes -- but for how long?

All across the country, the Christian right and its allies in the culture wars are mobilizing -- sometimes spurred on from the top by the AFA, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and similar national groups, but with increasing frequency local pressure campaigns and boycott threats are self-starters. They target everything from local broadcast outlets and local cable operators to libraries, bookstores, playhouses, cinemas and magazine outlets.

"The Christian right is incredibly mobilized," says Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a 30-year-old alliance of 50 nonprofit groups. Bertin says, "There's been an explosion of local book and arts censorship -- a lot of activity by an emboldened grassroots, who think they won the last election on moral grounds. They barely need to threaten a boycott to get those they target to back down -- hey, nobody had to threaten to boycott PBS to get them to back off Postcards From Buster." Bertin affirms that "This new threat from below as well as above has already achieved a widespread chill" on creative and entertainment arts throughout the country.

A good example of successful up-from-below pressure in making corporate America bend the knee to the Christian right: the Microsoft Corp. Earlier this year, under pressure from a local protest led by Ken Hutcherson -- a conservative National Football League linebacker turned preacher -- Microsoft made a decision to stay neutral in the fight over legislation in Washington's state Legislature banning discrimination in employment against same-sexers, although many other companies headquartered in the state took positions in favor of the bill. But after an avalanche of counterprotests to Microsoft about their cave-in to Hutcherson, from their own employees (many of whom are gay), gay groups and the blogosphere, Microsoft reversed itself and supported the anti-discrimination bill. Too late: Two weeks earlier, the bill had been defeated by just one vote in the state Senate. Now, Microsoft is being targeted by a new, national conservative Christian protest campaign for having flip-flopped again.

Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, calls the new offensive a drive toward "theocratic oligopoly. The drumbeat of religious fascism has never been as troubling as it is now in this country," adding that "e-mails to the FCC are more worrisome to me than boycotts" in terms of their chilling effect.

Even The New York Times is feeling the chill. At the beginning of May, an internal committee of 19 Times editors and reporters, who'd been asked how to improve the paper's "credibility" with a wider swath of America, came up with a key recommendation: Deliberalize the paper's news columns, especially through more coverage on religion from a sympathetic point of view.

The committee's report, "Preserving Our Readers' Trust," added that "the overall tone of our coverage of gay marriage, as one example, approaches cheerleading. By consistently framing the issue as a civil rights matter -- gays fighting for the right to be treated like everyone else -- we failed to convey how disturbing the issue is in many corners of American social, cultural, and religious life."

Oh, "disturbing" to whom? Why, to the Christian right, of course -- whose email complaint campaigns against the Times are legion: It's the paper the fundamentalists love to hate. So why is the Times -- one of the few newspapers in the latest available study of circulation released earlier this year to significantly increase circulation rather than lose it -- feeling the need to kowtow to the religious opponents of gay marriage? The paper's willingness to do so is about as frightening a testimony to creeping theocracy as one could imagine.

Is the new conservative Christian anti-gay and anti-sex crusade a back-to-the-future nightmare? Remember your history: In the 1950s, the anti-Communist owners of a small chain of supermarkets in upstate New York started threatening the TV and radio networks with boycotts of sponsors' products if they employed any persons listed as supposed Communists or lefties, in a sloppily researched little pamphlet called "Red Channels."

It didn't take long for this small protest to instill fear throughout the broadcast industry, and the result was the Blacklist, a witch-hunt that lasted for years -- even after John Henry Faulk, the blacklisted star CBS-radio host and actor, won his landmark $3.5 million libel suit in 1962 against the blackmailers of AWARE Inc., which -- for a suitable fee -- offered "clearance" services to major media advertisers and radio and television networks, investigating the backgrounds of entertainers for signs of Communist sympathy or affiliation. But Faulk didn't work in national broadcasting for another 13 years, until he landed a spot on the TV series Hee-Haw in 1975. It took that long to end a quarter-century reign of terror in the entertainment industry, 18 years after Senator Joe McCarthy was dead and buried.

Today's Christian right protests are targeting a different kind of subversion. Chip Berlet, senior analyst at the labor-funded Political Research Associates, has spent over 25 years studying the far right and theocratic fundamentalism. He is co-author of "Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort."

Berlet -- who was one of the speakers at a conference last month co-sponsored by the N.Y. Open Center and the City University of New York Graduate Center on "Examining the Real Agenda of the Christian Right" -- says that "What's motivating these people is two things. First, an incredible dread, completely irrational, of a hodgepodge of sexual subversion and social chaos. The response to that fear is genuinely a grassroots response, and it's motivated by fundamentalist Christian doctrines like Triumphalism and Dominionism, which order Christians to take over the secular state and secular institutions. The Christian right frames itself as an oppressed minority battling the secular-humanist liberal homofeminist hordes."

The key to those doctrines is what fundamentalist religious primitives call the Great Commission, which is basically an injunction to convert everyone to Christianity. In the Bible (Matthew 28:19-20), it says, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you . . ." The fundamentalist interpretations of these and other texts can be found on evangelical Web sites like Thegreatcommission.com, Transferableconcepts.com and Gospelcom.net. They have incredible motivating power for the religious right, and help explain the vehemence of the Christian right's intolerance of the freedom of others to think or act differently.

Says Berlet, "The re-election of Bush was a sort of tipping point for these people, who take it as a mandate from God -- they see that the leadership of America is within their grasp, and when you get closer to your goal, it's very energizing. It reaches a critical mass, in which the evangelicals feel they have permission to push their way into public and cultural policy in every walk and expression of life."

All that, says Berlet, is what is motivating the skein of conservative Christian boycotts, protest campaigns and censorship drives bubbling from the bottom up -- which get added emotional and pressure power from the fund-raising-driven crusades launched by political Christian right organizations like AFA at the national level. The confluence of from-above and from-below is a powerful mix.

There's one big problem: Nobody at the national level is tracking these censorship and pressure campaigns in a systematic way, to quantify them or assess their impact, so that strategies to defeat them can be developed.

"People for the American Way used to track this stuff, but they stopped doing so systematically in 1996. We at Political Research Associates would love to do it," says Berlet, "but we don't have the resources. Groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute or Americans United for Separation of Church and State could easily do this sort of work. But none of us has the money to do it, because nobody wants to give it. There used to be three major journalists writing about this stuff -- Sara Diamond, Russ Belant and Fred Clarkson. But none of them could make a living doing it, and they've all dropped out of the game."

Unless Hollywood, and the entertainment and broadcast industries, all want to live through an epoch of increasing content blackmail and blacklists, the wealthy folks who make a lot of money from those industries better wake up and start funding intensive and systematic research on the Christian right and its censorship crusades against sexual subversion and sin in the creative arts -- or soon it will be too late, and the "theocratic oligopoly" of which Martin Kaplan speaks will be so firmly established it cannot be dislodged.

Million Dollar Boomer

One restless 2 a.m. in November 2001, writer-filmmaker Paul Haggis lay awake, wrestling with whether to get out of bed and write down what, in his half-sleep, looked like a white-hot idea. "I hate waking up with an idea in the middle of the night," he laughs, "because whenever you do write it out, it's shit when you read it the next morning. But if you don't write it down, you forget it by morning, and it's the greatest idea you've ever had."

In this case, Haggis is lucky he dragged himself to his desk -- and so are we. Crash is the fruit of that insomniac struggle, and marks the powerful debut of Haggis as a director, fresh on the heels of his triumph as the screenwriter behind the Oscar-sweeping Million Dollar Baby.

The idea that badgered Crash into being grew out of a nightmarish memory. Haggis and his wife were victims of a carjacking in the early 1990s. He had never considered the incident useful story material, yet, as he recalls, "Once a year or so, I would ask myself: Who were those guys? Were they best friends? Were they professionals? Or was this their first time? What did they do for pleasure, in their off times?" The two had also, after all, stolen the keys to Haggis' house. He and his wife had had to stay up into the wee hours waiting for a locksmith. Remembering that night, Haggis asked himself: What if the locksmith who arrived had come styled as a tattooed gangbanger? How safe would he have felt then? And what if Haggis had been rash enough in his rage to voice such fears (as Sandra Bullock does, in Crash) within the locksmith's earshot? How would the locksmith have felt? And who was that locksmith, anyway? What was his home life? This time, the questions drove Haggis out of bed, which led to other questions, and other characters. By 10 that same morning, without having once left his chair, Haggis had completed a 40-page treatment, which in a matter of weeks he developed into a fully fledged script with his friend Robert "Bobby" Moresco. This comes to the screen intact, with the cooperative support of producer Bob Yari and producer Cathy Schulman.

"Crash is not 'about' race," cautions Haggis. "It's about strangers, others. About how we love to divide ourselves. Take Rwanda -- a perfect example of two tribes, of one race, divided by colonial politics, who slaughter each other over differences that are invisible to an outsider. And that's so much who we are, as human beings. We will always manufacture differences." This seemed a truth so volatile that Haggis feared Crash would be misunderstood: "I thought, 'Oh fuck, I'm either going to be strung up by everyone I respect, or I'm going to be the poster boy for the KKK.' " His late friend and CBS executive Anita Addison (the first African-American woman to hold a top network position) strongly advised him not to change a thing. She died while Crash was in production, but made a wisecrack that went into the film, which is dedicated to her memory: "Santa Monica, Burbank, Toluca Lake -- those are some scary places for a black woman to find herself."

Born in 1953 in London, Ontario (just across the border from Detroit), Haggis, who was raised Catholic, smiles at the memory of himself, at age 6, telling his mother, "I wish there were more Catholics in this neighborhood, because all the Christians want to do is fight." He moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s, determined to become a film director, only to spend the next 25 years in television, writing or executive-producing shows such as The Facts of Life, thirtysomething, L.A. Law, Walker: Texas Ranger and EZ Streets, honing his skills and solidifying his financial base for the jump he made in 2000, when he bought the rights to the two short stories by F.X. Toole that became Million Dollar Baby. "I'm glad now that I didn't get to direct movies at 23," he reflects. "They would've been so bad. It takes a long time to figure out what you want to say, and how to say it."

A subtle snobbism dividing movies from TV still operates in the industry, he discovered: "People thought, 'If we let him direct, it'll come out looking like a TV movie.' Completely forgetting that Michael Mann and even Steven Spielberg came out of TV!" He nevertheless persevered, and his aesthetic as a director comes visibly steeped in the prowling camera work of the great Europeans ("Godard was an early hero of mine, and Costa-Gavras? There's a career I wouldn't mind having!"), not to mention the trust in actors typical of the best Americans. ("As should be obvious, I stole liberally from Altman.") Casting Don Cheadle thus proved crucial: "Every gifted actor wants to work with Don. Having him onboard attracted everyone else."

Haggis was even set to direct Million Dollar Baby, having already lined up Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman to co-star when, in the second week of shooting Crash, Clint Eastwood (whom Haggis had originally invited just to act) expressed his interest in the project -- provided he direct instead. An agonizing weekend ensued, but in the end the call was a no-brainer: "If I was going to give up the director's chair for anybody, it was going to be for Clint." Eastwood is currently directing Flags of Our Fathers, also written by Haggis, for DreamWorks. This, in turn, has led Haggis to collaborate with Steven Spielberg on the script for his second film as director.

"I want to keep doing things that scare me," he says. "I want to stay uncomfortable. If you see a well-made film that's wonderful while you're watching it, but it's all tied up by the last frame, often you forget it when the lights go up. I prefer an experience like Mulholland Drive, where you come out with your friends and argue over what the hell you just saw and compete to explain it to each other. Now that's a movie to me! I have the impression that, with Crash, a lot of couples get very argumentative over the 'frisk' scene." This would be the hellish moment when a self-tortured, hotly abusive cop crosses the line into racist brutality when he runs his hand up the dress of a well-to-do black woman, "looking for weapons" as her husband, a black television director, looks on helplessly. This incident gives way to a triple agony as the couple sort out what the husband should have done and the cop dodges (but only for a while) the indictments of guilt pulsing in his own mostly amputated conscience. "There is very little way to talk about that scene without risking a quarrel, especially if you're one of a couple," says Haggis. "But the responses are fascinating. One friend even said, 'That cop did such a favor to that man' " because, despite the evil of his act, it promotes life-changing (if life-threatening) confrontations in the lives of both the TV director and his wife. Adds Haggis, "So often in life we live out a paradox: 'It's your enemy who helps you and your friend who drags you down.' And we are each such bundles of contradictions. Something like racism can be opportune or inopportune. You can conduct your life with decency most of your days, only to be amazed by what will come out of your mouth in the wrong situation. Are you a racist? No -- but you sure were, in that situation! In the best movies, we don't know what the characters are going to do next. Our contradictions define us.

"I just have a lot of questions," Haggis concludes. "I figure if I have the questions, a lot of other people might, too."

Really Big Packages

What unmitigated gall.

Entertainment Weekly suspended its usual pabulum spEWing to piss on celebrity perk packages in its recent, laughably titled article "NEW Age of Greed." In the piece, unnamed executives at movie studios, TV networks and record labels whine about unnamed stars who dare to demand $40,000 private-jet flights to carry their luggage and $35,000 basketball courts to entertain them on location. The article even gripes that celebrity perks add about 5 percent to the bottom line of a film's cost. "Given that the average studio film now costs $98 million to produce and market, that can be $5 million in perks," EW gasps. "Say a studio releases a dozen movies a year, that's $60 million -- enough to make a Sideways roughly every three months."

Forget, for a moment, the stupidity of an entertainment publication that is shocked to find that stars are wasting Hollywood's money. The same outrage was heard throughout the 1980s and 1990s over Demi Moore demanding vintage dolls for her collection or Tom Cruise a co-op in Manhattan. Forget the cowardice of magazine editors who won't finger-point for fear those celebs will refuse to do EW covers. (Even though documents filed in the ongoing lawsuit over the collapse of the Basic Instinct sequel made public Sharon Stone's five pages of demands including Pilates equipment, a $3,500 per diem for armed bodyguards, a chauffeured car with a nonsmoking driver, three nannies, two assistants, a presidential suite, deluxe motor home, and on ad nauseam.)

Instead, remember this: Hypocrisy, thy name is EW's parent company, Time Warner. Chairman and CEO Dick Parsons gave himself a perk that's a monument to ego: a 5,000-square-foot, 21st-floor, marble-and-rare-wood dream suite (a supposed $25 mil to build out) inside the swankiest and priciest NYC office space, the new Time Warner Center. Parsons and the other heads of the Mammoth Media conglomerates feeding America its infotainment -- Disney, Sony, Viacom, General Electric and News Corp. -- may gag on celebrity greed, but they never stop indulging their own corporate gluttony.

Wanna hurl? Look at the latest shareholders-be-damned headlines this week about Viacom -- owner of Paramount, CBS, MTV, VH1, and Infinity radio -- disclosing that it gave its top three moguls a 58 percent pay increase even though the company's stock price fell 18 percent in 2004. A Viacom spokesman noted that the bonuses for all executives were tied to operating income, not share price.

It's not just the arrogance of rich, old Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone claiming he cuts costs at every corner while at the same time lining his own pockets at the expense of investors that's so nauseating. It's also the profligacy of a public company shameless enough to reimburse Les Moonves, who lives in Los Angeles but also has a New York apartment, $105,000 for the period he stayed in New York at his apartment instead of at a hotel, or Tom Freston, who is based in New York but also has a residence in Los Angeles, $43,100 for the time he spent staying at his L.A. home instead of a hotel.

Talk about chutzpah: This is paying these guys to live in their own homes.

For that matter, departing Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner received $735,000 for security services, personal protection and equipment. That's on top of the $8.3 million in salary, bonus and other compensation in the same year he was the target of a shareholder revolt.

The examples are legion. Besides the disputed $20 million golden parachute, French-based Vivendi Universal paid for all sorts of extravagant perks to chief executive Jean-Marie Messier before his ouster. Reportedly, Viv U picked up the tab for a $140,000-a-year butler, a $75,000-a-year chauffeur for Messier's wife, plus the heating bills in the $17.5 million Park Avenue duplex the company bought for him -- all while shareholders were kept in the dark about the extent of the conglom's financial problems.

Given such wretched excess, those toys for Hollywood A-listers seem like chump change.

Celebrities can make all the demands they want, but someone has to underwrite every perk. Whereas, when it comes to corporate gluttony, the execs are writing the checks to themselves. That's because, increasingly, the CEOs consider themselves celebs.

The monster of megabuck mayhem was the late Steve Ross, the Warner tycoon, who never spent a dollar of corporate money if he could spend a million. Freewheeling and free-spending, Ross single-handedly ushered in the show-biz era of extravagance (which raised the bar for copycat corporate masters of the universe in other fields) by showering stars and other big shots with trips in private jets and stays in Aspen chalets and Acapulco villas owned by the company. Of course, the studio bigwigs got as much as they gave. Ross' legacy of how a studio legend should live is still being emulated decades later.

It's why former Paramount Communications president Stanley Jaffe installed a screening room in his Westchester, N. Y., home at a cost to the company of $1.5 million. (When Bill Mechanic was president of 20th Century Fox, he eschewed that goody, telling one reporter, "I'd rather see movies in theaters, with real people.")

It's why Peter Guber, the onetime chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, saddled his employer with his Bel Air mansion, along with a laundry list of perks. Among the things Sony acquired for that staggering $5.5 million, besides the "Rolls-Royce of flotation tanks," was a $3.5 million loss on its books when the house was finally resold. Yet Guber, whose tenure resulted in $3.2 billion of Hollywood losses for Sony, had the nerve in his recent book "Shoot Out" (co-authored with Variety editor Peter Bart, who should have known better) to bitch about spiraling star demands.

What Ross was to the men, Dawn Steel was to the women. After she famously had a baby before taking over at Columbia Pictures, Steel was the first to negotiate all sorts of now-routine, child-friendly perks, like an on-site nursery, into her contract. It would be curious to see which of today's women execs griped to EW about the proliferation of $1,500-a-week nannies being paid by the studios for the offspring of celebrities making movies.

Some of these stealth forms of show-biz CEO compensation only come to light because of lawsuits. Indeed, it took Jane Welch to spill the beans about her husband's retirement perks in a divorce filing because GE had never disclosed the New York Knicks tickets, satellite television service, wine, country-club memberships, an $80,000-per-month Manhattan apartment along with continued use of the corporate jet, not to mention free toilet paper for life.

So unless Jane Eisner tires of Michael hanging around the kitchen all day in his Mickey Mouse PJs and suddenly divorces him, come September we may never know the lavishness of Eisner's Disney-funded retirement. Chairman George Mitchell stammers whenever the subject comes up, saying only that the company will honor Eisner's employment contract, which is reportedly being renegotiated. Of course, since he started at Disney in 1984, Eisner already has earned $1 billion in salary, bonuses and exercised stock options.

Yet isn't it ironic that Eisner, notorious for nickel-and-diming employees as well as stars, is such a penny pincher when it comes to everyone but himself? One of the most telling anecdotes in James Stewart's new book, DisneyWar, is how Disney's perk-addicted president Michael Ovitz came up with the absurd idea that the company should give a gift to Bob Iger, then the head of ABC television, to acknowledge his hard work.

"Why?" Eisner asked. "He's got a contract. He's not going anywhere."

"Don't you want him to be comfortable, happy in his job?" Ovitz asked.

"Not really," Eisner replied.

Recent newspaper and magazine articles purport to spot an industry trend that such iconic and iconoclastic show-biz megalomaniacs are being replaced by a breed of "pinstriped, buttoned-down brass" and "stoic, faceless suits," to quote Forbes. What a bunch of crap. The new guys have waited all their careers to be in charge just to bring home the same gargantuan package of bonus, stock options and perks as their craven predecessors. Especially when the boards of directors are still so packed with insiders, like Disney's. Does anyone doubt that newly-named CEO Iger will be vastly improving upon the $12 million he got as president, including a $6.5 million bonus and $3.45 million in incentive pay?

Then there's News Corp. president Peter Chernin, whose primary job by all accounts is baby-sitting the company until Rupert Murdoch's idiot sons Lachlan and James are ready to take over the public corporation's throne (that fact alone should make shareholders shudder). Though the company makes much of the fact that Chernin's new contract calls for his bonus to be tied entirely to improving the company's earnings per share, for fiscal 2004 he received an $8.3 million base salary, an $8 million bonus and 500,000 stock options valued at $1.79 million. But Chernin is also granted a severance package if he's terminated without cause, including a lump-sum payment of $40 million and the vesting of all his stock options.

Yes, it's Ovitzian, but at least Chernin has been on the job longer than Ovitz's 14 months at Disney, which included $300 charged-to-the-company breakfasts. The Delaware Chancery Court judge is expected to rule this summer in the Disney shareholders' suit over Ovitz's lavish $140 million severance payout. But it's comforting to know the money is going to such a good cause: Casa Ovitz, a 30,000-square-foot estate with a covered tennis court, a 13-car garage, an art gallery and a yoga room, which he is building in the posh Los Angeles enclave of Benedict Canyon much to his neighbors' chagrin.

But that pales in comparison to the media-elite lifestyle Chernin's boss Rupert Murdoch chooses to lead, with his recent purchase of Laurence Rockefeller's Fifth Avenue penthouse co-op at $44 million, the highest ever for a residence in Manhattan at the time. So listen, moguls, those who live in extravagant, perk-filled glass houses shouldn't cast the first stone.

Trailer of Tears

Adam Sandler looks like Albert Brooks' older brother. Nicole Kidman should have known better. And Christian Bale plays Batman not gay. Got that? NOT GAY!

Oh, the pratfalls and pitfalls of the latest movie trailers.

We all know the so-called summer movie season is as fake as everything else in Hollywood. That's because summer movies start bowing in spring, and if the moguls had their way, as early as the first winter blizzard (since summer ticket sales usually account for 40 percent of The Industry's annual revenue). The only thing stopping the suits from ordering a rewrite of the annual calendar -- hey, these guys are so power-driven and delusional they think they can cue a full moon whenever they want one -- is the fact that many of their films simply aren't ready any earlier. So what we have instead of wet prints are movie trailers (and, on the internet, lots and lots of lots of movie trailers) to handicap which studio stupidos are about to involuntarily spend more time with their families.

In an insanely unscientific business that guesses wrong more than it guesses right -- and given the lack of accurate alternative predictors -- trailers are as good an indicator of what is, and isn't, going to be a suckfest as, say, the quality of the craft services on a shoot. But a trailer is not only the public's first look at a picture, it's also the competition's first look as well.

So it wasn't the one-two punch of Spielberg and Cruise that suddenly gave Fox fits about the upcoming War of the Worlds. (After all, 20th had the same combo in the underperforming Minority Report.) Rather, it was the "wow" factor of the WOTW trailer that made Fox push Fantastic Four off the same June 29 release date and back to July 8. Score one for DreamWorks/Paramount. On the other hand, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looked like a heavyweight since it had the buzzworthy Johnny Depp and the same release date as his two-year-old hit Pirates of the Caribbean. Then rival studios got their first glimpse of the kiddie classic's trailer and its creepy, psychedelic take and Johnny Depp in drag as Anna Wintour. Oops! Now New Line has moved its Vince-'n'-Owen romp Wedding Crashers onto the Chocolate Factory date, and Paramount followed with its Sundance rap saga Hustle and Flow.

Because we love the smell of Maalox in the morning, let's review some summer movie trailers and decide who's going to need an Rx for stronger stuff, like Thorazine ...

Bewitched: Ever since this trailer debuted on AOL, the whole town's been talking about it. And not in a nice way. Sony marketing czar Jeff Blake is one of the best in the business, but even he can't make a Prada purse out of this pig's ear of a film. (One word: Godzilla.) The trailer lets the cat out of the bag that this movie is not a remake of the TV show: It's a movie about the making of the TV show. Talk about a cockamamie concept. There's not one funny bit or line in the trailer, which makes us think there's not one funny bit or line in the movie or Sony would have used it. This is like a fun-house hall of mirrors, without the fun.

War of the Worlds: This trailer looks like Twister meets Independence Day. And since both of those ads were great, and the movies were monster hits, everything is going WOTW's way. Sure, there's something unseemly in a post-9/11, post-tsunami world about huge civic destruction, so when you see the people running from a somersaulting highway, it's not so much awesome as dreadful. Also, I kept looking for the Scientology "assist" tent, but guess it got cut out. Still, there's no way the wow factor of this trailer portends a movie battling the bow-wow factor.

The Longest Yard: I only counted one big laugh (Chris Rock's one-liner) in the trailer that's out now. Exactly when did Adam Sandler go from looking 25 to 55 years old? Something's very wrong when Burt Reynolds looks better than the leading man. (Yoo-hoo, Dr. 90210 ... ) I didn't know there were Jews in football, let alone prison.

Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith: After seeing the trailer, it should be Revenge of the Stiff.

Cinderella Man: Is anyone really in the mood for yet another earnest film about boxing? Especially after Hilary Swank demythologized this manly sport? The trailer makes this movie look like Seabiscuit wears boxing gloves, set as it is in the same Depression era, filmed in the same sepia tones, sending the same come-from-behind message. No matter how good Russell Crowe is in it (and how bad Renee Zellwegger looks in it), the trailer shows why NBC's The Contender isn't a hit.

Batman Begins: I had no wanna-see for this movie. Then I spied the trailer. God, Christian Bale is even more gorgeous here than he was in American Psycho. Finally, post-Kilmer and Clooney, someone is playing Batman as a manly man, and not as a fop. There's one good shiver-down-the-spine moment, otherwise the trailer is fairly routine. But it also leaves some nagging questions. Why is Batman being taught by Jedi knight Liam Neeson? And why is Batman strolling through Superman's ice planet?

Mr. and Mrs. Smith: The trailer makes this movie look like Prizzi's Honor with less talented actors. Of course, I spent the whole time looking for clues as to whether Angelina and Brad were getting it on behind Jen's back. If you ask me, we like these two stars looking their most slutty, yet the trailer has them in too many clothes. Not only isn't there any sizzle, there's not even any steak. Where's the beef(cake)?

The Interpreter: Thank god for movie trailers. This one will save you $9. Forget even such stale dialogue as "We've got a situation" and "Someone might get hurt." It clearly shows there's even less chemistry between Nicole and Sean in this Sydney Pollack whodunit than there was between Harrison and Kristin in Pollack's last try, the stillborn Random Hearts. Nice to know the old guy still hasn't lost his lackluster. Since this trailer seemed like a week long, then the movie will seem like a life sentence.

The Pink Panther: All I know from the trailer is that this movie must have been made for the foreign market, because it's all about a murder in a soccer stadium. But in a summer sorely lacking in comedy, Steve Martin paired with Kevin Kline didn't look too painful.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: This movie trailer satirizes movie trailers, but it's too clever by half. The arch British humor isn't of Monty Python quality. Sure, sci-fi geeks know about Douglas Adams' classic book, but the rest of the audience won't have a clue what this incoherent trailer is hawking. It's like a dog's whistle that someone heard, but not me.

Pulp Diction

Sin City, an exquisitely made, unbearably faddish movie that will strike joy into the hearts of all who revere amputation and apocalypse, opens with a swoony love scene culminating in a murder for the heck of it. From there it moves smartly to the promise of child molestation and, with the culprit having had both his face and his balls shot off by Bruce Willis, steams merrily along toward cannibalism, electrocution and the mounting of severed female heads on walls. Had enough? If not, then you are in all likelihood an adult male aging ungracefully, or a pimply youth with a pimply youth's fondness for comic books about hell on Earth. If you're a woman of any age who gets off on this stuff, even with its feeble stabs at feminist role reversals, I throw up my hands.

Still, given the current vogue for empty aesthetics, I'm bracing for the laurels that middle-aged critics suffering from hipster anxiety will heap on this fusion of comic-book art, Asian combat anime and digital cinema. I'll lay odds that Pauline Kael, in her late period of indiscriminate pop worship, would have gushed acres of heated prose in favor of Sin City. As for me, after half an hour spent drooling over its visual splendors, I found the movie every bit as sickening as its creators intended it to be, minus the kicks they so palpably got out of making it.

Billed as a collaborative work, Sin City is directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, with some input from Quentin Tarantino -- a meeting of flamboyantly underage minds if ever there was. More accurately, the movie is a labor of puppy love by Rodriguez, whose work shuttles between enjoyably low-rent noir romanticism (El Mariachi) and childlike exuberance (Spy Kids), for the 1990s graphic novels that made Miller a star. Set in an urban wasteland -- populated by Amazonian hookers, compromised cops and corrupt senators -- that lies somewhere between Hell's Kitchen and the mangier back alleys of downtown Los Angeles, the Sin City series set the tone for a born-again comic-book art set in the seething underbelly of cities where vice and virtue rub shoulders and trade places at the wrong end of a gun. More imitation than interpretation, the film was "cut and shot," as the credits archly put it (God forbid Rodriguez should be doing anything as reactionary as editing or cinematography), on a green screen with state-of-the-art digital manipulation that essentially functions as a paste-up of Miller's visceral drawings. The handsome production design is classic noir, a shadowy world of silvery black and white stained with blood red and livid yellow to signify both beauty and deformity of body and spirit. As is so often the case with hardcore pulp, the dialogue, co-written by Miller and Rodriguez, works better on the page than declaimed out loud, which revs up the clipped meta-speech to the point of real silliness.

Sin City brings together three of Miller's tales, in which ambiguous heroes, festering in the same interstitial cracks of the city as their quarries, take revenge as a means to redemption from their own failings. Unrecognizable under many pounds of makeup and Schwarzenegger musculature, Mickey Rourke looks splendidly craggy as Marv, a street-fighting loner who cruises the nighttime city hunting down the killers of a beautiful blond hooker he fell in love with because she was the first and only woman to drop him a kind word. Doing Bogart detail, Clive Owen, in floor-mop hair, plays a private eye who tries to stay out of trouble (represented by a porked-out Benicio del Toro with a dagger stuck in his forehead, in a sequence directed by Quentin Tarantino) while laboring to protect a leathered-up bevy of ladies of the evening who -- headed by Rosario Dawson in heavy bondage gear and Devon Aoki as a silent but deadly swordswoman -- turn out to need less protection than he does. In a valiant effort at moral complexity, Sin City is bookended by the ailing, washed-up cop Hartigan (Willis), who in his last hour of service saves an imperiled child whose destiny will haunt him to the end of his days.

These three heroic abstractions (no one in his right mind could call them characters) coalesce into a gaga knightliness that only a virgin schoolboy could get behind. In the acting out of Miller's timely if hardly original themes, the hazy line between sin and virtue blurs into a furiously accelerating orgy of gore and severed limbs that could very well make Takashi Miike blanch -- that is the true, manga-inspired impulse of this film. "We were like three kids in a tree fort having a ball," Miller has said about the making of Sin City, and I believe him. The product of three adolescent imaginations with a Sam Fuller fixation, brilliant mastery of the toys in their digital sandbox, and next to no grasp of life, Sin City's moral dilemmas are bogus and engage no emotional response. Unlike the Spider-Man franchise, the movie has no sense of fun beyond the filmmakers' high-pitched giggles at the expense of audience stamina.

Years ago, before he grew famous, Tarantino told me in an interview that his own enjoyment and the kick audiences got out of his brand of aestheticized violence were its only justification. I can't think of any other, but his formula -- visceral, stylish, derivative and detached from all humanity -- has grown into a virus, frantically copying itself all over the map of contemporary cinema. Given the burgeoning market for their work at home and abroad, in all likelihood he and Rodriguez and their legion imitators will get better and better at what they do, while having less and less to say. For those of us who like our movies to show or tell us something about the way we live, that's both too much, and not nearly enough.

Goldberg Flies Air America

Maybe it’s just bad static or poor reception, but isn’t the new CEO of liberal radio network Air America soundbiting like a Republican?

Sure, he thinks Al Franken is a “genius,� but he admits listening regularly to Rush Limbaugh “because I was fascinated by his ability to be so entertaining.� He says Air America won’t take its cues from the Democratic National Committee, “because I hate to see people just lockstep following a political party.� He believes people in Hollywood should be “supportive of politicians, not a replacement for politicians, unless they actually want to run for office like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I hope we produce one of those in my lifetime.� He sees American media becoming more like “the European media now, where media is admitting who they favor, and I think that trend is not all bad because I think there was a bias anyway.� And he says his most immediate goal is to “make a lot of money for shareholders.�

Then again, 54-year-old Danny Goldberg has always defied conventional wisdom.

When the Gore-Lieberman campaign railed against rap in the 2000 presidential race, this longtime record-industry executive and bicoastal political activist accused the Democratic ticket of turning off young people with GOP-pandering tactics. (“Gore’s dramatic drop in the support of younger voters alone cost him the election. The statistics are clear.�) When lefties began writing books savaging the right wing, he wrote a book attacking the Democratic Party as too tone-deaf to popular culture. (Goldberg’s How the Left Lost Teen Spirit is coming out in paperback next month with a new introduction and additional chapters.) When the November election deeply depressed millions of John Kerry supporters, Goldberg not only wasn’t surprised, but also felt less disappointed than most because he saw “a silver lining� in the loss. (“Unlike any election in my lifetime, the campaign left an infrastructure of activists, media and organizations that have at long last begun the work of creating a true progressive electorate.�) When the music business in recent months started to return to growth mode through rising digital sales and stabilizing CD sales, this former top executive at Warner Music and Mercury Records suddenly stepped down as chairman of indie Artemis Records. (He left for what he says were “philosophical differences� with the new investors over the future of the company.)

So it’s not surprising that, just as HBO was scheduling a very warts-and-all documentary about Air America’s start-up and near bankruptcy, Goldberg last month decided to take the helm of the no-longer-struggling company, which had already burned through two CEOs. “It’s just the chance of a lifetime,� Goldberg tells the L.A. Weekly in his first interview since getting the gig. “I wasn’t miserable in the music business, but I’d done it for 30 years. And I’ve had this strong interest for the last 15 or 20 in politics, especially how it intersects with media.�

(Full disclosure: I am a regular unpaid contributor on Air America shows.)

But Goldberg won’t even get to enjoy birthday cake celebrating Air America’s first year of broadcasting nationally on Thursday. Instead, he receives that big fat pie in the face with the premiere of HBO’s Left of the Dial, which chronicles the dramedy of what happens when mayhem meets moola, or lack thereof, complete with bounced paychecks, unpaid health-insurance premiums, complaining creditors and confused staffers.

Especially riveting is the behind-the-scenes chaos as Air America was thrown off its Los Angeles and Chicago radio stations after only two weeks on the air, and the ensuing cover-up. (Then again, the documentary fails to make the point that Air America won’t go down in history as the first company to obfuscate its true economic condition. Yet we should expect better of any champion of progressive politics.)

“It covers the first six months or so, which included a period when a charlatan who said he was funding it flaked out,� sighs Goldberg. “In general, I think it demonstrates the commitment and politics of our on-air talent and reminds people that we’re there. It was an independently produced documentary, so naturally there are a few cringe-worthy moments from our point of view. But, overall, it’s a huge plus for the network.�

Well, only if you believe in the old adages that all publicity is good publicity and that it doesn’t matter what they say about you as long they spell your name right. “Somehow or other, these people got this thing off the ground,� Goldberg defends. “It defied the conventional wisdom of the radio business. It was troubled in terms of the financing issues. This is about the art of the possible, the kind of programming that nobody would have taken a year ago, because they didn’t believe there was an audience for it. This is very much a work in progress. There’s been almost a destiny to it and a dedication, not only the people on the staff but also the investors who have stuck with it.�

What Goldberg vigorously emphasizes, what the HBO broadcast only casually mentions, and what Rush Limbaugh and his echo chambers (Sean Hannity, Tony Snow, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Medved, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, Michael Reagan, Dennis Prager and Larry Elder, ad nauseam) purposefully ignore, is that Air America and its Bushwhacking stepsister in the radio business, Democracy Radio, are now not only on solid financial footing but also informative and � dare we say it � even fun. And not just because of the Grateful Dead bumpers.

That’s why liberal talk is the radio industry’s fastest-growing format. That success has been the catalyst for Air America’s sudden adoption by Clear Channel Communications, long despised by Democrats for hosting shows and promotions that bolster the Bush administration agenda (which is not just paranoia, since the Texas-based company CEO is a big GOP donor). For instance, the day before Dubya’s second-term inauguration, listeners tuning in to the Detroit sports station WXDX-AM were suddenly greeted by the sound of braying donkeys, according to AP reports. By the time Bush was taking the oath of office, the radio station had new call letters and a full schedule of liberal talk shows. It’s just one of 22 stations owned by Clear Channel, many of them registering mere blips in the ratings, that have switched to a liberal-talk format in the last year. “Listeners across the country are asking for more progressive talk radio,� said John Hogan, president of Clear Channel’s Radio Division, in a prepared statement on Jan. 19. On the other hand, ABC’s sizable radio network still is bucking the trend with a near-monolithic right-wing show schedule, even though former Democratic U.S. Sen. George Mitchell chairs parent company Disney.

“There’s a lot of attention to the fact that Clear Channel has done it because of the perception of Clear Channel. It’s from Texas, and some of the people there are friends with George Bush,� says Goldberg, picking his words carefully. “But it’s not just Clear Channel. The new stations in Texas � Dallas, Austin and San Antonio � are not Clear Channel stations. What simply happened is that the ratings have been good enough to demonstrate that there’s a frustrated talk-radio audience that’s not right-wing. So, faced with an underperforming AM station, this is a much better business decision for an owner than the other alternatives. And that’s where we’re getting the stations from.�

Not only is Air America now on in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles (KTLK-AM 1150, another Clear Channel station), but it has also expanded from six to 51 stations, into 15 of the top 20 markets, into major red states like Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alaska, and on XM and Sirius satellite radio. But will left-leaning listeners be able to hear? The truth is that many of Air America’s stations are low-wattage. For instance, in Dallas, where Air America replaced Spanish-language programming on KXEB-AM (910), static nearly drowns out the station in some areas. Even in Los Angeles, the signal can be faint, as opposed to Limbaugh showcase KFI, where the 50,000-watt blowtorch sounds more like 50 million.

Besides scoring well with women and young people, Air America currently claims 2 million listeners (and Goldberg predicts the size of its audience will double by 2006). One way the network is accomplishing this is by learning from the past mistakes of other syndicators of liberal talk who looked for national talent in all the usual � and dull � places.

Gone are the monologues and monotones of former politicians Mario Cuomo and Jim Hightower and even lawyers like Alan Dershowitz. Just as Democracy Radio sought out converted former Republican and ex–football player Ed Schultz, whose syndicated show has gone from two radio outlets to 77 in the past year, Air America also thought outside the box.

It offered gigs to liberally attuned comedians Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo and Marc Maron as well as media and politics veterans Marty Kaplan, Laura Flanders and Mark Riley. Expecting Franken to go head-to-head with Limbaugh in many markets was a huge risk for such a radio and political neophyte. Even liberals who had heard he would be the cornerstone of Air America’s programming feared Franken would make a fool of himself. But when Goldberg began listening to him, “I thought, ‘My God, Al Franken is really like a genius.’ He’s brilliant at taking complicated issues and, with a strict focus on the facts and logic, refuting conservative arguments. To be involved with somebody like that is such an honor.� And he also describes as “very good� Randi Rhodes, who, before Air America gave her a national platform, was beating Rush Limbaugh in the ratings in her Palm Beach County listening area.

Public Enemy rapper Chuck D and eight-time Grammy nominee Steve Earle have new shows. Given his background, Goldberg may want to see more confluence between music and politics, and possibly even Hollywood and politics, in Air America’s programming. “I do think that the war, and the election, brought out a level of intensity by a lot of artists that I hadn’t seen since the ’60s. A lot of those people who became politicized are still passionate. And that’s an asset that the left has, this support of a lot of very creative people in the arts and movies and television and especially in music. There ought to be some way of making those connections.�

And, on April 1, Air America will start carrying Jerry Springer’s syndicated talk-radio program. Yes, that Jerry Springer.

“As soon as I found out it was available to us, I jumped at the chance to get it,� Goldberg tells the L.A. Weekly. “I’m sure there will be some people who say that we shouldn’t run his radio show, because they don’t like his TV show. But the two shows are totally different, and I feel that Springer can reach an audience that we otherwise could not easily reach. He is a genuine celebrity in Middle America � including the so-called ‘red states’ � and has a gift for speaking in the cultural language of a wide piece of America. He is, in other words, a practitioner of exactly the kind of mass communications that I have long wished for in progressive politics. And his politics are truly progressive, on every conceivable issue. Of course, on a business level,� adds Goldberg, “it significantly strengthens us in our relations with affiliates and advertisers.�

But inside Air America, morale has been weakened by what is perceived to be a diversity problem on air and off. Even if the radio network’s management doesn’t practice what it preaches (Goldberg promises more airtime for people of color and women beyond what is currently scheduled), the fact that its programming is preaching at all is a godsend to progressives and their blood pressure. There’s something so soothing about switching from dittohead-targeted rants about “feminazis� and “godless atheists� and “the homosexual agenda� to hearing smart people make fun of all that. For the fair-minded who think National Public Radio has gone too far down the slippery slope and fallen on the side of right-wing bias, the antidote is Air America’s Morning Sedition.

And, for cable-TV-news watchers who’ve forgotten what a Democratic politician looks like, many of the network’s shows deliberately broadcast long and thoughtful excerpts (not just short soundbites that made her seem shrewish) from California Sen. Barbara Boxer’s poking and prodding of Condoleezza Rice at the recent confirmation hearings. (Says Goldberg: “As someone who’s supported Boxer and her campaigns, I’ve yearned for her to play this role. I was just so moved by the way she handled herself and really stepped into a national role at a time when we really needed her.�)

But perhaps Air America’s finest moment to date came during last week’s legal wrangling over Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube. That’s because the radio network repeatedly played for listeners that audiotape of closed-door addresses by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to the culturally conservative Family Research Council on March 17 and 18. Released by the nonsectarian and nonpartisan group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the tape shows both politicians shamelessly exploiting the Schiavo tragedy to politically suck up to the religious right.

All of this speaks very personally to Goldberg and his own progressive views.

“This is really a once-in-a-lifetime chance to run a business that’s really affecting the conversation of the country. So, for me, it’s like a no-brainer. It’s definitely something that, if they didn’t pay me for it, I would probably do it for free. But as a matter of fact, they are paying me for it. I actually think it’s a fantastic business, and those of us who are shareholders, and I’m among them now, are going to make a lot of money.

“You can do well by doing good.�

Last Exit to Tombstone

As soon as he spots me taking pictures on the steps of the 3-century-old avocado-and-lemon-colored Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe church, Manuelito makes a beeline my way. A pudgy 30-year-old Tzotzil Indian from the impoverished southern state of Chiapas, standing barely 4 and a half feet tall, dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, sporting a Marine-like buzzcut, he smiles broadly, opens a mouth full of front teeth capped with shiny gold stars, and, in very fluent and buoyant English, says, "Hey, friend, come and talk to me. I want to talk to you."

After explaining that he's a father of four who can no longer live off his small patch of land, he excitedly hugs me and says victoriously, "I'm going to the Big Apple, to New York City, baby!" That's one reason, he says, why he's spent all of his free time for five years studying English. And he can hardly contain his joy trying it out on me.

When I ask who he knows in New York and what he plans to do when he gets there, he just shrugs. "No matter, man. I know when I get to the border, I just have to walk between the mountain and the red lights on the antenna. That's the way in. From there I will get to New York." And if you get caught by the Migra? I ask.

Again, another laugh. "No matter. They can catch me 10 times, 20 times. It's okay. I keep trying. I'm going anyway." While Manuelito might be among the more eccentric, and one of the very few among them who speak functional English, his predicament, his story and his hopes neatly sum up what's in the heads and hearts of hundreds of other Mexican men standing around the town square this recent Saturday morning. This alternately dusty and muddy, hellish hamlet of Altar, permanent home to barely 7,000, situated an hour and a half south of the Arizona border and bathed in a cloud of diesel fumes, has become the single most important staging area and launching pad for undocumented immigration into the U.S.

Though the Bush administration spent an additional $30 million last year trying to plug the porous southern Arizona border, the illegal exodus has reached a five-year high. Hundreds of new Border Patrol agents were deployed against the human tide, as were Apache helicopters and even unmanned aerial drones. A controversial program that returned home thousands of Mexican migrants caught at the border ran the length of last summer. In the fall, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 200, which demands that state public services be provided only upon proof of legal residence.

None of these measures put as much as a crimp in the immigration crunch, and last year more than 1 million apprehensions were made along America's southern border – the same number as in 2000. But, for the first time ever, the detentions in Arizona totaled more than in all the other border states combined. The bulk of migrant deaths also occurred in the Tucson sector, north of Altar: about 220 – or maybe 250, depending on who's doing the counting – out of an estimated 350 total.

Since the mid-1990s, U.S. border enforcement policy has increasingly squeezed the flow of migrants into the rural and relatively uninhabited – and unforgiving – central Arizona desert. As the Clinton administration imposed draconian lockdowns on traditional border-crossing points near San Diego and El Paso, American immigration officials believed the brutal desert in between would be a formidable and effective deterrent. That theory has been proved irrefutably wrong. The only thing that has changed is a skyrocketing number of migrant deaths. As the daily stream of migrants redirected itself through Arizona, this tiny town of Altar – still invisible on many maps – became the capital of illegal immigration. Indeed, after President Bush – twice in the past year – has issued high-profile statements supporting the enactment of a "guest worker" program, there's been a noticeable spike in the rush to get across the border. With Congress currently considering several pieces of immigration-reform legislation that might "legalize" a certain number of the undocumented, many Mexican would-be immigrants have concluded that now is the right time to get into the U.S. and be in position to benefit from any new federal legislation.

A kidney-crunching 60-mile-long dirt road runs north from Altar to the border village of Sasabe. Maintained only by a local rancher, who charges a toll of $3 per car, the dirt highway is the central pipeline whose tributaries eventually empty into the gardens and nurseries of Brentwood, the orchards of the Central Valley, or the chicken-plucking plants of the Carolinas.

Altar, only an anonymous bus stop along Mexican Route 2 until the last handful of years, is now the system's perpetually whirring pump. Sucking up thousands upon thousands from the poorer Mexican states to the south, it compresses them within its crowded 10-block center and then, at a rate of 10,000 or 20,000 per week, forcefully shoots them back out and northward – with more than enough power to overcome the sensors, cameras, fences and agents of the U.S. Border Patrol.

I've come here accompanied by the tough-talking, Texas-born Robin Hoover, pastor of Tucson's First Christian Church, and by Steve Laffey, mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island. Hoover is the founder of Humane Borders, a nonprofit volunteer group whose 70 watering stations on the U.S. side of the desert dispense more than 50,000 gallons of water to desperate border crossers.

Mayor Laffey is a 43-year-old former Wall Street investment banker – now a self-described "populist" Republican – who's come all the way from home with a couple of his own local Latino activists to get a firsthand look at the border and what lies below. "I'm very lucky," Laffey says as we walk across Altar's central plaza. "I lost one brother to AIDS. One is in a locked psych ward. A lot of politicians are just talk, they don't come up with solutions. This border is just too far away from people's lives. They have all these people who clean for them and take care of their yards and their kids, but don't know who they are or care. My whole thing is that everybody has to have the opportunity to live the American Dream."

Fair enough. But what we see here is still the Mexican Nightmare. Dozens of clumps of mostly young men, mostly dressed in dark clothes, some with their families, but most with cousins and uncles and friends from their various hometowns, stand or sit listlessly in the square and wait. Wait for word from their own "coyote" or "pollero" – their own smuggler – that it's now time to make the perilous journey north. Wait for some word from home that more money is on the way. Or wait, as they do today, for one of the recent storms to subside. It's hard enough to cross the desert as it is – without monsoon rains and flash floods. "There's no such thing as a typical migrant," says Hoover. "You've got doctors, lawyers and dentists," he says, citing statistics that say about 10 percent of those nabbed by the Border Patrol are college graduates. "You've also got the poorest of the poor. Some who send two children ahead. Some who are coming to stay. Some who will stay only three, four years. Some babies and women. Some really bad guys. Some from Michoacan who have paid $4,500 for an entire package. Some from Chiapas who have no plan and 300 bucks for a ride."

On one side of the plaza sits an endless row of large and battered vans. Almost all bear the simple logo "Altar-Sasabe." They sit idle, waiting for the drizzle to abate. When conditions permit, each will be crammed with 20 or more passengers. (Their seats have been removed and replaced with three rows of benches running the length of the interior cabin.) For 10 bucks a head, they'll rumble up the dirt road and discharge the cargo in the village of Sasabe – a place so grim it seems teletransported from Afghanistan.

Once in Sasabe, the migrants will break up into smaller groups and head out with their coyotes along the many smuggler trails. It's usually a two- or three- or four-day walk to an Arizona highway where – if they are lucky – they'll be picked up by another vehicle from the smugglers' networks and taken to a safe house. Or they will be chased down by a Border Patrol unit. Or left to die in the desert by crooked or desperate smugglers.

The business of the entire town of Altar is given over to supporting and profiting from the wholesale border jumping. Rampaging gangs occasionally rip through town – there are few places in Mexico that congregate so many people with so much folding money in their pockets. Altar's few streets are lined with booths and stalls set up by yet other migrants, mostly from Oaxaca, selling everything needed to make the crossing: black jackets, black gloves, sturdy jeans, running shoes, backpacks, wool sweaters, black ski masks, 1-gallon plastic jugs of water, small plastic bags of combs, toothbrushes, nail clippers, aspirins and lip balm, even $3 plastic trash bags cynically hawked as effective foilers of the Border Patrol heat sensors that riddle the U.S. side of the line. Currency-exchange shops are ready to sell dollars at a premium. Other shops specialize in selling long-distance phone cards. Flophouses charge $9 a head and crowd four or five people in a room.

With no permanent medical facility in town, the Red Cross brought in a trailer clinic. A border-area map on its wall has little red dots showing where migrants died last year. Red Cross workers have given Hoover a handwritten wish list of badly needed supplies: ear drops, ampicillin and other antibiotics. In the main plaza itself, the clusters of migrants seem to have segregated themselves into informal affinity groups based on hometown origin. A young Oaxacan couple in their early 20s – Filipe Cruz and Margarita Lopez – sit forlornly on a bench waiting for God-knows-what as they stare downward. Filipe says he's already spent a year working in the U.S. – he won't say where. But living alone was too hard on everybody, and now, after picking up his family, he will cross again with his wife and his 3- and 5-year-old children. When I ask if he is afraid, he answers quietly, "We are always afraid," and shifts his gaze back to the ground.

Another group of Oaxacans – six young men, all Zapotec Indians – say they have jobs waiting for them, picking grapes in California. They laugh at the possibility of getting caught on the way. "We will cross as many times as we have to," says one. "What do we have to lose?" laughs another. "Only these clothes on our back."

One group of decidedly Guatemalan young men answer my questions curtly, poorly disguising their accents and claiming to be southern Mexicans. If snared by the Border Patrol, they will be classified as "OTMs" – Other Than Mexicans. Instead of simply being put on the other side of the border and in position to quickly attempt another crossing, OTMs are now subject to summary deportation to their country of origin. These fellows have some work cut out for them. Their insistence that they are from Chiapas is about as convincing as the Coneheads saying, "We are from France."

Some of the men in the square say they have paid smugglers $1,200 to $1,300 each to board the underground railway. Many say they haven't paid anything yet, but will have the money taken out of the pay they will get from their promised jobs.

Some say they have no idea where they are going once they cross the border. "I will just look for lights," says a 28-year-old from a Veracruz village renowned for its pineapple production. "Light means a city. And in a city there is always jobs. That's right, isn't it?" Others say they have agricultural jobs waiting near Fresno. Still others are headed for tomato fields in Florida. One has a cousin ready to give him a job in a Van Nuys body shop. He has scrawled the address and phone number on a piece of paper he has hidden in his hatband. "My cousin said if I can get to Phoenix, he can get me to his shop. He has a job for me and for them," he says, nodding his head toward two traveling companions.

A number of those gathered here this morning have already been caught once and are back for a second try. "They grabbed us 15 days ago," says one of five men, all in their early 20s, from Veracruz. "We got about five minutes across the border, and that was it," he laughs. "Handcuffs and two hours later, we're all back in Mexico." The group has spent the last two weeks reorganizing itself. Four of them want to try again. One has had it and wants to go back home. "I don't know where to get the 500 pesos I need to buy a bus ticket," he says.

The group has completely run out of money and had to leave its flop this morning. Now the self-appointed leader of the group is trying to hustle up a mere $5. With that, he says, he can buy a phone card to call his family back home. He's hoping they can wire him an immediate $400 – maybe even this afternoon. "With that, we will have enough for the ride," he says, using the English word. El Ride is the pickup from an Arizona highway toward a safe house or job. "Jobs aren't the problem," he adds. "We have jobs waiting for us in a stable in Chino. We just have to get there."

Inside the town church, the young priest, Rene Castaneda, dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, says that while it's true some of the migrants have no idea what they will do once they cross the border, most, in fact, have a promised job waiting. "They are understandably reluctant to share the information with you – or anybody else," he tells me. "Most of them have contacts, and most of them are in a pipeline – the demand for their cheap labor has no limits."

After nearly six years working in Altar, it is with some sadness that Castaneda has learned he is now being transferred to another mission. He's gained regional recognition and respect for his tireless work on behalf of the migrants, and getting transferred out isn't much of a payoff. "When I arrived here in 1999, maybe 200 migrants a day came through Altar," he says. Since the end of last year, that figure sometimes peaks at 10 times that amount. Or more. "The increase in migrants goes hand in hand with the increase in poverty and unemployment," he adds.

Castaneda arrived in Altar just as last decade's tectonic shift in immigration patterns was maturing and funneling the flow through the Sonoran Desert into southern central Arizona. Now, he argues, it matters little, if at all, what administrative or enforcement measures are taken on the northern side of the border. "Only the route of immigration changes, but nothing else," says the young priest as he sorts through his archives. "It's just like pushing a fully inflated basketball underwater. You can only hold it down so long and then the pressure builds up and it pops up and bursts through somewhere else. If you don't do anything to change the root causes, the problem doesn't change."

Noontime brings a clearing of the skies and a filling of the vans parked alongside the plaza. The daily cat-and-mouse game along the U.S.-Mexican border will now repeat itself for the umpteenth time. And in case anyone has forgotten the stakes, Father Castaneda has posted some stark reminders. On the northern road out of town, he has placed white memorial crosses on the utility poles, commemorating those who couldn't complete the journey.

A good hour north of Altar, and about 20 miles south of the border, one of the more surreal scenes of this drama plays itself out. Under U.S. pressure during the last decade, the Mexican government created its own elite version of the Border Patrol – called Grupo Beta. The Mexican force failed miserably in living up to the professional standards that had been hoped for. Soon there was a stack of stories of Grupo Beta officers organizing their own rackets, shaking down and robbing the hapless migrants.

The Mexican government, under President Vicente Fox, then disarmed the group and retooled its mission. Now, in its distinctive orange trucks and matching jackets, Grupo Beta has no enforcement duties and claims to be a sort of migrant-protection force. There are still some reports of abuse, but not nearly as many. At a dusty spot in the Altar-Sasabe road, best described as situated in the middle of nowhere and known by locals as El Tortugo, Grupo Beta has erected a small, bright-orange, steel pavilion, much like a carport. Every afternoon, a Beta patrol unit parks in the small patch of shade, and two uniformed officers stand by the side of the road, armed only with clipboards and a box full of pocket-size illustrated pamphlets. Their job is to stop each van, count the number of occupants, note their state of origin, and give the migrants a Boy Scout-ish lecture on the dangers that await them – perils outlined in the illustrated booklet they pass out. When Hoover, Laffey and I get to Tortugo, at about 3 in the afternoon, it's a veritable rush hour. A half-dozen brimming vans are lined up on the side of the road as the two Beta officers go to them one by one. Officers Manuel Roldan and Julio Cesar Cancino seem to have been chosen for this task by sheer force of their outgoing, expansive personalities. Both men are extremely friendly, courteous, respectful and warm.

But when they open the back door of each van, and peer into the sardine-packed interior, they are met by decades of accumulated mistrust, suspicion, diffidence and fear. In Mexico, the safe assumption, no matter what you're told, is that uniformed figures of authority are not your friends. Roldan and Cancino, however, are experienced hands in breaking the ice and seem to patiently enjoy the dance of confidence that they must redo with each and every load of passengers.

Roldan opens up the back of one van, and as the daylight floods in, everyone, including those sitting closest to him, looks downward. Over his shoulder I quickly count 27 people in the vehicle. "This is not an inspection station," Roldan says. "You are not breaking the law. It is your human right to migrate. We are only here to help you," he says. A few people now raise their heads – no doubt intrigued by a disarmed cop with such a disarming tone.

The two Beta agents ask the passengers to step out of the van. After asking where their hometowns are, Cancino smiles as he asks the next question. Smiles, because no matter how often he asks, he knows he's going to get the same amusing answer. "Sasabe," a few men answer quietly. "Sasabe?" repeats Agent Cancino, as if he's saying, really? "Sasabe? Or Sasabe Beach?"

With that, the ice cracks and a few smiles begin to sprout. If only desert-bound Sasabe, about as alluring as San Quentin, had as much as a park, let alone a beach or, for that matter, any reason whatsoever to be a destination for such a throng of would-be tourists.

"Come on," says Cancino, now laughing out loud. "We know you're all going to the U.S. You are all going to the U.S., aren't you?" Finally, some heads nod, and the more courageous step forward to confirm the obvious. "Yes, we're going to the North," says one man, in cowboy boots and tight jeans. "As much as we hate to leave this paradise behind," he says, sweeping his hands toward the barren desert around us.

"Good," says Cancino. "You have full rights while in Mexico. It's in the U.S. where you will be breaking the law. We just want to tell you a few things for your own protection. If the Border Patrol begins to chase you, do not run. I repeat, do not run! Do not hide! Whatever you do, don't put your hands in your pockets." Now Cancino has his audience rapt. "If you get scattered and lost during the day, look for tall blue flags. That's where you can find water," he says, referring to the emergency stations that Hoover has set up. "If you get lost at night, then look for the red lights on the radio antenna. They're in Sasabe, in Mexico. Walk back to the red lights and look for one of our trucks – the orange trucks. We will be there to offer you emergency help, first aid and whatever else you need."

The migrants look genuinely grateful. It's probably the first time in their lives that someone in uniform has sounded so concerned about their welfare. In any case, they all know they are only hours away from running a merciless gauntlet, and any advice and compassion are welcome.

Agent Roldan then hands everyone one of the pamphlets – falsely characterized by right-wing talk radio as comic book guides to crossing the border. If anything, they're the opposite: a minicatalog of all the dangers that await the migrants, with only common-sense advice to avoid excessive heat and thirst. As well as urging the crossers to obey the orders of any U.S. authorities.

The passengers settle back into the van. Cancino has some final words for them: "Remember that it's now going to be some very hard days and some very long nights. You are going to have to walk three or four days. Be careful, and buena suerte."

Twenty-seven more migrants are on their way to cross the border. During the hour we spend at El Tortugo, about 15 vans have been registered – about 350 people. Agent Roldan says he and Cancino are currently counting about 1,800 a day. But he admits they have no idea of the total number, as they always leave before sundown. "When it gets dark," he says, "it just gets too dangerous." The enforcement squeeze on Arizona has proved a financial bonanza for the professional smugglers, who increasingly mix the human traffic with the drug trade. Big profits have turned some of the smuggling operations into heavily armed and violent gangs. When the Grupo Beta agents retreat at night, the road becomes fit only for the most daring.

As dusk falls, some of the same men we saw earlier in the day milling around Altar's main plaza now huddle in small groups in the desolate, dilapidated border hamlet of Sasabe. They stand along the rutted roads, chatting and smoking, or picking through their backpacks. There's nowhere to stay here and no reason to be here except to make the jump. When darkness sets in, these groups will fan out and, led by their "polleros" – or guides – will brave the sensors, infrared cameras and Border Patrol agents on the other side of the line. It's the same game every night of the calendar – especially this time of year.

A majority will probably get nabbed and, through an absurd revolving-door policy, will be dumped back into Mexico, all within a few hours. Then they will re-form, regroup, and will try and try again to cross. Only after being detained (and photographed and fingerprinted) and "voluntarily deported" 10 times do they face possible formal arrest and prosecution. An unlucky few of these people gathered here tonight might be among those who – invisible and unnoticed – will be consumed by the desert in the next handful of days. Those who do make it through, as if passing through a magical membrane, will re-appear on the other side as our nannies, maids, gardeners and dishwashers. "If you had a hundred U.S. senators come down here and spend only a day in one of the flophouses or a morning talking to these people, you'd have this immigration issue solved in less than a week," says Cranston's Mayor Laffey as we roll out of Sasabe. "But it isn't gonna happen. Not yet."



Lipstick Jihad

In her gripping memoir of "growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran," Azadeh Moaveni illuminates one of the broadest political truths: Falseness in sexual life leads to falseness everywhere, the denial of truths of the individual body leads to corruption of the body politic.

This isn't to say that strictness in sexual matters is unilaterally hypocritical, or that sexually conservative cultures corrupt. The rules of traditional societies, including those of traditional Islam, generally work for those particular societies. In the course of my three trips to Afghanistan, and four weeks spent living in an Afghan Uzbek family compound in a provincial city, I met a lot of relatively happy, satisfied people living under rules I'd personally find intolerable: no social mixing of unrelated men and women; arranged marriages, typically between first cousins; and social life pretty much limited to extended family. To be sure, there are Afghans who somatize rather than complaining or acting out their discontent; they live in a pre-Freudian culture so, OK, they're entitled to some hysteria. But most people seem to find the rules wise, fair, and essential to the continuation of a deeply satisfying, meaningful way of life.

The problems begin once a culture reaches a point of modernization where judgments can be passed on its sexual rules, seen as arbitrary, and hypocrisy regarding sex has a corrosive effect on all institutions. This is one way of looking at the recent scandals regarding pedophile priests, or the nastiness of Saudi society. And it is key to the failure of Iran's Islamic Revolution.

Moaveni was born in 1976 in Palo Alto and raised in Northern California. Her parents sprang from the upper echelons of Iranian society, but from the liberal segment who initially greeted the 1979 revolution with hope for social justice. Her mother, whom she called "Maman," was a former campus radical at once fiercely proud of her Persian heritage and so enamored of Western culture that she dragged the young Azadeh to the opera, even when she could only afford standing room. Maman and her husband split when their daughter was just a few months old, and Moaveni developed a keen eye for the fault lines in people and societies. And there were many fault lines to see by the time Moaveni moved to Tehran in 2000 to work for Time magazine.

The hypocrisy of two decades of turning back to the eighth century had become too much to bear even for the mullahs. The 24-year-old Moaveni found that the typical one-hour interview with a cleric began with his averting his gaze in the manner prescribed by Islam to religious men in the presence of unrelated women, and ended with his flirting with her and asking for her mobile number. The measures intended by Islamic tradition to desexualize the relations of men and women only inflamed desire. "Iranians were preoccupied with sex in the manner of dieters constantly thinking about food." Moaveni might have added that dieters constantly think about certain forbidden foods because they used to eat them. If they didn't know what they tasted like, they wouldn't desire them.

Chaste dress can uphold chaste behavior only when it's all that people have ever known. It's hard to go back to the chador when, like Moaveni and her contemporaries, you remember your mother wearing miniskirts. Hijab is sometimes defended by Islamic feminists for allowing women to appear first and foremost as human beings rather than sexual objects, and in Afghanistan it might actually work that way. But in Tehran, Moaveni found that "the constant exposure to covered flesh ... brought to mind, well, flesh." Because young people were prohibited from the kind of casual coed socializing their parents had known studying together, skiing together, and hanging out in groups, when they did have the chance to meet, the result was "amplified decadence," with upper-class high school girls defiantly wearing skin-tight dresses and 5-inch heels at forbidden "mixed" parties. These teenagers lack both the innocence the mullahs thought to ensure, and which they might enjoy in a place like Afghanistan, as well as the opportunities to explore sexual desires they would have in many developed nations.

Moaveni paints a damning picture of daily life in Tehran with a hundred fascinating, subtle details. Iranian doctors pay no taxes and bribe taxi drivers to bring them incoming ER patients, the best-equipped women's gyms cater to the young mistresses of clerics and government figures, men wear post-surgical bandages in public because nose jobs are chic, wealthy Iranians visit the Indian ashram of the Hindu mystic Sai Baba rather than participate in the Shiite rituals the regime imposes on them.

The mullahs gutted many Persian cultural traditions when they interfered with the single-minded imposition of shari'a law: respect for the elderly, tolerance, solidarity across class and ethnic lines. But in insisting on a sexual puritanism incongruent both with ancient patterns and with the early-20th-century modernization under Reza Shah, the 1979 revolutionaries have arguably done grave damage to the integrity of Persian civilization. It's true that Iran wasn't colonized – a possibility at various points in the 20th century – but there are worse fates. At least colonized people know whom to hate. When you have made your own tyranny, like Hitler's Germany or Saddam's Iraq or Khomeini's Iran, you may have to tear yourself apart to purge it.

One of the sadder episodes of Lipstick Jihad describes a scene from the final night of Ashoura, the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson Hossein. It was once an occasion for sincere grief, and as solemn a day as Yom Kippur is for religious Jews; but Moaveni finds a huge "Hossein party�¿½��" in a public square where girls and boys slip each other their phone numbers at a candlelight vigil. Even less in the spirit of the holiday, the thuggish Basij-vigilantes from the conservative slums, operating with the tacit approval of the regime, begin to club teenagers who disobey their instructions to disperse.

But much to Moaveni's credit, she is able to find the redeeming aspects of what often reads like a sojourn in one of the outer circles of hell. She celebrates the grace of the Persian culture that still survives, the poetry, food, and family intimacy. And then there is the special sweetness of life in all societies that retain elements of traditional ways. When she suddenly returns to New York amid government pressure to censor her articles and accusations of spying for the CIA, she misses a Tehran "suffused with intimacy." Accustomed to the obstacle course of daily life in Iran, she finds that "not having to think and maneuver as much, did not feel great, as it should have. Mostly it all felt too free, too oppressively light."

Moaveni had gone to Iran in part to find out how Iranian she was, even what her Iranian-ness might mean, but her wise, anticlimactic answer is that she might have made more of her Iranian identity than it had made of her. Growing up outside a "troubled country," she realized, "came with many complications. You grew up assuming everything about you was related to that place, but you never got to test that out ... You spent a lot of time ... feeling sad for your poor country. Most of that time, you were actually feeling sorry for yourself, but since your country was legitimately in serious trouble, you didn't realize it." You don't have to be Iranian, or to think of yourself as a hyphenated American, to need this warning. Just insert your favorite cause, political stance or sexual identity in place of "your poor country."

And you don't have to be absorbed by the same sense of a divided self to be moved by Moaveni's conclusion about divided selves in general. After returning from Iran and before moving to Beirut, where she now lives, Moaveni attended her grandfather's funeral in California. Still homesick for Tehran, she realized that "Iran existed here, in the interior intimacy and rhythm of our lives." Her longing for Iran when she is in America and her longing for America when she is in Iran showed her the truth: "that I was whole, but composed of both."

Not So Young Frankenstein

In Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks theorized in between scenes of slapstick that, as in the 1931 original, Dr. Frankenstein could never have indulged his insane belief in his godlike power without the unheralded grunt work of his hunchbacked henchman, Igor. Remember such priceless dialogue from the beak-nosed and bug-eyed Marty Feldman as: "My boss don't appreciate me either. To him I'm just a gofer. 'Igor! Go for brains! ... Igor! Go for dead bodies! ... Igor! Go for sandwiches!' " Now, life is imitating art, only this time the crazy guy in charge of the castle is Eisner, and he's installed his faithful flunky, Iger, to replace him at Disney.

So I've got to ask (and pardon me for continuing the analogy): Where are the angry villagers waving torches and pitchforks to storm the Burbank headquarters?

Hello? Is anybody out there trying to protest besides Roy Disney and Stanley Gold, who instigated last year's shareholders revolt, which led to Eisner's denouncement, demotion and decommissioning prematurely this fall? Sheesh, you'd hardly know from the overwhelmingly obsequious media coverage that, in reality, the Disney board's promotion of president Robert Iger was a monstrous move. We're talking here about shamefully rewarding a corporate executive who may be movie-star handsome but whose 10-year track record following in Eisner's footsteps is downright ugly. And, truth be told, for it to occur at this precise moment looks like mice behaving badly.

For, just as important as any analysis of Iger's demerits as Disney's Il Duce, is the unfortunate timing of his appointment. I believe it couldn't be worse, not just for Mouse House shareholders but for U.S. corporate stockholders worldwide. Here's why:

Right now, CalPERS, the acronym for the California Public Employees' Retirement System, whose board runs the state's largest public pension fund with $180 billion in assets, is under tremendous pressure to scale back its two-decades-old proactive campaign to force public companies to be more answerable to their investors. What began in the early 1980s as a fight to stop corporate raiders like T. Boone Pickens from scamming shareholders with practices like "greenmailing" evolved into a well-publicized push for better corporate governance.

What has that got to do with Iger? The fund holds a whopping 9.44 million Disney shares – half a percent of the Magic Kingdom's total stock. In other words, when a big institutional investor talks, even arrogant corporations listen. A shareholder who dabbles in the market can be ignored. But not CalPERS.

For the previous five years, CalPERS talked and talked (actually more like kvetched and kvetched) about Disney's dismal performance. But Eisner didn't heed the warnings. So last year CalPERS and more than half a dozen other pension funds announced they were siding with Stanley and Roy and withholding votes for Eisner's usually pro-forma re-election to the Disney board, thus helping set in motion one of the most thrilling, and certainly the shrillest, shareholder revolts in American corporate history. Disney's board finally got the message. Directors stripped Eisner of his chairman title, bestowed it on former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell, and pushed, pushed, pushed until Eisner announced last September that he would step down as chief executive when his contract expired in 2006. But that's when things at CalPERS started getting hinky.

Suddenly, CalPERS president Sean Harrigan was under predictably intense scrutiny from Republicans and lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, including party pals of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the pro-GOP U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During his two-year tenure, Harrigan had taken on the high-profile role of spearheading the fund's corporate campaigns against Disney et al. The attacks on Harrigan escalated when the supermarket union leader also targeted Safeway (Vons, Pavilions, etc.). Still, it was a shock when the activist lost both the CalPERS presidency and his board seat on Dec. 1 after the State Personnel Board voted to replace him as its rep. Harrigan is claiming a conspiracy among business leaders, the California Republican Party and the Schwarzenegger administration.

Since then, Harrigan is hoping his ouster won't stop CalPERS from using its portfolio power to pressure incorrigible corporations and/or their CEOs. But the problem now centers on the pro-corporate Republican cabal trying to remove other CalPERS board members who favor the fund's shareholder activism.

OK, so now back to Iger. Without a Harrigan-led CalPERS continuing to watchdog management, Disney shareholders won't be able to tell the corporate shit from Shinola and Disney's board has been all too eager to make suspect moves when nobody's standing guard. Egads, it's already started with Iger's appointment. First, Corporate America doesn't decide these things on a Saturday night and then announce it on a Sunday. Second, just because eBay co-founder (and Disney alum) Meg Whitman pulled out of the running for Eisner's job was no reason for Disney directors to cut short their candidate search by four months. Third, the board allowed Eisner to sit in on interviews with his prospective successors. Lastly, and most importantly, Iger wasn't the best and brightest for the job.

Iger blathered this week about the importance of "accountability" in his first post-selection interview with The New York Times' Laura Holson. But he said nothing about his responsibility for the fact that a once-great company is now better known for failing, flailing, firing good executives, freeing better ones to find work elsewhere, and fucking with business partners. There's been so much trouble at Disney during Iger's tenure that it's hard to select just one screwed-up area, but let's talk about the most costly: ABC.

In charge of the network before Disney bought parent company Capital Cities, Iger oversaw the slip from first to third place in the prime-time pecking order. (A former weatherman, he was fixated on the bottom line, exemplified by America's Funniest Home Videos, not because it was a quality product but because it was a cheap show.)

Iger remained captain of ABC's sinking ship after Disney bought the parent company. (Indeed, I still recall the joke making the rounds of Hollywood. Question: What's the difference between ABC and the Titanic? Answer: At least the Titanic had entertainment.) Everyone in TV thought he wasn't long for Eisner's world, but Iger's neck was saved by the 1999/2000 TV season when Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? became a short-lived, cheap fix that Eisner, with Iger's aiding and abetting, whipped like a dead horse.

By the 2001/2002 season, ABC had lost its lead, and, like he had in previous years, Iger pledged he was putting his reputation and career on the line if he couldn't turn things around. When it didn't happen in the 2002/2003 season, and certainly not by 2003/2004, Eisner and the rest of the Disney board should have rightfully kicked Iger to the curb, especially after he let Jerry Bruckheimer's TV juggernaut (e.g. CSI, Cold Case, Without a Trace, etc.) slip through his fingers. But Teflon Bob kept his job and even consolidated his power, successfully working behind the scenes to make his flack Zenia Mucha into Disney's No. 1 mouthpiece despite, or was it because of, her rampant reputation as a bitch-on-wheels.

Even now that ABC is finally experiencing an exasperatingly slow but steady turnaround, no reporter is giving Iger the credit. After all, he failed to foresee the success of the network's monster hit Desperate Housewives. (I'm told he didn't want to air the show because he was worried it would be another Twin Peaks: start out strong only to have the plot go nowhere and viewers wander off.) The only explanation for the staying power of this unexceptional executive is that, after the Mike Ovitz debacle, Eisner needed a warm body to present to Wall Street as a possible heir apparent. That Iger looks as great in a Speedo as he does at the podium of shareholder meetings continues to get him pass after pass from the journalists paid to hall-monitor Big Media.

So, OK, if the press won't speak up, I will. This week, the sun is shining on Disney because investors have voted their confidence in Iger by making the stock price rise. But do they know the real story or just the Disney version? Let's go back to another scene of dialogue from Mel Brooks' movie: [Dr. Frankenstein and Igor are exhuming a dead criminal.] Dr. Frankenstein: What a filthy job. Igor: Could be worse. Dr. Frankenstein: How? Igor: Could be raining. [It starts to pour.]

The Pleasant Probation of Tommy Chong

Tommy Chong never was much of a stoner, but one of his most popular characters ("Man") was. So when Tommy's son Paris put Man's face on the surfaces of seditiously shaped blown glass (bongs, pipes) and was blatantly entrapped into sending 5,000 bucks' worth across state lines to undercover feds, Ashcroft's Justice Department took the opportunity to send Tommy to the Wackenhut-managed Taft Correctional Institution for nine magical months, to punish him not only for financing and promoting his son's glass-blowing studio but for, as the federal prosecutor put it, "glamorizing the illegal distribution and use of marijuana" in entertainment products that "trivialize law-enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking and use."

At the time – two years ago – it might've seemed to anyone watching the ensuing "mission accomplished"-style press conference that Ashcroft was, well, confused. By bringing up Chong's so-called glamorizings and trivializings as aggravating factors, the Justice Department appeared unable to distinguish creator from creation, portrayal from endorsement. The result was that, of the 55 people similarly Ashcrofted all over America in "Operation Pipe Dreams" (yes, that was the sting's actual name), only one was incarcerated: Tommy Chong.

Let's apply the Justice Department's rule to lesser crimes against humanity: If, for example, Harvey Keitel and 54 others get pulled over for driving 75 in a 65 on the 405, shall justice be served by sending home the 54 others with speeding tickets but sending Keitel to the slammer, because he played Sport in Taxi Driver, Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs and Judas Iscariot in The Last Temptation of Christ?

"All they knew," Chong says, "was that my popularity commanded their attention. They couldn't give a shit if it was the stoner character that they put in jail, or me. It was all the same to them. They just wanted to show the entertainment world that we're vulnerable. 'You do something that we don't like, you're going to end up in jail.' That's the message they put out.

"I call this the Tsunami Government. This government is just like the tsunami. It's coming in, it's going to wreak havoc and desolation, and then it'll go out. It'll disappear. So we just have to live through it."

Chong and I are lounging on a Starbucks patio at the far west end of Sunset Boulevard, just down the hill from his house in Pacific Palisades, ingesting government-approved mind-bending caffeine cocktails. Not long after his release from prison, Chong accepted an offer to perform in The Marijuana-Logues, an off-Broadway stage production written by Arj Barker, Doug Benson and Tony Camin and directed by Jim Millan. He spent much of this past winter doing eight shows a week at New York's Actors Playhouse, until Ideal Entertainment Group and Magic Arts & Entertainment picked up the show and sent it out on a North American tour that includes two shows at the Wilshire Theater this Saturday night. [Editor's Note: The Marijuana-Logues tour has been cancelled, and Chong barred from performing the play, until his parole is up this summer.]

"When I was doing the show in New York," says Chong, "every day I'd walk to the theater, and I'd be walking on air, because I'm going to do a play! I loved it. Loved it! Any excuse to live in New York and do art. Has to be one of the most rewarding experiences in the world."

Chong's long career began in 1938 in Edmonton, Alberta, where he commanded the attention of his parents by shitting his diapers, dribbling and crying for milk. After World War II, the family moved down to a town called Dog Patch, on the outskirts of Calgary, so that his father, who'd been wounded in the war, could be close to a veterans hospital. In Dog Patch, Tommy learned at a very young age that he didn't want to live in Dog Patch, so he quit school, became a musician, moved to Vancouver, co-wrote a minor Motown hit with Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, started a comedy troupe called City Works, met Cheech Marin and formed Cheech & Chong. Cheech & Chong performed sketch comedy all over North America, moved to Los Angeles, and put together a wildly popular series of comedy albums and high-grossing movies.

Now 66 years old, Tommy Chong radiates the temperament of a warm and articulate monk. We talk about jazz, we talk about comedy. I mention a recent show at the Universal Amphitheater, a duel between Bill Maher and Dennis Miller.

"Mmm!" Chong says through his sandwich. "Dnna-Mnna!"

"What – were you there?"

"No. I was just on his show."

So we analyze the (de-)evolution of Dennis Miller. Chong's theory: "Dennis Miller morphed into what he really was, which is a trend-seeker. When he was younger, he kept looking for his niche. And when he found out that he could agree with Bush and Ashcroft with no problem, he found it.

"And he looks at Bill O'Reilly, and he looks at Rush Limbaugh, and he doesn't care. I mean, he's like an actor. He's looking for conflict, you know? The funny thing is, Dennis Miller got me back into comedy."

"How so?"

"We were at the same club in Vancouver on New Year's Eve, 1991. Dennis Miller and I, sitting together. He's a very quiet guy. He was very respectful of who I was. Almost in awe, you know ... Tommy Chong! And I say, 'What are you up to later, later on in the week? Let's hook up!' And he says, 'Well, I gotta do this little gig.' He was doing these little comedy clubs, for spending money. So I went to the show. And before the show I went backstage to the little dressing room, and he's back there pacing back and forth.

"He said, 'Do you still get nervous before you go on?' And I looked at him, and I kind of cracked up, because I hadn't been onstage for a long, long time. But I said, 'Yeah, I guess I do' – you know, just going along with him. Then I sat in the audience, and he comes out and starts doing pot jokes! Didn't go over with his audience, so he recovers with, 'What am I doing? Tommy Chong's here, and I'm doing pot jokes? Am I crazy?' You know, that kind of thing.

"Anyway, that night in the club, I looked around and I got caught up in it again, and I thought, 'I'm gonna do this.' So then I went back to L.A. and started, at the little comedy clubs around town. Didn't see Dennis Miller again for 10 years, and then I'm on his show. You should look at the show, it's pretty funny. He's got this little pseudo-Crossfire kind of panel going with these so-called left-wing writers or whatever, and he's trying to get a little [conflict] thing going with his right-wing Nazi attitude. He's telling the writers, 'Didn't the Iraqi election put a smile on your face? I mean, you've got to admit that that's pretty nice, seeing America spreading freedom like that.'

"So when I got out there, I said, 'I just want to tell you, Dennis. You know, it's nice that the Iraqis can vote, because I can't. You know why? Because your buddies put me in jail for selling bongs, and now I can't vote because I'm a felon. Thanks a lot, man.' And he says something like, 'Oh, yeah. I heard you were ... uh ... – you know, faking like he didn't hear about it. And then I got around to New Year's Eve in Vancouver in '91, and he's kind of, 'Uh ... oh ... I don't really remember.' And I said, 'Well, you were really stoned, so you probably ...' and he really freaked. Says, 'I'm not a bud man! I wasn't stoned!'

"But I understand him. He's a jockey, and the horse he was riding kept coming up second, so he changed horses. And now, with this sucker – he thinks it's gonna win, but it's gonna come in dead last."

"It's like watching someone who's wearing a bad toupee, and they think no one can tell."

"Exactly."

One of the requirements of Tommy Chong's probation is regular drug testing. "Every time I get tested, I ask questions about it, and I watch how they do it. They try to fake you out. The test results'll be coming in, and they'll give you that look, you know? Like, 'Oh ... mm-hm ... oh ... sure is taking a lo-o-ong time to come up. You sure you haven't been doing drugs?' And I can just see some poor stoner going [does frantically guilty Man voice], 'OK! OK! I did! I did!'

"And the other thing they do is, they look at it to see if there's excess water in your urine, because people can flush their systems out. You just drink a ton of water and the tests come out fine. So now if they decide there's too much water in your urine, they can fail you."

It's been over two years now since Chong has smoked pot.

"I'm as clean as a whistle," he says. "I never did smoke that much pot; never was a big pothead. I was more of a weightlifter. Maybe once in a while, you know, after a hard day of shooting or something like that, I'd kick back. But you can't exercise and be high. It's impossible. You can't do a lot of things when you're high. Like, you can't shoot a movie. You can't be an actor in a movie. I know, because I tried all sorts of ways of being in character, and the best way is to be totally straight. The best way in life is to be totally straight. Because the body has incredible combinations of chemicals that will react just on sight, taste, touch – just on your senses.

"That's why people that have an education, you know, that's why they spend time in art museums, or reading good literature or listening to good music. Because it affects the body's chemistry in such a way that it produces a very mellow high that you can never reproduce with any kind of drugs. You can't even come close to that. Maybe heroin, maybe, is the closest. And this is what you learn as you live. But on the other hand, pot is the best recreational substance for teenagers, athletes, people who have naturally high adrenaline. Because the pot takes the edge off the adrenaline, and it also clears your mind of it, and then you can see things a lot clearer."

Chong has a phone interview scheduled with someone named Debbie from something called Pollstar, so we head back up the hill, talking about high-mileage vehicles and biodiesel and the education system and being nice to people we've never met and other pinko commie leftist lunatic things.


Back at Chong's house, I'm unwinding on a couch in front of the coffee table, writing a letter of apology to the squirrel I mercy-killed the day before. Chong, meanwhile, sits, then stands, then wanders around the house and repeats the process as he pours himself into that phone interview with Debbie of Pollstar.

"Yeah! Oh, yeah! It was great! We sold out every night!"

The house Tommy shares with comedian Shelby Chong, his wife and partner for the last 30-plus years, is pretty fucking wonderful. It's been my experience that pads of the wealthy and well-known aren't very instantly comfortable, but this one is. Lounging on a comfy couch in a bright and friendly foyer with a wonderful view of lush green gardens out back and a huge skylight directly above ... I'm not used to working this hard this early. So thank you, Debbie of Pollstar, for asking all the things I was going to ask after I'd had more coffee.

"Are you familiar with the I Ching?" Chong asks Debbie. "OK, I threw the I Ching while I was in prison, and the first thing the I Ching told me to do was get off this 'the injustice of it all' kick. And the second thing it told me was, You're going to have a reunion, and it's gonna be great. So everything was good after that. I couldn't be bitter, because of all the years that I've been, you know, doin' the talk, what it came down to was that I had to do the walk.

"Well, here I'm talking about a substance that's put people in jail for 20, 30 years. In some cases, life. Just recently up in Utah, some guy got 55 years for selling an ounce of pot to an undercover agent.

"Hello? You there? Hello?

"Aw, we got cut off," Chong tells me. "Shit. I hate it when I'm talking to an empty phone. Especially when it's that good shit, you know?"

"That's why I'm recording it. Want me to play it into the phone when she calls back?"

The phone rings, but not the one in Chong's hand. Dead battery. Phones throughout the house continue to ring. Chong rushes toward them, but by the time he reaches one, they've stopped. So he finds Debbie's number, sits, sighs and calls back. "This is the last one," he tells me, gesturing triumphantly with the handset.

"The last phone?"

"The last phone interview. Hello? Hi, Debbie. No, it was mine. The battery ran out. Yeah. No, you have to be nice to the phones. Can't cuss 'em out. If you cuss 'em out they'll stop working on you. Same as your computer. You cuss out your computer, it'll just freeze on you.

"So ... where did we stop?

"Yeah. So it was easy to be a 'pot comedian' in the Nixon or Clinton era – not so much Reagan. You know, I left the country when Reagan got in; I went to France. And when George Bush Jr. got in, my instincts told me it was time to go – I'd felt that we had grown above that, you know? But when it came down [Bush again], it was like, 'Oh, well I guess we haven't.' But I owe it to the culture. I can't run this time. I owe it to the culture to stay, and use whatever they throw at me, and use it like you do karate: Use that energy and turn it around. And that's what I've done.

"Yes. Very much so.

"Well, there you go. Unfortunately, the American justice system is just riddled with lies and inconsistencies. Yeah. It's very, very inconsistent in that way. It's hip to have slaves, then it's not hip to have slaves, then it's hip to have slaves again. They call them 'migrant workers.' Or 'kids,' or 'teenagers.' Yeah. But you know, in this country it's all about the vote. And these people are whores for the vote. They'll do anything they can, say anything they can, to get that vote. To get the power, which means money. But in the long run, what we learn, over and over and over again, is that if it's built on lies it'll crumble. Basically.

"Well, see, what happened with Cheech, Cheech has an education. He's very bright, and he got tired of being typecast as 'the stupid Mexican.' And so he wanted to show everybody, including Mexicans, that there was a brain in there. And I don't blame him. I respect him for it. He never wanted to break up the act, he just wanted the freedom to go do his own stuff.

"It's inevitable.

"No. When I get off probation, that's it. That's it. Because by then I'll be into That '70s Show, I'll be into the movie, I'll be into all sorts of stuff. We're lookin' at a tour, doing some new music. Plus, my wife and I, we've still got our act, which we performed two weeks ago in Toronto. We're taking that act, and we're gonna make a TV show out of it.

"Thanks.

"OK, Debbie. Bye-bye."

Chong hangs up, raises his arms and makes with a high-pitched "Whoo!" followed by a big grin, a delighted sigh of "That's it!" and a small "Yaaaaayyy!"

"That's it for the day?" I ask.

"Three-thirty I got a radio thing, then I gotta get into my movie." There's also, of course, the matter of the video interview – any minute now, as soon as Francis, Josh and Rob, the guys from the Marijuana Policy Project Foundation, arrive. More coffee now or never.

"Hey," I say. "Is there still coffee left from before? And if so ... and can I stay for dinner and move in?"

Chong heads for the kitchen. I can't decide which is less polite: sitting and waiting on my kind host while he labors over the coffee paraphernalia, or wandering back uninvited into his kitchen to offer to help. I wander.

"Anything I can do?"

"That's OK, man. I'll make you coffee." He's toweling out the bottom half of a stovetop espresso pot. "I like to make coffee." He spoons out some fine-ass ebony dust into the carrier, screws the top on and brings the fire up on the stove. And we just hang out in the kitchen while the stuff cooks.

The Chong kitchen is just about the nicest, friendliest kitchen you'd ever want, filled with all sorts of old-fashioned God-stifling paraphernalia: a pepper mill (that could easily be used to conceal an ounce or more of cocaine); pots and pans (for cooking up batches of methedrine with intent to sell); candles (that could be used to cook heroin or light joints); even a sink with running water (could be used to drown a puppy) (or a squirrel). It's hard to imagine this place on that morning, exactly two years ago, at 5:30 a.m., when DEA agents with helicopters, news cameras, visors, flak jackets, automatic weapons and Fox News trucks went rushing around, kicking in doors, yelling, "Clear! Clear!"

"You know," says Chong, "I really enjoyed my time in Taft. We were in the middle of a wildlife preserve. Right in the middle. And it preserved tarantulas – you know, the big hairy ones – and snakes. Lotta snakes." He also made 60 cents a day to sweep up, clean things. And did some gardening. And meditation. And sweat lodges.

"How much longer's your probation?"

"Until July. Most of the rest of my probation time will be spent on the road. It's perfect. It'll keep me out of trouble, you know?" Chong will be touring with The Marijuana-Logues through mid-May, after which he'll get back to work writing the screenplay for a reunion movie with Cheech, with whom he recently performed, for the first time in 20 years, at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen.

Back in the foyer, the MPPF guys are setting up for Chong's next interview, this one with a video camera. So Chong heads back, and I top off my lovely ceramic mug of thick brown drugs and soon follow.

As I settle back down in the comfortable couch, Shelby's heading out the door. Says a quick hello to everyone and a warm, quick goodbye to Tommy, and leaves.

"That's the reason why I'm anybody," Chong sighs, smiling a Man smile, still intoxicated, 30 years later, by his wife. "She's the brains behind the operation. Whenever I don't do what she says, I end up in jail."

"So you've done everything she's said except for once."

"Yeah," Chong laughs. "Oh, she's great."

Deep Throat Doc

When Deep Throat opened at Manhattan's World Theater in June 1972, it did reasonably well, but not great. In fact, its box-office numbers were just peaking when a moral panic swelled around the movie in the form of police crackdowns and several obscenity trials that helped drive the final gross up to $600 million and, doubtless, still counting in video. It also generated a groundswell of excitable punditry, from conservatives – prominent among them Charles Keating, who has not excelled at raising the nation's moral profile since – about the evils of filth, and from liberals about freedom of artistic expression and the ongoing sexual revolution. And though it's true that Deep Throat signified a brief mainstreaming of porn, the fusion of hardcore and art predicted by gung-ho practitioners of both never caught on.

This appears to be a source of some distress to Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the team who brought us both documentary and dramatic versions of the Club Kid expos̩ Party Monster, and whose hard-working new film, Inside Deep Throat, seeks to establish a pioneering role for the movie in liberating America's sex life. To me it's far from clear that that cheerfully cheesy slice of hardcore, made for $25,000 by a middle-aged hairdresser named Gerard Damiano, about a woman who discovers that her clitoris is in her throat and is thus liberated into nonstop fellatio, has spawned much in the way of a cultural legacy. When it opened, matrons in flowered frocks showed up out of media-made curiosity, while men came to see it, as Erica Jong points out in the documentary, because it flagrantly catered to their time-honored fantasy about women loving to give head. Certainly Deep Throat creaks audibly under the cultural and political weight loaded onto it by an army of the usual libertarian talking heads in the documentary: John Waters, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Larry Flynt and, more interestingly, Wes Craven, who admits that in common with many independent filmmakers, porn is where he got his start. A few stalwart female enthusiasts are wheeled on РDr. Ruth, a worryingly temperate Camille Paglia, and (scoop!) Helen Gurley Brown touting the skin-enhancing properties of semen Рfollowed by the usual array of humorless '70s feminists who, we are led to believe, turned Deep Throat's uninhibited star, Linda Lovelace, into a repentant prude. In fact Lovelace did get shafted in more ways than one, as Damiano admits, and after a brief return to porn at age 51 she died, penniless, in a car accident in 2002.

Things get fresher, funnier and, inevitably, more poignant when we meet the people involved in the making of the movie: Lovelace's co-star, Harry Reems, who sank into drink and drugs before becoming a Christian and retiring to work in real estate in Utah; and the plain-spoken, genial Damiano, who, now in his 70s, seems a happy man despite the fact that he never made any serious money off Deep Throat. Corroborating Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, Damiano claims that many of the porn filmmakers of the 1970s, before video and the invasion of Mafia distributors lowered the tone, thought of themselves as independent artists on a mission to reunite America with sexual pleasure. I believe he believes it, but that doesn't make it so.

Hollywood Reporters and Gatsby Envy

Rarely has one article caused such a commotion on both coasts as journalist Bernie Weinraub's goodbye to the Hollywood beat in The New York Times on Sunday. It was as if narrator Nick Carraway were given space in The Paper of Record to write honestly about the swell set, only this time he surprises us by revealing that he longed for the green light of status and money as much as Jay Gatsby did. Yet, as an ink-stained wretch and damned proud of it, I've got to say, Huh?

First, let me fully disclose that I won't be attacking my pal Bernie personally over what is a beautifully written, though emotionally befuddled, look back at his 14 years inside and outside the entertainment business. (I'm especially sad that he revealed that incident in which he fell asleep during an interview with Jim Carrey, because I used it to blackmail him almost daily.) But for days now, my answering machine and e-mail have been filled with "What did you think of it?" messages, so I feel compelled to publicly examine Bernie's 2,800-word tale of his Hollywood-style seduction.

And what oozes from it is the gunky notion that a journalist wanted to live like the people he covered here. And he isn't alone. The studio and network parking lots are filled with the Porsches and BMWs of reporters and critics who jumped the fence (though, to Bernie's credit, marrying a mogulette instead of writing your way into The Good Life remains a novel route, nonetheless). How abnormal I must be then. Because, clearly, I'm missing what appear to be the essential chromosomes composing the entertainment-biz reporters' DNA: the Hollywood Envy gene.

As Weinraub writes, when he arrived here to start the gig, "I was struck almost immediately by the prevalence of money, and the crazy economic gap between journalists and the people they covered. It was like dropping into Marie Antoinette's France." But doesn't anyone remember that Ol' Mary was decapitated in the end? And that Gatsby got a bullet in the back as well? That's exactly why I don't lust after the trappings of Tinseltown: Everybody's success and the conspicuous consumption that accompanies it bear too high a psychic price tag.

It's because the fame and fortune are so fleeting for people in this town that they make such bigger-than-life grabs for the pomp and power. It's the job of the journalist to see the cushy life or crazy money here for exactly what it is: compensation for the fact that, at any moment, Hollywood types can fail in the most publicly cruel and humiliating ways possible. Sure, they have spectacular moves in their high-wire acts, but they also take spectacular falls. For perspective, consider that every Monday morning, the CEOs at Coke and Pepsi don't suffer the media announcing the numbers of bottles of soda they sold over the weekend, while Hollywood CEOs know their mothers back in Brooklyn have heard the weekend box-office receipts on the Today show. How it must feel to be Jonathan Dolgen these days: One minute, The Bad Cop at Paramount is the toast of the town for his cost cutting while also producing a string of profitable pics, and the next he's a total turkey for cutting costs too deeply and producing a series of loser movies. Or, God forbid, Michael Ovitz, since bets are being taken at well-situated tables inside the Grill on just how much longer it will be before he puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger.

Their private lives are public fodder. Forget, for a sec, about the stars. For years, Bob Daly deliberately denied himself a seat on the Time Warner board just so no one would know the vulgar excess of his compensation as co-head of Warner Bros. Yet newspapers got hold of his divorce papers anyway and revealed every dollar to the world. We journalists know who uses penis pumps, and who gets blowjobs under the desk and who interrupts meetings to be serviced by a hooker. We're like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg staring down at them, only it's not "God sees everything" but now also tabloid-trending magazines and snarky blogs. We're what Nick opines "is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men." For chrissakes, that icon Johnny Carson wrestled with Hollywood's most omnipresent devilry, that of massive insecurity caused by the constant hyperscrutiny. Here the comedian had all the money, all the prestige and hardly any enemies (except ex-wives), yet after he retired he turned down offers not because he didn't want a second chapter but, sadly, because of vanity: he told intimates that, because of age and illness and corpulence, he "no longer looked like what people remembered."

And you say you want their lives?

Oy, it's such a cliché to chide Hollywood denizens as manipulators and monsters. Of course, they are; not only is that a job requirement, it's a defense mechanism. Only an astonishingly naive journalist would take being treated badly by Jeffrey Katzenberg so darn personally.

As for me, I say thank God the majority of moguls et al. are miscreants, or else I'd have nothing to write about week after week. After all, my first taste of Hollywood mistreatment occurred before I even got to town. About to be transferred to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., by Newsweek, I was invited to Kay Graham's home for one of her famous dinner parties. Anticipating that I'd be covering some aspect of Hollywood, she introduced me to Jack Valenti, who focused 15 minutes of schmoozing on me until the guests were seated. Just as I found my table, I turned around to find that I'd been placed next to Valenti. I'll never forget that undisguised look of disgust on his face when he realized he'd already "done" me. But I understood, though didn't excuse, why he kept his back to me for the rest of the evening.

I don't get why reporters here often feel in competition with those people. I still can't get over the specter of Bernie cowering in the corner at Industry functions because the car he was provided gratis by his newspaper wasn't fancy-schmancy. "Though I'm ashamed to say it," he wrote, "I was soon hunting for parking spots near Orso or the Peninsula Hotel to avoid the discomfort of having a valet drive up my leased 2-year-old Buick in front of some luncheon companion with a Mercedes." Hell, I'd think nothing of standing at valet parking in front of all of Hollywood and yelling loudly, "It's the Chevy!," then turning to the crowd and crowing, "Plus, it's free!"

Even on a scale of intelligence, the raison d'̻tre behind the rivalry goes something like this: After meeting hundreds of show-biz executives, many of them of medium or below-average intelligence in the larger scheme of things, the scribblers suddenly decide they have at least as much smarts to make movies and TV shows as anyone else in town. But for all the success they're having and the money they're making, these former journalists in pursuit of that "orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us" ("It eluded us then, but that's no matter Рtomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . .") have mutated into organ-grinder monkeys amusing the masses.

Bernie himself, and others, have suggested that the reason I don't have the Hollywood Envy gene is because I grew up with money. It's true that Hollywood homes can't ever impress me, since I hung with a crowd of old money in grand houses where threadbare arms on the living-room sofa were considered a badge of honor among families having the good taste to redecorate only every other generation. It's also a fact that my mother's insufferable snobbery so infected me that I look down my nose at Hollywood people who make up in the pushiness department what they lack in pedigree. But even Nick, the middle-class Midwesterner, remembers his dad giving him advice to live by: " 'Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.' " And that's the point. Journalists, with the rheumy eyes of the outsider, are the self-appointed arbiters of integrity. So I've always considered us to be cuts well above anyone in Hollywood.

Believe me when I say that downwardly mobile doesn't begin to describe the kind of life I've led. But I've never been embarrassed when a Hollywood type has walked into my Westside apartment, glanced around and then proclaimed, "Gee, you people don't make much money, do you?" Or when I've shot back, "No, I don't, but thank you for being polite enough to point that out."

Now that's exactly the kind of Hollywood ending Nick Carraway would have appreciated.

Email at nikkifinke@deadlinehollywood.com

Rice and the New Black Paradigm

Black history month is upon us, and it already feels like it weighs a ton. I've never entirely embraced the notion of relegating the observance to February – as every black comic has pointed out, it's the shortest month of the year – because it always feels less like a tribute than more segregation, a perennial substitute for permanently incorporating black history into the larger American narrative set forth in textbooks, daily papers and such. But the last decade of black history has been so dubious, so double-edged and so increasingly alien to what I've always thought of as racial and social progress, I'd almost be willing to skip the whole thing in '05. And I'd pass for one reason in particular: Condoleezza Rice.

For years now, my wrath for Rice has been simmering. With her tight smirk, serpentine gaze and hopelessly immutable hairdo, she's been Bush's black doppelgänger to a tee, albeit better-spoken. Initially, I thought she was progress on the public-image front, maybe – unlike her boss, she didn't resort to church-spun homilies, crass emotionalism or bad grammar to make a point. But certainly I'd hoped that beneath the starch there was some bit of sistah empathy, some meaningful connection to a Southern upbringing of burning crosses and strict segregation that practically all of us over 40 share but can't necessarily show, especially in politics. I had less and less faith as time went on that Rice harbored such a connection, but I kept hope alive anyway – one of the best and worst things about black people is a willingness to nurse optimism that often has zero basis in fact. Call me crazy.

I've finally gotten wise. Rice's recent, shockingly easy ascension to secretary of state has tipped my long simmer into a boil. I now feel free to call her what she is, a hermetic ideologue and rank opportunist who has about as much feeling for black people as for American people in general, which is none. That makes Rice the model Bushie, but her model-ness partly derives from the fact that, much to the secret delight of fellow neocons, she also represents just about everything that's gone haywire with black progress in the last decade and notably during the last four years. For starters, Rice is a very high-profile bit of history authored not by black people, but by white cynics like Bush who get to tailor a racial paradigm to his liking and then declare it democracy at work and liberty for all. This is not new, of course; Poppy Bush orchestrated the same thing last decade when he nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Until blacks crack the white power structure that still governs this country, their interests will always be at the mercy of somebody else, which means that the higher a black person rises, the more likely it is he or she will align with the power structure, not the people.

But Condoleezza Rice shows us just how unpalatable this color-coded Peter Principle can be. From her perch as national security advisor and now as secretary of state, she gets to stump for the Iraq war, admit to her starring role in the Big Lie that brought about the war while not admitting to the lie itself and suffer no consequences, intensify America's isolation in the world and thereby endanger not just us, but the entire planet. She gets to ignore the well-being of black people – including all those soldiers of color who've died or come back maimed – but always sell herself as a black success story without ever having to tell the gory details. Not only does Rice go along with the new black paradigm (which is also an old one – black female helpmate to a wealthy but incompetent white man who can barely tie his shoes), she aids and abets it without a twinge of conscience. She embodies the worst instincts of the new black middle-to-upper class elite that W.E.B. DuBois realized way back in 1950 was probably going to be the sop of white folks, not the savior of black ones. So despondent was he about what he saw coming, he pulled up stakes and spent the last years of his life in Africa.

There are other blacks out there like Rice, those not just disinclined to racial justice but who actively work against it, but they don't have the latitude or platform that she has been given. And in these God-and-country times, Rice is making the most of her platform by aggressively proving herself as super-patriotic as blacks have been all along, though her idea of patriotism – blind corporate loyalty that rewards with promotions and more loyalty – is exactly 180 degrees away from what King meant when he talked about loving America enough to stand against it in ways like opposing the Vietnam War. I've never heard Rice speak about King, a fellow native of the deep South, but that's probably a good thing. The NAACP had the bad sense to give Rice an achievement award a few years ago – it might have been holding out the same foolish hope for her that I did – and the black press exclaimed over her gown, but nothing else. For papers still charged with mindlessly exhorting black progress and honorees of any kind, this was a very pointed silence. Among blacks of national stature, only Clarence Thomas has gotten similar if-we-can't-say-anything-nice-let's-not-say-anything-at-all treatment.

Another thing I despise about Rice is how she's given affirmative action, already on the ropes, a bad name. Her appointment is all Bush's doing, but many people want to admire her because they prefer to see an educated, single-minded black woman who shouldered her way to the top on the strength of her character and qualifications. Yet Rice is not qualified to be secretary of state, not because she's black but because she's inexperienced, partisan to the point of cheapening the position and its function, a colossal failure as a diplomat, and – last but hardly least – has a thin record that reflects she's already lied about and/or covered up dirty doings in foreign policy that predate 9/11.

Aside from smearing the reputation of affirmative action, Rice also impugns a long-held and rather useful belief that black people are the moral compass of the nation, that as victims of generations of cruel and openly hypocritical public policy, our bullshit radar is more keenly developed than most. Alas, Rice is the bullshit we all need to be guarding against now, along with a string of other so-called history-making Negroes – military man Colin Powell, who sold out his old rank and file when he peddled the Iraq war to the world at the U.N. with those ridiculous maps and pointers; son and soon-to-be ex-FCC chief Michael Powell, whose great vision was to make big media bigger and less accountable; conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who turned out to be on the Republican Party dole and the worst kind of welfare cheat. Black people have their crooks and hustlers, sure, but Rice and company are hustlers of an entirely different class and caliber to say nothing of pay scale – creatures of the same system and social circles that remain tremendously indifferent to blacks, at best. Compared to Rice, accused con men like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are paragons of virtue – however manipulative they are, they never lose sight of their base. Politically, Rice has never been beholden to anybody but a Bush – remember that Freudian slip last summer, when during an interview she referred to W. as "my husband" instead of "the president?" Some of us were left convinced that, metaphorically anyway, there was no difference.

This is precisely how it should not be. My best suggestion to black people and to the rest of the country is to take a sabbatical from February – regroup, think about where black people really are, detoxify by turning off the television and reading or re-reading DuBois, Baldwin, Carter G. Woodson, Malcolm X and Dick Gregory (who first radicalized the word "nigger" by confronting it in a skillful but underappreciated autobiography). Examine the vaunted bones of black history and realize that Condoleezza Rice, for all the history she has made, is a bad break that needs to heal. Maybe by this time next year our range of movement – and I mean that in as many ways as possible – will be repaired enough to get something else, and someone else, started.

Have They No Shame?

We've come to expect year-round insane decisions from those studio lunatics, like the fact that sources tell me Warner's at first refused to fund what became its best hope in eons for a Best Picture Oscar. But it's that loathsome time of year again when the inmates take over the asylum, so we're stuck ranting against our own Hollywood lunatics who came out with this week's sanity-defying Oscar nominations. So before we get to my projected winners, I have to ask: What the hell is wrong with you people?

Eleven nominations for a mess of a movie like The Aviator and a monster of a man like Harvey Weinstein is just incomprehensible, as is the snubbing of The Motorcycle Diaries, Fahrenheit 9/11, and even The Passion of the Christ. You hypocrites pretend that the Academy Awards honor motion-picture artistry, while always keeping an eye on popularity to stay in step with Main Street. Yet you overlook the year's three most talked-about movies that had the vision thing. And don't even try to argue that daring subject matter like humanizing commie icon Che Guevara or turning Dubya into a war criminal and Jews into the killers of Christ was too hot to handle, when you were willing to praise films about abortion (Vera Drake), euthanasia (Million Dollar Baby, The Sea Within), genocide (Hotel Rwanda), drug addiction (Ray), paranoia (The Aviator), pedophilia (Finding Neverland) and wild, monkey sex (Sideways).

That said, it's not just that passing on Passion (only three nominations, and only in the non-marquee categories of Art Direction, Makeup and Original Score) flew in the face of everything the Academy is supposed to reward. No other movie this year, rightly or wrongly, was as risky an endeavor, even if it did pay off. (Talk about arty. Much of the movie was made in the Aramaic and Latin languages, with few subtitles. Remember when Dances With Wolves won Best Picture because of its use of Sioux Lakota dialect?) Irony of ironies, because of its prejudice against Passion, Hollywood will have in its arsenal even less ammunition to fend off those anti-Semitic bigots complaining how America's entertainment industry is controlled and contaminated by "The Jews."

As for Weinstein, he appears to have been the beneficiary of an Oscar pity party after getting kicked to the curb by Disney. But I predict Harv's humiliations are only just beginning. (And I'm not only talking about the inevitable lawsuit with Disney over any realistic valuation of Miramax.) Recent history has shown that, while Weinstein can certainly score an Academy nomination, he can't steal the awards anymore. His movies, such as The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Cider House Rules, In the Bedroom and Cold Mountain, have come up virtually empty on Oscar night. I predict that same fate awaits The Aviator this time around. As for Harvey, he may have to rethink his moviemaking formula, which depends heavily on his amply demonstrated ability to sweet-talk talent into working for him for bupkis in exchange for Academy gold. Here's hoping the stupid stars wise up.

Meanwhile, Marty Scorsese deserves this year's Dumb and Dumber award, and I don't mean Best Director. You'd think he would have learned his lesson in 2003 when Gangs of New York was nominated, and he and Harvey were bitch-slapped by the Academy for not only dragging poor old Robert Wise into their over-the-top Oscar politicking, but then deceiving voters by having a Miramax publicist ghost-write a praiseful column on Scorsese that appeared under the beloved wrinkly's byline. (Kudos to John Horn of the Los Angeles Times for busting them on it.) Now, all of a sudden, Robert De Niro is talking publicly that Taxi Driver 2 is in the works with Scorsese. Sources tell me that Raging Bull 2 is also being considered, and that Harvey is going to eventually join Bobby and Marty in this sick joke, along with financier Graham King. (For the record, a Miramax mouthpiece played coy about Weinstein's involvement.)

I'm told this sequel mania is intended to remind Academy voters of all the great movies in Scorsese's body of work. But I think it will have an unintended effect: to remind Academy voters what disgusting moneygrubbers both De Niro and Scorsese have become in recent years, culminating in their even thinking about revisiting two great classic American films just to score a coupla bucks. It's Francis Ford Coppola all over again, and look what happened to him after the critical and commercial failure of Godfather 3. In Scorsese's case, this kind of overreaching is committing Oscar suicide.

I've reported in the past about people on the Miramax payroll launching verbal salvos against Saving Private Ryan and A Beautiful Mind. This year's badmouthing war is targeting Million Dollar Baby, which is up for Best Picture against Miramax's The Aviator. Granted you gotta have steel balls to take on Clint over anything, much less his movie and its euthanasia subplot, especially if you're a dickwad like Michael Medved and the rest of those right-wing wackos. Far more interesting than the usual mudslinging is that word from inside Eastwood's production company is that Warner's did not want to underwrite Million Dollar Baby. (But watch the studio gang preen come Oscar night.) That, more than any heavily financed campaign, should help the movie clinch Best Picture, since it makes Clint's project seem almost indie.

Now, for my peek inside the twisted mind of the Academy.

BEST ACTOR

This ain't Johnny Depp's year, no matter how much we love him. That Leo scored a nomination, undeserved, since it robbed Liam Neeson of a spot for Kinsey, is reward enough for the Miramax machine. In a perfect world, Don Cheadle would win. But he ain't as cool as Clint or fine like Foxx. Now, about that upset. Foxx is expected to win. But who in hell really thought Eastwood could chew up the scenery when most of his contemporaries are gumming their food? Talk that it's the performance of a lifetime is Hollywood code for We'd better give it to the guy now, before he croaks. Foxx has struck just that right ass-kissing "I'm not worthy" chord wooing Oscar voters. I still think Jamie will win in this category, but if he doesn't, he won't come away empty-handed. Keep reading.

BEST ACTRESS

Spoiler Alert! In that same perfect world, the dumpy English broad from Vera Drake would be the winner, just like Judi Dench before her. But it's not Dame Imelda Staunton – yet – so forget her. No one on the planet saw Maria Full of Grace. Kate Winslet would have been a shoo-in for supporting, but not in this category. So the contest is between Annette Bening and Hilary Swank. Bening has the sympathy vote down cold. After all, she plays house with a has-been. But hers is a good performance in a lousy movie vs. Swank's good performance in a great movie. Besides, Hilary dies.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Paul Giamatti deserves this hands down, but he wasn't even nominated, because the category isn't called Best Annoying Actor, now is it? Alan Alda is best known as the new Huell Howser of PBS, not as a movie actor these days. With so many good American performances this year, no one's gonna give Oscar to Clive Owen, a Brit. It's between Thomas Haden Church, best known as a dreadful TV actor, and Morgan Freeman, who's played God, the U.S. president and Nelson Mandela. Only idiots would deny him the Oscar. But if that big upset we spoke of earlier happens, Foxx wins for his work in the wrong film, Collateral.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

No one plays blind or deaf, although there is a lot of hair dyeing. If the Academy decides to pull a Marisa Tomei, it's Natalie Portman. But I doubt they can overlook her near-career-ending woodenness in Star Wars. This isn't Cate Blanchett's year. And Sophie Okonedo doesn't stand a chance. Laura Linney is Meryl Streep with a nicer nose. But Virginia Madsen will win, because Hollywood loves ex-sex-symbol survivors who, when their careers grew cold, had the good taste to avoid suicide.

BEST DIRECTOR

There's a reason "hack" is part of his name, so don't consider Taylor Hackford for Ray. Alexander Payne is on the way up and Mike Leigh on the way down. What's needed is middle ground. The East Coast is pulling for Marty. The West Coast is clamoring for Clint. If the Academy trends to Eastwood for Best Actor, they may give Best Director to Scorsese as a sop. If not, Clint wins.

BEST PICTURE

Not in my lifetime will a movie about wine win the Oscar. Finding Neverland should never have been nominated. We'll never know when the Academy will be ready to vote for a black film like Ray, or a blacker film like Hotel Rwanda, for Best Picture. (That's right; I'm saying racism is rampant in Hollywood.) C'mon, this town hated Howard Hughes – there are still actresses who won't admit they slept with him – plus, his Nixon slush-fund contributions make him non-P.C. The voters will cry Million Dollar Baby.

Is the Doctor In?

Can Howard Dean be stopped in his bid to become the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee? That's the question the party's establishment has been asking since Dean – who'd said he'd run only if he thought he had the votes to win – jumped into the contest with a media splash last week. Instantly he became the front-runner in the field of seven candidates for party chief and prompted the establishment to embark on an Anybody-but-Dean movement.

It may not be easy for the center-right leaning power elite in the party to bar the route to the doctor from Vermont. The establishment's original candidate, former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer, entered the race with the puissant backing of the Democrats' two congressional chiefs – Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The handsome and articulate Roemer got a lot of face time on the tube during the 9/11 Commission hearings, where he proved himself an aggressive questioner and burnished his image on national security – the latter, the party elite thought, made him a bulletproof winner and a great public face for a party still reeling from its November defeat, in which post-9/11 security hysteria played a major role.

But Roemer has been effectively torpedoed by a bizarre alliance – a double-whammy, slash-and-burn lobbying campaign by two of the party's most influential interests: the women's groups and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The women's groups, led by NARAL Pro-Choice America and the political fund-raising champs at EMILY's List, have targeted Roemer's extensive anti-abortion voting record, and his declarations that the party should show more "tolerance" for abortion foes and needs to eliminate its "moral blind spot" on late-term abortions. (This record has many in the party, including a lot of House members facing re-election, privately questioning Pelosi's judgment in endorsing him.)

AIPAC – the powerful, treasury-rich pro-Israeli lobby, now embroiled in accusations that it was at the center of a spy ring within the Pentagon on Israel's behalf – has been brandishing a list of what it claims are 22 "anti-Israel" congressional votes by Roemer, who's been a critic of the $6 billion plus in U.S. aid to Ariel Sharon and his "Wall of Shame." Many of the party's Jewish big contributors have become even more knee-jerk supporters of Israel's no-compromise conservative government since 9/11. "The DNC's biggest source of large-donor money is from fat-cat Jews," says a veteran Democratic fund-raiser, "and AIPAC's threat – elect Roemer and we'll shut down your Jewish big money – has been incredibly effective."

A gaggle of little-known center-right postulants for the DNC post have failed to catch fire. Donnie Fowler, a callow technocrat from South Carolina (his biggest credential is having managed the ignominiously failed presidential campaign of Gen. Wes Clark), has a Web site featuring a plug for him that begins, "He loves God." Simon Rosenberg, a former staffer for the center-right Democratic Leadership Council, runs the New Democrat Network, the DLC-oriented PAC (some would say it's a DLC front group), and has been relentless in attacking Roemer, whom he saw as the man to beat (a negative campaign that has alienated many committee members). Wellington Webb, a lackluster former Denver mayor and the only African American in the race, hasn't even generated much enthusiasm among black elected officials. And former Ohio party chairman David Leland is so unknown that some DNC members I talked to didn't even know he's in the race.

As Roemer sinks, the man who's emerged in the last week as the party establishment's Stop-Dean candidate is former Texas Congressman Martin Frost. Frost is much appreciated by party insiders for the skill in limiting his party's losses when he ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the '96 and '98 election cycles, during which he proved himself an adept fund-raiser and a master of organizational detail – and he's got a powerful lobbying force in the Democratic House members whose seats he helped save. Frost was deprived of his House seat last year after a gerrymander engineered by House Majority Leader and fellow Texan Tom "The Hammer" DeLay. Frost, usually labeled a party moderate, doesn't have some of the heavy baggage that has crippled Roemer: He's won a 100 percent voting-record approval on abortion from NARAL, and – as only the second Jew ever elected to Congress from Texas and a consistent supporter of aid to Israel who's also voted for every pro-Israeli, anti-Arab resolution that came to the House floor – he's more than acceptable to the AIPAC crowd. A fairly reliable liberal on economic issues who has opposed all of Bush's tax cuts, Frost is a hawk on foreign and military policy. A supporter of the Star Wars missile defense system who has voted for bloated military budgets and against cuts at the Pentagon (Texas gets a lot of military-industrial complex contracts), Frost was a big supporter of the war in Iraq, voting to shred the Constitution by approving the blank check to Bush for war and defending the war on the floor of the House.

The mood of the Democratic establishment these days is aggressively centrist, and Frost's candidacy could be boosted by Democratic governors who have an inordinate influence over docile DNC members from their states – like Michigan's Jennifer Granholm, an erstwhile progressive who last month declared the party needs "to push an agenda that is centrist and that speaks to where most people are."

It doesn't seem to matter that Dean's reputation as a liberal is exaggerated. In the lead-up to his DNC candidacy, Dean reiterated in interviews that he was a "centrist" who had governed as one in Vermont; and last year he told my colleague David Corn, "I really have a healthy mistrust of the left as well as the right." After his defeat in the Democratic primaries last year, he ran away from his opposition to the war in Iraq, telling MSNBC's Chris Matthews, "I never did base my campaign on the war" – an attempt to rewrite history which drew guffaws from people not afflicted with Alzheimer's. Dean was infinitely less leftish – and less significant – than the movement that crystallized around him. But Dean's shoot-from-the-lip, unscripted style scares the bejesus out of party powerbrokers and Democratic consultants. And even Joe Trippi, who made a lot of money from TV ad buys when he managed Dean's presidential campaign, showed he didn't stay bought when he endorsed another candidate (Rosenberg) for the DNC job. There's even a move afoot to persuade a fresh Stop-Dean centrist candidate with more charisma than the dull and wintry Frost to enter the fray: most often mentioned is ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey, another ex-9/11 Commission member and current president of New York's New School.

Even so, Dean is the man to beat. At a regional forum for the candidates for DNC chair in Missouri on Saturday, it was Dean whose every sally drew enthusiastic applause from those in attendance. And a poll for The Hotline of 187 of the 447 DNC members released late last week showed a clear Dean-Frost contest – with a first ballot choice of 58 for Dean, 30 for Frost, eight for Roemer, four each for Fowler, Rosenberg and Webb, and one lone vote for Leland, with the rest undecided. (But add all the votes in this poll for the other centrist candidates to Frost, and he edges out Dean.) The DNC meets Feb. 12 to make its choice.

Stay tuned.

The Slumber Party

Seventeen-year-old Boulder High School student Travis Moe admits that most teenagers his age just want to get drunk and get laid.

"I have been really cynical lately," said Moe, a dreadlocked senior who wears flip-flops in blizzards. "No one talks about politics or the world."

He did, however, find some peers who were concerned about their futures, particularly under the Bush administration. So, when dissenters across the nation were protesting President Bush's re-election, Moe and fellow members of the 10-student-strong activist group Student Worker held a rally/sleep-in in Boulder High School's library on Nov. 4 to oppose Bush's policies, the national debt, military recruitment in schools, disregard for the environment and, more importantly, to prove to the nation that they weren't just a bunch of horny teenagers. "I just needed some affirmation that school wasn't as apathetic as I thought it was," said Moe.

It also became a call to arms for students across the country.

"The youth around the country need to know that their futures are being betrayed," said 17-year-old Cameron Ely-Murdock, who helped organize the sleep-in. "If we don't voice our opinions it won't stop. We really want people to understand that we can't just accept the fact that the world thinks we are apathetic youth. If you have a problem with the government, you need to do something about it. We agree that Bush sucks, but we aren't doing anything about it."

A lot of planning went into the sleep-in. On Nov. 3, Student Worker members called various cliques, looked up Colorado state codes, began writing speeches, prepared to meet with the administration, and made shirts and signs. They talked on the phone with members' fathers who were lawyers to find out their legal rights as well as the school's, and wrote up a list of concerns, which included the war in Iraq and the possibility of a future draft.

And of course, they called their parents.

"My mom was nervous," said Moe, who played Bender, the rebel played by Judd Nelson, in the school's version of The Breakfast Club. "She respects me as an independent individual, but she didn't think much good would come out of it. She thought I would get suspended. I told her it would be a moral stance. She was so proud."

The Nov. 4 protest, which started after classes finished at 3:15 p.m. on Thursday, drew more than 80 of Boulder High's 2,000 students, who bunked down for the night with the blessing of the school principal, Ron Cabrera, who originally wanted them out of the library by 5 p.m. Cabrera relented after the students agreed to clean up and attend first-period classes the following morning.

"I was surprised when the principal allowed the protest," said Ely-Murdock. "Even a bit disappointed. It kind of ruined the whole idea of 'sticking it to the man,' but I think we ended up getting more media attention because of it."

Several "peace" flags hung from the bookshelves in the library. On the wall, crooked black markings read, "We are the generation that will have to take on and suffer from the burden." Under the supervision of parents and teachers, the students, who ranged from modern-day hippies adorned in beanies and hemp necklaces, to leather-jacket-clad punk rockers, to conservatively dressed Democrats, sat on the floor and on tables, laughing, shaking maracas, playing the guitar and patting drums. One student, Brian Martens, wore '70s-style sunglasses and a hand-lettered T-shirt proclaiming him the "senior executive of the subcommittee on protesting stuff."

"We even had some of the mainstream self-proclaimed 'popular' students showing up," said Moe, but, "We didn't get the jocks or cheerleaders."

The students read speeches by Martin Luther King and sang Beatles songs like "Give Peace a Chance," while organizers called the press and local pols like Congressman Mark Udall (D-Eldorado Springs) and newly elected Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar. Meanwhile, a New Yorker, after seeing the sleep-in on the national news, ordered the students two pepperoni pizzas and a cheese pizza from the pizza joint across the street. He said they looked hungry.

With Moe at the helm, Student Worker has in the past voiced its concerns about standardized statewide student-assessment testing and the U.S. Marines' setting up a recruitment table in the school library. However, the sleep-in was the group's first foray at activism in years.

"I am the hippie. I am the protester. I am the actor and filmmaker. People have high expectations of me," said Moe, explaining why he led the sleep-in. "But, outside of Boulder, we would most likely have bricks thrown through our windows and graffiti smeared across my car."

Cabrera agreed. "These kids have more of a political bent," he said. "Kids in Boulder have a little more knowledge of politics. I received messages wondering why kids were doing these types of things. 'Who is in charge here?' That type of question. They clearly didn't know the thinking that went into this and how they planned it. The media envisioned it as a 'Hell No We Won't Go,' but it was very cooperative on both sides."

Boulder has long been known as the most liberal city in Colorado and is often referred to as "the Republic of Boulder." In 1999, two Boulder High students founded Student Worker after participating in the World Trade Organization protests/riots in Seattle. In 2001, Student Worker and Boulder High's Gay-Straight Alliance staged a same-sex "kiss-in" after a photograph of two girls kissing was pulled from the Boulder High School yearbook. About 150 gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight students gathered in support of the dozen kiss-in participants. Two years later, the group along with students from other high schools went to the state capital to protest statewide testing. Student Worker later dissolved after key members graduated, but Moe resurrected it last year.

On Nov. 11, a week after the sleep-in, Boulder High students hit the news again when Secret Service agents visited the school after students and parents somewhat hysterically complained that a band calling themselves the Taliban had plans to perform Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" at a talent show scheduled for Nov. 12. The rumor was that the song would be amended with lyrics threatening President Bush. Two Secret Service agents questioned the principal for 20 minutes and took a copy of the song's lyrics. Cabrera said the band originally had plans to call itself the Tali-banned but changed the name to the Coalition of the Willing after administrators told band members the name was offensive. He also said the students never had plans to change the song's lyrics.

"I don't know if this is a case of sour grapes because someone didn't make it into the talent show," said Cabrera. "I certainly thought it was ridiculous. I was surprised that someone would move to that place where they would think that there was violence being propagated at Boulder High School."

Cabrera said he received over 150 voice mails concerning the alleged lyric manipulation, some calling for his resignation.

"I should be fired. The kids should be suspended," he said. "It was disrespectful. Those were all the types of negative calls I got. The kids at the talent show that were unfairly admonished deserved to get the protection they deserved. There was nothing wrong with singing the Bob Dylan song."

With peace symbols still smudged on their cheeks and foreheads, 16 of the students packed into Cabrera's office to speak to Udall and Boulder County Republican Party vice chairman Bill Eckert the morning after their sleep-in. Dozens of media outlets including MSNBC and the Associated Press reported on the scene. Michael Moore mentioned the students in his column, and a Hollywood production company has plans to film a documentary about the students.

"I really hope the media grabs onto this and spreads it for us," said Ely-Murdock. "I can't think of any other way. We can't hardly drive around in a fleet of school buses and yell at students. It is impractical."

The sleep-in also garnered support from their peers around the country. High school students in New Mexico invited Student Worker to travel to their school and show them how to stage a peaceful protest. Another school asked them to design a how-to pamphlet, a project Moe said he will take on.

Since the sleep-in, Moe and fellow members of Student Worker have been busy, taking on issues beyond the recent elections. The group recently organized a concert featuring four high-school-age bands that raised $500 for a local battered-women's shelter. After that, it came out en force to participate in a protest against Wal-Mart's construction of a superstore in Teotihuacan, Mexico, less than a mile from ancient pyramids. Moe says the group next plans to print the names of all the soldiers killed in Iraq on small American flags and plant them on the school's front lawn. "Maybe spelling out, 'For what?'" said Moe.

"You always have the power to make an opinion known," said Moe. "I am overcome with optimism and I see that change is possible in the government. The government is moving backwards. That is the opposite of progress and people are getting restless enough that a revolution is possible. If we can get rid of that fear and understand that change is possible and change is desired, I believe we can change the country for the better."

Jerusalem Denied

A Palestinian businessman I've known for more than a year – an educated man who likes to live by the rules – is standing and pointing at the mailboxes in front of his apartment building, just outside Jerusalem.

"This one moved into Jerusalem, this one moved to Jerusalem, this is me, this one moved also," he taps each one, counting how many of the building's residents have moved in the last several months. In total, seven out of the 12 families, including his own, have moved into Jerusalem, he says. An eighth family wants to move.

Yusuf is one of thousands of Palestinians who hold Jerusalem residency cards, work in Jerusalem, pay city taxes and have children in school there, but who have been living for years just outside the city, in the West Bank. (They will be voting in the Palestinian presidential election this week.) These adjacent communities, where land and housing are relatively cheap, are often only steps away from the city itself; sometimes they're indistinguishable. Most Palestinians and Israelis could not say, if they were driving out of Jerusalem, exactly when they left the city and entered the West Bank. There are large numbers of Israelis and Palestinians living in both places, and there is no agreed-upon border between Israel and the West Bank.

This vagueness, and some of the living arrangements that went along with it, are coming to an abrupt end in Jerusalem. Israel is building a barrier – which is a 25-foot concrete wall in some places and a system of fences in others – around Jerusalem to prevent suicide bombers from getting into the city. There have been 31 suicide attacks in Jerusalem in the last four years, more than any other place in Israel. But since Jerusalem's population has been spilling over into the West Bank for years, the barrier is driving thousands of Palestinians (city officials have no reliable estimate) back into the heart of the city, where many of them work, go to school and get medical care. Jerusalem, meanwhile, has a long-standing policy of trying to keep the city's demographic ratio between Israelis and Palestinians at 70:30. The barrier is unraveling that plan and is physically transforming the city: Many Palestinians, as they rush in to find housing however they can, are building illegally.

Yusuf (not his real name) is not an ideologue, either nationalist or religious. He has no use for the Palestinian Authority. He grew up in Jerusalem as a religious Muslim, but he slipped into secularism over the years and is now entrenched there. He likes a drink now and then. He doesn't pray. He often finds his situation funny. He says that once he realized he would have to move his family back into Jerusalem, where he works and where his children go to school, he spent months looking for a place to rent, a process he describes as a series of absurd demands from landlords, even in undesirable neighborhoods.

"I went to Isawiya [a neighborhood in East Jerusalem]," he says, laughing as he tells the story. "Isawiya is not a great place to live. They asked for two years' rent in advance. I found a house and it is on top of a mountain in Isawiya, a beautiful stone house but still not finished. The interior is not finished. You [yourself] have to put tiles, do plastering, put dry walls. And he asked me to pay 100,000 shekels [about $22,000] in advance."

The numbers seem small compared to housing prices in the United States, but Jerusalem is the poorest city in Israel, and the average family income is less than $2,000 a month, according to the latest Jerusalem Statistical Yearbook. Buying a house, for most people, is even more out of the question than renting. Yusuf makes significantly more than the average, but he couldn't afford to pay $170,000 for a small house or apartment. Even selling the place he already owns just outside the city wouldn't help; the market there has dropped so sharply from people leaving and moving into Jerusalem that he estimates it's worth less than half what he paid for it.

So Yusuf decided he would take the money he's spent years saving for his children's college education and instead use it to build a new place inside the city, illegally. That is, he's a legal resident, but he's building the house without getting the necessary permits. Most likely, the city would not give him a permit to build in the one place he can afford to do it: on top of his parents' house. The house is only zoned for two floors, he said, and he is building beyond that.

"I was reluctant [to build illegally]," he says. "That's why this was the last option after I tried other options. I tried to rent a house. I tried to buy a house. This [education] is very important for the future. But now it is about existence. Our existence is threatened, jeopardized by this barrier."

Illegal construction has been going on in Jerusalem for years, and with the barrier going up, it may be increasing. The city has not been able to stop it. Even demolitions have been ineffective against the 20,000 illegal buildings the city estimates now exist in East Jerusalem. When I went to the municipality to meet Micha Ben-Nun, the head of inspections and permits, he had a book on his desk to show me called "Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A Variation on an Alarming Global Phenomenon."

According to the book, the two main reasons Palestinians build illegally in Jerusalem are because the P.A. encourages them to, including providing funding, and because criminals want to make a quick buck. Real estate scams in East Jerusalem are definitely a problem, especially now that many people are desperate to find a place inside the city. Yusuf, when he went looking for an apartment to buy or rent, was sure that some of the places he was being shown had been built illegally, meaning they could end up demolished by the municipality. The owner, meanwhile, would skip town with everyone's money.

"I tried to buy from these people," he said. "They claimed they have permits and everything. I said, 'Show them.' They said, 'Well, it's still in process.' Mostly these people get a license for one floor and build seven floors."

The P.A. has definitely added to the complications in the city by discouraging Palestinians in Jerusalem from voting or participating in the city's governance. Many Palestinians wouldn't participate anyway, of their own accord; they want to vote in Palestinian elections. They believe that by voting in Jerusalem, they would legitimize Israel's rule over the entire city and obscure the fact that East Jerusalem was conquered by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967, along with the West Bank and Gaza. Since then, East Jerusalem has been at least an unresolved issue (the United States' position) and at most occupied by Israel (the United Nations' position). The upshot is that Palestinians have no political clout in Jerusalem and no representatives on the City Council, even though they are about a third of the city's population. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, by comparison, are a fifth of the city, yet almost half the City Council members, including the mayor, are Ultra-Orthodox.

The extent of the P.A.'s involvement in funding illegal construction in East Jerusalem is less clear. There's no question the P.A. believes it's in a turf battle with Israel in Jerusalem. The book cites an agreement in which a P.A. minister got a onetime contribution of more than $1 million to do illegal renovations on buildings in the Old City. The book also refers to some individual letters to the P.A. asking for money for illegally built houses that were under threat of demolition, and quotes P.A. members boasting openly about supporting illegal construction in Jerusalem. But what P.A. members brag about and what they actually do are different; many Palestinians, like Yusuf, build illegally out of their own pockets.

The one major factor influencing illegal construction that the book doesn't explore is the fact that for the last several decades, Israel has had a policy in Jerusalem of "maintaining the ratio that existed in 1967 between the Jewish and Arab populations, 70:30, according to government policy." This statement is the first guideline listed in a Jerusalem municipal booklet entitled "Planning in the Arab [Palestinian] Sector: 1967-1996." To this day, the 70:30 policy goal is in effect; it was reiterated in the Jerusalem master plan issued this fall by the municipality, under the heading "Population Goals and Population Forecasts": "This goal, as it was presented by the municipality and adopted in cabinet meetings on the subject, aims to maintain the balance of 70 percent Jews as against 30 percent Arabs."

The implications of the 70:30 policy are detailed in another book about development in East Jerusalem called "Separate and Unequal," written by two former longtime advisers to the mayor and a journalist. According to the book, in order to try and maintain the 70:30 ratio, in the face of Palestinians' higher birthrate and Israelis' increasing emigration to the suburbs, Israel has resorted to "expropriation of Arab-owned land, development of large Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and limitations on development in Arab neighborhoods."

The book tells story after story like the one about the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Shuafat, which waited more than 20 years for a zoning plan that would allow residents to build, and during that time watched two Jewish neighborhoods – Pisgat Ze'ev and Neveh Ya'acov – be planned and built, with full support of the government, on land expropriated from the Palestinian neighborhoods after the Six-Day War. Just last September, according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Jerusalem's mayor, Uri Lupolianski, sent a letter to the Housing Ministry proposing to take a Palestinian-populated neighborhood called Wadi Joz and rezone it "for a Jewish population."

Jerusalem's "limitations on development in Arab neighborhoods" have been documented not only in "Separate and Unequal" but also in a forthcoming report from an organization called Bimkom ("alternative" in Hebrew), a group of Israeli architects and urban planners who try to make planning in Israel more transparent and accessible to the public. According to Bimkom, there are five neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that still have no master zoning plan, making it impossible for residents even to apply for building permits. Other areas are zoned so that almost no further construction is allowed. Even the Jerusalem master plan states flatly that Palestinians in the city "suffer from a dire housing shortage" and that "in recent decades few new neighborhoods have been built for this population."

"Cities have to have plans, but cities also have to give a proper answer for the needs of their population," said Bimkom spokeswoman Shuli Hartman. "I think that planning is a tool of politics in Jerusalem. They wanted to keep it 70:30. But even there the plan is unsuccessful because you can't do that unless you find a solution for people. Otherwise they go and illegally build thousands of homes."

BEN-NUN, THE HEAD of inspections and permits, took me on a driving tour of illegal construction in East Jerusalem. We sat in the back while Ophir May, who directly oversees construction inspections in the city, drove. Ben-Nun is a 45-year-old architect with silver-and-black hair who speaks English in a slow voice that makes him sound older than he is. He has headed the inspections and permits department for almost four years. He also designed the apartment building I live in, we discovered. May (pronounced "my") is 36, has small, serious eyes and a close-cropped brown beard, and resembles Viggo Mortensen in his role as Aragorn, King of Men.

Ben-Nun said illegal construction in Jerusalem has been a serious problem for at least 10 years. The city has only eight inspectors for East Jerusalem, versus hundreds of new illegal buildings every year. Ben-Nun and his department have started a new campaign of leveling huge fines on the drivers of cement trucks, but he said they are still facing a lot of illegal construction, especially with the barrier going up. Not all of the Palestinians now flooding into the city are building illegally, but many are. Ben-Nun said the root of the problem is not that the city denies permits but that Palestinians refuse to apply for them.

"I'm not saying the bureaucracy is very simple," he said. "It's not. But people have to deal with that. You cannot hide and think that because of difficulties in the bureaucracy, you don't need to have a permit."

It's true that according to city statistics, most of those who apply for permits get them: Out of 60 building-permit applications for East Jerusalem filed in 2003, all but one were granted. The question is why the rest of the 800 to 1,000 people who build illegally every year, according to Ben-Nun, didn't even apply.

Palestinians in the construction business say the low application rate is due to the fact that only people who are fairly certain they'll get a permit bother applying for one. Ben-Nun has a different explanation, along the lines of the argument in the book he showed me: political ambition of the Palestinian Authority and criminal greed. When I told him about Yusuf – a man who is not a criminal and is not getting money from the P.A. – Ben-Nun offered another reason.

"Cultural mentality: 'This is my land, I'll do whatever I want,'�" he said. "Ignore the law and ignore the authorities, and then after you are caught, you are trying to deal with that."

He said this attitude exists among both Palestinians and Israelis in the city. He showed me two tractors his inspectors had interrupted that very day, working on a yeshiva that had been in the process of building on more than 7,000 square meters when it had only been allocated 5,000.

Twice, we all got out of the car so Ben-Nun and May could point out large clusters of illegal Palestinian buildings, east and north of the city. They explained the clusters' purpose.

"There is a [Palestinian] plan to have a situation where Jerusalem is a dead end," said Ben-Nun. "You come from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and you are coming to a dead end."

I asked, what do you mean by dead end?

"No connection with Ma'ale Adumim [a large settlement near Jerusalem] or east of Israel – you have like a wall of illegal buildings," he said.

East of Israel, in this case, means the West Bank. It seems like both sides have a plan: Palestinians want to keep Jerusalem connected to nearby West Bank villages and cities, and Israelis want to keep Jerusalem connected to nearby Israeli settlements like Ma'ale Adumim.

"But we are dealing with the law," said Ben-Nun. "We are dealing with the town planning. We don't deal with political ideas or political fights."

I asked if it's hard to keep the city's demographic ratio at 70:30. Ben-Nun shrugged and sighed. He said the ratio is not his day-to-day concern but rather an overarching goal.

"We want to have it at 70:30, but now it's more 60:40 because of illegal immigration of Arab people in Jerusalem," he said. "There are people trying to go inside Jerusalem before the wall is finished."

The whole issue of who is legally a 30� �29 resident of Jerusalem and what that means is one of the great unresolved messes of the Six-Day War. Many of the Palestinians trying to get inside the city are like Yusuf: legal residents, in that they have what's known as a Jerusalem ID, a card that labels them officially a Jerusalem resident and entitles them to live in Jerusalem and to work and travel inside Israel. They also get Israeli health insurance, unemployment and Social Security benefits and are obliged to pay municipal taxes. The ID is a halfway measure that's been in place for more than 40 years and has allowed Palestinians to stay in the city without having to become Israeli citizens. It's also allowed Israel to claim that it is governing a unified city. But a Jerusalem ID, unlike citizenship, does not allow people to move out and then return; if Palestinians are caught living outside Jerusalem, Israel can take away their IDs. So why would anyone risk moving outside the city as Yusuf did?

Besides facing limitations on building in East Jerusalem, Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs live outside (but adjacent to) Jerusalem for the same reason a lot of secular Israelis live in settlements: It's cheaper. For the price of a cramped apartment in the city, you can buy or build a decent-size house in the West Bank, maybe even with a yard. Before the separation barrier started going up, Palestinian Jerusalemites living outside the city before the separation barrier didn't even feel "outside," because they were so close to the city; when most of the people around you have a Jerusalem ID and are driving cars with Israeli license plates, outside can start to feel like simply another neighborhood of Jerusalem.

In a similar way, many residents of Ma'ale Adumim – more than 30,000 Israelis living a 10-minute drive from Jerusalem in one of the biggest settlements in the West Bank – feel that for all intents and purposes, they are part of the greater Jerusalem sprawl. They've been encouraged in this view by the letter President Bush sent to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last April acknowledging "new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers" and stating that any final peace agreement must "reflect these realities."

I SAT ON THE BALCONY of Yusuf's almost-completed apartment with him and his brother while they pointed out all the illegal construction. Five buildings within eyesight, just off the top their heads. That's not including both next-door neighbors, who have also added illegal sections to their houses.

"Down the street, there are more than 50 houses built during the last two years, the majority without licenses," said Yusuf's brother, Mohammed (also not his real name), who's been a construction contractor for more than 20 years. He's building the extra floor for Yusuf's family on the cheap. He's also building one for his own family on top of Yusuf's.

He said illegal construction is a specialized industry in Jerusalem, with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Contractors are experts not only at building but also at finding ways to hide construction from inspectors. On one site, Mohammed used ropes to pull tree branches in front of the building, like a curtain; they built three floors there. For other houses, Mohammed puts a giant white sheet over the whole site, like the tents Palestinians use for weddings. Builders wait for Jewish holidays to do big projects, work around the clock to finish fast, and put rugs and potted plants on the balconies of half-finished houses to make them look lived-in rather than new.

"We learned [construction] from the Israelis – you know, the settlements," Mohammed said, smiling, referring to the fact that Palestinians did a lot of the construction on Israel's settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. "Now they are paying the price for that."

The more Mohammed talked about it, the more illegal construction seemed like a bloodless guerrilla war, all stealth and speed and strategizing honed to the point of philosophy.

"This is security by Mao Zedong: The safest place is near the enemy," said Mohammed, after Yusuf described how they decided to go ahead with putting the roof on Yusuf's building, even though an hour before, the same roofing company had been caught by inspectors while putting a roof on another illegal building across the street.

It is a war, agreed Mohammed.

"People in Jerusalem struggle by building houses," he said. "In the West Bank, they send suicide bombers."

There is a way to see Palestinians' illegal construction in Jerusalem as the only sustained nonviolent protest that Palestinians have ever mounted. But that romantic view is clouded by several factors. Not everyone who builds illegally is like Yusuf: a decent man trying to house and educate his family and continue being able to get to work every day. Also, the net effect of illegal construction in East Jerusalem is worse neighborhoods for Palestinians, as well as significant changes to the city that are not being governed by any overall plan. Illegal buildings aren't regulated by city safety codes, and they create pockets where there's no longer room for parks, sidewalks or other communal structures. Neighbors, meanwhile, are dependent on each other's goodwill, rather than the law, to keep a street livable. No one dares complain about someone else's illegal construction, however much of an imposition it is, because so many have built illegally themselves.

Ben-Nun emphasized these long-term downsides to illegal construction when I spoke to him. He said his department is just trying to keep the city orderly for all its residents. He knows, however, that he is dealing with an issue that is much bigger and deeper than his office can handle.

"This is supposed to go to the [national] government to deal with, because of the size of the problem," he said, clearly frustrated. "It's not like just here and there are illegal buildings. It's a huge problem."

Docs on the Rocks

"In what has become a tribal ritual, accusations are again flying about the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature Film." With that line, critic Ann Hornaday began her New York Times article titled "Documentaries and the Oscars: No Cinderellas at the Ball." The date was March 14, 1993, and Hornaday was reporting on the peculiarities of a selection process that had consistently excluded many of the most acclaimed, groundbreaking and/or popular documentary films of the moment from its list of nominees. Many in the press – to say nothing of the overlooked filmmakers – were up in arms, accusing the Academy's documentary screening committee of being at best antagonistic to innovation and at worst mired in corruption. (Around the time of Hornaday's article, it was revealed that one documentary committee member was also a documentary distributor whose own films accounted for a suspiciously high percentage of the nominees.) And given the list of omissions – Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time, Michael Moore's Roger & Me – such allegations seemed more than a case of proverbial sour grapes.

Now flash forward 11 years. Responding to pressures both internal and external – and an ever-lengthening roster of high-profile non-nominees – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has instituted widespread changes to its documentary nominating process. Perhaps most significantly, an actual documentary membership branch has been created, meaning that nominees are now selected by the documentary filmmakers themselves, rather than (as under the old system) by a group of volunteers culled from all the Academy branches. Morris and Moore – as if anyone could have missed the latter – have finally been invited to the ball. Yet in a year that was widely hailed (as was 2003) as the Year of the Documentary, with nonfiction films playing in record numbers of theaters and to record attendance, the Academy's recently published list of the 12 semifinalists for 2004's best-documentary statuette suggests that all is still not well in the house of Oscar. Though the final five nominees won't be unveiled until January 25, already out of the running are Control Room, The Corporation, Dig!, The Five Obstructions, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Tarnation and Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession – in short, a veritable honor roll of the year's most lauded movie achievements, documentary or otherwise.

Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't in the running either, though that owes to Moore's own decision to withdraw the film for documentary consideration and concentrate on a Best Picture campaign instead. Of course, there's no Academy rule prohibiting a film from being nominated in both categories. There are, however, abundant regulations governing which films are eligible for a documentary Oscar in the first place. While both narratives and documentaries seeking Oscar eligibility must first play qualifying runs of at least seven consecutive days in at least one Los Angeles cinema, where documentaries are concerned that represents but the first step on the long and winding road toward hoped-for Oscar gold. As detailed in the Academy's official rulebook (available in both pamphlet form and as a download on the Academy's Web site), having cleared that initial hurdle, documentaries must then either open in theaters in four additional U.S. cities or, failing that, be withheld from television broadcast, anywhere in the world, until the day the Oscar nominations are announced. If a film is Oscar-nominated, it must be withheld from television for an additional nine months following the announcement. As for those films that do roll out to other cities, they too are prohibited from television airings, but only for a comparatively lenient nine months from the date of their first theatrical exhibition.

Ostensibly, these rules were first deployed to protect and empower documentary filmmakers. As Academy documentary-branch governor Freida Lee Mock notes, "For a while, there were documentaries that simply did the minimum qualifying run without the spirit in which the rules were written – which is to qualify and then roll out, like most narrative films – and were on television the following Sunday night. And that undercut the vitality of our genre. There's always been this distinction for the Academy, that their mission is supporting theatrical motion pictures, be they fiction or nonfiction. Our whole goal is to support the filmmaker." Yet, in 2004, the Academy's television "blackout" rules were directly responsible for the disqualification of Control Room and The Corporation (both showed on international television within nine months of their U.S. theatrical premieres) before the Academy's documentary-branch members ever had a look at them – something that Control Room director Jehane Noujaim doesn't find particularly helpful or empowering.

"Our film had one of the widest theatrical releases of this year, and one of the highest grosses for a documentary, but it was still disqualified," she notes, before going on to point out the key role international television financing plays in documentary production. "Seed funding for documentaries is virtually nonexistent in the U.S. So why are these foreign broadcasters who are taking the risks being penalized by the Oscars? If the filmmaker wants to go for the award, the broadcaster must wait until after the Academy Awards to show the films they have financed. Which can be three years or more after the initial financing."

In the Academy's defense, Mock insists that the documentary branch is constantly revising its guidelines to keep up with changes in the industry, and that more changes are on the way. "We certainly didn't want our rules to handicap true rollout releases," she says. "So, under our new rules for the coming year, which haven't been published yet, we've actually allowed for an exception to the blackout if your film has expanded to a certain number of markets."

Even if a documentary does qualify for an Oscar nomination, however, the battle hardly ends there – just ask Metallica co-directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Two of the best documentarians on the planet, Berlinger and Sinofsky found themselves embroiled in the original documentary Oscar controversy when their debut feature, the remarkable account of murder and dairy farming Brother's Keeper (1992), failed to garner a nomination. In her investigation at the time, Hornaday referred to the film as "the Elijah at the Academy's table," and it's a seat Berlinger and Sinofsky have occupied many times over the ensuing years, as all of their subsequent work (including the two Paradise Lost documentaries, which have gone a long way toward sustaining the controversy around an Arkansas child-murder case) has gone similarly unrecognized by the Academy.

Back then, the co-directors did little to publicly conceal their disgruntlement. "But now I've gotten to know the process a lot better," says Berlinger, himself (along with Sinofsky) a new Academy member. "I have my analysis as to why it happened, but I no longer think it's some conspiracy against well-reviewed, commercially viable dark movies, which is what I used to think."

"Not making the shortlist – believe me, it hurt almost as bad as Bush getting re-elected," adds Sinofsky. "I was depressed for a week, but then we got an Independent Spirit Award nomination, which in many ways is almost as good as an Academy nomination."

The key problem, as Berlinger sees it, is systemic: "The nominating process, despite having gotten infinitely better, still has a long way to go. There were 60 feature-length entries this year. They get divided into four groups of 15, and about 100 of the documentary-branch members agree to be divided into four screening groups. That means that only 20 to 25 people watch each group of the entries." At the end of the process, the screeners in each group rate the films on a scale from 6 to 10, with any film receiving an average score of 8.0 or higher advancing to the shortlist. Only these shortlisted films are then viewed by the full membership of the screening committee.

"The lack of consistency required to produce that shortlist is inherently flawed," says Berlinger. "My suggestion to the committee is that somehow more people, more peers need to watch all of the films. To me, even the shortlist is too short."

Which brings us to those titles that did make the 2004 Oscar shortlist. It's anything but an undistinguished group, including a few audience favorites (Riding Giants, Super Size Me, Touching the Void and The Story of the Weeping Camel), some relative obscurities (Howard Zinn, Born Into Brothels) and several pictures (In the Realms of the Unreal, Tell Them Who You Are) that won't go into wide release until 2005. Of the 12 contenders, I've so far seen eight and can say that none are less than good, a few are better than that, and at least one – Paola di Florio's Home of the Brave, about slain civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo – is downright superb. But I'd also be lying if I didn't say that, in many cases, these works strike me as triumphs of documentary content over documentary form, and that it's hard to imagine there was ever really space on this list for Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, a kaleidoscope of tortured adolescence; Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself, a dyspeptic three-hour essay about Los Angeles and the movies; or Berlinger and Sinofsky's chronicle of heavy metal rockers struggling to stay relevant.

"My observation is that when it comes to documentaries and those who judge them – not just the Academy – people put subject matter ahead of craft," says Berlinger. "In the dramatic arena, if a story is great but it's poorly made, that film will get ripped to shreds. In the documentary arena, it's different. That's not saying that Fahrenheit or any other film is a bad film or poorly made, but I happen to think that people don't care enough about craft when evaluating documentaries. And let's face it, in terms of subject matter, a heavy metal band going through therapy might strike some people as frivolous."

For the Academy's Mock, however, these long-running controversies boil down to a familiar bit of conventional wisdom: You can't please all the people all the time. "Remember that under the old committee system, some of the best films were still nominated. What happens is that three out of five films everyone can agree on, and four through nine generate more widespread opinions. Of course, it's all very subjective."

There, at least, is something everyone can agree on.

Kicking a Dead Man

First the L.A. Times helped kill off Gary Webb's career. Then, eight years later, after Webb committed suicide this past weekend, the Times decided to give his corpse another kick or two, in a scandalous, self-serving and ultimately shameful obituary. It was the culmination of the long, inglorious saga of a major newspaper dropping the ball journalistically, and then extracting relentless revenge on an out-of-town reporter who embarrassed it.

Webb was the 49-year-old former Pulitzer-winning reporter who in 1996, while working for the San Jose Mercury News, touched off a national debate with a three-part series that linked the CIA-sponsored Nicaraguan Contras to a crack-dealing epidemic in Los Angeles and other American cities.

A cold panic set in at the L.A. Times when Webb's so-called Dark Alliance story first appeared. Just two years before, the Times had published a long takeout on local crack dealer Rickey Ross and no mention was made of his possible link to and financing by CIA-backed Contras. Now the Times feared it was being scooped in its own backyard by a second-tier Bay Area paper.

The Times mustered an army of 25 reporters, led by Doyle McManus, to take down Webb's reporting. It was, apparently, more important to the Times to defend its own inadequate reporting on the CIA-drug connection than it was to advance Webb's important work (a charge consistently denied by the Times). The New York Times and the Washington Post also joined in on the public lynching of Webb. Webb's own editor, Jerry Ceppos, also helped do him in, with a public mea culpa backing away from his own papers stories.

Webb was further undermined by some of his own most fervent supporters. With the help of demagogues like Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a conspiracy-theory hysteria was whipped up that used Webb's series as "proof" that the CIA was more or less single-handedly responsible for South-Centrals crack plague – a gross distortion of Webb's work.

But that conspiracy theory played perfectly into the hands of the L.A. Times. When its own three-day series appeared a few months later – attempting to demolish Webb – the Times disproved a number of points that were never made by Webb, primarily that the CIA consciously engaged in a program to spread the use of crack.

The Times' Washington-based reporter McManus, who spent most of the late '80s and early '90s as one of the less-curious fourth-estate stenographers to the Reagan/Bush administrations, relied principally on CIA sources to vindicate the CIA in the anti-Webb series. Citing a "former CIA official" named Vince Cannistraro, McManus wrote that "CIA officials insist they knew nothing" about the Contra-drug dealers named by Webb. Cannistraro, however, was more fit to be a subject of the Times investigation than a source. Over the length of the Times series it was never mentioned that Cannistraro had actually been in charge of the CIA-Contra operation in the early '80s, that is, before moving on to help supervise the covert program of CIA-backed Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan (who themselves were, and continue to be, knee-deep in the heroin trade).

Which brings us back to this week's obit written by Nita Lelyveld and Steve Hymon. The lead and body of the obit focus on the discrediting of Webb by the L.A. Times and fail to mention his Pulitzer until a dozen paragraphs down in the story.

Long before we learn of Webb's Pulitzer, won in 1990 for reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake, Lelyveld and Hymon obediently recite their own papers indictment of Webbs expos on the CIA-drug connection. They quote the 1996 McManus slam on Webb, saying, "...the available evidence, based on an extensive review of court documents and more than 100 interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Managua, fails to support any of [Webb's] allegations."

It's an astounding and nasty little piece of postmortem butchery on Webb (which never mentions that after his series appeared, Webb was voted the 1996 Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists). Absolutely missing from Webb's obit is that it was his series that directly forced both the CIA and the Justice Department to conduct internal investigations into the scope of any links between the Agency and drug dealers.

Worse, the results of those investigations proved that the core of what Webb alleged was, indeed, true and accurate. When CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz presented the findings of his internal investigation to Congress in 1998 (two years after Webb's piece and the ensuing Times vindication of the CIA), he revealed for the first time an eye-popping agreement that the CIA had cemented with the Justice Department: Between 1982 and 1995, the CIA was exempted from informing the DOJ if its non-employee agents, paid or unpaid, were dealing drugs. In short, it was the policy of the U.S. government to turn a blind eye to such connections.

The same report by the CIA inspector general, by the way, admitted what we all knew in any case – that those connections did, in fact, exist.

And here's the low point in this tale: After the CIA inspector general made public the second part of his investigation – the one sparked by Webb – which admitted to some links between the agency and Central American drug dealers, the L.A. Times chose not to publish a single story about the report. (No surprise here. Back in 1989, when a panel led by Senator John Kerry found similar CIA-drug-running links, the Times showed equal disinterest.)

In short, when it came to the Gary Webb series and its allegations, the L.A. Times wound up being more protective of the CIA than the CIA itself.

None of this explains why, in Webb's obit, Lelyveld and Hymon omit the on-the-record admissions by the CIA of its involvement with drug-connected Contras, an admission owed directly to Webb's work. Maybe, you say, the Times reporters are lazy and just didn't look beyond their own paper's archives. And because the Times didn't cover those admissions, Lelyveld and Hymon remain (eight years after the fact) in the dark.

No. I fear the answer is worse than that. One of the Times reporters who wrote the obit, we now learn, called veteran reporter Bob Parry the other day for comment on Webb's death. Back in 1985, Parry and his partner Bob Barger – working for the AP – were the first to break the story of CIA involvement with drug-linked Contras. Says Parry: "The Times reporter who called to interview me ignored my comments about the debt the nation owed Webb and the importance of the CIA's inspector-general findings. Instead of using Webb's death as an opportunity to finally get the story straight, the Times acted as if there never had been an official investigation confirming many of Webb's allegations."

Gary Webb's work deserved to be taken seriously and to be closely scrutinized precisely because of the scope of his allegations. As more-objective critics than the Times have pointed out, Webb overstated some of his conclusions, he too loosely framed some of his theses, and perhaps (perhaps) overestimated the actual amount of drug funding that fueled the Contra war. And for that he deserved to be criticized.

The core of his work, however, still stands. When much of the rest of the media went to sleep, Gary Webb dug and scratched and courageously took on the most powerful and arrogant and unaccountable agencies of the U.S. government. His tenacious reporting forced those same agencies to investigate themselves and to admit publicly – albeit in watered-down terms – what he had alleged.

Webb's reward was to be drummed out of the profession. After his editors cowardly recanted his stories (which they had vetted), he was demoted to a suburban bureau. After a year, Webb quit and wrote up his findings into a book. The book was mostly ignored by the press. Webb took up a job as an investigator for the California Legislature and helped spit-roast one Gray Davis. Last year, Webb lost that job and yearned, unsuccessfully for the most part, to get back into journalism. From a conservative Southern California military family, Webb was driven not by an ideological agenda but rather by a sense of fairness and justice. He was found last Friday in his Northern California home after he shot himself to death.

Recently, Webb was interviewed for a book profiling 18 journalists who found themselves discredited or censored. Let his own words be a more fitting epitaph than the hack-job L.A. Times obituary:

"If we had met five years ago, you wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me... I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests....

"And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job.... The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."

Gary Webb, R.I.P.

White Muslim

How to Become a Muslim

Five days before 9/11, Charles Vincent bought his first Koran. Six weeks later, while smoke was still pouring from the remains of the World Trade Center, he formally converted to Islam in the mosque attached to the Islamic Cultural Center on 96th Street and Third Avenue in New York City. A blond, blue-eyed 29-year-old from Torrance, Calif., he readily admits that he chose an unlikely moment to fall in love with the world's most newsworthy religion. But in the three years since, his devotion to Islam has only deepened. Like a growing number of white Americans and Europeans, he has discovered that Islam is not just the religion of those "other" people.

"Every day I'm more surprised than the day before," he told me one evening in October, breaking his Ramadan fast in a harshly lit fast-food restaurant a few blocks from the 96th Street mosque. "The last religion I wanted to belong to was Islam. The last word that came out of my mouth was Allah. Islam pulled me out of the biggest hole I've ever been in."

Dressed as he is in an Islamic-style tunic and a white kufi, or cap, with an untrimmed ginger beard sprouting from his handsome, classically Californian face, Vincent may look unusual, but he certainly isn't alienated, or for that matter, alone. In the United States, there are estimated to be roughly 80,000 white and Hispanic Muslims, along with a far greater number of African American ones. In France, there are perhaps 50,000, according to a secret government intelligence report leaked to the French newspaper Le Figaro. (A Muslim resident of the racially mixed Belleville district of Paris told me that out of every 100 Muslims one sees there, 30 are former French Catholics.) The report stated that conversion to Islam "has become a phenomenon [in France] that needs to be followed closely." A recent study commissioned by Jonathan ("Yahya") Birt, a Muslim convert and the son of a former director-general of the BBC, put the figure in Britain at a more modest 14,000, and there are similar estimates for Spain and Germany. More people are converting on all sides of the globe – from Australia and New Zealand to Sweden and Denmark. At the moment the number of converts can only be called a trickle, but it is steady and gathering in power.

Becoming a Muslim is surprisingly easy. All you need to do is take shahada – say, La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadur rasoolu Allah ("There is no true God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God") in front of a Muslim witness (or, according to some people, two witnesses) and, bingo, you're a Muslim. That done, you are required to pray five times a day, donate a certain amount of money to charity, fast between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan, and, health and finances permitting, make at least one haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca during your lifetime.

Of course, there's the small matter of why a non-Muslim would first choose to convert to a religion increasingly associated with dictatorial governments, mass terrorism, videotaped beheadings and the oppression of women. One reason might be disillusionment with wall-to-wall entertainment, jaded sexuality, spiritual anomie and all the other ailments of the materialistic West. Another might be protest. A few days after George Bush's re-election, critic James Wolcott joked on his blog that, in tribute to the president's (and the Christian right's) victorious pro-religion agenda, he was going to convert to Islam, not least because "fasting during Ramadan should be wonderfully slimming, enabling me to get into the Carnaby Street paisley shirt that was a bit binding the last time I tried it on." A few days later he announced he was putting his conversion on hold following a long discussion with his editor, Graydon Carter, who had pointed out that another Vanity Fair writer was thinking along the same lines and two Islamic converts on the same perfumed masthead might be a bit much.

In fact, had one of the Vanity Fair scribes been serious about going down to the mosque to offer his services to Allah, no one at the mosque would have blinked an eye. Recently I was present as Heriberto Silva, a Catholic teacher of Spanish literature at the City University of New York, took shahada and became Abdullah Silva, Muslim, during Friday prayers at the 96th Street mosque. A frail 60-year-old bundled into an old parka, a thick volume titled "A History of the Arabs" tucked under his arm, he told me afterward that his conversion was due to three factors: a long-standing fascination with the Islamic world; the encouragement of his Muslim friends; and a desire to register a personal objection to the Iraq War.

"We see a president who is preaching about freedom and democracy, and it is not true! It is all lies!" he told me. "And then I am looking for something that is real truth, and I found in Islam that truth."

Vincent's conversion appears to have been a more muddled, emotional affair, but also a more dramatic one, since it took place in New York against the backdrop of 9/11. Like a lot of people who convert to Islam or any other religion, he did so after a particularly difficult period in his life in which he not only lost his "way" but also his job and his apartment, and, after a fight outside a nightclub, came close to losing an eye as well. He also had a good Moroccan friend – "the Mysterious Moroccan," as I've come to think of him, since he wouldn't speak to me – who strongly encouraged him to convert, and may even have insisted that he do so as a price of friendship.

Muslims are just as intrigued by Vincent's transformation as anyone else. "I was making prayer in this mosque during Ramadan in November 2001," he told me, "and I could feel the brother next to me stare. After the prayers, the first thing out of his mouth was, 'How did you become a Muslim?' That was very strange to me. I didn't know how to answer him. I said, 'What do you mean, how did I become a Muslim?' And he said, 'How did you become a Muslim? You have to have a story of how you became a Muslim.' And I realized he was right. There was a process I went through. Muslims know that it's not by chance that you come into this religion. I know that now too."

From Siouxsie to Allah

Vincent was born into a middle-class Catholic family in Inglewood and grew up in Torrance. He was the youngest of eight children – all boys. After "dabbling" in college, he took a job as a bellman at the Torrance Marriott, and worked his way up to the position of night-shift auditor, which he kept for five years. He enjoyed the responsibility, and the feeling of being awake in a hotel in which everyone else was asleep. But he often asked himself what he was doing with his life, and the answer came: "Didn't do anything today, didn't do anything today, didn't do anything today ..."

A sociable loner, he would end his shift at 7 in the morning, eat in a Taco Bell on Hawthorne Boulevard in Lawndale, and sleep until 3:00 in the afternoon. In his free time he worked out, went swimming or surfing, and hiked in the Palos Verdes. He had amibitions to be a stage actor and took part in a local production of Red River, but his passion was for music. His girlfriend was obsessed with the band Danzig (a band member pulled a gun on them when they broke into the grounds of his Hollywood house), and he, in turn, was obsessed with the spiky, aging lead singer of Siouxsie and the Banshees. He waited for Siouxsie outside her hotel when she played in L.A., asked her to autograph T-shirts and pose for photographs, and would stand in the front at her concerts so he could grab her leg onstage (she let him). One night, hanging around in the lobby of her hotel, he asked if she would pose for yet another photograph, and Siouxsie decided she'd had enough. "You have one minute," she answered in an icy voice. That was the last time he saw her.

When he thought about moving to New York, his brother Mike encouraged him. "Dude," he said, "you know what? You've already worked for Marriott for five years in this nowhere city, and now they're trying to make you work even longer hours. Just go." In 1999, Vincent went. Through Marriott, he arranged to take a job at the front desk of the Marriott in Times Square, while he himself lived in a hotel on James Street in the West Village. It was an old, musty, creaky place down by the waterfront whose main claim to fame was that the survivors from the Titanic had been put up there in 1912. In the room next to Vincent's was a transvestite. As New York beginnings go, it was classic.

But within a couple of years, Vincent was in trouble. He quit the Marriott and became involved in an ill-fated pet-care business venture, which was when he met the Moroccan, whom he hired off the street. It was a chaotic time, and they soon became best friends. They spent a lot of time partying, blew all their money, and by the summer of 2001 they were both out of work and had lost the apartment they'd moved into in New Jersey. For a few weeks, they were virtually homeless.

Things got even worse after Vincent and the Moroccan got into a fight with some guys outside a nightclub in Greenwich Village. Over the phone, Vincent's brother Mike told me he thought the brawl may have broken out because the Moroccan was harassing some girls coming out of the club. Vincent says the Moroccan had nothing to do with it; in fact, by this time the Moroccan was already rediscovering his Islamic faith and had begun to distance himself from Vincent, who would see him praying and feel bewildered.

Vincent's version of the story is that he and a friend from Las Vegas, Joey, saw a girl vomiting on the sidewalk outside the club. She was tiny, and she kept vomiting and vomiting, and they couldn't believe how much was coming out of her. Joey had a camera, and they decided to take a picture. When the flash went off, the girl's boyfriend looked up and said, "You think that's funny?" "Yeah, it's funny," Vincent replied. They got into a shouting match, and suddenly the boyfriend was standing in front of him, ready to fight.

It was late on a Saturday night in the Village, and hundreds of people were milling about in the street. Soon they were baying for blood. Several of the girl's other male friends joined in, and Vincent remembers being dragged across the street and pushed down by three men, when someone hit him in the eye. Joey had disappeared, but the Moroccan, who was down the block, heard the shouts and came running over. When he saw what was happening, he tried to defend his friend, taking on several men by himself. Eventually the police arrived, took one look at Vincent's face and called an ambulance: A blood sac had formed in his eye and was starting to protrude from it.

It was after being discharged from the hospital, wearing a big bandage on his eye, that Vincent saw a Muslim selling copies of the Koran on the street in Queens. Recalling some of the things the Moroccan had been telling him about it, he bought one, though he didn't read it straight away. A couple of days later he began to lose vision in his eye. It had become infected, and in order to prevent the infection from endangering the vision in his other eye, the doctors told him they might have to take it out.

Shortly before 9/11, Vincent ended up spending two nights at St. Vincent's Hospital on the west side of Manhattan, with both of his eyes bandaged, wondering if he was about to go blind. "All I could hear was the beeping of the machinery around me and the people and the nurses talking, and I guess in the darkness I had time to think about myself and my situation," he told me, recalling his frame of mind at the time.

"Where did I go wrong? I came from a good family in California – what led me to this? You know, bringing me all the way to New York to be sitting in a hospital. Here I am, I'm going to lose my eyeball. How did this happen? Why would this happen to me? And while I was covered, while I had the bandages on, that's when I prayed for the first time in my life. I asked God to not let this happen to me. And so I did a heartfelt prayer to God."

Vincent's prayers appear to have been answered. The following morning the doctors took the bandages off his eyes, and the vision in his bad eye had returned. He was then rushed into the operating room for some laser surgery. By 9/11 he was out of the hospital, though still wearing a patch on his eye, and staying in a house in Queens belonging to his Moroccan friend's cousin. The Moroccan's mother had come to visit from Casablanca, and so when the planes struck the towers, Vincent – unlike most Americans – experienced the day from the perspective of someone living in the bosom of an Arab family.

"All we had to do was look out our door to see the World Trade Center, all the smoke," Vincent said. "I remember being at a grocery store a block from our house, calming [the Moroccan] down. And he gave me the scenarios of how Islam was going to be the victim of this all. And again, not knowing anything about it, I said, 'OK, calm down, calm down, I know what you're saying ...'"

"Because he's Arab he knew a lot of Arabs, and the Arabs he knew I knew. They all knew exactly what had happened and the way it was going. They were more shocked than anybody, and they didn't know how to take me now. So the focus was on me. 'What do you think happened? What do you think about this? What do you think is going to happen?' I said, 'Listen, I don't know any more than you about this, so don't ... ' I couldn't answer any kind of question like that."

In the days after the attack, while New York's traumatized citizens stared at their television sets, watching endless replays of the planes slicing through the World Trade Center, Vincent read the Koran, becoming more and more enraptured by it as he went on.

"In the second chapter it says, 'In this book you'll find no doubt,'" he told me. "Meaning no contradictions. There's nothing that's going to say one thing here and another thing there. But as you read, you understand this was not written by a man. There's a clear, clear distinction between this book and others. What was also shocking was that it clarified the other book – the Bible. It's spoken of in the Koran, and spoken of highly in the Koran. So I was absolutely baffled that this book I had no idea existed was explaining my book for me.

"It was a very strange time to decide to come into a religion like this," he concluded, "but for me it was meant to be. It was meant for me to see this, and it was my time to see it."

Going Immigrant

I first met Vincent outside a small Bangladeshi mosque on First Avenue and 11th Street in New York's East Village. It was a Saturday night in October, and he was standing in front of the entrance talking to another Muslim, Raul ("Omar") Pacheco, a 43-year-old Spaniard who converted in his 20s and later spent five years on a scholarship in Saudi Arabia. Vincent wore the Islamic dress of many of the Bangladeshis who go to the same mosque, and the light above the doorway illuminated his pale skin and blond beard. The lines around his eyes seemed unusually pronounced for a man not yet 30. His face looked drawn, but he smiled broadly, displaying a glistening row of white, orthodontically perfect Southern California teeth. He said he drove a cab – like so many other Muslims. Laughing, he told me that he had converted just before 9/11 – "Great timing, right?" – though the next time I saw him he had subtly amended his story. I asked for his phone number, but he seemed reluctant to give it to me. His line was being tapped by the FBI, he said, like those of most Muslims. Instead, he gave me his e-mail address.

My impression that night was that Vincent took Islam very, very seriously, almost to the point of parody. That he drove a cab seemed a bit much – it was as if he were trying to replicate a certain kind of Muslim lifestyle in America down to the last detail, to become just another Yemeni or Pakistani driving busy Westerners around. It was the reverse of the old expat, colonial phenomenon of "going native." Vincent had "gone immigrant"; he'd expatriated himself inside his own country. There was something moving about his sincerity. Was he learning Arabic? Did he plan to go to Mecca? Was he still in touch with his old friends from L.A. and elsewhere? What did his parents think? Had the FBI talked to him? There wasn't time to ask. Explaining that he was working the night shift in his cab, he excused himself and disappeared into the darkness.

Pacheco, it turned out, teaches Arabic at the mosque on 96th Street, and he told me that for a while Vincent had been one of his pupils. (I later sat in on a class, which was made up of a white professor from Hofstra University who had converted to Islam and an African American couple, also converts, and their three boys, all of whom were laboriously copying down sentences from the blackboard in Arabic script.) Unlike Vincent, Pacheco was dressed in ordinary street clothes. Looking at him, no one would guess he was a Muslim. He looked like an ordinary Spaniard of the Almodovar generation, and had a Texan wife – also a Muslim. ("My wife is a cowboy!" he joked.) His own preference, he told me, was for the Sufi branch of Islam, which he believes is less doctrinaire, more poetic in its essence than the dominant brand.

And what did he think of Vincent? "I was like that once," he responded, adding that he also had worn the white kufi and Arab dress. But now he no longer felt the need to advertise his Muslim status. "Ninety percent of the Europeans who have embraced Islam went through a certain kind of crisis, of not being completely satisfied," he told me. "I was very indecisive and unfocused when I was young, and Islam brought me steadfastness, energy. It makes sense, Islam. There are many crazy people, of course."

Ten days after that first encounter, I arranged to meet Vincent outside the same mosque at around 1:30 on a Thursday afternoon. Even allowing for the fact that it was Ramadan, the number of people filing in and out would have astonished a priest, who would have been overjoyed to have that many congregants in a week. There were plenty of churches, even cathedrals, in the neighborhood, but most of them were locked. Whereas there were about 100 people in the mosque, as many as it could fit, rows and rows of barefoot men listening to a pre-recorded voice intone prayers in Arabic.

At 1:45, Vincent pulled up in his cab and apologized for being late – he'd had to take someone to the airport. He was wearing dark, almost-wraparound glasses that made him look like a postmodern American ayatollah, a hip blind sheik. He was sniffling because of a cold and limping because of a back problem. On his wrist he wore a chunky Swatch wristwatch – a gift from the Moroccan. I asked if I could take his photograph, but he said he would prefer it if I didn't. (He later allowed photographs to be taken.) It's against the true Muslim's belief, he told me, as is shaking hands with a woman other than one's wife. Movies are now forbidden as well, along with music, because Muhammad said it was "of the devil." In his cab, Vincent either listens to the news or Arabic-language tapes. The last time he was in Torrance, he gathered up his entire music collection – CDs, records, rare LPs he'd hunted down on Melrose Avenue, videos of concerts, rock star posters, jars of ticket stubs from Lollapalooza and concerts by Siouxsie, Danzig, Ministry, Sisters of Mercy, Christian Death – and dumped the whole lot into an industrial-size garbage can in his mother's back garden. And felt really good about it too. It was as if he'd purged himself of a lifetime of Western culture.

"Why shouldn't you listen to music?" I asked.

"Because it takes up valuable space in my mind, space I need for the entire Koran rather than Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' or something nonsensical like that. These things are not going to benefit me in the hereafter, they will only be held against me."

Mateen Siddiqui, vice president of the Michigan-based Islamic Supreme Council of America (ISCA), a Sufi Muslim organization that has many white adherents and keeps tabs on fundamentalist Islam in America, calls that "a very hardcore, Taliban-style belief. I wouldn't say it's militant, but it's very extreme. The problem is it can often lead to a militant attitude in the future." According to the ISCA, the majority of mosques in the United States have been taken over by radicals who preach the dour, restrictive version of Wahhabi Islam financed and championed by Saudi Arabia.

"If you go to an ordinary Islamic country," Siddiqui told me, "they don't act like that. Most Muslims watch TV, take pictures, listen to music ... The same is true of a lot of the people who go to the mosques in America. The people who go to them are normal Muslims, but the people who run them are very strict. If a new Muslim comes, they will grab him and indoctrinate him."

Could something like this have happened to Vincent? In his study of Wahhabism, "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud From Tradition to Terror," Stephen Schwartz discusses another Californian convert, the notorious "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, who was captured in Afghanistan waging jihad against his country. "The speed with which [Lindh] succumbed to Wahhabi conditioning is seen in his peremptory rejection of music almost as soon as he began praying and studying – not just hip hop music, with its negative and arguably destructive character, but all music," writes Schwartz, who thought that Lindh's conversion was partly a product of his own superficial culture and existence. "Wahhabism filled the emptiness in Lindh exactly as 'militia' paranoia filled the void in homegrown American terrorist Timothy McVeigh," he argues.

Vincent denies that he has been manipulated by anyone in the mosques he goes to, or by his Arab acquaintances. On the contrary, he says that he and his Moroccan friend discovered – rediscovered in the latter's case – Islam and the Koran together. Nor does he think much of Sufism. "Be careful of that stuff," he told me in his kindly way when the topic came up during one of our first conversations, a frown furrowing his brow. "I'll just give you a little example of what I mean by that. The Prophet Muhammad, salla 'alayhi wa sallam [peace and blessings be upon him], anything that came out of his mouth was recorded, just like you're recording now. And he said this religion will break up into 73 sects, and all of them are going into the hellfire except for the one on the true path of true religion. So when it comes to Sufism, it's not anything I would consider to be ... For me, I can't consider that being any part of an article about Islam."

"So you consider yourself a Sunni Muslim?"

"I would say I was a Muslim following the one true path."

Islam Is a Way of Life

While Vincent worshiped inside the mosque, facing a wall decorated with a map of the Muslim world and five clocks displaying the different prayer times, a small, bearded man in traditional Islamic costume approached me on the sidewalk. His brown eyes were wide open, unblinking, consciously mesmeric, and a big smile lit up his face. Did I have any questions? Was there anything I wanted to know about Islam? He said his name was Hesham el-Ashry, that he was an Egyptian from Cairo, and he invited me to sit down with him on the mosque's carpeted floor to talk.

Nearby people were praying, sitting around, chatting quietly, even – in the case of one African American – stretched out asleep. There was a small curtained area for women to pray in, but I didn't see any women. Someone later explained that this was because women are not required to go to the mosque as often as men, and since the majority of Muslim immigrants are male, there are fewer women anyway. Nonetheless, the overall impression one receives in the mosques is that women are treated, if not as second-class citizens exactly, then almost as an afterthought. In fact, watching the men go in and out of this one little mosque – a thousand or so per day – you could easily mistake it for a kind of social club for men.

"Thanks be to Allah, that he made me Muslim," el-Ashry began, warming up with a brief homily on the "five pillars" of Islam. His English was good, if eccentric, and he had a honey-smooth voice. "We are not Muslims because we are wise, we are not Muslims because we are clever, we are not Muslims because we are so smart. Even when we worship, when we come to pray, when we fast, it is a blessing from Allah. He pleases us by making us Muslims, and by making us worship him."

"Why did you come to the United States?" I asked.

El-Ashry smiled. "The reason is coming to work, to stay here, to have a better life – like everybody. But then afterward I learned that my traveling from my home country to any other place should be, first of all, to make do'wa – to tell people about what is Islam, the truth of Islam, the reality of Islam. So I changed my intentions, and I made my main purpose [in] America to talk about Islam, and my second purpose, to work and make a living.

El-Ashry estimates that he has converted about 20 white Americans to Islam, though he believes that you don't "convert" to Islam, you "revert" to it, since we are all Muslim at birth – to become Muslim is simply to return to one's natural state. (As Vincent said to me, even dogs and cats are Muslim, since they behave exactly as Allah decrees.) The Americans he converted, said el-Ashry, had lots of questions about Islam, from why Muslims "kiss the ground" five times a day to why they encircle a black box in the desert. "So when I explained the truth and the reality about everything, then they found out things that completely changed their idea about Islam. They found out the truth about Islam, and about 20 of them asked, 'Can we be Muslims?' And I said, 'Well, you have to be Muslims.'"

I asked how many Americans he thought would convert to Islam in the future.

"Only Allah knows that. I wish all would be Muslims."

"How did you meet these Americans?"

"You see the way I met you?" el-Ashry replied. "People be looking at [me] with a critical eye, sometimes. Sometimes they stop me in the street, talking. Sometimes my neighbors. Sometimes the people I'm working with. Wherever I have a connection with people. And sometimes people come to the mosque asking questions, and I talk to them."

I asked el-Ashry about the way Muslims pray, the different positions they adopt – sitting, standing up, bending down with hands on knees, head down on the floor.

"We pray, or we are supposed to pray, in the same way the Prophet Muhammad prayed," he explained. "He said, 'Pray in the same way you see me pray.' So that's why we have to do every single movement according to what he used to do. He taught us where to look, how to stand, where to put your hands, how to open your legs or close your legs. Every single thing he taught us how to do. And this is not only in the prayers, because what people doesn't know about Islam is [that] it's not a religion."

"What is it then?"

"Islam is a way of life. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, taught us everything up to how to go to the bathroom. Even when you go to the bathroom, how to go in, how to go out, how to sit, how to wash, how to take a shower. [He taught us] how to eat, how to start your food, how to treat your wife, how to treat your children, how to wake up in the morning, how to put your slippers on, how to put clothes on, how to take clothes off, what to eat, what not to eat ... And everything had a purpose."

To read part 2 of White Muslim click here

Losing Our Shirts

Look for the union label when you are buying that coat, dress or blouse. Remember somewhere our union's sewing, our wages going to feed the kids, and run the house. We work hard, but who's complaining? – Garment Union song

At midnight New Year's Eve, the world will come to an end for many apparel manufacturers and their workers, as the World Trade Organization terminates the 1974 Multifiber Arrangement's quotas that have stabilized the global clothing industry for 30 years. The end of these quotas for the WTO's 148 member nations is expected to trigger a flood of cheap, well-made Chinese textiles and clothing into factories and department stores from Manila to Mission Viejo. It's a flood that could drown some developing countries, destroying already fragile industries while continuing the steady deindustrialization of America's own economy. The effects threaten to reach far beyond the loss of indigenous manufacturing jobs, seriously damaging economies in poor countries and increasing emigration toward wealthier ones. It is the rag trade's Y2K, but this time the sky really is falling.

The quota expirations for 98 categories of textiles and apparel mark the final stage of a 10-year phase-out of restrictions on the annual metric tonnage countries could export to North America and Western Europe. Originally designed to protect these continents' local clothing industries, the export ceilings created new garment economies in places like Haiti, Mexico and Kenya. When, say, Wal-Mart exhausted its quota of pajamas that it had consigned from one country, it would turn to another for more inventory, thus spreading industrialization throughout Eastern Europe and the Third World.



In 2002, the last time specific quotas were abolished, Haiti lost half its U.S. market to China, which packs a triple threat of low wages, modern efficiency and quality merchandise. Since quotas on brassiere exports were phased out in 2002, for example, Haiti's U.S. exports have plunged more than 94 percent, while China's initially increased 232 percent; likewise, as China's unfettered exports of infantwear jumped 826 percent over the same period, Bangladesh's shrank 18 percent. These statistics, analysts warn, only hint at what lies ahead four weeks from now, when 701 quotas in the U.S. alone will disappear. In addition to the presumed tidal wave of Chinese products, post-January 1 predictions include:

More offshoring of American apparel companies, since companies that had previously been "shackled" to the U.S. by quotas will have no reason not to set up plants in Third World countries.

Sub-Saharan African countries, which had benefited from no-tariff agreements with the U.S., will lose trade because the savings they passed on to American retailers from not paying import duties will not match the savings offered by other countries with lower overhead and, now, no quotas. (Tariffs will not be affected January 1.)

By 2010, according to a federal task force on textiles and apparel, only one-quarter to one-third of the current 50 to 60 exporting countries will be doing business with the U.S.

"When [apparel quotas] came off in 2002, China's share in those 29 categories went from 9 percent then to over 70 percent today," says Mark Levinson, chief economist for the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees (UNITE). "When quotas expire in January we expect the Chinese market share in the U.S. to increase from just under 20 to about 70 percent. That's a huge increase in millions of workers in developing countries [who] will lose their jobs – it's the largest industrial shift in the last century. Roughly tens of billions of dollars will be shifting to China. This is a monumental issue globally."



Locally, of course, the big question is how January 1 will affect Los Angeles, California's largest garment-producing center. The L.A. County Economic Development Corporation claims L.A.'s apparel-manufacturing sector generates $24.3 billion annually, making it the city's single largest industry. Still, it's an industry in decline. The number of Los Angeles' cut-and-sew garment workers peaked in 1996 at 97,500, according to the state's Employment Development Department; there are currently about 62,600 workers employed, the vast majority Latino or Asian women immigrants.

For now the consensus seems to be that there is no consensus. According to Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association, 2005's first quarter will simply reflect the last months of 2004 – although she believes one immediate effect will be even more gridlock at the L.A. and Long Beach harbors, which are now operating at a crawl as Christmas goods from Asia stream into port.

"You've got a lot of nervousness in the industry," she says of the harbors possibly becoming worse chokepoints. "Retailers are afraid they won't have inventory on the shelf. It will all shake out about the end of April, beginning of May."

One thing Metchek is not counting on is price drops.

"Wal-Mart can't get any cheaper," she says, claiming the profit margin on clothing is already razor thin. "Apparel is 10 percent cheaper than it was 10 years ago. There's only so much [retailers] can buy. If any savings are to be had, they will be kept by the stores. The price of labor is not the biggest factor for stores – it's the cost of transportation."

Kent Smith, executive director of downtown L.A.'s Fashion District Business Improvement District, disagrees.

"The apparel industry is pretty price competitive," Smith tells the Weekly. "It'll be hard to resist lowering prices. And as the quotas come off we'll be seeing more wholesalers here, which will drive down prices."

Smith sees both silver linings and safety for the Los Angeles market.

"We have leather jackets made in our districts – China's lack of quotas will have no effect on us because the craftsmen are already located here. But places like Vernon and northern Orange County will be negatively impacted."

Lonnie Kane, the president of Karen Kane Inc., has his plant, which employs about 200 workers, in Vernon, although he sources about a third of his product with Chinese factories. Kane and his wife, Karen, began their company working out of their Studio City garage 25 years ago and have built it into a respected line specializing in high-end clothing. Like Smith, Kane believes higher-priced American apparel makers, especially in Los Angeles, will survive January 1 without problems.

"The budget end of apparel manufacturing is already gone," he tells the Weekly. "January 1 definitely could be the stake in the heart of moderate manufacturing, of the smaller manufacturer who's not sophisticated enough to import. And the [textile] guys who make basic fabrics look to be devastated if every khaki and denim product comes out of China."

According to Kane, however, Los Angeles' rag trade cannot expect any help from city government.

"L.A. is unfriendly to the apparel industry," he says. "It likes the prestige of having a creative industry like Hollywood, but doesn't want 'dirty businesses' like sewing factories. Yet cities tend to lose sight of the fact that we need to have employment at every level and sewing factories provide entry jobs to unskilled and immigrant workers."

Karin Mak, of Sweatshop Watch, a Los Angeles-based garment-worker advocacy group, is equally pessimistic: "The L.A. economy will be devastated as much as the garment industry, because workers contribute to the local economy. Half the industry will stay, and half of it will move – especially if workers try to unionize."



There are, of course, people for whom January 1 is more than a theoretical headache.

"I would sell fruit in the street," says Areceli Ruiz, when asked what she will do if the direst predictions come true. "The worst thing that could happen is that I would be left without a garment job. I've cleaned houses, but it's harder to find those jobs because they want references. I've never asked for help from the government even though everyone says we immigrants only want welfare. I pay taxes but get nothing back because I have no Social Security number."

I speak to Areceli and her sister, Alejandra Ventura, through a translator in the Sweatshop Watch offices, a block away from downtown's bustling Santee Alley retail center – a sprawling market selling low-price clothing, knockoffs and bootleg DVDs. Santee will probably remain untouched by January 1's quota changes – except that many locally produced garments will be replaced by cheaper imports. The two sisters are Guatemalan immigrants who, along with thousands of others like them, helped build both Santee Alley and the upscale California Mart a few blocks west.

Alejandra, who arrived here in 1986, remembers her early years when she worked side by side with former doctors, nurses and professors – immigrants whose first North American jobs were on sweatshop floors. She knows too well the constant yelling and threats from supervisors, the filthy bathrooms and long hours.

"The bosses think we're slaves," she says, "that we don't feel pain or get hurt." Alejandra says her best years came at the end of the 1980s, when she pulled down between $400 and $500 a week, working 10- to 12-hour days. But after the North American Free Trade Agreement, she says, wages in L.A. went down. Today, she only works sporadically, partly because she insists on receiving a taxable paycheck from her employers, as opposed to the lump of cash most prefer to pay. Without a paycheck record, she is ineligible for any kind of government medical care or Social Security benefits.

Areceli and Alejandra live within a one- or two-bus commute from their homes in the MacArthur Park area. Alejandra has five children, two of whom are adults working back in Guatemala, while her sister has one 10-year-old.

Areceli says that when the post-9/11 economy slumped, conditions got worse downtown. Today she makes $243 per week working 10 to 12 hours a day sewing single-needle work on blouses, pants and jackets, plus two and a half on Saturday; she receives one 15-minute break during her workday.

I ask Alejandra what she thinks will happen when the quotas are removed.

"I believe it's already starting," she says, "because what they pay is less than before. The bosses look for people who won't speak up, who need to send money back home."



The economic dislocation brought on by the end of textile and garment quotas is only the latest iceberg to appear on the high seas of free trade. Since the Clinton administration inaugurated NAFTA, more than a million and a half American jobs have been offshored as multinational buccaneers move plants and assembly lines to countries whose workers are paid poverty wages. But far from having their living standards raised, workers in the developing world have had what few job safeguards they enjoyed superceded by WTO rules and find themselves competing with workers of even poorer nations.

It reminds one of the close of Bertolt Brecht's Weimar satire, The Threepenny Opera, in which the privileged and connected characters celebrate their good fortune while London's beggars shamble off into the shadows:



For some are in darkness

And others are in light.

And you see the ones in brightness

Those in darkness drop from sight.



Capitalism, as Marx famously said, "has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – free trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation." The bittersweet irony is that China, the world's last Marxist power, will be the cause of so much of the coming misery. Still, as Sweatshop Watch claimed in a "working paper" published last year, it is the multinationals, in their never-ending search for lower labor costs, that have actually taken jobs out of the United States, not China.

"Who benefits from the expiration besides China?" Mark Levinson asks. "Wal-Mart, the Gap – most apparel companies are the big multinational retailers. They want to source product anywhere they can."

Levinson's organization is the descendant of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. It merged last summer with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) to form UNITE HERE. UNITE has plenty to lose New Year's Day. Since 1990 the number of American garment and textile workers has declined more than 50 percent; today about half a million workers are employed in what remains of America's once robust apparel and textile manufacturing industries. Worse, UNITE's partner, HERE, is engaged in a bitter and protracted contract dispute with hotels in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The combined unions claim a membership of 840,000, but more than 400,000 of these are retirees.

"There's absolutely no question that the end of quotas will result in job loss in the U.S. textile and apparel industry," Levinson says. "We're trying to protect the numbers we have right now and to expand, but we're not going to organize in a factory that's going to be shut down."

Levinson says his union is now concentrating on organizing America's largest domestic apparel manufacturers – those contracted by the Defense Department.

"Our argument is 'Look, you don't want sweatshops making garments for our soldiers.'�"

UNITE HERE has joined the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition (AMTAC), an industry-labor lobby that is petitioning the Commerce Department through an interagency group called the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA), to stall the quota terminations or to adopt "safeguard" restrictions on imports.

As of this writing, CITA, which can thwart the removal of quotas if it believes they will cause a serious disruption to America's clothing and textile industry, has agreed to review eight of the petitions and is considering the remaining three. This is an unprecedented action because such petitions are normally only filed after evidence of economic disruption can be proved, not in anticipation of it. Needless to say, the Chinese, who joined the WTO in 2001, are not happy. Although repeated queries by the Weekly to Chinese trade agencies, as well as to the Chinese embassy and to China's Los Angeles consulate, went unanswered, Beijing's China Daily recently made clear its displeasure by quoting a Beijing textile manager as saying "it is 'ridiculous' that the U.S. government would decide the fate of Chinese pant producers by pure speculation."

For its part, AMTAC accuses the Chinese of using currency manipulation and state subsidies to create unfair trade conditions. It's worth noting that China's command economy, which assigns individual factories their own, internal quotas (apart from the WTO's), has created a Byzantine system in which factories can "sell" surplus quotas to other factories. For example, if a Los Angeles apparel maker called Teen Seen contracts for 10,000 tank tops from People's Tank Top Factory No. 1, and the Chinese plant is only permitted to make 9,000 units, it will have to buy 1,000 quota units from People's Tank Top Factory No. 2. But the cost for the subsequent 1,000 units, which can easily account for 10 percent of the overall tank top cost, is passed on to Teen Seen in Los Angeles. In some cases, the selling of quotas has become bigger business than manufacturing itself and, in the Wild, Wild East of today, creative entrepreneurs have set up dummy factories to make money by selling the quota units they've been granted to real factories.



Until the first signs of economic change appear after New Year's, observers will content themselves with predicting the most likely winners of a world without quotas – China, India and Vietnam, the last of which is poised to join the WTO. And there are the losers, a long list that includes Honduras, Bangladesh, Mauritius and the Philippines – all the former equatorial colonies whose teeming millions live beneath tin roofs, forever at the mercy of foreigners.

It's unclear what direction CITA is leaning toward regarding the pleas now before it, although a Chinese textile industry spokesman has noted that CITA's decision to review AMTAC's petitions was made before the presidential elections and seemed to be more of a political gesture by the Bush administration than a genuine signal of concern. (A spokeswoman for the Commerce Department declined to answer questions directly for this article, preferring instead to give only background information via e-mail.)

He may be right, given the White House's reluctance even to go through the motions of jawboning with foreign trade partners. Still, maybe there will be a period of adjustment long enough for the world's apparel and textile industries – and American garment workers – to prepare for the worse. Who knows? Perhaps there is an apparel glut – if not in the stores, then in Los Angeles' harbors – and China will not be receiving a tremendous number of orders immediately after January 1. Or perhaps China, which is currently racked by severe power outages because of its rapidly growing industrial sector, simply won't be able to keep up with increased orders in the near future.

For now, local apparel manufacturers appear mildly optimistic – or fatalistic, depending on one's interpretation.

"Nothing's the end of the world," says Lonnie Kane. "We saw this with the shoe business – 98 percent of which is now imported. Apparel and textiles have slowly moved offshore. It's all about price. We don't have a place for low-wage industries. But I don't want local manufacturers to go away because I enjoy the flexibility and don't want to depend solely on imports."

And what happens to the people who formerly worked in those industries – will they all be forced to sell fruit on the street and clean houses?

"When your economy is undergoing massive change," says the L.A. Fashion District's Kent Smith, "people are unfortunately going to lose jobs. We're just not masters of our economy anymore."

2000 Still Rings in Florida

This state has long been the new California. Once upon a time, it was our sunny coast that was known as the source of America's oddities, but that distinction has since decamped, along with the bulk of the country's crazies, for Florida. If something strange happens, Florida's the likely location. Elian, Shark Summer, Mohammed Atta's suburban suicide preparation, the Raelian cult's announcement (never proved) that they'd birthed a human clone named Eve – today's theater of the bizarre tends to take the stage in the Sunshine State. There's even a family down there that decided to be the first nuclear unit subdurally chipped with radio-frequency GPS transmitters. The 2000 election, then, was no surprise: When Florida played host to the country's first constitutional crisis to leave the country without a president-elect, the fiasco just added a crowning feather in the state's wildly plumed cap.

And it may be adding another one soon. Eerily, the 2004 election is shaping up as a potential repeat of 2000. With the wounds of the recount fresh in many minds, and the country even more polarized by Bush's aggressively partisan presidency, both parties have mounted massive efforts to capture Florida. The Republicans want to keep the state red, maybe even deepen the shade with an actual margin. Democrats are eager for payback. Polls shows a tight race nationally, and an even tighter one in Florida – dead even, in fact, at 46 percent in the most recent St. Petersburg Times survey.

That divide hides the deeper complexity of Florida politics. Unlike some of the heartland swing states, Florida is a diverse patchwork of demographics, each with its own pet voting issues. Older Cuban immigrants still haven't forgiven Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs, while their younger relatives and offspring are steadily moderating. The 150-mile Atlantic coast megalopolis stretching northward from Miami is an archipelago of independent suburbanites and Jewish retirees, traditional Democrats emotionally responsive to terror as an issue because of Israel. On the Gulf side are retirees from the Midwest, making Naples solid Bush country. The far north is south, culturally, with the panhandle being more like Mississippi than Miami. And the center is, well, the center, with a rough split between Bush and Gore in 2000.

In this environment, the key to Florida's electoral outcome will be turnout – mobilization for Kerry, and suppression for Bush. Democrats have poured resources into the peninsula, lured by those surprisingly competitive polling figures and a party of swollen ranks and renewed vigor that is, in the words of one local canvasser, "ready to roll." Republicans are also on the move, but not only to get voters to the polls; their main focus, rather, has been to head off the Democratic base at the pass. They've fought tooth and nail against the Democrats' surge of new registrations. Glenda Hood, Florida's current secretary of state and Jeb Bush's appointed successor to Katherine Harris, played along, helping to make it as hard as possible for the rising tide of new voters to cast their ballot.

What cannot be swayed can perhaps be stolen. The RNC, as we have seen in Oregon and Nevada, doesn't mind hiring subcontractors who throw away voter registrations filled out by Democrats. In Florida, it has tried to invoke various regulations – some quite arcane, like the requirement in Broward county for the form to be on 80-pound paper – to have thousands of registrations officially discarded. For Democrats who do make the rolls, there awaits a host of tactics to suppress turnout on Election Day. And that's before one even considers the specter of the new touch-screen voting machines installed since the last election. With none of these machines generating a paper record, and widespread concern about the security of the votes as computer scientists continually show the ease of putting an electronic thumb on the scales, the next hurricane to hit Florida could be called Diebold, or Sequoia, or Electronic Systems and Software. They're gonna steal Florida again! is the fretful refrain from Democrats. "They may try," said Marty Markowitz, an organizer with America Coming Together, adding with great oomph, "But we're going to win anyway."

Larry Davis is with the Kerry-Edwards legal team preparing for the Republican offensive. "They do have a lot of tricks up their sleeve," worried Davis, who's heading up the 600-attorney contingent for Broward County – the largest repository of Democratic voters in the state and the epicenter of the recount. We were at Le Tub, a rustic local eatery in Hollywood, Florida, that sits on the intercoastal waterway. It was moist out, and at 10 p.m. still near 80 degrees. The place, made of logs and lit by lanterns, looks like Tom Sawyer's Island. While we ate, a huge pleasure boat with a dining room, dance hall and living palm trees planted on the roof motored slowly past.

Davis, who was caught up in the 36-day-long tempest of the recount, laid out the prongs of this year's Republican suppression strategy. "First was the felon list," he said, referring to the list of 47,000 people to be disqualified for voter registration that was compiled by Secretary of State Hood's office. Kept secret at first, the list was made public by a court order, and was quickly discovered to be rife with errors. Moreover, almost none of the names were Latino, who trend more Republican in Florida, while half the list was African-American. This helped make it lopsidedly Democratic by a 3-to-1 margin. "Luckily, that was caught early. Now there's the provisional ballots."

A new Florida law allows for voters to receive provisional ballots if they arrive at a polling place and there's no record of their registration. Those ballots are held, and election officials later verify the voters' eligibility. This right, which was guaranteed by the Federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, was meant to remedy some of the problems of the 2000 election, when many properly registered voters, particularly in minority areas, were turned away because they didn't appear on the rolls.

"But Florida," Davis explained, "unlike many other states, throws out provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct." It's a somewhat arbitrary regulation. Precincts move, as do people, especially in poor and minority areas, and if the voter turns out to be registered, there's no real reason to invalidate the ballot.

"But it's not just these big legal problems," said Greg Sanders, a volunteer for the Kerry-Edwards office in Broward. We were shielding ourselves from a sudden rain beneath a royal palm outside the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center where Hillary Clinton had just rallied the faithful to "go vote early, and we'll make sure it's counted." A few feet away, on a Saturday afternoon, a line of people waited to cast their ballots at early-voting stations. "There are all kinds of little tactics here and there," Sanders said, "and they're carefully planned."

"Some are supposedly 'mistakes' like the felon list," added his partner Don Martin, a full-time staffer for the campaign, "but when you add it up you can see the pattern of massive voter suppression." Martin mentioned the incident in Orlando, where the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, teamed up with state troopers, stormed the houses of elderly African-Americans who were collecting absentee ballots in their community. There's also the voter-registration forms, which some supervisors of elections were throwing out for missing a check in the citizenship box, despite the fact that the form's required signature also attests to the registrant's citizenship. "And," he added, trying to fit a Kerry sign the size of a sheet of plywood into his truck, "what about Jacksonville?"

Jacksonville is its own special anomaly in an already anomalous state. By geography, it is the largest city in the country, but the population is only half a million people. Although it's in the conservative reaches of northern Florida, Jacksonville's Duval County has the largest number of registered African-American voters. Jacksonville is where one in five black votes was thrown out in 2000, which makes Jacksonville another one of the places in Florida where you could say 2000 was lost – or stolen.

This year, as the Democrats have launched their colossal early-voting drive, Duval's supervisor of elections, a Republican, decided to open only a single polling location in Jacksonville. "And it's downtown," Martin said, "with scarce parking and construction nearby – miles away from black neighborhoods. Here in Broward County we have 14 polling locations, and there are huge lines. It's ridiculous to open one poll. It was just meant to slow down black votes."

Martin has seen this kind of soft disenfranchisement before. He was a registered election observer in 2000 at a precinct in inner-city Tampa. The Tampa-St. Petersburg area is the Gulf Coast anchor of the critical I-4 Corridor, the politically "purple" swath of territory that crosses the center of the state through Orlando and ends in Daytona. Tampa was highly contested in 2000 – it was Gore's last campaign stop that Tuesday morning – and it's where Martin witnessed up close the problem of registered voters discovering once they got to the polls that their names were not on the county's rolls. Martin explained how they were directed to a second line, where a poll worker would call the Supervisor of Elections Office to confirm their registration. That line, with one phone and an inadequate staff, quickly got so long – "many, many hours long" – that people left. Martin counted 130 people who were turned away – a quarter of what became Bush's margin, and, as Martin noted, "That was just in one precinct!" It's how they operate, he explained, using implicit vote suppression that stays mostly under the radar. But this year, Martin was also worrying about the new potential for explicit vote suppression: the touch-screen voting machines.

Everyone in Florida seems terrified of these machines as the electronic Trojan Horse that will surreptitiously end American Democracy. I voted on one – a Diebold, even – in Pasadena at an early polling station, and although I wasn't thrilled, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt – until, that is, I casually asked the poll worker about the paper record and he dismissed the question defensively: "The machines are fine, okay – ballots don't have a paper record either."

"Except the goddamn ballot," I said with great alarm.

It was the same attitude I discovered down here: Election officials tend to ignore, rather than assuage, voters' concerns about the machines. One guy I talked to said not to worry; that the votes were stored on a hard drive. No shit – like I thought the thing was just a Fisher-Price plastic box full of marbles. The officials like to explain how the components of the system work, but the problem isn't the system; it's the lack of an independent record for verification.

"That was really the basis of our case," explained Ellen McLaren, a legislative aide for local Congressman Robert Wexler, who unsuccessfully brought a federal case against the counties employing the machines. "There's no paper trail." She explained how Florida's election law requires a manual recount if the result is within a certain margin. "But with these machines," she said, "a manual recount is not possible." She also noted, very reasonably, that as with any new technology, it seems like a good idea to make sure it's foolproof – especially before installing it at the core of our democratic process.

And at the moment, they're not foolproof. Avi Rubin is the computer-science professor at Johns Hopkins who first publicized security flaws in Diebold's code, and he has since looked at other models and only become less confident in the machines' reliability. "A big concern," he explained, "is that they could be rigged. Manufacturers could set the outcome. Or election workers. Any time there's physical access to the machine, there's the potential to change it." With Diebold's machines, Rubin noted as an example, he and his students discovered that a quick, one-byte alteration in a particular file could switch votes from one candidate to another. "Ironically," he said, "in trying to get rid of the hanging chads, they've gotten rid of ballots altogether."

Theresa LePore regretfully acknowledged this irony as well. LePore is the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections who designed the infamous butterfly ballot that confused my grandparents' bridge partners into voting for Pat Buchanan, and she has since attracted another round of controversy for installing 4,500 Sequoia machines into her 692 voting precincts. LePore has become a local villain, perhaps unfairly. Whenever I mention the name around Florida Democrats, they start hissing like vampires around garlic.

She's been accused of treason for putting the wrong man in the White House, despite the fact that both parties approved her butterfly ballot. And the Sequoia machines were partly an overcompensation for that experience. "We were trying to fix the problems of 2000," she said ruefully. But like other election officials, she refuses to accept that there are valid concerns with touch-screen voting. That kind of obstinacy is what's contributing to the looming uncertainty of the upcoming election. "The one thing we're going to learn in Florida," professor Rubin observed, "is that this technology will leave doubt. It's as simple as that."

Lawanda Joesephs has no doubts. "If we get out the vote," she said as I caught up with her leaving the Clinton rally, "Kerry will win Florida." Joseph is one small part of the monumental effort to provide a margin for Kerry that no amount of chicanery could close. "And we are," she said. "I mean, Hillary came down to the hood to get the people to the polls!" Joseph has been to many other rallies, already voted, told her friends to follow suit, and canvassed on her own in the poorest black neighborhoods off of Sistrunk Avenue, looking for single women to motivate. Democrats may be worried but they're not daunted. "We remember what happened," Joseph said, "and we're ready this time."

It was the same message – don't get mad; get even – delivered by Al Gore two days later at Broward Community College. He'd already been up in Jacksonville and Tallahassee, encouraging enthusiastic crowds to vote, creating a crush of people at each city's single polling station. "The time to vote is today," he said. "That way there will be plenty of time for them to count it." Not far from the stage were the doors leading to one of Broward's early-voting stations. The wait inside was an hour and a half.

This has been the experience in Democratic counties all over Florida. The campaign, as well as independent progressive groups like America Coming Together (ACT), have been extremely successful at generating a swell of early voters and absentee-ballot requests. In Broward County alone, 147,000 absentee ballots were mailed out, and 65,000 people showed up at the polls within the first week of early voting.

"The response is overwhelming," Marty Markowitz, the organizer with ACT, said. "It's like my dream came true to be part of this groundswell." Markowitz is spending his days lathered in Kerry loyalists, but the energy he talks about does seem palpable on the streets. The very first person I saw upon leaving the Fort Lauderdale airport was holding a Kerry sign, and it's been Kerry on the streets ever since. It's impossible not to run into people with Kerry pins, or even a whole Kerry event. In the entire time I've been here, however, I've seen only a single Bush-Cheney supporter, and she looked pretty lonely. On Sunday, I counted 14 Kerry bumper stickers on the Florida Turnpike between Lauderhill and Green Acres, and not a one for Bush.

 

But who needs anecdotes, when you have data? Over at ACT's massive Broward offices, I saw how the group has been systematically identifying and assessing Kerry support for months, and its efforts have been more successful than anticipated. ACT may be living up to its billing as the largest voter mobilization in history; by November 2, the group will have spent $125 million, which dwarfs, by a factor of 10, the DNC's get-out-the-vote funding in 2000.

"Ninety-nine percent of that has gone toward person-to-person canvassing," said Joy Reid, who showed me around. We saw the Palm Pilots the groups used over the spring and summer to visit voters and record their interest in issues and voting preference. "Now we have a relationship with those people," Reid explained, "and we're going back, targeting specifically people who support Kerry but are unlikely to vote without a little encouragement." We were standing in a giant room with 300 chairs to accommodate the people who disperse daily with detailed walk lists to reach those people. On the wall was a figure: 158,000 door knocks to date. That's one county. "This kind of thing has never been done before," she said. As innovative data managers, ACT has also developed a system to keep track of who's voted already, and although I promised not to divulge details, the outlook is promising.

ACT's disciplined organization, too, is just one of many ground operations. MoveOn's well-funded political-action committee is making a parallel effort. As are the NAACP Voter Fund, the unions, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, and a host of even more specifically targeted get-out-the-vote groups looking to draw out the Caribbean, liberal Latino and youth votes. "The trends are looking good across the board," Reid said. "Hispanics are polling at 40 percent for Kerry in Florida. Remember, Bush got 80 percent in 2000. And it's looking like more younger voters are going to come out than last time. Bush's positives are capping out under 50 percent. I think it's going to be a very surprising result."

There's no arguing with that. Florida's become such a nail-biter any result would be a surprise. There are so many absentee ballots out, in fact, that it may not be possible to count them all by Tuesday night. And if the Republicans have their way, there's sure to be enough mayhem on Election Day to leave room for lasting dispute. In fact, the latest Republican tactic to emerge is the use of its poll observers to challenge individuals' right to vote at the precinct level. "They'll do it in Democratic precincts," Davis said, "to slow down the voting there." It was to have a similar effect as the indirect disenfranchisement Markowitz and others saw last time, although this year it will be more organized. "I'm worried about things like that," Markowitz said when I brought it up, "but I'm not distracted." We were sitting at a union rally in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The PA was loudly looping the SEIU 1199's theme song, "Ain't No Stopping Us Now." Near us were the cones demarcating yet another early-polling booth filled with people on a weekend. "Because what's going to happen here," Markowitz continued, "is the Democratic kind of democracy – we're going to get more votes in the ballot boxes than they can possible steal."

Authors Descend on Ohio

There was one week left before Ohio�s voter registration deadline and lots of work to do. Stephen Elliott was at the wheel of a rented van, shuttling around the Ohio State campus in Columbus, coordinating the movements of a dozen people. It was the first day of Operation Ohio, Stephen�s personal campaign to help tip the scales in the election he�d been covering since last year for his new book, �Looking Forward to It.� After writing so much about politics, he said, he wanted to make some politics happen. So he organized a series of literary events in the state, hoping that a visit from some of the country�s best-known literary authors to college campuses would help register and energize student-age voters.

�With the book done,� Stephen said, �I had September free, and I wanted to get involved. I have a little bit of guilt because I worked for Nader in 2000, and so I figured I better put in for Kerry. And who can just sit around anyway at a time like this? Everyone should be doing something.�

As the election runs hotter than ever, it seems everyone is doing something. The national party committees, more flush than ever, are churning wakes through the swing states like ocean liners. A bit more nimbly, MoveOn�s digital democracy is changing the political landscape with its innovatively funded and clever ad campaigns. Grassroots organizations of all kinds are springing up to fill in with letter writing, phone banking and walking precincts. In Ohio alone, Bush backers claim to have more than 60,000 volunteers spreading the word through their Amway-style multilevel-marketing operation. America Coming Together has fielded an army of professional canvassers to lay the groundwork for what will be the biggest Election Day Get Out the Vote operation in the history of Earth. To that end, they�ve raised $125 million � 10 times what the DNC spent on GOTV in 2000. A lot of that coin is spilling into Ohio, but the war chest keeps replenishing itself: The week we arrived, the Vote for Change tour, a set of fund-raising concert dates featuring musicians ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Death Cab for Cutie, was under way across the state, on its way to raising another $44 million.

It was into this storm of activism that Stephen�s literary assembly made a landing in late September � a bumpy one, as it happens, since everyone flying in that day sensed the planes getting tossed roughly on the final approach into the Columbus airport. Having traveled with Stephen for much of the campaign season, I came along as an observer. Plus, I too felt compelled to take action. With a month left, why not get started? Now in Columbus, four hours before curtain time, as Stephen was finishing last-minute preparations, we were talking about the question that must plague all small-scale organizers: Does any of this matter?

�Goddamn right it matters,� he said emphatically as we parked and found our way to a class where we were supposed to speak to students and convince them to come. �If there�s anything we learned last time, it�s that all effort counts. If we can get 1,000 people signed up, we�ll be that much better off. It won�t deliver the state, but it will help. Even if we don�t get that many, it will help. But we�ll see what happens. I�ve got my fingers crossed.�

�Why Ohio?� Stephen asked rhetorically in his introduction later that night. The audience was assembled in the Wexner Center, and the writers were in the green room, waiting to come onstage. �At first, Ohio seems like an arbitrary place. But then again � why not Ohio? Everybody should get their chance to decide the presidential election. And this is your chance. In fact, I think the swing state committee � the one that decides where the critical states in the next elections would be, like the Olympics � has picked Oklahoma for 2008. And Alaska after that. So you should take this opportunity.�

It was a good opener. But in reality, of course, neither of those states will ever get the kind of political attention as does Ohio. And the Buckeye State�s leverage has been amplified by an overpowering mythology of electoral importance, grounded in the twin axioms: 1) No Republican has ever won without Ohio�s 21 electoral votes; and 2) Ohio has voted with the winner since 1964. Ohio, the theory goes, is a natural barometer for national politics because it�s like nowhere else, and that�s because it is in fact like everywhere else � a place of representative regions, with an industrial heart around Cleveland, the farm belt in the northwest, classic exurban geography in the center, and strong regional representation with all the Southern drawl around Cincinnati and a rather sizable slice of Appalachia in the southeast.

All of this is apparent at Ohio State, where 90 percent of the students are local. And despite the fact that Columbus, the state�s capital, is a Democratic stronghold, it is ringed by a vast, archetypal, red �donut� of Republican counties. These are the reaches of exurbia, where the Bush minions going on �mission� are expected to bring a 6-to-1 margin for the president in those areas come November. And these are the people who fill the stands at Ohio Stadium, the campus� most imposing edifice, a fascist-looking arena of masonry where the Buckeyes play football.

So it maybe wasn�t all that surprising that on a campus of 50,000, only about 300 showed up for the opening salvo of Operation Ohio. The event should have been bigger. There was plenty of local press, and it was co-sponsored by 40 campus departments and clubs. Entry was free and offered a killer lineup � the kind of literary pantheon that would pack Royce Hall at $50 a head. Readers the first night included Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, Anthony Swofford, Vendela Vida, Julie Orringer and Jim Shepard. It was hard to know if the weak turnout had to do with political apathy or that other old campus bugaboo, the Decline of Literature � especially since, when Steve and I spoke earlier to an English class and asked about the students� favorite writers, we were at first greeted with a long silence, and that was broken only by a timid offer of �John Grisham?�

I noticed that many of those students did find their way into the audience that night, where they got to hear Eggers bring down the house with a new piece where a father, making nachos with his daughter, tells her stories about the days when he and her mother solved the worlds� problems, literally solved them, as in changing the entire world to renewable energy sources and sending all the lobbyists to Greenland, and how such global altruism made her mother horny. Orringer shared some surprisingly lucid letters that her sister�s eighth-grade students in East L.A. had written to the president: �Your leadership was a mistake�; �You use the same words over and over again�; �seriously � get out of that business.� Shepard sampled several stories told by different narrators including � and perhaps these were chosen for an inferred relation � the Creature From the Black Lagoon and John Ashcroft. Vendela Vida and Rick Moody both read from the �Future Dictionary of America,� a satirical anthology that was a fund-raising collaboration between MoveOn, McSweeney�s and Jonathan Safran Foer.

It was all political, and swung hard left, perhaps further than some in the audience were accustomed to. Among the less liberally inclined, Swofford�s essay, written for the occasion, seemed the most effective. It touched on his career as a veteran of the first Gulf War with the Marines, how his first vote went for George H. W. Bush, and his eventual transformation to a Democrat. As persuasive as he was, Swofford didn�t keep some people from walking out.

That surprised me at first, until I spent the intermission with some of the students I�d met earlier and discovered that all of them were backing Bush. Kristen Meiers and her roommate Amber Lipscolmb, both leaning toward Bush but �keeping an open mind,� expressed surprise at the event�s �partisanship.� Lipscolmb said there should have been more Republicans speaking. I pointed out that this was a literary program, and, unfortunately, there are virtually no contemporary authors who would support Bush. Or, as Stephen had phrased it earlier, �Thinking people are not Republicans.� Which I did not repeat, instead listening to them long enough to realize that, like many Bush supporters, they knew very little about either candidate. �It�s hard to keep up,� Meiers said. �But I want to be educated before I do vote.� She asked me where she could find out more about the candidates, good information beyond the television ads. I made some suggestions, and she thanked me, adding, �I guess I�m glad I�m here to listen to other perspectives.� Lipscolmb nodded along, but I saw her sneak out just after the lights dimmed for the second half.

There were no dissenters at Oberlin, the second stop on the tour, probably because Oberlin is not so much a part of Ohio as it is a tiny East Coast liberal-arts enclave carved out of the woods east of Cleveland. To get there from Columbus, you drive through Amish country and the kind of rural outposts dominated by monstrous hunting outfitters like Fur, Feather and Fin, where there were only American trucks with Bush-Cheney stickers in the parking lot, and where, for $10.99, one could buy a Premium Predator Wildlife Call tape entitled �Distressed Chickens,� and with the right series of turns you�ll eventually happen across a charming little college town with vegan cafés and a political fault line that runs between Kerry and Nader and where Bush is nowhere to be found.

Although most Oberlin students come from elsewhere, they all have an Ohio address and can vote in the state, which was all that mattered to Stephen. One hundred fifty students arrived at the second event, less than the night before but a much larger percentage of the 3,000-member student body. The lineup had changed, with Ryan Harty, Dan Chaon and Jonathan Ames substituting for Swofford, Eggers and Moody. Ames headlined with his tale of hubris and humility, �I Shit My Pants in the South of France.� It was a lively close, inspiring others to share their scatological stories the rest of the night at Feve, a bar where the Operation Ohio crew and the students mingled until closing time. I told a story about a friend who, by an extraordinary series of circumstances, accidentally crapped on his iPod. Stephen ordered two grasshoppers, and we shared them with interlocking arms. Spirits were good. �I�m glad you guys came,� one of the students said. �If we register twice, can we get you to come back?�

That would have helped, because in the end Operation Ohio did not meet its original goals. The third date at Cleveland State was sparsely attended, probably because of poor timing (it was at 3 in the afternoon) and the fact that it�s a commuter school. But even at Oberlin and Ohio State, very few registration forms got filled out because everyone passing the gauntlet of volunteers was already registered. �If you live here,� one volunteer at Ohio State said, �and you leave the house, you�re already getting asked to register 10 times a day� � which may not have been an exaggeration, since county clerks across the state had been having trouble keeping up with the unprecedented surge in voter registrations.

�But registration is only halfway,� Stephen kept saying. �You also have to get those people to the polls. That�s why, like, the phone call is the more important part.�

The phone represents the second stage of Operation Ohio � the all-important mobilization scheme that would take effect once we were all gone from the state. Stephen created a list that would allow students to sign up to receive a call on Election Day from a well-known writer, reminding them to vote. With more participating writers than those who made it to Ohio, including Tobias Wolff, ZZ Packer, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, there was plenty of call capacity. Before any of us arrived in Ohio, 300 people had signed up through Operation Ohio�s Web site. Now there were a couple hundred more names to add to the list. And the press from the tour, Stephen guessed, would attract another wave.

�The question I tried to address here is, �How do you get college students to vote?�� Stephen said. He�d thought about this a lot, having spent some of the campaign season hunting for the mythical Youth Vote. It has never materialized in powerful numbers; even when 18-year-olds first got the chance to vote in 1972 and there was a war with a draft on, they didn�t show. Howard Dean�s candidacy held some promise for energizing young voters, and the numbers for the 18-to-24-year-olds were up in many primaries. Stephen wanted to keep that momentum.

�That�s why the calls on Election Day are really the focus,� he said. �Elections are won on Election Day. Look at what happened here in 2000.� That�s when Gore�s campaign, thinking they were down by 10 points, redeployed manpower and pulled ads from the state, only to see the gap close on Election Day to 3.5 points. �Today, the polls are much closer,� Stephen added, �so the calls will help.�

Sure, Stephen admits, it would have been nice to get more. �But anything is a success. These are people no one else would have reached. They say they�re going to go, and they don�t. Unless they get a phone call from Tobias Wolff.�

I thought about Meiers and Lipscolmb and reminded Stephen that a few of those voters might get a call from Tobias Wolff and go pull the lever for Bush.

�Well,� he said, pausing for a moment, �that�s a whole different problem.�

When Big Media Turns Right

On any given day, the major TV networks rarely demonstrate good judgment, much less morality, when it comes to accepting a litany of nauseating advertisements. Hemorrhoid creams. Vaginal ointments. Erectile dysfunction. Army recruiting ads that portray war as a gee-whiz video game. KFC�s claim that fried chicken is the new health food. And, lest we forget, Bud Light�s farting horse during the Super Bowl.

But ads for the Oct. 5 release of the new Fahrenheit 9/11 DVD?

Now that makes Big Media gag.

L.A. Weekly has learned that CBS, NBC and ABC all refused Fahrenheit 9/11 DVD advertising during any of the networks� news programming. Executives at Sony Pictures, the distributor of the movie for the home-entertainment market, were stunned. And even more shocked when the three networks explained why.

�They said explicitly they were reluctant because of the closeness of the release to the election. All three networks said no,� one Sony insider explains. �It was certainly a judgment that Sony disagrees with and is in the process of protesting.�

And protest Sony did. (Michael Lynton, the onetime Pearson publishing executive who is now chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, has privately told people he hasn�t seen anything like this since his Penguin Group published Salman Rushdie�s Satanic Verses.) What especially galled the Sony suits was this: The networks had no problem having the DVD ads appear on their entertainment shows so long as the guidelines for R-rated content like Fahrenheit 9/11 were followed. However, Sony executives told L.A. Weekly they wanted only to market the movie�s DVD on CBS�s, NBC�s and ABC�s news shows. �But all three networks said no to straight news,� one Sony exec explained. �Then, suddenly, the networks were extending the definition of news programming to include the news magazines and the morning news shows and restricting access to those as well. That becomes very problematic to any advertiser trying to reach an adult audience.�

Finally, this week, Sony�s protests started having an effect. �We�re now getting movement,� a Sony suit told L.A. Weekly Monday night. Sony corporate senior vice president Susan Tick claimed Tuesday that the initial ban on the morning news shows was lifted, and time on an NBC Dateline had been made available. But she also confirmed that the early-evening news shows are still verboten, and ABC still remains adamant that the DVD can�t be advertised on its PrimeTime Live. Meanwhile, the DVD ads� status on the other network news shows is murky at best. (Sony execs emphasize that Fox was not part of this cabal � apparently because no Fahrenheit 9/11 DVD ads were planned there.)

Just when we think Big Media�s handling of this election can�t get any worse, something like this comes along and we realize the situation is totally whack.

For all the hundreds of thousands of words broadcast and written about so-called Rathergate, the news of Sonygate hasn�t received any attention at all. Yet here is more bile rising in our throats as Big Media does yet another favor for Dubya. At the very least the networks managed to delay Fahrenheit 9/11 �s DVD ads for several weeks by claiming they had to consult their attorneys to make sure the ads didn�t fall under the Federal Election Commission rules governing electioneering communications � a bunch of laughable hooey, especially considering the armadas of attorneys already on network payrolls keeping the Election Commission at bay. And speaking of lawyers, how interesting that Big Media spent so much time spanking � or, worse, ignoring � Kitty Kelley�s newly released The Family that dares to criticize the Bushies. When, by contrast, the networks fell all over themselves basically promoting the bejesus out of that Swift Boat book of half-truths and full lies, Unfit for Command. As if, in some parallel universe, the lawyers for Kelley�s publisher, Doubleday/Random House, are inferior to those of the Swifties� Regnery Publishing.

Where is the level playing field? Gone, thanks to the shenanigans of Big Media. Nor is it an exaggeration to state that the networks increasingly look like they�re doing everything possible to help George W. win re-election. At least that wily old codger Sumner Redstone had the balls to come out this weekend and say what everyone already knows is true: �There has been comment upon my contribution to Democrats like Sen. Kerry. Sen. Kerry is a good man. I�ve known him for many years. But it happens that I vote for Viacom. Viacom is my life, and I do believe that a Republican administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one.�

Like, duh! Who else but Dubya and his FCC frown posse, led by Michael Powell, is never going to meet one media merger after another they didn�t like? And in return for all that conglomeration and consolidation, all Big Broadcasters have to do is fork over minor fines whenever they deflower the virgin ears and eyes of the public.

And with more money to spend on political ads this election year (hell, every election year), the Republicans are helping Big Media climb out of their recession-caused red ink. As Broadcasting & Cable reported this month, ad spending in markets across the country is �flat to down� this year. But thanks to all those GOP attack ads against Kerry and his own spots to defend against them, ad spending, especially in the battleground states, is �through the roof,� up 14 percent to 15 percent.

Once upon a time, large corporations and their executives typically avoided any public discussion of their politics because partisan positions alienated customers and employees. But all of that changed after GE bought NBC in 1986. The NBC peacock was literally flipped from left to right. As the story goes, this was done so the bird was looking forward, not back. Yeah, right. Maybe we should applaud Viacom�s Redstone for being aboveboard about his loyalties. So is News Corp.�s Murdoch. (Forget the little fact that Murdoch�s No. 2, Peter Chernin, has endorsed Kerry, or that Redstone�s co-president, Les Moonves, is an avowed Democrat. It�s meaningless because Murdoch and Redstone are media owners, not renters.)

And Time Warner�s chairman and CEO, Dick Parsons, doesn�t need to articulate his politics since he�s a Republican insider from way back. After Parsons nailed the top score on the New York state bar exam, he caught the eye of the late Nelson A. Rockefeller and even lived in Rockefeller�s compound for a time, eventually becoming a trustee of the former vice president�s estate after Rockefeller�s death in 1979. Parsons also is a former law partner of Rudy Giuliani and even managed Giuliani�s transition into the NYC Mayor�s Office. Who better to have at Time Warner�s helm than a GOP insider when the SEC is investigating your company?

Officially, GE (NBC�s parent company) chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt has yet to publicly declare himself politically. But anyone who spends time with him knows which way he blows. �He�s as right-wing as they come,� an insider tells L.A. Weekly . �Just as bad as Bob Wright.�

Wright, now GE�s vice chairman but also NBC�s long-term boss, never tried to hide his Republican partisanship because he never had to. For seemingly eons, his mentor and Immelt�s predecessor, Jack Welch, was a rabid right-winger. Welch used to boast openly about helping turn former liberals Chris Matthews and Tim Russert into neocons. And Los Angeles Representative Henry Waxman is still waiting for GE to turn over those in-house tapes that would prove once and for all whether Welch in 2000 ordered his network and cable stations to reverse course and call the election for Bush instead of Gore that election night.

As for Immelt, he uses all the Republican buzzwords with obvious ease. Complain about GE�s job outsourcing and he labels it �class warfare.� And he declared to Fox News� business anchor, Neil Cavuto, that he wished his own network�s MSNBC talk TV could be �as interesting and edgy as you guys are. I think the standard right now is Fox.� MSNBC and increasingly CNBC as well are Fox News clones.

In return, Immelt is beginning to bag Republican perks, like appointment to President Bush�s Commission on Social Security. Besides all those lucrative U.S. defense contracts, his GE has snagged $450 million of orders in Iraq alone in 2003, and an apparent $3 billion more over the next few years. Plus, more than half of Iraq�s power grid is GE technology. Even before the fighting there started, Immelt told CNBC it was a GE business opportunity. �We built about a billion-dollar security business that�s going to be growing by 20 percent a year, so we�ve been able to play into that.�

Nor does it hurt that GE recently installed Anna Perez, a former Bush adviser to W. and Condi who also served as press secretary to former first lady Barbara Bush, as NBC Universal�s executive vice president of communications.

Then there�s Disney�s Michael Eisner. As the longtime chairman and CEO, Eisner was never in the league of MCA/Universal�s Lew Wasserman, inarguably the most active Democratic activist of the media-mogul crowd. In contrast to Wasserman�s huge effort to get Hollywood-wide support for Jimmy Carter back in 1976, Eisner, while a Democrat, made just a small personal effort on behalf of the primary campaigns for his buddies Bob Kerry and Bill Bradley.

But that was then and this is now. Disney has turned most of ABC�s extensive radio network and owned-and-operated stations into a 24/7 orgy of right-wing talk. Disney�s chief lobbyist, Preston Padden, is not only one of Washington, D.C.�s most infamous Republican lobbyists, but he used to work for Rupert Murdoch. And Padden was set to use all of his considerable influence in Congress and the White House on Disney�s behalf if that big bad Goliath, Comcast, really tried to gobble up the Mouse House. As a result, no one thought it just coincidental when W. pleaded just days after 9/11 for Americans �to return to the kind of lives we were leading before [that], especially air travel. Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America�s great destination spots. Go down to Disney World in Florida; take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.� It was as close to a White House commercial for Disney as any corporation could dare hope.

Then Bush followed that up weeks later with a PR visit to Orlando, Fla., where the Magic Kingdom had suffered a 25 percent drop in ticket sales, where a national photo showed the theme park�s deserted entrance. And since then, in addition to the usual tax breaks from W�s brother, Jeb, Disney World has benefited from special security measures, including extra protection and a federally declared �no flyover zone.�

Given all of the above, when Eisner was replaced as chairman by former Democratic senator George Mitchell, nobody seemed perturbed, not even when Mitchell sounded off in Kerry�s corner during the Boston convention this summer. And why should they since Mitchell is at best a short-timer? And let�s not forget that Eisner had already given the Bushies the biggest gift of all: pulling the distribution plug on Fahrenheit 9/11 even though stockholders were starving for movie-division profits after everything else on Disney�s slate in the first half of 2004 fell flat.

Apparently, Eisner didn�t care that this beleaguered company would miss out on one of the most lucrative films all year. But it certainly made Disney watchers sick to their stomachs. Perhaps Big Media�s advertisers have a cream or ointment or pill to cure that. Not to worry: We hear Moore�s next movie is Sicko, about the health-care industry.

A Party for Some

The big tents have been well guarded at the Republican convention in New York. It took some doing to penetrate the several layers of security at the Log Cabin Republicans' Big Tent party Sunday to hear them complain about their own difficulty getting inside the symbolic big tent pitched over Madison Square Garden this week. "There are two Republican parties," Patrick Guerriero, Log Cabin's executive director, said to the crowd assembled at the Bryant Park Grill. "The party has to make a choice: Is it an inclusive Republican Party, or one hijacked by the radical right?"

He was highlighting the tension between a conservative base drifting so far into the outer reaches of ideological space that they're red-shifting from the Doppler effect, and the increasingly anomalous social moderates in the prime-time speaker lineup.

Everyone else on the itinerary at the Bryant Park Grill tried to celebrate the party's deep cleavage as "diversity," but the right-leaning imbalance was in evidence at the platform committee meetings held earlier in the cavernous and strangely vacant Javits Center, where the grip of the social conservatives tightened. They successfully dodged an attempt by the Log Cabin Republicans, along with fellow moderates from the Republicans for Choice, to soften language on constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and abortion.

The conservative forces also prevented the moderates from including a "Party Unity Plank" that would have put forward the sensible proposition that Republicans can agree to disagree on sensitive topics like family planning and gay rights. Adding insult to injury, the subcommittee on "Protecting Our Families" included a few new barbs in the anti-gay language with an amendment that specifically opposed any kind of benefits accruing to any kind of legal partnership between gay couples.

Anne Stone, the national chair of Republicans for Choice, was pissed. As was Christopher Barron, the policy director for the Log Cabin Republicans. "The American public has progressed on these issues a lot in the past four years," Barron said. "Unfortunately, this is a turn-back-the-clock platform." Janet McElligott, who is an active member of the Republicans for Choice, said, "If the party stays in the hands of the dinosaurs, it will become extinct." And everyone grumbled how the platform process was designed to specifically exclude them with what McElligott described as "Nazi-like precision."

All of which leaves one wondering: Why are these people Republicans?

"You know," I said to McElligott, as the gremlin-looking gray eminence Gary Bauer crept past and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist gave an interview nearby full of hollow praise for diversity-loving Republicans, "there was this other convention, up in Boston. I'm not sure if you heard about this whole Democrat deal. But they'd love to have you and your unity plank."

McElligott smiled appreciatively, but said she was more interested in reclaiming her own party. Similarly, Anne Stone, as disappointed as she was by her treatment at the platform committee, quickly began talking about "getting them next time in 2008."

Later, I shared some indignation with Barron about how the conservatives' claim that marriage is the bedrock of civilization is untrue, since what we think of as marriage today is in fact only a few centuries old; and how the right wing should theoretically be happy that gays want to marry, since it is an essentially conservative social institution. But when I tried to turn the conversation to Kerry, his eyes flashed Republican fire, and he started in on "the senator who makes Ted Kennedy look conservative." He wouldn't even entertain the idea of leaving the GOP. The Log Cabin Republicans will probably not endorse Bush, but that means no endorsement at all. And endorsing for the flip-flopper is out of the question.

What Barron wants is for the Republicans to shake off the conservative yoke and return to the social center. "What if," I asked, "the party leaders move further right?" "Then they'll be further out of touch," he responded. "And we'll take the fight to them again."

McElligott has a similar outlook. A few days after the platform meetings, I had dim sum in Chinatown with McElligott, and she was still angry. "They totally screwed us," she said while ordering dozens of plates for us in decent Mandarin, "and the anti-gay language was downright malicious."

Over the course of lunch, I discovered that McElligott, who worked for George H. W. Bush, opposes virtually all of the current administration's policies. Her one point of agreement was his policy in Sudan – "a welcome change from Clinton," she said. But although she's not voting for Bush, she still won't go for Kerry.

McElligott is a lifetime Republican, and the psychological inertia that keeps people from switching sides is strong. It was hard enough as a young woman, she explained, to tell her multigenerational Democratic family that she was a Republican, beginning with her grandfather, who, when he heard, pretended to have a heart attack and then kicked her out of the house. Leaving the party at this point would be like excommunication. Better to keep the faith than to lose it altogether.

As with all the moderate GOPers I talked to, McElligott harbors a sparkling vision of Republican potential, and it is apparently very powerful. Despite her resentments, she believes the pendulum will swing back. Like Barron and Stone, McElligott sees the current disconnect between the platform and the podium as a cynical ploy to fool the electorate. She even likened it to Goebbels' theory, improved upon by Mao, of "the Big Lie." But, also like Barron and Stone, she simultaneously saw the convention speakers as a silver lining – a glimpse into the future of the party, a return to the Lincolnian roots of individual responsibility, fiscal responsibility and prudent stewardship.

It's the same fable Mayor Bloomberg evoked at the Big Tent party by quoting from the man in the stovepipe hat about how "a house divided cannot stand" and citing the importance of the "politics of inclusion" and "a Republican Party true to its origins" – all themes further sounded by fellow speakers Arlen Specter, George Pataki and former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld.

When I suggested to McElligott that in the party's current climate, Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger are anomalies, she agreed. "But you have to remember," she replied, "that at one time Barry Goldwater was an anomaly too, a total pariah. And his ideas weren't in the platform. But he was persistent, and eventually his wing took over. That's what we have to do, and to do that we have to get a seat at the table."

Jennifer Stockman, from the Republican Majority for Choice, thinks that the moderates already have that seat at the table. Her group is more accommodating than the Republicans for Choice, despite having mounted a petition to bring their grievances against the pro-life people to the floor in 2000. We were standing at the entrance to the floor of the current convention when I asked why they didn't do the same this time. "We're more pragmatic," Stockman said. She was eager to talk to me, and was nicely turned out in a white skirt suit adorned with a herringbone pattern of black stripes. "And we want to stick to our focus of supporting pro-choice candidates around the country. We were instrumental in helping Arlen Specter succeed in Pennsylvania."

"Yes," I said, "but you had to defend him against your own party, because they're systematically culling the ranks of socially moderate candidates."

"But if we weren't there, who would have fought on our behalf? We're the critical voting bloc in a lot of these races," she replied.

"That certainly is true, which is all the more reason why you could wield way more influence," I said. "Don't you think that if you held your vote ransom, this one critical time, you'd have way more leverage?" – and it was at this point that I realized I was trying to convince Stockman that her organization should try my strategy for the GOP – "and if you actually helped defeat Bush, you'd wash away the extremists that much faster, and get a chance for the new leadership everyone talks about to come in." I almost said "we" when concluding, "You could really reshape the party then."

"An interesting theory," she said. No matter how interesting it was, however, the very idea of completely breaking ranks conflicted with the fact that she's been to every Republican convention since 1980. It's one thing to not endorse Bush, as her organization won't; it's another to take up electoral arms against your party's incumbent presidential nominee.

Like the others, she looked toward the future. "On November 3," Stackman said, "the real battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party begins."

But why wait? If moderate Republicans have no influence today despite their presence on the podium this week, there's no reason to expect they'll gain strength after the election, when their votes are no longer needed.

Meanwhile, they are losing ground. Stockman thought that the timid compromise the platform committee threw as a bone to the Unity Plank people – that the Republicans are the "open door" party and that they "respect and accept" different opinions – represented progress. The language was weak, however, well short of what they asked for, and even those four words were hotly disputed. Saying that the Republican Party has an open door, moreover, doesn't make it so – especially when some of its platform delegates couldn't even bear to say the words "family planning" and "gay rights."

So when Christopher Barron talks about the Log Cabin Republicans remaining committed to fighting for gay and lesbian civil rights from inside the party, I can't help but wonder at the cognitive dissonance. These guys are like the Kuciniches of the right: well-intentioned idealists, but completely powerless. It's tempting to dismiss them altogether as pushovers, but I also sympathize with their outsider pathos. They want to belong where they're not wanted – and we all know that story, right? The RNC has walked a fine line to keep its disparate constituencies together this week, but it's an even finer line that the party's determined moderates must walk to convince themselves that they belong in the party at all. As McElligott herself said, "They're doing everything they can to make us feel unwanted."

Strange Love

Editor's Note: Satire alert.

THE PLAYER AGENCY
Griffin Mill�s opening remarks at Wednesday�s Motion Picture Meeting:

We don�t normally start these sessions with a discussion about civilian news. But I�m sure you�ll agree that a change in direction this exciting deserves a few minutes of everyone�s time. I�m pleased to announce that, starting today, this agency is going to break with Hollywood tradition and start boosting George W. Bush�s presidential campaign.

We do not make this decision lightly. But this week, five national polls came out that show Kerry slipping and Bush in the lead. And my wife, who�s in the same Kabbalah class as Mel Karmazin, tells me Don Imus just switched from being an early Kerry supporter to officially �undecided.� So we�re taking this one step further. We�re going to do for Dubya what Warner Bros. is doing for George Clooney: shove him down the public�s throat even if anyone with half a brain can�t stand him.

This may appear like rats deserting a sinking ship, but try to think of it as market-savvy positioning. As Arnie, Bruce and Tom (Selleck, that is) know, this isn�t about being Democrat or Republican; this is about survival. Besides, as an ex�studio mogul myself, I know this is how Hollywood has worked since the days of Goldwyn, Warner, Cohn and Mayer: There�s a long tradition here of kissing the asses of winners and shitting on losers. After all, when Dolgen was in power at Viacom, weren�t we his biggest fans? And when he got the boot, it became "Dolgen Who?" and "Don�t let the door hit you on the way out." And that�s how it should be. As Hyman Roth said in Godfather II, �This is the business we�ve chosen.� And who here doesn�t believe, like I do, that our mentor Michael Corleone voted Republican?

Remember back when we put a million-dollar bounty on the head of Julia Roberts? So I�m ready to pony up $5 mil for each capture of a bona fide Hollywood Republican. Okay, it�s not anywhere near the $25 mil being offered for bin Laden � and still they can�t find a 6-foot-6 Saudi who walks with a cane � but the good news is that Hollywood actors are dwarfish. That makes them easier to wrestle to the ground. For instance, I don�t want Stephen Baldwin leaving the GOP convention without his signature on one of our contracts because we can get him better than Celebrity Mole 1 and 2. Though I gotta admit, I couldn�t remember which Baldwin he was: the pot-bellied one, the sleepy-eyed one, the drugged-out one, the dumb-and-dumber one. My assistant reminded me that he�s all four!

I�m pleased to announce I�ve got the ball rolling already. We�ve just signed Ron Silver for representation in all areas. His speech at the Republican convention on Monday was pure genius. Of course, I didn�t hear it, but I got the coverage. My reader boiled it down to this quote: �I find it ironic that many human rights advocates and outspoken members of my own entertainment community are often on the frontlines to protest repression, for which I applaud them, but they are usually the first ones to oppose any use of force to take care of these horrors that they catalog repeatedly.� I�m not sure what this means, but I think it�s Hollywood-speak for, How come the only part I could get recently was as a pornographer in a Fox series that Rupert�s boobs cancelled after three episodes? We�ve got to do better by Ron. If Mel Gibson makes that movie about the Maccabees, I see Ron as King of the Jews.

I also saw Bo Derek before the Republican convention. I hear she�s worried about an interview she gave to Alan Murray on CNBC�s Capital Report supporting marriage only for a man and a woman. Let�s immediately start to find Bo a new hair and makeup artist, preferably someone from Salt Lake City, or someone Amish. Ask the tools at UPN.

Angie Harmon was also hanging around. Does anybody know what�s she been up to since Law and Order? See, that�s what I�m talking about. We could have put her up for The Hours. Nicole isn�t the only pretty face who can wear a fake nose and win an Oscar.

My spies tell me that Lara Flynn Boyle is the new Gwyneth of the GOP and, unfortunately for us, just as poisonous at the box office. And congrats to the TV talent department for getting still another Republican actress, Shannen Doherty, back to earning commissions for us. She�s going to be a wonderful addition to the Las Vegas cast. Or is it Hawaii? Not that one either? It�s North Shore? Is that even a show? Oh, it�s on Fox, no wonder. Let�s see if we can get Republican Rick Schroder some quick cameo work as his character�s evil twin on NYPD Blue. Bochco would love to kill him all over again.

It�s our belief that our new �right is right� attitude will prove effective in luring other clients who�ve previously been in the closet about their conservative politics. Did any of you read that recent article in Details magazine about the Republican Party�s �bubblegum star power� in Hollywood? No one? Of course, we must look upon the piece with skepticism since legal tells us that the author, Ruth Shalit, was busted for cribbing when she wrote for The New Republic. How perfect that she�s writing about the biz now.

According to the article, the GOP is claiming Freddie Prinze Jr., Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey and Mandy Moore. No high-fiving just yet. Because Mandy�s publicist went postal and told Shalit, �Mandy is not, nor has she ever been, a Republican.� The wording of that statement sounds really familiar, like dialogue from that old Sydney Pollack/Bob Redford flick, The Way We Were. I smell remake, with Mandy as Babs, fighting the 9/11 Commission which wants to blame W. for everything, and Adam Sandler as Redford. You haven�t heard that the article claims Sandler and his entire production company are rednecks, I mean, Republicans? Who better to support a born-again Christian president than an actor who got famous for singing �The Chanukah Song?�

Not that this new strategy is not going to have setbacks. We told the Bushies to ask Britney Spears to the convention after she said this to CNN�s Tucker Carlson about the war in Iraq: �Honestly I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens.� But the damn religious right � I meant to say our friends from Bible study class, which from now on will be mandatory � didn�t want no slutty-dressing, Madonna-kissing whore parading around with them. Too bad, I wanted to go after the Bush twins next.
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