Maggie Morrissey’s day usually starts quite early. She eats a quick breakfast in the West End Avenue apartment that she shares with Bebe Morrissey and her boyfriend. Then Bebe chauffeurs Maggie to The Spot Experience, a place on West 72nd Street where she spends most of weekdays and an occasional weekend.
In case Orwellian surveillance systems like TrapWire weren’t creepy enough, we learn that SpeechPro, a Russian-owned company, has helpfully invented a voice identification tool for law enforcement use called VoiceGrid Nation. American authorities are looking into using the software at 911 call centers and in police precincts. As Slate reports, it’s already in place and working out pretty well in some other countries:
The Obscene Villains of Democracy, Koch Brothers Are Openly Funding an Astroturf Protest Against Occupy Wall St.
An activist group founded by the notorious Koch brothers is holding a demonstration in Midtown on Thursday to voice its opposition to President Barack Obama’s economic policies and to stand up to the “Occupy Wall Street mob,” according to a press release.
If you picked it up with a pair of tweezers and plopped it down in a sterile laboratory environment, the conversation which took place between Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama on Oct. 18, 2006, probably wouldn't look so good under a microscope.
Here were two people with impeccably manicured public images bemoaning the calculated spin of politics. Two professionally driven people paying homage to life outside of work. If you tested the exchange for traces of organic life, the results would probably come back negative.
But thanks to the fertile emotional agar of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the interview was well received. In the end, the proven convention-hall orator walked away with some much-needed small-room credibility. At one point, Ms. Winfrey asked the senator from Illinois about his presidential ambitions. "So if you were ever to run ... would you announce on this show?"
"I don't think I could say no to you," replied Mr. Obama. And a few seconds later: "Oprah, you're my girl."
Ms. Winfrey did not get to break the big news -- but she is definitely Obama's girl, supporting the Illinois senator's presidential bid in her typically big, multiplatform way. And now, the the "My Girl" interchange is campaign-famous.
In what the Internet universe refers to as "meatspace," there's the big Sept. 8 fund-raiser for Mr. Obama -- to be held at her $64 million estate in Montecito, Calif. (Tara II, it's called.)
That's going well: It was apparently so in demand among Democrats that tickets were restricted to the 250 members of Mr. Obama's national finance committee. Each got seven of the coveted $2,300 tickets to sell to friends who want to give the primary-season limit to Mr. Obama -- or who just want to get a look at the talk-show queen's 23,000-square-foot Georgian style mansion, or stroll the 42 acres of ponds, orchards and rustic outbuildings.
But the millions of dollars the event will raise for Mr. Obama is not the most interesting thing Ms. Winfrey has to offer his campaign.
"My money isn't going to make any difference," Ms. Winfrey told Larry King in May. "My value to him, my support of him is probably worth more than any check that I could write."
And, though she told her interviewer that no, she wouldn't be running for office herself, she did admit that with this campaign she was expanding her role in politics.
So, can Ms. Winfrey expand her kingmaking into politics?
"I think this is a celebrity endorsement," said Martin Kaplan, a research professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and erstwhile White House speechwriter.
Of course she can make people like him. But can she get people to vote for him?
"Most research," Mr. Kaplan said, "says, 'No.'"
But that's just the kind of research many political insiders are eager to see put to the test.
After all, she has gone where no other celebrity has gone. She has, in one category after another -- from the publishing industry to the magazine industry to the charity circuit to Broadway to Hollywood -- made herself a kingmaker with her (literally) trademarked brand of direct marketing.
It's something the Obama campaign is aware of.
"I think Oprah is one of those people that transcends race and class," said Robert Gibbs, the communications director for the Obama campaign, when this reporter caught up with him over the weekend in Chicago. "It's people from all walks of life who see some segment of themselves in her."
"It's one of those endorsements that speaks to so many people," he added. "I think she has proved her marketing ability beyond almost any other person that is in public life to some degree, and obviously we're hopeful that just a little bit of that rubs off on us."
"There are celebrities, and then there is Oprah Winfrey," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "I always kid that your average political endorsement is worth the vote of the endorser and -- about half the time -- the endorser's spouse. That's it. Nobody cares. We kind of revolt against that as a people. But Oprah is different."
"We don't know if she gets people to vote," said pollster John Zogby. "But we do know that she gets people to buy books. We do know that she gets people to give to charities. And we do know that there are people, particularly women, who listen to and hang on her words. Translating that into votes, that's kind of un-chartered waters, but she has a good track record."
The theory goes that Oprah Winfrey standing behind Barack Obama at a podium is not the same as, say, Ben Affleck standing behind John Kerry or Danny Glover standing behind John Edwards because she has consistently proven an ability to sell other people's stuff -- and to get people not only to adopt positive opinions about her friends' work, but to power-off the remote, get up off the couch, and go out to spend money at her bidding.
Voting is Appealing! You Should Try It!
How does she do that?
Jonathan Galassi, editor of the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has now presided over three books picked for Oprah Winfrey's Book Club -- most recently?Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, Eli Wiesel's Night and (infamously) Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.
"With Wiesel, she actually went to Auschwitz with him," Mr. Galassi said. "She puts a lot into it. The Today Show picks are a lot more casual -- they hold up the book and they say, 'this is a great book.'"
Sort of like Steven Spielberg holding up a candidate and saying, "This is a great candidate."
According to Kathleen Rooney, who wrote a 200-page book-length study of the Book Club in 2005, this level of engagement is motivated by Ms. Winfrey's admiration for certain authors, and her desire to be friends with them. (Ms. Rooney also currently works as an aide in the office of Senator Dick Durbin.)
The rapport Ms. Winfrey has with these authors when she interviews them, Ms. Rooney said, translates in turn into a similarly gentle, familiar rapport with her audience.
"She doesn't make reading seem like brussels sprouts, like 'these are good for you,'" Ms. Rooney said. "She says, 'you should do this because it's fun, because it'll broaden your horizons, because you'll enjoy it."
Speaking from Chicago, Ms. Rooney predicted that Ms. Winfrey's compassionate approach will carry over to great effect as she starts devoting more of her attention to the 2008 election.
"She's not browbeating people as a lot of these voting campaigns will," Ms. Rooney said. "She's just saying, 'voting is appealing! You should try it, it's fun!' She's making it fun, in the same way that her enthusiasm infects everything about her show."
According to Martha Levin, currently the executive vice president and publisher at Simon & Schuster's Free Press imprint and formerly of Hyperion, this is Ms. Winfrey's greatest strength.
"My opinion," said Ms. Levin, "is that a lot of the book recommendations we get are from people whom general readers find intimidating. The way Oprah makes herself not intimidating makes her book recommendations more accessible. Critics and professors seem more educated, further away."
Oprah, by contrast, is approachable, and some, like Ms. Rooney, believe that will carry over as she turns her attention to the election. "Her choice to throw her support behind Obama," Ms. Rooney said, "is very similar to her choice to support certain books. It's not calculating, it's not manipulative."
Mr. Obama and Ms. Winfrey's camps remain tight-lipped about how the budding synergy the consultants lustily anticipate -- you make me important in politics, I'll get you votes! -- will actually play out in Ms. Winfrey's media empire this fall.
And there are skeptics. Martin Kaplan, for one, maintains that there is a fundamental difference between heeding someone's advice at the book store versus at the voting booth.
"A book is an extension of the Oprah experience: we're going to do this together with our girlfriends," said Mr. Kaplan. "I think even in an age where entertainment slops over into every other realm, people do distinguish a vote from an entertainment or commodity purchase."
And indeed, the slopping-over of entertainment into politics is not always popular. Writing on Politico.com, Variety managing editor at large Ted Johnson warned that Ms. Winfrey's support "could create a backlash if she treats his campaign like her book club." Mr. Johnson quoted an undecided Iowa voter as saying that the Oprah endorsement may in fact turn her against Mr. Obama.
"In Middle America, the South, and some other places, when celebrities insert themselves into politics too much there's a bit of a backlash," said Mr. Schmeltzer, a New York-based political consultant. "But I don't think you get that with Oprah Winfrey. The whole country thinks so positively of her. And the fact that she hasn't inserted herself into politics, the same way that, say, Barbra Streisand has, this first endorsement carries a huge amount of weight."
So how, for instance, might Ms. Winfrey's support play out in the important middle-American primary state of Iowa?
"Endorsements are way overplayed," said Jim Spencer, a consultant with The Campaign Network who has worked on Democratic presidential races since 1980. "I don't think you could name an election that was won on an endorsement."
But: "Barack is a bit of a phenomenon that is falling outside of the political process. Oprah Winfrey reinforces that appeal."
And once again, Ms. Winfrey's ability to make new demographics participate where they hadn't before could be useful to Mr. Obama.
He said about 100,000 households participate in pretty much every cycle.
"The way people have won recently -- John Kerry being the most notable example, is that he went outside the pool of normal voters and went after veterans, and he got people who had never attended the caucus before to attend the caucus.
"I would guess Barack is going outside of the pool," he said.
In Iowa, Oprah would make "a gigantic difference," said Gordon Fischer, who was chair of the Iowa Democratic Party from 2002 to 2004.
"Typically some of [her viewers] would [vote in a primary] and some of them wouldn't, and it sort of remains to be seen, but she's the kind of person who can reach lots and lots of people and tell them to go out and vote."
Chicago -- Barack Obama got out of the car a block early so everyone would see him walk to the picket line.
With a gray BlackBerry holstered between black pants and white dress shirt, the candidate immediately inserted himself into the rotating loop of striking hotel workers on Michigan Avenue. He shook hands, slapped backs and sang some lines of a pro-union chant. One worker handed him a "Unite Here!" placard, and he happily waved it above his head. Minutes later, as more than a dozen television cameras and reporters watched intently, he traded it in for a bullhorn.
"You are going to have a friend in the White House who believes that workers can organize," Mr. Obama shouted to the workers. "Who believes in union."
The crowd cheered, and after a Spanish translation, cheered again.
With more primary money in the bank than fund-raising juggernaut Hillary Clinton, Mr. Obama has now set about the more fundamental business of cementing the loyalty of the Democratic Party base. The $33 million he raised in the second fund-raising quarter from a record 258,000 individual donors gives him fuel to chase Mrs. Clinton and begin to close the sizeable leads she holds in surveys of many key primary states. But to do that, he needs the backing of organized Democratic constituencies whose can translate their support into votes.
"I think some of it is that the campaign is starting to heat up so you are starting to see more events like this," Mr. Obama said at a press conference following the union event on July 16. "What is true is that in the first two or three months you are so busy building infrastructure that sometimes your schedule gets much more crowded. And we are now in the phase of the campaign where people are listening much more carefully and we have the opportunity to amplify these critical issues."
Those critical issues -- unionization, gun control, civil rights, progressive taxation and abortion rights -- just happen to be the traditional linchpins of Democratic politics. And Mr. Obama, who likes to say that he believes in a different kind of politics, is tackling them aggressively.
On July 12, he co-sponsored legislation in the Senate to close a tax loophole that permitted hedge fund investors, who happen to be some of the most generous contributors to his campaign, to pay levies on billions of dollars in profit at a lower rate than most income earners. The issue, which was first raised by John Edwards, put pressure on the rest of a Democratic field that enjoys lucrative support from the wealthy financiers. On July 13, after originally giving a noncommittal answer, Mrs. Clinton also said she supported taxing the investors like regular corporations.
"I think it should be a no-brainer issue for Democratic and Republican candidates," Mr. Obama said when asked why not everyone had jumped on the issue immediately. "The way our tax code is now structured has exacerbated inequality in the society."
Mr. Obama's emphasis on traditional base-consolidation was illustrated nicely by a flurry of events aimed at key Democratic constituencies in mid-July
On a Sunday morning, Mr. Obama's motorcade arrived at the Vernon Park Church of God in the beleaguered Far South Side of Chicago. In the blocks around the church, bored-looking boys walked around with jeans cinched around their thighs under long white T-shirts. A woman in a wheelchair propelled herself against a red traffic light using her one good foot like a skateboarder. Abandoned lots surrounded empty restaurants with names like "Steaks and Lemonade." Here, gun violence had touched many residents personally, including the church's own pastor, whose mother and brother were murdered.
Mr. Obama had come to express outrage, as he uniquely can in this election, about the pall of gang violence that hangs over many black communities. Before speaking, he sat in a dark suit and blue striped tie under one of two large screens that said "Responsive Reading. Benefit of Obedience." He bobbed his head as a gospel choir sang to the organ and drums. When he was introduced to speak, the crowd erupted in cheers and hoots and the padded clapping of ushers in white gloves.
Mr. Obama has at times disappointed on the stump with seemingly deliberate displays of oratorical restraint, especially in front of audiences that tend to see him as the race's most charismatic candidate. But in black churches, like in Selma back in March and here in Chicago, he has tended to display the full sweep his rhetorical skill.
On that Sunday, he used it to attack enemies of gun control and the prosecutors of the war in Iraq, two issues central to the black voters who will be decisive in picking the party's nominee.
From the pulpit, he advocated the permanent reinstatement of a ban on assault weapons and more stringent regulations on gun dealers.
"And there is only one reason that hasn't been done and that is the power of the gun lobby in Washington," said Mr. Obama. Talking about the cultural differences between gun users in inner cities and rural settings, he said he recognized that many gun owners "want to hunt with their fathers, they want to hunt with their sons. I respect that. If you want to go hunt, go hunt. Nobody is trying to take your rifle or your shotgun away."
But, building to a crescendo, Mr. Obama added, "It is time for us to stand up and say enough. Enough to the gun lobby -- we're not going to take it no more."
(A man in the crowd called out "Preach, Mr. President," at which point Mr. Obama promptly seemed to reign himself in.)
Before he finished, he made sure to insert some references to the Iraq war, which has been perhaps the single most galvanizing issue so far in the primary. Mr. Obama opposed the war from the Illinois State Senate in 2002 and does not carry the burden of having voted for its authorization, as Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards do. He has used that advantage to curry favor with the antiwar bloc, but has recently stepped up his criticism of the administration, and of Mrs. Clinton, whose plan to stop the war he has called "convoluted."
Obama told the 300 church-goers and seven television cameras that the war was depriving inner cities of much-needed recourses. "We are spending $275 million a day to try to keep people from killing each other in another land," he said from the pulpit, "right when a war is being fought right on the streets of Chicago."
Less than an hour later, Mr. Obama was standing in downtown Chicago, in front of an association of the country's leading trial lawyers, a traditional Democratic cash cow, brandishing his Harvard Law School and constitutional law credentials and decrying what he called the Bush administration's abuses of justice.
"Special interests are trying at every step to close courtroom doors to people who have been injured and defrauded out of their life savings," said Mr. Obama, to the members of the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America -- itself a special interest group reviled on the political right).
"If we hope to break the special interest cycle, if we hope to truly transform this country, if we hope to live up to the ideals of opportunity and fairness and equality, that animated the life of this nation, then we have to change our politics too," he said.
But Mr. Obama's changed politics, in many ways, looks a lot like the traditional Democratic route to the nomination. Union organizers on that Monday said that his picket-line march, which Mr. Obama took care to say was not a political "stunt," could well help him with the powerful hotel workers union in Nevada, an early primary state.
Officials in the campaign said that Mr. Obama would be using the $33 million in second-quarter donations to make more campaign forays into the early primary states. And he'll continue to show up at events like the one on July 17 organized by Planned Parenthood, the women's abortion rights group. (Mr. Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, and Mrs. Clinton also attended.)
When asked on the following Monday how he could catch up to Mrs. Clinton, who he trails nationally and in every primary state but South Carolina, Mr. Obama seemed confident that his efforts to reach out to the base would be successful.
"We're not worried about polling. At this point we're worried about building enthusiasm at the grass roots," he said above the clamor of the striking hotel workers behind him. "The fund-raising is an expression of the enthusiasm at the grass roots level. That's why we've got 258,000 donors."
This article first appeared in the New York Observer and is reprinted with permission.
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- John Edwards may not be leading in the polls. But, he would like to stress, he is leading on the issues.
"I don't need to read a poll, I don't need to see a focus group and I don't need to see what the other candidates are saying," said Mr. Edwards, sitting next to his wife in a blue van pulling away from Kitty's Fine Foods in Charleston. "I know exactly what I would do as president and that's why I have been leading on these issues. And it is exactly the kind of leadership I will provide as president."
Mr. Edwards and his campaign are rallying around the idea that he has demonstrated leadership by getting out front early on major issues, advocating "big change" and then almost daring his rivals to follow his example.
He rejects the notion that there's anything political about it.
"You describe it as if it is some kind of strategic maneuver," said Mr. Edwards, turning around in his seat to face his questioner. "I'm not waiting for anybody else's position. I know what my own views are and I'm going to lead on it."
But he certainly wants to make sure everyone knows it.
During a CNN/YouTube debate of Democratic presidential candidates on the night of July 23, Mr. Edwards said, almost apropos of nothing, "I would challenge every Democrat on this stage today to commit to raising the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by the year 2012."
The line drew applause.
On Tuesday afternoon, after a campaign stop about global warming in McClellanville, he again raised the issue of raising the minimum wage. He told reporters that the "inside Washington" types on the debate stage had failed to respond to his call for an increase.
"So I'm challenging Senator Clinton and Senator Obama and all the other Democrats" to match him, he said.
He has raced to the fore on other issues as well. His call for Congress to strip the funding for the war in Iraq, which he apologized for voting to authorize in 2002, preceded decisions by Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton to abandon their more measured positions on setting a timeline for withdrawal.
Mr. Edwards was the first major candidate this election cycle to deliver a health care plan, which required all Americans to be covered, and to lead a boycott -- that the other major candidates eventually joined -- against participating in a televised debate on Fox.
He stringently opposed a loophole allowing super-rich hedge fund investors to pay extremely low taxes despite collecting a salary from the New York hedge fund firm Fortress. Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, both major beneficiaries of hedge fund money, soon followed suit.
Whenever Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have offered proposals similar to his, Mr. Edwards seems to have reacted by further sharpening his pitch -- and by reminding his audiences of who had been their first.
On the afternoon of July 24, for example, he told a meeting of steel workers in a union hall in Georgetown, S.C., that he had no interest in negotiating with pharmaceutical companies to improve health care.
"The time to negotiate with them is after we beat them," he said, contrasting himself with candidates favoring a more moderate approach. He then proceeded to list all the other issues he says he came out first on.
"You're showing leadership, that's the issue," said Mr. Edwards' deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince after the debate on Monday. "Does anybody really think that these guys would have been in favor of defunding the war if we didn't?"
Joe Trippi, Edwards' top strategic advisor -- and the former campaign manager to a certain trend-setting, if ultimately unsuccessful, candidate named Howard Dean -- added, "I don't think there is any doubt that John Edwards has been setting the agenda."
But whatever moral victories Mr. Edwards has won so far over his main Democratic rivals have yet to translate into concrete political gain. Despite adoration from liberal bloggers, he trails in public polls of Democrats nearly everywhere except Iowa, where he has spent far more time than his opponents, and his fund-raising totals have been dwarfed by Mrs. Clinton's and Mr. Obama's.
And where the Edwards campaign presents his outspokenness as an act of bravery, his rivals see a candidate fading in the polls and desperately seeking attention by telling voters what they want to hear before they forget about him.
"I really wouldn't interpret it that if somebody in a campaign gave a speech, it decides the issues," said Mark Penn, Mrs. Clinton's chief pollster and political strategist. Mrs. Clinton, he said, "has been an actual leader for many years. If she's president she's going to drive the agenda in many ways."
Former Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, a major Clinton supporter, said he "vehemently" disagreed with the notion that Mrs. Clinton was at all following Mr. Edwards on any issues, especially the war in Iraq.
"In the area of Iraq, her plan is far more comprehensive," said Mr. Vilsack. "I don't know that he has come out with a comprehensive discussion of Iraq other than he wants to get the troops out."
Mr. Obama's campaign, too, took sharp issue with the notion that their candidate had taken any positions in reaction to Mr. Edwards.
"Obama spoke out against the war in 2003, and he has been a consistent opponent since then, so there has been no reason to apologize for his vote," said Jen Psaki, a spokesperson for Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, said that Mr. Edwards did not have the same responsibilities and commitments as an elected official.
"Certainly Senator Edwards, as someone who left elective office to run for president, has more flexibility," he said, before adding that there was "nothing path-breaking about the proposals he is making."
The only thing Mr. Edwards had achieved by being first with a health plan, an Iraq plan or a concrete proposal on the minimum wage, both campaigns said, was to be first. They would have gotten around to making their own proposals regardless of what Mr. Edwards did.
In the van, Mr. Edwards reacted angrily to that notion.
"Get to them when?" asked Mr. Edwards, when confronted with that logic. "When you start a campaign for the presidency of the United States you better have a very clear idea about what you want to do as president from day one."
At this point, Mr. Edwards' wife Elizabeth -- who is one of the campaign's best draws and who acts as her husband's closest adviser -- jumped in. "This tells you something about how he will be as president. He is not going to wait and drag his feet on these issues," she said. "And I think it tells you a great deal about his style of leadership."
She said that none of her husband's positions were the result of political calculation, and that if anything, Mr. Edwards was the one candidate among the front-runners whose political positions reflected his life's work.
"This is not something we came to recently. And what's more -- it is the story, unlike, I think, every candidate except Dennis Kucinich -- this is actually the story of his life," she said. "This is not a coat you put on for the campaign. This is something inside him."
"This is who I am," Mr. Edwards added. "I would do this if I weren't running for president."
This article first appeared in the New York Observer and is reprinted with permission.
There are certain grand historical fights that you think are over, tucked into the quaint Snoopy lunchbox of the past like a Capri Sun or bologna sandwich. Remember the Dalkon Shield I.U.D. uproar of the 1970's, with its controversial whiff of scientific profit over women's safety? Or what about the silicone-breast-implant scandals of the early 1990's? When silicone-boob-makers were all but run out of town as woman after woman came forward with ghoulish tales of ruptured implants and strange autoimmune-style ailments? Those were crazy days.
But sometimes the merry-go-round of culture swoops back around, depositing the old controversies right back in front of you like a stomping, pouty kid. Time slips back, and despite all other indications of social or at least temporal progress, the disgraced, buried past returns. Like Dick Cheney. Or creationism. Or, yes, silicone-boob jobs.
Throughout the last few months, rumors have been whipping through the breast-augmentation world that the Food and Drug Administration is on the verge of returning silicone implants to the open market after a 14-year partial ban on the gel-filled bosom enhancers. The ban, which came down in 1992, had never fully eradicated silicone -- women who had endured mastectomies or had a breast "deformity" or agreed to participate in a study could still opt for the gel -- but the average Pamela Anderson groupie, the cosmetic breast enhancer, was out of luck. She had to make do with saline.
But last summer, the F.D.A. sent word to two competing implant manufacturers, Inamed and the Mentor Corporation, that their applications to sell a new generation of silicone-filled sacs were "approvable with conditions." And since then, whispers of an imminent F.D.A. decision date -- the most recent centered on July 4 -- have regularly sifted through the country's plastic-surgery capitals, from the C-cup-loving streets of New York to the D-cup-worshipping beaches of California and Texas. (Implant size is, apparently, the one area where New Yorkers are more conservative than Texans.)
In a sign of just how confident the manufacturers are in the F.D.A.'s intentions, both Inamed and Mentor have included revenue from silicone implants in their 2006 earnings projections, CNNMoney.com reported.
"We believe that silicone will be approved," said Dr. Mark Jewell, an Oregon-based plastic surgeon and president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. "I can't tell you when, but I think it will be soon."
A spokesperson for the F.D.A. declined to comment on the rumors, saying only that the applications "are still being reviewed."
Like the return of all thorny cultural controversies, the news of a potential silicone resurgence has resurrected not just the specter of the gooey sacs, but the old debate around them. And it is as toxic as ever. (And we should emphasize: This is a debate about cosmetic enhancement, not reconstructive surgery.)
In one corner -- the corner of the nip-tuckers and implant-makers -- the return of silicone has been hailed as everything from the triumph of science over "emotion" to, paradoxically, a victory for women. Cloaking themselves in the velvet mantle of women's defenders, they have touted silicone not only as safe, but, frequently, as a better product for women than saline: better-looking, better-feeling, the difference between "a zip-lock bag of Jell-o versus a zip-lock bag of water," said Dr. Jewell.
"I think that we're the advocates of women who want this operation," he continued. "These devices should be ... available for patients as choice. This is choice."
That this language skates suspiciously close to the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement makes the whole thing all the more surreal.
And enraging to women's-rights advocates.
The news of a potential silicone comeback has not gone over well among its historic opponents in the women's movement. Sounding the old battle hymns feminist, they have grabbed their signs and science Ph.D.'s and argued that, surgeons' and silicone-makers' claims to the contrary, silicone has not been proved safe. It wasn't safe years ago, it isn't now, and the F.D.A. should not overturn its ban, they say. (Some have also accused the pro-implant warriors of spreading rumors that approval is imminent to create a climate where approval is a done deal.)
"We feel like there are enough warning signs and unanswered questions that women deserve better," said National Women's Heath Network director Cynthia Pearson. "This is a disputed product and a disputed body of [scientific] information."
It is also a deeply symbolic product, one that hovers not just at the intersection of health and sexuality -- always a pungent brew -- but of women's health and women's sexuality.
In today's America, free-to-be-you-and-me has long since given way to lipo, face-lifts and an ever-wider array of injectables: Botox for the brows, Gore-Tex for the lips, and restylane for those pesky wrinkles around the nose and mouth. In 2005, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported nine million cosmetic-surgery procedures on women, up 38 percent from 2000. And while most people acknowledge that you can shave, wax, laser or strut about in pasties and still be a feminist, it's also no wonder that women's groups are freaked. Silicone is the stalwart flag of last retreat.
THE HISTORY OF THE BOOB JOB IS LONG and puckered, a Wild West-style tale of experimentation, complications and little regulation. The story begins with a Viennese doctor (of course) who tried injecting paraffin into women's breasts in the 1890's, and it continues with tales seedy and strange of doctors experimenting with everything from synthetic sponges to glass balls to industrial-grade silicone (think transformer fluid) injected directly into Vegas showgirls' breasts, according to Elizabeth Haiken's Venus Envy. That many of these experiments ended in less than happy results -- cysts, gangrene, a few deaths -- didn't stop doctors from experimenting anyway.
The silicone-filled breast implant arrived on the bust-enhancing scene in 1962, to excitement from doctors and enthusiasm from the press. With its handy little protective pouch, this device was to be the solution to all those hapless decades of trial and error, to say nothing of the cruel disease of bustlessness. Once again, however, the big promises went largely unquestioned and unregulated.
But in the late 1980's, the decades of scientific complacency gave way to scandal. After several critical magazine articles and an F.D.A. study linking silicone gel to cancer in rats, women began coming forward with tales of woe: ruptured implants, free-sloshing silicone (silicone in their breast cavities, their bloodstream, their lymph nodes), and symptoms that ranged from generalized aches, pains and exhaustion to arthritis and lupus.
"[I] was at a rally in Washington, D.C., where women from all over the country came together ... and literally every woman had the same story," recalled Carol Ciancutti-Leyva, whose mother believes that she became ill from ruptured implants, and who is now making a documentary about the subject. "Every woman had the same symptoms."
Within short order, lawsuits were filed, the media pounced and a debate erupted. Surgeons called the allegations "junk science" -- and launched a $2 million counter-campaign -- but in 1992, after hemming, hawing and holding three days of hearings, the F.D.A. declared that manufacturers hadn't done their safety homework and removed the implants from the general-use market. When Dow Corning, the country's major silicone-implant maker, went bankrupt in 1995, the disgraced polymer seemed officially banished from the cosmetic-implant market.
In fact, it was only in temporary exile.
On Dec. 31, 2002, Inamed filed an application with the F.D.A. to begin marketing a new generation of silicone implants to mammary-challenged Americans -- a move that was followed several months later by Mentor. The companies had been emboldened by a series of studies that found no clear link between silicone and serious autoimmune disease, but their move still sparked controversy -- nearly three years of it, in fact, including several heated F.D.A. hearings, two rounds of applications (the F.D.A. turned down Inamed's first attempt) and some serious lobbying (Mentor spent $850,000 on lobbying in 2005 alone).
Such back-and-forth has done little to clarify the burning question of implant safety in the public's mind.
To listen to its boosters, silicone gel is a decidedly harmless, inert substance, the wonder material behind countless medical innovations, from testicular implants to neurosurgical shunts. "Silicone is everywhere," said Dr. Helen Colen, a Park Avenue plastic surgeon who supports the return of silicone, though she generally prefers saline. "Your IV lines are silicone, your syringes are silicone. Everything is silicone. And yet only the breast got the raw deal?"
Beyond ubiquity, surgeons and supporters point to a pool of studies, including the much-touted 1999 Institute of Medicine Study, which did not find "statistically significant" links between silicone implants and systemic autoimmune diseases. That some of these studies also warned about an increased incidence of painful or disfiguring local complications -- like infection, rupture and a nasty-sounding condition called "capsular contracture" -- tends to get less airtime.
"Certainly, there are some local problems. Silicone gel implants got ruptured, and silicone got in the tissues, and that could produce lumps and bumps," said Dr. Sherrell Aston, the celebrated celebrity plastic surgeon. (Many plastic surgeons dismiss rupture as a minor concern, saying it generally does not lead to serious silicone leakage these days because of sturdier implant shells and gooier silicone gels.) "But the real question is whether they produce any systemic disease, and there's no evidence in the literature to support that."
Silicone opponents beg to differ. Not only do they warn that rupture remains a potential problem in today's new implants -- one that can lead to additional surgeries and complications -- but, they say, the literature offers a number of noteworthy examples of downright unhealthy silicone side effects, some of the scariest of which are presented in an ongoing National Cancer Institute study. Among its findings: Women with implants were two to three times as likely to die from brain cancer and respiratory cancers, and four times as likely to commit suicide, compared to other plastic-surgery patients.
As for those nasty connective-tissue ailments and autoimmune disorders about which so many women complained, implant opponents aren't convinced that silicone is innocent there, either. While a number of studies found no observable tie to these diseases, implant critics say the studies are not entirely conclusive or trustworthy. In many cases, the sample size was too small; in other cases, the studies were too short; and frequently they were funded by the implant industry -- charges that the groups have also lobbed against Inamed's and Mentor's trials of their cohesive-gel implants.
"A lot of this is a data-quality issue," said Susan Wood, former director of the F.D.A.'s Office of Women's Health, who resigned last year after the agency refused to approve Plan B despite evidence showing that it was safe. (The agency finally approved it last month.) "I think there needs to be a stand for high-quality data from the companies that has enough people over a long enough period of time .... Because, from what I know of what's been presented, the studies don't demonstrate that these products are safe enough for approval."
THE F.D.A. HAS REMAINED STUBBORNLY MUM on its plans to approve, or not approve, silicone-gel implants, and the reality is that it could as easily give (or deny) its blessing tomorrow as it could over Thanksgiving, after the confirmation of the new F.D.A. commissioner, or during the next eclipse. But one thing is certain: If and when silicone plops back onto the cosmetic-implant market, it will find a ready home in American bosoms.
Between 1992 and 2005, the number of women getting breast augmentation for breast augmentation's sake bounced an eye-popping 756 percent, from less than 33,000 to more than 279,000, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. If this trend continues, the number of lady augmentees should climb a hefty heap higher next year. And should silicone get the government go-ahead, a good chunk of these women can be expected to choose the gel-filled sacs over saline -- in spite of the higher cost, in spite of the hullabaloo. Already, some women have opted to hold off on their Betty Boop dreams until silicone returns, several doctors said.
"I'm trying to find on the Internet what the newest rules on silicone are, and if/when they will be laxer," one woman wrote on the popular implant message board, BreastImplants411. "I'm looking into a ba" -- shorthand for breast augmentation, not Bachelor of Arts -- "and only want silicone .... "
The impulse that drives some women to plump their breasts with silicone or saline -- and again, we're not talking about women who've had mastectomies -- has long been a source of inter-lady conflict. During the years of hearings, anti-implant crusaders frequently rubbed up against enhancement buffs who accused them of condescension and, yes, suppressing their right to choice -- consumer choice, that is.
"I don't understand the hatred for these products," said Arlene Nicole Cummings, an implant veteran who runs a Web site, Implantinfo.com, that she said gets more than one million hits a day. "It's almost like some women feel like you betrayed them, like you have ... given in to what society thinks women should look like."
Ms. Cummings denied that such pesky impulses had anything to do with her desire to boost her bust. "It was not that way at all," she insisted, pointing instead to an operation she had when younger to remove a breast tumor that left one breast small and underdeveloped, as well as to the vagaries of breast-feeding. "They just felt empty and saggy," she recalled of her post-baby breasts. Her husband didn't mind, but she "hated" them.
"For me, it was so much deeper -- I just did not feel complete," she said. "So when I filled them out, I was like, 'This is great ....' I could buy clothes; I fit into everything. It just completed me."
But to one mother, acting student and saline-implant owner, that need for completeness is just the problem. On a recent Thursday, this woman, who gave her name as Foxy, sat perched on a vinyl barstool at Ten's World-Class Cabaret, where she works evenings to pay her tuition, talking about the decision she now regrets.
"The big deal is men ... because you want to be acceptable," she said of the decision she made six years earlier, when she was just 23. "Unfortunately, in North America, big boobs seem to be a huge factor in our makeup of society these days -- to get through doors, or get things open, or get paid, really.
"It's an American thing," she concluded with a quick, wry smile. "It's the American dream -- or at least it gets you one."