Notebook

by TNR Staff | May 2, 2005

PATRIOT GAMES

Early this month, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales took his case for renewing several provisions of the Patriot Act before the Senate Judiciary Committee, his interlocutors were not wholly convinced. Naturally, the newly confirmed A.G. turned on the charm. He even injected some rhetorical flourish in defending a few particularly controversial provisions of the Act, which the Justice Department admitted it had never actually had occasion to use. "It's comparable to a police officer who carries a gun for 15 years and never draws it. Does that mean that, for the next five years, he should not have that weapon because he had never used it?" he asked metaphorically. Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter spoke up for his stone-faced colleagues: "Attorney General Gonzales, I don't think your analogy is apt." Tough crowd.

Luckily, Gonzales has since found a more credulous audience for his arguments--the American people. Last week, the White House's website featured the A.G. in its ongoing Q&A series with administration officials. The queries, emanating from such far-flung locales as Channahon, Illinois, and Lakeville, Connecticut, mostly related to the Patriot Act. Some demanded, gently, to know about the law's effect on civil rights, others about intelligence-gathering and the rate of terrorist attacks.

In an amazing feat of brevity, the attorney general managed never to exceed a few sentences in his explanations. For instance, when Brian of Erlanger, Kentucky, wondered "what you have to say to the critics of the patriot act, who think that it is illeagle [sic], or unconstitutional," Gonzales offered his assurance that "various provisions have already been challenged and upheld in our courts." (That federal judges have twice struck down parts of the law found to violate First and Fourth Amendment rights was not worthy of notice, presumably in the interest of concision.) To Rick of Worcester, Massachusetts, who sought Gonzales's opinion on what to "say to those who irrationally oppose this Act," the A.G. suggested this masterpiece of suasion: "I believe the facts demonstrate that the Department of Justice has used the authorities under the patriot Act with a great deal of care." Maybe he should have tried that one on Specter.


PYRAMID SCHEME

It was a busy week: The Catholic Church elected an archconservative Pope, Robert Mugabe threw himself a 25-year I'm-still-the-president-so-nuts-to-you party, and John Bolton suppressed the urge to throw his water glass at members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chase them around the table. Most momentous of all was the news from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): We have a new food pyramid.

We were just getting used to the old food pyramid. The passing of its predecessor, the food wheel--unceremoniously retired in 1992--had been troubling: What civilization reverts from wheel to pyramid? But experts said that the wheel had been misleading, that it had implied that each of the four food groups (an outdated concept; soon there would be five) merited equal--and, in the United States, equally large--servings. And, with 68 million Americans already estimated to be overweight or obese, pyramid-backers had a strong argument that drastic change was needed.

Thirteen years later, a case can be made that the pyramid has helped. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that the number of overweight or obese Americans has increased to about 130 million, there's nothing to show that the numbers would not have been much higher under the reign of the wheel. Were it not for the tetrahedron, perhaps the cumulative weight of our countrymen and women would be pressing certain regions of the country dangerously below sea level. Nevertheless, there is always room for some fine-tuning.

The USDA claims that the new pyramid (well, actually, there are twelve new pyramids--and the important thing is to find the one that's right for you) turns the old pyramid on its side. While careless observers might have overlooked the effect of such a maneuver on an equilateral triangle, even a stingy soul must notice the most prominent changes: the six colored stripes that now run from bottom to top, and the staircase running up the left side. The staircase represents exercise, the stripes represent food groups, and the pyramid shape represents--well, let's not try to decipher everything. The point is: We're obese. The result is twelve new food pyramids. Each has a staircase. But, for now, the staircase is only on one side. That means we're not that big yet. When the USDA announces a food ziggurat, we'll know we're really in trouble.
INCREDIBLE OUTRAGE

'And not only that, he said in session that he does his own research on the Internet? That is just incredibly outrageous."
—Tom DeLay, criticizing Supreme Court Justice
Anthony Kennedy on a Fox News Radio
program on April 19

WHO'S PATHETIC NOW?

'Which is why we greet Bush's plan to cap agriculture subsidies with a heavy dose of skepticism. … The plan came out of nowhere; though the farm lobby got wind of the impending proposal last week, it was preceded by no widespread call for reform, no impending crisis, no congressional debate. Nor was there the usual folksy p.r. rollout of town-hall meetings and Midwestern stump speeches so typical of Bush's major initiatives, such as Social Security privatization. All of which suggests that the president is taking the idea none too seriously."
—The New Republic's editors,
February 21, 2005

"Their editorial is just pathetic. They like the proposed cuts but hate Bush so much that they can't give him any credit for it. Their excuse is that Bush clearly doesn't intend for his proposal to pass, and the evidence they provide for that view basically amounts to their own distrust of him. This is not serious thought."
—Ramesh Ponnuru,
National Review senior editor,
criticizing TNR that same week

After two months of fierce resistance from farmers and Congress, the Bush administration has dropped an effort to cut government payments to farmers.
—Associated Press, April 13, 2005

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