Friday, June 22, 2007

See If You Can Tell

[posted by Callimachus]

The regular editorial writer was on vacation this week, and the boss, knowing I had done this job before elsewhere, asked me to fill in for a day. Mainly this involved pagination and editing, but he also wanted me to write two editorials to cover him for the weekend. I suggested a topic for one. He suggested a topic and a point of view for the other. I didn't entirely agree with his point of view, but he's the boss, so I wrote it that way. But at the end of the night it was amusing to me to see how differently I wrote the one than the other.

I offer them here, not as a lesson in my own perfidy, but as an example of shades and subtext in journalism.

Here's one:

After the Hamas putsch in Gaza last week, President Bush rushed to embrace Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian who now rules unopposed in the West Bank.

With the Israeli prime minister at his side, Bush said Abbas "is a voice that is a reasonable voice amongst the extremists in your neighborhood."

You could almost imagine Abbas cringing, as you could when Bush in the same news conference referred to Abbas' prime minister Salam Fayyad as a "good fellow."

There's an art to this diplomacy business, and American president once knew how to do it. It involves a firm belief and commitment to the transcendent ideals of America and their transformative power in the world. Bush certainly has that.
It also involves a dash of realism.

A 2006 Gallup survey of Palestinian opinion showed it is "widely hostile to U.S. leadership" and, "More than four in five Palestinians (82%) have a 'very unfavorable' opinion of President Bush ...." Those numbers are unlikely to have changed since then.

In 1948, Yugoslavia's leader, Tito, broke away from the Soviet bloc, and the U.S. carefully moved to protect him without undermining him. The matter was so delicate Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, kept it under his personal direction. Any presidential statement on Yugoslavia was carefully vetted, and usually delivered second-hand, by an ambassador, for instance.

The Truman administration knew Tito should be supported because his independence weakened Stalin, but it also knew "it would be bad politics and bad morals to represent him as an ally of the West," Acheson later wrote. "He was and would long remain a staunch Communist and the dictator of a police state. To represent him otherwise would injure both him and us."

Bolstering Abbas and his new government is the wise thing to do now. It should be good for the Palestinians, good for peace, and good for America's interests in the Mideast.

But Bush should do it very quietly, from a great distance, and through international agencies as much as possible. He should almost seem not to be doing it at all. Picking a minor fight with Abbas now and then wouldn't hurt, either.

The practical difference between Fatah and Hamas may amount to what President Carter artlessly suggested this week: Hamas is just more effective at murder and extortion than Fatah is these days. Bush sees good fellows, but goodfellas might be closer to the case.

Another unpleasant truth is that a big hug for Abbas from the American president might be the kiss of death.

Here's the other:

"That's why they call them deadlines."

Maybe you heard that some time in your career, from a teacher or a boss or a landlord. You know, the one who would brook no excuse, however heartfelt your plea.
Well, you can put a national face on that character: Antonin Scalia.

Scalia has advocated such strictness in the legal realm for many years now. This week, he got a chance to join a Supreme Court majority (the usual 5-4 split) in bringing it about.

A man sentenced to 15 years to life for helping to beat another man to death was told by an Ohio judge he had 18 days to file an appeal. The judge was wrong: federal law allowed him only 14 days.

On the 17th day, the murderer's lawyer filed his papers. Eventually, the mistake was discovered. The appeal was thrown out. The case went to the Surpreme Court.

The petitioner's situation would seem to fall under the "unique circumstances" doctrine the Supreme Court began crafting in the 1960s.

As Justice David Souter protested (in dissenting from this ruling), the court had been making that doctrine more flexible for several years.

Things are different now.

In an earlier case this month, the court overturned a pay-discrimination verdict, also over a missed deadline that even the justices agreed was probably too short to be fair. Now some congressional Democrats are trying to write new legislation to change the bad law.

Which is how the system is supposed to work, in a strict view.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority in the most recent case, pointed out that, "If rigorous rules like the one applied today are thought to be inequitable," Congress, not the Court, should change them.

That certainly is reasonable. But when the accidental coincidences of Supreme Court replacements and presidential politics combine to change the entire judicial philosophy of the court, and a case that would have been ruled one way since the 1960s is entirely reversed this year for no other reason, it's hard not to feel an arbitrary element is at work in the system.

"It is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way," Souter complained. "There is not even a technical justification for condoning this bait and switch."

Especially when the fault, as all the justices agreed, lay not with the murderer's appeal, but with the system itself.