Can a library redefine a presidency?
If George W. Bush’s new library is any indication, you bet.
Like memoirs and a sudden interest in Third World health issues, presidential libraries are one of the many devices in the grand toolbox of “Post-Presidential Image Rehabilitation.” In other words, rewriting history.
In fact, the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which is enjoying a Grand Old Party of an opening Thursday as all five living presidents descend on the Southern Methodist University in Dallas for its dedication, has actually gotten some good reviews.
In all seriousness, we’ve got to hand it to Dubya – and what must be one of the most practiced PR teams in history – on this one. From what we’ve seen and heard, the library comes across as a thoughtful tribute to a nation.
And, thanks to the above-mentioned PR team, the broader image rehab project is already working. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday showed Bush’s approval rating has climbed to 47 percent, up from a bruising 23 percent when he left office.
The presidential library in Dallas and its version of the Bush years, along with a healthy dose of amnesia, can only help.
Here’s how Bush – according to his brand spanking new library – wants to be remembered:
As a wartime president
Looming large in the center of the museum is a mangled steel beam from the World Trade Center, dramatically showcasing the 9/11 attacks, and by extension, Bush’s leadership as a wartime president. It’s no surprise this is a focal point of the Presidential Center – 9/11 was a turning point not only for the presidency, but also for the nation. Echoing across the library are the wails of the sirens that blared on 9/11 and, according to Politico, Bush bellowing, “Today our nation saw evil.”
… But a statesman, not a warmonger
He may be a wartime president, but he’s no warmonger, Bush’s library wants you to think. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are largely downplayed, folded into one display on the Global War on Terror in an exhibit called, in classic Bush fashion, “Defending Freedom.” (Not to be confused with Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or the Bush Freedom Agenda.)
And while Bush wasn’t the most refined of statesmen, perhaps, (remember the German Chancellor neck rub, the African dance party, and the Saudi sword dance?), as Politico points out, the first thing greeting visitors at the Bush theater is an oversize painting of him with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
As a compassionate conservative
You won’t find a whole lot of politics or election memorabilia in the Bush library. (Notably, not a whiff of the controversial, and oft-caricatured, figures of Senior Adviser Karl Rove, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.) Nor will you find any reminders of Bush’s staunch opposition to gay marriage and abortion – positions that may not stand the test of time.
What you will find is a case for Bush as a compassionate conservative, with big displays on his more overlooked causes like No Child Left Behind, the faith-based initiative, and his campaigns to encourage volunteerism and to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa.
As the mid-range department store so aptly put it, it’s the softer side of Bush.
As a resolute leader who faced difficult decisions
There was a lot of controversy in the Bush years – from WMDs and the Iraq invasion to Hurricane Katrina – and the library’s handling of it was masterful.
Rather than ignoring the controversy (too obvious) or glorifying Bush’s agenda (too vulnerable), the presidential center decided to put visitors in Dubya’s shoes, shedding light on the enormity of the decisions he faced.
That’s how the “Decision Points” theater was born, an interactive experience in which guests consider four major dilemmas Bush faced – the Iraq invasion, the troop surge, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis – and based on advice from advisers, choose their own response. Bush then appears on a video explaining his own decisions and how he arrived at them.
Given the sensitivity of the issues explored, this little device is brilliant.
As is Bush’s fifth decision: to take a page from Winston Churchill’s book on securing his legacy.
“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” the British prime minister once said.
Have you heard about the Obama family plan to keep daughters Sasha and Malia from getting tattoos? President Obama talked about it yesterday on the “Today” show. It’s sort of based on assured mutual deterrence. Or preemption – you could call it that, too.
“Michelle and I have used the strategy when it comes to things like tattoos – what we’ve said to the girls, ‘If you guys ever decide you’re going to get a tattoo, then mommy and me will get the same exact tattoo in the same place,” Mr. Obama told “Today” journalist Savannah Guthrie. “And we’ll go on YouTube and show it off as a family tattoo. And our thinking is that might dissuade them from thinking that somehow that’s a good way to rebel.”
Wow, that’s interesting, in the sense that it’s a fairly coherent and intellectualized way to approach this common parental problem. But here’s our question: Will that really work?
No, as a parent of two teenagers, Decoder does not think it is a successful long-run strategy, either.
Oh sure, it’s worked for now. They’re still kind of young. Malia is 14 and Sasha is 11. They’re not marching into any tattoo parlor near Sidwell Friends School in upper northwest DC. First, there aren’t any – they can’t afford the rents there. Second, you’ve got to be 18 to get a tat in the city, we believe. The City Council approved that move recently.
So they’d get thrown out, for being under age and because few tattoo parlors care to have Secret Service watchdogs at their door.
But the real reason the preemption strategy probably appeals to the Obamas right now is that their daughters still listen to them. They can process cause and parental reaction and weigh options. They haven’t entered that period where common sense gets suspended, and they focus mostly on their own needs and wants, because that’s what teenagers do.
Oh, were we projecting there?
Once they are 18, they will be away from daily parental authority and tattoos might seem like a better idea. At that age, they don’t really think about long-term consequences, so they might get body art just to spite their parents. Or because they forgot their parents’ we-will-do-it-too vow. Or because they don’t care. Or just because.
As Connor Simpson notes on the Atlantic Wire, “these are young women who take cellphone photos and, yes, go on spring break. You don’t stop them. You can only hope to contain them.”
And then what happens? The president of the United States will probably feel obligated to get a tattoo of a butterfly at the base of his neck, because he vowed he would; and if he does not follow through, opponents will doubt his strength of will, or something like that.
No, once they get old enough to be out of your daily control, the best way to keep them from getting tattoos might be bribes. Tell them as long as they remain tat-free, they can use Camp David for parties, say.
Or Obama might convince some senator to slip a rider in an appropriations bill that simply makes it illegal to give the children of any current or former US chief executive a tattoo. As LBJ once said in another context when someone told him a bill was a bad idea, “Well then what the [expletive] is the presidency for?”
Glenn Beck has spent lots of time in recent days alleging that the Boston Marathon bombing was carried out by a conspiracy that revolved around a shadowy Saudi national questioned by police in a Boston hospital in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
OK, is he just winging it here, or does the ex-Fox, now-independent radio and Internet video host have any real evidence for this charge?
He says he does, unsurprisingly. On his show Wednesday morning Mr. Beck produced a document that he claimed is an official US “event report” showing that the Saudi in question is a bad, bad man who was on a no-fly list and already subject to visa revocation.
What he didn’t mention is that Fox News reporter Bret Baier has already looked into this whole alleged Saudi conspiracy, including the document Beck deemed so revealing, and concluded that there was no there there, to paraphrase writer Gertrude Stein’s jibe about Oakland.
It’s “false and misleading” to use the internal document on the Saudi’s immigration status as evidence of the man’s involvement in the bombings, according to US officials quoted by Mr. Baier in a Fox video blog on April 23.
“The FBI says the Saudi [in question] was just a victim of the terrorist attack,” said Baier.
OK, let’s rewind a bit to clarify this, shall we?
In the immediate aftermath of the Boston tragedy, many media outlets reported that law enforcement officials were interrogating an injured Saudi man who had been seen running from the site of the bombs. Authorities that evening searched his residence in suburban Revere.
Officials later reported that this Saudi was a student and an innocent spectator who had been injured by the blasts and was trying to escape along with many other people on the Marathon route.
Although the man’s name has been reported by some media outlets, Decoder won’t be using it, so as to not further publicize the identity of someone police say did nothing wrong.
Since then Glenn Beck has continued to link the Saudi to the bombing and to terrorism in general. He has charged that the man was in the US on a student visa that had expired and that he will be deported by US immigration for security reasons. He has gone so far as to speculate that a Saudi national may have been an Al Qaeda control agent who recruited the Tsarnaev brothers to carry out the Boston attacks.
Then on Wednesday Beck dropped his other shoe, revealing what he said was important new evidence in the case.
Beck said he had received a document he called a 212 3(B) report, named after its reference in the Patriot Act. The document said that a Saudi national with the same name as the person questioned in the hours after the bombing is an “exact match” to someone on a no-fly list and that derogatory information on him is “sufficient to request visa revocation.”
A copy of the alleged document posted online by Beck’s web site The Blaze also noted that the person in question “has One (1) prior event,” though there was no indication what, or how serious, that event was.
Wow, I mean, this does not look good, does it? Twitter has exploded with comments about how important this is, and how it presages the exposure of the conspiracy, which probably involves everyone up to the level of the Oval Office, and perhaps beyond.
But Bret Baier had this piece of paper already. On Tuesday, he talked with US officials about it, and got a different story.
First off, Baier said the wording of the paper was indeed somewhat dire.
“Anyone looking at this would say this is a bad guy, this means they had a lot of stuff on this guy,” he said.
But officials told him it was simply an automatic piece of customs paperwork triggered when police went to question the Saudi in the hours after the bombing.
To make sure he did not somehow get on an airplane before they could talk to him, they put him on a no-fly list. That automatically meant he was subject to visa revocation. The other language, including the reference to an “event,” followed from that.
“Also keep in mind, it’s just … a customs and border control document…. It’s not indicative of any investigative information,” said Baier.
After the FBI determined the man had no connection to the Boston crime, it took several days for the bureaucracy to scrub him out of its system. That is why the document existed for a short period of time, and why it shows evidence of officials trying to change it. But anyone searching the system for his name on the Sunday prior to the bombing would have found nothing, reported Baier, because no US government agency was looking for him.
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano referred to all this obliquely in a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
The Homeland Security Secretary replied that the Saudi in question had not been on a watch list prior to the bombings and was never really a person of interest in the case.
“Because he was being interviewed, he was at that point put on a watch list,” Napolitano added. “And then when it was quickly determined he had nothing to do with the bombing, the watch listing status was removed.”
As if all this weren’t complicated enough, a number of news outlets have reported that there is a second Saudi man in Boston, unrelated to the student, who was taken into custody when he showed up at a port to retrieve a package, and a routine check showed he had overstayed his visa.
That’s the Saudi who is subject to deportation. The student who was caught in the bomb blast is not.
Of course, it’s easy to point out that all this is based on the word of US officials, and that they’re eager to cover up the conspiracy, since it makes them look bad, or they are part of it, or something like that.
But that’s why conspiracy theories persist: it’s easy to dream them up, and hard to disprove them, especially to believers.
Is George W. Bush having a comeback? It looks like that might be the case, depending on how “comeback” is defined. With his presidential library set to open on Thursday, W. is scoring his highest poll numbers since 2005, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll. Forty-seven percent of respondents in the survey say they now approve of how President Bush performed during his eight years in office.
Gee, that’s not much different than President Obama’s current score, is it? Over the last three months the nation’s current chief executive has averaged a 49.7 percent approval rating. Just saying.
OK, Bush’s polls are still underwater, in the sense that more people – 50 percent of respondents, in the Post/ABC survey – disapprove of his performance than give it thumbs up. And for W., “highest poll numbers since 2005” is not a high bar, given that his approval rating began to plummet about then and bottomed out at only 23 percent about the time he left office.
Plus ex-presidents typically see a gradual but steady rise in their popularity after leaving office. Their failures fade, their successes seem hard-won in retrospect, and they’re not engendering any more controversy. Famously, Jimmy Carter rates much higher in the public esteem today than he did in 1980. Bill Clinton? The Big Dog remains the nation’s most popular living former Oval Office occupant, according to a Pew Research matchup.
But, at the least, the ex-president from Texas who’s a new grandfather and Painter of Dogs ™ in his spare time seems to be having a moment. His partisans have taken to the media to defend him this week prior to the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
On her “Right Turn” Washington Post blog, Jennifer Rubin holds that “many of [Bush’s] supposed failures are mild compared to the current president."
Bush rallied the country after 9/11, mostly presided over an era of prosperity, and launched the “fiscally sober” Medicare Part D prescription drug plan, according to Ms. Rubin.
Over on Fox News, Bush political guru Karl Rove appeared on “America’s Newsroom” on Tuesday and defended his former boss, saying that Bush provided “decisive leadership” when the US economy cratered in 2008 and did better among Hispanic voters than Mitt Romney. US voters should realize how complicated the Middle East would be today if Saddam Hussein remained in power, said Mr. Rove.
“People are now able to be looking back and saying that the things he did right, we better understand,” said Rove.
This is not an attitude universally held by the nation’s political chattering class, as you might imagine. Over at Foreign Policy Magazine, Dan Drezner, Fletcher School professor of international politics, writes that the revisionist George W. Bush seems pretty much like the old George W. Bush to him.
It’s true that Bush has been a pretty good ex-president, writes Mr. Drezner. He’s generally avoided controversy, unlike his own ex-vice president, Dick Cheney. And the performance of Bush’s economic team in the face of the financial meltdown deserves credit.
“George W. Bush helmed a war of choice that proved, in the end, to impose powerful constraints ... for American foreign policy. He pursued his foreign policy aims in such a way as to dramatically lower US standing abroad,” writes Drezner.
And at the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, points out that many more conservative Republicans have criticized Bush 43 in recent years as a big-spending, big-government president in GOP clothing.
“According to a very frequently repeated (if sometimes indirect) conservative account, W. and his minions convinced Republicans to sell their birthright of ideological rigor for a mess of swing-voter pottage that failed politically as well as morally,” writes Kilgore.
Perhaps the most interested observer of the Bush revisionism thus may be brother Jeb Bush, whose 2016 ambitions could depend on how conservative Tea Party types judge his family as a whole.
Is Earth Day dead?
Maybe not, but if we’ve read the tree rings correctly, it may be dying. Which is why 2013 is the year we don’t need to save the Earth – we need to save Earth Day.
Consider this: A new Huffington Post/YouGov poll finds Americans are less concerned about the environment now than when Earth Day began. A lot less.
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In 1971, the year after Earth Day was founded, 63 percent of Americans said it was “very important” to work to restore and enhance the national environment, according to an Opinion Research Corp. poll for President Richard Nixon. This year, only 39 percent of respondents said it was very important, according to a 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll.
Other categories show similar disinterestedness. In 1971, 25 percent said working to restore the environment is “fairly important,” and 8 percent said it was “not too important.” In 2013, 41 percent said it was fairly important, and 16 percent said it was not too important.
And a 2012 Harris Interactive poll found a similar falloff in eco-consciousness just over the past three or four years, with fewer and fewer Americans describing themselves as “environmentally conscious.”
What with all the other concerns competing for our attention – terrorism, a limping economy, celebrities behaving badly – we shouldn’t be surprised that the Earth has orbited off our list of priorities.
That’s why we’re not surprised to read about fracking in California (Yes, you read that right: The land of redwood-hugging, granola-crunching, eat local-pioneering, plastic bag-banning Earth hippies is considering the controversial technique known as fracking.) and coal mining in the Mountain West.
And that’s why we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that among developed nations, the US is dead last in energy productivity, the level of economic output achieved from energy consumed.
According to a Politico opinion piece by Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia and National Grid president Tom King, 57 percent of the “energy flowing into our economy is simply wasted,” costing US businesses and households $130 billion per year.
Heck, even China ranks better than us.
No, Earth Day isn’t dead. But it needs intervention.
Is it time to make it a priority again – both in government and public opinion? If so, several things would need to happen.
For starters, lawmakers must advance initiatives that support not just the environment and clean energy, but also economic growth. As Senator Warner wrote for Politico, “It’s critical that we recognize stewardship and growth not as mutually exclusive, but as complementary goals.”
Warner also suggests rethinking regulations for our energy market in order to incentivize energy efficiency, as well as adopting a “Race to the Top”-style framework to challenge state and local governments to boost energy productivity.
And if, 50 years after Earth Day began, we want to see more Americans say they care about the environment than do now, it would be key to instill such an ethic in the nation's youths, ensuring that the generations who would be most affected by today’s environmental policy tomorrow are fully invested in Earth Day – and their Earth.
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The fight for more gun control isn’t dead. At least, that’s what advocates claim.
They’ve gone through the so-called stages of grief: Denial (what else would you call the remark by Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, “We’re gonna pass this”?). Anger (did you read shooting victim and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s op-ed to The New York Times?). Bargaining (unseen, perhaps, but backroom deal attempts and last-minute pleas were many). Depression (did you see President Obama’s face in the Rose Garden after the Senate defeat?). And now – with the decision by Senate majority leader Harry Reid to deep-freeze the issue by pulling the entire gun bill from the Senate floor – acceptance.
But while gun-control proponents may have conceded defeat in the Senate, they’re insisting the war isn’t over: It’s just moving to other fronts – like states, the executive branch, and the airwaves.
“This effort is not over,” Mr. Obama said in remarks Wednesday after the gun bill’s defeat. “I see this as just Round 1.”
Here are three ways that gun-control supporters will try to carry on their fight.
Executive action. “Even without Congress, my administration will keep doing everything it can to protect more of our communities,” Obama said in the Rose Garden shortly after the Senate’s gun vote. “We're going to address the barriers that prevent states from participating in the existing background-check system.”
It’s as if, disgusted by Congress, Obama decided to take matters into his own hands. And it's not the first time he's taken the initiative on gun-control measures: In January, he announced 23 executive actions on guns.
This time his first target, perhaps not surprisingly, is background checks. And he’s homing in on ensuring that mentally ill people are denied access to firearms. That’s because the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s current background-check system has many holes. According to the Associated Press, a federal review revealed that 17 states sent fewer than 10 mental-health records to the FBI’s background-check database, “meaning many deemed by a judge to be a danger still could have access to guns.”
That’s partly due to lack of enforcement and partly due to health privacy laws that prevent some states from providing information on mental-health illnesses to national databases. (Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, health-care providers are limited in what, and how much, medical information can be released to authorities.)
Obama has said he will use executive action, if possible, to allow disclosure of mental-health records, potentially giving states financial incentives for reporting mental-health information to national databases.
Airwaves: The National Rifle Association is not the only player handing out ratings. (As you know, the NRA doles out letter grades to politicians based on their voting record on guns, reinforcing pro-gun lawmakers and warning those who support gun control.)
Now, pro-gun-control groups are taking a page from the NRA’s playbook, taking to the airwaves in an attempt to paint those who voted against background checks as soft on crime.
Leading the charge are two groups: Obama’s own campaign group, Organizing for Action, which has said it will organize campaigns against both Democrats and Republicans who opposed the background-check bill; and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group cofounded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which bankrolled many gun-control campaigns ahead of the Senate vote.
“Today and for the foreseeable future, mayors and supporters and survivors and some pretty outraged citizens will be letting senators know they’re paying attention,” Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told The New York Times. “And their memories are long.”
Among the first ads to hit the Twitter universe: a “wanted" poster by Mr. Glaze’s group featuring the four Democrats who voted against background checks – Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Mark Begich of Alaska – with the title, “The Soft on Crime Caucus.”
States: As the Decoder reported Thursday, the next front in the gun-control battle appears to be at the state level. There, authorities are forging ahead with gun-control bills even as federal legislation hits a wall.
Some 11 states are considering or have already passed tougher gun laws – New York, Colorado, Connecticut, Oregon, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.
Moving the fight to the state level forces groups like the NRA “to fight back in multiple jurisdictions, spreading out its resources rather than concentrating them in Washington,” the LA Times reports. “For another, it allows states, cities and counties to create restrictions that are tailored to their populations and politics.”
The fight may go on, but for now, it appears “Round 2” will be a far less ambitious effort than Round 1.
Following a dramatic defeat in Wednesday’s Senate vote on a raft of gun control provisions, a defiant President Obama and his posse of gun control advocates are vowing to press on – but the way forward is more likely to be off Capitol Hill, in state houses and legislatures.
Wednesday’s gun defeat was a grim chapter for gun control advocates and – if the Senate’s vote was any indication – future prospects for gun control legislation in Congress appear grimmer.
Each of the seven amendments voted on Wednesday failed (two more are scheduled for Thursday), including Mr. Obama’s centerpiece effort and the bipartisan proposal with overwhelming public support, expanded background checks. The quashing of that provision “likely marks the end of the entire effort in the Senate,” reports NBC News.
Even more telling was the fate of the least controversial piece of legislation, a measure to crack down on gun trafficking, which had the support of the National Rifle Association and was expected to pass with just a voice vote. That too, failed.
The disappointment in Washington was palpable.
Flanked by visibly grieved relatives of Newtown, Conn., shooting victims, Obama called it “a pretty shameful day for Washington.”
Shooting survivor and former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona penned an angry opinion article in The New York Times claiming that senators “gave into fear and blocked common-sense legislation.”
And yet, the outcome shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. While polls trumpet overwhelming public support for increased gun controls, it came down to politics, where the NRA is the kingmaker and lawmakers, especially those in rural states, reliably fall into line.
As pundits parsing the bill’s death have pointed out in their post-mortems, to expect the vote to have gone otherwise is a bald misjudgment and underestimation of the influence of the gun lobby on skittish red-state lawmakers.
The quashing of the gun bill, the Times reports, was a simple “combination of the political anxiety of vulnerable Democrats from conservative states, deep-seated Republican resistance, and the enduring clout of the National Rifle Association.”
What now for gun control? Is there a way forward?
For now, it appears that congressional leaders have conceded defeat.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada is expected to pull the entire bill from the Senate floor and move on to issues with better prospects – namely, immigration and an Internet sales tax provision.
Nonetheless, it may not be the end of the road for gun control advocates. The next front in the battle for gun control? The states.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, “even as federal legislation runs into the brick wall of the gun lobby, some states and local jurisdictions are forging ahead.”
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) expanded bans on assault weapons and further limited the size of ammunition magazines, as well as enacted measures to recertify gun licenses and identify mentally ill people who seek to buy weapons.
In March, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) signed into law several bills requiring background checks for private and online gun sales, as well as legislation banning ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds. And in April, the Connecticut state legislature passed laws banning the sale of gun magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds, requiring background checks for private gun sales, including those at gun shows, as well as expanding the state's current assault weapons ban to include more than 100 gun models.
Still, national gun control leaders insist they are not throwing in the towel.
“This effort is not over,” Obama said in remarks after the gun bill’s defeat. “I see this as just Round 1.”
Reiterated Senator Reid, “I want everyone to understand – this is just the beginning. This is not the end.”
Not everyone is so confident.
“I’m not sure what more the president can do, having persuaded 90 percent of the American public to support the heart of this bill, which is background checks,” Sen. Christopher Murphy (D) of Connecticut, a major gun control proponent, told Roll Call. “The fact is, senators are simply not listening to their constituents. And I’m not sure what more the president can do.”
Speaking of confident, let’s not forget the gun lobby, for whom Wednesday’s vote was a quiet victory – and if they have their way, the end of the road for federal gun control.
Bad news has piled up fast in recent days. It’s tempting to look for clues that link the events together. As Politico’s chief political columnist Roger Simon tweeted on Wednesday night, “Conspiracy theorists gonna have a field day tomorrow.”
But it’s worth pointing out that at this point, there is no evidence that Boston, ricin, and West, Texas, are related in any way.
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Beginning with the latest development: To all appearances, the Texas tragedy was happenstance. A fire started in one part of the West Fertilizer Co., and local firefighters responded to try to put it out. A few minutes later, the fire lit some of the large quantities of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that's produced and stored at the plant. At high temperatures, this common substance becomes a powerful explosive.
Unintended ammonium nitrate explosions are uncommon but not unknown. Since 1921, at least 17 such explosions have produced casualties, according to The Washington Post’s Wonkblog.
Six of those were in the United States. The worst occurred in 1947, when a fire aboard a ship docked in the port of Texas City blew up 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate cargo. Five hundred eighty one people died, including most of the town’s fire department.
“It still ranks as the deadliest industrial accident the country has ever seen,” Wonkblog’s Brad Plumer writes.
Meanwhile, the man who allegedly mailed letters laced with the potent toxin ricin to the White House and to congressional offices is now in custody. His name is Paul Kevin Curtis, he’s from Corinth, Miss., and he seems a very unlikely conspiracy participant.
He apparently made little effort to cover his tracks. The letters were signed, “This is KC and I approve this message.”
Mr. Curtis is something of a conspiracy theorist himself. In 2000, he sued a Mississippi medical center that had fired him, saying he was terminated because he had uncovered a Mafia-like body parts trafficking ring.
In recent years, Curtis appears to have made a living, or at least some money, as an impersonator of celebrities, including Elvis Presley and Hank Williams Jr. A number of videos of his performances are available on YouTube.
“Prepare to update your profile of domestic terror suspects to include Elvis impersonators who fear criminal gangs of organ-harvesters,” writes The Atlantic Wire’s Philip Bump.
Finally, in Boston the fact that no suspect or suspects have been identified and no person or group has claimed credit for the bombings has opened the door to speculation of all sorts. In such a vacuum, it’s perhaps easier for conspiracy theories to gain ground.
However at this point, many of those conspiracy theories differ and in some cases contradict each other.
Over at Foreign Policy, blogger J.M. Berger has read the reactions of a variety of extremist websites to the bombings (so we don’t have to). Some white nationalists blamed militant Muslims right off, he says, while others have argued at length as to whether Muslims or Jews are responsible. And a scattering have simply pointed fingers at people with skins darker than themselves.
A few online Islamist jihadists have blamed US gun enthusiasts, while others appear to hope that the perpetrator does turn out to be a foreign terrorist.
“But even they were hesitant, having been burned not that long ago with a premature declaration of responsibility for the actions of [Norwegian mass murderer] Anders Breivik, who embarrassingly turned out to be an anti-Muslim terrorist,” Mr. Berger writes.
Ricin was the particular worry of the day. Preliminary tests indicate that letters sent to President Obama and to Sen. Roger Wicker (R) of Mississippi were both laced with the deadly poison. Postal screening facilities outside Washington had intercepted the mail before it reached federal office buildings.
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Both letters were postmarked in Memphis, Tenn., according to the Associated Press. Both said “to see a wrong and not expose it, is to become a silent partner to its continuance.” Both were signed “I am KC and I approve this message”.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri said the Capitol Police have a particular suspect in mind in this case. It is someone who “writes a lot of letters to members” she said, according to the Associated Press.
Where ricin is involved, preliminary tests can be inaccurate. Full laboratory tests will be needed to confirm the poison’s presence.
Lawmakers were made even more nervous by reports from some states that district offices were also getting questionable mail. Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas both said that letters set aside as suspicious by staff members back home had been tested by law enforcement and found harmless. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan said a letter sent to his Saginaw office was still being checked.
Meanwhile, at least three questionable packages turned up in Senate office buildings, according to the AP. Capitol Police retrieved them while establishing a series of rolling lockdowns throughout some areas of the Senate side of the Capitol Hill complex. Confused Senate aides took to social media to share which corridors were open and which closed.
Ricin is a potent toxin found in the seeds of the castor plant. Touching it can produce a rash that is irritating but not fatal. Inhalation or ingestion of ricin particles is more dangerous, leading to death in three to five days if the dose is sufficiently large.
Ricin is not difficult to extract – the production of castor bean oil results in a mash that is approximately 5 percent ricin, for instance. Recipes for making the poison are readily available on the Internet and from commercial bookstores.
As a weapon of mass destruction ricin is unsuitable, according to a 2010 report on its production and dangers produced by the Congressional Research Service. It would be too hard to handle and too difficult to spread.
But scientists have long warned that it might be used in terrorism.
“Although causing mass casualties would be difficult, many experts agree that ricin could be a formidable weapon if used in small-scale attacks…. Although a string of attacks targeting dozens of victims at a time may not produce mass devastation, they might instill terror in the population, causing local economic disruption,” wrote CRS specialists Dana Shea and Frank Gottron in 2010.
The most notable past use of ricin occurred in 1978, when Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated by someone wielding an umbrella tipped with ricin pellets in London. Shortly thereafter, another Bulgarian exile, Vladimir Kostov, was found to be suffering from non-fatal ricin poisoning.
In the United States, in 2008 a man trying to produce ricin in a Las Vegas hotel room poisoned himself, according to CRS. He recovered and was convicted of charges of possessing an illegal biological toxin.
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That’s what folks are saying about the gun bill the Senate considers Wednesday – a roster of nine amendments that include Democratic proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips and to tighten laws against gun trafficking, as well as a bipartisan plan to expand background checks for gun buyers.
Even pro-gun control lawmakers determined to put on a good face are conceding that things are looking grim.
It's not for lack of trying. President Obama, shooting survivor and former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and parents of Newtown, Conn., shooting victims have worked to drum up support. Vice President Joe Biden has been laboring to salvage the bill, the focus of which is the background-check plan drafted by Sens. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia and Patrick Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania.
Here are four reasons the gun bill is unlikely to clear the Senate.
Votes: Quite simply, the votes aren’t there. The gun bill needs 60 votes to pass, and so far the math isn’t adding up.
Three of the Senate's 55 Democrats – Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Max Baucus of Montana – said Monday they would not commit to backing the proposal. Ditto Dems Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
As for Republicans, only four of the Senate’s 45 have committed to voting for the bill, including Toomey (the bill’s co-sponsor), Mark Kirk of Illinois, Susan Collins of Maine, and John McCain of Arizona. (GOP Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Dean Heller of Nevada are still undecided.)
In fact, “of the 16 Republicans who crossed the aisle last week and voted with Democrats to begin a debate on gun control, 10 of them have now formally said they will vote against Manchin-Toomey,” reports Politico. They include Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
According to our political math, that leaves the gun bill with "yea" votes in the mid-50s – not enough to overcome a Republican filibuster.
Waning public support: The window of opportunity is slamming shut fast. That’s according to public opinion polls that show post-Newtown gun control momentum is fading. An April AP-GfK poll shows that a hair less than half of Americans now support stricter gun laws – 49 percent now, compared with 58 percent in January, a month after the December shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
What’s more, 52 percent of Americans say they disapprove of how Mr. Obama has handled gun laws. You can bet lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are taking note.
The National Rifle Association: You didn’t think the NRA would let this go, did you?
Reports Politico, “The National Rifle Association hasn’t budged, and it warned supporters of the compromise Senate bill – authored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) – that the group would remember their vote when they are next up for reelection.”
The gun rights group spent millions on ads opposing the proposals, including $500,000 on an online video ad on Washington, D.C.-area websites that reportedly shows law enforcement opposition to gun control proposals. “Tell your senator to listen to America's police, instead of listening to Obama and [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg,” the ad says.
Then there’s the matter of intensity. While public support for gun control legislation, especially expanded background checks, may remain relatively strong, there’s a significant disparity in the level of passion of voters on both sides of the issue – and lawmakers know this.
The NRA "cares about [gun rights] more than anybody else,” Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, told the Monitor last month. “That makes their minority viewpoint more important than the majority viewpoint. People often think within a democracy, numbers matter. But it's also intensity; intensity matters.”
That intensity translates into grass-roots action – and lawmakers' votes.
Stakes for individual states: When you pull away from the national conversation and consider the issue from the perspective of individual states – and their senators, some of whom will be up for reelection soon – the lack of support begins to make sense.
Consider this: In January of this year there were 44 gun homicides in Chicago, according to the National Journal. In all of 2011, there were 40 gun homicides in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined.
“The political pressure for members of Congress from those states is much less than it would be for a senator from Illinois,” writes the National Journal.
And don’t forget that many lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle, hail from predominantly red states in the South and Mountain West, where guns are a way of life.