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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Madeleine Albright's Jewelry-Box Diplomacy

In her new book, Read My Pins, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reveals that she used jewelry as a diplomatic tool during her years with the Clinton administration.

"This all started when I was ambassador at the U.N. and Saddam Hussein called me a serpent," she tells Susan Stamberg. "I had this wonderful antique snake pin. So when we were dealing with Iraq, I wore the snake pin."

After that incident, Albright decided that it might be fun to speak through her pins. She went out and bought different costume jewelry.

"As it turned out, there were just a lot of occasions to either commemorate a particular event or to signal how I felt," she says.

There were balloons, butterflies and flowers to signify optimism and, when diplomatic talks were going slowly, crabs and turtles to indicate frustration.

After the Russians were caught tapping the State Department, Albright protested by wearing a pin with a giant bug on it. On days when Albright felt she had to do "a little stinging and deliver a tough message," she wore a wasp pin.

At one point, Russian leader Vladimir Putin told President Clinton that he knew what the mood of a meeting would be by looking at Albright's left shoulder. (Albright's pin with three monkeys, which she wore when discussing Chechnya, was meant to draw attention to the fact that Russia took a "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" stance toward the Chechen atrocities.)

The former secretary of state says that one of her own pins — an antique eagle pin with a complicated clasp — nearly sabotaged her at her swearing-in ceremony.

"I put it on, and there I was all of the sudden with one hand on the Bible and one hand in the air, and the pin was just swinging in the breeze. I had not fastened it properly," says Albright. "I was afraid that it would fall on the Bible."

Accidents aside, Albright says she loved expressing herself with her jewels. And, she adds, making fashion statements — and commenting on each other's attire — is not completely unheard of within a diplomatic setting:

"You think that the heads of state only have serious conversations, [but] they actually often begin really with the weather or, 'I really like your tie.' "

Excerpt: 'Read My Pins'

Chapter 1: The Serpent's Tale

The idea of using pins as a diplomatic tool is not found in any State Department manual or in any text chronicling American foreign policy. The truth is that it would never have happened if not for Saddam Hussein.

During President Bill Clinton's first term (1993 1997), I served as America's ambassador to the United Nations. This was the period following the first Persian Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition rolled back Iraq's invasion of neighboring Kuwait. As part of the settlement, Iraq was required to accept UN inspections and to provide full disclosure about its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs.

When Saddam Hussein refused to comply, I had the temerity to criticize him. The government-controlled Iraqi press responded by publishing a poem entitled "To Madeleine Albright, Without Greetings." The author, in the opening verse, establishes the mood: "Albright, Albright, all right, all right, you are the worst in this night." He then conjures up an arresting visual image: "Albright, no one can block the road to Jerusalem with a frigate, a ghost, or an elephant." Now thoroughly warmed up, the poet refers to me as an "unmatched clamor-maker" and an "unparalleled serpent."

In October 1994, soon after the poem was published, I was scheduled to meet with Iraqi officials. What to wear?

Years earlier, I had purchased a pin in the image of a serpent. I'm not sure why, because I loathe snakes. I shudder when I see one slithering through the grass on my farm in Virginia. Still, when I came across the serpent pin in a favorite shop in Washington, D.C., I couldn't resist. It's a small piece, showing the reptile coiled around a branch, a tiny diamond hanging from its mouth.

While preparing to meet the Iraqis, I remembered the pin and decided to wear it. I didn't consider the gesture a big deal and doubted that the Iraqis even made the connection. However, upon leaving the meeting, I encountered a member of the UN press corps who was familiar with the poem; she asked why I had chosen to wear that particular pin. As the television cameras zoomed in on the brooch, I smiled and said that it was just my way of sending a message.

A second pin, this of a blue bird, reinforced my approach. As with the snake pin, I had purchased it because of its intrinsic appeal, without any extraordinary use in mind. Until the twenty-fourth of February 1996, I wore the pin with the bird's head soaring upward. On the afternoon of that tragic day, Cuban fighter pilots shot down two unarmed civilian aircraft over international waters between Cuba and Florida. Three American citizens and one legal resident were killed. The Cubans knew they were attacking civilian planes yet gave no warning, and in the official transcripts they boasted about destroying the cojones of their victims.

At a press conference, I denounced both the crime and the perpetrators. I was especially angered by the macho celebration at the time of the killings. "This is not cojones," I said, "it is cowardice." To illustrate my feelings, I wore the bird pin with its head pointing down, in mourning for the free-spirited Cuban-American fliers. Because my comment departed from the niceties of normal diplomatic discourse, it caused an uproar in New York and Washington; for the same reason, it was welcomed in Miami. As a rule, I prefer polite talk, but there are moments when only plain speaking will do.

This excerpt from Read My Pins by Madeleine Albridght is used by permission of Harper Collins.

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, September 17, 2009

How A Professor Taught Me To Consult My Stomach

I remember sitting in Shakespeare class, basking in my good luck. The wait list was nearly 100 people, but here I was, a new student at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., watching the legendary Fred Stocking in action. In 1979, Dr. Stocking was a year shy of retirement, an icon to four decades of students in this small college in the Berkshires. He was lean and meticulous, with a bow tie and thick white hair, and he lived Shakespeare — doting on Puck, thundering through Hamlet, and lifting our gaze from the crass pursuit of A's to the beauty of weathered truths.

He encouraged me to make writing my career, and then unwittingly shaped that career. It happened when I asked him a random question: "How do you determine a student's grade?"

"Well," he said, "I add up the grades for the essays, quizzes, the midterm and final. I average them out. Then I consult my stomach."

Consult my stomach. No three words have influenced — or haunted — me more. As a reporter, I try to apply Dr. Stocking's stomach test: Is the story I'm telling not just accurate, but honest? Does it reflect my conscience as well as the facts? I've failed more times than I like, but that standard has marked the north on my compass for the past quarter-century.

Read An Address Fred Stocking Gave To The Phi Beta Kappa Society At Williams College in 1977

A Touching Reunion

I lost touch with Dr. Stocking for 20 years. But eight years ago, Fred — who insisted I call him by his first name — and I began exchanging letters every few months. And so, when I was invited to give a talk for our 25th reunion three years ago, I asked my 91-year-old former professor to introduce me. It was a rainy afternoon; the auditorium was packed. The crowd hushed as Fred Stocking walked tentatively across the stage, clutched the podium, and leaned into the microphone.

"My name is Fred Stocking!" he said, and the place went wild. It was like a schmaltzy Disney movie.

Afterward, dozens of middle-aged alums, now doctors, economists, and lawyers, lined up to shake Fred's hand.

"You were my favorite professor," one said. Another added, "You made me care about ideas."

As for me, Fred's letters became a road map for growing old well. He began painting at 80, taking lessons every Tuesday. At 91, he played Gonzalo in The Tempest at the community theater. When his body began to fail, he watched the process with a sort of bemused detachment. "I've had a lot of horizontal time," he quipped in one letter. At his 94th-birthday party, Fred demonstrated his new motorized stair chair lift by waving like the Queen as he purred up and down the stairs. Later, with far more gusto than any 94-year-old should have possessed — and with uncanny timing — Fred belted out his trademark song from Broadway, "Lulu's Back In Town."

Never Stop Puzzling Over Ideas

As Fred's body shut down, he leaned all the more on his mind. It was a sort of tit for tat with age. You take away my driver's license; I'll read the new biography of Shakespeare. You dim my vision; I'll listen to books on tape. He was ecstatic when his wife gave him a new translation of War and Peace. He was 92 when I sent him an early draft of my book Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality. A year later, he sent back a seven-page critique, musing on the limits of scientific inquiry, the flaws of religious doctrine and the nature of death.

It's been a privilege knowing you. I'll live on in your memory. It's the best kind of immortality.
- Fred Stocking
Fred approached his own death clinically. I can accept God as an idea, but not as a fact, he wrote. He was even more skeptical of the afterlife.

In early July, I flew up to Williamstown for what I knew would be my final visit. Fred lay on his bed, as faded as his sheets. We talked about Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. He said he wasn't sad about dying. I asked him if he thought that his consciousness might survive death. I thought with death around the corner, he might have warmed up to the afterlife. He looked at me keenly, as if to say, "I may have grown old, but I haven't gone soft."

"What's wrong with mystery?" he asked.

Then he cleared his throat. "It's been a privilege knowing you," he said, and I burst into tears. Fred patted my hand. "I'll live on in your memory," he said. "It's the best kind of immortality."

Fred died a few weeks later. As I read through his letters the other day, I came across his favorite poem by e.e. cummings: "If Everything Happens That Can't Be Done." I don't have a clue what it means. But I keep trying to unlock it. Because that's part of Fred's genius. Never stop puzzling over life. Swim in big ideas. And of course, consult your stomach.

- expert from NPR

Monday, September 14, 2009

Argentine Cattle No Longer Just Home On The Range

Argentina's vast plains are bigger than Texas, and for more than a century, great herds of cattle roamed and ate to their hearts' content. That helped build up Argentina's image as the producer of lean and natural grass-fed beef.

But ever so quietly, Argentina is increasingly fattening its herd in American-style feedlots. Promoters say it's efficient, but some Argentines wonder if quality isn't being lost for the sake of quantity.

Each day, 12,000 animals from all over cattle country arrive at the Liniers cattle market on the south side of Buenos Aires.

Grizzled men on horseback herd them into pens. The bell then rings, announcing the start of yet another day of auctions. The animals are butchered immediately after sale, resulting in what Argentines call the best beef in the world.

Like this proud country, the century-old Liniers market is all history and tradition.

Tradition, though, is dramatically changing. Cattle that once grew fat on Argentina's great grass expanse are now heading to pens.

The future of Argentine cattle production in on display at the Santa Maria feedlot, south of Buenos Aires. A machine mixes corn pellets — high-protein, high-energy feed that is then delivered to troughs across 40 corrals, each one holding 200 animals.

The administrator, Sebastian Saparrat, walks under a bright blue sky, past young bulls and heifers. He says they consume 150,000 pounds of feed a day.

EnlargeSilvina Frydlewsky for NPR
Since 1901, cattle from across the Argentina's cattle country has been shipped by train and truck to the Liniers cattle auction on the south side of Buenos Aires. It is one of the world's biggest cattle markets, with 12,000 head passing through daily.
But Saparrat says it is worth it. When the cattle arrive at 8 months of age, they each weigh 400 pounds. Three months later, they each top 600, the optimal weight.

Some in Argentina aren't too happy about the trend. They say Argentina built a name brand by grazing cattle, ultimately producing lean, juicy steaks for consumers.

Claudio Schonfeld, a member of the tradition-bound Argentine Angus Association, says that grass-fed beef tastes better and is lower in cholesterol.

But Rodrigo Troncoso, general manager of the Argentine Feedlot Chamber, sees a big future for feedlots.

"The truth is that we produce beef [with] grass, also we produce beef with grain. We are known [for grass-fed beef] historically. We have to show the world that we can do all kinds of beef," he says.

Troncoso says a third of the 15 million head slaughtered each year now pass through feedlots — up three-fold from 2001.

The trend is the result of simple economics: The price of soybeans, corn and wheat skyrocketed in recent years and land owners made way for those cash crops.

At Tomas Leclercq's ranch in Magdalena, Argentina, practices are changing slowly. Many of the cattle at the ranch — which has been in continuous operation since 1888 — feast on grass all their lives. But Leclercq says that half of the animals now go to feedlots.

And with each coming year, he says, the number of animals he'll send to the pens will only grow.

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Democrats Recharged, GOP Unmoved By Obama

Congressional Democrats — energized by President Obama's pronouncement that "the time for bickering is over" — prepared Thursday for a final push aimed at crafting a massive overhaul of the nation's health care system.

"Yes it's messy, yes there will be starts and stops, but the good news from this speech gave the issue a kick in the pants," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) told NPR shortly after Obama's joint address to Congress.

Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek said the speech gave Democrats a renewed sense of purpose.

"Walking away from the chamber tonight, members knew that they had a responsibility" not to "kick the can down the street," he said.

More importantly, some fiscally conservative "blue dog" Democrats, many of whom have questioned their more liberal colleagues on how to pay for a health care overhaul, liked what they heard.

heard on Morning Edition
September 10, 2009
Did Health Care Speech Accomplish Obama's Goals?
[5 min 13 sec]
The speech "called out some of the extremes on both sides to say you can't get everything you want," said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota.

Listen To Obama's Speech, The GOP Response And NPR Analysis

Full Text Of Obama's Address
Sep. 9, 2009
Play-By-Play Analysis From The Two-Way
Republicans, however, showed few signs of wavering from their steadfast opposition to the Democrats' proposals. In their response to the president's speech, delivered by Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany, Republicans acknowledged the need for change while resisting "government-run" care.

"We agree, much needs to be done to lower the cost of health care for all Americans," Boustany said, adding that Republicans were ready to start over on a bipartisan effort.

"Replacing your family's current health care with government-run health care is not the answer. In fact, it will make health care much more expensive," said Boustany, who is also a heart surgeon. "That's not just my personal diagnosis as a doctor or a Republican, it's the conclusion of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the neutral score-keeper that determines the cost of major bills."

Others were more succinct. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told NPR that he thought the president's speech was "a complete disaster."

"It made me think, quite frankly, that the president has lost his cool on this issue," he said.

Indiana Rep. Mike Pence said the president's renewed call for bipartisanship had "a few thorns on those olive branches," adding that it was "one more speech about a bad plan."

Even if congressional Republicans weren't swayed, early indications were that at least some average Americans were.

A snap CNN poll of 427 adult Americans who watched the speech indicated that 67 percent of those surveyed afterward favored Obama's health care plan, while 29 percent did not. That compares to a pre-speech breakout of 53 percent in favor and 36 percent opposed.

In the retirement community of Vizcaya in Delray Beach, Fla., retiree Judy Goldstein said she had been fearful of the rumors of "death panels" and was encouraged by what Obama said to try to clear up confusion.

"I was listening to all the negative things, especially since I am a senior citizen. I said, 'Oh my god, they are going to put me to sleep,'" she told NPR.

"I don't consider myself stupid, but I was really believeing it, because I did not vote for him," Goldstein said. "A lot of things about him I did not like, so I am glad I heard this tonight."

But at an Irish pub in Denver, where a group of libertarians known as Liberty on the Rocks meets every other Wednesday, T.L. James was among those unmoved by the president's address. He said he didn't believe Obama's nod to exploring tort reform that would limit malpractice claims.

"The tort lawyers form an important part of the Democratic power base for their elections. There is no way that he's going to do anything that is going to turn them away from the Democratic party," James said.

What is likely to be the most talked-about moment in the speech, however, came not from the president but from South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, whose outburst of "You lie!" when Obama pledged no health care benefits would go to illegal immigrants shocked the chamber.

Wilson later apologized for his "lack of civility."

Democrats and Republicans alike have denounced the outburst as an extraordinary breach of decorum.

"There'll be time enough to consider whether or not we ought to make it clear that that action is unacceptable in the House of Representatives," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), said late Wednesday on WTOP radio when asked about possible punishment for Wilson. "I've talked to Republican members who share that view."

House Republicans did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but there was widespread condemnation of the outburst from members of both parties.

Appearing on ABC's Good Morning America on Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden said the incident made him "embarrassed for the chamber and a Congress I love."

Biden also said he thought the president's speech "debunked a lot of myths out there" including accusations the legislation being drafted would includes "death panels" for the sick and the elderly, and that it would also provide insurance coverage for millions of undocumented immigrants.

He predicted that health care legislation would be on the president's desk "before Thanksgiving."

-excerpt from NPR

Swine Flu Threatens French Tradition, Kissing

Fears of a swine flu pandemic are forcing counties to step up prevention measures. In France, a deeply-held social custom may be affected. Some companies and schools already have started discouraging the social ritual of kissing.

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Fire Near Los Angeles Grows In Triple-Digit Heat

A wildfire sweeping through the mountains above Los Angeles continued to spread Tuesday, burning scores of homes and threatening thousands more as well as a historic observatory housing some of the largest telescopes ever built.

At least 53 homes have been destroyed in the Station Fire as neighborhoods on the northern and southern flanks of the blaze were evacuated. Fire officials say it may take weeks to fully contain the flames.

The fire is by far the largest of several dotting the state. For six days, it has plowed its way through half-century-old thickets of tinder-dry brush, bush and trees just 15 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Some 12,000 homes are threatened and about 2,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

heard on Morning Edition
September 1, 2009
Calif. Wildfires Spread, Homes Destroyed
[4 min 56 sec]
The flames threaten to climb Mt. Wilson, home to a landmark 100-inch telescope that was the largest in the world until 1948. It is also the site of most of the radio and TV station towers in Los Angeles. Firefighters were setting backfires and spraying fire retardant in the area to halt the flames' advance.

Dixie Dees, a spokesperson with the Station Fire Incident Command center, said the fire — which so far has destroyed more than 105,000 acres, or about 164 square miles, and is just 5 percent contained — was doubling in size every day and "behaving very erratically."

Fire spokesman Paul Lowenthal said Tuesday that the blaze is not expected to be fully surrounded until Sept. 15.

Crews fighting the blaze were also grappling with weather conditions that favor fire, such as temperatures topping 100 degrees and low humidity. Temperatures near the Station Fire were expected to hit 102 degrees Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.

EnlargeJustin Sullivan/Getty Images
U.S. Forest Service workers hike down a hill while fighting the Station Fire on Monday in Tujunga, Calif.
"It gets to a point in the afternoon with the wind coming up that it even makes its own weather," Dees said. "When the temperature goes up and humidity goes down and the wind comes up, which is what's happened in the last three or four days, that's kind of the perfect storm for very aggressive fire behavior."

Officials were looking for a break in the weather Tuesday and hope "Mother Nature cooperates," said CAL FIRE spokesman Daniel Berlant.

The swath of fire extends from the densely populated Los Angeles foothill communities of Altadena, La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Tujunga and Sunland in the south to the high-desert ranchlands of Acton.

Tujunga Canyon resident Bert Voorhees said he and his son were able to retrieve several cases of wine from the brackish water of their backyard swimming pool Monday, about all he salvaged from his home.

"You're going to be living in a lunar landscape for at least a couple of years, and these trees might not come back," the 53-year-old Voorhees said, wondering aloud how many of his neighbors would choose to rebuild.

Los Angeles County Fire Department, Google Maps
See A Map Of The 'Station Fire' Near Los Angeles
Two firefighters — Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino and firefighter Spc. Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale — were killed Sunday when their vehicle plummeted off a mountain road. At least three residents who ignored an evacuation order suffered major burns.

Several fires across the state are much smaller and largely contained, but a new blaze in San Bernardino County — directly east of the Station Fire has engulfed 900 acres so far and threatens 2,000 homes.

-excerpt from NPR