What I'm Reading

August 19, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 9:41 pm
August 23, 2009

A New Gender Agenda


Hillary Rodham Clinton staked her claim as an advocate for global women’s issues in 1995, when, as first lady, she gave an impassioned speech at a United Nations conference in Beijing. As secretary of state, she pushed to create a new position, ambassador at large for global women’s issues, and recruited Melanne Verveer, her former chief of staff, to fill it. And she has drawn attention to women at nearly every stop in her travels, most recently on an 11-day visit to Africa, during which, among other things, she went to eastern Congo to speak out against mass rape. Hours before leaving on that trip, Clinton discussed women’s issues and the Obama administration’s foreign policy for 35 minutes in her elegant seventh-floor office at the State Department. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Q: In your confirmation hearing, you said you would put women’s issues at the core of American foreign policy. But as you know, in much of the world, gender equality is not accepted as a universal human right. How do you overcome that deep-seated cultural resistance?

Clinton: You have to recognize how deep-seated it is, but also reach an understanding of how without providing more rights and responsibilities for women, many of the goals we claim to pursue in our foreign policy are either unachievable or much harder to achieve.

Democracy means nothing if half the people can’t vote, or if their vote doesn’t count, or if their literacy rate is so low that the exercise of their vote is in question. Which is why when I travel, I do events with women, I talk about women’s rights, I meet with women activists, I raise women’s concerns with the leaders I’m talking to.

I happen to believe that the transformation of women’s roles is the last great impediment to universal progress — that we have made progress on many other aspects of human nature that used to be discriminatory bars to people’s full participation. But in too many places and too many ways, the oppression of women stands as a stark reminder of how difficult it is to realize people’s full human potential.

Q: I’m curious about what priorities you’re setting. Will the Obama administration have a signature issue — sex trafficking or gender-based violence or maternal mortality or education for girls — in the way that H.I.V./AIDS came to symbolize the Bush-administration strategy?

Clinton: We are having as a signature issue the fact that women and girls are a core factor in our foreign policy. If you look at what has to be done, in some societies, it is a different problem than in others. In some of the societies where women are deprived of political and economic rights, they have access to education and health care. In other societies, they may have been given the vote, but girl babies are still being put out to die.

So it’s not one specific program, so much as a policy. When it comes to our global health agenda, maternal health is now part of the Obama administration’s outreach. We’re very proud of the work this country has done, through Pepfar, on H.I.V./AIDS [the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief was begun by George W. Bush in 2003]. We’ve moved from an understanding of how to deal with global AIDS to recognizing it’s now a woman’s disease, because women are the most vulnerable and often have no power to protect themselves. And it’s increasingly younger women or even girls.

But women die every minute from poor maternal health care. You know, H.I.V./AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria — those are all, unfortunately, equal-opportunity killers. Maternal health is a woman’s issue; it’s a family issue; it’s a child issue. And for the United States to say to countries that have very high maternal mortality rates, “We care about the future of your children, and in order to do that, we care about the present of your women,” is a powerful statement.

Q: Do you have a point of view about what should come first: Do you empower women economically and then hope that they seize a political role for themselves? Or do you seek to give them more legal and political standing and hope that they can win a place in the economic sphere?

Clinton: That’s a great question, because I think the historical record would show both routes have worked. Women were not particularly economically empowered when we finally included the right of women to vote in our Constitution. So women’s rights were expanded in 1920, and that opened up a lot of doors to women to see themselves in different roles, including economic roles, outside the home.

India’s been a democracy for 60 years, and remarkably extended the vote to everyone, every caste, to both men and women equally. So women have been given the right to vote, but without economic empowerment, they didn’t have the influence that their votes should have brought, which is why the government of India has made such a big point of extending economic and political opportunity equally to women.

And when we visited SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association [in India], those women had the vote before they were born, but being economically empowered, being able to stand up for themselves inside their families, on the streets of their villages, is giving them a sense of autonomy and authority that just their vote couldn’t have.

Q: In your travels as secretary of state, you’ve focused heavily on the role of microlending. Is there a reason in these early days that you’ve tended to emphasize the economic over the political?

Clinton: It’s interesting: it’s partly because of where I’ve gone. It’s also because I’ve worked on microcredit since 1983, going back to Arkansas and projects that I worked on with my husband there.

I am also struck by every international public-opinion poll I’ve ever seen, that the No. 1 thing most men and women want is a good job with a good income. It is at the core of the human aspiration to be able to support oneself, to give one’s children a better future. Microenterprise is uniquely designed to empower women because — through the trial and error of its development, going back to Muhammad Yunus’s invention of it in Bangladesh — women are much greater at investing in future goods than the men who have participated in microcredit have turned out to be. And they are also very reliable in paying back, because they are so eager to have that extra help and recognition that microcredit provides.

So, I don’t make a distinction between economic empowerment and political, social empowerment; I think it’s fair to say both need to go hand in hand.

Q: There are counterterrorism experts who have made the observation that countries that nurture terrorist groups tend to be the same societies that marginalize women. Do you see a link between your campaign on women’s issues and our national security?

Clinton: I think it’s an absolute link. Part of the reason I have pursued it as secretary of state is because I see it in our national security interest. If you look at where we are fighting terrorism, there is a connection to groups that are making a stand against modernity, and that is most evident in their treatment of women.

What does preventing little girls from going to school in Afghanistan by throwing acid on them have to do with waging a struggle against oppression externally? It’s a projection of the insecurity and the disorientation that a lot of these terrorists and their sympathizers feel about a fast-changing world, where they turn on television sets and see programs with women behaving in ways they can’t even imagine. The idea that young women in their own societies would pursue an independent future is deeply threatening to their cultural values.

Q: Many of the countries where the abuses against women are most prevalent are also countries that have a vital strategic importance to the United States: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India. How can you aggressively advocate for women without jeopardizing those strategic relationships?

Clinton: Well, in a number of these strategic relationships, there’s a commitment to advancing the roles and rights of women. In India, the changes that have been made are remarkable. There are still tens of millions of very poor women, but women have assumed more and more responsibility; they are seen in public positions and increasingly economic ones, where their stature is accepted by society.

When I meet with the Chinese leadership, as I just did in the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, they have women who are part of their leadership team, and women who are assuming greater and greater economic and political roles.

Obviously, there’s work to be done in both India and China, because the infanticide rate of girl babies is still overwhelmingly high, and unfortunately with technology, parents are able to use sonograms to determine the sex of a baby, and to abort girl children simply because they’d rather have a boy. And those are deeply set attitudes. But at the governmental level, there is a great deal of openness and commitment that I am seeing.

In other societies where we have strategic security interests, it’s a challenge to move the agenda forward in a way that includes women’s issues. When we did our strategic review on Afghanistan, we said very clearly, We can’t be all things to all people in Afghanistan. We have to focus on a few critical concerns. But one of them was the role of women, and women’s participation in society.

Q: Let me ask you one question about India, where we’ve just concluded a Strategic Dialogue agreement. I didn’t notice too much emphasis on sex trafficking on your trip, even though it’s clear India remains the world capital of sex trafficking. Can you make that case strenuously with the Indians at the same moment that we’re trying to do so many other things with them?

Clinton: Absolutely, and in fact, we do it every year with our annual report on trafficking in persons. It’s a very high priority to me, and it is raised as part of the ongoing discussions that we have with many countries. In a democracy like India, there is a challenge of getting the word down to the local jurisdiction — the local police, the local judges, the local authorities. But I have no doubt about the seriousness with which their government takes this issue.

Q: Could some of the billions of dollars the United States has spent on military aid to Pakistan since 9/11 have been better spent on education and health care for girls and women?

Clinton: Yes. The answer is yes, and in my meetings with then-President Musharraf in ’03, ’05, ’07, in this country as well, I raised it all the time.

I remember visiting a village about 45 minutes outside of Lahore, when I was in Pakistan as first lady, and we met with a group of mothers and grandmothers in the village. And they wanted very much to have a school at the secondary level for their daughters, the way their sons did. But the school for their sons was not in the village, so the sons had to travel. No one could even imagine the daughters traveling outside their village to continue their education.

And when I think about the extraordinarily accomplished Pakistanis in the professions, in medicine, in education, I think it is certainly the case that if Pakistan had invested more in the education of children so that poor families would not have sent their boys off to be educated by extremists, it might well have made a difference. And it still can, because that’s part of our approach now.

Q: Because it’s also a question of how we allocate our resources.

Clinton: That’s right, and with the Kerry-Lugar/Berman bill[s] that provide aid for these kinds of purposes in Pakistan, we hope to try to make up for lost time. [These Senate and House bills are currently being finalized in Congress.]

Q: Gender-based violence is an enormous issue in much of Africa, and in places like Congo, rape, as you know, is an instrument of war. How can you, or anybody else, hope to combat that?

Clinton: President Obama and I and the United States will not tolerate this continuation of wanton, senseless, brutal violence perpetrated against girls and women. We don’t know exactly what we can do, but we are going to be delivering some aid and some ideas about how to better organize the communities to deal with it. We’re going to sound the alarm that this is not all just unexpected and irrational.

These militias, which perpetrate a lot of these rapes and other horrific assaults on girls and women, are paid well, or realize the spoils of guarding the mines. Those mines, which are one of the great natural resources of the Congo, produce a lot of the materials that go into our cellphones and other electronics. There are tens of millions of dollars that go into these militias that, in effect, get translated into a sense of impunity that is then exercised against the weakest members of society.

The ambassador for war crimes, Steve Rapp, has the distinction of being among the first international prosecutors to win a case on gender violence, and I specifically wanted him to take on this role, because I want to highlight this issue.

Q: I’ve been at more than a few women’s events with you overseas where the men in the audience drift off to their BlackBerrys or into a snooze after a few minutes. How do you change the mind-set, not just overseas but at home and in this building, that tends to view women’s issues as a pink ghetto?

Clinton: By making the arguments that I am making here — that so-called women’s issues are stability issues, security issues, equity issues. The World Bank and many other analyses have proved over and over again that where women are mistreated, where they are denied equal rights, you will find instability that very often serves as an incubator of extremism.

A woman who is safe enough in her own life to invest in her children and see them go to school is not going to have as many children. The resource battles over water and land will be diminished. This is all connected. And it’s an issue of how we take hard power and soft power, so called, and use it to advance not just American ends but, in advancing global progress, we are making the world safer for our own children.

Q: Last month in New Delhi, a young woman asked you an interesting question: How would you view the progress of women in both India and the United States? She pointed out that India elected a woman as prime minister within three decades of independence, while the U.S. had yet to elect a female president. Is there any lesson from your own presidential campaign that you can use to take to women elsewhere in the world?

Clinton: Well, you’ve heard me talk about this in a lot of settings, from Japan to South Korea to Indonesia to India to Latin America [laughs]. It is one of the most common questions I’m asked, along with the question about how I can now work for and with President Obama, since he and I ran so vigorously against each other. It is clearly on young women’s minds. And I find that both exciting and gratifying.

My campaign for many millions of reasons gave a lot of heart to many young women. It is still the most common comment that people make to me: “your campaign gave me courage” or “your campaign made a difference in my daughter’s life” or “I went back to school because of your campaign.” So, it is unfinished business, and young women know it is unfinished business.

The vast majority of them will never run for political office in any country. But they may decide to seek an education that their family doesn’t approve of, or move away for a job that is a little bit frightening to them, but which they feel they’ve got the skills to do. Or, you know, stand up and speak out against an injustice they see. And it is all of that ripple that is building and building — and is unstoppable.

I live for those moments where I see this woman stand up in SEWA — this poor, uneducated woman — and say, “I am the president of SEWA; 1.1 million women voted.” I mean, what a great statement that was from her. So, I get a lot of joy out of doing this work. I think it is so critically important, but it is also incredibly moving to see these individual lives changed because of some event or speech that you have no idea why it made an impression on them.

Mark Landler is the diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times.


Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 9:41 pm

Slate Magazine


Let’s get rid of it.

By David Plotz
Posted Monday, Aug. 3, 2009, at 10:06 AM ET

It’s become a Slate summer tradition. In 2001, David Plotz proposed that we ban August, that most cursed of months, in which nothing good ever happens. We’ve been running the piece nearly every August since—as Choire Sicha recently pointed out on the Awl. To satisfy his anticipation and renew our devotion to hating the calendar’s eighth month, we hereby reprint the article in full.

August is the Mississippi of the calendar. It’s beastly hot and muggy. It has a dismal history. Nothing good ever happens in it. And the United States would be better off without it.

August is when the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when Anne Frank was arrested, when the first income tax was collected, when Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe died. Wings and Jefferson Airplane were formed in August. The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour debuted in August. (No August, no Sonny and Cher!)

August is the time when thugs and dictators think they can get away with it. World War I started in August 1914. The Nazis and Soviets signed their nonaggression pact in August 1939. Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, 1990. August is a popular month for coups and violent crime. Why August? Perhaps the villains assume we’ll be too distracted by vacations or humidity to notice.

August is the vast sandy wasteland of American culture. Publishers stop releasing books. Movie theaters are clogged with the egregious action movies that studios wouldn’t dare release in June. Television is all reruns (or worse—new episodes of Sex and the City). The sports pages wither into nothingness. Pre-pennant-race baseball—if that can even be called a sport—is all that remains. We have to feign interest in NFL training camps. Newspapers are thin in August, but not thin enough. They still print ghastly vacation columns: David Broder musing on world peace from his summer home on Lake Michigan? Even Martha Stewart (born Aug. 3) can’t think of anything to do in August. Her Martha Stewart Living calendar, usually so sprightly, overflows with ennui. Aug. 14: “If it rains, organize basement.” Aug. 16: “Reseed bare patches in lawn.” Aug. 27: “Change batteries in smoke and heat detectors.”

You can’t get a day off from August, because it is the only month without a real holiday. Instead, the other months have shunted onto this weak sister all the lame celebrations they didn’t want. Air Conditioning Appreciation Week, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist Week, National Religious Software Week, Carpenter Ant Awareness Week: All these grand American celebrations belong to August. Is it any accident that National Lazy Day, Relaxation Day, Deadwood Day, and Failures Day are commemorated in August?

August is the month of vagueness. October is the 10th month, March is the third month. What’s August—bet you can’t remember. Does it have 30 days or 31? You have to recite the rhyme to figure that one out. The great writers of history forget August: It rates three mentions in Bartlett’s Quotations, compared with a dozen for December and two dozen for March.

The people with August birthdays are a sorry bunch. Sure, Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton* were born in August, but the other presidential Augustans are Herbert Hoover and Benjamin Harrison. Film is represented by Robert Redford and Robert De Niro—but also by John Holmes and Harry Reems. Third-raters populate August: George Hamilton, Danny Bonaduce, Rick Springfield, and Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford were born then. August gave us Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat. In art, August offers Leni Riefenstahl, Michael Jackson, and Danielle Steele. (To be sure, not everything that happens in August is so terrible. Raoul Wallenberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Herman Melville, and Mae West were born in August. Richard Nixon resigned in August. MTV launched in August. And Jerry Garcia died in August.)

August can’t even master the things it is supposed to do well. Despite its slothful reputation, it is not the top vacation month, July is. Nor is August the hottest month (on the East Coast, at least). That crown, too, is July’s. August is when the garden starts to wither, and when the long summer days cruelly vanish.

We should rage, rage against the dying of the light. The United States desperately needs August Reform. Purists will insist that we shouldn’t tinker with the months, that August should be left alone because it has done workmanlike service for 2,000 years. That’s nonsense. Calendars are always fluxing. August itself was a whimsical invention. In 46 B.C., as part of a broad calendar change, Julius Caesar added two days to Sextilis, an old 29-day month. In the reign of his successor, Augustus Caesar, the Senate voted to change Sextilis’ name to “Augustus” (as the Senate under Julius Caesar had renamed the month before, “Quintilis,” “Julius”).

August was created by politics, and it can be undone by politics. For too long, bureaucrats in Washington have been telling you how you must divide up your calendar. But these are your months, and you should be able to do with them what you like. Genuine August Reform will be hard. It will require tough compromises to protect the special interests of September and July. (And who better to sponsor this revolution, incidentally, than Sen. John McCain—birthday Aug. 29?)

Here is a framework for compromise. Cede the first 10 days of August back to July, thus extending holiday revelry for more than a week. September would claim the last 10 days of August, mollifying the folks who can’t wait to get back to serious work. Labor Day would come 10 days earlier, the school year would run longer, and the rush of fall activity could get jump-started. August itself will keep 10 days. That is just enough: Every summer we’ll be able to toot happily, “Gosh, August went by so quickly this year!”

And as for the 31st day, it will be designated a holiday independent from any month. It will fall after the 10th and last day of August, and it will celebrate the end of that most useless month.

Correction, Aug. 23, 2004: This article originally omitted Bill Clinton from the list of presidents born in August. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

David Plotz is Slate‘s editor. He is the author of Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible. You can e-mail him at dplotz@slate.com.

Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2224073/

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 9:39 pm

President, Sojourners/Call to Renewal

Jim Wallis



Healing America’s Sick Soul

Health-care reform is an economic, political and medical issue. But On Faith panelist and evangelical leader Jim Wallis says it’s also a “deeply theological issue, a Biblical issue and a moral issue.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

The soul of America is sick because our health insurance industry is sick. The creation of a better health care system that guarantees full access to affordable quality health care for every American family, all of God’s children in this country, would be the moral achievement that could repair, and even heal, our damaged national soul. Health care is a deeply moral and religious issue. Here is why.

Healing is central to all our religious traditions. It is at the heart of the vocation of people of faith. The stories of Jesus healing people in the Gospels, of restoring people to physical wholeness and full participation in their community, always signaled the Kingdom of God. We can see from the story of the garden where sickness never was and from the vision of a city in which death will be no more that good health is the will of God. When we are instruments of bringing about that good health, we are doing the work of God.

In America, 46 million are uninsured, many more are underinsured. Many of them are working families who live in fear of getting sick or injured. Some delay seeking medical attention at the risk of their own health or using emergency room services instead of primary care physicians. An estimated 18,000 people a year die unnecessarily from lacking basic health insurance, many from low income families. These realities do not reflect a valuation of our neighbor as created in the image of God and that is why this is not just a political issue, it is a moral issue and solutions for our health care system are long overdue.

What does that mean? It means that the faith community has a unique and important role to play — to define and raise the moral issues right beneath the policy debate. This does not mean that any religious leader has a policy prescription from God ready for mark up by committee. St Luke might have been a doctor but he still didn’t comment on the benefits of computerizing medical records. But the faith community will be raising a “moral drum beat” in the center of this debate that focuses on those who have been left out of good health care in America, and keeps our political leaders focused on real reform.

For example, Leviticus Chapters 13 and 14 lays out a detailed public health policy in regards to contagious rashes and leprosy, I wouldn’t recommend it to the Surgeon General for how to deal with H1N1 but it does give moral instruction in one important area: cost. A consistent theme throughout the scriptures is illustrated very clearly in this passage: A good and moral society does not leave people out because they are poor. After laying out the standard sacrifice required for a sick person to be restored back into community verse 21 starts gives additional instructions, “If, however, he is poor and cannot afford these…” and proceeds to give alternative sacrifices of lower cost to for the poor to pay instead.

The laws governing the Hebrews ensured that participation in their health care system was not based upon economic status in the community. There was not an encouragement for the community to be charitable to those who could not afford it, but a legal mandate to lower the cost to ensure affordability — to ensure that everyone could participate.

Our job, like the prophet Amos, is to call for “justice to roll down like waters;” it’s the politician’s job to work out the plumbing. We have the opportunity to speak for the interests of the common good and those who would not otherwise have a voice. And this time the religious community will be watching, praying, and acting, as the nation takes on the challenge of reforming our sick health-care system.

August 17, 2009

old, but one of my favorite articles

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 8:33 pm

If Senator Biden is elected, he’ll bring along a close-knit family of strong, independent women—led by his remarkable wife, Jill. Jonathan Van Meter reports.

Photographed by Arthur Elgort.

It is a Sunday morning in early September, and Jill Biden is standing with wet hair and no makeup in the middle of her kitchen, eating yogurt out of a plastic container. Her toenails are painted red, and she has the perfect late-summer tan. She’s wearing dark-blue, skinny, non-mom jeans and an untucked blue button-down. Around her neck is a tangle of delicate gold jewelry and tiny pearls; from one chain hangs a little horseshoe made of diamonds. She smiles and laughs a lot, and when she does her deep-blue eyes flash with excitement. It takes only a few minutes of being in her company to understand why vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden somewhat controversially introduced his wife at the Democratic National Convention in August as “drop-dead gorgeous.” Dr. Jill Biden—mother of three, political wife, college professor—exudes the confidence of a woman who has come into her own and is enjoying her moment. At 57, she looks much younger, partly owing to her daily five-mile runs. Her entire family seems to place great value on fitness. In fact, right behind her, hanging on the fridge with a magnet, is the cover of Time magazine featuring middle-aged aquatic wonder woman Dara Torres. Someone has written across her six-pack in black Magic Marker: OUR HERO.

The Biden family home sits in a hilly, verdant suburb of Wilmington, Delaware, the aptly named Greenville. It is a quiet neighborhood of big, stately homes, old-growth trees, and three-car garages. Their house, which sits on a pond at the end of a long driveway, is new but looks old—a very well-executed simulacrum of the crumbling old Georgian mansion where the Bidens used to live. (That house, not far away, was part of a du Pont estate subdivided in the seventies; Joe bought it for a song during the Carter recession.) This much more reasonable version, where they’ve been since 1996, was designed by the senator himself. “He is a frustrated architect,” says Jill. “And didn’t he do a nice job? I always told him if he wanted to leave the Senate and go back to school to become an architect, I’d support that.” (This from a woman who defended her thesis in her mid-50s.)

Indeed, the house is designed as much for public life as private: The ground floor feels a bit like “The Senator’s Home,” something out of a novel or a movie, with highly polished black-and-white marble floors in the foyer, leather club chairs and a big mahogany desk in the study, royal-blue walls and red damask curtains in the dining room. Framed memorabilia from 30-plus years of life in electoral politics hang on nearly every wall, including in the bathroom (an invitation, dated June 9, 1987, to the formal announcement of Biden’s first run for president). As I wander around the house, I half expect to find a velvet rope cordoning off a no-go zone.

If the Biden home feels a bit like a stage set lately, then today the entire cast and crew are here. Since the day Barack Obama announced Joe Biden as his running mate, things have gotten a bit surreal. “Really, with one phone call,” says Jill, “our lives totally changed. The day before, Joe and I were out walking the neighborhood at ten o’clock at night, just talking and enjoying ourselves, and then”—she snaps her fingers—”it just changed. We couldn’t leave our driveway without being followed, and the helicopters were circling. It was crazy.” When I ask Jill, who has been a relatively private person during the many years her husband has been a senator, if she ever wishes her life could return to normal, she says, “I can’t let myself think about that, because that means we’d lose the election.”

At the moment, CNN is setting up in the front yard to interview Valerie Biden Owens, Joe’s younger sister, who has managed every campaign since his original Senate run in 1972. In the backyard, a Vogue crew is corralling all the other Biden women who are here today—granddaughters, sisters, daughters, wives, and mothers—for a portrait of the four generations of “The Women in Joe’s Life.” There are balloons on the floor from ten-year-old Finnegan’s birthday party last night (she got her ears pierced), and the family’s big golden Labradoodle, Brother, is running around with Finnegan’s little sister, Maisy. There are hair dryers blowing; cell phones ringing; and Jill’s staff all hover around in a near-constant state of alert-but-texting. All the while, Joe Biden’s 91-year-old mother, Jean, known as Mom Mom, sits at the kitchen table, watching and smiling. “This house is always filled with family,” says the Bidens’ daughter-in-law Kathleen, mother of Finnegan, Maisy, and Naomi, who refers to the pool out back as “grandkid bait.” “There are like 20 Bidens here, always. They have done a great job of creating this environment.”

“This family is so close,” Jill’s press secretary, Chris Mather, tells me. “Personally, but also in a political sense.” In fact, during the very crowded Democratic primary, before Joe Biden and everyone else was edged off the stage by Clinton and Obama, the whole Biden clan was in Iowa for months, fighting for third place. Jill, who was teaching four days a week, “would get on that plane every Friday, and they would have events from seven in the morning to late at night,” she says. “Sunday I’d get back at around midnight and have to be in the classroom at 8:30 a.m. Those weekends were something else.”

“It was a full-blown family affair,” says Kathleen. “All the cousins were dispatched, the entire family in our Suburban. We’d pull over to eat sandwiches outside a convenience store, and we’d see Hillary’s ginormous motorcade go by.”

Though the Bidens went to the barricades for Joe, it was not his year. The twin Hillary and Barack juggernauts eventually steamrolled everything in their paths. “It was becoming clear that this was a historic election,” says Jill. “That it was going to be about an African-American and a woman. So when we pulled out, I was sad for Joe, but I still felt a Democrat would win, so that sort of kept me going. It didn’t even occur to me that Joe would be asked to be vice president. Everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, he’ll be made secretary of State,’ and I thought, You just never know what’s going to happen, so I didn’t take it seriously.”

Joe’s sister, Valerie—a glamorous, tough, working-class version of Jane Fonda whom her brother describes as “my best friend my whole life”—seems genuinely sanguine about their loss in the primary. “Not everything is supposed to come out the way you thought it would,” she says to me as we sit on the back patio. “I wanted him to be president. I campaigned for a year and a half. When we didn’t win, there were no tears. I knew that we gave it our best shot, and it didn’t happen.” She stares at me and yanks up the collar of her crisp houndstooth jacket. “Maybe this is the Catholic-school girl coming out in my old age, but things have a way of unfolding. There is some consolation that comes from: Be careful what you wish for.”

This could be seen as sour grapes, but Jill brings a refreshing perspective to the matter. “We’re not just a couple in politics, or one person. We’re a family in politics,” she says. “And I think vice president is the best place for us: The family can be at the residence, the family can come to the dinners, the family can go to the events. It would be more inclusive. We’ve worked so hard to get Joe to where he is. Besides, I’m ready for a new journey. Why not?”

A couple of days after the Obama-Biden ticket was announced, I read in The New York Times that Jill Biden earned a master’s degree in education from West Chester University in 1981. She was 30 years old and pregnant with Ashley when she attended my alma mater in Pennsylvania; I was an eighteen-year-old freshman that same year. I had not been aware of anyone in public life, other than a handful of semifamous football players and one porn star, having graduated from West Chester, so I found this bit of information oddly thrilling. Go Rams! Then I discovered that both of Jill’s parents were born and raised in Hammonton, a big town in southern New Jersey, halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Per capita the second most Italian-American town in America (fully 45 percent of the population is of Italian ancestry), it also happens to be the town where I rented my tuxedo for prom night. As if all of that weren’t enough, Jill also spent summers waiting tables on the Jersey shore—just as I had. Indeed, her sister Jan, who is a year younger, is a waitress in Ocean City to this day. (Her three other sisters are Bonny, Kim, and Kelly.)

Jill had a childhood that was both typical and unusual. She was born in Hammonton, but the family moved around as her banker father, Donald Jacobs, worked his way up the savings-and-loan ladder. He eventually became a vice president at a bank in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, and the family settled in nearby Willow Grove, where Jill attended Upper Moreland High School and graduated in the class of ’69. Throughout her childhood, the family would pile into the station wagon every weekend and drive back to Hammonton. “And I would stay with my dad at my one grandmom’s house, and Bonny and Jan would stay with my mother at my other grandparents’ house,” she says. “And then on Sunday, both sets of grandparents would fight about who was going to host dinner. My grandpop was Dominic Giacoppa, but they changed it to Jacobs. So I grew up eating one Italian meal on Sunday, with the wedding soup and the braciole and homemade pasta, and then we’d have to go to my other grandparents’ house”—Harold and Mabel Godfrey—”and have roast beef and mashed potatoes and homemade cake.”

When I express mystification at this odd weekend ritual, she explains, “My mother’s family was never quite comfortable with my dad, because his father worked at a furniture store and his mother did home-care nursing. My mother’s family was from the ‘right’ side of the tracks. They owned the local drugstore, her father was a pharmacist, her mother was a schoolteacher. We could feel that as kids.”

Perhaps because of this, Jill Tracy Jacobs developed an early independent streak. Her parents were not very religious, but Jill wanted to be part of a church. So in ninth grade, she took it upon herself to take the classes required to join the Presbyterian church. Around the same time, realizing that she wanted “my own money, my own identity, my own career,” she got a job at the age of fifteen. “I think I’m most like my father,” she says. “He seemed to be pretty independent, and with five girls, you can imagine, he was a strong man. He was certainly my first hero.” When I ask her when she first realized she wanted to be a teacher, something she has dedicated most of her adult life to, she surprises me. “I would say that my teachers are probably turning over in their graves,” she says. “I was rebellious in high school. I just had a good time. I enjoyed life. I enjoyed dating, I enjoyed my friends. But there was always that love of English class. My grandmother sent me books, so I loved writing and reading. That was a major part of my life.”

Her college years also led her down an unconventional path. After an aborted attempt at studying fashion merchandising at a junior college in Pennsylvania, where she had been miserable, Jill married a boy she had been dating the summer after high school. The newlyweds decided to attend the University of Delaware together, where Jill majored in English. After a couple of years, the two “grew in different ways,” and when Jill was a junior they were divorced. She took a year off. “Things were a little too rough, too emotional,” she says. “But I knew I would finish. I was determined.”

Meanwhile, a 29-year-old alumnus of the University of Delaware, Joseph Biden, whose younger brother Frank was friendly with Jill, was making a historic run for the Senate, a race that turned him into a new political star on campus and would eventually make him one of the youngest senators in history. It was 1972, and Jill, voting for the first time, pulled the lever for Biden, whose hand she had shaken once at a fund-raiser. Then one day, shortly after Joe won the election, tragedy struck. “I had a final exam,” says Jill. “I can remember going out to the parking lot and getting in my car and my radio was on and hearing that his wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident. And I can remember turning off the ignition and sitting there and saying a prayer. It was just so awful. So tragic.”

The story of Joe’s almost unbearable loss of his wife, Neilia, and thirteen-month-old daughter, Naomi, has become an indelible part of Biden family lore, especially since the very moving Democratic Convention speech by Beau Biden. Biden’s two toddler sons, Beau and Hunter, survived the accident but were hospitalized for weeks. Joe wanted to give up his seat but was persuaded otherwise, and in January 1973 he was sworn in at his sons’ hospital room, where he had been living for weeks. When Joe took office, Valerie moved in to help take care of the boys—and stayed for five years. “Neilia was Mommy, and I was Aunt Val,” says Valerie. “I never wanted to confuse them, because I’d always hoped that someday Joe would be fortunate enough to fall in love and begin his life again.”

To make extra money, Jill had done a little modeling for a local agency in Wilmington. “I might’ve done five jobs where you get paid, like, 20 bucks,” she says. “But I wasn’t a model.” Nevertheless, Joe Biden saw her picture in an advertisement posted on a bus shelter and was smitten. As legend has it, Jill’s number was unlisted, but Joe’s brother Frankie procured it through a friend. “I was a senior, and I had been dating guys in jeans and clogs and T-shirts,” says Jill, “and he came to the door and he had on a sport coat and loafers, and I thought, God, this is never going to work, not in a million years. He was nine years older than I am! But we went out to see A Man and a Woman at a movie theater in Philadelphia, and we really hit it off. When we came home, we were standing at the door. During the seventies, usually the guy was groping you at the door—I don’t think that’s changed, really—but he shook my hand good night. And I went upstairs and called my mother at 1:00 A.M. and said, ‘Mom, I finally met a gentleman.’ ”

It has also become part of Biden family legend that Joe proposed to Jill five times before she said yes. True? I ask. Yes, she says. What did you say the first four times? “I said, ‘Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.’ Because by that time, of course, I had fallen in love with the boys, and I really felt that this marriage had to work. Because they had lost their mom, and I couldn’t have them lose another mother. So I had to be 100 percent sure. It was a big step. I was 25 when we got married. I mean, that’s a lot for a young woman.”

(Later, when I ask Joe what kept him from becoming discouraged after proposing so many times, he says, “OK, I’m just going to say it: I knew she loved me. I knew, though, that it was a daunting thing. But finally my pride overcame me. I had gone to Africa to try to see Nelson Mandela, and I came back after the ten-day trip and went to her apartment and I said, ‘Look, this is the last time I’m asking you. I don’t care when we get married. But I want a commitment.’ And she said OK. But it took that!”)

They took a train to New York in June 1977, got a marriage license at a courthouse in Brooklyn, and got hitched at the United Nations chapel, all in an effort to keep things quiet in Delaware. Jill moved into the old du Pont mansion, where Valerie and her family were also still living, and they all transitioned slowly so there would be no sudden changes in the boys’ routine. In 1980, she got pregnant with Ashley, but within two years she was itching to be more than just “the greatest mom.” She went back to school and back to work and began her slow accumulation of degrees—five years in a psychiatric hospital teaching English to “middle-class kids who needed help,” followed by a master’s in English from Villanova, which overlapped with another three years of teaching at Claymont High School, which led to Delaware Technical and Community College and finally a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware.

All the while, she has remained a relatively nontraditional political wife, keeping out of the spotlight and campaigning only rarely, when Joe has really needed her. Though there are other political spouses who have big careers (Elizabeth Edwards comes to mind), they have sought the spotlight and approval from the electorate in a way that Jill Biden never has. As Valerie says of her sister-in-law, “She knows what matters, what’s important. Every time she has needed to step up to the plate, she’s done it, but with grace. There’s nothing edgy or unpleasant about Jill—but she’s not a pious little milquetoast. She’s funny, she is fierce, she’s irreverent. She’s got a life! She’s focused but not driven.”

It is telling that Hallie, Beau’s wife and a more recent political spouse (her husband was elected Delaware state attorney general in 2006), speaks of her mother-in-law with a kind of hushed awe. “This is new to me, with my husband’s role, but I’m learning from Jill. ‘Make sure you have something for yourself,’ she’ll say. ‘Make sure you are not always at home, waiting. Make sure you feel independent financially and emotionally.’ I listen and I learn. I took a couple years off with the kids, but now I’m back to work.”

A week after my visit to Wilmington, I see Jill Biden backstage in an auditorium at a community college in Mason City, Iowa. She catches my eye and makes a beeline across the stage toward me. Stopping a few feet short, she makes the tiniest show of presenting herself and says, “How do you like my suit?” She laughs and flashes her 1,000-watt smile, and I think to myself, She’s a flirt! It has a sweet, schoolteacher quality, but it is flirting nonetheless. And it is absolutely winning. She spins around to show me the pleating on the back of her skirt and says, “I love this detail.” I ask her who made it. Rebecca Taylor, she says. “Isn’t it great? It holds up well, and it’s a suit an educator can afford.” She turns on her pointy black Manolo mules and heads off to an on-camera interview that will introduce her to the Obama online community.

Moments earlier, she had been sitting among a group of 20 teachers arranged in a circle on metal chairs before the press (including, weirdly enough, a freakishly tan and out-of-his-element Pat O’Brien). Jill Biden, now traveling in her own SUV motorcade (at last!), was there to listen to her comrades pontificating on the state of education in America today, just one stop on a two-day tour through northern Iowa as the Obama campaign continues its Jill Biden rollout. With her tan legs, long blonde hair, and a rather dramatic white ruffled-collar shirt, Jill looked like an exotic orchid next to all these Midwestern educators in their khakis, sweaters, and sensible shoes. But as soon as she opened her mouth and her surprisingly thick southern New Jersey-meets-Delaware accent rolled off her tongue, I began to sense, as did these teachers, that she has more in common with them than it initially appeared. When the one man in the circle who was not a teacher got his hand on the mike and wondered how he is supposed to “feed a family of five, work full-time, and go back to school” to train to become a nurse, Jill said, “First off, you have to start by voting for Obama-Biden.” The room burst into applause. “They’re the ones who are truly going to help you afford college. I taught full-time, plus an extra course at night so that we could afford to send our three children to college, so I know what a struggle it is.” (Later, she tells me, “As a teacher, I see how the tough economic environment affects people every day. Many people are struggling and counting on a change.”) She spooled her natural empathy out a bit further and then said to the man, “I teach a lot of nurses. I always say they are the angels in the hospitals. So good luck with your nursing.”

You can begin to understand why Barack Obama picked Joe Biden. Aside from the fact that he got a sweetheart deal that included Jill, the Bidens are about as typical a middle-class American family as they come. They may live in a big house in a fancy neighborhood, but, as evidenced by ten years of recently released tax returns, they are mortgaged to the hilt and have no savings—just like the rest of the country. Who knows? Jill Biden, a community-college teacher with a natural feel for the average Joe, could turn out to be the campaign’s secret weapon. As Kathleen Biden told me, “I have never seen her more energized and committed. She has embraced it so wholeheartedly.”

A week ago, back at the house in Wilmington, I asked Jill about the Obamas. She told me that she had met Michelle only twice during the primary, before her husband was chosen to be Barack’s running mate. “At one debate, she sat next to me,” says Jill. “I think it might have been New Hampshire. And we said very little to each other because, I mean, we were in competition and it’s all small talk, and you know how they parade the spouses out. So I was getting my impression of her from the media. And Barack just seemed more friendly to me, more gregarious. And I certainly saw much more of him.”

When they became part of the ticket and started traveling together, she says, “we began to like each other, and it became a truly warm relationship. We just clicked on so many levels. And our families, I mean, heck! Her mother is so wonderful, and she and her brother get along. It was just this mesh of families. My granddaughters went to a sleepover with Sasha and Malia and had a great time. Toward the end of that week, we were about to say goodbye, and Michelle and I put our arms around each other and she said, ‘I love you,’ and I said, ‘I love you, too.’ I mean, in a week it got to that point—and it wasn’t phony! I think that’s very unusual—maybe for two men to sort of hit it off it’s not—but I think it’s more unusual for two women to click so quickly.”

For her part, Michelle Obama remembers that debate in New Hampshire as well. “I sat right next to her, and it’s funny: We said hello, but I didn’t talk because I was so nervous. I sat like a stone! I was afraid to move a muscle because I was so focused on the first debate. I didn’t have a chance to chat.” But once the ticket was announced and the two women were thrust together, nerves dissipated. “When I first gave her a hug,” says Michelle, “I could feel that she was, like, real people. You know? You can sort of tell. She was sweet, down-to-earth and very open and honest, and I liked her right away. And now I just love her to death. She’s raised great kids. I think our families are a lot alike. As quick as the decision was made, their families rallied around them. And that’s what happened in our family. I respect the fact that they didn’t move to Washington, which was similar to the choice we made. Joe spent all those years in the Senate and managed not to become part of Washington, because his family lived outside of D.C. Jill and I talked about how much pressure we feel to live in Washington, but you want your kids and your life to stay as normal and untouched by all this stuff as possible.”

The big thing that Jill Biden and Michelle Obama would seem to have in common is that they are political spouses with independent careers who have pushed back against their husbands’ ambitions, put their children first, and have been cautious about what kind of public role they play. The difference, however, is a bit more complicated: If the Obamas’ Achilles heel is that they are still seen as a bit too exotic or too cerebral for some Americans, and if Michelle, in particular, is seen as elitist or “scary” (an idea that persists, despite the campaign’s efforts to counter the impression), then Jill Biden is unimpeachably easy to relate to: She is the athletic girl-next-door who grew up to be the pretty teacher everyone has a crush on.

And if neither Michelle nor Jill comes by campaigning naturally—it does not seem to be in either woman’s DNA to want to do it—when asked, they both rise to the challenge, partly because they love their husbands, but mostly because they genuinely want to see the country move in a different direction. It wasn’t all that long ago that Jill Biden was forbidding her husband to run for president. She tells a funny story about a day when a bunch of Democratic Party bigwigs had planted themselves in her living room to try to convince Joe Biden that 2004 was his year to unseat George Bush. Jill was sitting out by the pool in a bikini—fuming. Unable to stand it any longer, she got up, found a Magic Marker, and wrote the word no across her stomach and then paraded through the meeting. “They got the message,” she says with a laugh.

What a difference four more years makes.

One day, Joe Biden calls me on the phone. He is in a car on his way to an event in Media, Pennsylvania, campaigning with the Obamas. “The real measure of strength and resolve is when someone does things that don’t come naturally,” he says. “But they do it because they think it’s important. The thing about Jill that I find so amazing is that here’s a woman who does not feel comfortable standing before a crowd of people and making a speech about presidential politics. But because it’s me, and because she cares so much about it, that’s exactly what she does. It would be like asking me to get up and sing, which I could never do. It’s just amazing what she can do. I used to kid her when we first got married. She’d say, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ I would say, ‘You remind me of a great sprinter who is running a 10.5-second 100 meters, and you’re capable of running a 9.9. You have no idea how good you are!’ I really mean that. It just absolutely blows me away.” He pauses. “I’m obviously proud.” Another pause. “Look, I just pulled up to a place where there’s a couple thousand people, and I’m supposed to go out and speak. Can I call you back?” No need, I say. “Sorry that I have to go do this.” And then, sounding truly torn, he says, “I’d rather talk about Jill.”

Photo: from left: Senator Biden’s niece, Missy Owens; her mother, Valerie Biden Owens; Hunter Biden’s wife, Kathleen; her daughters Maisy, eight, and Finnegan, ten; Jill Biden and daughter Ashley; Senator Biden’s mother, Catherine (“Jean”) Finnegan Biden; Kathleen’s eldest daughter, Naomi, fourteen; Beau Biden’s wife, Hallie; and her daughter, Natalie, four.

“All the Vice President’s Women” has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the November 2008 issue of Vogue.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 8:31 pm

Vogue Feature

Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a Scandal

Jenny Sanford opens up to Rebecca Johnson about being a political wife—and the affair that changed it all.

Photographed by Jonathan Becker

Before Jenny Sanford came along, the options for wronged political wives were pretty poor. You could suffer silently (see Silda Wall Spitzer), deny everything (hello, Hillary), or make catty asides about the harlot who caused your husband to stray (Elizabeth Edwards). Then came Jenny Sanford.
Early this past summer, just as the world was savoring the news that yet another conservative Republican politician had tumbled from grace in a manner worthy of the best French farce—“hiking the Appalachian Trail” will never have the same meaning—there emerged an unlikely hero in the mess down in South Carolina. Petite, clear-eyed, strong-willed, pious without being smug, smart without being caustic, Jenny Sanford became an unlikely heroine by telling the simple truth. Her children were the most important thing in the world to her. She had kicked the lying bum out of the house when he refused to give up his mistress, but marriage is complex, life is hard, and if he wanted to try and make the marriage work, the door was open.

Her one-page statement saying as much was written without the help of spin doctors or media consultants. It came from her heart and her head. It mentioned God without making you squirm. The world took note. Newsweek dubbed her a “media genius”; The Washington Post hailed her as “a new role model for wronged spouses.” On television, Diane Sawyer called her classy, praising her “grace in the glare.” While her husband was giving overly emotional press conferences about soul mates and impossible love, Sanford kept her mouth shut and her head down. Just as the scandal was finally dying down, she agreed to sit with Vogue and set the record straight about what really happened in the low country of South Carolina.

The press has portrayed the 47-year-old Sanford as an heiress with connections to the Kennedys, but the Sanfords’ house on Sullivan’s Island, a small, laid-back beach community ten minutes from downtown Charleston, is a modest cinder-block affair, albeit one with million-dollar views of the ocean. The kitchen counters are Corian, the rugs sea grass. It’s a house for boys to knock around in and friends to gather in. The Sanfords are conservative Christians, but they’re not the teetotaling, proselytizing sort. There are bottles of wine on the kitchen counter. Ayn Rand is on the bookshelf, but so is Gabriel García Márquez. The Bible sits front and center on the coffee table, alongside Forbes magazine. “You could be friends with her for 20 years, and she would never bring up the religious stuff,” says her friend Marjory Wentworth, poet laureate of South Carolina and a self-described liberal who once worked for The Nation.

Jenny Sanford has been adamant from the beginning that her four boys, ranging in age from ten to seventeen, are the center of her life. As we sit in her living room on a summer day, that much is clear. Throughout the morning, various freckled and barefoot Sanfords wander in and out, looking for a key to unlock the closet where the surfboards are stored or wondering when lunch will be ready.

For the record, Jenny Sanford and most of her friends were as shocked as the rest of America when they learned about the governor’s affair with an Argentinian divorcée. After all, Mark Sanford was the politician who called Bill Clinton’s philandering “reprehensible” and plastered the airwaves during his last election with pictures of his wholesome-looking wife and four children. “We have all been scratching our heads over this one,” says Wentworth. “If you lined up all my male friends and asked me who would be the most likely to do this, he’d be at the bottom of the list. We all know men who drink too much at a party and flirt with women—Mark was never that guy.”

His wife concurs. Finding evidence of the affair last January in a stack of papers was, she says, a shock. “It never occurred to me that he would do something like that. The person I married was centered on a core of morals. The person who did this is not centered on those morals.” She calls the further revelations about “crossed lines with other women” nothing short of “punches to the gut.” The only explanation that makes sense to her is that her husband is in thrall to an addiction as potent as the one cast by any drug. “Over the course of both pastoral and marriage counseling, it became clear to me that he was just obsessed with going to see this woman. I have learned that these affairs are almost like an addiction to alcohol or pornography. They just can’t break away from them.”

Sitting on her couch in a crisp black linen shirt, scant makeup, and a few pieces of gold jewelry, Sanford appears the model of restraint as she discusses the extraordinary events that thrust her into the public eye. But it was not always thus. “I may seem emotionless right now,” she says. “I am not emotionless. The last six months have been filled with emotion.” But she has had plenty of time to look back and analyze what went wrong.
“I think”—she chooses her words carefully—“my husband has got some issues that he needs to work on, about happiness and what happiness means. You wish it wouldn’t come to a crisis like this, but I think when a lot of men get to this midpoint in life, they start asking questions that they probably should have asked a long time ago.” A former investment banker and a stay-at-home, full-time mother, Sanford doesn’t share her husband’s angst. “Midlife aging is different for men than for women,” she says. “Mark is worried about what his next job is. He worries about making money, running for office again, his legacy. I know my legacy is my children. I don’t worry about that.”
According to his wife, the governor of South Carolina was always a bit of a restless, searching soul. It’s part of what initially attracted her to him. When they met in the mid-eighties, Jenny Sanford (née Sullivan) was working at the hard-driving, testosterone-soaked Manhattan investment-banking firm Lazard Frères & Co. One of the few females in the office, she blazed a trail upward by putting in long hours and learning to set aside some of her innate moral squeamishness. “I loved it, and I learned a lot, but some of the things I learned there about greed and power, I wish I hadn’t.” Such as? “At an early age I had a lot of access to people who made a lot of money. Some lived good lives, some didn’t. But I knew then that working 24/7 and trying to climb a ladder to make more money wasn’t what it was about. I have never thought money is the barometer of your success or worth.” (It’s a good thing Jenny Sanford is not overly concerned with money, as her husband is a fiscal conservative on the micro as well as macro level. Or, as she puts it, “My husband is famously cheap.”)

Growing up one of five children in Winnetka, Illinois, Jenny Sullivan was the studious one, a self-described nerd who did well in school and loved to visit the family’s power-tool factory with her father. (Her grandfather and great-grandfather founded the Skil Corporation.) Had the family not sold the business when she was sixteen, Jenny would have liked nothing more than running that factory. Religion played an important role in the family. As a girl, she saw her father kneel next to the bed in daily prayer. Faith also helped the Sullivan children cope with their mother’s longtime battle with skin cancer and the debilitating treatments she underwent to fight it.

At Georgetown University, the ne plus ultra for brainy Catholic girls, Jenny majored in finance before landing the job at Lazard, where she rose within a few years to the rank of vice president in the cutthroat mergers-and-acquisitions department. Only 27 and beginning to feel burned out, she requested a transfer to the more sedate bond desk. There she followed a time-honored tradition of young working people in New York City by taking a summer share in a house on Long Island. Sanford was not the Paris Hilton of the Hamptons, but neither was she a saint. “I don’t have a wild past, but I don’t have a perfect past. I worked hard, and I played hard. There are things I probably shouldn’t have done, but I was human. The question is what you learn from them.”

One night, when she and a girlfriend needed a ride to a party, a young Southerner appeared at her door driving a beat-up Honda. She doesn’t recall being particularly impressed. “I didn’t think, Wow, this is the man for me, but I thought he was a breath of fresh air. Compared with the typical Wall Street guy, he seemed like an honest, sincere gentleman.” To her family, Mark Sanford was just another of the tall, dark, handsome men Sullivan dated back then. “Jenny never lacked for gorgeous men. She even dated a GQ model in college,” recalls her youngest sister, Kathy Sullivan, an artist and single mother based in Louisville, Kentucky.

Some marriages begin in fire; the Sanfords’ was more of a slow burn. “We weren’t madly in love, but we were compatible and good friends,” she says. “I like to think we balance each other out. I am a conservative at heart, but I’m not passionate about ideas like he is. I am better at making the trains run on time.” When Sanford asked Jenny to get married and move to South Carolina, she didn’t blink. “At heart, I am an old-fashioned woman. If the Lord blessed me with children and family, I knew that would be my calling.”

Charleston, where they made their home, is the Deep South, but it’s also a port city with a cosmopolitan population that welcomed the Sanfords. He began a real-estate business; she recovered from Wall Street by renovating an old house, getting involved with local charities, and playing golf. (Fitness is important to Sanford, and not just for vanity. Apart from her mother’s illness, she had an aunt who died of cancer at 40 and a handful of cousins starting to die at similarly young ages.) The friends she has made in South Carolina praise her for being organized, energetic, and deeply generous with her friendship. “Even when you go to the beach, she won’t just sit there,” says her neighbor and close friend Frannie Reese. “She’s always making plans, getting people to do things.” “She’s the hardest worker I know and one of the best friends you can imagine,” says her friend Virginia Dawson Lane, a Charleston native and the owner of a local architecture firm. “When my father died, she was the first person at my door.”

Within three years of the Sanfords’ move to Charleston, babies started arriving. She had two children under the age of three when her husband surprised her by announcing his plans to run for Congress. “He’s always searching for something else,” she says, “something bigger.” Politics wasn’t her dream, but she was happy to support him, even when he asked her to run the campaign. “I said, ‘Well, it’s going to be a little hard to juggle that with two babies.’ And he said, ‘Oh, we’ll just put the campaign phone line in the kitchen.’ I mean, he didn’t think he was going to win.”

As it turned out, Jenny Sanford liked running a political campaign. “It was fun,” she says. “Campaigns are exhilarating because all sorts of people come out of the woodwork to help.” It also turned out to be surprisingly similar to investment banking. “In both of them, you work 24/7 until the deal either happens or it dies. You can always do more work. There’s always one more voter out there you can get to, one more E-mail that needs to be answered.” Nevertheless, when her husband was on the short list to be John McCain’s running mate, Sanford silently prayed it would not come to pass. Life in the fishbowl that is the governor’s mansion has not always been easy for her or her children. “I am counting the days,” she confesses, “until I can move back to Sullivan’s Island.”

Mixing work and love as the Sanfords did in their campaigns, first for Congress and then for the governorship, might be practical—Sanford likes to joke that he hired his wife because “the price was right”—but it can be lethal to a marriage. Eroticism is fueled by mystery, and it can be hard to feel that about a person who is overseeing the latest returns from the fifteenth precinct. Mix in the daily tribulations of raising four children and extended absences from the family, and maintaining one’s marriage bonds can start to seem like one more line item on a long list of obligations. Jenny Sanford understands that. “Everybody would like an escape sometimes. I’d like somebody 5,000 miles away I could E-mail. It’s not exclusive to men, but I know that isn’t realistic.”

The question is why some men—specifically, male politicians—don’t seem to understand how extramarital affairs poison both careers and families. Having watched the species up close all these years, Sanford has a theory. “Politicians become disconnected from the way everyone else lives in the world. I saw that from the very beginning. They’ll say they need something, and ten people want to give it to them. It’s an ego boost, and it’s easy to drink your own Kool-Aid. As a wife, you do your best to keep them grounded, but it’s a real challenge.”

Mark Sanford has paid a high price for his hubris. Longtime enemies in the South Carolina state legislature have been agitating for his removal, late-night comedians have had a field day kicking around his innermost private thoughts from his E-mails, and Democrats outraged by his initial unwillingness to accept stimulus money for a state plagued by an 11.4 percent unemployment rate have done their best to keep the scandal alive. His wife does not share the country’s derision. Even so, like the rest of America, she and a friend couldn’t resist Googling the woman at the center of the firestorm. “What woman wouldn’t want to know what her husband’s mistress looks like?” asks the friend. (Sanford’s reported verdict: “She’s pretty.”) But mostly what Jenny Sanford feels is sorry for the two lovers.
“Mark is not a bad person,” she says. “What the world saw in that press conference is someone who is struggling. None of us are perfect. We are all trying to do the best we can. I also feel sorry for the other woman. I am sure she is a fine person. It can’t be fun for her, though I do sometimes question her judgment. If she knew the newspaper had those E-mails back in December, why did she want him to come in June? But I can’t go there too much. All I can do is pray for her because she made some poor choices. Mark made some poor choices. A lot of people were brought down by this, and I am sure that is not what they wanted.”

Her willingness to forgive and move forward is probably what has most impressed the world about Jenny Sanford. “I think most women in her position would still be under the covers,” says her friend Frannie Reese. “Jenny wants to go bicycling.” Whether her friends think she should stay with her husband is another question. “I think she will be fine with him or without him,” says Reese. At least one other, who asked not to be identified, thinks the couple may learn something from the crisis. “For too long, I think, Mark has been dead on the inside. Jenny has just lived with it, doing all the work of bringing up the kids and not complaining. She deserves a soul mate, too. It would be ironic if this Argentinian woman was the person who woke Mark up, but if they were both willing to do the work, Jenny could ultimately benefit from that.”

For now, the first lady of South Carolina is groping for the high road and trying to keep an open mind. “If you don’t forgive,” she says, “you become angry and bitter. I don’t want to become that. I am not in charge of revenge. That’s not up to me. That’s for the Lord to decide, and it’s important for me to teach that to my boys. All I can do is forgive. Reconciliation is something else, and that is going to be a harder road. I have put my heart and soul into being a good mother and wife. Now I think it’s up to my husband to do the soul-searching to see if he wants to stay married. The ball is in his court.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 3:31 pm

For Nats Wives, Life Around This Diamond Isn’t So Glittery

By Kate Kilpatrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009


Ah, the baseball-wife stereotype — vapid, idle beauties. They sling their Louis Vuitton purses atop peanut shells and during the seventh-inning stretch schedule brunch and waxing appointments.

These women — so glammed up they make you wonder whether the Diamond Club seats they sit in are named for the eight-carat rocks that adorn their manicured fingers — boast tight and toned bikini bods. They’re not afraid to strut their stuff in racy men’s magazines and they’re not above using their husbands’ transgressions as bargaining chips for tennis bracelets and sports cars.

But for the spouses of the Washington Nationals, the baseball-wife stereotypes belong in a fantasy league of their own.

Everyone thinks: “Oh my gosh, what a wonderful life you have. You can go shopping every day,” says Yormarie Nieves, 30, a former model from Puerto Rico who’s married to Nationals backup catcher Wil Nieves.

But the reality, says Rachel Dunn, 27, wife of first baseman Adam Dunn, who signed a two-year, $20 million contract with the Nationals in February, is “not even remotely as glamorous as people think.”

The life of a baseball wife can be lonely, chaotic and uncertain. And when your husband plays for the worst team in baseball, there is even less pretense of glamour.

* * *

As they wind their way through the muggy dog days of August — what some consider the most unpleasant time of year in D.C. — the Washington Nationals remain last in their division, 24 games behind the Phillies. Their 43-75 record is the worst in Major League Baseball. They’re on pace to lose 103 games this season.

Average attendance at the 41,000-seat ballpark is under 24,000. With seven weeks left in the regular season, the Nationals have to battle their way through 44 more games, all the while knowing there’s no chance of postseason play.

Sitting in the wives’ section behind home plate, there are no outspoken Anna Bensons, the Southern babe who once told Howard Stern that if hubbie Kris Benson, who at the time pitched for the Mets, cheated on her she would sleep with the entire Mets team. There is no clothes-shedding Heidi Hamels, the busty blond “Survivor” star and wife of Phillies heartthrob ace pitcher Cole Hamels.

Despite their youth and beauty, none of the women married to the members of the Washington Nationals are regulars on bloggers’ lists of “Hottest Baseball Wives.”


Not that they care. For the most part, they describe themselves as laid-back and low-key.

“I am lucky to be able to take a shower every day,” says Abby Kearns, wife of right fielder Austin Kearns, sipping a glass of white wine at an Old Town Alexandria restaurant near her home. “I’m just so busy, honestly, trying to take care of the kids.”

Kearns’s 2-year-old, Brady, who they learned recently has autism, has therapy four days a week.

“Our kids get sick and have disabilities like everyone else,” Kearns says. “Life doesn’t stop just because you travel and your husband plays baseball.”

The Nats wives are younger than those on other teams. Many of the women grew up in smaller cities like Toledo, Ohio; Lexington, Ky.; and Florence, Ala. They are mostly new to the big leagues, and have little experience living far from home.

And while they might not worry about mortgages and tuition bills like millions of Americans, Kearns says there are plenty of other stresses to make up for that — like maintaining two homes (one in Washington and one in their home town) and knowing you may have to pack and move at a moment’s notice.

You have to lead screaming children through crowded airports every week, handle the family finances, deal with rumors about groupies and on-the-road affairs. You might even have to give up career ambitions to live your partner’s dream.

Hardest of all: trying to keep the family together while your husband travels eight months every year.

“It’s basically like being a single parent,” says Kearns.

Which is all made worse when your husband plays for a team that loses far more games than it wins.

“You’re in it together,” she says. “Your husband comes home upset, you’re upset. When he has a great game, you feel like you had a great game.”

“Losing is hard for everybody. Nobody wants a losing team,” Liz Johnson says during an interview in her living room two weeks before her husband, first baseman Nick Johnson, was dealt to the Florida Marlins.

“You hate to fail every day. That’s really tough for the players. They go out there wanting to win and it’s a big letdown when it doesn’t happen day after day after day.”

“All these guys for the most part have been the creme de la creme of their high school, college, whatever,” says Rachel Dunn, on the phone from Texas where she’s just put her 2-year-old son (also named Brady) to bed. “They’re used to being winners. They’re used to being first place in whatever they do. I know Adam has that mentality — it’s really hard for him to lose.”

* * *

During the season, a number of Nationals players rent executive apartments in Arlington or Alexandria, both just minutes from D.C.

King Street, the downtown strip in Old Town Alexandria, is lined with wine bars, bistros, taverns and boutiques. It’s the kind of leafy, red-brick suburb where, if this were another city and a big leaguer and his wife were spotted slurping oysters, fans would gawk or request autographs or at least snap a cellphone photo.

Not here.

“[Adam] is rarely recognized in D.C.,” says Rachel Dunn. “One time this whole season I think we’ve gone out and someone’s recognized him.”

Liz Johnson and Yormarie Nieves, whose husbands played for the Yankees before signing with the Nationals, find the D.C. lifestyle far more relaxed.

“It’s really hard to play in New York because you’re in the spotlight no matter what you’re doing. Everyone knows who you are,” says Johnson. “With Washington, they’re not really as popular or as good of a team, so we are left out of the spotlight. Nobody’s really interested [in the wives]. Which is fine. I don’t feel like it should be any other way.”

Forget the wives. Many residents aren’t interested in the players either.

D.C. was mostly Orioles territory once the Washington Senators left for Texas in 1972. As a new, young team, the Nationals have had a hard time building their fan base. Especially because they keep losing.

Washingtonians — accustomed to bad press about the team — haven’t yet acquired the passion and excitement for their baseball team evidenced in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago or New York. In the nation’s capital, the national pastime plays a faint second fiddle to power, politics, and of course, the Redskins.

“[Wil] gets recognized in New York more than here,” Nieves says.

Plus, the team is low on marquee players, and flaunts no perennial all-stars. Even Johnson, who was one of the Nationals’ highest-paid players before the trade, received limited exposure here because of repeated injuries.

And so many of the young players who’ve yet to acquire leverage are at the mercy of front-office executives who can move them at any time.

“Especially with [the Nats], you are in and out so much,” says Liz Johnson. “You just go with whatever happens. You have no control over it anyway.”

It’s a fact 25-year-old Jarah Bergmann knows well.

Her husband, Jason, a right-handed pitcher for the Nationals, has been sent down to Class AAA Syracuse three times this season.

“This year we’ve been bounced quite a bit,” Jarah said earlier this summer, standing in the Nationals Park family room, which is arranged with flat-screen TVs, leather armchairs and children’s toys. Wearing a green, cotton sundress and Ray-Ban sunglasses, the bubbly brunette empties her mailbox while her husband clears his gear out of the clubhouse.

Just the day before, Jarah says, she was eating pizza in New York when Jason broke the news to her that he was being sent to the minors via text message.

“He didn’t know how to tell me again,” says Bergmann, who’d planned to join Jason in New York for the Nats’ series against the Mets. “I think he was ashamed it happened again.”

They each immediately flew back to D.C., where they had 72 hours to pack up their apartment and meet the Triple-A team on the road in Buffalo.

They stayed up till 2 a.m. piling their belongings into a black Ford F-150 truck (they’ve given up their smaller, sportier cars, which couldn’t handle their back-and-forth lifestyle). Jarah says they left behind all their groceries, and gave neighbors toilet paper and other items that they buy in bulk.

“We actually live cheaply,” she says. “When you first get called up and you’re really excited . . . you might overspend a bit. But then it sinks in: We have to make this last.”

“His career could be over tomorrow,” Jarah says, heading back to the truck as Jason walks toward her, overhearing the conversation.

“Thanks,” he says. (Bergmann was called up on July 5.)

* * *

For nearly every wife, fiancee or girlfriend who gets sent down to the minors with a player, another arrives in the majors.

“People say in the majors, once you get a taste of it you never want to go back,” says Ashley Sterling, sitting in the family room during a rain-delayed game against St. Louis. Collin Balester, her fiance, was called up from Syracuse late that afternoon to make his first big league start of the season. (The pitcher exited after the fourth inning; the Cardinals won, 4-1.)

“Within the baseball community, it definitely is a ‘we’ thing. ‘We got traded’ or ‘We got sent down,’ you know. ‘We got called up,’ ” the 22-year-old Sterling says.

“It might sound kind of weird to people who aren’t in baseball, because they might think, ‘Oh, Collin got called up.’ But it’s so much more than that. It’s my life, too. We sacrifice a lot to be with them.”

Because of the long season and constant travel, baseball — compared with other sports — is especially hard on families.

Therefore, making friends with the other wives is key, they say.

“Our families aren’t around. Our friends are back in our home towns where they live,” says Rachel Dunn. “We’re really all each other has.”

So when the July 31 trade deadline approached, the wives wondered which of them might be saying goodbye.

Liz Johnson — whose husband’s name had been mentioned in a number of trade rumors — expected their days with the Nationals were numbered.

“But then the deadline passed, so we thought we were in the clear,” she says. “Then I got a phone call at 4:10 — 10 minutes after the deadline passed.”

Nick had been traded to the Florida Marlins. (He was back at Nationals Park earlier this month — playing for the visiting team.)

“I’ll probably go to the family room and say goodbye and it’ll be weird because I don’t belong there anymore,” Liz says over the phone, as she takes a quick break from last-minute sightseeing in D.C.

Johnson says she’ll miss the friendships she made with Nationals wives. But she acknowledges there are upsides to the trade — and not just that the native Californian will be closer to the beach.

At last she’ll watch her husband play on a winning team again.

“It definitely makes watching the game a little different, because you know there’s potentially going to be an extended season. So you’re watching with a little bit more anxiousness,” she says. “Now we have a little more at stake.”

After a long, rough season, many of the wives are looking forward to the offseason break, when they can relax with their husbands. Sterling and Balester plan to marry in October, and honeymoon in Aruba. The Dunns are expecting their third child in November. For the Bergmanns, the best plans are no plans.

“We like to just lounge around the house and really not do that much,” Jarah says.

Of course her husband, along with the others, will keep training for the next season. She says Jason hopes to finally secure a stable spot on the Nationals roster.

As for her hopes for next season:

“A good, solid year, where we’re here all year,” she says. “It would be really nice.”

August 11, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 2:36 pm

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Founder of Special Olympics, Dies at 88

By J.Y. Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 11, 2009 10:01 AM


Eunice Kennedy Shriver, 88, a member of a political dynasty who devoted her life to improving the welfare of the mentally disabled by founding the Special Olympics, died Tuesday morning at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass., after a series of strokes.

Shriver, a sister of President John F. Kennedy and Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, was credited with playing a major role in changing the perception of mental retardation. When she began her work in the field half a century ago, it was common for mentally disabled people to be placed in institutions that did little more than warehouse them. Through her programs and hands-on efforts, she demonstrated that with appropriate help, most developmentally disabled people can lead productive and useful lives.

In a statement, her family said, “She set out to change the world and to change us, and she did that and more. She founded the movement that became Special Olympics, the largest movement for acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities in the history of the world. Her work transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe, and they in turn are her living legacy.”

In the 1950s, as executive vice president of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, she shifted the organization’s focus from Catholic charities to research on the causes of mental retardation and humane ways to treat it. In 1963, the foundation, which had been established in honor of a brother killed in World War II, published fitness standards and tests for people with intellectual disabilities that became widely used.

When her brother John became president in 1961, she persuaded him to appoint a committee to study developmental disabilities. An outgrowth of the panel’s work was the establishment the following year of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development as part of the National Institutes of Health.

In 1962, in a groundbreaking article in the Saturday Evening Post, Shriver, the fifth of nine children born to Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, disclosed that her older sister, Rosemary Kennedy, was developmentally disabled. The story demonstrated how not to treat the mentally disabled and summoned a change in conditions that still existed on a wide scale.

“Like diabetes, deafness, polio, or any other misfortune, mental retardation can happen in any family,” Shriver wrote. It was different from mental illness, she said, and there were no grounds for the belief, widely held at the time, that people with the condition were belligerent or unmanageable.

“The truth is that 75 to 85 percent of the retarded are capable of becoming useful citizens with the help of special education and rehabilitation,” Shriver wrote. “Another 10 percent can learn to make small contributions, not involving book learning, such as mowing a lawn or washing dishes.”

Rosemary, institutionalized from the time she was 23, never had that opportunity. By 1941, she had become increasingly subject to fits of rage, and her mental faculties and judgment had declined. Concerned about her behavior and the possibility that men would take advantage of her, her father arranged for her to have a prefrontal lobotomy, an experimental operation in which part of the brain was destroyed.

The results were disastrous. Rosemary regressed into an infantlike state in which she could barely speak and spent most of the time staring at walls. Her father arranged to keep her out of sight, first at an institution in New York and then at St. Coletta School in Wisconsin. Because medical opinion held that visits from family members would be too upsetting for someone in Rosemary’s condition, no one visited her for years. She died in 2005.

Shriver organized the Special Olympics in 1968. The first competition, a two-day affair at Soldier Field in Chicago, attracted 1,000 contestants from 26 states and Canada. Although a number of famous athletes heeded her request to attend, the spectator turnout was minuscule, and most of the media declined to cover it.

The Special Olympics have become the world’s largest year-round sports program for mentally disabled children and adults. More than 2.5 million athletes in 180 countries take part in competitions each year. Contestants work through local and regional meets toward the World Special Olympics, held every two years.

In 1982, Shriver founded the Community of Caring, a program designed to prevent teenage pregnancy and reduce the relatively high incidence of intellectual disabilities among children of teenage mothers. The program emphasizes values and remaining in school, and it involves parents and teachers as well as children. It also works to combat drug and alcohol abuse.

Shriver’s honors included the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, which was conferred on her in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan.

Shriver, a pencil-thin woman with a big, toothy smile, was well known for her willingness to get close to those she was trying to help — joining children in their games, listening to and encouraging them, talking to their parents.

“I think that really the only way you change people’s attitudes or behavior is to work with them,” she told an interviewer. “Not write papers or serve on committees. Who’s going to work with the child to change him — with the juvenile delinquent and the retarded? Who’s going to teach them to swim? To catch a ball? You have to work with the person. It’s quite simple, actually.”

Eunice Mary Kennedy was born July 10, 1921, at the Kennedy residence in Brookline, Mass. She grew up there and in the Bronx and Bronxville, N.Y. She was educated at Catholic schools, and at one time the family thought she might become a nun.

She graduated in 1943 from Stanford University with a bachelor of science degree in sociology. Her first job was with the State Department in Washington, where she was part of a program to help former prisoners of war become acclimated to civilian life.

In 1946, she worked in John F. Kennedy’s first political campaign, for a seat in Congress; she later worked in the campaigns of brothers Robert and Edward. In 1947 and 1948, she was executive secretary of the National Conference on Prevention and Control of Juvenile Delinquency in the Justice Department. Having gained control of a $1 million trust fund at 21, she accepted a salary of $1 a year.

In 1950, she became a social worker at the federal penitentiary for women in Alderson, W.Va. In 1951, she moved to Chicago and worked at the House of the Good Shepherd, a youth shelter, and with the city’s juvenile court system.

On May 23, 1953, she and R. Sargent Shriver were married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. They settled in Chicago, where her husband was manager of the Merchandise Mart, a Kennedy interest. Sargent Shriver became head of the Office of Economic Opportunity and the founding director of the Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration. He was the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic presidential ticket headed by Sen. George S. McGovern in 1972 and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. He received a diagnosis in 1993 of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Besides her husband, of Hyannis Port, Mass., survivors include the couple’s five children, Maria Shriver, a former NBC television journalist and the wife of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R); R. Sargent “Bobby” Shriver III, a lawyer who co-founded an anti-poverty group, DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa), with U2 lead singer Bono; Mark K. Shriver, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates and an official with Save the Children; Timothy P. Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics board; and Anthony K. Shriver, founder of Best Buddies International, a program that encourages students to work with mentally disabled children.

Survivors also include her brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); a sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland; and 19 grandchildren.

With the advent of the Kennedy administration in 1961, the Shrivers moved to the Washington area. For several years they rented Timberlawn, a 20-acre estate in Rockville.

In 1962, Shriver established a summer camp at Timberlawn for children with intellectual disabilities, a precursor of the Special Olympics. Many of the children were bused from poorer sections of Washington. Some were unable to speak, eat or care for themselves. She recruited students from the area’s elite private schools to work as volunteers at the camp.

The annual four-week camp grew to include about 100 children. It became evident that disabled children had more physical prowess than was generally realized. With the example of the campers and the encouragement of the fitness awards program that had been launched by President Kennedy, Shriver began the Special Olympics.

Early concerns about the program included skepticism about the ability of disabled people to compete and questions about the effects of losing on the competitors’ psyches.

The first concern has been answered by the athletes.

As for the latter issue, Shriver told The Washington Post that she had “heard a lot of that” and that it was “a lot of baloney.”

“What proof have they got that as a group of people they can’t take losing?” she said. “Who? Where does it come from, that idea? Somebody cries because they lose? I can tell you 50 people who cry — I go and watch my own kids cry when they lose.”

This obituary was prepared in advance by former Washington Post obituaries editor J.Y. Smith, who died in 2006.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 2:29 pm
August 10, 2009
Op-Ed Columnist

The Unfunny Truth


It’s been a melancholy summer for social conservatives. Their movement is fighting a rearguard battle in Barack Obama’s Washington. A cluster of family-values politicians — some of whom bunked down in the same Christian-sponsored D.C. townhouse — have spent the last few months confessing to extramarital affairs. And Sarah Palin … well, you know how that’s turned out so far.

Worst of all, nobody likes Judd Apatow’s new movie.

Don’t laugh. No contemporary figure has done more than Apatow, the 41-year-old auteur of gross-out comedies, to rebrand social conservatism for a younger generation that associates it primarily with priggishness and puritanism. No recent movie has made the case for abortion look as self-evidently awful as “Knocked Up,” Apatow’s 2007 keep-the-baby farce. No movie has made saving — and saving, and saving — your virginity seem as enviable as “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” whose closing segue into connubial bliss played like an infomercial for True Love Waits.

“We make extremely right-wing movies with extremely filthy dialogue,” Seth Rogen, Apatow’s favorite leading man, told an interviewer during the promotional blitz for “Knocked Up.” He was half-joking, of course, and it’s safe to say that you won’t see Apatow and his merry men at the next Christian Coalition fundraiser. But the one-liner got something important right. By marrying raunch and moralism, Apatow’s movies have done the near impossible: They’ve made an effectively conservative message about relationships and reproduction seem relatable, funny, down-to-earth and even sexy.

At least until now. Having taken on virginity, pregnancy, and wedlock, Apatow has moved on to later stages of the life-cycle — divorce and death. His new film, “Funny People,” features Adam Sandler as a superstar comedian who’s rich, lonely, and battling leukemia. He’s also battling to win back his former girlfriend, whom he cheated on years ago, from her husband, who’s also cheating on her — but with whom she has two kids.

It is heavier than Apatow’s last two films, and fewer people care for it. Audiences seem indifferent, and the critics are verging on hostility. Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek hinted that Apatow should follow the example of the just-deceased John Hughes, another comedic moralist, and seek retirement before his gifts exhaust themselves. Time’s Richard Corliss had a simpler idea: “Please, please, go back and make Judd Apatow movies.”

But “Funny People” is a Judd Apatow movie — endless penis jokes and all. It’s just a more grown-up one, in which doing the right thing comes harder, and bad choices aren’t easily unwound. The way it’s been received suggests that his fan base isn’t ready to hear this kind of story yet. But it’s also reminder that Americans of all ages tend to like their social conservatism much more in theory than in practice.

More than most Westerners, Americans believe — deeply, madly, truly — in the sanctity of marriage. But we also have some of the most liberal divorce laws in the developed world, and one of the highest divorce rates. We sentimentalize the family, but boast one of the highest rates of unwed births. We’re more pro-life than Europeans, but we tolerate a much more permissive abortion regime than countries like Germany or France. We wring our hands over stem cell research, but our fertility clinics are among the least regulated in the world.

In other words, we’re conservative right up until the moment that it costs us.

Both “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” were designed to hit this worldview’s sweet spot. There were threads of darkness in both stories, but for the most part they made their moralism look appealing by making it look relatively easy.

Still a virgin in middle age? Not to worry — you’ll find a caring, foxy woman who’s been waiting her whole life for an awkward, idealistic guy like you. Pregnant from a drunken one-night stand? Good news — the oaf who knocked you up will turn out to be a decent guy, and you’ll be able to keep the baby and your career as a rising entertainment-news anchorwoman. Frittering away your life on porn and pot? Fear not — your wasted twenties won’t stop you from being a great dad.

With “Funny People,” though, Apatow is offering a more realistic morality play. This time, doing the right thing has significant costs — but you have to do it anyway. This time, doing the wrong things for too long has significant consequences — and you have to live with them. It’s the first Apatow film in which love doesn’t conquer all. And it’s the first Apatow film in which you get punished for your sins.

In that sense, “Funny People” is the most conservative of all his movies. That’s probably what American audiences don’t like about it. But it’s what makes this film his best work yet.

Roger Cohen is on vacation.

August 6, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 6:35 pm
August 6, 2009

Staying Fit When Eating Is Your Job


PADMA LAKSHMI, the model, actress and cookbook author, knows it would be hard to ask for sympathy for her occupational plight.

While filming for “Top Chef,” the TV show for which she serves as judge and host, part of her job is to taste food from some of the country’s best chefs every day for five weeks.

“That’s tasting 16 to 17 bites of each dish we test, each with 17 to 20 ingredients or more,” she said in an interview. And because the contestants try to make their foods as delicious as possible, “they have a tendency to infuse them with more fat,” she said.

Each season, Ms. Lakshmi, 38, keeps two dress sizes on the set for when the weight starts to pile on: she is 5-foot-9 and typically she puts on 10 to 15 pounds a season.

“I just try to cut myself a break — I know I’m going to gain weight,” she said. “In my job, I eat the most when I’m working the most.”

But like other people who work with hard-to-resist food and still manage to stay fit, Ms. Lakshmi has devised a host of strategies, some of which could serve as inspiration and guidance to people whose jobs don’t require them to taste a lot of food.

The advice comes down to basics: moderate what you eat; don’t panic when work makes you overeat or when you can’t work out; and pay attention to what you are eating.

“It really comes down to balance — balance in life and balance in food,” said Cynthia Sass, a nutritionist and personal trainer who has worked with the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays. “And people who work with food tend to be more aware of their health.”

Not always. The image of the roly-poly chef is an enduring stereotype, and sometimes for good reason. But portly people are the exception rather than the rule on “Top Chef” and other TV cooking shows.

While Ms. Lakshmi is famously fit — she recently posed naked for Allure magazine, in a feature about celebrities and body images — it’s all she can do while filming “Top Chef” to get in a workout here or there. She always keeps a jump rope in her suitcase in case she finds herself with free time.

When the show is not in production, she regularly boxes, walks stairs and does upper body work as part of a daily 90-minute routine. “When the season is over, I go into food detox,” she said, “no red meat, no alcohol, no cheese, until I’m back in shape.”

For Robert L. Untiedt, who owns Graham’s Fine Chocolates in Geneva, Ill., there is no off-season from dipping and tasting chocolates, though some months seem to pack more calories than others.

“Around the holidays, when we’re busiest, it can be hard to get away from work,” he said. “Plus there’s all that chocolate.”

He tries to fit in a workout three days a week before lunch. He also keeps a bike at the office so he can ride to the post office instead of driving, and he take advantage of his downtown location by walking on errands.

That’s at least some compensation for eating about a quarter-pound of chocolate at work every day. He tries to stick to dark chocolate, because it is generally healthier than milk chocolate.

The combination of regular workouts and staying on his feet most of the day clearly helps. At 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, Mr. Untiedt’s fit figure doesn’t square with the image many people have in their heads of the owner of a chocolate shop.

“They’ll say, surprised: ‘You’re the owner?’ ” he said. “I joke with them that most people just don’t eat enough chocolate because if you do, your body learns to burn it off.”

But strict regimens like his are hard to maintain, and human frailty often kicks in. Frank Bruni, the restaurant critic for The New York Times, wrote in Men’s Vogue about his quest for a workout regimen that would compensate for the meals he had to eat; he has just written a book about his struggles with eating and bulimia. Meredith Ford Goldman, the food critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said she had an eating disorder as a teenager and has had to learn how to keep food in perspective and banish the idea that certain foods are taboo.

She also made fitness part of her life. Tucked into reviews of restaurants, she regularly mentions her gym and her trainer. “If I really blow it out and eat, like, 4 million calories, guess what? You’ve got to get up and go to the gym,” she said in a telephone interview.

Working out has never been the challenge for Dan Guerrera, who owns the Downtown Cookie Company in New York City, which delivers and express-mails large, fresh-baked cookies. He makes most of them by hand.

A former high school and college swimmer, Mr. Guerrera, 38, has been fit all his life and regularly works out six days a week with a group of triathletes. But last year, after a career in finance, he made the full-time career switch into cookies, sometimes putting in 15-hour days surrounded by dough. It took its toll, and he had to adjust his habits.

Today, “I definitely have a mental notepad in my head: O.K., I’ve had three cookies today,” he said. “The work definitely affects how long I spend on the treadmill.”

“I just try to find that balance,” he added.

August 5, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 6:00 pm

How Netflix gets your movies to your mailbox so fast

Out of sight in Carol Stream, 42 people move 60,000 discs daily with quiet efficiency. But don’t drop off your flicks there.

By Christopher Borrelli

Tribune reporter

August 4, 2009

The Netflix warehouse in Carol Stream does not appear on any map. Your odds of finding it are slightly better than your odds of stumbling upon a rare insect in a field of weeds.

One could drive to Carol Stream, stop in a random office park, climb from one’s car and scream, “Reveal thyself, Netflix!” This is not advisable. But the temptation remains.

If you subscribe to the DVD-rental service, the Netflix warehouse, which you know must exist somewhere; which a P.O. Box on every Netflix envelope suggests does exist; which processes your Netflix queue with alarming efficiency; which you bet will be as magical as you imagined if you ever stumble on it, overrun with dancing Oompa Loompas in matching jumpsuits of Netflix red, is one of those mythical New Economy temples.

Like an Amazon warehouse. Or an Apple warehouse. One imagines miles of pop ephemera between its brick-and-mortar walls — one imagines that limitless building from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but with 15,000 copies of ” Confessions of a Shopaholic.”

The truth is stranger.

After a period of pretty-pleasing Netflix to let me poke around its clandestine Chicago-area hub, and see what wonders await and how its ubiquitous red-enveloped packages are processed, I was given an address and a time to arrive and asked not to blab about it. There are 58 Netflix warehouses nationwide, serving 10.6 million subscribers, and only one for greater Chicago; it opened in 2003, Netflix’s 19th warehouse. To get there, I was told to go to Carol Stream, to be there around sunrise. I imagined it was like coming upon Narnia — one stares at it awhile until the entrance becomes evident, which turned out to be sort of true.

The warehouse is indeed in a random office park, resplendent in shades of gray and cream. (In exchange for a visit, I agreed not to divulge the precise spot or let slip a few trade secrets, none of which struck me as remarkable.) If you work at this warehouse, you have signed a confidentiality agreement that you will not divulge its location. You can tell people where you work, just not exactly where. Netflix, based in Los Gatos, Calif., is big on stealth — and has been since launching 11 years ago. But as Vice President of Communications Steve Swasey explained, the company is so far ahead of its competition in the DVD-by-mail market, including Blockbuster (which Netflix sued for patent infringement), that guarding secrets has been less of a concern these days. (According to the company’s quarterly financial report, it saw a 21 percent jump in revenue, one of the few major companies that appear recession-proof.)

Its biggest secret remains the warehouses themselves — for two reasons. No. 1, each holds several million DVDs, not to mention expensive mail-sorting gizmos and dry-board posted statistics on how many discs were recently returned damaged, placed in the wrong sleeve or scratched. And No. 2, Netflix has grown leery of what happens when customers learn the location of a warehouse — they drop off DVDs at the door. This will not help get your next disc out faster — and neither will dropping a disc in the mail early in the morning. (Even Netflix employees are asked to use the post office for Netflix returns.) Before I explain why, a bit more on the warehouse itself: Despite having an address, I drove past it a few times. The building is intentionally disguised, dumpy and drab, the warehouse tucked behind another office building closer to the street. There is also not a single identifiable piece of Netflix signage on anything out front — not a nameplate or a flash of Netflix red, and certainly not any corporate logos. Unmarked trucks roll up, then roll out. Employees (called “associates,” in Netflix-ese) enter through a less-than-obvious door.

Indeed, one of the few things about the building that suggested it was not a meth lab was that, at sunrise, the parking lot was full — shifts begin at 3 a.m. The busiest time is around 7 a.m., but as I entered, the first thing I noticed was how silent it was. No one was chatting. The second thing I noticed was how, for a Web-based business, there were few computers — maybe seven in the building, which has towering white walls and a concrete floor. Every Netflix warehouse looks like every other Netflix warehouse, down to the same flat, bright wattage of its light bulbs. It’s not attractive, which might explain the hasty mismatch of promotional posters taped to its walls like college dorm decor — a poster for “Atonement” alongside a poster for the direct-to-video “Dr. Dolittle: Tail to the Chief” alongside a horror flick poster.

There’s no there there, by design.

Forty-two people work here, nearly every one in a red Netflix T-shirt, nearly every one in constant motion. Indeed, I was asked not to disturb their groove and hit them up with questions. The busiest sat in wide rows, flanked with post office cartons stuffed with Netflix envelopes.

Six nights a week, a truck leaves for the post office and picks up cartons full of these return-address envelopes; pickup is at 3 a.m. (It’s also the reason that the time of day you mail your DVD back has no effect on when you receive your next one.) Back at the 28,500-square-foot warehouse, from which more than 60,000 discs are shipped daily in the Chicago area alone, cartons are placed at the feet of employees, who glance in two directions — down (to pick up an envelope) and up (to look at the disc), and that’s about it. This is the first, and least automated, stage of the process, performed mainly by women, including a seemingly disproportionate number of local grandparents; they have full medical benefits and a 40-hour workweek.

They inspect each returned disc. They rip open each envelope, toss it, pull the disc from its sleeve, check that the title matches the sleeve, inspect the disc for cracks or scratches, inspect the sleeve for stains or marks, clean the disc with a quick circular motion on a towel pulled tight across a square block of wood, insert the disc into its sleeve, and file the disc in one of two bins. The bin to the right is for acceptable discs, the bin to the left is for damaged discs or discs not in the proper sleeve.

To a casual observer, this all seems to happen in a single motion, a flurry of fingers. Employees are expected to perform this a minimum of 650 times an hour. Also, customers stuff things into the envelopes. Scribbled movie reviews, complaints, pictures of dogs and kids. That needs sorting too. After 65 minutes of inspection, a bell rings. Everyone stands up.


The team leader leans back, and everyone leans back. The team leader leans sideways. Everyone leans sideways. And so on. This pattern of inspection and exercise repeats every 65 minutes, until rental-return inspection is complete. Swasey, who drove in from Columbus, Ohio, where there is an even larger hub, pointed to a photocopy taped to the wall — a picture of Disc 4 of “Rescue Me” Season 4 alongside a sleeve that promised Disc 4 of “Rescue Me” Season 3. It’s a kind of Netflix perp walk. Some diligent associate caught the mistake before it shipped. “To me, I see it as a goose-bump moment,” Swasey said.

From there, action shifts to long machines that go ffft. This, right here, is how you get discs as fast as you do. Inspected discs are scanned into the inventory by a machine that reads 30,000 bar codes an hour — ffft, ffft, ffft. The moment this machine reads the bar code, you receive an e-mail letting you know that your disc arrived. Then discs are scanned a second time — if a title is requested, and around 95 percent of titles get rented at least once every 90 days, the machine separates it and sorts it out by ZIP code. (The entire inventory of the building is run through this daily, a process that alerts other warehouses of the location of every one of the 89 million discs owned by Netflix.) After that, separated discs are taken to a machine called a Stuffer — which goes ssssht-click, ssssht-click — and stuffed in an envelope, which is sealed and labeled by a laser that goes zzzt.

That’s it.

After 5 p.m., trucks are loaded with cartons of mailers and return to the post office — indeed, Netflix has become the fastest-growing source of first-class mail for the Postal Service, a department official says. How accurate is Carol Stream? Swasey won’t say, but I saw a statistic posted on the wall, and, if it’s accurate, the percentage of mistakenly shipped discs is negligible — far less than a quarter of 1 percent. Not that it matters. Netflix is already streaming movies online and through TiVo and Xbox 360s, and the service is looking toward the day when discs are outmoded and warehouses like this one redundant.

That’s 10 years off, maybe more, Swasey said. Then he shook my hand and suggested our time was up. Behind him an associate swept what appeared to be a spotless floor, and a woman sprinted back and forth along a mail sorter. And with that, I drove away, the office park seeming to close up behind me, all paths back to the Netflix warehouse growing faint in my rearview mirror. Where patches of grass and road once sat, there was only a wall of beige facades, each indistinguishable from the next, appearing to melt into a monochrome corporate smoke screen. Without the exact address, I couldn’t take you there if I tried.


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