Surprise Party

Surprise Party

Surprise Party

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
May 14 2004 7:29 AM

Surprise Party

The Washington Post leads with, the Wall Street Journal tops its world-wide news box with, and the other papers front or tease the election upset in India, where voters ousted the ruling coalition and made it likely that the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, head of the opposition Congress party, will become the country's new leader. The Los Angeles Times devotes its top non-local slot to disturbing statements made to military investigators by the prison guard who faces the first court-martial for abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, a story the New York Times and WP front. The NYT and USA Today lead with a more manufactured kind of surprise: Defense chief Donald Rumsfeld's unannounced visit to Baghdad to tour Abu Ghraib and deliver a pep talk to troops there.

Jarred by the unexpected election result—which the NYT's off-lead says no major polls or pundits predicted—Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose Hindu-nationalist party, the BJP, has been in power since 1998, resigned. The papers all quote Vajpayee's televised address last night, in which the pol struck a (literally) resigned tone: "It is for you and history to judge what we achieved during this period," he said of his time in office.

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The papers say that Gandhi, the widow of former PM Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991, will likely be able to form a new government in a coalition with other left-leaning parties. They also say, especially the LAT, that the country's economic liberalization and peace negotiations with Pakistan will be thrown into turmoil. But the WSJ notes that the Congress party has supported the peace process longer than the BJP has, and reports that the stock market actually rallied at the news, buoyed by the decisiveness of the result (subscription required).

According to the NYT, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said voters had rejected the BJP's "pro-rich economic policies" and its "pro-imperialist foreign policy." (The Times doesn't mention that the parenthetic "Marxist" is necessary to distinguish the CPI-M from its rival, the plain-vanilla Communist Party of India.)

Everyone takes readers on a quick history of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, but the LAT runs a separate hagiography on Gandhi herself, while the NYT's bio tries explain the cachet of the storied clan: "[T]hroughout its reign, the family acquired an aura that mixes the right-to-rule of the British royals, the tragedy of the American Kennedys—complete with the assassinations of both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi—and traditional South Asian respect for family and public sacrifice." (Read Slate's dispatches from the Indian election.)

The papers' stories on the Abu Ghraib abuse are drawn from two sworn statements made in January by the soldier who's facing the first court-martial, Jeremy Sivits. Unfortunately, none of the papers goes high with one of Sivits' most significant claims: that abusive guards were acting entirely on their own. "Our command would have slammed us," he said. "They believe in doing the right thing. If they saw what was going on, there would be hell to pay."

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The papers—especially the LAT—make clear that hell is precisely what soldiers doled out. Sivits describes one incident where a prison guard, Charles Graner, allegedly used a nightstick to beat a detainee who had been shot in the legs and handcuffed to a bed. "Mister, mister, please stop," the prisoner screamed, according to Sivits. Another time, Sivits testified, "Graner said in a baby-type voice" to an injured detainee, " 'Ah, does that hurt?' " The papers note, the WP in its headline, that Sivits is expected to plead guilty and is likely to get a more lenient punishment for his cooperation.

So far, everyone agrees that the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib was in clear violation of Geneva Conventions. The disagreement is over whether the Bush administration's legal policy toward interrogations caused or contributed to the abuses. A story inside the LAT lends some credence to that theory, citing senior military lawyers who say they were shut out of the process to determine the prison policy, which was drawn up by more politically motivated civilian lawyers.

On the morale-booster trip to Abu Ghraib, the SecDef (whom WSJ stipplers apparently think looks like a deranged sexpot) took along his chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Richard Meyers. The two toured the prison before fielding questions at a "town hall" meeting with troops. As Rumsfeld's armored bus rolled by, prisoners whom the WP describes as wearing "raggedy clothes flapping in a hazy wind," held up signs that NYT cites, typos intact. "What are you going to do about scandl?" asked one. Another read, "Most of us are inocents." (Early morning wires are reporting the U.S. has released some 315 prisoners.)

The Post's Rumsfeld story mentions very briefly something that is expanded on in early morning reports: Marines are continuing to battle Moqtada Sadr's militia, and two large explosions were heard in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala yesterday. The BBC says that U.S. tanks are now chasing insurgents across a sprawling cemetery.

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With troop levels in Iraq staying higher than expected, the NYT fronts, and the other papers go inside, with senators' growing displeasure, as manifested yesterday by Democrats' manhandling of Paul Wolfowitz, with the additional $25 billion requested by the Bush administration for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several sentators, from Hillary Clinton to John McCain, derided the request as a "blank check."

Two days after the release of the horrifying video in which Islamist militants beheaded Nicholas Berg *, the CIA concluded that his killer was probably senior al-Qaida leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, as the tape purports. The NYT and USAT reefer the news, and the other papers stuff it.

The NYT, WP, and LAT all stuff the FEC decision yesterday not to restrict so-called "527 committees," such as the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, from collecting unlimited soft money contributions this election cycle. The move is seen as a boon for Democrats, who rely much more heavily on the groups, but a Republican commissioner who urged his colleagues to restrict the rules predicted that there would be feverish fundraising in both parties. "The 2004 election is going to be the Wild West," he said.

The LAT follows a Marine civil affairs team to a small village near Fallujah, where officers carrying more than $80,000 in crisp $100 bills tried to make amends for deaths and property damage. A gold star for the Times' under-appreciated headline writers: "MARINES WALK SOFTLY AND CARRY A BIG STACK."

A South Korean court overturned the impeachment of president Roh Moo Hyun, according to stories in all the papers. The move returns Roh to office less than a month after voters, angry over his ouster by conservative lawmakers (in rather, um, contentious proceedings), gave a strong victory to the liberal party that backs him.

Vanity Unfair? … Earlier this week, LA Weekly reported that the LAT and NYT were both investigatingVanity Fair editor Graydon Carter's ties to Hollywood. Well, both papers run their stories today, and the anticipation seems misplaced. Though Carter admittedly weaseled himself a shocking $100,000 consulting fee for A Beautiful Mind, neither Times delivers on speculation that he had received kickbacks for cover slots. Instead, the NYT, which wisely keeps its story off Page One, paints a picture of inappropriate favoritism, while the LAT draws a portrait of an editor distracted by his Hollywood friends—a shame for readers, perhaps, but hardly worthy of its front-page treatment.

Correction: May 14, 2004:This article originally misstated the first name of the American who was recently beheaded by Islamist militants. He was Nicholas, not Scott, Berg. (Return to corrected sentence.)

Also, this column mistakenly stated that the New York Times didn't include a story on Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter in its Friday editions. The NYT did, in fact, have an article on Carter on the first page of the "Business" section.