Other than tonight's Oscar fiesta, the papers are all over the place on this largely newsless Sunday. The New York Times leads with a chillingly comprehensive look at all the ways in which Vladimir Putin's political machine has consolidated political control in Russia. The Washington Postleads with an update on the 20-year-old story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, which has finally reached the Supreme Court. The Los Angeles Times leads with election coverage, focusing on what appear in the piece to be the death throes of the Clinton campaign.
The Putin situation, as the NYT tells it, is getting especially bad in small towns far from Moscow's political maelstrom. Quotes from students and workers telling of strong indimidation—"If you don't vote for United Russia, it will be very bad"—stand in stark contrast to claims by the Kremlin that a contented people are just returning them to power for a job well done: "People see positive changes and as a result, they express their opinion," as Putin interprets the situation. On Exxon, the court will decide whether the original penalty was excessive or even merited under marine law precedent stretching back almost two centuries. Exxon, which bargained the initial $5 billion award down to $3.5 billion, contends that it has paid enough, and that the fact that the tanker captain had consumed "at least five" double vodkas before starting his journey wasn't the company's fault, anyway.
The LAT lead, spattered with both experts and laypeople portending Hillary's doom, emphasizes Sen. Barack Obama's collected response to his opponent's ire over television ads attacking her health-care plan and initial support for NAFTA, which she says distorted her record. The NYT also features an intimate piece, accompanied by a dramatic low-angle headshot, on the ways in which the Clinton campaign is coming to terms with increasingly likely defeat. Details like campaign staffers going home early to down bottles of wine and snapping at friends and family pepper an article that sure isn't going to help the morale it says is flagging.
In the only front-page look at the other side, the WP critically examines Obama's prospects in red states: Yes, he pulls well in areas with high concentrations of African-Americans, but a general election still puts them in the minority. Kansas is still Kansas, the piece reminds us, where—as one interviewee puts it—any Democrat will be "shooting from half court." Even in dependably blue cities like Toledo, Ohio, the paper continues, factory shutdowns and otherwise gloomy economic prospects have kept voters from getting excited about the candidates' lukewarm promises to tap the breaks on trade deals that send jobs overseas.
On the war side, the Post is reporting some success with handing over policing efforts to Iraqi troops in Mosul, although the article also spends almost as much time detailing the problems still plaguing the unit there—besides being understaffed and underprovisioned, as local troops take control, insurgents have started to hate them even more than the Americans (interesting when considered as a follow-up to yesterday's more pessimistic NYT coverage of Basra, which is perhaps a little farther down that road to self-rule). Meanwhile, immigrants attempting to become citizens after serving in the military are waiting longer and longer to get through—the process now takes 18 months, up from seven last year—despite wartime promises that applications for legal immigrant soldiers and their families would be fast tracked.
Back in Week in Review, the NYT charges John McCain with conflating the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (called "AfPak" by one expert, in TP's neologism of the day) with the war in Iraq, when military men like Robert Gates say that the regions should be considered two separate theaters of war. The piece suggests that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, by contrast, are taking the right tack—and the more palatable one for their anti-war supporters—by emphasizing that Afghanistan may be a greater security threat to the United States than even Iraq. In yet more news of violence, the LAT off-leads with sobering news from Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez's government has failed to stem the tide of Colombian rebels cooling their heels in small towns on the border. The locals say that the FARC members, who Chavez prefers to call "belligerents," have been taking a more "active and interventionist" role in the small communities where they've been a familiar presence for centuries.
In an example of how people who cover hard news every day are also sometimes the best at conveying the sentiment of their subjects, Week in Review also has a fascinating personal account from the paper's Cuba correspondent starting from the experience of being thrown into reporter mode to cover Fidel Castro's resignation while visiting his wife's relatives in the country. The Post puts the focus on small-business owners who think they might have a little more room to grow under Raul Castro, who has in the past pushed for looser restrictions on tourism and the self-employed—a class of people that shrank dramatically during the 1990s as Fidel slashed the number of independent businesses that could receive licenses. All of that—and much more—is explained away in a new book by El Comandante and one of his chief apologists, mockingly reviewed by the LAT.
Two front-page stories on the ways in which DNA can be problematic: The NYT finds that people with genetic predispositions to diseases like breast cancer or ephysema are stuck between wanting to use that information for better care and hiding it from insurance companies. Sometimes, though, DNA lies to people trying to determine the sex of their babies in the first trimester, the LAT reports.
Drown your worries tonight in a show snatched from the jaws of low ratings: The Oscars are tonight, obsessively chronicled at the LAT's and NYT's and WP's blogs. The NYT book review does the best job TP has seen of comparing Oscar fave There Will Be Blood against its literary antecedent, Upton Sinclair's Oil!, while the WP also fronts a very Post-y story about a D.C. family bashfully getting ready for L.A.'s bright lights: Maybe this will make them notice us! Wonks can make movies, too!