Friday, March 26, 2010

Bush Wipes Hand on Clinton

Funny. You would think a good Republican would want to wipe his hand on a Haitian after touching the man whose lending policies caused the financial crisis and whose failure to pursue Al Qaeda led to 9/11, not the other way around.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tiger's Texts: A Lawyer's Take

If anyone wondered why "adult film actress" and reputed lover of Tiger Woods Joslyn James felt the need to go out and retain a big-time lawyer, the picture is getting clearer by the day. Here's my "lawyer's take" on what's going on:

Yeah, sure, Joslyn James was going to find herself in the glare of the public eye, and a lawyer can help manage the publicity and keep the press at bay (i.e., "That one's lawyered up, and Allred is something fierce. Maybe I won't try to break in Joslyn James's house and get pictures of her in the shower.").

But James isn't just in a defensive posture. Consider that she invited press to listen along beside her as she took in Tiger's self-serving soliloquy back on February 19. Consider, too, that when Tiger was finished, Ms. James took the podium and delivered her own tearful statement, demanding a direct apology from Woods. An awkward angle to try to work, this "I thought I was the only Other Woman" bit. But the statement was thick with shots across the bow of Woods's legal team: little tidbits of information that might add up to lawsuit against Tiger. She loves Tiger, and he made her promises. She had pregnancies that ended in miscarriage and abortion. She gave up her career at his request. Yeah, Gloria and Joslyn are laying the groundwork for threatening all sorts of legal claims. Lousy claims, but claims nonetheless, and the point isn't whether you can win or lose on these lousy claims; the point is whether you can get Tiger to pay you some money to make sure they don't end up in court to begin with. What Tiger will pay to settle these claims has very little to do with the value of the claims themselves. He's confronting a potential lawsuit, brought by his mistress, which will extend this scandal for another couple years well past the endpoint he'd hope to establish for it (with his apology speech) and vivisect his sordid personal life, laying it open for the world to see in public legal proceedings.

Which brings us now to the text messages that Joslyn James recently released to the press.
This is hardball. Joslyn James earlier said that she has some 11,000 text messages from Tiger Woods. She released a small subset — only around 100 — of those messages. Release of the messages suggests what should have been obvious following Ms. James' delivery of her counterstatement on February 18: that Allred and Woods's attorneys are negotiating a settlement that will keep James from suing Woods and posting any more damaging information to the media. One of the following is true: (1) they're not close to a deal, or (2) they've reached a deal, and James released the texts anyway. Both scenarios are intriguing.

Scenario (1) suggests that Joslyn James has information far more damaging than what she released yesterday — and the texts she released yesterday were pretty darn damaging, describing Woods' interest in sadistic sex acts. No way no how does Gloria Allred let Joslyn James disclose the most lurid info she has. If this were the worst of it, Woods's attorneys would have no reason to bargain with her, as James couldn't hurt Woods any more than she has to date. We therefore have to assume that the ~100 texts that James disclosed yesterday were carefully selected to generate a modest amount of media buzz (thereby getting her back in the news) but not so much as to leave Allred without leverage going forward. We have to assume that there is something much worse in the rest of the 11,000 texts (or, theoretically, in some other explosive format: video?).

Moreover, the timing of the release was calculated: Tiger announced on Tuesday that he would return from his golf hiatus to play in the Masters next month. He's starting to get back into business as usual, and he's back in the news, too. James counters with the release of the text, which destroys any positive PR momentum he has.

Under Possibility (2), Woods and James have already reached agreement, and James has been already received a lump-sum payment of hush money. There is presumably an enforceable contract here, negotiated by attorneys: Woods pays James an unspecified amount (confidential, of course, per the terms of the contract), and James hands over any documentation of the affair for Woods to destroy. But of course, James could always surreptitiously keep a copy of her materials, to publicize after she cashes her check. This would be a breach of the contract, and Woods could sue her, but would he? If he did, well, there's that very public lawsuit again, and on top of all the other nastiness that would come out about the affair, there would be this new distasteful overlay: Tiger wrote a big check to keep this girl quiet, and now he's suing her over it. In theory, then, James could get paid both by Woods (to keep quiet) and by the press (to spill her secrets). Woods's lawyers, if they have any sense, would therefore have every reason to structure the deal to require payments over time — perhaps an annuity — so that they could preserve some leverage over James going forward, other than resort to the courts. We should assume that Woods's lawyers have quite a lot of sense, such that Scenario (2) is therefore the much less likely of the two here.

All of the above analysis is predicated on the assumption — and I think this is right — that James stands to gain more from Tiger if she withholds her information than she can get from anyone in the press if she discloses it all. The value of a "hot news" exclusive, in this day and age, isn't really all that. Once the texts are out, anyone can pick them up and run with them. It makes sense that Tiger would pay millions to James to keep her quiet; it makes much less sense that a media organization would pay a comparable amount to break this story five minutes before everybody else.

And of course another assumption is in play: that James isn't just an irrational "woman scorned" figure here, whose interest is simply to throw everything she has at Tiger, to hurt him as badly as she can, and damn the settlement offers. This seems to me unlikely. You don't hire Gloria Allred unless you want to work an angle, and Gloria Allred doesn't continue to represent you if you're delivering all your best stuff to the press in anger. And for that matter: ELEVEN THOUSAND TEXTS? James was clearly archiving these messages, either as keepsakes because she loved Tiger so much or rather to save for a rainy day — or a day of opportunity. Hm.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jacko Lives! (Or So We Believe)

Word came out today that Michael Jackson's estate just cut a $250 million deal with Sony Music. The quarter billion goes to Jacko, Inc. in exchange for "unreleased songs and older tracks recorded by Jackson" — in other words, all the dribs and drabs of music that the King of Pop committed to tape but failed to release before dying.

Not exactly the "reissue, repackage, REPACKAGE" phenomenon that the Smiths described in "Paint a Vulgar Picture," but we see today the value that premature death can bring to a pop star's career. A pile of master tapes deemed at least to this point unfit for mass distribution wholesales to Sony for $250 extra-large. Hm.

Anybody else believe that Michael Jackson isn't really dead?
Just stop for a minute and consider the logic of it. At the time he "died," Michael was, by all accounts, some $300 million in debt. The plan he'd announced to bring himself back into the black? A ten-gig comeback stand in London, followed by three more years of world touring, if he delivered on the gigs in England. The very concept betrays how desperate he was: the guy was broken. Reclusive, narcissistic, zonked on painkillers. He was our generation's Howard Hughes, except in one important respect: he was broke. And to get out of debt he was going to take to the stage? Nope. Uh-uh. That was never going to work. It was no surprise that this last-ditch effort was falling apart. Dates were postponed, rumors were swirling about Jackson's health, and the tour promoters had to be poring over the fine print of the insurance policy they surely bought at the time they cut this deal.

At this point, Michael Jackson was a complete loss. He couldn't do public performances. He wasn't releasing new material. There's only so many times you can promote a back catalog. It wouldn't take a genius to run the numbers and conclude, with all the cynicism of Bialystock and Bloom, that on a going-forward basis Michael Jackson was worth more dead than alive. And of course subsequent events bore this out: Thriller and Off the Wall surging to the top of the charts in the weeks after Jacko's "death"; a slapped-together film release and accompanying soundtrack album; and now this nine-figure deal to release demos and B-sides that might never have sold on the merits, but now can be promoted as Michael Jackson's "final word" in the studio.

If you were a onetime pop superstar, world-renowned, critically acclaimed, but now broke, introverted, and slipping into cultural irrelevance — if you were desperate to square your accounts and just cash out — you might consider faking your own death. And if you had all the aforementioned characterizations and motivations, and you were at the level of Michael Jackson, well, faking your own death probably wouldn't be impossible to accomplish. The guy had resources — he had minders, bodyguards, publicists, personal physicians. We know, too, that Jacko wasn't exactly running scared of plastic surgery, which would surely be in order if he wanted to ensure that he could dissolve anonymously, into the general population.

It's not hard to imagine. You're in a rundown town, far away and off the beaten track — maybe somewhere in Southeast Asia, where sex trafficking isn't so much a crime as a local specialty — and you see a middle-aged man limping painfully along down a dirt road with a bag slung over his shoulder. The man's face is gashed and scarred beyond recognition. His frame is slight, and his skin bone-white. The sleeves of his jacket are pulled up over his forearms. Maybe the man's rocking gait seems a bit affected; if you look closely, you might sees flashes of a dancer's grace in this man's slumping stride. Now and again he reaches down with one hand, grabs hold of his groin, and gasps, as if he's in pain.

Just another drifter, this guy. Hard knocks, hard life. The man mutters, grunts, hoots, winces, as he passes you. It's nearly dusk, and as the sky darkens, it appears that the road seems to light up just a little as this man passes by. Surely that was a trick of the light, you think. Angles and reflections, from the setting sun.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Thailand II: Third Toilet

Thailand's a Third World country. By some definition of Third World. But who even knows what that means, anyway? India's a Third World country, too, but would you rather be reborn as an average Indian or an average Thai? This one's easy folks. Way easy. So since Third World doesn't really mean much these days, I've decided we desperately need a new way to classify countries.

To those foreign readers in the First World who are used to thinking of themselves at the top of the heap, be prepared to be offended. To those Americans whose idea of international travel is to stay in five-star resorts that could be anywhere, you'll have no idea what I'm talking about. As in, "we stayed at the Ritz Bali for a week. I thought the Indonesians were very advanced . . ."

The following refers to what you can expect in public places, restaurants, and the median home. This scientific analysis involved one person traveling to geographically clustered destinations, non-randomly sampling the facilities, and reconstructing the data based on memories ranging from one hour to fifteen years old.
First Toilet: A 99+% certainty that toilet paper can be flushed without damaging the system. Guaranteed porcelain seating. Seats even at truck stops and train stations.

The United States sits atop the world in a class by itself. There's a reason they say American Standard on them. That means something. The First Toilet has a few defining characteristics: You can really only be certain of such luxury in the US and fifty miles or less into Canada.

I know some of our American readers are going through their life experiences and recalling some horror at a gas station or bus stop at some point in their life. But venture down the list a bit and be thankful for what we have here.

First toilet countries: US, Near Canada

Second Toilet: You're pretty safe here. Risk of disease is very low and things are likely to be clean, but you're only 90% guaranteed flush-able paper and less than 100% guaranteed a seat.

You arrive on the overnight train to Paris at 7am and the toxins from your three days in Amsterdam have finally caught up to you. You head straight for the first decent-looking café, order a drink and head right to the toilette. The closet size enclosure is clean all right, but there's no actual toilet. Just two foot pads and a hole in the spotless floor.

This is Paris!! In France! This is decidedly First World, they were once an undeniable super-power, and some people even now consider them friendly rivals with the US for the title of Greatest Nation on Earth. Yet at a café in their capital city you might actually have to squat to use the toilet! You might actually be able to perform, but there is this nagging shred of doubt in your mind. What if this isn't the toilet, after all? I mean really, what happens then? So you realize the nearby Musée D'Orsay is about to open, buy your ticket and head for the porcelain bliss of a hermetically sealed one-shooter on the first floor. The Monets never looked so good.

Second Toilet countries: France, Holland, UK, Ireland, Italy, Israel

Third Toilet: There's nothing pleasant about your average experience, but you're 90% successful and safe. You might have to shell out a few baht for entry at the bus station in Thailand, but if that keeps traffic to a minimum and pays for cleaning, you're more than happy to pay. It doesn't smell great and you're not inspired to crack open the paper, but you always leave in better shape than you came in. So despite the low GDP per capita, Thailand, perhaps through reliance on a booming tourist industry, actually maintains decent rest rooms. Even on the train itself, with things shaking around, a post-mystery soup trip to the can is uneventful, clean, and safe. What a country!

Third Toilet countries: Thailand, Ecuador, Greece

Fourth Toilet: You won't die, but you're willing to take a 10% or more chance of catastrophe rather the use the toilet found in the train station of the capital city.

You were out the night before in Madrid and are catching the morning train to Toledo (why again?). You and your brother make a desperate run to the train station facilities before your train departs as last night's Sangria and sausage are on the move. You put your pesetas in the coin-operated door. You brother says "Mine's broken." You open the door to your stall to see a seatless bowl covered in grime and paper. You consider how it might be done and nothing seems remotely acceptable. "Mine's broken, too," you say. You have no choice but to battle it out and hope the commode on the train is marginally better (which it is, thankfully).

Here we have a full-fledged Fourth Toilet country right in Western Europe. Wonderful country, great food, nice people, delicious wine, but the European Union needs to stop worrying so much about deficits and GDP per capita and start refusing entry to countries that can't maintain decent commodes.

Fourth Toilet countries: Spain, China

Fifth Toilet: The lowest designation refers only to those benighted places where proper precautions are necessary to ensure that you don't actually catch hepatitis or worse from going to the bathroom.

You're on a twelve-hour train ride in a second-class coach in India. Things are rolling around and you have to bite the bullet. The tiny compartment in the rear consists of a small hole, a filthy tin cup on a chain, and a rusty faucet.

Now suppose you manage to get the job done despite all the shaking and having nothing to hold on to. You still wonder how exactly you're supposed to make yourself more clean by filling up that nasty tin cup and splashing plague water around your nether regions. There's just no way.

Or take the public restroom at the train station. Mostly out of respect for the next person who might shake your hand, I believe you should wash with soap and water after handling your penis in the process of urinating. But what if your penis is the cleanest thing in the entire bathroom? What if there's a legitimate chance that your hands get dirty and diseased from touching the faucet and paper towel dispenser (was there one? You might be making up the dispenser).

Look, with all due respect there are probably filthier countries on the planet — this reporter just hasn't been there yet.

Fifth Toilet countries: India

All categorizations are subject to review. Please share your stories if you think any country has been rated too high . . .