Correction: August 16, 2014 An earlier version of this column misstated the name of an antiterrorism vehicle. As correctly mentioned earlier in the piece, it is the BearCat, not the Bobcat.
And the Times’ fact checkers cover themselves with glory yet again. Here’s MoDo:
Jim Risen is gruff.
The tall slab of a reporter looks like someone who could have played an Irish Marine sergeant in an old World War II movie.
“Editors think I’m a curmudgeon,” the 59-year-old admits, laughing.
Eric Lichtblau, the reporter who sits next to Risen in The Times’s Washington bureau and who won a Pulitzer with him for their remarkable stories about the Bush administration’s illegal warrantless wiretapping, says Risen revels in his prickly, old-school style, acting contrary on everything from newfangled computers to the Bush crew’s fictions about Saddam and W.M.D. to cautious editors.
“He’s pushed to go places that often editors are unwilling to go,” Lichtblau said. “He’s never taken the safe route.”
Once Lichtblau took him to a pick-up basketball game and, naturally, Risen got in a fight with a lobbyist about the rules for being out of bounds.
As Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent, wryly puts it: “Whether it’s editors or government officials, Jim definitely won’t take no for an answer, but he will certainly give it.”
Over lunch near the White House on Friday, Risen, dressed in his Men’s Wearhouse shirt and khakis and his brown Ecco walking shoes, talked about having the sword of Damocles over his head, as the reluctant star of a searing media-government showdown that could end with him behind bars.
“It’s surreal to be caught up in a news story instead of writing about one,” he said, in his soft voice.
He said he was inspired by the Watergate hearings to get into journalism and that he inherited his skepticism about government from his mom, who grew up in Indiana during the Depression, the daughter of an Irish railway machinist who was often out of work. Every time she saw the pyramids on TV, she would say, “I wonder how many slaves died building that?”
Risen said he’s not afraid that F.B.I. agents will show up one day at the suburban Maryland home he shares with his wife, Penny. (His three sons are grown, and one is a reporter.) But he has exhausted all his legal challenges, including at the Supreme Court, against the Obama administration.
“I was nervous for a long time, but they’ve been after me for six years so now I try to ignore it,” he said, musing that he’s already decided what he’ll take to prison: Civil War books and World War II histories.
The Justice Department is trying to scuttle the reporters’ privilege — ignoring the chilling effect that is having on truth emerging in a jittery post-9/11 world prone to egregious government excesses.
Attorney General Eric Holder wants to force Risen to testify and reveal the identity of his confidential source on a story he had in his 2006 book concerning a bungled C.I.A. operation during the Clinton administration in which agents might have inadvertently helped Iran develop its nuclear weapon program. The tale made the C.I.A. look silly, which may have been more of a sore point than a threat to national security.
But Bush officials, no doubt still smarting from Risen’s revelation of their illegal wiretapping, zeroed in on a disillusioned former C.I.A. agent named Jeffrey Sterling as the source of the Iran story.
The subpoena forcing Risen’s testimony expired in 2009, and to the surprise of just about everybody, the constitutional law professor’s administration renewed it — kicking off its strange and awful aggression against reporters and whistle-blowers.
Holder said in May that “no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail,” trying to show some leg and signal that his intention is benign, merely to put pressure on Sterling so that he will plead guilty before his trial.
The president and the attorney general both spoke nobly about the First Amendment after two reporters were arrested in Ferguson, Mo., while covering the racial protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.
Obama said that “here, in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.”
Holder seconded the sentiment, saying that “journalists must not be harassed or prevented from covering a story that needs to be told.”
So why don’t they back off Risen? It’s hard to fathom how the president who started with the press fluffing his pillows has ended up trying to suffocate the press with those pillows.
How can he use the Espionage Act to throw reporters and whistle-blowers in jail even as he defends the intelligence operatives who “tortured some folks,” and coddles his C.I.A. chief, John Brennan, who spied on the Senate and then lied to the senators he spied on about it?
“It’s hypocritical,” Risen said. “A lot of people still think this is some kind of game or signal or spin. They don’t want to believe that Obama wants to crack down on the press and whistle-blowers. But he does. He’s the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”
Risen points to recent stories about the administration pressing an unprecedented initiative known as the Insider Threat Program, which McClatchy described as “a government-wide crackdown on security threats that requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions.”
Risen may be trapped in Ibsen, but Obama is channeling Orwell.
Next up we have Mr. Kristof:
In an age of villainy, war and inequality, it makes sense that we need superheroes. And after trying Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, we may have found the best superheroes yet: Nuns.
“I may not believe in God, but I do believe in nuns,” writes Jo Piazza, in her forthcoming book, “If Nuns Ruled the World.” Piazza is an agnostic living in New York City who began interviewing nuns and found herself utterly charmed and inspired.
“They eschew the spotlight by their very nature, and yet they’re out there in the world every day, living the Gospel and caring for the poor,” Piazza writes. “They don’t hide behind fancy and expensive vestments, a pulpit, or a sermon. I have never met a nun who rides a Mercedes-Benz or a Cadillac. They walk a lot; they ride bikes.”
One of the most erroneous caricatures of nuns is that they are prim, Victorian figures cloistered in convents. On the contrary, I’ve become a huge fan of nuns because I see them so often risking their lives around the world, confronting warlords, pimps and thugs, while speaking the local languages fluently. In a selfish world, they epitomize selflessness and compassion.
There are also plenty of formidable nuns whom even warlords don’t want to mess with, who combine reverence with ferocity, who defy the Roman Catholic Church by handing out condoms to prostitutes to protect them from H.I.V. (They surely don’t mention that to the bishops.)
One of the nuns whom Piazza profiles is Sister Megan Rice. She earned a graduate degree at Boston College and then moved to Nigeria in 1962 to run a school for girls she had helped establish in a remote area with no electricity or running water. After eventually returning to the United States, she began campaigning against nuclear weapons.
In 2012, at the age of 82, she masterminded a break-in of a nuclear complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to call attention to the nuclear threat. As she was handcuffed by armed security guards, she sang “This Little Light of Mine.” She is now serving a prison sentence of almost three years.
I don’t approve of breaking into national security compounds, and I think nuclear doctrine is more complex than Sister Megan probably does. Nonetheless, I admire someone with such guts and commitment to principles.
Another remarkable nun is Sister Jeannine Gramick, who, while working toward a doctorate in mathematics, met a gay Catholic man who asked for religious help. She organized a home service for him that grew into a regular liturgy for gay Catholics in private homes.
In 1977, she helped found New Ways Ministry to support gay and lesbian Catholics. The Vatican tried to suppress her, and her order, the Loretto Sisters, was instructed at least nine times to dismiss her. It passively resisted.
“The Vatican tried to silence me,” Sister Jeannine told Piazza, “and it just didn’t work.”
At a time when much of Christianity denounced gays and lesbians, Sister Jeannine was a beacon of compassion and struggled to educate the church she loved.
“People always emphasize sex, sex, sex,” Sister Jeannine told Piazza. “And it isn’t about sex. It is about love. It is who you fall in love with that makes you lesbian and gay. Love is the important thing here, not sex.”
All this has led the Vatican to investigate and clamp down on American nuns in a harsh crackdown that has been referred to as the Great Nunquisition. In 2012, the Vatican reprimanded a group of American nuns for promoting “radical feminist themes.”
Piazza quotes a nun who said a friend put it to her this way: “Let me get this straight. Some priests committed sex abuse. Bishops covered it up. And so they’re investigating nuns?”
Pope Francis, so far, has continued the crackdown, but he seems more enlightened than his predecessors and maybe he’ll understand that battling nuns is hopeless. Nuns are iron women — and sometimes that’s more than a metaphor.
Sister Madonna Buder, nicknamed “the iron nun,” took up running at age 47 and has completed 366 triathlons. She set her personal best at age 62, and, at age 82, she became the oldest person, male or female, to complete an Ironman triathlon.
In the course of her races, she has broken her arms eight times, her hip twice, her ribs countless times. She runs five miles to and from church, in long pants suitable for Mass, and foregoes a coach. “My coach,” she explains, “is the Man Upstairs.”
Forgive us for having sinned and thought of nuns as backward, when, in fact, they were among the first feminists. And, in a world of narcissism and cynicism, they constitute an inspiring contingent of moral leaders who actually walk the walk.
So a suggestion: How about if the Vatican spends less time investigating nuns and the public spends less time mocking nuns — and we all spend more time emulating nuns?
Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:
Given all of the smoky talk about Colorado and marijuana, you arrive here with the feeling that you’re stepping into some freaky, one-of-a-kind laboratory.
And you are.
But the experiment goes well beyond the responsible legalization and regulation of pot. It extends to questions of whether drillers and environmentalists can peacefully coexist, whether a country bloodied by gunfire can muster any sane response, whether Democrats can use demographic trends and certain social issues to establish a durable advantage, and whether Republicans can summon the specter of an unwieldy government to prevent that. Colorado is where all of this is being hashed out.
“It’s a test tube, and people keep shaking it,” the state’s governor, John Hickenlooper, said when I remarked that seemingly every big issue finds vivid expression here, and that Colorado has become the nation’s mirror, rocky and stoned. It’s in the news much more often than its size — it’s the 22nd most populous state — gives it any right to be.
It’s pivotal in the battle for control of the United States Senate. Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, is up for re-election in November. Republicans smell blood. And the forces shaping the race between him and his opponent, Cory Gardner, are the same ones that are shaping the parties’ national fortunes.
Will President Obama’s dismal approval ratings doom Democrats? Will Republicans’ habit of nominating social conservatives — Gardner fits the bill — alienate so many women, independents and millennials that the party defeats itself? Right now the Senate contest here is a tossup.
In many ways, Colorado is the new Ohio, a political bellwether. The percentage of its voters who chose Barack Obama in each of the last two presidential elections almost precisely matched the percentage of voters who did so nationwide. And nearly all the currents that buffet national politics swirl around the Rockies, which run like a ragged spine through a state that’s both very flat and very tall, bursting with agriculture and booming with high tech, outdoorsy and urbane, a stronghold of the religious right (Colorado Springs) and a liberal utopia (Boulder).
In other ways, “Colorado is the new California,” in Hickenlooper’s words. It floats trial balloons — marijuana being one example, education reforms being another — while other states watch to see which take flight and which wheeze and crumple to earth.
That’s partly because it’s a place without foregone conclusions. The Colorado electorate is divided almost exactly into one-third Republican, one-third Democratic and one-third neither of the above. So conservative and liberal proposals alike are pushed in the Legislature and put before voters; discussion isn’t proscribed by the one-party dominance that you find in a red or blue state.
“We really duke things out,” said Chris Onan, a co-founder of Galvanize, a firm here that provides seed funds, office space and other support for tech start-ups. “There’s never just one position.”
Even the state’s weather is in flux and in extremis. Colorado is a meteorological drama queen, and the sorts of cataclysms that climate change could bring — raging wildfires, biblical flooding — have recurred here with scary frequency.
“It’s almost Old Testament,” said Hickenlooper. “We had 13 federal declarations of disaster in four years. I think that’s more than any other state in the history of the country.”
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is also up for re-election. And his race, against Bob Beauprez, a former Congressman, has been tighter than political analysts had initially expected it to be.
But an even more interesting contest is the one in the state’s Sixth Congressional District, where the efforts of a three-term Republican incumbent, Mike Coffman, to fend off a fierce Democratic challenge will hinge largely on his ability to woo Latino voters. Their share of the electorate here, as in the nation, has risen significantly, and they now represent roughly 20 percent of the state’s population. In recent Colorado elections, they have heavily favored Democrats.
“For its predictive value in seeing where the Hispanic vote nationally is going to go, the Sixth District could be key,” Eric Anderson, a political analyst here, told me. It’s “a petri dish inside the petri dish” of the state, he added.
Although Coffman previously supported measures to declare English the official U.S. language and to deny automatic citizenship to babies born in this country, he’s not singing those songs anymore. No, he’s practicing his Spanish, in weekly sessions with a tutor. His Democratic challenger, Andrew Romanoff, is fluent.
Money from outside the state is pouring into the Coffman-Romanoff battle, as it is into the one between Udall and Gardner, which is clearly going to be the most expensive Senate race in Colorado’s history. And the Latino vote could give Udall the edge he needs.
But the Udall campaign’s emphasis until this point is in line with a Democratic strategy nationwide for the midterm elections. In three of the six TV commercials that it has released, the focus is on Gardner’s anti-abortion record, and the hope is to cast him as a dutiful and menacing foot soldier in the “war on women” that Democrats decry.
Udall’s campaign also reflects the Democratic dread of Obama’s unpopularity. When the president traveled to Colorado recently for a fund-raiser for Udall, there was no hug or handshake between the two men, and a photo of both of them would have required a very wide-angle lens. Udall stayed far outside the state.
Gardner’s strategy, evident in his constant invocations of Obamacare, is to lash Udall to the president and to tar the Obama administration as a force for ever bigger government.
WHEN I asked Udall’s campaign spokesman, Chris Harris, how much of a handicap Obama posed, he didn’t defend the president’s record but instead stressed Udall’s independence and dissents.
“If any Democrat has been a pain in the White House’s you-know-what lately, it has been Mark,” he said, making clear that Udall “follows his own compass” and had held the administration’s “feet to the fire over the N.S.A.” That detail suggested Democrats’ worry that the National Security Agency’s privacy infringements are especially repellent to the party’s young voters.
It’s surprising that Udall and Hickenlooper aren’t in better shape, given that Colorado’s unemployment rate has fallen to 5.5 percent from over 9 in late 2010. Business Insider just ranked Colorado’s economy the best among the 50 states.
But Colorado distills the national mood in the following sense, too: While raw numbers have improved, reality hasn’t caught up, and people feel a pessimism that transcends the day’s statistics. In a statewide poll in late June, only 27 percent of Coloradans said the country was on the right track, while 65 percent said it was on the wrong one.
Colorado has shown us the horror of gun violence: the blood bath at Columbine High School in 1999, the massacre in Aurora in 2012. And in their aftermath, it demonstrated the push for — and perverse resistance to — better gun control. Its legislature enacted new firearms restrictions in early 2013, only to see the National Rifle Association lead successful recall efforts against two of the Democrats who voted for them.
Because Colorado is a mecca for both energy companies and wilderness lovers, it’s been engaged in an impassioned debate over fracking that’s both echo and preview of standoffs elsewhere.
Hickenlooper, a former geologist trying to walk a fine line between the camps, once exhibited his conviction in the safety of fracking by drinking fracking fluid. Colorado likes unstuffy politicians who break the mold, which is something candidates with national ambitions increasingly try to do.
Over the last month, Hickenlooper has taken the stage at Red Rocks to play banjo with the Old Crow Medicine Show and has released a video of his attempt to sing a duet of “Counting Stars” with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder. It was offbeat and off key.
And Udall gazed longingly at the peaks, hoping to find time for an ascent. “He’s climbed 99 of the tallest 100 mountains in Colorado,” said Harris. “That’s who he is.” Harris made him sound like a man eager to get far away from the political muck.
It’s an impulse that most Americans can appreciate. And that they share.