Friday, January 30, 2009

More of the Good Stuff

Just returned from Whole Foods, where the shopping bags now say, "I just got more of the good stuff for less."

Who are they kidding? I go to Whole Foods because the produce there is outstanding, but really, everyone knows the bags should say, "I just got good stuff, but, boy, was it expensive."

It's no accident that their nickname is Whole Paycheck.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Blago to Show Up After All

So Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich will attend his trial -- sort of. He's expressed a desire to make his own closing argument.

But it's still a half-measure. He won't be testifying, and his argument will not constitute evidence. It'll just be argument.

For someone who's complained endlessly that the trial is stacked against him because he doesn't have a proper opportunity to present evidence, it seems bizarre to avoid whatever opportunity there is. As I pointed out previously, the trial rules do permit him to call witnesses; he just needs to apply for Senate permission for the issuance of a subpoena. As far as I can tell, he never sought permission.

Bill Clinton fought his impeachment in the impeachment trial venue, and he beat it. Blagojevich went on TV instead, didn't even send a representative to the trial, didn't attempt to call witnesses, and didn't cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses. Sorry, but his behavior seems pretty bizarre.

There's no doubt that the Governor deserves a fair trial. He's faced with a serious charge, and his defense that his statements have been taken out of context and that he was just engaged in normal political horse-trading is not a priori impossible. The Illinois Senate should carefully consider all the evidence with an open mind and determine whether the Governor is really guilty as charged. But he's not making his situation any better by refusing to provide the context out of which his statements were supposedly taken.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Attend Your Trial

What does Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich have in common with tax protestor Ed Brown, now serving a lengthy prison sentence? Each boycotted their trials.

Blagojevich's impeachment trial in the Illinois Senate began yesterday, but the Governor was busy doing television appearances. He claims he's skipping the trial because the rules are biased against him -- he's particularly claimed that the rules don't allow him to call witnesses. Is that true?

Not exactly. The rules, which can be viewed here, provide that either side can request a subpoena commanding a witness to appear, and that the Senate shall vote on the motion (see Rule 15). So the Governor does not have a right to subpoena witnesses, but he can ask the Senate to issue a subpoena. Unless he's asked and had his request refused, his complaint that he's not being allowed to call witnesses rings somewhat hollow.

The rules also call (Rule 22) for each witnesses testifying to be questioned by one side and cross-examined by the other, which is your basic testimonial procedure.

The rules aren't perfect (Rule 15 permits the U.S. Attorney to veto any witness subpoena), but Governor Blagojevich's protest seems overblown. He's up against a serious charge, and he's entitled to and should receive a fair trial, but failing to attend doesn't seem like a recipe for helping his cause. He should fight his charges at his trial, not on TV.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Fake Music

So Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and two musicians you've never heard of were faking their performance at the Inauguration. They went through the motions of playing, but what you heard on TV or even on the mall was a pre-recorded performance by the same artists. Scandal or footnote?

Footnote. Faithful readers, you just have to accept that everything you see on TV is faked. In 1986 I participated in "Liberty Weekend" -- the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. I was part of the 600-voice "Liberty Chorus." We rehearsed for weeks, got ourselves to Giant Stadium in New Jersey, and sang our hearts out. The TV audience actually heard a pre-recorded version of our songs sung by 50 professionals. We weren't even told until afterward.

That's just how TV is. All that matters is the image. I'm not surprised at all.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Only a Lawyer

Now we really know we have a new President: he's admitted a mistake. He and Chief Justice Roberts flubbed the Oath of Office on Inauguration Day, so last night they did it again. That tells us something else about our new President: he's a lawyer. Only a lawyer would re-take the oath -- "out of an abundance of caution."

So was Barack Obama really President on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning? Yes, he was. The Constitution provides (amend. XX) that "The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January . . . and the terms of their successors shall then begin." So Obama's term began at noon on Tuesday, oath or no oath.

The Constitution also provides (art. II) that "Before [the President] enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.'" So Obama was President, but he was required to take that oath before he entered on the execution of his office.

So the real question is, are the official presidential acts President Obama took (e.g., nominating cabinet officials) before he re-took the oath valid? I would say yes. We could argue this endlessly -- it's not a complete slam-dunk either way -- but considering the purpose of the oath requirement, I would say that a good-faith effort to take the oath, such as occurred on Tuesday, is valid, notwithstanding minor slip-ups. The purpose of the oath requirement is not to invoke magical powers that are released by reciting the words in the precise, constitutional order. The purpose is surely to have a public statement of the President's commitment to the Constitution -- a statement that can impress the importance of that commitment upon both the President and the public. Intentionally changing the words of the oath would interfere with that commitment, but unintentional and immaterial mistakes would not. So I would say that retaking the oath was unnecessary, although it was good, lawyerly practice.

And by the way, those who suggest that no one would have standing to challenge the oath mixup are, in my opinion, completely wrong. Anyione adversely affected by any of Obama's presidential acts would have standing to claim that the acts are invalid because Obama isn't really President, or can't really execute the office of President, because of the oath mixup. So the legal analysis is necessary.

Purple Tunnel of Doom

Wow. I only made some brief comments yesterday about what it was like trying to get to the Purple Gate for the Inauguration. I didn't want to appear churlish or to let anything spoil the happiness of the day. But it seems that I'm hardly the only one who noticed how bad things were -- over 2600 people have joined the Facebook group Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom, apparently founded by one Dave Meyer, and they want an investigation into what went wrong.

In my opinion, it's pretty simple: the organizers had planned well for what would happen once you were inside the gate, but they planned badly for getting people to the gate. The organizers announced where the Purple Gate was (First and Constitution) and where the Purple Ticket Screening Point was (First and Louisiana), but not how to approach the screening point. Purple ticket holders were told to take the Red Line to Judiciary Square, but were not told how to proceed to First and Louisiana from there.

Upon leaving the Metro station, it seemed natrual to proceed to the Screening Point by the shortest route, which was to go to First Street and take a right. No one told us (and given the crowd it was almost impossible to see) that there was a fence that made it impossible to approach the Screening Point along First Street. You had to go down Louisiana.

A couple of simple signs that said "Purple Ticket Holders This Way," or one person with a megaphone, could have made a big, big difference. Instead, there was no one outside the gate with any information. There were no official Inaugural representatives, and the very few police who were present didn't know the crucial information.

Situations like this always come down to information and communication. If people had known that they had to approach the gate on Louisiana, they wouldn't have spent (literally) over an hour uselessly crushed up against people at First and D.

I don't think this was the only problem -- even if everyone had known how to get to the gate, there still might have been the same crush at the gate itself, which, as I remarked yesterday, looked about what it would have looked like if that gate had led to the last ship leaving the dock of a war-torn country. But, in my opinion, the biggest problem was the failure to communicate the crucical information about how to approach the gate.

Well, I still don't want to appear churlish. I made it through the gate, and the real point of the day was that Barack Obama became President! But a couple of signs could have made it a lot better.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In With The New

Nothing could spoil the splendor of President Barack Obama's inauguration -- although the organizers certainly tried their best. My girlfriend and I were among the purple ticket holders who were "especially inconvenienced," as the Post put it -- fairly mild words for what was going on as we approached the gate. We got to within two blocks of the gate by 8:30 am, but didn't get through it until 11:20. If you imagine that the gate led to the last ship leaving the dock of a war-torn country, you'll have some idea of what it was like getting there. We were physically squashed up against other people for most of the time. At least we got in. Some people were apparently turned away.

But it was all worth it. Finally, on the mall, at the constitutional hour of noon, Barack Obama took the oath of office. George Bush is no longer President. And we were there.

I want change. How about today?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ghost Town

If four million people are showing up in DC for Inauguration, all I can say is they aren't here yet. My girlfriend and I were out and about yesterday, and not only were things not packed, they were kinda empty. There were plenty of seats on the Metro. Hardly anyone in the shops. No problem finding a taxi, a ticket to the movies, or a table at restaurants.

Oh, there was a bit of a crowd of screaming people when Jay-Z showed up at Pentagon City. The Apple Store was packed, and it was tough to move around at the Whole Foods. But I don't think those shoppers were tourists. And they were the only crowd we saw.

Weren't people supposedly renting out their apartments to swarms of eager visitors for $1500 a night with a four-night minimum? I guess those visitors must be staying in the apartments to get their money's worth. Or maybe the Post is right and the Inaugural rental market went bust.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Pilots are Amazing

Of course you've all read about Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the U.S. Airways pilot who brought his damaged plane to a landing on the Hudson river, waited while all the passengers and crew were evacuated, and then walked up and down the plane twice to make sure everyone was out. Incredibly, it appears that everyone was rescued and no one was seriously injured in this emergency landing.

But did you know that pilots have been pulling off amazing feats such as this one since before airplanes even existed? In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain relates his own experiences becoming a Mississippi riverboat pilot. Much of the book is devoted to the incredible knowledge that such pilots had to have -- they had to memorize the entire river, which had no lights, buoys, or other navigational aids in those days. But the following notable passage speaks to the courage and honor that pilots displayed when their boats were in distress:

"One of the pilots whom I had known when I was on the river had died a very honorable death. His boat caught fire, and he remained at the wheel until he got her safe to land. Then he went out over the breast-board with his clothing in flames, and was the last person to get ashore. He died from his injuries in the course of two or three hours, and his was the only life lost.

The history of Mississippi piloting affords six or seven instances of this sort of martyrdom, and half a hundred instances of escapes from a like fate which came within a second or two of being fatally too late; but there is no instance of a pilot deserting his post to save his life while by remaining and sacrificing it he might secure other lives from destruction. It is well worth while to set down this noble fact, and well worth while to put it in italics, too.

The 'cub' pilot is early admonished to despise all perils connected with a pilot's calling, and to prefer any sort of death to the deep dishonor of deserting his post while there is any possibility of his being useful in it. And so effectively are these admonitions inculcated, that even young and but half-tried pilots can be depended upon to stick to the wheel, and die there when occasion requires. In a Memphis graveyard is buried a young fellow who perished at the wheel a great many years ago, in White River, to save the lives of other men. He said to the captain that if the fire would give him time to reach a sand bar, some distance away, all could be saved, but that to land against the bluff bank of the river would be to insure the loss of many lives. He reached the bar and grounded the boat in shallow water; but by that time the flames had closed around him, and in escaping through them he was fatally burned. He had been urged to fly sooner, but had replied as became a pilot to reply--

'I will not go. If I go, nobody will be saved; if I stay, no one will be lost but me. I will stay.'

There were two hundred persons on board, and no life was lost but the pilot's."

Hats off to Captain Sullenberger, and to all pilots who get us safely to our destinations and who keep their heads in emergencies.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tax Protestor Sentenced

Faithful readers know that every now and again you have to put up with my eccentric interest in tax protestors.

Michael C. Irving, who was sentenced yesterday, was apparently a highly respected homicide detective in the D.C. Police Department, who had solved important cases. He was earning good money -- according to the government, he made over $180,000 in 2005 -- but he decided he didn't have to pay taxes on it. He seems to have fallen for a tax scam he heard about from a fellow detective, who told him that he'd attended a "tax seminar" and learned how to pay no taxes and get all his withholding back. Irving paid zero taxes from 2002 to 2005.

That sort of thing can enhance your lifestyle for a while -- apparently Irving kept hold of $130,000 that he should have paid in taxes. But now he's been sentenced to 14 months. Funny how cases like this never seem to persuade the tax protestor movement that there really is a law requiring you to pay taxes -- you might think that seeing people put in prison for violating that law would sort of convince people that the law exists, but somehow they just keep on going.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Judicial Activism Rejected

A federal district court has rejected a claim that the New York City Council, by repealing term limits put in place by voters through popular referendum, violated the voters' rights of free speech or due process under the federal Constitution.

This is a sound decision. The status of a law adopted by popular referendum, and particularly whether that law can be altered or repealed by another law adopted through normal legislative processes, is a matter for the local (usually state-level) law to determine. A state or city could certainly provide that a law adopted by referendum can be altered or repealed only by referendum. But New York hasn't done that. New York's highest court has specifically held that laws adopted through referendum have the same status as laws adopted through normal legislative processes. That means they are all subject to the usual rules of amendment and repeal. The controlling law is whichever law was adopted most recently.

The federal Constitution shouldn't be involved here. It doesn't speak to this issue, and it would be a mistake to torture general provisions such as the Due Process or Free Speech Clauses in order to make them apply.

If the people of New York City want to adopt a term limit by referendum, they can amend the City Charter do so. If they want the limit to be unchangeable except through another referendum, they can amend the City Charter to provide that the amendment is unchangeable except by another referendum. But they didn't do that. The federal government shouldn't get involved.

Plaintiffs' claims that the term limits law does fall in the small category of laws that are required under state or city law to be submitted to popular referendum are actually closer questions (one such category is any law that "changes the term of an elective officer"). But I don't think much of their federal constitutional claims.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Honorable (But Silly) Compromise

OK, so Roland Burris can be sworn in now. Apparently the Illinois Secretary of State still hasn't signed Burris's appointment certificate, but he signed a separate document attesting that the certificate is valid. The previous Illinois Supreme Court ruling points out (near the end) that Illinois law requires the Secretary of State to provide a certified copy of any record or paper in his office. The Governor's appointment certificate for Burris was such a record or paper, so the Secretary provided Burris with a certified copy.

I'm sure the Secretary had a wonderful time playing games here, and it's good that the Illinois Supreme Court did research that the parties didn't do and came up with a solution, but still, the whole thing is ridiculous. If, as the Secretary of State claimed, he wasn't required to sign the appointment certificate, why has he and his predecessors been signing the certificates for Illinois members of Congress for decades? Also, after Senator Reid claimed that the Senate had never made an exception to the certificate requirement since 1884, it seems that they made something like an exception -- or at least gave the Senate rule a generous construction. I still say the Secretary of State should have signed the certificate.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Inaugural Thought

We DC residents are all looking forward to Barack Obama's inaugural celebration. In thinking back to George W. Bush's inaugural, particularly his first one, in 2001, I remember that it had a distinctly Texan flavor -- the city was jammed with people wearing cowboy boots with their black tie or fur coat. Lots of ten gallon hats, too.

Suppose we wanted to have an Illinois flavor for this year's inauguration. What would that even be? The only thing associated with Illinois these days is corruption. Maybe you should have to slip somebody twenty bucks to get onto the Mall, even though you have a ticket?

I apologize to Illinois natives who are cringing as they read this, but I can't think of what would constitute Illinois style. Probably it exists, but you could parade it in front of me and I wouldn't even know.

Friday, January 9, 2009

It's Become a Comedy

So now the Supreme Court of Illinois has issued this unanimous ruling that the state's Secretary of State has no legal duty to countersign and seal the certificate of Roland Burris's appointment as a U.S. Senator. The law of Illinois requires the Secretary "To countersign and affix the seal of state to all commissions required by law to be issued by the Governor," but the court held that the certificate is not a "commission required by law to be issued by the Governor." The court held that Burris's appointment is complete when the Governor makes it by open, unequivocal act, and that the certificate is merely evidence of the appointment; it is not a "commission." The court agreed with my previous suggestion that the Senate rules, although assuming that secretaries of state will sign certificates of election and appointment, do not actually require such signatures.

The ruling was unanimous, so I guess it must be a fair reading of Illinois law, but it sure seems silly to me. Even accepting that the appointment is complete when the Governor makes it, the Senate understands its rules to require a certain degree of evidence of the appointment. The Illinois Supreme Court pointed out (again consistently with my view) that the Constitution empowers the Governor to make the appointment and that the Senate rules can't require the approval of anyone else. But even accepting that, it's not completely outrageous for the Senate to require certain evidence that the Governor has made the appointment.

I can't imagine why a state's lawmakers would want to throw such an impediment in the way of having its Senators be recognized as not to require the state Secretary of State to coutnersign and seal the certificate in the way the Senate rules contemplate. I presume that the Secretary of State signed all the certificates for all of the state's previous Senators since the Senate rules started requiring it (in 1884, according to the majority leader). Why did he do that, if it wasn't legally required?

This would have been a good case for broad construction of the term "commission." The Illinois Supreme Court is effectively giving the Secretary of State the power to veto the Senate appointment. Saying that the appointment is valid and the U.S. Senate should accept it, but not requiring the Secretary of State to sign the certificate, seems a little bizarre.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

White Flight

As mentioned yesterday, the Secretary of the Senate refused to recognize Roland Burris's credentials because they're not signed by the Illinois Secretary of State. Now this same Secretary of State, Jesse White, who refused to sign Burris's credentials, has excoriated the Senate Democrats, saying that they should seat Burris without his signature! And he's supported by Lisa Madigan, Illinois's Attorney General, who says there's no law requiring him to sign.

Now, this is ridiculous. I suggested yesterday that White is probably correct that his signature isn't really required for Burris's credentials to be valid, but the Senate has done things its way for over 100 years and expects that signature. And for him to say that he's not required to sign is a pretty huge stretch. As Burris's legal memorandum shows, Illinois law requires the Secretary of State to countersign and seal all commissions required by law to be issued by the Governor. Now, we could have a long argument about whether Burris's certificate of appointment is a "commission" and whether it is "required by law to be issued by the Governor," but rather than parse each of these terms in the finest degree, let's think about the intent and purpose of this Illinois law. Obviously, the whole point is that the Secretary of State is to act, ministerially and without discretion, to make the Governor's commissions effective. And it's pretty imprortant to make effective the certificate of a U.S. Senator from Illinois! Petty argumentation about whether this is really a "commission" in the Illinois statutory sense is absurd.

The Illinois Secretary of State is not supposed to be screwing around like this. It's part of his job to sign this commission whether or not he agrees with it. After all, in states where the Secretary of State is separately elected, as I'm guessing he is, the Secretary of State might be of a different party than the Governor, and/or of a different political party than the elected or appointed U.S. Senator. But that doesn't mean the Secretary of State can act to block the new Senator. It is his duty to countersign and seal the credentials, even if he thinks the Senator-to-be is a complete boob who shouldn't be in the Senate. Or if he doesn't like the Governor.

This has gone far enough. I previously suggested that the Illinois Attorney General was grandstanding; now it's the Illinois Secretary of State. It's time for people to accept that Rod Blagojevich is still, as of this moment, the Governor of Illinois. If the state legislature wants to impeach and remove him, let it do so, following the proper procedures. Until then, he's the Governor, he has the power to appoint a Senator, and it's the duty of the Secretary of State to follow the usual procedure and countersign the certificate.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


As Roland Burris, the self-styled junior Senator from Illinois, was turned away from the Senate floor yesterday, mobs of adoring fans surrounded the Capitol, chanting "RO-land! RO-land! RO-land!" and waiving placards with such slogans as "We're Rolling for Roland!" and "Burnish a Spot for Burris!"

In his dreams. Actually, Burris's credentials were rejected by the Secretary of the Senate on the ground that they are signed only by the Illinois Governor, not by the Illinois Secretary of State (who refused to sign them). Do the Senate Rules really require a signature by the Secretary of State?

Answer: Sort of. Rule II of the Senate Rules assumes and implies that a Senator's credentials will be signed by both a state's Governor and its Secretary of State, but it doesn't absolutely say that they must be. The rule states that the Secretary of the Senate shall keep a "wellbound book" of Senators' credentials in which the Secretary shall record "the name of the governor and the secretary of state signing and countersigning the same." And the rule provides recommended forms, to be sent to each state's Governor and Secretary of State, for use as credentials, which call for signature by those two officials.

But the rule doesn't absolutely say that such signature is required. It doesn't exclude the possibility that the Secretary of the Senate might have occasion to write "none" in the place for the name of the Secretary of State of a particular state.

After all, there's no law that says every state must have a Secretary of State. What if some state chooses to abolish that position? Then what? Is that state forbidden to have Senators?

And the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution does provide that "the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct." This gives some credence to Burris's contention that the Governor has the sole authority to make the appointment and the Secretary of State cannot block it.

So while the Secretary of the Senate has a reasonable basis for refusing to accept Mr. Burris's credentials, Burris also has a pretty good argument that he's been appointed and should be seated. I think the Secretary of the Senate is right not to accept the credentials on her own initiative -- the Senate should decide whether they are valid in this unusual situation. But if I were a Senator I would feel obliged to vote that he should be seated. I might then vote to expel him, but that's a different story.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Experts Duel on Illinois Senate Pick

Now, that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has daringly gone ahead and named someone to fill the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama, the question of whether the Senate can block the appointment by refusing to seat Blago's pick, Roland Burris, is urgently raised. I previously opined that in light of Supreme Court precedent it seems that the Senate lacks this power, although I also remarked that it's far from clear what a court could do if the Senate went ahead and excluded Burris anyway.

Now some other legal pundits are weighing in. My old law professor Akhil Amar says that the Senate can stop Burris by exercising its constitutional power to be the "Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members." Akhil claims that, although, as I previously explained, the Supreme Court took a narrow view of a house of Congress's power to judge the "qualifications" of its members, what is happening now would constitute an "election" or "return" in the constitutional sense, and the Senate would have the power to act as the "judge" of the validity of the election or return.

Meanwhile, Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean at UC Irvine, agrees with me that under Powell v. McCormack, the Senate lacks power to exclude Burris.

Akhil is brilliant, but I'm sticking with my original view. Akhil's suggestion that Burris's appointment is an "election" with a voting population of one is, I would say, a nonstarter (too eccentric). His suggestion that it is a "return" is somewhat more plausible in light of the old-fashioned definition of "return" as "The official report made by a returning officer (originally the sheriff) as to the election of a member or members of Parliament; hence, the fact of being elected to sit in Parliament." But even that is not really what's happening here.

The best argument on Akhil's side, I would say, is his point that the Senate's power to judge "elections" and "returns" must include the power to determine that an election is corrupt. I would agree with that, and I might even agree that if the Senate determined that this particular appointment was bought and sold it would have the power to exclude the appointee. But as far as I can tell no one is even suggesting that; the only suggestion that the Blagojevich, by virtue of what he is alleged to have contemplated previously with regard to the appointment, is unfit to make any appointment. That seems just too much like what happened in Powell v. McCormack, where, although everyone agreed Powell had been elected, he was judged personally unfit by other House members. Here, as far as I can tell, it is agreed that Blagojevich is the Governor of Illinois and he has appointed Burris without any suggestion of corruption in the actual, ultimate appointment. The Senate just thinks that Blagojevich is personally unfit to make the appointment at all. That strikes me as falling under the rule of Powell.

So Akhil has some good points and I guess the matter isn't as clear as I initially suggested. And it's still unclear to me what a court could actually do if the Senate refuses to seat Burris. But so far I still come down as thinking that (if Powell is accepted as correct), the Senate's duty is to seat him.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Back from Break

I've just returned from Cancun (it was lovely, thank you). Sorry to leave you contentless for a week, faithful readers, but even bloggers need a break sometimes.

There's so much to catch up on -- Al Franken about to become the certified winner of the Minnesota Senate election, Rod Blagojevich appointing a Senator for Illinois, the withdrawal of an Obama cabinet pick -- but just being back from vacation, today I get to write about books. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

David Lodge, author of humorous novels, mostly about professors (something I always enjoy), has the characters in one of his books play a game called "humiliation," in which the players each name a classic work of literature that they haven't read, and the winner is the one whose admission is the most humiliating. Well, I've missed a good chance to win, because until I went on vacation last week, I had never read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Boy, that was great. It's not one of those once-great classics that now seems turgid and boring. And it doesn't even take a long time to get going. The oustanding writing leaps out at you practically from the first page.

It's true that the main action of the story might be different if the book were written today. Somehow I don't think current writers would hold up Atticus Finch as the great hero because he was a white man who worked to achieve justice for a black man. Today Finch would be black himself, and the story would be about black self-empowerment rather than about the one, great white man who worked for racial justice.

But the book is still fabulous for its portrait of rural Southern life, in a community where everyone knows everyone else, where each family stands for something particular, and where your worth is measured by how long your family has lived on the same plot of land. It's a fascinating cultural tapestry.

My other read last week, coincidentally, also deals with a great white man helping another community, and also presenting fascinating insights into a different culture, only this was Three Cups of Tea, the true tale of Greg Mortenson, who got lost on his way down from K2 in Pakistan, was saved when he wandered into a rural village, and ended up dedicating his life to building schools for rural Pakistani villages that don't have any. Not as well written as To Kill a Mockingbird (well, that's a pretty tough standard), but definitely worth reading. If you've ever wondered what difference one person (you, for example) could make by really dedicating your life to a cause, this book will show you. Also fascinating for its story of how Mortenson succeeded in achieving his goals by adapting his work to the local culture. If the U.S. government, say, tasked itself with building schools in rural Pakistan, I think it would almost surely fail, because it would try to do everything the all-American way and wouldn't be sensitive to cultural differences. Mortenson makes some important changes from Pakistani traditions -- most notably, his schools are for all children, including girls, and they also are a sharp contrast to religious madrassas -- but he works through local people and local culture and provides schools that can be culturally accepted by Pakistanis.

So two great books for you, faithful readers. Back to regular business tomorrow.