Quality Coffee for the Troops? Starbucks Is Better Latte Than Never

Lattes in Fallujah? Some GIs in Iraq, distraught over the quality of military coffee, keep clamoring for stronger java than that served by Halliburton. Never one to miss a brand-development opportunity, Starbucks CEO Jim Donald came to Capitol Hill this week to announce that the Seattle-based coffee giant will donate 50,000 pounds of beans for overseas troops, with distribution handled by the Red Cross. Much smaller outfits -- including Just Plain Joe Coffee of Stevensville, Md., Santa Lucia Estate Coffee of Potomac and Dean's Beans in Massachusetts -- have been donating coffee to military personnel in Iraq for months.

The Red Cross and Starbucks, whose employees previously made smaller donations, believe the new program will boost morale. "It's great to see," says Jodi Lehr, partner in Santa Lucia Estate, adding, "They are following the cue of the small growers and roasters."

Lehr and her husband, William Gutierrez, donated 75 pounds last month to Iraq and Afghanistan. Just Plain Joe, run by disabled veterans, has been donating 20 pounds a month since the Iraq war began, said co-owner Joseph White, a retired Army warrant officer. "I know what it's like to sit there and say, 'I wish I had a good cup of coffee,' " he told us yesterday.

While lauding his home-state company's generosity, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) said he wants to find out why taxpayer dollars aren't buying better beans. "They ought to be able to get top-level coffee and we'll look into that," he told us.

The military supply system uses Maxwell House and Taster's Choice, and Halliburton says it's brewed according to Army guidelines, with no option to pick a different "brand, grind type or roast variety."

But Starbucks's massive donation may position it to penetrate the complex procurement system. "They ought to be buying Starbucks," Dicks says, while recognizing his suggestion isn't likely to percolate quickly through the bureaucracy. Maybe by next Veterans Day.

Chazz Palminteri, Apolitical Figure

* Chazz Palminteri, who became famous playing heavies in movies such as "A Bronx Tale" and "Analyze This," assures us, "I'm a friendly person." Tonight he's going to "sit there and smile and shake hands" with Dan Glickman, new head of the Motion Picture Association of America, at a dinner and Washington premiere of "Noel," Palminteri's feature directorial debut starring Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz, Alan Arkin and Paul Walker.

If, heaven forbid, politics comes up, Palminteri's take as an independent is simple: Everyone needs to "get behind" President Bush. "I think we should put our differences aside and make the best of the next four years," he says. The premiere is hosted by the nonpartisan Creative Coalition, the pro-First Amendment group co-founded by none other than Ron Silver, one of the White House's favorite actors (and spinners).

Tucker Carlson: A Confession to Chew Over

* So what was the buzz about at Tucker Carlson's bash Tuesday at Morton's to celebrate "Unfiltered," his Friday-night public-affairs show on PBS? His contract at that other network -- CNN. It's up Dec. 1 and he has been negotiating elsewhere. We asked about the situation. "I don't know," he dodged. "I like living here."

The party favor was a bow-tie-emblazoned martini glass. "I guess we should have been passing out cigarettes," Carlson joked. The mere mention of smoking caused him to pull out a pack of what he claimed were breath fresheners but turned out to be nicotine gum -- an addiction he can't seem to break. "I chew Nicorette. I quit smoking 41/2 years ago during the New Hampshire primary because you can't smoke on airplanes." As for the future of "Unfiltered," he told us: "There is a menthol version we're rolling out later."

SQUIBS

* Now here's a sight: GOP senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Norm Coleman of Minnesota hanging out in Miami's sexy South Beach (Florida's version of Hollywood). In town for a National Republican Senatorial Committee meeting last week, the three legislators landed at the trendy Shore Club hotel and dined at the ultra-chic restaurant Nobu. Graham, who's single, quipped to his companions: "Gracious! I had no idea there was an epidemic down here -- everyone is starving and no one has any clothes to wear!" (Too bad Coleman's Hollywood-centric wife, Laurie, wasn't there to offer cultural guidance.)

* Could there be a budding actress in the Kennedy clan? At the premiere party for Tom Hanks's new flick, "The Polar Express," at Rockefeller Center on Monday, Robert Kennedy Jr. bragged to pals: "My daughter Kick, who is 16, just starred as the Irish maid in her school, Georgetown Day School's production of 'My Fair Lady.' She's very serious about acting." Kick? "Kick is a family name for the Kennedys," he told Reliable Source correspondent Baird Jones. "It was the nickname of my aunt Kathleen." Well, Kick Kennedy is quite a stage name.

* Mikhail Gorbachev and Yusuf Islam swapped kisses on the cheek yesterday when the former Soviet leader honored the musician once known as Cat Stevens with a "Man for Peace" award and praised his charity work. At a meeting of Nobel Peace Prize laureates in Rome, organized by the Gorbachev Institute, Islam touched on his expulsion from the United States in September for alleged terrorist ties: "Perhaps it's part of the irony that sometimes you have to go through a test in order to achieve a prize." Homeland Security officials never divulged specifics of the alleged threat the ex-singer posed. Islam told Reuters he has received "more apologies than you can count" from Americans embarrassed by their government's action.

With Anne Schroeder