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Enron's cast of characters: Where they are 20 years after the fall.

By Mark Chediak, et al.
Enron's cast of characters: Where they are 20 years after the fall.
Kenneth Lay outside the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse in Houston, Texas, in 2006. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by F. Carter Smith.

It's been 20 years since Enron Corp. filed for bankruptcy, marking one of the most spectacular financial collapses in history and forever cementing its legacy as the posterchild of corporate fraud.

The energy-trading giant's downfall, triggered by revelations of shady accounting practices, still reverberate throughout the business and political world today. The deceptive practices of its executives, some of whom served jailtime, helped spur the passage of federal laws and regulations designed to improve the accuracy of financial reporting.Enron's misdeeds in energy-its traders were found to have manipulated California's recently deregulated electricity market, helping spark a crisis that led to sky-high power prices and rotating blackouts-ultimately led to the downfall of the state's governor. The name Enron is still invoked in shorthand-like Theranos, Madoff or Lehman-a full two decades after its public ruin. It even inspired a limited-run Broadway show.

"They had the smartest guys in the room and then it blew up," said Michael Webber, a University of Texas at Austin professor who specializes in energy, adding that Enron's failure rippled through a host of institutions. "They were a bowling ball that knocked down a lot of bowling pins."

Formed in 1985, Enron rose to prominence throughout the 1990s as an energy supplier and trading powerhouse with far-flung holdings including natural gas pipelines and utilities. But things went off the rails as executives put together obscure financial instruments that ultimately became ticking time bombs.

As the company unraveled, it was forced to write off more than $1 billion of failed investments, disclose major losses in shareholder equity because of dealings with affiliated partnerships and restate years of earnings. When it filed for bankruptcy on Dec. 2, 2001, it was at the time the largest-ever Chapter 11 case in history, costing shareholders billions and leaving thousands of people pensionless and out of work.

Here's a look at some of the prominent players in the scandal-both fallen executives and those who investigated them-and where they are now:

- Kenneth Lay, founder, former chairman and CEO. Lay founded Enron with the merger of two regional natural gas pipeline companies and, during the subsequent 16 years, transformed the Wall Street darling into America's most famous example of corporate greed and corruption. He was indicted in 2004 by a grand jury for his role in wide-ranging schemes to defraud the public and accused by regulators of reaping more than $90 million in ill-gotten gains from selling stock. A jury convicted him but charges were dropped after he died at the age of 64 in July 2006 while vacationing, just months before his sentencing was slated to take place.

- Jeffrey Skilling, former president and COO. Working as a McKinsey consultant, Skilling came up with the idea that transformed Enron from a gas company to a broker of natural gas contracts between producers and wholesalers. The "gas bank," as it became known, reduced Enron's own exposure to fluctuating prices and spurred its growth through the 1990s. Skilling was hired to lead that effort and eventually became CEO of Enron, briefly, before quitting in July 2001 just months after taking the role. He was convicted by a Houston jury in 2006 of conspiracy, securities fraud, making false statements to auditors and insider trading. His prison sentence of 24 years was eventually reduced, and he left prison in 2019. He is now back in the energy world, according to a report that quotes unnamed people. Skilling couldn't be reached, and his lawyer didn't immediately return messages seeking comment.

- Andrew Fastow, former CFO. Fastow, seen as one of the chief architects of using off-book partnerships to conceal billions of dollars of losses and debt, pled guilty to securities and wire fraud in 2004 and was sentenced to six years in prison. His wife, Lea, also worked at Enron, where she was an assistant treasurer; she was sentenced to a year in prison. Fastow last year said he accepted full responsibility for his actions and considers himself "probably the person most responsible for Enron's failure" after originally viewing himself as a "hero." Fastow, who's now a public speaker on business ethics, declined to comment when reached by phone.

- Lou Pai, ex-CEO of Enron Energy Services. Pai ran Enron's retail energy unit, arriving at the company after stints at ConocoPhillips and DuPont. He left Enron six months before it collapsed in late 2001, pocketing more than $265 million from exercising Enron options and selling stock. Pai was later cast in news reports as a symbol of Enron's excess, with an alleged fondness for corporate jets and strip clubs. Pai left his wife to marry an ex-topless dancer, and his lawyer argued the stock sales were tied to the divorce, according to court documents. In 2008, Pai settled insider trading charges and agreed to pay regulators $31.5 million. He didn't admit wrongdoing, and he wasn't charged criminally. Pai went on to co-found Element Markets, a Houston-based carbon-trading firm. He's not currently listed among the executives on the company website, and attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

- Gray Davis, former California governor. Davis, a Democrat, blamed Enron for gaming California's power market and contributing to the blackouts that roiled the state. To stabilize the situation, he authorized the state to buy expensive power contracts that were paid off by customers over 20 years. He was ultimately recalled in 2003, with the state's 2000-2001 electricity crisis fresh on voters' minds. Davis is now an attorney in the Los Angeles office of Loeb & Loeb law firm, where he advises companies, nonprofits and schools.

- Bill Lockyer, ex-California AG. Lockyer offered one of the more provocative quotes of the Enron saga, saying he'd "love to personally escort Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude" named Spike. (Lockyer later apologized for the remarks.) State agencies reached a $1.52 billion settlement with Enron in 2005 to resolve allegations the company engaged in large-scale market manipulation during the energy crisis, though the state only expected to recover a fraction of that. Lockyer is now an attorney at the law firm Brown Rudnick.

- Richard Kinder, Lay's college friend who helped build Enron. A former college classmate of Lay, Kinder resigned as president of Enron in 1996 after it became clear he wouldn't become CEO. With a partner, Kinder went on to form his own energy company. He bought a publicly traded liquids pipeline company from Enron and turned it into one of the largest U.S. energy infrastructure companies in the world: Kinder Morgan Inc. Kinder is today worth $7.8 billion, ranking 346 on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

- Rebecca Mark, who built Enron's water business. Known as "Mark the Shark" for her negotiating skills, Mark was one of the most senior female executive in the energy industry in the 1990s, rising to chief executive of Enron International and serving as a member of the company's board. She spun off the company's water business, Azurix, in a 1999 IPO, but lost a power struggle to Skilling and resigned from Enron in 2000. She was never accused of any involvement in the fraud that emerged in late 2001. Now Mark-Jusbasche, she invests in energy technology, water and agricultural projects with a focus on sustainable development, according to her LinkedIn profile. Mark declined to comment further when reached by phone.

- Andrew Weissmann, former federal prosecutor who led the investigating task force. As a member of the Enron Task Force, Weissmann led the prosecution of accounting firm Arthur Andersen and then became director of the unit. After serving as the FBI's general counsel under director Robert Mueller and then chief of the Justice Department's Criminal division, he became a lead prosecutor for Special Counsel Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. He wrote a book about that probe, "Where Law Ends," and now teaches at New York University Law School.

- Sherron Watkins, the whistleblower who started it all. In August 2001, Watkins alerted Lay to problems with the company's books, warning in a memo that Enron could "implode in a wave of accounting scandals." She was lauded as one of Time Magazine's persons of the year in 2002 along with two other whistleblowers, Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom and the FBI's Coleen Rowley. Watkins is now executive in residence at the McCoy College of Business at Texas State University and teaches a course at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School, she told Bloomberg News.

Pope Francis brings light to the refugee crisis

By Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli
Pope Francis brings light to the refugee crisis
Ahmad Ramy Alshakarji, 56, and one of his sons, Majid, 20, pose at their home in Rome on Dec. 3, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Chico Harlan

ROME - Five years ago, in a dismal Greek island migrant camp, a Catholic aid group showed up offering tickets to a lucky few. The group met with rounds of migrants. One person remembers being pressed to answer quickly whether she and her family were open to resettling in Italy. Another recalls there was no mention of the most extraordinary part: that the flight to Rome would be on the papal plane accompanied by Pope Francis.

"A total surprise," said Majid Alshakarji, 20, who fled Syria after the Islamic State choked off his city's food supply and whose family was one of three that ended up on the plane.

As Francis now prepares for a return trip on Sunday to Lesbos, an island symbolic of Europe's migration crisis, his 2016 move to relocate those three families - all Syrian and Muslim - stands as one of the enduring gestures of his pontificate, an admonition to welcome those escaping repression and war.

That message, five years later, looks increasingly forgotten in a Europe that has built razor-wire fences, cut deals to choke off migration flows, constructed highly surveilled facilities for asylum seekers and launched legal proceedings against search-and-rescue groups.

But the gesture has also worked in its narrowest way, opening the chance for 12 people, six of them children, to succeed, struggle and try to build new lives in safety.

Though the 12 who flew to Italy with Francis are regularly mentioned in articles about the pope and migrants, their stories have not been widely documented. All have since earned refugee protection. One of the families relocated to Genoa in Italy's north. The Washington Post met with members of the other two families who remain in Rome.

Nour Essa, 36, who worked in biotechnology in Damascus, has become a researcher at a Catholic hospital. Her husband just earned an architecture degree.

She said that when leaving Syria, they had imagined making it to France, where several years earlier she had studied at a university. But after being interviewed ahead of Francis's arrival, they had to quickly weigh what was best for them and their young child.

"It was all so fast," Essa said. "There was such an emotion. Such a sense of confusion." What prevailed for her family was an agreement that any country was okay, so long as it was an "escape from Lesbos."

In the Alshakarji family, Ahmad Ramy describes the opportunity they received as a "joy born from the womb of sadness."

A history professor in Syria, he now works 60 hours a month cleaning a hospital. His wife, Suhila Ayiad, also works as a hospital janitor, with steadier hours. They barely manage to pay the rent. Their son Majid says what they've received in Italy is a chance "to stand on our own feet again."

Some of the 12 Syrians have seen Francis several times since their initial journey out of Lesbos. And this week, before departing for his trip, Francis met with a handful of refugees inside the Vatican, including some who'd come on the papal plane in 2016, the church said.

On the first leg of his trip, in Cyprus, Francis on Friday led migrant families in a prayer service, in which he decried a "culture of indifference" and repeated his contention that some of the camps where people are held are like "concentration camps."

In a Europe where migrants' odds have only diminished since 2016, a model depending on the pope and his goodwill is hardly sustainable. But there are indications the pontiff is trying to replicate the move as he travels through Cyprus and Greece this week. On Thursday, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades thanked the pope for arranging to help 50 migrants transfer from Cyprus. The Vatican has not confirmed any resettlement arrangement.

"We're looking at several possibilities," said Matteo Bruni, a Vatican spokesman.

Sant'Egidio, the lay Catholic association that helped to select the migrants from Lesbos in 2016, said the main criteria had been "vulnerability" and that the group had been looking specifically for families. Religion was not a factor.

According to news accounts at the time, the work to select the migrants stretched to the eve of the pope's arrival. Francis said the idea for the resettlement had surfaced only a week before the trip.

"These three families had the papers in order, the documents in order, and it could be done," Francis said.

That first papal trip to Lesbos came just after a historic jolt to the continent, a year when more than a million migrants sought refuge in Europe, the greatest influx since World War II. By 2016, the early welcome was long over. Xenophobic populist parties were gaining momentum. Countries were imposing new border controls, though it was not yet clear whether the backlash would be permanent.

Lesbos, a landing point for migrants crossing from Turkey, was seen as ground zero for Europe's unresolved migrant crisis.

"This trip is somewhat different than others," Francis told reporters on the flight from Rome to Lesbos. "We are going to - and we will see - so many people who are suffering, who do not know where to go, who had to flee. We will also go to a cemetery, the sea, where many people have drowned."

Francis arrived at the camp to find people lined up shoulder to shoulder, some holding hand-painted flags of their own countries, waiting to shake his hand. Some had been at the camp for days, others for weeks. Many had paid thousands of dollars to smugglers with the hope, however diminishing, of making it to specific European countries, in some cases where they already had relatives. But based on a newly signed deal between the European Union and Turkey, many in Lesbos were due to be sent back across the very sea they'd just risked their lives to cross.

"Freedom, freedom," migrants chanted at one point during the pope's visit.

"You are not alone," Francis said soon after, delivering a short address.

From the camp, the pope and the chosen asylum seekers traveled in separate cars to the island's main airport, where everything was ready with a red carpet and an Alitalia plane. Francis greeted all 12 people, and then they climbed aboard.

Majid, who was 15 at the time, said he remembers feeling like he was stepping on a flight "with the most powerful person in the world."

Then, exhausted, he fell asleep.

In the five years since, Majid, charismatic and talkative, has written rap songs about his experience in Syria, including one called "Beneath the Rubble." He went from knowing only one Italian word - "grazie" - to becoming highly conversational, graduating from an Italian high school, making Italian friends, even appearing on an Italian television studio show where he talked about his life.

But since graduating from high school in 2020, he has also discovered there are few job opportunities for somebody with his experience. He and his older brother have found work only here and there.

"On one hand, the stability is there," he said. "But having financial problems leaves you a bit shaken."

The refugee families received housing assistance for a year after arriving in Rome, and they continue to receive help for integration and studying, a Sant'Egidio official said.

The Alshakarji family lives in a second-floor apartment on the outskirts of Rome, where much of the furniture is donated, and where one of the only decorations is a flag used by Syria in periods before the Assad family took power. Aside from that, they have few other reminders of home. Ahmad Ramy, the father, said the family brought only one object on their journey across Turkey into Greece and then to Rome: a metal utensil for scooping and shaping falafel.

One recent evening, he went to the kitchen to retrieve it. He described how, shortly before boarding the papal plane, there'd been a disagreement among security officials about whether the sharp-edged object was okay to have on the flight.

"We thought the plane might not take off," Ahmad said with a laugh.

But it did, and now in Rome, they make falafel about once a month.

Maryland fans will celebrate Mark Turgeon's departure. So will Mark Turgeon.

By John Feinstein
Maryland fans will celebrate Mark Turgeon's departure. So will Mark Turgeon.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon tries to get his point across against Virginia Tech, a home game in which the Terrapins led by seven in the second half but lost. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

Maryland fans finally got what they wanted on Friday: Mark Turgeon's tenure as the school's basketball coach ended suddenly - if not necessarily shockingly.

Turgeon was 226-116 in 10-plus years coaching in College Park. If there had been an NCAA postseason in 2020, he would have entered this season having been to six NCAA tournaments in the last seven seasons.

But Maryland fans never embraced him. He was ice to Gary Williams's fire, and even though his record was good - very good at times - he couldn't match what Williams accomplished in 22 seasons at his alma mater. Those last two words - alma mater - are important. Maryland was always Williams's dream job and he walked away from an Ohio State program that was ready to take off to become Maryland's coach, even though the school was in the midst of an NCAA investigation that would result in two years of postseason sanctions.

Turgeon is a Kansas graduate, a quiet Midwesterner who would have walked to Lawrence to coach at his alma mater. He's only 56 and there's little doubt he's going to coach again somewhere, sometime. He's too good a coach not to.

But Turgeon and Maryland were never a comfortable match. Turgeon wasn't the least bit happy when the school was forced to leave the ACC to grab the money dangled by the Big Ten. When he was offered the job in the spring of 2011, he had told then-athletic director Kevin Anderson that he wanted to coach in the ACC. He got the chance to do that - for three years.

By then, Maryland fans were already complaining about Turgeon. Many had fallen out of love with Williams in his final seven seasons because the Terrapins didn't maintain the level they had reached between 1994 and 2004 when they went to 11 straight NCAA tournaments, seven Sweet 16s and back-to-back Final Fours, winning the national title in 2002.

During Williams' last seven seasons, Maryland reached the NCAAs only three times and didn't make it out of the first weekend of the tournament.

Coincidence or not, Maryland took off under Turgeon after moving to the Big Ten for the 2014-2015 season and went 79-25 the next three years, making the Sweet 16 in 2016. In 2020, the Terrapins were 24-7 and finished in a three-way tie for the Big Ten regular season title. That team never got to find out how good it might have been because covid shut down the postseason before it got started.

Would Turgeon have taken that team to the Final Four? Who knows? Most Maryland fans would tell you it wouldn't have happened. Which takes me back to 2001, when I was frequently stopped by Maryland fans in Cole Field House telling me, "It's time for Gary to go, he'll never be more than a Sweet 16 coach."

After a loss that winter to Florida State, Williams was booed lustily by fans while doing his postgame radio show on the building's public-address system. "Yeah, you should go ahead and boo," Williams said angrily at the time. "Because the last seven years around here have sucked, haven't they?"

That was Williams: He never held anything in, before, during or after a game. Or in practice or the locker room. You always knew exactly where he stood. I later asked him about the booing incident and he laughed. "My attitude was 'F--- you, I'll show you,'" he said.

And he did.

The Terrapins turned things around after that and Williams is now an iconic figure in Maryland's pantheon.

Turgeon never will be - and never would have been short of matching Williams by winning a national title. He would also never publicly attack his fans, referees, other coaches or even the media. He internalized. And, even if he had won a national title, he wouldn't have been as beloved as Williams because he rarely seemed to get angry. The notable exception was his near-fight with Michigan Coach Juwan Howard last season. That was a moment Maryland fans loved.

Last spring, Maryland announced that it had given Turgeon a contract extension through the 2026 season, but that was a smokescreen. To get extended, Turgeon had to accept a reduction in buyout money, meaning it would be easier for the school to move on from him.

My guess is Turgeon's fate was sealed when the Terrapins lost at home to George Mason. Power schools often lose to mid-majors in this day and age - Navy over Virginia; Colgate over Syracuse and Liberty over Missouri are only a few of this season's examples - but Turgeon was already on thin ice with many Maryland people before that game. Then came losses to Louisville and Wednesday's loss to Virginia Tech, a game the Terrapins led by seven in the second half - at home.

By sheer coincidence I was in the car driving home from another game Wednesday and heard Turgeon's postgame radio interview. He sounded like a beaten man. Without being asked, he noted the boos that had followed his team off the floor and said that he knew most of them were for him. He talked about how frustrated he felt - and that it was only Dec. 1.

Did I think he had just coached his last game at Maryland? No, but having known him dating to his playing days under Larry Brown at Kansas, I felt like I was listening to someone who was very unhappy.

Turgeon was always aware that Maryland's fan base never fully accepted him. He made a mistake by never embracing Williams - who is still on the Maryland payroll and would no doubt have loved to have some involvement with the program that went beyond fundraising.

While the timing of his departure, eight games into the season, feels strange, these are strange times in college athletics. In the last two weeks football coaches have left iconic programs at Oklahoma and Notre Dame for big money and big pressure at USC and LSU. Virginia football Coach Bronco Mendenhall suddenly resigned on Thursday and now, Turgeon is gone from Maryland.

Danny Manning, Turgeon's former teammate at Kansas, is a good choice to take over for the rest of the season. He's coached a big time program at Wake Forest and is certainly someone the players should respect. He won a national championship as a player in 1988 and as an assistant coach in 2008, both at Kansas.

Now, the search begins. Maybe Manning will produce a turnaround that will earn him the job - if he wants it - at season's end. Until then, Maryland would do well to stay away from any silly, overpriced headhunters and form a search committee chaired by Williams.

In the meantime, Maryland fans will be celebrating Turgeon's departure. The only one who might be celebrating more is Turgeon.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

The mean girls in Congress just can't quit each other

By kathleen parker
The mean girls in Congress just can't quit each other

KATHLEEN PARKER COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, Dec. 05, and thereafter

(For Parker clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Kathleen Parker

First, it was the Squad. Now, it seems, we have the Plastics.

I'm referring to the four-way kerfuffle that began when Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., made an anti-Muslim remark about Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. Then Rep. Nancy Mace , R-S.C., tweeted her disapproval of Boebert, which prompted the inimitable Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., to defend Boebert by smearing Mace as "the trash in the GOP conference."

Well, dang, ya'll, what's in the ladies-lounge coffee over there? With all the teeth-baring and chain-yanking, somebody must have spiked it with testosterone. Before you know it, they'll be wearing animal headgear and breastplates and breaching the U.S. Capitol.

The Squad, you'll recall, was the name given initially to four super-left Democratic women elected to the House in recent years: Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. All are women of color and two, Omar and Tlaib, are Muslim, which may partly explain, but does not in any way excuse, why Boebert and Greene refer to them as the "Jihad Squad."

One needn't be a great wit to create a nickname but being witless is surely helpful to hurling racial and religious insults. As to the latter, Boebert and Greene proudly excel.

Which brings us to the Plastics, the infamous high school clique in the 2004 movie, "Mean Girls," about a bunch of bullying young women in high school. The Twitter war that evolved among Boebert, Greene, Mace and Omar has all the markings of chick cliques gone wild. I wish it weren't so, but what else to make of such underage behavior by some of the nation's most visible females?

I suppose we could call it embarrassing, though there's no evidence that anyone but us bystanders has suffered so much as a flushed cheek.

To think that the Republican Party was once home to greats such as Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. Among other achievements, she was the first public figure to challenge Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist fearmongering in her 1950 "Declaration of Conscience" speech. Just imagine, if we still can.

That said, today's four gladiators aren't equally errant in the ways of manners and protocol. Omar was the victim of more than one inexcusable racist, Islamophobic attack by Boebert. The first came when Rep. Paul A. Gosar, R-Ariz., tweeted an anime video showing him stabbing Ocasio-Cortez in the neck. As the House considered censuring Gosar for his appalling judgment, Boebert tried to defend the indefensible, saying that stripping Gosar of his committee assignments would be unfair since Omar "the Jihad Squad member from Minnesota" sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee "while praising terrorists."

Logic and decency are not, shall we say, her strong suits.

Later, Boebert told a story at a private event about boarding an elevator when a Capitol police officer came running toward her. When Boebert realized Omar was standing nearby, she quipped to the officer: "She doesn't have a backpack, we should be fine."

Mace, who might have kept her heels glued to the high road, then entered the fray to defend Omar following Boebert's tasteless elevator remark. But you know what they say: Never wrestle with pigs. They have more experience in the mud and, besides, they like it there.

So along came Greene, no slouch in the mudslinging department. A devout Trumpian, she alternately praised the former president and called Mace "the trash of the GOP conference." Those would be fighting words without what happened next, but it got far worse. Greene accused Mace of not being a true conservative because, she claimed, Mace is "pro-abort."

Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait. What?

Greene's lucky she escaped with a mere counter-tweet from Mace instead of something more fitting a woman who was the first female graduate of the Citadel. Mace is, indeed, pro-life with exceptions for rape and incest, perhaps because she is, herself, a rape survivor.

Then something rather splendid happened. Greene tweeted at Mace, "your out of your league." Mace simply tweeted back the correction: "*you're."

Anyone who will plant a flag for "you're" instead of "your" as a contraction of "you are" has my undying admiration and loyalty. (I have a cartoon in my office in which a smart dame says to her courtier: "You had me at you're.")

Suffice to say, the "conversation" devolved from there, or, depending on one's point of view, became even more delicious. Mace ended the exchange (for now) with "Bless her f------ heart," which is clear enough, but usually expressed more modestly by Southerners as simply "Bless her heart."

Bless all their little hearts, I say, and the wee spirits that guide their fingers across keyboards in a land called Twitter.

May they all receive a biography of Margaret Chase Smith as a gift for the holidays and may they begin their New Year's resolutions accordingly.

- - -

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

The media treats Biden as badly as - or worse than - Trump. Here's proof.

By dana milbank
The media treats Biden as badly as - or worse than - Trump. Here's proof.

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, and thereafter

(For Milbank clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON -- A sampling of headlines atop the influential Politico Playbook newsletter over the past month:

"Let the Democratic freakout begin."

"Dems start to face the hard questions."

"Does the WH owe Larry Summers an apology?"

"The other big intra-Democratic fight."

"No BIF bump for Biden."

"White House braces for a bad CBO score."

" . . . Biden dithers . . ."

"Biden tries to calm nerves about 2024."

"The case for why Biden is screwed."

Even the extraordinary news that jobless claims had dropped to the lowest level in 52 years came with a qualifier: "BUT, BUT, BUT . . . don't expect [the numbers] to immediately change Americans' negative perceptions of the economy."

It isn't just Politico. My impression of other outlets' coverage of President Biden had been much the same: unrelentingly negative. Was it my imagination?

No, it wasn't.

Artificial intelligence can now measure the negativity with precision. At my request, Forge.ai, a data analytics unit of the information company FiscalNote, combed through more than 200,000 articles -- tens of millions of words -- from 65 news websites (newspapers, network and cable news, political publications, news wires and more) to do a "sentiment analysis" of coverage. Using algorithms that give weight to certain adjectives based on their placement in the story, it rated the coverage Biden received in the first 11 months of 2021 and the coverage President Donald Trump got in the first 11 months of 2020.

The findings, painstakingly assembled by FiscalNote vice president Bill Frischling, confirmed my fear: My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy.

After a honeymoon of slightly positive coverage in the first three months of the year, Biden's press for the past four months has been as bad as -- and for a time worse than -- the coverage Trump received for the same four months of 2020.

Think about that. In 2020, Trump presided over a worst-in-world pandemic response that caused hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths; held a superspreader event at the White House and got covid-19 himself; praised QAnon adherents; embraced violent White supremacists; waged a racist campaign against Black Lives Matter demonstrators; attempted to discredit mail-in voting; and refused to accept his defeat in a free and fair election, leading eventually to the violence of Jan. 6 and causing tens of millions to accept the "big lie," the worst of more than 30,000 he told in office.

And yet Trump got press coverage as favorable as, or better than, Biden is getting today. Sure, Biden has had his troubles, with the delta variant, Afghanistan and inflation. But the economy is rebounding impressively, he has signed major legislation, and he has restored some measure of decency, calm and respect for democratic institutions.

We need a skeptical, independent press. But how about being partisans for democracy? The country is in an existential struggle between self-governance and an authoritarian alternative. And we in the news media, collectively, have given equal, if not slightly more favorable, treatment to the authoritarians.

Sentiment analysis ranks coverage from entirely negative (-1.0) to entirely positive (1.0), and most outlets are in a relatively tight band between -0.1 and 0.1. Overall, Biden was slightly positive or neutral for seven months, ranging from .02 to -.01. That plummeted to -.07 in August -- a lower number than Trump hit in all of 2020 (or 2019) -- and has been between -.04 and -.03 ever since. Trump never left a narrow range of -.03 to -.04. (The data set doesn't go far enough back to make a comparison to Trump's first year in office.)

Also noteworthy: Trump got roughly twice as much coverage in 2020 as Biden has received in 2021. And the coverage of Biden is noticeably more negative than the tone of news coverage overall. Predictably, Breitbart and the New York Post are among the most negative outlets, but even liberal ones such as HuffPost and Salon have been negative. (The Post was the closest to neutral, at .0006.)

How to explain why Biden would be treated more harshly than a president who actively subverted democracy? Perhaps journalists, pressured by Trump's complaints about the press, pulled punches. Perhaps media outlets, after losing the readership and viewership Trump brought, think tough coverage will generate interest.

I suspect my peers across the media have fallen victim to our asymmetric politics. Biden governs under traditional norms, while Republicans run a shocking campaign to delegitimize him with one fabricated charge after another. This week, Republicans threatened a government shutdown to block Biden's vaccine mandates, after a year of efforts to discourage vaccination. Yet, incredibly, they're simultaneously blaming Biden for coronavirus deaths -- deaths occurring almost entirely among the unvaccinated. "More people have died of covid under President Biden than did in all of 2020," proclaimed Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), GOP conference chairman.

As Biden might say: C'mon, man.

Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It's time to take a stand.

- - -

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

Justice Sotomayor drops the S-bomb

By ruth marcus
Justice Sotomayor drops the S-bomb

RUTH MARCUS COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, and thereafter

(For Marcus clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON -- Stench.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said stench, about her own court, during oral argument Wednesday in the Mississippi abortion case. Specifically, observing that states were passing ever-stricter abortion laws, explicitly inspired by the court's new conservative majority: "Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts? I don't see how it is possible."

This was no spur-of-the-moment comment. Stench was a word deliberately chosen, calibrated to the perceived danger of the moment, studiously oblivious to whether it would antagonize colleagues. It was the equivalent of shouting, "Fire!" in an uncrowded courtroom, not so much to those present but to a live-streaming nation.

And stench was just the start of what Sotomayor had to say. "How is your interest anything but a religious view?" she demanded of Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart. "I just think you're dissimulating when you say that any ruling here wouldn't have an effect on those," she told Stewart when he asserted that overruling Roe would not imperil other court decisions on same-sex marriage, sexual privacy or contraceptive access.

"What are the advancements in medicine" that could justify abandoning Roe v. Wade, she pressed -- and proceeded to lecture that there have been none that are scientifically valid. "So when does the life of a woman and putting her at risk enter the calculus?" she asked, reeling off statistics on the far greater risk to women, especially poor women, in giving birth than in terminating a pregnancy.

The argument captured the unusual, public-facing role that Sotomayor, now in her 13th year on the bench, has staked out for herself on this conservative court.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the senior liberal on the court, is the dogged -- doggedly naive, some would say -- defender of the institution against charges of politicization and partisanship. Justice Elena Kagan is the inside player adept at crafting whatever small compromise remains to be had -- but, is, increasingly, forced to resort to scorching dissents.

At Wednesday's argument, Kagan was uncharacteristically subdued, as if she knew there wasn't much to be gained in scoring points during oral argument. But if there is an inside damage-control game to be played in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health, in which the majority seems certain to uphold Mississippi's prohibition on abortion after 15 weeks, it is difficult to discern.

Sotomayor is less inclined to horse-trading than truth-telling. The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last year left her as the court's loudest liberal voice. And she isn't mincing words or playing nice, not any more.

When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. interrupted her line of questioning Wednesday, Sotomayor inquired coolly: "May I finish my inquiry?" This was no accident. When she is interrupted at oral argument, as studies have shown happens more frequently to female justices, Sotomayor has observed, "I respond in a way that perhaps I shouldn't, which is I interrupt back."

And when the court, in her view, errs, she slaps back, often with savage honesty and a real-world perspective not often demonstrated in the arid confines of judicial opinions. In 2016, when the court allowed the use of evidence obtained from an unconstitutional police stop, Sotomayor's dissent took pains to describe the impact on "those subjected to the humiliations" of being stopped without any basis for suspicion.

"For generations, black and brown parents have given their children 'the talk' -- instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger -- all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them," she wrote, quoting W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

In the 2020-2021 term, she was the justice least often in the majority (69%, and in just 45% of its non-unanimous cases). She issued nine written dissents, more than any other justice, in cases ranging from donor disclosure requirements to juveniles sentenced to life without parole. "The court is fooling no one," she wrote in that case, as it "guts" its precedents.

Even that understates Sotomayor's role. More frequently than her colleagues, she is prone to dissent publicly when the court chooses not to hear a case, often on issues of whether criminal defendants have been treated fairly or whether police officers were improperly granted qualified immunity for their actions.

And as the court's use of its emergency "shadow docket" has grown, Sotomayor has called out her colleagues for abusing the process. In January, she decried the court's enabling of an "expedited spree of executions" sought by the Trump administration in its final months. In September, as conservatives declined to prevent the Texas abortion law from taking effect, four justices (the three liberals plus Roberts) dissented, but Sotomayor was by far the most full-throated. "The Court should not be so content to ignore its constitutional obligations to protect not only the rights of women, but also the sanctity of its precedents and of the rule of law," she wrote. "I dissent."

The customary adverb -- "respectfully" -- was notably absent. It wasn't the first time that Sotomayor has dropped it, and Wednesday's argument suggests it will not be the last.

- - -

Ruth Marcus' email address is ruthmarcus@washpost.com.

I tried the Elizabeth Holmes schedule, and here is how it went

By alexandra petri
I tried the Elizabeth Holmes schedule, and here is how it went

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

Advance for release Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, and thereafter

(For Petri clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Alexandra Petri

WASHINGTON -- Among the documents to emerge from the trial of Theranos founder and noted turtleneck aficionado Elizabeth Holmes is a handwritten, one-page schedule full of notes and guidance.

Whatever you think about Holmes -- villain, victim or both -- she was very successful for a brief time, at least at going up to people such as Henry Kissinger and getting them to hand her large sums of money. I thought this would be a useful skill to acquire, and maybe her schedule would help. So Friday morning I set out to replicate what Holmes apparently thought was a productive start to the day.

- - -

- Holmes' schedule: "4:00 am - Rise and thank God. Most things are not logical."

I scramble to turn off my alarm. I have two goals this morning: replicate Elizabeth Holmes's schedule down to the minute ("I am never a minute late" is among the mantras that appear later in the document) and avoid disturbing my husband while I do so, because he did not sign up to be awakened at 4 a.m.. Already (after thanking God that most things are not logical), I am beginning to regret staying up last night to watch "Below Deck" and "Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen."

- Holmes' schedule: "4:00-4:15 - wash face, change"

I lumber to the bathroom. I have 15 whole minutes to wash my face and change, which feels like a long time. Usually what I do during this stage of the morning is make a lot of inarticulate grunts and visit the bathroom immediately -- something I now am realizing with horror is not listed anywhere on the Holmes schedule. I can survive without the grunting, but I am not sure I can hold out on the bathroom. By 4:06 a.m., I give in to my bladder. I could brush my teeth, but this is yet another normal element of a morning routine that is not listed on the schedule, and I have already taken one liberty.

- Holmes' schedule: "4:15-4:45 meditate, clear mind"

I find a YouTube meditation that is 30 minutes; my mind is concentrated and empty of everything for six of them. I use the remaining 24 to copy out each of the rules for living that appear elsewhere on the paper, which feels like clearing my mind:

"I do everything I say, word for word. I am never a minute late. I show no excitement. Calm, direct, pointed, non-emotional. ALL ABOUT BUSINESS. I am not impulsive. I do not react. I am always proactive. I know the outcome of every encounter. I do not hesitate. I constantly make decisions & change them as needed. I give IMMEDIATE feedback, non-emotionally. I speak rarely. When I do -- crisp and concise. I call bullshit immediately. My hands are always in my pockets or gesturing. I am fully present."

OH NO, MY HANDS SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN MY POCKETS OR GESTURING THIS WHOLE TIME!

There is a cat in the house, and I try to think of how I will encounter her without hesitating or reacting, and what the outcomes of these encounters will be. This seems unknowable, but maybe I am not trying hard enough.

- Holmes' schedule: "4:45 - 5:20 - work out"

I am already exhausted from the effort of knowing the outcome of every encounter, but I unroll my yoga mat and dutifully go through 35 minutes of back bends, mostly following the guy in the back of the video doing gentle modifications with the aid of a chair. I know that next I will be expected to "change, shower, shave, perfect," and I can only assume that "perfect" means "attain as closely as possible the standard Elizabeth Holmes herself set with her appearance." This obviously requires a turtleneck, but I own just one, and it is somewhere in the dark room where my husband is still asleep.

- Holmes' schedule: "5:20 - 6:20 - change, shower, shave, perfect"

I decide to grandfather in some toothbrushing under the heading of "perfect" and hope, once again, that I am not overstepping. While I shower, I mutter the word "business" to myself, for inspiration. On my way downstairs, I almost trip over the cat -- an encounter I have not anticipated.

I don't have any eyeliner, so instead I just put too much mascara on and sort of rub it over my eyelid, which makes me resemble a raccoon who also doesn't know how to apply eye makeup. Next I work on my bun. I duplicate the Holmes side part and artfully pluck out a few strands.

- Holmes' schedule: "6:20 - 6:30 - pray"

I am Episcopalian, which means I feel uncomfortable engaging in free-flowing prayer without a liturgy of some sort in hand, so I look something up. I should be expressing more gratitude for the lack of logic in the universe, but I am drooping and losing my élan. I am starting to feel a strange sympathy for anyone who had to do this multiple days!

- Holmes' schedule: "6:30 - 6:45 - bfast (bannanna, whey)"

A problem presents itself: I have neither a "bannanna" nor a banana, and I have whey even less. ("You know," my husband said the night before, "maybe this is the sort of thing you should have thought about in advance.") At the time I insisted it was actually more authentically Theranos not to have a viable plan, and just sort of assume that some whey and a banana would manifest themselves as long as I told enough people they would be there.

Then inspiration strikes. Years ago, I made the ill-advised New Year's resolution to eat a fruit every day, which rapidly devolved into a daily scramble to find a banana before midnight, so I know Starbucks sells individual bananas, if you want to spend way too much money on a banana. Also, it is only a two-minute drive away. Having discovered this banana workaround, I start seeing loopholes everywhere. For instance, "I am never a minute late" could be "I am always multiple minutes late!" I get excited about this, which is expressly forbidden.

I hasten to Starbucks, where I hope there is whey. I immediately seize a banana, then turn to an employee for assistance. Since I am holding the banana in my hand, I cannot put my hand into my pocket, so I have no option but to gesture with the banana as I ask, "Do you have anything with whey in it?"

She asks if I can ask someone else. I ask a person making drinks, who requests that I spell "whey," which the banana and I do. She says she doesn't know. I apologetically purchase the banana and a snack bar that seems like the sort of thing that could possibly have whey in it, but according to its ingredients, doesn't.

It is at this point I realize that I have been across from a Safeway this whole time. At 6:44 a.m., I begin to nibble the banana so as to stay in the time window. By 6:50 a.m., I am lurching around a grocery store holding a half-eaten banana in one hand, muttering "whey." (Crisp and concise.) I do not hesitate. Where is the whey aisle?

- Holmes' schedule: "6:45 - Drive to THE"

I return to the car. Fortunately, I cannot drive to Theranos because it is no longer a company that exists because it was full of fraud, and instead of having realistic ideas and executing them successfully, everyone there was concocting half-baked solutions and convincing investors with mumbo-jumbo that they knew what they were doing. Based on this morning, they were very possibly sleep-deprived, too.

Instead, I sit in the car with a bag of whey and eat a few unhappy bites while I finish the banana. At home, I write up my morning. I lie on the couch barely keeping my eyes open, and the cat looks at me with concern.

I am emotionally and physically exhausted. I am all about business.

- - -

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

The November jobs report shows covid is still the boss of the economy

By catherine rampell
The November jobs report shows covid is still the boss of the economy

CATHERINE RAMPELL COLUMN

Advance for release Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, and thereafter

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Catherine Rampell

Nearly two years in, the pandemic is still in control of the economy.

The nation's employers added just 210,000 jobs on net in November, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. This was far below forecasts, which predicted about 550,000 new jobs for the month.

This lower-than-expected job growth comes as inflation is pinching consumers and employers. The new omicron variant also poses a threat to the economic recovery. But there's still reason not to be too negative about the November report itself.

For one thing, it's possible this preliminary number understates the pace of hiring. Previous months have been revised upward quite a bit lately as more data trickled in. One reason to believe more upward revisions might be in store for November is that another Bureau of Labor Statistics survey painted a much rosier portrait of the labor market. Those survey results, also released Friday, showed a steep drop in unemployment, down to 4.2%.

For context, the unemployment rate was never that low during the entire mid-2000s boom.

If you take the 210,000 jobs number at face value, though, it shows that we still have a very long way to go in digging ourselves out of this hole. At that pace, it would be another year and a half before the economy recovered all the jobs lost since the beginning of the pandemic. And presumably we want more positions than just the pre-pandemic level, as the working-age population has grown in that time.

The pandemic also continues to affect the shape the recovery is taking and where jobs are (or aren't) being added.

Hiring in leisure and hospitality slowed dramatically in November, for example. One might wonder if that's because customers still aren't interested in dining out and traveling, and therefore employers in these businesses don't need many more staff; or if employers do need more staff but can't find workers. One reason to believe it's the latter is that wage gains for this sector are practically off the charts.

Year over year, these workers' (non-inflation-adjusted) hourly wages are up 12.3%. Tons of job openings remain.

As consumers demand more goods, jobs (and wages) in transportation and warehousing are also booming. There are about 200,000 more jobs in this sector today than existed before the pandemic. And still companies can't keep pace with consumer demand, as anyone anxiously tracking shipping updates for their holiday presents can tell you.

So why can't firms find enough workers, even as they raise wages?

At this point, it's hard to blame expanded unemployment benefits, which ended in September. That said, many households have a greater cash cushion thanks to a year-and-a-half's worth of accumulated savings, which are partly due to those unemployment benefits and other generous government transfers. This gives workers more flexibility if they need to put off returning to work, or if they want to be choosier about what job they return to. Many workers have suggested their career priorities have changed.

There are other barriers to returning to work.

Schools have reopened, but students are still intermittently forced into quarantine or remote learning because of coronavirus outbreaks. This disrupts parents' ability to hold down a job. The child-care sector, which was already inadequate pre-covid, was hobbled by the pandemic. Hiring in the industry picked up initially but has stalled out.

As of November, child-care employment was still 10% below its level in February 2020.

This is presumably one reason employment for prime-working-age women has recovered less than that for their male counterparts, given that women are more likely to be their families' primary caregivers.

And of course, even with most of the eligible population vaccinated, Americans are still contracting covid-19.

Some of those falling ill are out of the labor force entirely; others are technically employed but temporarily absent from work. The number of people who are listed as employed but not at work because of their own illness was 1.5 million in November. That's not as high as it was during the worst periods of the pandemic but still very elevated - it's nearly double the level from the same month in 2019.

The emergence of the omicron variant could substantially change these numbers, too. If it proves to be more transmissible or severe than previous strains of the coronavirus, we could see more worker absences, withdrawals from the labor force, temporary shutterings of schools or child-care providers, etc. There seems to be little appetite for government-imposed shutdowns here in the United States, but other countries around the world might end up imposing more compulsory closures of businesses or regions, as happened with the delta variant. That, too, would have downstream effects for the U.S. economy.

Which is why, once again, the key to solving the economic crisis is solving the public health one first. We need vaccination rates much higher, both here and around the world. More jabs, more jobs.

Overruling 'Roe' likely wouldn't generate the female backlash that feminists expect

By megan mcardle
Overruling 'Roe' likely wouldn't generate the female backlash that feminists expect

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

Advance for release Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, and thereafter

(For McArdle clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Megan McArdle

WASHINGTON -- "If men could get pregnant," runs the old feminist refrain, "abortion would be a sacrament."

First popularized in the 1970s by feminist icons Florynce Kennedy and Gloria Steinem, the sentiment is still popular with today's progressives. It seems a reasonable assumption that women care more about abortion than men, since we indisputably bear the burden of pregnancy. As such, it also seems reasonable to assume, as many people do, that a Supreme Court ruling in the Mississippi case to overturn Roe v. Wade would result in a fierce electoral backlash from women belatedly awakened to the dangers of GOP rule.

In fact, there's no real data to back up those assumptions. It's true that women are more likely than men to identify as pro-choice and to say that abortion is an important factor in their voting decisions. But while the gender gap on abortion is real, it's remarkably small -- and arguably non-existent -- when you drill down to the specifics beneath the "pro-choice" and "pro-life" labels.

About the time that the "abortion would be a sacrament" line became popular, the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center started a project called the General Social Survey. Every two years since then, pollsters have asked thousands of Americans about themselves and their views, including questions about whether and when abortion should be legal.

The answers to those questions have proven remarkably stable over time and remarkably free of gender bias. In 1972, overwhelming majorities of men and women supported abortion in cases of rape, fetal abnormalities or danger to the mother, with basically no daylight showing between men's and women's answers. By 2012, the percentages were virtually unchanged, as was the gender distribution.

To be fair, a small gender gap did emerge in the most recent survey. The men surveyed in 2018 were somewhat more likely than women to support abortion in such cases. But given the stability of answers over the years, this may just mean that 2018 respondents were less representative than usual on abortion rights.

What about the harder cases that aren't quite so compelling to conflicted voters who see both sides of the abortion issue? For a married woman who wants no more children, 40.7 percent of men in 1972 thought abortion should be legal, compared to 35.5 percent of women; in 2012, it was 43.1 percent and 43.3 percent, respectively. In the case of a woman who can't afford more children, the split in 1972 ran 46.8 percent of men in favor, and 44.8 of women. In 2012, it actually went down to 40.4 of men and 40.9 percent of women.

The only answers that noticeably changed over time were about whether abortion should be legal for "any reason." Some 36.5 percent of men and 35 percent of women selected that answer in 1972, while 40 percent of men and 43.2 percent of women chose it in 2012. In the possibly unrepresentative 2018 sample, "any reason" secured close to a majority among both sexes.

It's possible that the stability over time, and the gender gap, are an artifact of Roe. The Supreme Court currently prevents legislatures from doing much to curtail abortion rights much before 24 weeks gestation, which means voters don't really have to think hard about what law they're willing to live under. They're free to make largely symbolic statements about some ideal state -- yes to abortion in the hardest circumstances, while remaining uncomfortable with abortions procured to avoid the disruptions of a healthy pregnancy resulting from consensual sex.

If Roe goes, voters will have to think hard about whether they're really willing to deny an abortion to a woman whose marriage or finances might be strained to the breaking point by the burden of a child. And it's very possible that women will think harder about those questions than men, and come up with very different answers.

But it's also possible that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe, and throws the issue back to the states, the subsequent legislative wrangling will reveal that the answers to those questions rest less on gender than values -- or lifestyle. Are you a college-educated professional who must time pregnancies exquisitely to optimize a career, or are you a low-wage hourly worker for whom other considerations matter more? Are you religious or secular? Conservative or progressive? And when confronted with the fundamental unfairness of mammalian reproduction, do you worry more about a woman's bodily autonomy, or the potential life that is ended when an abortion is performed?

For 50 years, women have been saying that their minds and their dreams mattered more than their biology. After the Supreme Court rules in the Mississippi case, American politics may well vindicate that claim.

- - -

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

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