David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

One of the nice things about weekend blogging is that I'm not quite as captive to the news cycle as during the week. So on a Saturday morning during flu season, let me put on my tinfoil hat and digress into one of my pet fascinations: the spread of the H5N1 influenza virus.

About this time last year, I read John Barry's The Great Influenza, about the 1918 pandemic. (A good read, though not in the same league as his seminal work on the Great Flood of 1927, Rising Tide. If you want to really understand Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath, start with Rising Tide.) Beyond the sheer number of deaths from what was dubbed the Spanish Flu is the speed with which the virus spread and the ferocity with which it attacked its victims. It simply overwhelmed the ability of political, social, and medical institutions (such as they were at the time) to respond in any meaningful or effective way. Advances in medical science would help mitigate the effects of a flu pandemic today in developed countries, although probably not to the extent we would like to think. It would make Katrina look like a gentle spring rain.

There have been other flu pandemics since 1918, though none so lethal, and the experts assure us that another pandemic is just a matter of time. It is the high mortality rate among human victims of the H5N1 virus that has public health experts particularly worried, combined with the fact, not surprising, that the virus has taken hold in bird populations in underdeveloped countries like China, Indonesia, and Vietnam where birds and humans live in close proximity and where monitoring and treatment is hampered by a lack of resources, among other things.

Still, and this is why I started out with the tinfoil hat reference, the total number of H5N1 human deaths worldwide since the virus first emerged is dwarfed by the annual number of deaths in the U.S. from regular old strains of influenza. So H5N1 may or may not be the next pandemic flu. There are good reasons to worry (more people died of H5N1 in 2006 than the previous three years combined), and good reasons not to panic (a swine flu showed signs of going pandemic in the 1970s but never did).

In the meantime, there's no better place from where to keep a watchful eye on the spread of H5N1 than the H5N1 blog.

Brave new world:

The rise of digital entertainment has upended whole industries, from Hollywood to the music business. Now it's striking at a touchstone of the American family: the allowance. Kids are pouring money into things that can't be bought with cash -- music downloads, cellphone ringtones and online videogames. JupiterResearch estimates teenagers spent $3 billion online last year alone. In many families, the upshot has been the demise of the weekly cash dole that parents have long used to teach kids financial responsibility and keep them from busting the budget.

Instead, "giving the kids their allowance" now often entails untangling a complex web of electronic transactions. It means figuring out which sibling blew $29.99 to download Season 4 of "South Park" on iTunes and getting someone to fess up for charging those Jay-Z ringtones to mom's cellphone bill. Some parents find themselves taking on the role of bill collector and dunning their kids for reimbursement, while others are throwing up their hands and giving up on spending limits altogether.

My kids are 5 and 3, so we're just on the cusp of having to deal with this problem. Aside from the issue of turning kids into consumers at an ever younger age, how are TPM parents handling the digital allowance?

TPM Reader DB reports in:

I would like to refer to the note about Saddam’s changing image in the Arab world. I have lived in the United Arab Emirates for 8 years. The other night I was taking a little run into Dubai for a bad burrito (for some strange reason the cooks in Dubai do appalling things to Mexican food) and a beer. My taxi driver, Amjed, a Pakistani who has been driving taxi in Sharjah and Dubai for 25 years, was unusually quiet on this trip. Finally, after we got going on the freeway, he asked me,

“So, Saddam gone, eh?”

“Yes,” I answered. “He is dead. He was a bad man. But it won’t change the troubles in Iraq.”

“He was bad man,” Amjed agreed. “You see?”

“No. I didn’t see it.”

“I see on television. He was brave.”

“I heard that.”

“He was bad man. In end, he was brave. He was not afraid. In end he was brave man. Was good.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. We drove on in silence. When we got to the bar, I thanked him, tipped him, walked in, and ordered a cold pint of Stella.


In the week since Saddam Hussein was hanged in an execution steeped in sectarian overtones, his public image in the Arab world, formerly that of a convicted dictator, has undergone a resurgence of admiration and awe.

On the streets, in newspapers and over the Internet, Mr. Hussein has emerged as a Sunni Arab hero who stood calm and composed as his Shiite executioners tormented and abused him.

“No one will ever forget the way in which Saddam was executed,” President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt remarked in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot published Friday and distributed by the official Egyptian news agency. “They turned him into a martyr.”

I would hate to let John Negroponte's departure as Director of National Intelligence go by without reminiscing about the job's long hours and positively dreary surroundings, as recounted last March by Jeff Stein at CQ:

On many a workday lunchtime, the nominal boss of U.S. intelligence, John D. Negroponte, can be found at a private club in downtown Washington, getting a massage, taking a swim, and having lunch, followed by a good cigar and a perusal of the daily papers in the club’s library.

“He spends three hours there [every] Monday through Friday,” gripes a senior counterterrorism official, noting that the former ambassador has a security detail sitting outside all that time in chase cars. Others say they’ve seen the Director of National Intelligence at the University Club, a 100-year-old mansion-like redoubt of dark oak panels and high ceilings a few blocks from the White House, only “several” times a week.

. . .

But there seems to be a new, relaxed John Negroponte. And some close observers think they know why.

He’s figured out the job. Which is to say, he really doesn’t have much control over the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.

So why not hang at the University Club?

Negroponte spokesman Carl Kroft takes serious issue with that portrayal.

“He’s the hardest working person in U.S. intelligence,” Kroft said. “He’s hard at work from the early hours of the morning to late every night. The job never ends.”

Negroponte's new digs in Foggy Bottom will be much closer to the University Club than were DNI's temporary offices out at Bolling Air Force Base.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) turns the Golden Rule on its head: "What we really expect out of the Democrats is for them to treat us as they would like to have been treated."

Given Boehner's perma-tan, maybe we can call this the Bronzed Rule.

A clearer picture is emerging of the impotent Americans, vengeful Shiites and seething Sunnis who comprised the cast of characters surrounding Saddam's rushed execution:

[J]ust about everything in the 24 hours that began with Mr. Hussein’s being taken to his execution from his cell in an American military detention center in the postmidnight chill of Saturday had a surreal and even cinematic quality.

Part of it was that the Americans, who turned him into a pariah and drove him from power, proved to be his unlikely benefactors in the face of Iraq’s new Shiite rulers who seemed bent on turning the execution and its aftermath into a new nightmare for the Sunni minority privileged under Mr. Hussein.

. . .

Iraqi and American officials who have discussed the intrigue and confusion that preceded the decision late on Friday to rush Mr. Hussein to the gallows have said that it was the Americans who questioned the political wisdom — and justice — of expediting the execution, in ways that required Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to override constitutional and religious precepts that might have assured Mr. Hussein a more dignified passage to his end.

The Americans’ concerns seem certain to have been heightened by what happened at the hanging, as evidenced in video recordings made just before Mr. Hussein fell through the gallows trapdoor at 6:10 a.m. on Saturday. A new video that appeared on the Internet late Saturday, apparently made by a witness with a camera cellphone, underscored the unruly, mocking atmosphere in the execution chamber.

This continued, on the video, through the actual hanging itself, with a shout of “The tyrant has fallen! May God curse him!” as Mr. Hussein hung lifeless, his neck snapped back and his glassy eyes open.

. . .

American officials in Iraq have been reluctant to say much publicly about the pell-mell nature of the hanging, apparently fearful of provoking recriminations in Washington, where the Bush administration adopted a hands-off posture, saying the timing of the execution was Iraq’s to decide.

It gets worse actually, including the part where Iraqi TV shows Saddam's tribesmen "collecting the coffin from the courtyard in front of Mr. Maliki’s office, where it sat unceremoniously in a police pickup." Go read the entire account by John Burns and Marc Santora.

After visiting Iraq, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) comes out against a "surge":

"We need a hard-nosed assessment of what we need, not what we wish," Wilson said. "Sometimes I think our national objectives in Iraq— including by our president— are described in pretty broad terms.

"I want Iraqi people to live in a free and democratic society, but that's not our military mission there ... that's an aspiration, that's not a vital national interest for the United States."


“The most important thing right now is for the U.S. to be very clear to ourselves and the American people about our vital national interest in Iraq and this means a hard-nosed assessment. I don’t think we have that focus today. We need to modify our strategy and position.”

Wilson, who won re-election in a close race against Attorney General Patricia Madrid, was a staunch supporter of the Iraq War before her political life flashed in front of her eyes. Amazing how those who came close to losing re-election are now willing to buck the President. The prospect of defeat has a way of focusing the mind.