Ask a Stupid Question . . .

In the right setting “Would you say you want President Bush to succeed or not?” might be a brilliant thing to ask. It’s so open-ended and volatile that a shrewd moderator could use it to light up a political focus group. But as a yes-no question inserted into a national public opinion poll, it strikes me as, well, not useful.

Even so, “Would you say you want President Bush to succeed or not?” is what Fox News wanted to know last month when it commissioned a telephone poll of 900 registered voters. The poll’s big news was that only 36 percent of the voters polled approved of the job George W. Bush is doing as president. That broke down into 76 percent of the Republicans, 10 percent of the Democrats, and 27 percent of the independents.

But the big news was stale news. The most recent CBS News poll gave Bush 36 percent approval, the most recent Pew Research Center and USA Today/Gallup polls 37 percent, and the most recent Newsweek poll 38 percent. Meanwhile, the most recent Zogby America poll reported that only 35 percent of likely voters think Bush is doing a “good” or “excellent” job.

So it’s pretty well established that just one American in three (and change) likes the job the president is doing. That could be why Fox decided to push beyond these tediously consistent results and ask a question that cut to the bone, a question that asked, in other words, are you for the president or against him? Do you hope he’ll turn things around, or do you want him to fall flat on his face?

The results: 51 percent of the Democrats, 34 percent of the independents, and 7 percent of the Republicans said no, they don’t want Bush to succeed.

When Fox posted the 50-question poll online on August 10 it didn’t call attention to the “succeed” question (it was mentioned in the last paragraph of a two-page news release). But nothing gets past the blogosphere. Conservative sites lit up over the fresh evidence that whatever the latest news might be from Iraq, liberals and Democrats are to be scorned and pitied for their rancid souls. At “The Ace” marveled, “Shocking, I know. By shocking I mean only 51%, the hypocrisy is expected as it is a virtue for the American left. Look, they hate, hate, and hate some more. That is all they have along with their ignorance.”

A poster on a blog maintained by conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt asserted, “The depths to which the modern Democratic Party have sunk never lose their ability to shock me. In the 1990’s, I couldn’t stand Bill Clinton but I didn’t root for him to fail. . . . 51%. The mind reels.” Aggravating this poster’s disequilibrium was the 9 percent of the Democrats who told Fox they didn’t know what they thought, a group that’s “still apparently trying to determine just how deranged they are by their Bush hatred.” Someone else wrote, “Once again proving that the collective liberal stupidity is truly, truly breathtaking. God save us all if they have any power whatsoever in the upcoming elections. If they do, we are all dead.”

At a Chicago-based forum,, the anonymous host cop moaned, “51% of the democratic party want Bush to fail and, by proxy, America to fail. They aren’t just unpatriotic anymore–they are actively rooting against their own country. 51%. Un-freaking-believable.”

Fox News is unusually impenetrable, so I had no luck connecting with anyone who could tell me what Fox thought the point of its question was. To me it showed that lucidity, like absurdity, is irrepressible.

There was the riposter who replied, “Ultimately, the only people who want him to succeed in everything are his family and the most mindless of the pro-Bush sycophants.”

When you come down to it, “Would you say you want President Bush to succeed or not?” was a dumb thing to ask, and I was particularly pleased to see that this didn’t elude every secondcitycop poster. On the one hand, somebody commented, “Is anyone really surprised by that poll? The Dems have become the radical party of Jane Fonda, Jesse Jackson, and the rest of the 60s scum that visited us in Chicago in 1968.” On the other, there was this post: “The question is kinda vague. Do I want El Presidente to succeed? In what? Further wrecking our international reputation? Putting us deeper in debt with our new colony, Iraq? His up till now lenient border policies? I for one am waiting for a REAL conservative leader.”

News Bites

To my surprise, the Jay the Joke entry clung to its spot in Wikipedia for ten days, though almost from the moment of its August 11 creation it was threatened with deletion on the grounds that its subject was too trivial to deserve notice. Not to my surprise, during its ten-day lifetime the original entry was completely rewritten.

Last week I explained why Hot Type reader David Peterson wrote the entry in the first place, submitting to Wikipedia a discussion of that said the Web site began as a “smear campaign” against Jay Mariotti but was soon appropriated by posters operating under cover of the anonymity it offered to engage in “acts of vulgarity and hate-speech” directed at a wider range of targets.

I asked Jay the Joke cofounder Pat Dahl to comment on this development. He had trouble locating Peterson’s entry, and on August 17 I e-mailed him the URL. Before the day was over Peterson’s dissertation had vanished, anonymously replaced by an anodyne description of Jay the Joke as a venture launched by Dahl and buddy Matt Lynch “to unite sports fans throughout the city.” The only remnant of Peterson’s original text was the passing comment that “critics of the blog point to the posts in the comments section as being excessively abusive.” This disappeared in later edits.

Peterson protested to Wikipedia administrators that the revised Jay the Joke entry now echoed rather than critiqued that site’s malice. Unmoved, on Monday the administrators dumped an abbreviated Jay the Joke entry into the Jay Mariotti entry, which itself, Peterson observes, has since late June been “riddled with biases.” Peterson didn’t sulk. He edited the new Jay the Joke section of the Mariotti entry to his satisfaction. When he was done restoring most of his original language, Wikipedia asserted that Jay the Joke “has skipped over satire and parody altogether and gone straight to smears.”

The Reader’s Ben Joravsky has been out there alone for years crusading against Chicago’s blind adherence to a tax increment financing (TIF) strategy of redeveloping its neighborhoods, even such less-than-desperate districts as LaSalle Street (his stories are posted in a free archive linked to the Reader’s homepage, On August 7 the dailies made it a chorus. Editorials in both papers expressed their doubts, though the Tribune editorial, the chirpier of the two, concluded, “TIF’s are wildly prolific because they’ve been wildly successful. But they are not without costs. It’s time for a dose of restraint.”

Wildly successful? I e-mailed Bruce Dold, editor of the Tribune’s editorial page, and asked which TIFs he had in mind. His reply pulled in the paper’s horns a little: “Based on property value growth, a number of Chicago TIFs have been very successful. Obviously you can’t attribute all the development to the TIF, but I wouldn’t dismiss them. Some of the suburban downtown TIFs have worked well.”

Dold’s answer gets to the nub of the debate. Based on property-value growth, a number of TIFs have succeeded. But, says TIF critic Jacqueline Leavy, executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, “that’s a very narrow empirical indicator.” Does anyone think property values along LaSalle Street will do anything but grow between now and 2029, with or without a TIF? Perhaps a TIF will accelerate the appreciation, but it will also guarantee that for 23 years none of the accelerating tax revenues will benefit anyplace but LaSalle Street.

“It’s not at all clear that this has been a wildly successful program,” says Leavy. “For some people–for developers, landowners, politicians. For the general population–maybe, maybe not.”

Frank Smyth, author of this week’s cover story, is a freelance lifer, living in a basement in Washington, D.C., with his dog when he’s not reporting the world’s wars for whoever wants his stories. In 1991 he stayed in Iraq after the gulf war ended and was captured in the north as he covered the Kurdish rebellion. Two traveling companions were executed; Smyth was taken to Abu Ghraib and spent 18 days behind bars listening to the screams of prisoners who were being tortured before he was released.

Then he went to Guatemala, to investigate the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack. She’d been studying the living conditions of the million Guatemalans uprooted in the 80s by their government’s “scorched earth” counterinsurgency campaign. The chief homicide investigator implicated undercover military units and was gunned down himself.

Last year Smyth was working on a story about Guatemalan drug trafficking and wondered why Congressman Jerry Weller, vice chairman of the House’s western hemisphere subcommittee, wouldn’t talk to him. It turned out that Weller rarely speaks publicly to anybody about Guatemala. His Guatemalan wife, Zury Rios Sosa, sits in the national legislature; her father, Efrain Rios Montt, still powerful, was the country’s president during the bloodiest months of the scorched-earth campaign.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.