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Stormy Weather

Temperatures began to ease last week — but not on the political front.

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Though circumstances — including what appeared to be a slowly dawning second take on the part of various pundits and politicians — could change, the prognosis remained favorable for something like the massive federal bailout of Wall Street proposed late last week by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.

An early backer of the plan was 9th District representative Steve Cohen. Forecasting "a massive change in the way government and the free market have interacted," Cohen told reporters late Friday that Congress was prepared to work past its planned adjournment this week to "come up with a package that will rescue the economy." The Memphis congressman expressed confidence in Secretary Paulson, "who at the present moment is the president." (Doubts about Paulson's lack of accountability under his plan already had begun to surface but have since accelerated and intensified.)

Discussing the current economic crisis at an impromptu press conference at his Midtown home, Cohen recounted for reporters "the most sobering conference call I've ever been in" — one that he and other members of the congressional Democratic caucus had earlier Friday with Paulson and Bernanke.

As other governmental figures had done, Cohen described the situation as "the worst crisis since the Great Depression."

"Everybody's pension, everybody's job is at stake," Cohen said. "Homes, mortgages, businesses, everything." Cohen said the current congressional session might be extended through "the end of October," right up to the eve of the presidential election, in order to work out all the ramifications.

In the Paulson-Bernanke scenario, Congress would in the short run assume a "massive" amount of debt (estimates ranging from $700 billion to $1 trillion) — much of it stemming from the subprime mortgage catastrophe that resulted in the collapse and near-collapse of several venerable Wall Street investment firms. In the long run, there must be serious reforms, "a change in the way the American people see their government," Cohen said. "Our whole idea of the free market is history."

Attributing the current crisis to "greed in the private sector and disregard in the public sector," Cohen called for a return to the principle of regulation that had been forsaken by the current administration. Among a variety of other changes he suggested might be coming were curbs on "short selling" in the stock market, better capitalization, and an end to "the disgustingly high amounts of money" in golden parachutes that corporation executives have been given "for failing."

Asked if he thought the crisis would have consequences in the current election environment, he assailed Republican presidential candidate John McCain for a "total disinclination" to deal with the economy and said, "I don't see how it can fail to benefit the Democratic Party." But he envisioned that the two parties would work together on an overall solution.

• For someone who has been a longtime national figure, Ralph Nader has an unassuming manner, but at this stage of his life he may, in the mode of onetime perennial presidential candidate Harold Stassen, also have a tendency to overstate his role in the scheme of things.

Both tendencies were on exhibit Friday, as Nader, assisted by one traveling aide and one local helper, came to Memphis for an appearance on behalf of his latest presidential candidacy. Speaking from a portable podium set up in front of City Hall (he had been denied access to the Hall of Mayors inside), Nader began modestly enough, introducing himself to a small battery of reporters as "an independent candidate for the presidency of the United States" and, taking note of a slowly gathering storm, asking politely, "Is that noise bothering y'all?"

Soon enough, the combination of thunder and heavy rain jeopardized the outdoor portion of the press conference. A game Nader, who already had discussed the current Wall Street crisis, "the worst meltdown since 1929," as a scourging of taxpayers and giveaway to "crooks" and condemned the "pervasive" corporate influence within the two major parties, tried for a while to work the miscreant weather into his second major theme: Memphis' location on the New Madrid Fault.

"Apropos this thunder, Memphis is in extreme peril of a disastrous earthquake. It's not a matter of if, it's only a matter of when," Nader said, not very reassuringly. And that inevitable cataclysm would not only destroy Memphis but severely damage St. Louis. Worse: "This area has a major natural-gas trunk line going all the way to New England. The resulting fire would be like nothing any other city, including Chicago, has ever seen."

Nader had gotten into his third point, relating to the Tennessee Valley Authority and purportedly untoward contracts TVA had with Bechtel and other corporations, when he yielded to the pleadings of his aide and finally surrendered to the raging elements, which, in every sense of the term, had begun to drown him out.

"Let's go inside," the aide insisted. Nader sprouted a grin: "Why? Do you suppose there's a storm coming?" And, as he bundled up his papers and hurried inside City Hall, he turned to a reporter and observed, "This is almost like a Shakespearean play."

Lear, thought the reporter, following the 74-year-old Nader inside.

When the press conference resumed, in a forward corner of City Hall just inside the doors, Nader continued listing planks in his platform: solar energy, wind power, a "massive technology efficiency program for automobiles" (shades of Unsafe at Any Speed, the 1966 philippic which made the young Nader's name), a tax policy aimed at Wall Street excesses, addictive industries, corporate crime, gambling, and pollution — "all things we'd like to diminish" and not at workers' wages.

Nader noted that he and vice-presidential running mate Matt Gonzalez of San Francisco are on the November ballots of 45 states, a fact which made them technically able to win the presidency in the Electoral College. He cited polls showing the ticket running at "5, 6, 7 percent" in various states and at 8 percent in New Mexico.

That should have qualified him for inclusion in the forthcoming series of presidential debates, he argued, and he held out hope that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg might have enough clout to arrange his inclusion in at least one of them. "He can pull it off," Nader said.

The candidate was at pains to point out that, at a time when Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain were deadlocked in Florida, a sampling of voters that included Nader cost McCain votes but not Obama. This was clearly an effort to dissociate himself from culpability in the election of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000.

"All he [Gore] had to do was win his home state of Tennessee, and he'd be president," Nader pointed out. And, no matter how many votes he himself had won in Florida that might have gone to Gore, the fact was that the Republicans, aided by "the five politicians on the Supreme Court," had "stolen" Florida and thereby the election for Bush.

In any case, Nader's own conscience was clear. And, for all his hopefulness and determination and commitment to the serious reforms that he began advocating long ago in his muckraking days, the basic modesty of his demeanor suggested that he realized what everybody else has in 2008: He is unlikely to pose that kind of threat or have that kind of influence this time around.

Still, he was Ralph Nader, and as the reporters left, he stayed behind for a while inside City Hall, maybe to indulge the one or two bystanders and well-wishers who recognized him and wanted some time, or maybe just waiting for the weather to change.

• Just as a spate of rumors had it last week, David Kernell, the 20-year-old son of Memphis state representative Mike Kernell, a longtime Democratic legislator, is apparently the subject of a federal investigation into the widely publicized hacking of an e-mail account belonging to Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

After what seemed to be early confirmation to The Tennessean of Nashville that his son, a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, was indeed being looked at by the feds, Kernell became more close-mouthed about the affair, confining subsequent statements to expressions of paternal concern and denials of his own foreknowledge of any hacking efforts by the younger Kernell. Mike Kernell's legislative colleagues, Democrat and Republican, rallied around the Memphis legislator and confirmed that he was unlikely to have been involved.

The younger Kernell was seemingly still on the spot, though, as details emerged both the method and the motive of his effort smacked less of the sinister than of the prankish.

Whoever hacked into Palin's Yahoo e-mail account apparently did so by trial-and-error use of common facts known about the Alaska governor to retrieve and then change her password, meanwhile accessing the contents of her e-mails. When several of these were posted on the Wikileaks.org site, however, they turned out to be unrevealing, consisting mainly of routine personal and political chattiness, though some of the e-mails may have involved official business.

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