New hopes for rail travel

Have you heard that trains are “in” again? They have been “out” for so long, it’s almost hard to believe it, but President-elect Barack Obama’s decision to ride the rail into Washington for his inauguration has excited many train lovers.

Since flying became the main form of long-distance transportation in the United States in the past couple of decades, repeated warnings by railroad executives and industry advocates that insufficient funding and out-of-date equipment would lead to the system’s collapse seemed to fall on deaf ears. Finally this fall, Congress more than doubled funding for Amtrak, the semi-public company, in a $13 billion railroad improvement bill sponsored by Reps. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, and John L. Mica, Florida Republican…

Powell: ‘I am on the president’s agenda’

Colin Powell listened with growing but controlled anger. He saw the question coming. After all, there is no charge against a secretary of state more serious than the one leveled by some members of his own Republican Party — and even in the administration he serves.

They accuse him of leading a government agency that not only opposes President Bush’s foreign policy, but also tries to undermine it. His response came out in a single well-known barnyard expletive. Then, to emphasize the point, he added: “That’s quotable.”

“I can show you people in Washington who claim to be pushing the president’s agenda, [but] who are not,” Mr. Powell continued, sitting in his small inner office on the seventh floor of the State Department…

‘It’s not how old you are’

Helen Thomas hoped in vain that her 80th birthday on August 4 — a date she shares with the British Queen Mother and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader — would pass unnoticed. “I don’t want anyone to know,” she said. “I don’t see why people have to be stamped by their age — that’s prejudice.”

But nothing made her angrier than the “congratulations” she received on her “retirement”, when she announced in May that she was leaving her front-row seat in the White House press room, where she had reported on eight presidents for United Press International (UPI) over four decades. She was simply changing jobs, and is now a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, the US chain that owns dozens of publications, including the Houston Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner…

Player power

Tim Robbins seems a man of contrasts at first, but what appear to be conflicting sides of his personality actually complement each other in a character of the rarest type. He has the ability to engage in the most profound conversation while provoking a genuine and contaminating laughter. On screen, he has been naively stupid (in “Bull Durham” and “The Hudsucker Proxy”) as well as shrewdly slick (in “The Player” and “The Shawshank Redemption”). And, of course, his dimpled babyish face tops a nearly 6’5” body.

So no wonder the actor-writer-director-producer Robbins is crusading against labels and stereotypes, the most common of which in his case have been “political” and “liberal”. He says he doesn’t “buy the liberal thing”, but appreciates progressivism and libertarianism. He also notes that he has a hard time distinguishing between Democrats and Republicans.

“The great illusion in America is that we have a choice, because if we don’t have that illusion, we don’t have a democracy,” he says…

Political punch in a package of charm

Condoleezza Rice has rarely heard a question she doesn’t know how to answer, from queries about her tumultuous childhood in segregated Alabama to her success in the male world of superpower politics, nuclear weapons and arms control.

She meets me with the friendly smile and easy hospitality of a west-coaster, defying the image of someone anointed by Washington insiders to become the most powerful woman in the world in a year. The chief foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, Rice is being tipped as a likely secretary of state or national security adviser should Bush win the White House.

As huge a task as this sounds, Rice’s own life story has the word “amazing” written all over it. At 45, she has been the first black woman in just about any job she’s taken on: from special assistant for national security affairs to President George Bush when she was only 34, to provost of California’s prestigious Stanford University (the Harvard of the west coast) where she managed a budget of nearly $2bn…

Working for Uncle Sam

Rob Lowe’s comeback story is of a peculiar kind. For his audience, seeing one of 1980s-Hollywood’s highest-profile heartthrobs in a serious, political role, in an award-winning TV drama series about life behind the scenes at the White House, has provoked a reaction just short of shock. But for the 37-year-old actor and ex-Brat Pack member, whose career had slipped over the past decade, playing deputy communications director Sam Seaborn in “The West Wing” is a logical turn that shows “everything I can bring to a part”.

“It taps more into my abilities as an actor than any other part I’ve done,” says Lowe, whose looks typecast him as the invariable romantic youth from the start of his career. “This is a role on which my physicality has no bearing whatsoever. Sam could have been played by anyone. The hallmarks of this character aren’t physical but verbal and cerebral”…

The new statesman

Vojislav Kostunica is still trying to recover from the “shock” he felt nearly four months ago when he finally realised that he was indeed the president of Yugoslavia. He was “thrilled and humbled”, he says, and had thought much about how he would “behave as president-elect” after his September 24 victory over Slobodan Milosevic, who disputed the results of the vote until he was forced out of power on October 6.

But since then, “things have been changing very quickly” for the soft-spoken and studious 56-year-old lawyer, who readily acknowledges his “lack of experience” in governing, and finds his new duties and unlikely celebrity rather overwhelming.

“This job is very difficult, but also very creative,” he says, “and I wouldn’t be in politics if the creativity were missing”. Although he remains entirely serious, it seems that he is wittily hinting at the total mess which he inherited in his country’s affairs — both domestic and foreign — from his predecessor and which necessarily will require quite a bit of “creativity” to overcome…

Turn, turn, turn

Arianna Huffington says that she’s had a “political conversion” — not from right to left, but “beyond right and left”. Disillusioned with the “degradation” of US politics, the outspoken Greek-born author and columnist has broken with her conservative past and, apparently, opened up to the sufferings of the poor and underprivileged. She denies she’s become a liberal, but believes that the political system can be changed “through a movement throughout the country, along the lines of the civil rights movement”.

She is also frustrated with the money flooding into US politics; ironic, some say, since her former husband, then-congressman Michael Huffington of California, spent nearly $30m on his unsuccessful senate run in 1994. But that campaign was an “eye-opener”, says Arianna, who is now a staunch supporter of Arizona Senator John McCain’s campaign finance reform efforts…

Fighting talk from a reluctant civilian

General Wesley Clark led NATO’s forces to victory in the alliance’s first combat in history — the 1999 air campaign against Serbia over Kosovo — but back home in the US he was treated like a defeated warrior and dismissed from his post of supreme allied commander in Europe.

He paid a price for bitterly clashing with the Pentagon over its unwillingness to consider sending ground troops against Serb forces. But, more significantly, Clark had opposed the entire post-cold war philosophy of the US military, which was reluctant to get involved in foreign conflicts and, if it did, it took a long-distance, low-risk approach.

Indeed, the Kosovo war was conducted from altitudes of 15,000ft and without the loss of a single NATO soldier. While Clark was proud of the victory, he saw and publicly exposed a huge gap between the pretended “combat readiness” of the most powerful military in the world and its refusal to accept the realities of war…

A warrior tamed

James Carville has officially retired from running political campaigns in the US, but his retreat appears as much emotional and mental as pragmatic. Once an intense, tempered, tough and, at times, ruthless Democratic warrior, he is now an almost subdued family man who makes his living largely off his celebrity status.

Carville, chief architect of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, says it took him time to come to terms with the fact that his “day in the sun” had ended and now it’s “somebody else’s time”. He still misses “running campaigns, being in the headquarters and working with people”, but he didn’t even attempt to offer advice to Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential candidate, or to Hillary Clinton’s senatorial campaign.

“My dirty little secret is that I like politicians,” says Carville, as he tries to explain his success as a political consultant…