Jan 31, 2009

Willis Conover, 1920-1996: He Brought Jazz, “The Music of Freedom,” to the World


I'm Bob Doughty.


And I'm Barbara Klein with People in America in VOA Special English. Today, we tell about Willis Conover. His voice is one of the most famous in the world. Conover's Voice of America radio program on jazz was one of the most popular and influential shows in broadcasting history.



Willis Conover
Willis Conover
Willis Conover was not a jazz musician. However, many people believe that he did more to spread the sound of jazz than any person in music history. For more than forty years Conover brought jazz to people around the world on his VOA music programs. An estimated one hundred million people heard his programs. He helped make jazz music an international language.


Willis Conover was born in Buffalo, New York, in nineteen twenty. Because his father was in the military, his family moved around a great deal. When Willis was in high school, he played the part of a radio announcer in a school play. People told him that he sounded like a real radio announcer. Later, he competed in a spelling competition that was broadcast on radio. The radio announcer told Willis that he should work in radio. Willis had a deep and rich voice that was perfect for broadcasting.


At first, Conover worked for small radio stations in the state of Maryland. He served in the military during World War Two. Because of his experience talking to people on radio, Conover was not sent away to fight. He was needed to interview new soldiers at Fort Meade, Maryland. After the war, he continued to work for commercial radio stations.

Willis Conover heard a lot of jazz music during the nineteen forties in Washington, D.C. This city was the center of a very important jazz movement. Willis Conover knew many of the jazz musicians in both Washington and New York City. He helped organize many concerts. He also helped stop racial separation in the places where music was played at night. At this time, mainly white people went to music clubs even though many of the musicians were black. Conover created musical events where people of all races were welcome.


Willis Conover wanted to be able to play more of the jazz music that he loved on his radio show. He did not like the restrictions of commercial radio. When he heard that the Voice of America wanted to start a jazz music program, Conover knew that he had found a perfect job. He had full freedom to play all kinds of jazz music on his show which began in nineteen fifty-five.



Willis Conover once said that jazz is the music of freedom. He said that with jazz people can express their lives through music. And that the music helps people to stand up a little straighter.

Many people think that Willis Conover had great political influence during the period after World War Two known as the Cold War. This was a time of increased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the nineteen sixties and seventies, listening to the VOA was not allowed in many Eastern European countries. Also, the governments of these countries thought jazz was dangerous and subversive. But the people in these countries loved jazz. Many people became jazz musicians themselves. They first learned how to play this music by listening to Willis Conover's "Music USA" program.


Conover with Louis Armstrong
Conover with Louis Armstrong
During the many years his program was broadcast, Conover presented his expert knowledge about jazz. He interviewed great jazz musicians such as Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He played the best music from the most current musicians. Here is a recording of Conover talking about the way jazz music changes over time.

CONOVER: "Jazz is a living music and anything that is alive grows and changes, just as we grow and change. So it changes all the time. But it's based on our memories and our cultural heritage and how we feel about it. And that changes. So it has its roots in the music of a half-century ago and music that came along since then. It depends on what the musician has heard and what the musician wants to do with it once he or she has heard it. It changes because it's living music."


Willis Conover not only talked about jazz music on his program. He sometimes wrote the music and the words to jazz songs. He usually wrote sad love songs. His many musician friends put the words to music. Here he is voicing the words to a song he wrote in the nineteen sixties. The music is written and played by the great jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd.



Very few Americans knew about Willis Conover's program. Voice of America programs are not permitted to be broadcast in the United States. But he was very famous in the rest of the world. Audiences loved his program. When he traveled to Poland in nineteen fifty-nine, he saw hundreds of people gathered near his plane. People held cameras and flowers. They were cheering and smiling. Conover thought that they were waiting for a famous person to arrive. Then he saw a large sign that said, "Welcome to Poland, Mister Conover." The crowds were there to see him.

Willis Conover also worked to spread jazz in the United States. He was the announcer for many famous jazz festivals and concerts in America.

He presented more than thirty concerts at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. He even produced the White House concert in celebration of jazz musician Duke Ellington's seventieth birthday in nineteen sixty-nine.


Willis Conover once said that Louis Armstrong was the heart of jazz, Duke Ellington was the soul and Count Basie was its happy dancing feet. Here is part of a nineteen seventy-three interview by Willis Conover with the great Duke Ellington. This was one of the last times Conover talked to him. Duke Ellington died the next year. In this interview, these great men express their thanks to one another.

Conover with Duke Ellington
Conover with Duke Ellington
CONOVER: "Our thanks for so many things, more than I would have time to elucidate, to -- I should have prepared this and I didn't – to the man who has brought America to the world by way of its music as created and shaped by him, Duke Ellington."

ELLINGTON: "Thank you very much, Willis, that's awfully gracious of you and as usual you are the gracious host and it's been a complete joy being here with you and of course it's been instructive as well. And as we say "good evening" or "good morning," whatever time this is, why, please tell all of your lovely listeners that we do love them madly."


In his jazz programs Willis Conover played many kinds of jazz. He played songs he liked and songs he did not like. However, he liked to play the musicians he liked best, such as Duke Ellington, often. Here is the song "Chelsea Bridge" from his favorite saxophonist musician Ben Webster. Conover once said that nothing could quite match this song.



Willis Conover died in nineteen ninety-six after a long struggle with cancer. He was seventy-five. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C. Though his programs are no longer broadcast, his influence is very much alive. Jazz music owes a great deal to this special man.



This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Barbara Klein.


And I'm Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.


Belittle: Thomas Jefferson First Used This Word

Now, the VOA Special English program, Words and Their Stories.

Today’s word is belittle. It was first used by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States.

Many years ago, a French naturalist, the Count de Buffon, wrote some books about natural history. The books were a great success even though some critics did not like them. Some critics said, “Count Buffon is more of a poet than a scientist.”

Thomas Jefferson did not like what the Count had said about the natural wonders of the New World. It seemed to Jefferson that the Count had gone out of his way to speak of natural wonders in America as if they were unimportant.

This troubled Thomas Jefferson. He, too, was a naturalist, as well as a farmer, inventor, historian, writer and politician. He had seen the natural wonders of Europe. To him, they were no more important than those of the New World.

In seventeen eighty-eight, Thomas Jefferson wrote about his home state, Virginia. While writing, he thought of its natural beauty and then of the words of Count de Buffon. At that moment, Jefferson created a new word – belittle. He said, “The Count de Buffon believes that nature belittles her productions on this side of the Atlantic.”

Noah Webster, the American word expert, liked this word. He put it in his English language dictionary in eighteen-oh-six. ‘Belittle – to make small, unimportant.’

Americans had already accepted Jefferson’s word and started to use it. In seventeen ninety-seven, the Independent Chronicle newspaper used the word to describe a politician the paper supported. “He is an honorable man,” the paper wrote, “so let the opposition try to belittle him as much as they please.”

In eighteen forty-four, the Republican Sentinel of Virginia wrote this about the opposition party: “The Whigs may attempt to belittle our candidates … that is a favorite game of theirs.”

In eighteen seventy-two, a famous American word expert decided that the time had come to kill this word. He said, “Belittle has no chance of becoming English. And as more critical writers of America, like those of Britain, feel no need of it, the sooner it is forgotten, the better.”

This expert failed to kill the word. Today, belittle is used, not only in the United States and England, but in other countries where the English language is spoken. It seems that efforts to belittle the word did not stop people from using it.


You have been listening to the VOA Special English program, Words and Their Stories. I’m Warren Scheer.


Fresh Tensions in Nigeria's Oil Region as Militants Declare 'Hurricane Obama'


A fighter of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) holds his heavy machine-gun at the militia's creek camp in the Niger Delta, 17 Sep 2008
A fighter of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) holds his heavy machine-gun at the militia's creek camp in the Niger Delta, 17 Sep 2008
Rebels from Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta said they had called off a unilateral cease-fire they declared in September in response to what they said was an attack by the Nigerian army on one of its positions. Residents of the unruly region, who had endured insecurity in the past three years, are now bracing for increased violence.

The Nigerian military, lacking local knowledge and equipment, struggles to avoid ambushes in the vast creeks and mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta, where the populist rhetoric of the militants has won them support.

A Port Harcourt-based Niger Delta analyst, Sofiri Peterside, says while the militants have proved effective in ambushes and surprise attacks, they lack the capacity to engage in full-scale battles with the government military. Doctor Peterside says the militant's decision to resume crippling attacks on security forces and the oil industry is bound to increase tensions in the region.

"I don't see the militants possessing the capacity of engaging the military in a full-scale battle," he said. "On the basis of what has happened in the past, what I'm seeing is that there is likely to be a situation where there will be escalation of violence."

"The military may be protecting a particular installation and the militants may decide to change their own operational tactics. There is every likelihood that tensions in the region will escalate. The tendency is that very innocent people may be affected," he added.

The main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, MEND, which has been holding two British hostages for more than four weeks, declared a ceasefire last September but had repeatedly warned it would resume attacks if provoked.

The group warned the oil industry to prepare for what it called 'Hurricane Obama,' beginning Saturday.

Dr. Peterside says the government has not paid sufficient attention to the humanitarian crises engendered by clashes between security forces and militants in the past.

"The humanitarian tragedies and the humanitarian emergencies which these conflicts have thrown up, have not received the attention of government," he said. "In most cases, children, women and the aged have suffered, communities have been wiped off and no attempt or project to bring relief to these people. So, I suspect, just as it happened in Tombias axis, that innocent people will again be affected and that creates refugee problems, which serious attention has not been paid to."

The Niger Delta conflict has simmered for over a decade. Government crackdowns or offers of peace talks have had little effect on the rebellion. Grievances are rooted in the region's deep poverty and environmental degradation.


Palestinian Rocket Attack Tests Shaky Gaza Cease-Fire


Gaza, Ashkelon and Israel
Palestinian rocket fire at Israel is testing a shaky ceasefire in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Palestinian militants in Gaza fired a rocket at Israel that landed near the coastal city of Ashkelon. There were no injuries or damage, but the attack raised the prospect of further Israeli retaliation. Israel has vowed to respond harshly to any Palestinian rocket fire and there have been a series of tit-for-tat attacks since a ceasefire ended the Gaza war two weeks ago.

Israeli analyst Dan Schueftan says Israel needs to strengthen its new policy of deterrence.

"Every time they shoot a rocket, we should react without any proportion in a way that will not only hurt them but also humiliate them," he said.

Egypt is trying to mediate a long term ceasefire between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas which rules Gaza. But Hamas says it will not stop the rocket fire and other attacks unless Israel opens border crossings into Gaza and lifts its crippling blockade. Israel says that cannot happen until Hamas releases a captive Israeli soldier held for two and a half years in Gaza.

The soldier, Gilad Shalit, is a powerful bargaining chip for Hamas. Senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya told a rally in Gaza that Israel must pay a high price.

He said "Shalit will not see the light of day" until Israel releases hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Israel says the problem is not with the numbers but the names. Hamas is demanding some top militants involved in bombings with mass casualties, and Israel says they will not be released.


Obama Says Report Shows Need to Pass Economic Aid Bill

This is IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

This week, Democrats in Congress gave Barack Obama an important victory a week into his presidency. The House of Representatives approved his economic recovery plan. But not one Republican voted for it. Eleven Democrats also opposed the plan.

President Obama with Vice President Joe Biden at the White House Friday
President Barack Obama with Vice President Joe Biden at the White House Friday
The price: eight hundred nineteen billion dollars. About one-third is tax cuts for individuals and businesses and two-thirds is government spending.

Republicans said the plan contained too much wasteful spending and too few tax cuts. They say tax cuts are a faster way to fight the recession.

They pointed to a report this week from the Congressional Budget Office. It estimated that about sixty-five percent of the proposed spending would be injected into the economy over nineteen months. The administration's estimate is seventy-five percent.

The Senate will debate the measure next week. Its version adds more tax cuts. Mister Obama has asked Congress for a final bill by the middle of February.

He says his plan will save or create more than three million jobs over the next few years, and serve the economy for years to come. It offers money for traditional projects like rebuilding roads. It would also invest in areas like education, renewable energy and computerizing medical records.

A Texas Republican in the House, John Culberson, said liberals aim to increase government power. He said the legislation contains proposals to expand federal programs unrelated to stimulating the economy.

Job cuts are spreading throughout the economy as the year-long recession deepens.

Friday brought news that the economy shrank three and eight-tenths percent in the final three months of last year. That was the most since nineteen eighty-two. But the good news: economists had predicted worse.

Mister Obama said the "continuing disaster" for working families was more reason for his economic plan.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: "I'm pleased that the House has acted with the urgency necessary in passing this plan. I hope we can strengthen it further in the Senate. What we can't do is drag our feet or delay much longer."

He spoke before signing an order to create the Task Force on Middle-Class Working Families. Top government officials, led by Vice President Joe Biden, will work on policies to help the middle class. They will seek ideas through a Web site, astrongmiddleclass.gov.

Earlier, the president noted a report which showed that Wall Street bankers got more than eighteen billion dollars in bonuses last year. He called it "the height of irresponsibility" at a time when they were asking taxpayers for help.

The Federal Reserve suggested again that short-term interest rates are likely to remain near zero for some time. Central bank policymakers said they expect a slow recovery in economic activity to begin later this year. But they warned of the risk of deflation.

And in Davos, Switzerland, political and business leaders at the World Economic Forum warned against protectionism. The downturn could lead to trade wars if countries raise barriers to foreign competition.

And that's IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English, written by Brianna Blake. I'm Steve Ember.


Obama Urges Quick Passage of Economic Stimulus


U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is calling on Congress to move quickly on his economic stimulus plan. But some Republicans want more time to study the details.

The incoming president says lawmakers should pass his American Recovery and Reinvestment plan, which he hopes will create three million jobs. Aides say the program could cost as much as $775 billion, but Mr. Obama says American families need help now.

"For too many families, this new year brings new unease and uncertainty, as bills pile up, debts continue to mount, and parents worry that their children will not have the same opportunity they had," he said.

Mr. Obama made the comments in an address recorded Friday, then distributed on radio and posted on YouTube Saturday.

He plans to meet Monday with the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The president-elect also expects to meet with opposition Republican leaders in Congress in the coming week.

Mr. Obama's aides had hoped to have an economic plan approved by the House and Senate before the new president takes office on January 20. But some Republicans have urged a delay to review the plan, and the legislation is not likely to pass before Inauguration Day. Mr. Obama says there is an urgent need for action.

"Economists from across the political spectrum agree that if we do not act swiftly and boldly, we could see a much deeper economic downturn, that could lead to double-digit unemployment and the American dream slipping further and further out of reach," he said.

In his Saturday address, Mr. Obama made an effort not to blame his predecessor, President George Bush for the country's economic problems, which he said "are not Democratic problems or Republican problems." And he tried to reassure hesitant Republican lawmakers that his administration would keep a close eye on how the money is spent.

"We must demand vigorous oversight and strict accountability for achieving results, and we must restore fiscal responsibility and make the tough choices, so that as the economy recovers, the deficit starts to come down," said Mr. Obama. "That is how we will achieve the number one goal of my plan, which is to create three million new jobs, more than 80 percent of them in the private sector."

Mr. Obama said more than two million Americans lost their jobs in 2008, and the nation's central bank, the Federal Reserve, estimates that one in every ten U.S. homeowners is delinquent on mortgage payments or in foreclosure.


The Line of Least Resistance


ANNOUNCER: Now, the weekly Special English program, AMERICAN STORIES.


Our story today is called "The Line of Least Resistance.” It was written by Edith Wharton. Here is Larry West with the story.


STORYTELLER: Mister Mindon returned home for lunch. His wife Millicent was not at home. The servants did not know where she was.

Mister Mindon sat alone at the table in the garden. He ate a small piece of meat and drank some mineral water. Mister Mindon always ate simple meals, because he had problems with his stomach. Why then did he keep a cook among his servants? Because his wife Millicent liked to invite her friends to big dinners and serve them rare and expensive food and wine.

Mister Mindon did not enjoy his wife's parties. Millicent complained that he did not know how to enjoy life. She did a lot of things that he did not like.

Millicent wasted Mister Mindon's money and was unpleasant to him. But he never got angry with his wife.

After eating, Mister Mindon took a walk through his house. He did not stay long in the living room. It reminded him of all the hours he had spent there at his wife's parties. The sight of the formal dining room made him feel even more uncomfortable. He remembered the long dinners where he had to talk to his wife's friends for hours. They never seemed very interested in what he was saying.

Mister Mindon walked quickly past the ballroom where his wife danced with her friends. He would go to bed after dinner. But he could hear the orchestra playing until three in the morning.

Mister Mindon walked into the library. No one in the house ever read any of the books. But Mister Mindon was proud to be rich enough to have a perfectly useless room in his house.

He went into the sunny little room where his wife planned her busy days and evenings. Her writing table was covered with notes and cards from all her friends. Her wastepaper basket was full of empty envelopes that had carried invitations to lunches, dinners, and theater parties.

Mister Mindon saw a letter crushed into a small ball on the floor. He bent to pick it up. Just as he was about to throw it into the wastepaper basket, he noticed that the letter was signed by his business partner, Thomas Antrim. But Antrim's letter to Mister Mindon's wife was not about business.

As Mister Mindon read it, he felt as if his mind was spinning out of control. He sat down heavily in the chair near his wife's little writing table.

Now the room looked cold and unfamiliar. "Who are you?" the walls seemed to say. "Who am I?" Mister Mindon said in a loud voice. "I'll tell you who I am! I am the man who paid for every piece of furniture in this room. If it were not for me and my money, this room would be empty!" Suddenly, Mister Mindon felt taller. He marched across his wife's room. It belonged to him, didn't it? The house belonged to him, too. He felt powerful.

He sat at the table and wrote a letter to Millicent. One of the servants came into the room. "Did you call, sir?" he asked. "No," Mister Mindon replied. "But since you are here, please telephone for a taxi cab at once."

The taxi took him to a hotel near his bank. A clerk showed him to his room. It smelled of cheap soap. The window in the room was open and hot noises came up from the street. Mister Mindon looked at his watch. Four o'clock. He wondered if Millicent had come home yet and read his letter.

His head began to ache, and Mister Mindon lay down on the bed. When he woke up, it was dark. He looked at his watch. Eight o'clock. Millicent must be dressing for dinner. They were supposed to go to Missus Targe's house for dinner tonight. Well, Mister Mindon thought, Millicent would have to go alone. Maybe she would ask Thomas Antrim to take her to the party!

Mister Mindon realized he was hungry. He left his room and walked down the stairs to the hotel dining room. The air -- smelling of coffee and fried food -- wrapped itself around his head.

Mister Mindon could not eat much of the food that the hotel waiter brought him. He went back to his room, feeling sick. He also felt hot and dirty in the clothing he had worn all day. He had never realized how much he loved his home!

Someone knocked at his door. Mister Mindon jumped to his feet. "Mindon?" a voice asked. "Are you there?" Mister Mindon recognized that voice. It belonged to Laurence Meysy. Thirty years ago, Meysy had been very popular with women -- especially with other men's wives. As a young man he had interfered in many marriages. Now, in his old age, Laurence Meysy had become a kind of "marriage doctor.” He helped husbands and wives save their marriages.

Mister Mindon began to feel better as soon as Laurence Meysy walked into his hotel room. Two men followed him. One was Mister Mindon's rich uncle, Ezra Brownrigg. The other was the Reverend Doctor Bonifant, the minister of Saint Luke's church where Mister Mindon and his family prayed every Sunday.

Mister Mindon looked at the three men and felt very proud that they had come to help him. For the first time in his married life, Mister Mindon felt as important as his wife Millicent.

Laurence Meysy sat on the edge of the bed and lit a cigarette. "Misses Mindon sent for me," he said. Mister Mindon could not help feeling proud of Millicent. She had done the right thing. Meysy continued. "She showed me your letter. She asks you for mercy." Meysy paused, and then said: "The poor woman is very unhappy. And we have come here to ask you what you plan to do."

Now Mister Mindon began to feel uncomfortable. "To do?" he asked. "To do? Well…I, I plan to…to leave her."

Meysy stopped smoking his cigarette. "Do you want to divorce her?" he asked.

"Why, yes! Yes!" Mister Mindon replied.

Meysy knocked the ashes from his cigarette. "Are you absolutely sure that you want to do this?" he asked.

Mister Mindon nodded his head. "I plan to divorce her," he said loudly.

Mister Mindon began to feel very excited. It was the first time he had ever had so many people sitting and listening to him. He told his audience everything, beginning with his discovery of his wife's love affair with his business partner, and ending with his complaints about her expensive dinner parties.

His uncle looked at his watch. Doctor Bonifant began to stare out of the hotel window. Meysy stood up. "Do you plan to dishonor yourself then?" he asked. "No one knows what has happened. You are the only one who can reveal the secret. You will make yourself look foolish.”

Mister Mindon tried to rise. But he fell back weakly. The three men picked up their hats. In another moment, they would be gone. When they left, Mister Mindon would lose his audience, and his belief in himself and his decision. "I won't leave for New York until tomorrow," he whispered. Laurence Meysy smiled.

"Tomorrow will be too late," he said. "Tomorrow everyone will know you are here." Meysy opened the hotel room door. Mister Brownrigg and Doctor Bonifant walked out of the room.

Meysy turned to follow them, when he felt Mister Mindon's hand grab his arm. "I…I will come with you," Mister Mindon sighed. "It's…it's…for the children." Laurence Meysy nodded as Mister Mindon walked out of the room. He closed the door gently.


Announcer: You have just heard the story "The Line of Least Resistance.” It was written by Edith Wharton and adapted for Special English by Dona de Sanctis. Your storyteller was Larry West. For VOA Special English, this is Shep O’Neal.


Jan 30, 2009

Obama: Recession a 'Disaster' for US Workers


President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks about Middle Class Working Families Task Force, 30 Jan 2009
President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks about Middle Class Working Families Task Force at the White House, 30 Jan 2009

President Barack Obama says America's sharply contracting economy underscores the need for swift action to create jobs and spur growth. At the White House Friday, Mr. Obama launched a task force focusing on the needs of the nation's middle class.

One day after news that the number of Americans receiving jobless benefits has reached a record high, the Commerce Department reported the U.S. economy shrank at a 3.8 percent annual rate in the last three months of 2008. It was the sharpest contraction in more than a quarter century, and yet another sign of the dire economic conditions confronting Barack Obama at the start of his presidency.

"This is a continuing disaster for America's working families," he said.

Mr. Obama said the deepening recession - now more than a year in duration - is affecting every sector of the economy.

"Families making fewer purchases, businesses making fewer investments, employers sustaining fewer jobs," he said. "The recession is deepening, and the urgency of our economic crisis is growing."

The president once again urged swift congressional passage of his economic recovery plan, currently under consideration in the Senate.

But he said the $800-plus billion package of tax cuts and federal spending is not sufficient to restore America's economic vitality. Mr. Obama said a multi-pronged approach is needed, including a concerted effort to resuscitate America's ailing middle class.

"We know we need to create jobs, but not just any jobs," he said. "We need to create jobs that sustain families and sustain dreams. Jobs in new and growing industries. Jobs that do not feel like a dead end, but a way forward and a way up. Jobs that will foster a vibrant and growing middle class."

To that end, the president unveiled his administration's Task Force on Middle Class Working Families, aimed at raising living standards for wage and salary earners. Specific goals include expanding educational opportunities, strengthening labor standards, and protecting retirement income.

Joining Mr. Obama for the event was Vice President Joe Biden, who will head the task force. Biden said America's middle class was struggling long before the overall economy turned sour.

"Even when our economy was growing, and there was very solid ground on which to build, the middle class found itself slipping," he said. "Productivity went up almost 20 percent between 2000 and 2007, yet income for working families fell by two thousand dollars a year. And now with our economy struggling, the pain is significantly worse."

U.S. labor leaders immediately hailed the task force. America's largest business federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had no immediate comment saying it was carefully reviewing the initiative.

At the close of the event, President Obama signed executive orders strengthening labor standards for private contractors that work on federal projects.


US Economy Falling at Fastest Pace in 26 Years


Workers on frame of building under construction in Folsom, Calif., 13 Jan 2009
Workers on frame of building under construction in Folsom, Calif., 13 Jan 2009
In its first report on economic activity in the depressed final three months of 2008, the U.S. Commerce Department says gross domestic product shrank at a 3.8 percent annual rate. As bad as figures were, they were better than what financial markets had feared.

By all accounts, the nation's economic downturn is deepening.

The Commerce Department reveals that consumers are cutting back on purchasing and paying off debt. Businesses are similarly cutting back and as commerce slows retailers and manufacturers are laying off workers.

The 3.8 percent decline follows a more modest five tenths of one percent contraction in the third quarter. It was the first back-to-back quarterly decline since 2001. For all of 2008 the U.S. economy grew by 1.3 percent. Negative growth of two percent in predicted for 2009.

While some analysts had expected a steeper five percent decline in GDP, the growing number of layoffs is causing the greatest concern. Over half a million Americans lost their jobs in December, bringing the 2008 total to 2.6 million lost jobs. The pace of layoffs is continuing.

Jim Paulson, a money manager in Minneapolis, is skeptical that the $800 billion stimulus program working its way through Congress will have the intended result. He favors more tax incentives to create jobs.

"I'd rather see us treat the confidence of the healthy players that have just shut down because they're scared, as opposed to keep trying to treat the impaired players - like trying to treat unemployment or foreclosures. The best thing we can do for that problem is to get healthy players spending again, through confidence," he said.

Pres. Obama hosts business leaders at the White House, 28 Jan 2009
Pres. Obama hosts business leaders at the White House, 28 Jan 2009
President Obama's fiscal stimulative program is heavily weighted towards increases in government spending, to stimulate economic activity. The government's budget deficit is at record levels and is expected to rise further. Official interest rates are at record lows. But despite all these measures, economic activity has not yet recovered.


Latest US Economic Data Contributes to Dampened European Markets


European markets were mixed Friday after a report showed the U.S. economy shrank by less than had been feared in the fourth quarter.

Although the U.S. economy shrank by 3.8 percent in the last quarter, some traders feared it could have been even worse, so the main European indices remained fairly flat.

Contributing to the somber mood was the news that 230,000 more people in the 16-nation euro zone joined the ranks of the unemployed in December.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, world leaders gathered to discuss the worst economic conditions seen since World War II.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown speaks during a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 30 Jan 2009
Gordon Brown speaks during a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 30 Jan 2009
Among those attending, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who called for prompt action. He says sweeping changes in the international financial system must be agreed in the coming weeks.

"We need an early warning system to prevent crisis, an early warning system of risk in any continent in the world economy," said Mr. Brown. "We need to replace the patchwork of current regulation by clear responsibilities and the accountability of not just banks, but non-banking financial institutions across the board such as hedge funds and all complex new markets and products."

"We need to agree international standards of transparency and disclosure and we need to reform and strengthen the international institutions, giving them power and resources to invest at a global level," he added.

Mr. Brown warned that not deciding on these measures would be disastrous. His hope is that a full agreement can be unveiled at the Group of 20 economic summit in London early April.

The one thing traders here can agree on is that the current economic conditions will not be changing for the better anytime soon.


Zimbabwe Opposition Agrees to Unity Government


Zimbabwe's Prime Minister designate, Morgan Tsvangirai will lead his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, into a unity government with President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF. The MDC's top executives had earlier unanimously approved the decision, needing only a formal ratification from the party's national council.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai addresses reporters during press conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, 10 Nov 2008
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai (file)
Mr. Tsvangirai said he and his party are unequivocal and will go into a unity government. He added his party is bound by a resolution of the Southern Africa Development Community [SADC] to do so. Joining him will be the smaller faction of the MDC, led by Arthur Mutambara.

Mr. Tsvangirai and his executives still have many reservations about going into a unity government with ZANU-PF. But Mr. Tsvangirai said the time had come to put the people of Zimbabwe first.

The MDC decision-making meeting was held at the MDC's Harare headquarters. Many party supporters who are also members of parliament, senators and councilors attended.

When Mr. Tsvangirai emerged from the meeting, a crowd of several hundred surged forward in one of the biggest spontaneous demonstrations seen in Harare for many years. When he told the crowd he was going into the government they shouted support and sang in jubilation.

The riot police, for so long at the forefront of violently breaking up demonstrations, passed by in their truck and all of them smiled and the enormous crowd responded by cheering them past.

Earlier in the day, a so-called Joint Monitoring Committee, made up of four representatives each of the three parties, was formed to manage any disputes that might emerge in the unity government.

If the committee is unable to do so, the issue will be referred to the guarantors of the unity government, SADC and the African Union.

The committee met this morning for the first time at the South African embassy.

All sides admit that there are many existing problems and more are likely to follow. Mr. Tsvangirai told his national council that at the top of his list of concerns is the continued detention by the police of more than 30 party members, a human rights campaigner and a photojournalist. Most were abducted from their homes in December and continue to fight for their freedom in the courts.

It is likely that this will be one of the first issues the committee will have to deal with.

A second issue is the ongoing eviction of farmers from their land. A group of several of the few hundred remaining white farmers in central Zimbabwe were warned Thursday that they would be violently evicted from their properties in the next few days because a unity government was imminent.

A constitutional amendment to legally constitute the unity government is next on the political calendar. Mr. Tsvangirai will be sworn in on February 11 as prime minister, along with his two deputies and members of the cabinet. All of this must be completed by mid-February, or earlier, in order to comply with the SADC resolution instructing the parties to set up the unity government.

On Thursday Mr. Tsvangirai visited U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee to tell him of the party's decision and to ask the U.S. government to support the new government in reconstructing the damage inflicted by decades of poor administration by Mr. Mugabe and his government.


Japan's Dismal Economic Outlook Causing Jitters Across Asia


A raft of dismal economic data is sending Japan, the world's second largest economy, further into recession. The gloom has regional partners increasingly worried. There is concern in Australia, where Japan is a key trading partner.

Japan's bleak economic outlook has sent shares on the Nikkei index falling by more than 3 percent, caused by a Thursday decline on Wall Street, weak economic data and pessimistic forecasts of corporate earnings.

Early official estimates have said that industrial production in Japan dipped by a record 9.6 percent in December, and January's performance is likely to be just as bad.

Japanese unemployment suffered its biggest jump in 40 years while household spending was down for a tenth month in a row.

The gloomy news in Japan seems relentless.

Car maker trouble

The country's second-biggest car maker, Honda, has been forced to slash its annual profit forecast by more than half because of rising costs, a stronger yen and falling sales. Reports in Tokyo have said that motor giant Toyota is also in financial trouble and expects to record a loss in the current fiscal year.

The rapid worsening of the Japanese economy and in particular its manufacturing sector is bad for Australia's once mighty minerals and energy producers, which are facing falling prices and demand.

Japanese economy now affecting Australia

Japan bought $22 billion worth of Australian goods last year, and is the country's main export customer.

The global slowdown has begun to bite on the Australian economy, and the government is considering a second multi-billion package to stimulate domestic demand.

Heather Ridout from the Australian Industry Group is calling on accelerated tax cuts for low income earners, despite reservations at the International Monetary Fund.

"We're calling for tax cuts to be brought forward, which are already scheduled, for the low payed," Ridout said. "The low payed are those that spend it. The issue with the IMF's view is that if you give tax cuts to the whole income cohort, that is, to high payed as well as low payed, often the higher payed people save it."

Asian stock markets remain nervous amid so much gloom. South Korea's Kospi index lost ground along with markets in Singapore and Malaysia.

Australian shares were up slightly.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng was boosted by speculation that China will cut interest rates over the weekend and posted a modest rise of just under 1 percent.

Markets in mainland China are closed all week for the Lunar New Year.


North Korea Cancels All Agreements with South


North Korea says it is scrapping all political and military agreements with South Korea. This is the latest threat from Pyongyang in a series of increasingly hostile provocations directed at President Lee Myung-bak.

The Korean Central News Agency, the official mouthpiece of the Pyongyang regime, released a statement Friday declaring that North Korea will no longer honor political and military agreements between the two Koreas. The remarks, coming from the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, say Pyongyang will also scrap accords regarding the North's border with South Korea in the Yellow Sea. This site was the scene of bloody clashes between the two Koreas in 1999 and 2002. The statement also accused South Korea of pushing the two countries to the brink of war.

Seoul has so far responded by urging Pyongyang to engage in dialogue.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification released a statement read by spokesperson Kim Seon Mi.

"We the South Korean government express our deep regret over the claims North Korea made today to nullify all agreements regarding the political and military confrontational status and to scrap all articles of inter Korean agreements regarding the maritime demarcation line," said Kim. "All inter Korean agreements can be revised only through mutual consent, and can never been abandoned by unilateral demands by one side."

The South Korean military was already on heightened alert, when earlier this month North Korea threatened to adopt an all out confrontational posture.

Pyongyang has criticized the policies of conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who it calls a traitor to the reunification of the two nations.

Since taking office last year, President Lee has withheld much of the economic aid that was offered to Pyongyang by his two liberal predecessors, saying North Korea must dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for the aid.

Many analysts here see North Korea's increasingly bellicose rhetoric as its way of trying to intimidate Seoul to resume financial support.

But Lee Chang Min, dean of Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies believes these threats indicate instability within the Kim Jong il regime itself.

"I think the primary audience for North Korea's announcement that they were going to enter a period of hostilities with South Korea, was directed at their own population," said Lee. "Given the fact there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Kim Jung il's regime, I believe the regime's ability to maintain political control, is basically ebbing."

Pyongyang's hostile remarks coincide with speculation that leader Kim Jong il, has chosen one of his three sons to take over after his death.

Kim, who turns 68 in February, is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008.

North and South Korea technically remain at war because they never signed a peace treaty to end the 1950 to 1953 Korean Conflict.


US Envoy Warns of Setbacks Ahead in Israel Gaza Peace Process


President Barack Obama's new special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell has warned there will be setbacks in the effort to bring peace in the Gaza Strip. Mitchell spoke Friday in Jerusalem as he continued his tour of the region.

Envoy describes trip as 'fact-finding mission'

He met this week with the leaders of Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

US Mideast envoy George Mitchell at a Jerusalem UNRWA warehouse housing aid to be sent to Gaza, 30 Jan 200
US Mideast envoy George Mitchell at a Jerusalem UNRWA warehouse housing aid to be sent to Gaza, 30 Jan 200
For Senator Mitchell, it is a fact-finding mission in which he is gathering information to relay back to the U.S. President as the new administration begins shaping its policy on the Middle East.

Speaking at a U.N. warehouse in Jerusalem, Mitchell indicated the challenges that lie ahead in resolving the latest flare-up in the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

"The tragic violence in Gaza and in southern Israel offers a sobering reminder of the very serious and difficult challenges and unfortunately the setbacks that will come," he said.

Open Gaza border crossings, Mitchell urges Israel

Mitchell has urged Israel to open its border crossings with Gaza to commercial trade. He said doing so would help end the smuggling of weapons materials to militants who have been firing rockets at southern Israel.

Palestinian man sits on the ruins of a concrete wall that used to separate Egyptian Rafah with southern Gaza Strip, 26 Jan 2008
Palestinian man sits on the ruins of a concrete wall that used to separate Egyptian Rafah with southern Gaza Strip, 26 Jan 2008
Israel - which controls border crossings to Gaza - has been allowing some relief supplies such as food and plastic sheeting to cross into the Strip. However, residents complain that construction materials needed for rebuilding the thousands of homes that were destroyed in the 22-day Israeli offensive are not getting through.

Obama deeply concerned about loss of life in Gaza

The U.S. envoy said the new U.S. president has expressed deep concern about the loss of life and suffering in Gaza, and he said more money for relief efforts is on the way.

"I'm pleased to announce that this week, the President directed the use of another $20.3 million to provide emergency food and medical assistance to the wounded and displaced in Gaza," he said.

Mitchell said the funds are in addition to the nearly $40 million in financial support that the United States has already pledged since the start of the Israeli assault in late December.

US calls for sustainable, durable cease-fire

The U.S. envoy repeated the administration's call for a consolidation of a sustainable a durable cease-fire in Gaza following the 22-day Israeli offensive that Palestinian officials say killed 1,300 people. Thirteen Israelis died in the conflict before a January 18 cease-fire.

Ehud Barak (file)
Ehud Barak (file)
Israel's aim in the offensive was to destroy the militants' ability to fire rockets from Gaza into southern Israel as they had been doing for years. Israeli military officials said they remain ready to restart the offensive if the attacks continue.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Friday said the cease-fire is likely to hold because, he said, Hamas sustained what he described as "a very severe blow" during the offensive.


Thousands Welcome Turkish PM After Gaza Row


" alt="Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters outside Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, 30 Jan 2009

" src="http://www.voanews.com/english/images/ap_turkey_-Erdogan_30jan09_eng_175.jpg" border="0" vspace="2" width="190" height="190" hspace="2">
Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses supporters outside Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, 30 Jan 2009

Thousands of jubilant supporters gathered at Istanbul airport to welcome their prime minister home on Friday after he publicly confronted the Israeli president over the Gaza war.

The crowd lauded Mr. Erdogan, chanting "We are proud of you and we will always stand with you" as his plane returned him home from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

'You kill people' Erdogan told Peres

During the forum, Israel's offensive against Hamas erupted into a tense standoff at a panel discussion Thursday, and ended when Mr. Erdogan told Israeli President Shimon Peres: "You kill people," and then walked off the stage.

Addressing the crowd the prime minister was a in defiant mood.

He said "we are going to stand firm but we are not going to get into conflict. We stood firm, and we will continue standing firm. This is what people expect of the Turkish Nation."

Turkish media support PM's decision

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Israeli President Shimon Peres during a plenary session on Middle East Peace at  Annual Meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 29 Jan. 2009
Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Israeli President Shimon Peres during a plenary session on Middle East Peace at Annual Meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 29 Jan. 2009
Mr. Erdogan's decision to walk out of a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres is broadly supported in the Turkish media. One newspaper's headline read: "Erdogan Gives Peres a Lesson". Another newspaper referred to it as an "Historical Slap."

On the streets of Istanbul there appears to be widespread support.

"I support the prime minister," one man said. "It is important to speak out about what is happening in the Gaza, as the world has remained silent. He is right [with] what he did."

Many surprised about Turkey-Israel tension

Mr. Erdogan's walkout is the climax to increasingly tough criticism by Turkey of Israel's offensive in Gaza. Earlier this month Mr. Erdogan said Israel would be damned for its actions, accusing it of crimes against humanity. He also called for Israel to be suspended from the United Nations.

Israel and Turkey have traditionally strong ties, and this tough anti-Israel rhetoric surprised much of the international community.

Despite the benefits to Erdogan's popular appeal in Turkey and the Muslim world, his comment appeared to put at risk efforts it has made as a Middle East mediator, analysts say.


How to Save US Banks?

This is the VOA Special English Economics Report.

Many banks are still not lending. They worry that they will not have enough capital to cover losses. But the situation denies many businesses the credit they need to operate, and further slows a struggling economy.

In the United States, the government has so far provided almost one hundred fifty billion dollars to banks, mainly through buying shares. Yet this may not be enough to save some major banks. By some estimates, banks have at least one trillion dollars in losses that they have not yet reported.

President Barack Obama met Thursday with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner
President Barack Obama met Thursday with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner
The new administration of President Barack Obama is considering ways to save banks.

One possibility is to expand federal guarantees against losses on some troubled financial assets. The government has already offered guarantees to Bank of America and Citigroup. But the cost of this kind of insurance could be huge.

Another possibility is to create a so-called bad bank. It would take questionable securities held by other banks. The idea would be similar to the Resolution Trust Corporation set up by the government in nineteen eighty-nine. It was formed to sell assets from failed savings and loan banks.

But it is difficult to put a price on troubled securities. Taxpayers would lose money if the government pays too much. And if it pays too little, banks could still fail.

Some people see nationalization as the answer. That is when a government takes ownership of a private business, often with the idea of selling it back to investors later. Existing shares become worthless.

In the early nineteen nineties, Sweden nationalized some banks and later sold their troubled assets, recovering some costs. But a similar effort in the United States, the world's biggest economy, could take years. And critics warn that lending and politics do not mix.

Coming up with a plan to fix the banks and the financial system is now the job for Tim Geithner. The Senate confirmed him this week to replace Henry Paulson as Treasury secretary. Tim Geithner's last job was head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

Supporters said he is the best person to deal with the financial crisis. But one-third of the Senate, mostly Republicans, voted against him.

He faced criticism for his failure to pay thirty-four thousand dollars in taxes when he worked for the International Monetary Fund. He blamed "careless mistakes." As Treasury secretary he is the nation's chief tax collector.

And that's the VOA Special English Economics Report, written by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember.


Jan 29, 2009

The Rise of a Folk Hero Who Landed on a River



Welcome to AMERICAN MOSAIC in VOA Special English.


I'm Doug Johnson. This week on our program:

We have new music from Anya Marina …

And a question from Russia about VOA's former jazz host Willis Conover …

But first, a report on that hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger and his crew.


Chesley Sullenberger


"The Ballad of Casey Jones" is a folk song about a train engineer who saved the lives of his passengers in a wreck. The only one who died – and this is a real story from nineteen hundred -- was Casey Jones. Future generations may sing about the "hero on the Hudson" -- the pilot who saved his passengers when he crash-landed on a river. Except this hero lived to tell about it. Katherine Cole has more.


Passengers and crew wait to be rescued
Passengers and crew wait on the wings to be rescued
Call it a crash-landing, a ditching, a splash-down, or a nicer name. Flight attendants tell what to do "in the event of a water landing." Passengers often pay no attention to those safety directions before a flight. They might see little reason to. But more of them must be listening now, after a water landing that will surely be remembered in the history books of flight.

On January fifteenth, the engines of a US Airways plane lost power shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York City. The pilot reported a double bird strike -- a rare event where birds enter both engines.

It happened so early in the flight, at a level of about nine hundred meters, that the crew had little time to decide what to do. Captain Chesley Sullenberger decided against landing at a small airport nearby or returning to LaGuardia.

Instead, he and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles and their three flight attendants prepared for a water landing. Captain Sullenberger carefully and smoothly guided the Airbus jet into the Hudson River. People watched from skyscrapers overlooking the near-freezing water.

Captain Chesley Sullenberger attending a celebration in his honor in Danville, California
Chesley Sullenberger attending a celebration in his honor in Danville, California
The passengers and crew got onto the wings as water entered the plane and the aircraft floated downriver. Boats quickly came to the rescue of all one hundred fifty-five people on the flight. Captain Sullenberger walked through the plane twice to make sure everyone was off.

On January twenty-fourth, the pilot known as "Sully" was honored in his hometown of Danville, California. He told a crowd of thousands that he and his fellow crew members were just doing the job they were trained to do.

The former Air Force pilot had his fifty-eighth birthday a week ago. He has been flying for more than half his life and was unusually well prepared for the events that day in New York. For one thing, he is good at handling a powerless aircraft. He is a glider pilot in addition to flying big jets. But Chesley Sullenberger is also an expert on air safety, including accident investigations, and even has his own consulting business.

Willis Conover


Our VOA listener question this week comes from Russia. Alexander Kuzin wants to know about Willis Conover's jazz programs that were heard for forty years on VOA. Willis Conover was not a musician. But his expert knowledge of the music and its performers helped make jazz an international language.

Willis Conover
Willis Conover
WILLIS CONOVER: "Time for jazz. Willis Conover in Washington, D.C with the Voice of America Jazz Hour."

Willis Conover considered jazz the music of freedom. He thought it could help people express their lives, and help them stand a little straighter.

During the period of the Cold War, an estimated thirty million people in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union listened to him on the radio.

At that time many communist governments banned jazz. One jazz writer said Willis Conover and his radio programs did more to end the Cold War than all the presidents put together.

Willis Conover was born in Buffalo, New York, in nineteen twenty. He began working for small radio stations in the state of Maryland. He heard many kinds of jazz performed during the nineteen forties in Washington D.C. He became friends with many performers and helped organize concerts. But he wanted to be able to play the jazz he loved on his radio show without any of the restrictions of commercial radio.

Later he learned that the Voice of America wanted to start a jazz program. It was the perfect job. His "Music USA" program went on the air in January of nineteen fifty-five. He continued to broadcast on VOA until not long before his death in nineteen ninety-six, at the age of seventy-five.

Here is a nineteen sixty-eight recording of Willis Conover and the jazz great Louis Armstrong.

Willis Conover with Louis Armstrong
With Louis Armstrong

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: "Yeah, daddy, what you say there?"

WILLIS CONOVER: "Happy when you're here."

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: "Well you know, it's always a good chat when we meet. You know, we dig so much in music. And you know so much about all these cats that plays good music, you know."

WILLIS CONOVER: "I learned it all from you like everybody else."

Willis Conover once said Louis Armstrong was the heart of jazz and Duke Ellington was its soul. Here he is with the Duke in nineteen seventy-three.

WILLIS CONOVER: "Well, Duke, will you trust my taste to select records by you?"

Willis Conover with Duke Ellington
And with Duke Ellington
DUKE ELLINGTON: "I certainly would because that's what they told me in the Soviet Union. They said, you know, your friend Willis Conover, he really plays your best things. I said, well, I was very happy to hear it."

Today, people who want to listen to tapes of Willis Conover have to go to College Park, Maryland. That is where they are stored as part of the National Archives. Many of the old tapes are in poor condition; workers are making digital copies.

To learn more about Willis Conover, listen at this time Sunday for the program PEOPLE IN AMERICA.

Anya Marina

(MUSIC: "All The Same to Me")


Turn on the radio and you can find the music of Anya Marina. Turn on the TV and you can find the music of Anya Marina. Her songs have been used on shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Gossip Girl." Shirley Griffith tells us about this singer and songwriter with a voice that is child-like, yet mysterious and forceful.


Anya Marina
Anya Marina
Anya Marina's latest album is called "Slow And Steady Seduction: Phase II." This is her second full-length recording. The story of the record is that she was having trouble writing new songs. She told one of her producers that she wanted to work with different, more driving rhythms.

The producer sent her a CD of some beats he had created. These led to several of the twelve songs on the record, including this one, "Move You."


Anya Marina did not write all the songs on the album. Brazilian great Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote this famous tune. Anya Marina sings it in Portuguese and English.

(MUSIC: "Waters of March")

Anya Marina was born in the state of Michigan but raised in Silicon Valley in California. After college, she moved to San Diego and took a job in radio.

Her MySpace page says her doctor once told her she had the larynx of a "very young adolescent." That would explain her unusual voice. We leave you with Anya Marina and a song called "Not a Through Street."



I'm Doug Johnson. I hope you enjoyed our program today. It was written by Dana Demange and Caty Weaver, who was also our producer. Join us again next week for AMERICAN MOSAIC, VOA's radio magazine in Special English.


Obama Criticizes Wall Street Bonuses, Promises Financial Reforms


President Barack Obama has blasted hefty bonuses paid to U.S. financial executives at a time when American taxpayers have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to keep banks and Wall Street firms afloat. Mr. Obama spoke Thursday on continuing efforts to revive the troubled U.S. economy.

One day after the House of Representatives passed President Obama's economic recovery plan, the president was eager to speak about his administration's efforts to right America's economic ship.

After a meeting with his economic team, Mr. Obama saved his most pointed remarks for financial firm executives. The president pointed to a report that found top managers collected more than $18 billion in bonuses last year.

"That is the height of irresponsibility," he said. "It is shameful."

His irritation clearly evident, Mr. Obama noted that taxpayers have bailed out numerous failing financial institutions in recent months. He did not seem to be mollified by that fact that the report - issued by the New York State Comptroller - said bonuses actually were down 44 percent from the previous year.

"The American people understand that we have a big hole that we have to dig ourselves out of," he said. "But they do not like the idea that people [financial firm executives] are digging a bigger hole, even as they are being asked to fill it up."

The president promised his administration would take up the matter with Wall Street executives and stress the need for responsible corporate behavior.

Mr. Obama said that reforming the way America does business will be a key component of a multi-pronged approach to revive the U.S. economy. He said his administration is crafting badly-needed financial reforms and other measures that will be unveiled in coming weeks.

"The American people will have a clear sense of a comprehensive strategy designed to put people back to work, reopen businesses, and get credit flowing again," said President Obama.

The first element of the president's economic program cleared a major legislative hurdle this week with the House of Representatives passing an $819 billion economic recovery plan. The package, which combines tax cuts with new spending on multiple fronts, now goes to the Senate for consideration.

But the bill failed to receive a single House Republican vote, despite a concerted effort by the president to lobby opposition legislators.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs expressed no bitterness about the Democratic-Republican party-line vote.

"Old habits die hard in this town," he said. "We get [understand] that. But the president understands that changing the way Washington works is not likely to happen in just 10 days."

Republicans strongly criticized the recovery package, saying it contains insufficient tax cuts for wage earners and that it is laden with wasteful government spending.

Gibbs said the plan is designed to quickly inject money into the economy to spur job creation and growth. He said the package is desperately needed, as economic indicators continue to paint a bleak picture.

On Thursday, the U.S. Labor Department reported that the number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits has spiked to a record 4.78 million people. That is the highest figure since the department began tracking jobless data in the 1960s. U.S. unemployment has risen more than two percentage points during the last year, mirroring trends around the world.

U.S. gross domestic product numbers for the fourth quarter of last year are should be released on Friday. Most analysts warn that the figures will show a major economic contraction that began more than a year ago.


Illinois Senate Removes Governor Rod Blagojevich


After an impeachment trial that lasted only four days, the Illinois Senate overwhelmingly voted to remove Governor Rod Blagojevich. He is accused, among other things, of trying to sell President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat. Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn is now the Governor of Illinois.

As he stood before lawmakers late Thursday morning, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich knew it was his last chance to save his job by convincing state lawmakers he is innocent of charges that he abused his power as Governor.

"How can you throw a governor out of office who is clamoring and begging and pleading with you to give him a chance to bring witnesses in, to prove his innocence, to do more than just ask for a presumption of innocence," he said.

In the end, his appeal was not enough to convince lawmakers to keep him in office. The Illinois Senate unanimously voted 59-0 to remove him as governor, and passed legislation to prevent him from seeking office in the future.

He is the first Illinois governor to face impeachment, and his removal is unprecedented in state history.

Blagojevich was arrested December 9 on federal corruption charges that he tried to sell the Senate seat vacated by then Senator Barack Obama when he became U.S. President. Mr. Obama is not a part of the investigation.

Blagojevich is also charged with soliciting campaign contributions in return for state services and pressuring management at the Chicago Tribune newspaper to remove members of its editorial board critical of Blagojevich. In return, Blagojevich would support the release state funds to help the sale of the Tribune-owned Wrigley Field Baseball Park.

After unheeded calls by lawmakers and President Obama for Blagojevich's resignation, the Illinois House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly earlier this month to impeach the governor.

Until his remarks before the Illinois Senate on Thursday, Blagojevich had refused to appear at the trial. He cited an inability to call witnesses - one of the rules of the impeachment process - as his primary reason for boycotting the proceedings, which he called biased and unconstitutional.

But in a last minute turnaround, he asked for the opportunity to appear in the hopes he could appeal to lawmakers' "sense of fairness".

"You haven't been able to show wrongdoing in this trial, and [you] denied me the right to be able to bring in a whole bunch of witnesses who will show you I didn't do anything wrong and, in fact, did most things right," he said.

Lawmakers were unable to question Blagojevich during his statement, which was not given under oath.

It is something impeachment prosecutor David Ellis emphasized in his own closing arguments, which came after several days of testimony that included recorded conversations between Blagojevich and lobbyists trying to influence state legislation.

"That is unrefuted testimony - different conversations where the governor is trading, using his official power as some kind of a chit for personal gain, unrefuted by this governor. He comes in, says, 'There is no evidence,' and gets off the stage," he said.

As he made his final remarks to the assembled lawmakers, Blagojevich warned that a conviction in his case would set a dangerous precedent.

"To remove a governor, like this, sets a dangerous and chilling precedent for the future. Impeachments are very rare and they are designed to be that way. They're supposed to be used only in extreme cases. That's why there have been very few impeachments in American history. That's why I stand before you in a very unique and lonely place," he said.

After voting to remove Blagojevich from office, State Senator John Cullerton spoke with reporters. He indicated that the Governors refusal to participate in the trial sealed his fate.

"There was not one shred of evidence offered to rebut the prosecutions comments. It's the first time I'm sure in history at an impeachment trial the one accused was a no show. It was a big mistake," he said.

Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn took the oath of office soon after the vote to remove Blagojevich was entered into the legislative record.

Quinn is now the 41st governor of the state of Illinois.

"In this moment, our hearts are hurt, and understand we have a duty and mission to restore faith of the people of Illinois and the integrity of our government. and to make sure that all of our elected officials have the confidence of the voters. I think this is our highest calling," he said.

Federal prosectors are expected to bring an official indictment against Blagojevich by April. His trial date would be set at that time.


Obama to Keep Fighting for Economic Stimulus Plan

US President Barack Obama listens as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner speaks during his swearing-in ceremony, 26 Jan 2009
US President Barack Obama listens as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner speaks during his swearing-in ceremony, 26 Jan 2009
U.S. President Barack Obama plans to continue lobbying skeptical Republicans as he seeks broad bipartisan support for a massive economic stimulus plan.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Thursday that Mr. Obama's outreach on this and other issues is important to show that things can get done in Washington.

The spokesman also said Mr. Obama believes the big bonuses that Wall Street firms paid out last year are "outrageous." The companies paid more than $18 billion in bonuses for 2008. Mr. Obama is to discuss that issue during a meeting with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Mr. Obama has made the ailing U.S. economy a central focus of his administration. In an important victory for his week-old government, the House of Representatives approved an $819 billion economic recovery plan Wednesday.

Mr. Obama had been hoping to win broad bipartisan support for the plan, but not a single Republican voted in favor of it. Republicans said the package contained too much wasteful spending and not enough tax cuts.

The Senate is crafting its own version - which includes an additional $70 billion in tax cuts - and will debate the measure next week. The two versions will have to be reconciled before President Obama can sign the legislation into law.


Afghan Presidential Poll Postponed Until August


Afghanistan's election commission has scheduled the presidential election for August 20, months later than the date called for in the Afghan constitution. Afghan officials say the delay will give more time for the arrival of additional foreign troops, to improve security.

An Afghan election official registers Afghan men for their voter identity cards at the voter registration office in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, 29 Jan. 2009
An Afghan election official registers Afghan men for their voter identity cards at the voter registration office in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, 29 Jan. 2009
Afghanistan's constitution calls for the presidential poll to be held in late April, before President Hamid Karzai's five-year term expires. But officials have worried that ongoing violence and the harsh winter would make preparations difficult.

The head of the Afghan election commission, Azizullah Lodin, told reporters in Kabul, Thursday, that after speaking with Afghan and foreign security forces, officials decided delaying the election by a few months would improve conditions for the vote.

He says the election commission decided the presidential election and the provincial polls would be held on August 20. He says officials will decide, later, when to hold district and parliament elections.

Mr. Karzai's political opponents -- some of whom are running against him in the upcoming election -- have pushed for elections on schedule and insist delaying the poll is unconstitutional. Some say the president should step down after his presidential term expires, in late May.

NATO officials praised the new election date, saying it should allow foreign troops time to improve security and help register voters. American officials have proposed nearly doubling the 32-thousand American troops in Afghanistan, in the next six months.

Many of those troops are headed to southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold and one of the most violent areas of the country. The region is also Mr. Karzai's political base and considered key to his re-election effort.

No clear frontrunner has emerged from the several political opponents who are considering challenging him for the presidency. Mr. Karzai remains the country's highest-profile leader. However, after five years presiding over a weak central government, plagued by corruption, analysts say he could be politically vulnerable to a coalition of his opponents.


Iraq Ends License of US Security Firm Blackwater


The Iraqi interior ministry announced that it would not renew the operating license of controversial U.S. security firm Blackwater, now that its contract has expired. Blackwater aroused the fury of many Iraqis after a shooting incident in which 17 civilians were killed in 2007, when Blackwater agents escorting a U.S. diplomatic convoy opened fire in Baghdad.

Iraqi Interior Ministry Spokesman General Abdul Karim Khalaf indicated that the Iraqi government had made the decision because of "improper conduct and excessive use of force."

"Putting it succinctly, the [Iraqi] government has decided that it would not issue a new operating license [for Blackwater], and that is the way things stand, right now, in a nutshell," he said.

A new security pact between Iraq and the United States, which was ratified by the Iraqi parliament in November, and went into effect on January 1, gives the Iraqi government the power to decide which foreign security firms can operate on its soil.

Blackwater provides security for the U.S. Embassy and Embassy spokesperson Susan Ziadeh indicated officials there are working to assure that the decision would not disrupt operations.

"We have been informed that Blackwater's private security company operating license will not be granted. We do not have any specifics about the dates, however, we are working with the government of Iraq and our contractors to address the implications of this decision," she said.

General Khalaf told the French Press Agency that the September 2007 shooting incident in a busy Baghdad intersection, in which Blackwater guards opened fire while protecting a U.S. diplomatic convoy was the direct cause of the decision not to renew Blackwater's operating contract.

The Iraqi government officially investigated the shooting, which enraged ordinary Iraqis and made headlines in the press for weeks.

Five former Blackwater contractors, involved in the shooting, are due to go on trial in the United States in the coming days.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said during a speech, while campaigning for provincial elections set to take place Saturday, that Iraq is "working to achieve national unity, in order to make the new security pact with the United States work, so that foreign forces are no longer needed on its soil."

He did not directly mention the decision not to renew Blackwater's contract, but analysts say the decision would likely appeal to both Shi'ite and Sunni voters.


US Envoy Calls for Israel to Open Gaza Borders


U.S. Mideast Envoy George Mitchell is calling for Israel to open its borders to the Gaza Strip. Mitchell - on a fact-finding tour of the Middle East - met with Palestinian officials in the West Bank. The visit has been marred by violence that threatens to shatter a fragile cease-fire.

Militants in the Gaza Strip fired another rocket into Israel, the second in as many days, and Israel responded with more air strikes over the southern part of the Strip, hitting what it says was a weapons facility. Palestinian officials say one person was killed in Gaza.

The new violence occurred as U.S. President Barack Obama's Mideast Envoy George Mitchell continued his visit to the region. After meeting with Israeli leaders Wednesday, he crossed the border into the West Bank to meet with President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian officials.

At a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Mitchell urged Israel to open Gaza border crossings to trade.

Palestinians construct new and repair old smuggling tunnels that run under the border between Egypt and Rafah, 26 Jan 2009
Palestinians construct new and repair old smuggling tunnels that run under the border between Egypt and Rafah, 26 Jan 2009
"To be successful in preventing the illicit traffic of arms into Gaza, there must be a mechanism to allow the flow of legal goods and that should be with the participation of the Palestinian Authority," he said.

Israel says it will not consider opening the Gaza border crossings until Hamas hands over an Israeli soldier captured by militants in Gaza in 2006.

Mitchell did not meet with Hamas representatives in the West Bank.

In Gaza City, journalist Mohammed Dawwas, reporting for VOA, says many people with whom he has spoken view the U.S. envoy's visit with pessimism.

"They have a lot of experience from the past," he said. "Many envoys came here and never changed anything. Nothing was ever achieved by any American envoy coming to the region especially to solve the Palestinian issue. People do not have any trust in this visit there, the majority."

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh  (File photo)
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (File photo)
Meanwhile, Hamas' leader Ismail Haniyeh gave his first interview since Israel ended its 22-day offensive on Gaza. He spoke to the Arabic-language television network al-Jazeera.

He said the United States has no interest in clashing with the Arab world. He said he hopes the new U.S. president will change the policies of his predecessor. He also said Hamas' main aim is to reconcile with the rival Fatah faction that controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Hamas - whose charter calls for the destruction of the State of Israel - forcibly seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah after winning elections in 2006.

Israeli forces launched a 22-day offensive against Hamas in an effort to stop the launching of rockets into Israeli communities that had been going on for years. Palestinian officials say nearly 1,300 people died in Gaza during the Israeli assault.

Israel says it is prepared to resume the offensive if the cross-border attacks from Gaza continue.


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