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This Week in Magazines: Dirty Elections Edition

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The latest issues of both Foreign Policy and the New Yorker inspire my recalling one Vincent Sirabella, a tough and charismatic labor organizer whose lanky frame, white pompadour and working class panache would fit a Martin Scorsese flick. He labored hard, partied hard, led strikes at Las Vegas casinos and Yale University and even practiced transcendental meditation, all the while surrounded by some bad apples in the hotel and restaurant employees union.

"Mouthwash!!!!" he proclaimed at a fancy Miami eatery 20 years ago, a nanosecond after I ordered a Pinot Grigio for Vinny, two ethically-challenged colleagues with their bimbo girlfriends and a fellow ink-stained wretch. He told the sommelier to bring an expensive, smooth-as-silk Italian chardonnay to go with a $50 per-head porcini mushroom appetizer.

"Mouthwash!" might be reaction to the hand-wringing over our "dirty" and "nasty" campaign. Just check Foreign Policy's website for "The World's Ugliest Elections," then the New Yorker's "The Destroyer," Jon Lee Anderson's profile of Robert Mugabe, the liberator-turned-kleptocratic dictator of Zimbabwe. The latter shares space with Jane Mayer's look at how a distinctly establishment cadre of Washington conservatives, including the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol (old chum of mine), were critical in influencing the selection of "maverick" Sarah Palin by John McCain, though this piece continues to leave the extent of her pre-selection vetting unclear.

But as far as campaigns, we don't know dirty.

Picking recent and ongoing campaigns in Nigeria, Russia, Austria, New Zealand, Taiwan and Zimbabwe, they remind that we're watching a Stepford Wives Tupperware gathering by comparison, with all the venom of virtually any congressional hearing ("I thank the gentle lady from Florida...."). Here's the video of last week's Al Smith Dinner in New York and the ever-civil, wink-wink, ha-ha appearances of the two candidates.

In Nigeria, the outgoing president totally rigged the vote to ensure victory by an ally, while instructing journalists to label as a crook his own vice president, who wanted the top job. Meanwhile, the president's candidate was subject of a book whose titled called him a pathological liar, usurper and satanic.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin's hand-picked candidate obviously won but not before his was object of a crazed anti-Semitic attack for an alleged Jewish background. One ultranationalist candidate used a rifle to shoot a cardboard cutout of Putin's guy at one rally. Meanwhile Austria's March elections included virulently xenophobic and racist attacks, with one candidate proposing a law to prevent Austrian girls from "being fondled by hordes of immigrants."

In Taiwan's presidential campaign in March, a former education secretary declared that one candidate's father had multiple affairs and had screwed his adopted daughter. And Foreign Policy omits the truly bloody legacy elsewhere of shootings, extortion, Machete-wielding surrogates and grotesque ballot fraud, as recently exemplified by Zimbabwe. The ballot-rigging, torture, mutilation, gang rapes and murders there are chronicled by Anderson in the New Yorker, with the depressing reminder that Mugabe does have his supporters throughout Africa (as one saw when he came to the United Nations last month and was actually applauded by some).

So don't get too exorcised over references to Bill Ayers or ACORN. It's mouthwash.

---Shane Harris, a terrific reporter on intelligence matters, gives us "Toxic Information" in the new National Journal, or further reason to stick your money under the mattress. "U.S. Intelligence officials increasingly fear that computer hackers could wreck banks and large financial institutions, or send stock markets into one more panicked frenzy, by covertly manipulating data and spreading false information."

---November Bloomberg Markets is good on the history and recent flailing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., reminding one of our frequent mistake of assuming the perils of thinking the past is prologue; in this case using history to assess future loan risks in the housing market (predicting as recently as March that the cost to cover bank collapses in 2008 might be a mere $1 billion). It's also good on how Virginia-based Promontory Interfinancial Network brilliantly exploits a gap in the FDIC rule allowing us to open federally insured accounts up to $100,000. Promontory, which is run by a gold-plated group of former federal banking officials, arranges for wealthy investors to put just under $100,000 in each of a slew of banks. "One man's loophole is another man's God-given right," says Promontory board member Bill Seidman, a cable news regular and former FDIC chairman.

---"Anthrax in Transit" should not prompt bus and subway riders to carpool out of fear. No, it's a fascinating look in Isis, the journal of the History of Science Society, at how scientific knowledge played out in the 19th century, with anthrax outbreaks the peg. Susan Jones and Philip Teigen lay out how distribution of information was influenced by distinctly local events, circumstances and personal relationships. A prime example involves Silas Stone, a doctor and Civil War veteran, who was a one-man "C.S.I" in trying to understand 25 deaths at a Walpole, Mass., horsehair mattress factory during the 1860s. In a world without telephones, Smith-Corona electric typewriters or even Matt Drudge, Stone parlayed a web of professional relations possessed by Massachusetts doctors and scientists to spread the lessons of his theories and findings.

---Newsweek mulls how a President Obama might govern but, if looking for relief from politics, Jeremy McCarter's essay on a big New York festival celebrating the late Leonard Bernstein inescapably raises questions about the divide between elite and popular culture bridged by the brilliant maestro. He concedes that a greater appreciation of Mahler by Sean Hannity fans wouldn't prompt their cozying up to Nancy Pelosi but wonders if there's positive change afoot in how we view the arts and ourselves.

---Time's cover essay on presidential temperament is a solid Nancy Gibbs essay, with historians mulling how much it matters and one presidential analyst wondering about a possibly beneficial combo of "Gerald Ford's fundamental decency. Jimmy Carter's discipline. Ronald Reagan's sunny optimism. George H.W. Bush's diplomatic instincts. Bill Clinton's intellectual curiosity. And George W. Bush's dogged determination."

---October's Scholastic Parent & Child offers the nonprofit Common Sense Media's picks for new kids TV shows and actual previews here. They include the best for preschoolers: "Imagination Movers" on the Disney Channel, "Sid the Science Kid" on PBS and "Turbo Dogs" on Qubo. The picks for five- to seven-year-olds are: "Star Wars: The Clone War" on the Cartoon Network and "Willa's Wild Life" on Discovery Kids.

---October Sunset explores the West's "underrated" month for travel, with 10 October destinations, including a modestly-priced family ranch with canvas tents (from $99 with breakfast) at Linn Canyon Ranch in the foothills of Caribou-Targhee National Forest in Victor, Idaho (25 miles from cushy Jackson Hole, Wy.). But if you're staying home and just hiking somewhere (maybe to the supermarket), there's an unrelated survey of energy bars as far as calories, protein, fiber, etc. Alas, Sunset likes a bar called Sunset peanut butter cranberry go-bars ("wholesome and fresh") and isn't big on Luna peanut butter cookie ("nasty bitter aftertaste").

Finally, I noted last week how those Viagra TV commercials ask us to check out the Viagra ad in Golf magazine. Now I see that the Cialis TV ads urge inspection of their print pitch in Golf Digest magazine. Which prompts an obvious question: What about readers of Golf World magazine?! Do they not suffer from erectile dysfunction?