THE BLOG
07/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

This Week in Magazines : Bill Clinton Has Really Changed, Right?

You can read "The Mellowing of William Jefferson Clinton" in the May 31 New York Times Magazine and wonder, really?

Peter Baker offers a revealing, and vaguely melancholy, account of the current, comparatively lower-energy state of Bill Clinton's post-presidency as a notoriously insatiable whirling-dervish struggles with the roles of former president and cabinet spouse -- all the while clearly yearning for an Obama administration role beyond the pro forma.

"'Unless Obama messes up, President Clinton is irrelevant. This is not a circumstance in which Bill Clinton is going to have much of a role," says an unidentified former Clinton aide, a comment sure to chagrin the profile subject.

Of course, there's no shortage of Clinton alums with whom he can, and does, speak in the administration. Baker notes that, as of April, "42 percent of Obama's appointees to Senate-confirmed positions were Clinton veterans." They're among those he stays in regular contact with, as he does with Vice President Joe Biden and national-security adviser, Jim Jones, writes Baker.

Do they see the new administration as a "do-over, a chance to get right what went wrong in the 1990s"? Clearly, some do, and in the process don't compare their former boss all that favorably to their current one, especially when it comes to discipline and decisiveness. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who is pragmatic but also loyal, makes the strongest case here for Clinton-era achievements, though the drift of the piece is otherwise, with criticism of failures on health care, climate change, AIDS in Africa and regulation of derivatives, among others.

As for Clinton himself, a terrific reporter obviously labored hard to get beneath the well-practiced, media-shy and often disingenuous Clinton surface. He finds a man still stung by last year's presidential campaign, notably some Democrats' chagrin with his aggressive role on behalf of his wife; a fellow who seems to be recalibrating reflexively frenetic ways while dealing with the seemingly ego- and physically-deflating impacts of major heart surgery; and someone still engaging in lots of big-bucks speeches and proving himself smitten with the rich and powerful at the same time he doesn't appear to need public adulation quite as much as before.

He swears he's assimilated into a new and often philanthropic life he craves, and Baker has ample examples to make the case for good deeds, a new humility, sense of mortality and ability to be off-stage, even if Clinton's definition of slowing down would strike most as exhausting. One can hope so and, well, still wonder, given a lifetime of frequent self-absorption and selfishness.

A possibly revealing anecdote comes for a Hong Kong event for Clinton's foundation, as Clinton watched a restaurant television as Obama announced his new secretary of state.

"He could not help voicing his own running commentary. He [Obama] shouldn't have said that. He could have said this. She should smile now. Mack McLarty [Clinton's former chief of staff], who was with him, nudged him. 'Mr. President,' he recalls saying, 'there are other people here.'"

-- June Women's Health profiles Lost star Evangeline Lilly, finding a brief Hollywood moment in the sun after compiling an early resume that may "be one of the most colorful of all time: flight attendant, waitress, bartender, oil-change technician, and Bible-camp counselor." Elsewhere, a magazine whose definition of health can often be great sex, as suggested in "Get it on outside," tips for sex in your backyard, on the beach, in the water (lake, poor, outdoor shower), in a small boat and in the woods.

As for the boat, here's the counsel: "Lie on your back while he lies on his side facing you. Put your leg (the one closest to him) across his thighs and turn so your butt faces him while he enters your from behind. Move slowly and rhythmically together so you don't rock the boat."

If this makes you uncomfortable, especially if all you've got is a metal canoe, there are other guilty pleasures in the issue, notably six examples of good-tasting junk food "worth the extra treadmill time." They are Chips Ahoy!, Golden Oreo sandwich cookies, Hebrew National hot dogs, Ore-Ida's extra-crispy fast-food French fries, Lay's Wavy potato chips and domino's pizza.

-- Consumer Reports won't help you in bed, or with beds, at least in the July issue. But its inimitable counsel brings its favorite digital cameras and its pick in consumer product battles between Kindle and Sony e-reader, as well as Tide versus Cheer laundry detergent. It also checks out 101 chain food restaurants for best values, including comparing steaks at Morton's The Steakhouse, Outback Steakhouse, Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday. There was a distinct correlation here between price and final rankings, so take a guess who's the winner.

-- June 8 Business Week heralds "An Historic Succession at Xerox" with selection of Ursula Burns as the first African American female to run a major U.S. corporation. But it argues that she

has a war to fight. Xerox, a brand so synonymous with copying that its name long ago became a verb, faces a brutal business outlook. Customers are buying less equipment. Prices keep dropping. Managers are curbing paper use for cost-saving and environmental reasons...Burns will find herself battling competitors with stronger balance sheets and more heft as the industry consolidates.

-- "The Greatest Game Ever Pitched"? It's the title of a June 1 Sports Illustrated piece and, no doubt, it's the May 26, 1959, effort by the Pittsburgh Pirates' Harvey Haddix, who three 12 perfect innings against the Brewers in Milwaukee, only to lose in the 13th inning. Sadly, "Virtually no film footage of the game exists; the TV broadcast in Pittsburgh was preempted by a speech by Vice President Richard Nixon." Ah, another thing to blame on Nixon!

-- Canadian geese, like divas, headstrong politicians and teenagers, can be rather enigmatic. In June Vanity Fair's, "Anatomy of a Miracle," we receive an engrossing primer on how they forced US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River.

If you thought you knew all about the flight, especially amid the homages to pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger," you're wrong. William Langewiesche does a characteristically extensive act of reporting, relaying how from 1990 through 2007, the government's National Wildlife Strike Database (yes, that's what it's called) in Sandusky, Ohio, recorded the collision of aircraft with 360 different species of birds, including loons, pelicans, herons, storks, pigeons, owl, turkeys, chickadees and woodpeckers. There were even 253 collisions with bats and 120 with rodents including porcupines.

But this focuses on what he calls the "supersize, self-satisfied, resident geese." It's not clear why the birds struck above 500 feet tend to be Canadian geese. One theory is that they "are simply too dumb or too ornery to get out of the way." Regardless, a section of this piece is simply engrossing, and one to keep in mind when you fly. It's about a complex piece of machinery, the modern airplane engine; its encounters aloft with ticketless intruders; and what the industry tries to do to make those meetings less perilous:

Birds. For the purposes of engine certification they divide into small, medium, and large. The small ones are officially allowed to weigh up to 3.2 ounces. Because of the density of their flocks they are the birds most likely to strike multiple engines, and to strike each engine multiple times. Engine manufacturers have to demonstrate that their designs will continue to produce climb thrust even after being hit by a group of them--one little bird for every 49 square inches of engine inlet, up to 16 little birds in rapid succession. The demonstrations are carried out on engines attached to rigid stands and spooled up to climb thrust. The birds are commercial farm-raised stock, purchased from suppliers. They are slaughtered just before the tests, then wrapped in lightweight Styrofoam sabots, loaded into nitrogen-powered pneumatic cannons, and fired into the engines at about 250 miles an hour. The cannons are known as chicken guns, turkey guns, or rooster boosters. The tests are filmed with high-speed cameras, and can be viewed on the Internet in slow-motion videos, some set dramatically to music. In real time the birds pass almost instantaneously through the test engines. They go in whole and emerge as spray. Animal advocates have objected to this. A researcher in England is trying to accommodate their concerns by creating an artificial standard-density bird--a Jello Bird--that will spare the test birds for some other fate. This turns out to be difficult to do, because real birds, though gelatinous, have bones, muscles, and sinews. Indeed, there is a concern among some engine specialists that the farm-raised test birds being used today are themselves unrealistic, because they are flabby compared with their wild brethren, who seem to cause more damage than test birds of the same weight.

It's a niche worry, and should be optional for the traveling public. In practice, the industry has come a long way in producing engines that can swallow small birds, and even medium-size ones (officially up to 2.5 pounds), without disintegrating or losing significant thrust. The reasons are not difficult to understand. Modern airline engines are hybrids, called turbofans, each of which contains an old-fashioned jet engine in its core but develops most of its thrust not by shooting high-speed exhaust out the back (as in pure jet designs) but by reaching forward through itself with a central shaft and spinning a propulsion fan. That fan is what you see when you look into the front of an engine. On the engines that powered the US Airways A320, it has a six-foot diameter. It is really just an air pump, similar to an ordinary window fan, but many-bladed, jet-powered, and enormously more forceful. Even when throttled back to minimum speed on the ground, it is capable of sucking in airport workers who stray closer than about six feet to the engine inlet. More usefully, when it is throttled up to takeoff, climb, or cruise settings, it ingests huge masses of outside air, which it accelerates rearward through the engine casing. A portion of the accelerated air feeds directly into the jet core, where it is compressed, burned in kerosene-fueled fires, and used to spin turbines (primarily to power the compressors and fan) before being shot as a hot gas out the back. Far more of the fan's accelerated air, however, completely bypasses the jet core, and blows unheated to the rear of the engine, where it returns to the atmosphere. The blown air is known as bypass air. On the A320 it provides as much as 80 percent of the engine thrust.

The fan, in other words, is the ultimate focus of jet-engine design. Its blades overlap, and are made of strong, flexible, lightweight titanium. These are what birds hit first on the way in. For the birds the encounter is traumatic. In fact, the birds are liquefied. The effect varies little according to their size. Small, medium, or large, they become an instant soup--a bloody sludge that is known in the business as bird slurry, and is said to leave engines with a telltale smell, sometimes enhanced with fishiness after the liquefaction of fish-eating fowl. This is the stuff you learn only in the field, after airplanes have crashed, or bird strikes have been reported. It requires dedication to discovering truth in such cases, and a certain investment in the idea that accuracy matters. In any case, turbofan engines are self-protective to some extent, because when hit by birds the fan blades may bend without breaking, and sling the bird slurry outward, forcing it to blow harmlessly through the bypass ducts, perhaps splattering against protrusions, but never entering the power source--the critical high-speed components that constitute the jet core. Furthermore, this is not just brave talk. The Sandusky database indicates that, of the 12,028 engines reported to have been struck by birds between 1990 and 2007, roughly two-thirds emerged unscathed from the encounters. Of the remaining third--the engines reported as damaged--more than 90 percent continued to produce useful thrust in some manner, and only 312 were totally destroyed in flight. In short, complete engine failures following bird strikes are rare.

Some, however, will inevitably occur. The reason is that, within the constraints of materials science and practical design, it is simply not yet possible to build turbofan engines that can reliably withstand 250-mile-an-hour collisions with birds heavier than the official medium size. In recognition of these realities, certification standards for the official big-bird test do not require the engine to keep producing thrust, but merely to accommodate its own destruction without running angrily out of control, throwing dangerous shrapnel through the engine casing, or catching fire. The maximum weight of the big birds used is eight pounds. That is lighter than many birds that populate North American skies, including typical 12-pound Canada geese, but it is heavy enough to ensure the death of the (very expensive) test engines. These are single-shot tests. Usually a chicken is volunteered for the job. The destruction starts when the bird hits the fan. Even as the bird is turning into slurry, it causes fan blades to bend, erode, and fracture--reducing the fan's thrust, and sending a hail of titanium debris deeper into the engine. Some of the debris exits harmlessly with the bypass air, but as the fan slows and deforms, other debris finds its way into the spinning compressors at the entrance to the jet core, where it sets off a cascade of successive failures, with shattered compressor blades and vanes adding to the destructive hail. In response to the disruption, temperatures inside the combustion chambers may rise so high that the debris passing through is turned to molten metal, which splatters against the downstream turbines, even as they themselves are being warped and destroyed by the heat. Needless to say, any part of the bird that has made it this far is vaporized. Meanwhile, overall, the engine will likely be throwing tantrums.

This is approximately what happened to US Airways Flight 1549 at 3,000 feet over the Bronx. The engines were CFM56-5Bs, built by a French and American consortium, and considered to be among the world's most successful designs. They banged and flamed and lost thrust--entirely on the right, and almost entirely on the left. But given that they had just swallowed Canada geese, probably by multiples, without exploding or throwing shrapnel into the fuselage, they performed beyond expectation, as it can realistically be defined. The situation was nonetheless inconvenient. Sullenberger tried to relight the engines using the standard clicking igniters, but very quickly it became obvious that this was not working, and that the damage to both engines was severe.