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5 smart reads for the weekend
A profile of Chuck Hagel. An analysis of the complex world of Oscar campaigning. And more compelling, of-the-moment stories to dive into
Will an Oscar campaign help any of these fellas win?
Will an Oscar campaign help any of these fellas win? Kevin Winter/Getty Images

1. "Odd man out"
Connie Bruck, The New Yorker

On Monday, President Obama nominated former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) to serve as secretary of defense. Hagel, who spent more than a decade in Washington, has attracted criticism from Democrats for his outspoken views — but also from Republicans, many of whom were alienated by his repeated criticisms of the Bush administration in the years before President Obama's 2008 election. Here, an exploration of Hagel's "Republican exile," written while he was still in the Senate:

"This Administration has viewed Congress as an appendage, a nuisance," Hagel told me. "Clinton was just the opposite. Reagan was the opposite. Bush’s father was the opposite. They understood the value of making Congress their ally." He said that Vice-President Cheney nearly always attended the weekly lunch held by the Senate Republican Caucus, at which major issues—including the war in Iraq—are discussed. Often, someone asked Cheney whether he’d like to say something. "Almost always, he’d say, ‘No, no,’ " Hagel said. "It always said to me, by his very lack of engagement or even giving us the courtesy of saying something, that they could care less about us. Except when he wanted us to do something: ‘Vote this way.’ "

Read the rest of the story at The New Yorker.

2. "Meet Alex Jones"
Alexander Zeitchik, Rolling Stone

This week, Piers Morgan introduced much of the nation to radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who had helped to promote a petition designed to get Morgan deported over his views on gun control. Jones' appearance made national news, as he shouted down Morgan during his ferocious pro-gun rant. But Rolling Stone readers first had the opportunity to meet Jones in March 2011, when the magazine ran a profile on him after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' shooter, Jared Lee Lougher, was widely reported to be a devotee of the Jones-produced film Loose Change, which makes the case that 9/11 was an inside job by the U.S. government: 

Jones has been yelling into microphones and bullhorns more or less continuously, and often at violent volumes, for the past 16 years. Since launching his broadcast career, he has become a multiplatform prophet of paranoia who sees diabolical plots in every turn of the news cycle. In his Manichaean melodrama, nodes of private and state power share an ugly face and a demonic brain intent on a single, shared goal: creating the New World Order. To Jones, the New World Order is a blanketing presence, a wicked beast for which he has endless pet names: the "demonic high-tech tyranny" or the "absurdist 1984 regime of control-freak sadists." Jones, who loves to draw analogies to sci-fi classics like Dune and Star Wars, sees the 21st century as a kind of fanboy-fantasy landscape populated by three groups: a rebel alliance of liberty-loving patriots (his fans); masses of consumerist sheep (those who ignore him); and a sadistic elite (global bankers and their agents), forever tightening the screws on the imperiled remnants of human freedom.

Read the rest of the story at Rolling Stone.

3. "Flu warning: Beware the drug companies!"
Helen Epstein, The New York Review of Books

The United States in the midst of a particularly nasty flu season, with 29 states reporting outbreaks that range from high to severe. But as millions of Americans stay home sick, how seriously should the disease be taken? A provocative look at 2009's swine flu panic, which failed to become the "dire emergency" predicted by the World Health Organization:

Although influenza deaths are relatively rare among those who aren’t otherwise ill, since the 1950s experts have periodically warned that a 1918-like pandemic could recur. They became especially alarmed in 1997, when eighteen people in Hong Kong contracted a new influenza virus known as H5N1 from chickens, and six died. This "avian flu" virus didn’t spread from person to person, but since it was a thousand times more lethal than ordinary influenza, some experts feared that if it mutated into a virus that could spread more easily, it would kill millions in a very short time. In 1999, the WHO launched a program to help governments prepare for this terrifying, if unlikely, possibility. The agency produced a document urging governments to draw up plans to alert the public and set up mass vaccination programs in the event that a new "pandemic" virus was found to be spreading. Because such a virus would have been previously unknown, it would take around six months for sufficient quantities of vaccine to be produced.

Read the rest of the story at The New York Review of Books

4. "The red carpet campaign"
Mark Harris, New York

On Thursday, Seth MacFarlane and Emma Stone announced the nominees for the 85th annual Academy Awards, which will air on Feb. 24. The nominees mix was the usual list of shoo-ins, surprises, and snubs — but with so many possible contenders, how does a film or filmmaker earn their place on the venerable nominee list. A 2010 analysis of the Oscar campaigning process, which largely determines which films and actors take home Oscar gold each year:

There is a reason why they call the run-up period to the Academy Awards the "Oscar campaign." It is, to use a familiar analogy, like an election, with an electorate of 5,777 people (the size of McKenzie County, North Dakota), unwilling to be influenced by anything but their own opinions, yet still, perhaps, more swayable than they’d like to admit. There is no war room, per se, but there are early front-runners that fade, grassroots insurgencies, even primaries. Ultimately, most of the nominees emerge from a combination of good planning, good movies, and good luck: Crazy Heart’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, had the smarts first to acquire the film in July, and then, when it sensed an opening in this year’s Best Actor field, to accelerate its release from the spring of 2010 to December. The gambit was shrewd; writer-director Scott Cooper’s small-scale debut, in which Bridges plays a country singer seeking redemption, opened to strong reviews just as some of Bridges’s potential competitors (Nine's Daniel Day-Lewis and The Lovely Bones' Mark Wahlberg) were cratering with critics.

Read the rest of the story at New York.

5. "Semi-charmed life"
Nathan Heller, The New Yorker

On Sunday, HBO is set to premiere the second season of Girls, a buzzy dramedy by creator and star Lena Dunham. Over the past year Girls has attracted both praise and criticism for its narrow depiction of twenty-something life, as its four central characters narcissistically fumble their way through their personal and professional lives in Brooklyn. Is this contemporary young adulthood? An exploration of the diverse lives of twenty-somethings:

The fullest guide through this territory, as it happens, avoids pointedly prescriptive claims. In "Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?" (Hudson Street), Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig provide a densely researched report on the state of middle-class young people today, drawn from several data sources and filtered through a comparative lens. Robin Marantz Henig is a baby boomer and a veteran magazine journalist focussing on science. Samantha Henig, her daughter, is in her late twenties, with a twenty-first-century version of the same career. (She has worked as a Web editor and writer at several publications, including this one, and is now the online editor of the New York Times Magazine.) Together, trading the writing in tag-team fashion, they assess the key departments of twentysomething life—school, careers, dating, family-making, and so forth—and try to discern how much has actually changed. They are interested not so much in the Mark Zuckerbergs of the demographic as in the parental-basement dwellers; they believe that people in their twenties have been getting a bad rap and want to know whether concern is justified. Their answer, which should not come as a surprise, is: it depends.

Read the rest of the story at The New Yorker.

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