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Why did the State Department blow up a tree on the Mall today?

In the spirit of diplomacy and Christmas, not necessarily in that order, the U.S. State Department tried to explode a large, coniferous tree today. Actually, it was contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang who tried to explode it, following a ceremony in which he and four other artists received the U.S. State Department Medal of Arts. The intent, the Los Angeles Times reports, was to create a "tree image in floating black smoke that will serve as an ethereal doppelganger for the real one."  

Whether or not the effect was achieved is, I suppose, a matter for art critics to hash out. I, however, was not that impressed. The spectacle, which took place outside the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art, consisted of much counting-down and several muted explosions that left the tree intact. (It was unclear if the tree was supposed to vaporize.)

Given Cai's penchant for pyrotechnics -- this is the same guy who designed the special effects for the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics -- viewers would have been justified in expecting a little more firepower. But alas, the explosions were decidedly understated, (perhaps explaining why the National Parks Service approved Cai's application to hold the event in under two weeks.)   

The diplomatic value of Cai's work is more difficult to assess. According to the Smithsonian's website, his works "aim to establish an exchange between viewers and the larger universe around them." But as Sean Carman points out over at the Huffington Post, it may be that "in addition to his conceptual artistic ambitions, he really just likes to blow things up."

Either way, I think this home video of an exploding Christmas tree from 2007 does Cai one better.

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Mexico's muzzled, globetrotting former presidents

This weekend brings a major political transition in Mexico, as Enrique Peña Nieto succeeds Felipe Calderón and returns the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to the presidency for the first time in more than a decade.

As for Calderón, he already has his next gig lined up: a one-year fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School. The post is interesting in and of itself, but what's more interesting is the fact that Calderón will be joining several of his predecessors in hightailing it out of Mexico after inauguration day. Calderón, the New York Times notes today, may be headed to the United States because his aggressive prosecution of the drug war has made life unsafe for him in Mexico. But he might also be honoring what, over the past several decades, has become something of an unwritten law: getting out of politics -- and, preferably, the country -- upon leaving Mexico's highest office:

Mr. Calderón, who has a wife who has dabbled in politics and three young children, was long expected to leave Mexico, either because of safety considerations or to follow a custom of departing Mexican presidents, who generally do not stay.

"It's a tradition," said Shannon K. O'Neil, senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, "to give your successor a little bit of space."

Shortly after leaving the presidency in 1994 under a cloud, Carlos Salinas de Gortari went into self-imposed exile, traveling to New York, Montreal and Havana and finally settling in Dublin. He sought to be named the head of the World Trade Organization, but withdrew after his brother was arrested on charges of ordering the assassination of a Mexican politician.

His successor, Ernesto Zedillo, joined Yale University, his alma mater, as director of the Center for the Study of Globalization.

The exception to the rule? Calderón's predecessor Vicente Fox, who has been uncharacteristically outspoken for a former Mexican leader. Fox remained in Mexico after stepping down in 2006 but vowed to stay silent for a year -- a promise he broke within months. "There is no reason to hold to the anti-democratic rules of those who still live in the authoritarian past," Fox huffed after facing criticism for wading back into public life. "Now that Mexico is a democracy, every citizen has the right to express himself, even a former president." (More recently, Fox riled his political allies by appearing to express support for the PRI -- the very party he ousted from power in 2000.)

In the United States, of course, former presidents approach their retirements in different ways. George W. Bush has avoided politics, while Bill Clinton has remained very much in the game. But it's interesting to think about what things would look like if Mexico's political tradition applied here as well. You always hear chatter about moving to Canada after our presidential campaigns -- imagine if it was coming from the former occupant of the White House.

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