Now some fresh pickings from the Political Grapevine:

Democratic Response

The Democrats have selected freshman Senator Jim Webb of Virginia to deliver their response to the president's State of the Union speech next Tuesday.

In November — Webb refused to shake the president's hand or have his picture taken during a White House reception for incoming members of Congress. When Mr. Bush asked how Webb's son — a marine in Iraq — was doing — Webb said, "I'd like to get them out of Iraq."

"That's not what I asked you," Mr. Bush answered. "How's your boy?"

Said Webb —"That's between me and my boy, Mr. President."

The Hill newspaper reported that Webb said he was so angered by the exchange he was tempted to slug the president.

Book Criticism

Jimmy Carter talked with al-Jazeera TV about criticism for his new book Monday— saying — "most of the condemnations of my book came from Jewish-American organizations which think that I believe there is racial segregation inside Israel." Many people have criticized Mr. Carter for the use of the word "apartheid" in the title with its obvious implications.

But a group of 14 Jewish advisers to the Carter Center resigned last week because they said the book — among other things —condones violence against Israel. Longtime Carter adviser Ken Stein resigned earlier — calling the book historically inaccurate and slanted.

And former Ambassador Dennis Ross criticized Carter for using some of his maps without permission, and misrepresenting Clinton administration Mideast policy.

Greater Freedom and Prosperity

The latest version of the Index of Economic Freedom from the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal concludes that world economies are moving toward greater freedom and prosperity — and the incomes of poor people around the world are rising because of that.

The study of 157 countries takes account such factors as freedom from government, tax rates and property rights. Hong Kong is ranked number one for the 13th straight year, with Singapore, Australia and the U.S. rounding out the top four.

The report says economically free countries enjoy significantly greater prosperity than those heavy regulated by government. And it says that while the world is growing richer — the gap between the haves and the have-nots is narrowing.

The "X" Factor

Saudi Arabia may soon ban the letter "x". The New York Sun reports the country's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — which is composed of senior Islamic clergy — says the letter "x" may too closely resemble the kingdom's most hated religious symbol — the cross.

A critical article on some Arabian Web sites suggested the clerics also ban the "plus" symbol from mathematics.

The commission recently stopped a proposal to create jobs for women by allowing them to replace male sales clerks in women's clothing stores. One member called the idea a step "towards immorality and hellfire." And in 1974 the group issued a fatwa declaring that the world was flat and immobile.

—FOX News Channel's Martin Hill contributed to this report.