Monday, May 30, 2005

Some semi-random stuff on the last night of my bachelorhood:
  • Survive and Advance: The Phils got through a 12-game stretch against division-leading opponents St. Louis, Baltimore, Florida and Atlanta winning three of the four series and going 7-5 overall. The upshot is that while still three games under .500 and in last place, they're just 4.5 out of first in the Great Compression known as the NL East. They start a 13-game homestand and will play 35 of their next 48 overall in Philadelphia; winning 30 or more of those, not an unreasonable hope given the relative absence of Braves and Marlins on the docket, would go a long way toward making the late summer and fall interesting baseball-wise.

    The big differences are probably that the team has hit with men on base the last couple weeks, with even David Bell and Mike Lieberthal proving occasionally useful, and that with a couple truly gruesome exceptions, the bullpen has been better since the highly flammable veteran relievers Tim Worrell and Terry Adams were removed from the mix. Jim Thome also had a relatively good holiday weekend in Atlanta, again exciting hopes that he'll stoke a mighty lineup core with the all-star-worthy corner outfielders Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell. Having borne up well under adversity, of course, it would be perfectly characteristic of the team to crumble in the face of prosperity, so we'll see. (Editorial/foreshadowing note: within a month, maybe sooner, AIS will probably feature a lot less baseball/Phils content as I launch another outlet for all that...)

  • On-screen: I think I saw as many movies this weekend--two--as I previously had all year. "Crash" is a worthwhile if heavy-handed exploration of race and (less noted by reviewers) class tensions in current-day Los Angeles; watching it, I realized that there's a whole sub-genre in American cinema we could describe as "Complicated L.A. Films", with myriad plot lines, character arcs by the dozen and the intermittent interference of cultural and political forces way beyond the control of the characters. "Short Cuts" is probably the pre-eminent example, but there's also "Magnolia", "LA Confidential", arguably "Chinatown" and "Boogie Nights" and "Pulp Fiction" and probably a lot more too.

    And then I saw, alone, "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith." I won't attempt to defend it as a quality film; I'll just admit that I really enjoyed it. Wookie armies and a lightsaber-wielding Yoda just hit me that way. And the last half-hour was actually pretty successful in setting the stage for "Star Wars". Odd accomplishment, somewhat like carving the last piece to a puzzle that someone had left out on the table thirty years earlier, but satisfying regardless. (The political analogies, by the way, are surely present but not in my opinion overdone or, at least by Lucas standards, especially ham-handed. Art may work in part to hold a mirror up to life, but that would really confound the whole idea of escapist fantasy anyway, wouldn't it?)

  • On-page: I finally finished The System of the World, volume three of the "Baroque Cycle" by Neal Stephenson. A tremendous achievement that, like some of his earlier novels, left me wondering why I bother to write such an absurdly lower quality of fiction, but at the same time a work I admired more than enjoyed. To put it another way, the 3,000-page epic delivered maybe 1200 pages worth of fun; the rest, while certainly impressive, read like something to get through in search of more good stuff. Am now on to Alexander Hamilton, a biography by historian Ron Chernow, and I'm reading it much faster than I did the fiction... whether this is primarily tribute to Chernow's prose or just how interesting Hamilton's life was, I'm not yet sure.

    But I'm struck by some similarities between his talents and career progression and that of another revolutionary operating almost 150 years later: Leon Trotsky. Both were autodidacts, incredibly gifted speakers and writers who led with equal parts charisma and organizational genius, unnaturally brilliant men in whom idealism and expediency constantly wrestled, equally excellent in military affairs as in statecraft, arrogant and polarizing individuals who attracted devoted followers and implacable enemies who ultimately did them in. I have always believed that if Trotsky had been born and raised in a relatively liberal nation such as the U.S., he would have won renown as a great writer, thinker and political activist but certainly would not have turned to some of the brutal measures he embraced as a revolutionary war leader and later as a high official of the USSR. Similarly, if Hamilton had been fighting a despotic regime such as that of Tsarist Russia, in amongst amoral monsters like Lenin and Stalin rather than enlightened and reluctant revolutionaries like Jefferson, Adams and Madison, it's easy for me to imagine him indulging in all manner of actions we would characterize as evil.

  • The Mysteries of McCain: Continuing the exchange from the Comments that followed last week's post about the deal to avert the "nuclear option", right now A&E is airing a made-for-TV film titled "Faith of My Fathers" about John McCain's POW years, adopted from his book of the same name. Certainly on Memorial Day it's natural to think of a legitimate war hero like McCain and how he--or his fellow Vietnam vet John Kerry--so much more deserves the position now held by the incoherent chickenhawk Bush. But I wonder if McCain isn't setting himself up for a crippling disappointment at the close of his career. A mostly favorable profile in last week's New Yorker makes it perfectly clear that McCain plans on running for president in 2008, and further that he's already tailoring both relationships and positions with that in mind. Essentially, McCain's challenge will be to blunt the mistrust and even loathing that Bush's true base--the religious and free-market fundamentalists--feels for him, while retaining the straight-talker/common-sense persona that has so compelled many moderates and not a few progressives at times (certainly including me). Check out this excerpt from a Q&A with Connie Bruck, who authored the New Yorker piece:
    I will be very surprised if we see him doing anything that strikes a blow at the Bush White House. Polite differences are one thing, but attacks that can do real damage are another. I think he has done too much to build his political capital with the Party and the Republican primary voters who love Bush to throw it away. But he definitely has a fine line to walk. He can’t afford to seem like just another calculating, hypocritical politician—or he loses everything... it will be hard, because McCain loves being an iconoclast, or a rebel, or a contrarian—it’s just so much a part of who he is, and it brings him the attention that he loves.

    But this is not a base that will accept half-loaf measures, polite disagreements, or constructive criticism. Bruck notes that McCain is a true hawk on foreign policy and devotes much of the article to examples of his bluntness, almost to the point of rudeness, with allies and enemies alike. (Maybe this as much as politics explains McCain's support for John Bolton's nomination to the post of Ambassador to the U.N.) BFD, the fundies will say; McCain's reformist instincts and cultural tolerance (including, sotto voce, the lingering impression that his avowed anti-abortion position reflects political necessity more than personal conviction)--the very traits that would lead someone like me to consider supporting him--will doom him with the Republican primary electorate. What's really interesting to me about this article, though, is that if memory serves, it omits entirely the words "third party." If McCain truly wants the presidency, that's his best shot, and with potential opponents like Hillary Clinton and George Allen, he would probably be the favorite. But if he's not willing to leave a party that on most issues has already "left him," then all this positioning and hair-splitting almost definitely won't avail him.

  • Late addition: Wesley Clark's radio address. Hey, anybody else wondering why this position and frame--"a matter of priorities"--wasn't used more last year? (And, while we're on the subject, how this would sit with a John McCain, who gets to view at close hand how cowards and hypocrites like Bush and Cheney score political points by leveraging the nation's veneration for the miliary?) As he was last year, Clark--who's surely running again--probably will be my Democratic contender of preference in 2008, though I don't think he's got a great chance.

Marrying tomorrow. I throw you all a virtual bouquet, or whatever the dude-equivalent might be.

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