Sunday, March 30, 2008

Worlds Collide
edit, 3/31: Okay, he was booed pretty good. That makes me feel a little better.

The unofficial but real start of the 2008 baseball season (not counting those novelty games in Japan last week) came tonight when the Washington Nationals broke in their brand-new ballpark with a thrilling 3-2 walkoff win over the evil Atlanta Braves. I didn't watch the whole game, but flipped back and forth all evening and got to see four of the five runs scored: two for Washington on two-out hits in the first inning, the Braves' equalizer in the top of the 9th against substitute Nats closer Jon Rauch, and the game-winner in the bottom of the inning when Ryan Zimmerman sent the fans home on Cloud 9 with a solo home run off Peter Moylan. The new park looks great, the game was a taut pitchers duel (Tim Hudson retired 19 in a row after those initial two runs), and the end was a thriller.

Yet in the middle of all this good feeling, there was President George W. Bush yukking it up on screen like a turd in the middle of your birthday cake. He'd thrown out the first ball--which I managed to skip when I saw it was coming--then came back for what felt like a fucking hour to talk with announcers Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. I kept flipping back, saw that he was still sitting there in his little sweater under a blazer, smirking away.

As time goes on, the outrageous comes to seem mundane just because one gets used to it. I suppose Bush's presidency is like that. Conceived in dishonesty and corruption, it's come to full, rank, tragicomic flower. How this inane and repellent and small person managed to do so much damage will be a source of dismay to millions of us for as long as we live. Every day, we grumble at his arrogance and belligerence, and gasp at how far short he falls in facing up to severe problems. That's bad enough. But to see him getting to join in the celebration of baseball's renewal, as if he wasn't the most colossal fuckup in American history, just turns the stomach. He has been and remains a walking, talking middle finger in the face of meritocracy.

(This isn't really a partisan thing. I don't think I could ever vote for John McCain, but I'd be perfectly happy, even a little psyched, to see him throwing out the first ball. This must have been how the hardcore righties felt seeing Clinton in such circumstances; it honestly sucks. Maybe the answer is just to take the president out of this equation and let everyone enjoy the game without intrusion from the miserable world of politics.)

The irony, as I've probably noted here before, is that Bush could have had a much more central (and positive) role in major league baseball. Former Commissioner Fay Vincent wrote that the former Texas Rangers owner wanted to become the game's commissioner, but then-interim boss Bud Selig kept putting him off and putting him off, and finally Bush decided to enter politics. He picked the Republican landslide year of 1994 to make a run for the Texas governorship, and the rest is tragedian farce. With his fan's sensibility, it's almost certain that he would have been orders of magnitude better as a commissioner than he's been in his actual job. Then again, it might have been worth it to divert him even if he'd been as atrocious in that job as he is in this one.)

Just another reason to hope Selig roasts in hell. Still way second to the Strike, though.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Every day for awhile now, I've gone online looking for one of two things: some indication that the Phillies have made a move to complete a pitching staff that currently has just ten guys on it (12 is the norm, and there's no way they'll have fewer than 11), and Hillary Clinton bowing to reality and dropping out of the Democratic presidential race. The calendar suggests that the first thing will happen soon--the Phils' season starts on Monday--but we'll probably have to wait at least four more weeks, and more likely six, for the second.

Clinton can't win. She's managed to damage Barack Obama somewhat--he now trails John McCain head-to-head among independents, after leading the Republican through the first two months of this year--but not help herself. Even if Obama were to fall short, his enraged supporters--and the Democrats' terror of losing African-Americans--would ensure it went to Al Gore or someone else not currently in the race. This CQ Politics article--titled "Clinton Struggling With Her Likability Problem"--would be funny if it weren't so painful:

[O]ne race Obama is winning by the numbers is the favorability race whether the measure is positive/negative reactions to the two, or traits that voters like or dislike about each.

Here’s a collection of findings on this score from a range of polls:

• Obama bests Clinton among Democratic voters by margins of 15 percent to 20 percent on the traits of being “down to earth,” “inspiring” and “honest,” according to Pew. More Democrats think Clinton is “phony” and “hard to like” than they do about Obama.

• Pew said the things Democrats most dislike about Clinton are her personality, the idea that she has “too much baggage,” and that she is too ambitious.
• The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll said 48 percent of Democrats in its survey viewed Clinton as somewhat or very negative versus 37 percent who had very or somewhat positive perceptions of her. Two weeks ago, 45 percent viewed her positively, and 43 percent viewed her negatively. Obama is viewed positively by 49 percent of voters and negatively by 32 percent.

• In a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted March 14-16, forty-four percent of those surveyed said they considered Clinton honest and trustworthy while 53 percent did not. By contrast, McCain was considered honest and trustworthy by a 67 percent to 27 percent margin, and Obama was close at 63 percent to 29 percent.

• A Quinnipiac University poll of Connecticut voters found that 47 percent of all voters viewed her unfavorably to 46 percent who viewed her favorably. Obama’s favorability rating was 59 to 24 percent and McCain’s was 52 percent to 31 percent. A quarter of Clinton detractors in the poll said she was dishonest.

In a widely cited article earlier this week, David Brooks (admittedly not the best or most objective source when it comes to the Democrats) suggested that Clinton has perhaps a five percent chance to win the nomination. I think he overstates the mark. Clinton's "likability" problem has gotten worse as she's thrown the kitchen sink, the hallway closet, the bathroom toilet, the cellar door and whatever else isn't nailed down at Obama: to really maul this metaphor, she's destroyed her own house in the process.

Still, the Democrats can't just shove her off the stage, even if (as is starting to seem evident) they really want to. Why? Consider this comment, left last night on The Carpetbagger Report:

I will vote in the primary for Hillary. I will vote in the election for Hillary. Even if the party picks Obama I will write in a vote for Hillary. I will not vote for a man who has the nerve to say that he has never heard his minister talk that way when he’s been attending for around 20. Poppy cock. He’s lying period.

Look around the liberal blogosphere--and I'm not even talking about the fanatical Clinton sites--and you'll see a lot more of the same. There's some number of dead-ender Clintonites out there--probably not the 25 to 28 percent suggested by some polls, but between a few hundred thousand and a few million--who are deeply, deeply invested in this candidacy. These hardest of the hard-core, almost all of whom seem to be women, evidently see their own life struggles reflected in Sen. Clinton’s campaign... and see in Barack Obama every man who’s put one over on them and gotten away with it because of the sexism that still is a force in our society.

It’s at least somewhat irrational, and certainly subjective--I can't see how one considers Obama's unwillingness to repudiate his pastor as more offensive than Clinton lying about her Mission to Bosnia. And I think Hillary Clinton is about the worst imaginable champion for the legitimate grievances of American women… but she’s the one in this race, so that doesn’t matter either. Much as I wish we had Laura Roslin running for president, we don’t.

Now, if Clinton were a responsible leader who put party and principle ahead of personal ambition, she’d see the writing on the wall and conclude that her historical reputation and future clout in the Senate–-which is what she’s playing for now; it’s a near-certainty that she’ll never be president, however much some think she's trying to kneecap Obama for 2012–-would benefit by graciously withdrawing and offering wholehearted support for the party’s nominee.

But for the moment at least, she seems willing, if not eager, to lead her supporters right over the cliff–-and take the party with her. The painful irony is that the Democrats need those supporters sufficiently badly that they can't yet cauterize the wounds the Clintons continue to inflict. They'll need to feel that she had her full opportunity and lost fair and square, so to speak, rather than getting shoved aside as another victim of institutional sexism. The problem is that she might never make that graceful concession--and that until she does, she'll continue to attack Obama, driving up his negatives and costing the Democrats a precious opportunity to start making their case against John McCain and a continuation of the Bush/Cheney reign of error.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Hillary Clinton, Lying Liar
Per my point in a post last week about Barack Obama as a departure from the recent norm of national politicians who lie with a straight face even when we know they're lying and they know we know, consider Hillary Clinton's Excellent Bosnian Adventure.

Sen. Clinton's longtime claims of a "danger assignment" in the Balkans in 1996, which she uses to bolster her (rather thin) foreign policy "experience" credentials, got a little attention recently when Sinbad, the comedian who was also on the trip, essentially said she was full of shit:

Sinbad, along with singer Sheryl Crow, was on that 1996 trip to Bosnia that Clinton has described as a harrowing international experience that makes her tested and ready to answer a 3 a.m. phone call at the White House on day one, a claim for which she's taking much grief on the campaign trail.
In an interview with the Sleuth Monday, he said the "scariest" part of the trip was wondering where he'd eat next. "I think the only 'red-phone' moment was: 'Do we eat here or at the next place.'"

Clinton, during a late December campaign appearance in Iowa, described a hair-raising corkscrew landing in war-torn Bosnia, a trip she took with her then-teenage daughter, Chelsea. "They said there might be sniper fire," Clinton said.

Threat of bullets? Sinbad doesn't remember that, either.

"I never felt that I was in a dangerous position. I never felt being in a sense of peril, or 'Oh, God, I hope I'm going to be OK when I get out of this helicopter or when I get out of his tank.'"

In her Iowa stump speech, Clinton also said, "We used to say in the White House that if a place is too dangerous, too small or too poor, send the First Lady."

Say what? As Sinbad put it: "What kind of president would say, 'Hey, man, I can't go 'cause I might get shot so I'm going to send my wife...oh, and take a guitar player and a comedian with you.'"

The Clintons, as they tend to do, subsequently doubled down, adding the detail that the First Lady's transport came under sniper fire as it landed in Bosnia and a planned ceremony at the airport had to be called off as the party ran for their lives. Unfortunately for them, the press was on hand as well, and now the Washington Post offers this full-on fact check and awards her "Four Pinocchios," their highest honor for stretching facts well beyond recognition.

According to Pomfret, the Tuzla airport was "one of the safest places in Bosnia" in March 1996, and "firmly under the control" of the 1st Armored Division.

Far from running to an airport building with their heads down, Clinton and her party were greeted on the tarmac by smiling U.S. and Bosnian officials. An eight-year-old Moslem girl, Emina Bicakcic, read a poem in English. An Associated Press photograph of the greeting ceremony, above, shows a smiling Clinton bending down to receive a kiss.

"There is peace now," Emina told Clinton, according to Pomfret's report in the Washington Post the following day, "because Mr. Clinton signed it. All this peace. I love it."

The First Lady's schedule, released on Wednesday and available here, confirms that she arrived in Tuzla at 8.45 a.m. and was greeted by various dignitaries, including Emina Bicakcic, (whose name has mysteriously been redacted from the document.)

You can see CBS News footage of the arrival ceremony here. The footage shows Clinton walking calmly out of the back of the C-17 military transport plane that brought her from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.

Is this the issue on which the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination should be decided? Of course not. Has Barack Obama ever stretched an anecdote or altered a story to make himself look better? I'm guessing yes. (Though it's probably worth noting that the Republicans did pretty well by demonizing the last two Democratic presidential nominees as incorrigible liars, and none of their alleged whoppers were as blatant or easily disproved as this Clinton fabrication.) But this is so typical of the Clintons: not only the truth-stretching, but the brazenness of the dishonesty and the ease with which it can be exposed. Nobody has ever called them stupid, so I'm assuming what went on here was that someone made a calculation that the story would generate political value before it was exposed for the untruth it was. But is this really what progressives want? And can the country really afford another president or would-be president with such transparent contempt for the truth?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

An Experiment in Disconnection
I'm out of here again until Sunday, heading to Florida for some sun and March baseball. Not bringing my laptop, no plans to visit Internet Cafes, nuthin. Can't remember the last time I went four days without tapping on a keyboard... should be interesting.
Obama Passes Test; Will We?
By now you've heard about or read about or actually read Barack Obama's speech, given this morning in Philadelphia. Reaction around the blogosphere and, far as I can tell, within the mainstream media, breaks down into two categories: he either gave a brilliant speech that reaffirmed why his campaign has so far exceeded expectations from, say, six months ago, or he gave a good speech that didn't address his immediate political problem, which is winning (or winning back) white working-class voters who might have been open to Obama's appeal but were likely turned off by what they heard about Jeremiah Wright.

(Myself, I thought it was brilliant and easily cleared the bar Sullivan set for him--but if he can't get me with a simultaneously erudite and heartfelt speech about an issue that gets to the core of his candidacy, he probably should just pack it up. So we'll put my response off to the side here.)

Both these analyses are correct, but they both miss a larger point. The speech was, among other things, a challenge to get past the sound bites and out-of-context attacks that have come to characterize our politics and grapple with real, difficult, complex issues. He rejects the demonization of Jeremiah Wright, but doesn’t make him a martyr either; he presents him, I think accurately, as a man who's done admirable things but seen and suffered a great deal from our national legacy of discrimination. Obama essentially condemns Wright's speech--not the man himself, a point that seems to track with what I understand of Christianity--for telling just one side of the story:

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope - the audacity to hope - for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

I'm not sure that we are ready for this kind of complexity--for a public person like Wright who's neither a hatemonger nor a righteously enraged saint, but someone trying to serve his community and in some sense speak truth to power whose own experience has twisted him beyond the capacity for objective consideration. Maybe we are; our popular entertainments, at least, are starting to get past two-dimensional heroes and villains (think about The Sopranos). But not in our politics. The right wing in particular has always thrived on caricatures—Democrats are either waffling wimps, lecherous monsters, or serial liars--and the Politics of Extreme Simplification worked to win Bush a second term in 2004. But the left has gone too far in that direction by demonizing Bush—who isn’t evil so much as painfully out of his depth. (His policies might be evil in consequence, but it's absurd to think of him, or even Cheney, sitting there stroking a cat and laughing maniacally like Mike Myers.)

And this brings us back to Obama. He doesn’t present himself as perfect, even if some voices in the media have characterized him as doing so. Rather, he's a guy who seems almost to be thinking out loud, trying to reason through some very complicated problems. That's essentially the story he tells in his first book, and it's watching him go through that process on the page, grappling with fundamental questions of identity, that convinced me he has the capacity to lead in the presidency.

This is a little different from what we've become accustomed to: an image of power and leadership that admits of no mistakes, that lies with ease and even grace when we know they’re lying and they know we know. Obama isn’t a saint and his judgment, though good, isn’t perfect: the Rezko association and the failure to realize that Wright would be a political problem are more than ample proof of that.

So the question might not be so much whether or not we’re ready for a black president, as for one who is recognizably human, with the inevitably flawed nature that implies.

Monday, March 17, 2008

My Torah
I don't remember much from my early exposure to the Jewish religion, but one of the practices I do recall is that devout Jews read the Torah all the way through each year, breaking it up into regular increments that typically fall around the same time every year. (The vagaries of the lunar calendar--which had my brother thinking Passover is this weekend, because Easter is--leave me unsure that each selection comes at the exact same time every year.)

When I was a kid, I thought this was a little weird--essentially like watching the same TV shows over and over again.

As an adult, I watch the same TV shows over and over again.

The Simpsons has been in syndication for well over ten years now; I remember when I worked at NBC in 1996-97, we'd put on the big TVs in the bullpen/office whenever we were still there when it came on at 6 or whenever it was. The Fox affiliate here still airs The Simpsons twice a day, and at this point I must have seen many of the episodes, even those from seasons I don't have on DVD, a good dozen times. Tonight I watched the classic "Beer Baron" episode, which I do have on DVD, while working out at the gym. This one I can actually remember watching on at least four occasions: when it first aired in 1997, at a bar over the head of a girl I was out on a (terrible) blind date with a year or two after that, once on the DVD, and this evening. But I can give you that episode almost line-for-line, so I have to believe the number of actual viewings has to be closer to 15.

That isn't the worst of it. The Simpsons is among the longest-running shows in TV history; they've made something like 450 of them. The Fox station tonight went out of order to show the Beer Baron episode, which begins on St. Patrick's Day; otherwise, they've been airing them sequentially since late last year, from the very first "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire"--aired in the 1980s!!!--to, presumably, the most recent one they'll be allowed to show when they hit the end of the road in early 2009 or thereabouts. The show that I seem to watch almost as compulsively is "Futurama"... of which only about 70 episodes were made, not including the new ones that will debut on Comedy Central this Sunday. (Yes, I'm deeply excited.) Comedy Central airs about five hours of "Futurama" every week, and I probably watch a bit less than half of them; previously, the series played on Cartoon Network as part of its Adult Swim block, and I watched that at least a couple times a week.

Why? I still enjoy the shows, but there's got to be a few thousand better uses of my time. All I can come up with, other than Occam's answer of inertia (and what fun is that?), is that I get some kind of comfort, spiritual sustenance even, from doing it. It's not exactly Maimonides reading the Exodus, but I gotta go with what I have...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Wright's Righteous Rage
The Washington Post offers this selection of "greatest hits" from Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's longtime pastor at his Chicago church.

(At this point, upon reading the link, you're supposed to swoon, faint, and be revived with smelling salts. I'll wait. Ready? OK.)

Obama is taking all kinds of fire for this guy and his "inflammatory" statements, even after responding in print yesterday. I hadn't watched any video of Wright until seeing this earlier this afternoon, and a colleague of mine at the office yesterday, whom I asked about this, said that you really had to see the clips to appreciate why people are getting bent out of shape. Fair enough--though now that I have seen Wright in full boil, I still absolutely don't get what the big deal is. I'd submit that any intelligent and educated African-American man of a certain age, in a position of responsibility within his community, is likely to feel the anger that Wright expresses over the question of race in America--and justifiably so! Is he over the top? Perhaps. But he isn't wrong.

I also watched this lengthy clip of Obama talking with Keith Olbermann last night about the Wright (and Tony Rezko) controversies. I think he sounded the proper note:

Reverend Wright represents a generation that came of age in the ‘60s. He is an African-American man who, because of his life experience, he continues to have a lot of anger and frustration and will express that in ways that are very different from me and my generation. … Part of what we’re seeing is a transition from the past to the future. I hope that our politics represents that future.”

Obama admits that he'll see Wright's sermon clips again, most likely in ads produced and paid for by independent 527 groups, if he wins the nomination. He repudiates the sentiments, but not Wright (who is retiring) himself. And he adds that he hopes to use Wright's statements as a way to talk about race. What I'm guessing he means by this is to make the point that Wright has cause for anger. The aftereffects of de jure discrimination, its structural legacy, continues to harm black America almost a half-century after the triumphs of the civil rights movement: schools remain unequal, housing remains largely segregated by race, and some cultural pathologies of the black community--which Obama has admirably, if not heroically, addressed throughout his career--remain tragically intact. Obama is probably the one person in the country, though, who can tell this entire story, which is a lot more complex than Wright presents it: enduring bigotry and progress side by side, a new world of possibilities (embodied, not least, by Obama himself) and the same old dead ends and traps, pride and shame.

I think it was the United Negro College Fund that launched a campaign several years ago with this brilliant slogan: "Much has changed. Much has not." That's the story of black America in the 21st century, as this white boy sees it. Obama is the man to tell that story, and to move the country to more fully acknowledge the history of discrimination--but not be ruled by it, and not allow it as an excuse for failure to make progress or confront the problems within the black community itself.

But we only get to have that desperately needed conversation if Obama wins. Meanwhile, the circus is in full swing. That right-wing radio people are comparing Wright to the Nazis or KKK, or that Rush Limbaugh—Rush fuckin’ Limbaugh!—is calling him a race-baiter and hate-monger, is beyond silly. But there’s no primary for five and a half more weeks, and the media must clutch its pearls. This story will linger for another week, his poll numbers will dip, and then the circus will move on to another issue that might or might not have anything to do with our crippling financial and economic problems, the desperate need to reform our health care and education systems, the quagmire in Iraq, or any of the myriad other problems that are really at issue in this election. I’m guessing not.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Power of Shamelessness
About ten years ago, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal was threatening to engulf the Clinton administration and capsize his presidency, I remember thinking with admiration that Bill Clinton had no shame. How else, I asked myself, could this guy go out every day, in the highest of high-profile positions, and continue to do his job? In his place, I thought at the time, not only wouldn't I be able to go in front of cameras and talk about intervention in the Balkans or instability in the Russian economy or whatever was on the table at that time; I wouldn't have been able to breathe. The embarrassment, and the pain caused to those betrayed, might or might not be survivable.

The Clintons' shamelessness served them well then, in a cause I supported. Now they're displaying the same trait in one I deplore--but it might serve them well again. Sending out Geraldine Ferraro as a sort of Archie Bunker with estrogen might drive away some of their already-meager support among People Like Me and You: the over-educated, upper middle classish, online types who demographically if not temperamentally speaking are already inclined to favor Barack Obama. But will it hurt Hillary Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary where the former president now has declared she needs a "big win"? I'm inclined to believe not. Racial resentment is still a powerful motivating force at the polls: just ask whatever's left of Jesse Helms, or his opponent Harvey Gantt. An effort to paint Obama as an affirmative-action candidate could play well in the part of the state that James Carville famously described as "Alabama."

We who oppose this Clinton candidacy and decry the former First Couple as supreme narcissists can wring our hands and threaten to sit out the fall election, though they don't necessarily need us anyway. I do wonder if this sort of soft-racism-by-proxy would hurt Sen. Clinton in November; if African-Americans sit home in large numbers, she'd be sunk. But maybe they wouldn't; part of the Clintons' sick genius is that they frame the world in such a way that we all must be partisans, typically on their behalf. That they resemble nobody so much as the Bushes, who also see the world as two camps With Us or Against Us, doesn't strike me as a coincidence.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Downfall of "Client 9"
I said late last year that no official I've politically supported had been a bigger disappointment to me than New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, elected in a landslide win two years ago with a mandate to finally clean up our corrupt and dysfunctional state politics. Turns out that Spitzer's disastrous 2007 might prove to be a high point, given new revelations that he's been consorting with ho's:

Just last week, federal prosecutors arrested four people in connection with an expensive prostitution operation. Administration officials would not say that this was the ring with which the governor had become involved.

But a person with knowledge of the governor’s role said that the person believes the governor is one of the men identified as clients in court papers.

The governor’s travel records show that he was in Washington in mid-February. One of the clients described in court papers arranged to meet with a prostitute who was part of the ring, the Emperors Club VIP on the night of Feb. 13.

Mr. Spitzer appeared on a CNBC television show at 7 a.m. the next morning. Later in the morning, he testified before a Congressional committee.

An affidavit filed in federal court in Manhattan in connection with that case lists six conversations between the man, identified as Client 9, and a booking agent for the Emperors Club.

To me, this is about equal parts really funny and deeply sad. My father, however, is not so torn: as a former insurance agent, he's not very fond of Gov. Spitzer, and his reaction when I called him a little while ago made this all a little better.


He later calmed down enough to wonder "how they caught that motherfucker," and made in somewhat more colorful prose the point that Josh Marshall just raised on his blog:

We don't know the precise details yet of this 'prostitution ring involvement' on the part of the Gov. Spitzer. But how exactly is it that someone who makes it his business to bust the chops of big wall street titans uses prostitutes? TPM HQ is in Chelsea. And I'm expecting the streets to deluged at any moment now by joyously rioting stock brokers coming up from Wall Street. We do know that this financial industry honchos all have big 'security' offices and have tons of PIs who work for them. I'm frankly shocked they didn't smoke him out before this.

I guess the upside of this is that it makes it somewhat more likely that Mayor Bloomberg will make a run for the statehouse in two years' time, if Spitzer resigns. (I doubt he will, given what we now know, but we'll see; the knives were out for him before, and this won't help.) And as a Clinton supporter, his embarrassment might cause a little discomfort for Team Restoration.

Still, as someone who enthusiastically voted for Spitzer, and still thinks the guy has a great combination of idealism and toughness, I'm more than a little bummed.
Reagan vs. Nixon
At the office the other day we were trying to come up with a Republican parallel to the Obama/Clinton contest, reinvigorated after the Clintons' victories last week in three primaries and likely to be sustained by the shamelessness of the former First Family as well as the media's interest in a horserace. Putting aside the remote possibility of the Republicans, always deferential to authority and ready to fall in line, engaging in a nomination battle that not resolved early in favor of the front-runner, it can be done. You just need an inspirational, potentially transformational candidate on one side, and a very well-known, highly polarizing political institution on the other.

The analogy is Ronald Reagan versus Richard Nixon. It actually could have happened in 1968, if Reagan's first fledgling presidential run had been somewhat more in earnest. The parallels to the battle between Obama and Clinton are almost spooky.

Reagan, like Obama, had come to national attention with a widely seen speech in praise of another presidential candidate; his "A Time for Choosing" was a sensation, and impelled not a few Republicans to wish it was the former actor, rather than the rhetorically impaired Senator Barry Goldwater, on the ballot in 1964. Similarly, Obama's "Audacity of Hope" keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention provided a stunning contrast with John Kerry's overly mannered acceptance speech. And while many view Obama with skepticism for his short resume in elected office--half a term in the U.S. Senate, eight years as an Illinois State Senator--he looks like Henry Clay compared to Reagan in 1968, when he entered the presidential lists a year after winning his first political office as California's governor. None of this even gets into the similarity between the critique of Obama today and Reagan in 1980, noted by the right-wing writer Stephen Hayes (who warns his fellow Republicans not to repeat the Democrats' '80 mistake of underestimating the guy with the sunny rhetoric) among many others.

The Nixon/Clinton comparison is a bit more of a stretch, though Matt Taibbi at least thinks it works. Certainly both were hated by half the country, but supported by a large chunk of their party establishments. Both had eight years in someone else's White House which they somewhat dubiously claimed as experience, though Bill Clinton certainly has been more amenable to his wife's taking credit for Clinton administration accomplishments than President Eisenhower had been for his #2. Both are certainly open to charges of secrecy and dishonesty. (Okay, Nixon's actually open-and-shut; but Hillary more than holds her own here.) Both tried to secure the nomination by calling in chits from the party establishment and leveraging name recognition and brand loyalty from lower-information voters. Both were willing, if not absolutely eager, to kneecap rivals within the party. (What Clinton has done to Obama lines up pretty well with the doubts Nixon sowed in 1964 about Goldwater and four years later about both Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller.) Both offer a platform of "knowing how to get things done" on behalf of a constituency overlooked by the press and elites.

And both seem fueled by paranoia and resentment--at the press (ironically enough, in this respect; had it been Obama who'd lost 11 straight contests, or failed to release his tax returns, the frenzy would have been decisive) and other enemies--more than anything else. Here's Taibbi on Clinton's stump speech:

At one event I attended in Iowa, she railed against the Republicans who tried to crush her over health care, the Chinese who tried to stifle her over her "women's rights are human rights" speech, a pharmaceutical industry that bucked when she passed a law requiring that drugs be tested for use on children, and a press that tells lies about her. The speech conveniently ignored the fact that Hillary (a) takes more money from Big Pharma than any candidate in the race and (b) voted to keep most-favored-nation trading status with China despite her human-rights concerns, and that she and her husband were bogged down in a scandal involving campaign contributions from the Chinese.

Hillary's campaign is and always has been presented as a pitched battle for political survival against bitter enemies, and no reporter who has watched the way she stage-manages every last utterance and generally treats the press like a gang of rattlesnakes (which they are, of course) can possibly fail to appreciate the similarity to Nixon's own troubled, hypervigilant relationship with the fourth estate.

In a much lower-profile contest than either this year's Democratic nomination battle or the tragic debacle that was the Democratic race that year, Nixon beat Reagan, and a host of others, for the 1968 nomination because Reagan wasn't quite ready for prime time and because Nixon didn't face as much grass-roots or institutional opposition within his party as Clinton has in hers. And their contest, such as it was, didn't do any lasting damage to the Republicans for the fall campaign or beyond. From where we sit today, neither outcome seems likely this time around: Obama's pledged-delegate lead and strong campaign still make him the favorite, but the Clintons' desperate scorched-earth tactics are likely to leave deep wounds, to the Democrats' ultimate disadvantage in a year they should be poised for easy victory. The willingness to tear apart others for personal tactical gain could be the signature Nixonian trait.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

"Classic 120 Minutes"
Around midnight this past Sunday night I was flipping through the channels and saw a mind-boggler: VH1 Classic: 120 Minutes. This is the refitted version of a show that was, when I was growing up, MTV's nod to what's now mis-labeled "alternative rock," which in those pre-Internet and pre-Nirvana days really was mostly confined to the margins of popular culture. 120 Minutes played videos by bands who otherwise had virtually no national exposure: few made top-40 or Album-Oriented Rock radio, and at best they might get to play one song for a late-night TV audience with Letterman or whoever was filling in for Johnny Carson.

The bands made it, such as they did, through airplay on college stations, touring, little blurbs in big magazines like Rolling Stone or SPIN or big writeups in tiny 'zines now lost to history, at least as far as I know. Between the stresses and difficulties of the music business at the time, and the generally contrarian nature of angry young men (and a few women) in all times, most of those groups soon broke up; interestingly, more than a few of them have reunited in this decade, seizing upon the new abundance of distribution channels for their work as well as, I guess, the middle-aged realization that nothing is really cooler or more satisfying than playing great music with people you love. Oh, and the money: the Pixies, for instance, probably didn't get rich while they were making albums, but they sure as hell did on the reunion tours.

But that's all wide-world stuff. For me at age 13 through 15 or so, 120 Minutes was almost a lifeline, the place I first heard many of the bands that still rank among my all-time favorites today--Camper van Beethoven, the Church, Robyn Hitchcock, Sonic Youth--as well as lesser favorites They Might Be Giants and the Jesus and Mary Chain, and mostly-forgotten acts like Cactus World News, the Dream Syndicate, Game Theory (I probably could still sing you "Erica's Word"), Screaming Blue Messiahs and Scruffy the Cat. Perhaps more to the point, it was a window into the world beyond the 'burbs, my family with its standard-order but still painful dysfunction, where maybe I wouldn't feel quite as out of place. When I was off school or couldn't sleep, I'd stay up to watch; other times I'd set the VCR and look forward to coming home from a miserable day at middle school and watching the tape. (This was also good because you could fast-forward through the crap, which was usually plentiful.)

That said, watching the current version is a little bit like visiting a theme park based on a place where you once lived. The sense of newness, obviously, is gone: all the videos are at least 15 years old. There's no chance of hearing a little gem like Scruffy the Cat or the Cavedogs (a Boston band I once saw play live during college; I've never comprised a larger share of an audience); it's all big-name groups like R.E.M. and The Cure, whom I imagine get at least one play just about every week. Still, there are worse ways to spend a couple late-night hours, and it's a trip to ponder that all these bands that represented the future are now sufficiently back in the rearview to merit the label of "classic."

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Easy, Kev
Just hours after New York City Mayor (and AIS hero) Mike Bloomberg made his definitive announcement that he wouldn't be seeking the presidency as an independent candidate in 2008, top Bloomberg political aide Kevin Sheekey put the mayor's political plans and ambitions back in the news with public speculation that Bloomberg could be a strong running mate for Barack Obama. Sheekey says, "I think the mayor is the ultimate swing voter. He is someone who the country is looking at to find out where they will go. He is one of the true independents in the country.”

I guess that in some sense, anyone with a net work of $12 billion or so who hasn't publicly committed to supporting any candidate could be fairly described as "the ultimate swing voter." And some already have tried to parse Bloomberg's Times op-ed for clues as to who he might ultimately endorse. Michael Tomasky, who's usually pretty smart, screws up this exercise IMO by giving all his considerations--free trade, immigration reform, education reform and global warming--equal weight, while leaving out altogether the most important substance graf in Bloomberg's piece:

In every city I have visited — from Baltimore to New Orleans to Seattle — the message of an independent approach has resonated strongly, and so has the need for a new urban agenda. More than 65 percent of Americans now live in urban areas — our nation’s economic engines. But you would never know that listening to the presidential candidates. At a time when our national economy is sputtering, to say the least, what are we doing to fuel job growth in our cities, and to revive cities that have never fully recovered from the manufacturing losses of recent decades?

So let's see: you've got John McCain, a member of Congress for a quarter-century whose signature issue at this point is foreign policy, and whose past admirable steps toward political process reform (which indirectly benefits cities by weakening the power of special interests to divert public resources for everything else) he's now mostly trying to push under the rug in hopes of winning over right-wingers. Then you've got Barack Obama, whose formative political experiences were as a community organizer in an impoverished section of Chicago and a state senator representing a wealthier part of Chicago. Seems one of the two is more attuned toward the concerns and hopes of those championing an urban agenda than others, no?

(And yes, I know Hillary Clinton is still in the race, and that in some sense she represents New York City. But while their relationship is said to be cordial, I find it unimaginable that Bloomberg would support the woman who embodies the Democratic political establishment, if not the Beltway mindset itself. Perhaps more to the point, Hillary leadership on urban issues other than trying to get more Homeland Security funding for NYC has been non-existent.)

Still, I'd be pretty comfortable betting money I don't really have that Bloomberg won't be Obama's running mate. The reasons why are both political and stylistic: if Bloomberg, a big-time social liberal whom even his admirers (like me) readily concede doesn't exactly have the Common Touch, really can appeal to swing voters and independents, I haven't seen it. What states, other than perhaps Florida (which would be a big deal if proven), could he swing for Obama? And what would be his policy portfolio within an Obama administration? Much as it might cause me to drop dead in bliss to hear Bloomberg named as an urban policy tsar, it's not gonna happen--and even if it did, I'm not sure it would tilt cities all that much more into the Democratic camp than they already are. That leaves his money, and while Obama might or might not ultimately agree to accept public financing for the general election, even if he didn't I doubt the inevitable accusation that the billionaire plutocrat running mate (I could add "Jew" in there) was funding his run would sit well with the outsider, reformist mantle he wants to claim.

Maybe an even bigger issue is that I doubt Bloomberg has been anyone's Number Two in thirty years if not more. As a CEO and as a mayor, he's known as an almost archetypical enlightened despot: smart, communicative, extremely supportive of his deputies--but absolutely the man. At this point, he simply couldn't play second fiddle. Perhaps for a president as insecure in his abilities and uninterested in detail as George W. Bush, Bloomberg could play the non-evil Cheney role. But that's not Barack Obama, thank goodness.

Ultimately it wouldn't shock me if Bloomberg did endorse Obama and even agreed to serve in some role, formal or otherwise, in an Obama administration. (It's easier for me to see Bloomberg as Treasury Secretary, or even Education Secretary, than VP; in a federal cabinet agency, enlightened despotism kind of works, and you can be semi-autonomous.) I think he likes McCain, but realizes that the septuagenarian Senator is too tied to a party that fundamentally opposes everything Bloomberg stands for. And the mayor's mix of liberal ends with pragmatic and market-oriented means matches up very well with Obama's own public persona. But he would add a lot more at arm's length than in the full and somewhat involuntary embrace that second standing on the ticket requires.