Monday, June 30, 2008

Re-Fighting the '60s on the Page, Not at the Polls
The inextricable military, political and cultural wars of the 1960s might have had a pretty dismal effect on American politics, but they did prove a deep wellspring of literary inspiration. Last week, I finished Jim Webb's novel Fields of Fire, a fictionalized account of one Marine platoon fighting in Vietnam in 1969. Webb, whose fairly prodigious literary output surely will get much closer scrutiny if he turns out to be Barack Obama's vice-presidential nominee, doesn't much grapple with the geopolitical issues related to the invasion in this novel, which came out a few years after the end of the war; his soldiers rarely delve into whether the war is justified or not, whether it makes sense on a strategic level, how it fits into the larger struggle against Communism, or any of the other big questions that consumed so many thinkers of the period.

The only political ground Webb seriously covers in the book has to do with the domestic antiwar movement. In a word, he detests it: while those who actually went to jail rather than serve have the respect of the narrative voice and the author's proxies, the much larger number who either manipulated their draft process (by self-inflicted injuries, aberrant behavior, etc) or, worse, ran off to Canada, draw only contempt. There's a devastating scene toward the end of the novel, in which one of the protagonists--a Harvard undergraduate who drifted into service, was critical of the war both on the conceptual level and the tactics employed to conduct it, felt alienated from his fellow Marines, and came home after losing a limb--tries to address an anti-war rally only to be booed off the stage by affluent young people chanting pro-North Vietnamese slogans. Surely, Webb is somewhat unfair in giving no credit for honest idealism and principled opposition to the war--but he's also incredibly powerful in evoking just how far from the American mainstream the protesters must have seemed even to someone who felt a degree of sympathy for their views.

Myself, I'd thought of the period primarily through the lens of the war's opponents; my mother always said while I was growing up that she would send me to Canada rather than relinquish me for a war we considered unjust. Webb's contention--that Americans are free to exercise their conscience (go to jail rather than serve), but not to essentially ignore their obligations under the social contract--is a powerful one; I can't help but feel that the country would be in better shape if it was more widely shared. Of course, the other side of his view was on display in his memorable response to the 2007 State of the Union address, when he blasted the Bush administration on Iraq:

We owed them our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it. But they owed us sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it.

I suspect that Webb sees the failure of both sides, leaders and citizens, to live up to their respective obligations, as related... though I doubt he'd say as much unless directly asked. (The fact that he might say as much under any circumstance is one reason I suspect the increasingly cautious Obama won't choose him; the other, which I admit is a total hunch not substantiated by anything, is that I believe Obama is too much of an egotist to share the spotlight with someone who might be both a better writer and a deeper, more nuanced thinker than he is.)

Since finishing Fields of Fire, I've moved on to Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, which I remember was originally to be subtitled something like "Guided Tours of the American Berserk, 1965-72"; I think the publisher must have thumbs-downed that idea. Perlstein's previous book was an excellent history of the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, Before the Storm, which I read this past winter; the new one picks up pretty much where that book left off. I'm perhaps a bit too much of a fuddy-duddy when it comes to reading history to fully enjoy some of Perlstein's narrative flourishes, but his narrative is vivid and superbly readable--and through the first 130 pages or so at least (which is as far as I've gotten), he does an astounding job of setting up just how fractured the political landscape was, how irreconcilable the right and left seemed, through 1965 and 1966.

Though Perlstein is a serious lefty, he seems to have a good deal of credibility on the right: George Will wrote a relatively positive review of Nixonland in May, and Perlstein enjoyed an unlikely friendship with William F. Buckley, a significant character in both his books. (Perlstein also penned a glowing tribute to Buckley when the conservative legend died this past February.) Here's an interesting article that tracks Perlstein's relationship with his ideological adversaries; what's described here is something I myself aspire to, though unfortunately I tend all too often to get pissed off or lazy and fall back into an echo chamber... which I guess somewhat goes to Perlstein's argument.

That said, one critique Will makes of that argument, and Nixonland in general, seems on the money to me: his thesis seeks to explain too much, and its conclusion--that we're still essentially living in "Nixonland," where cultural division explains anything and everything about American politics--seems off the mark. Then again, maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, born of the realization that the candidates for the presidency this year are one guy who spent almost the entirety of the period Perlstein writes about in a Vietnamese prison camp--rendering him unable to participate in the cultural conflict of the time--and another guy who was a little kid (and also wasn't living in the country) for most of those years.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Free to Disagree
I haven't written in depth about Obama's cowardly and shameful move to support the Democratic surrender on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), in part because it depresses me and in part because I don't trust myself to get into the policy weeds on the question. But obviously it didn't thrill me. Some observers have seized upon this move, as well as the Democratic nominee's opting out of the public financing system for the fall campaign, as indications that Obama is a tougher and more cynical politician than many thought; I didn't share this view, mostly because it seemed self-evident to me that any Chicagoan in elective politics whose hobbies are poker and pick-up basketball is, on some level, a hyper-competitive and probably vicious mofo to start with. Nor does my disappointment with Obama on FISA either compel me away from supporting him (though I don't feel much like sending any money that way for awhile) or change my view that he has the potential for greatness in the presidency; Lincoln and FDR did some shady, cynical stuff too, and they were pretty good.

What does unnerve me a little is the tendency of many Democrats, even supposed progressives, to justify his moves through what seems like blind faith in Obama's goodness. blogger Glenn Greenwald, who does have the technical expertise to eviscerate the FISA deal (see link above), called out his fellow liberals on this yesterday:

It isn't that difficult to keep the following two thoughts in one's head at the same time -- though it seems to be for many people:
(1) What Barack Obama is doing on Issue X is wrong, indefensible and worthy of extreme criticism;
(2) I support Barack Obama for President because he's a better choice than John McCain.

The real danger is that those who defend Obama the Candidate no matter what he does are likely to defend Obama the President no matter what he does, too. If we learn in 2009 that Obama has invoked his claimed Article II powers to spy on Americans outside of even the new FISA law, are we going to hear from certain factions that he was justified in doing so to protect us; how it's a good, shrewd move to show he's a centrist and keep his approval ratings high so he can do all the Good things he wants to do for us; how it's different when Obama does it because we can trust him? It certainly looks that way. Those who spent the last five years mauling Bush for "shredding the Constitution" and approving of lawbreaking -- only to then praise Obama for supporting a bill that endorses and protects all of that -- are displaying exactly the type of blind reverence that is more dangerous than any one political leader could ever be.

Bingo. Obviously, I'm an admirer of Obama. I think he's the most genuinely progressive candidate at the national level we've seen perhaps since JFK (while Johnson, McGovern and Mondale certainly were more conventionally "liberal," their lefty faith was institutionally driven, with unions and government the mandated instruments of policy; Obama seems much more inclined to use whatever tools come to hand, which is the sort of pragmatic progressivism we need today), and I believe his temperament and style of leadership fits the modern presidency to a tee.

But the guy is neither a saint nor an infallible genius. He's clearly arrogant, and at times a little squishy. And if you take his rhetoric about democracy and public participation at face value, it's going to be the responsibility of the full public to call him on it when he fails to live up to his own professed ideals and always to evaluate him by the standard of his own professed principles. Lord Acton didn't distinguish between progressives and right-wingers; hero worship of Obama is no more palatable, and no better for America, than hero worship of George W. Bush.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Obama Talks Cities
I know it's not as interesting to the wire services as another substance- and context-free exchange of political accusations, but Barack Obama addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami this weekend. There was nothing earthshattering in the speech, but it did again show that Obama is the presidential candidate most deeply engaged with city issues since maybe Al Smith eighty years ago.

He starts by making an effective and concise connection between Bush-era policy failures at the federal level and added strain on local budgets and services:

You know what happens when Washington makes promises it doesn’t keep and fails to fully fund No Child Left Behind – because it’s your teachers who are overburdened, your teachers who aren’t getting the support they need, and your teachers who are forced to teach to the test, instead of giving students the skills to compete in our global economy. That’s why you need a partner in the White House.

You know what happens when Washington succumbs to petty partisanship and fails to pass comprehensive immigration reform – because it’s your communities that are forced to take immigration enforcement into their own hands, your cities’ services that are stretched, and your neighborhoods that are seeing rising cultural and economic tensions. That’s why you need a partner in the White House.

You know what happens when Washington listens to big oil and gas companies and blocks real energy reform – because it’s your budgets that are being pinched by high energy costs, and your schools that are cutting back on textbooks to keep their buses running; it’s the lots in your towns and cities that are brownfields. That’s why you need a partner in the White House.

This is smart and certainly accurate, but probably pretty close to boilerplate that one would expect from any Democratic presidential nominee. Perhaps more interesting is the new frame Obama deploys to discuss city issues--one that could yield political benefits in the suburbs as well as within city limits, and one that comports nicely with the vision of how local economies work that I've come to believe in after eight years of engagement with many of these questions.

...[T]he truth is, what our cities need isn’t just a partner. What you need is a partner who knows that the old ways of looking at our cities just won’t do; who knows that our nation and our cities are undergoing a historic transformation. The change that’s taking place today is as great as any we’ve seen in more than a century, since the time when cities grew upward and outward with immigrants escaping poverty, and tyranny, and misery abroad. Our population has grown by tens of millions in the past few decades, and it’s projected to grow nearly 50% more in the decades to come. And this growth isn’t just confined to our cities, it’s happening in our suburbs, exurbs, and throughout our metropolitan areas.

This is creating new pressures, but it’s also opening up new opportunities – because it’s not just our cities that are hotbeds of innovation anymore, it’s those growing metro areas. It’s not just Durham or Raleigh – it’s the entire Research Triangle. It’s not just Palo Alto, it’s cities up and down Silicon Valley. The top 100 metro areas generate two-thirds of our jobs, nearly 80% of patents, and handle 75% of all seaport tonnage through ports like the one here in Miami. In fact, 42 of our metro areas now rank among the world’s 100 largest economies.

To seize the possibility of this moment, we need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth. And yet, Washington remains trapped in an earlier era, wedded to an outdated “urban” agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas; an agenda that confuses anti-poverty policy with a metropolitan strategy, and ends up hurting both.
[W]hat we’ve found time and time again is that when we take the different assets that are scattered throughout our communities – whether it’s a skilled workforce or leading firms or institutions of higher education – and bring them all together so they can learn from one another and share ideas, you get the kind of creative thinking that doesn’t come in isolation.

And that can lead to more innovation, and entrepreneurship, and real economic benefits like new jobs and higher wages. That’s what happened Pennsylvania, where something called Keystone Innovation Zones have led to the formation of nearly 200 new companies. And that’s why, in my administration, we’ll offer $200 million a year in competitive matching grants for state and local governments to plan and grow regional economies – because when it’s working together, the sum of a metro area can be greater than its parts.

This isn't to suggest that Obama has no anti-poverty plan; he does (John Edwards' endorsement should be enough assurance on that point), and the speech then goes on to detail some of its particulars--full funding of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Community Development Block Grant, stepped-up recruitment for teachers in city schools, and so on. But with that out of the way, he focuses on the new frame: "a strategy that’s about South Florida as much as Miami; that’s about Mesa and Scottsdale as much as Phoenix; that’s about Stamford and Northern New Jersey as much as New York City. As President, I’ll work with you to develop this kind of strategy and I’ll appoint the first White House Director of Urban Policy to help make it a reality."

Given the many strands of "metropolitan policy"--schools, housing, crime, transportation, services, and so on--it makes sense to have someone in a coordinating role. Maybe better, though, would be some kind of Metropolitan Advisory Council, perhaps on the model of the Defense Policy Board: there are a lot of ex-mayors and subsidiary officials out there with considerable expertise and a decent chunk of time on their hands. While groups like the USCM itself potentially fulfill this advisory role, current officeholders--many (most?) of whom inevitably harbor ongoing political ambitions--can't truly serve in the (gender-nonspecific) "wise men" role I'm thinking of here.

Speeches such as this one aren't likely to do much in helping Obama win the election. Most of the biggest population centers are in states he's going to carry anyway; a few of the larger second-tier cities (Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, etc) are situated in battleground states, but the trick there isn't persuasion, it's turnout. At most, a rhetorical shift from "urban" to "metropolitan" might placate a very small number of suburban fence-sitters. But what this speech did for me, and perhaps others, was to provide a reminder that Obama potentially offers something far beyond the satisfaction of putting someone with a (D) after his name in the White House and conclusively ending the tragic Bush era with the candidate farthest from the incumbent. (It's a reminder I particularly appreciate after the deep disappointment of his announcement on Friday that he supported the shameful Democratic surrender on electronic surveillance and retroactive immunity for the telecom companies.) By nature of his background in public life and his own policy interests, Obama could be the best president for cities since Roosevelt. That's potentially pretty exciting.
Numbers vs. Mojo
The Phillies are playing just really, really shitty baseball right now. As I write, they're about to be swept by Los Angeles of Anaheim of the Angels of Orange County of Nixonland, a defeat that will be their fifth straight, seventh out of eight, and ninth out of twelve. Depending on what happens in the Marlins-A's game now underway, they'll either be tied for the NL East division lead or one game ahead. Perhaps most exasperating is that the pitching has been relatively decent through most of this slide--much-maligned Opening Day starter Brett Myers gave them a good effort last night in a 6-2 loss, and ace Cole Hamels was great but for one pitch in seven innings today... and, as tends to happen when you hit a skid like this, the pitch was clobbered for a two-run homer.

I probably watch on average something like three out of every four games, thanks to But owing to a flukish departure from my usual practice of not much leaving the house, I've missed a bunch of the recent losses: one of the Boston games, the first two against the Angels. Probably because of that, until today's game, which I've watched in its entirety, I was able to view the skid with relative equanimity: over the course of a six-month season, every team hits stretches where they lose a lot. The Phillies have a very good offense, but over the last week or so they've totaled something like 15 hits. Their best hitter, Chase Utley, was 0 for 24 until a double earlier today... and just now, as I was typing this sentence, a bench player for Anaheim, Reggie Willits, made a diving catch to rob Pat Burrell of a double that would have put the tying run at second with one out in the 8th.

This premise--that baseball on a day-to-day basis shows near-infinite randomness within a broadly predictable framework over a longer stretch of time (or a vast number of simulations)--is at the core of the revolution in statistical analysis that has overtaken the game in the last 30 years, and especially in the last ten. But when you're watching it--when you see Reggie Willits make a diving catch to take one away from Burrell or Chase Utley visibly sag after another poorly executed at-bat--it doesn't feel like something that's rationally explained. It just sucks, and makes one want to sacrifice a chicken or artificially manifest a rainout in hopes of prompting some supernatural reversal of fortune.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Happy Anniversary. Now Back to Work.
You probably missed it, but this is a week of mild celebration for Americans who work the crappiest jobs: the federal minimum wage was signed into law on June 16, 1933. New York Times "editorial observer" Adam Cohen tells the story and explains the significance:

When progressives set out to establish a national minimum wage, they faced stiff opposition. Industry insisted that government should not interfere with its relations with its employees. Organized labor was also opposed. (“If you give them something for nothing,” one labor leader objected, “they won’t join the union.”) The pro-business Supreme Court presented the biggest obstacle, ruling that minimum wages were unconstitutional.

The Depression provided an opening. Progressives injected minimum-wage and maximum-hours provisions into the NIRA. These provisions were technically voluntary, but if companies wanted the government to approve the minimum prices and production limits they desperately wanted, they had to agree to minimum wages. Most industries adopted a minimum hourly wage of at least 40 cents.

The Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional, but the idea of a federal minimum wage had taken hold. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act — which a more progressive Supreme Court upheld — creating a mandatory federal minimum wage.

The new law was enormously effective: within a year, it brought millions of low-paid workers up to a wage of 30 cents an hour. It also had major weaknesses, notably that it was not indexed to inflation. Congress has to raise it, which leaves low-income workers at the mercy of politics.

I first took a serious look at the minimum wage four years ago, in the context of a report on working poor families in New York state. During the research, we engaged the Pataki administration's welfare office; the commissioner and his top advisers there were clearly conservatives and opposed a higher minimum wage, which we were considering including as a recommendation, but they were fair-minded people who weren't afraid of the argument and didn't hold against us the fact that we did ultimately urge the state legislature to raise the wage. (They did, that winter; much as I would love to assert that our advocacy had something to do with it, the timing--our report came out in November, the vote took place very soon after--puts that into doubt.)

The federal minimum wage increase passed by Congress last year, to $7.25 per hour, was higher than the $7.15 state wage, and thus superseded New York's change. The problem, as Cohen notes, is that the wage is not indexed to inflation--so every move to raise it requires a new act of political will. Perhaps not surprisingly, the real value of the minimum wage has fallen sharply since the late 1960s, which of course is when the conservative political ascendancy at the national level really took hold. From 1981 to 1990, and again from 1997 until last year, the federal minimum didn't go up at all.

Arguments against the minimum wage center on its supposedly harmful impacts to business, particularly smaller employers. Perhaps surprisingly, I haven't heard even right wing pundits declare that the higher minimum wage is the reason for the current economic downturn. (Granted, this position makes no sense; but that rarely seems to stop them.) Arguments for a higher wage generally engage both a moral case and a utility argument, that providing low-income earners with greater spending power exerts a stimulus effect since they tend to spend every added dollar on needed goods. This piece from briefly covers both sides, in the context of the debate early last year when the increase was being considered in Congress.

A brief search revealed no analysis of how the most recent federal increase has impacted the economy. But this report by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a labor-affiliated research shop based in Lower Manhattan, found that in New York, employment in the industries most affected by the increase--retail and food service--grew at a faster pace than overall job growth in the state from 2005 to 2007, during which time the minimum wage rose each year.

The politics of the minimum wage touch upon the big sea change in American political culture I referenced above: the shift in default public mindset from assuming that government intervention in the economy was certainly well-intentioned and probably justified (a majority view from 1933 to sometime in the late 1970s) to suspicion of any interference in markets, no matter how justified by outcomes. This is probably something I'll be writing more about on this site in the months ahead, so be warned... though I'm also noodling something about horror movies, if you're into that.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tim Russert Dies
I was shocked and upset to hear of Tim Russert's untimely death yesterday. And then I was a little surprised and confused that it hit me as hard as it did. Russert is--was! It's still hard to believe--the embodiment of the Washington journalistic establishment that has not served the country particularly well over the last decade. Particularly from the runup to the Iraq war through the Valerie Plame scandal and this year's presidential campaign, the relationships between the people in the news and the people reporting the news seemed to have way too much to do with how, and whether, stories reached the public. And Russert, whose passing elicited heartfelt expressions of sympathy from all points on the political compass, was at the center of all those stories even as he reported on them. The Democratic strategist/wonk Ed Kilgore years ago wrote about the centrality of "Meet the Press" to Washington culture in a blog post titled "How to Sound Like a Washington Insider";

10. "Meet." Short for the most important weekly gabathon, "Meet the Press," the Washington equivalent of Sunday School, as in "Didja see what Russert asked Frist on 'Meet?'"

I don't think it's unfair to question whether that was good for a democratic society.

None of this is to diminish from the wrenching grief his family and friends must be suffering. Tom Brokaw's emotional announcement of the sad event is powerful and obviously heartfelt. And I felt it too. It's almost impossible to imagine the political culture of 21st century America without Russert at the center of it, and the genuineness of his personality--the Buffalo Bills references if nothing else--surely contributed to that.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Senator Rahmbo?
This is really getting ahead of ourselves, but here's an interesting note on Political Wire this morning:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "is reported to be privately talking about Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, as the next senator from Illinois if Sen. Barack Obama wins the presidential election," according to Robert Novak.

I sort of like Emanuel--you never doubt that he cares, for thing--but I'm not sure this is a very good idea. Up until sometime in the '90s, the Senate was famously the "saucer" into which political passions, at full boil in the House of Representatives, were poured to cool them. But in the previous decade, a handful of high-profile House members moved to the Upper Chamber, and took their boisterous, confrontational, nastily partisan political practices with them: Rick Santorum among the Republicans and Chuck Schumer of the Democrats, to name just two. As a result, we've seen the Senate come more closely to resemble the House in rancor and hostility--but the minority in the Senate has far more tools at its disposal to vent its fury, from the hold to the procedural filibuster. The result is that legislation isn't so much "cooled," to use the Washington/Jefferson metaphor from the link above, as totally frozen.

At the risk of screwing up my own metaphor here by my ignorance of chemistry, it seems to me that introducing Rahm Emanuel into that Senate would be like eyedropping nitroglycerin into the saucer. This guy is the ultimate Democratic partisan, a potential Tom DeLay of the notionally progressive. Certainly there have been moments when I've said to myself--or bellowed in a room of sympathetic listeners--that the Republicans "can go fuck themselves." But that's not how the Senate is supposed to work--and if there's anyone in the Democratic caucus for whom principle seems to be a burden rather than a support, it's Rahmbo.

Emanuel had witnessed this struggle in Illinois, too: it was the party regulars versus the goo-goos. Emanuel, the Daley protégé, is a regular who believes money and a disciplined organization win elections. He seemed to see Dean as a goo-goo, a good-government reformer with a base of liberal idealists who are more educated and individualistic than your average Democratic machine foot soldier, but less reliable when you need someone to hand out palm cards on Election Day. The machine has been paving over goo-goos since the 19th century. As a beery alderman once put it, "Chicago ain't ready for reform."

Probably any successful political party, or even a movement within a party, needs both Emanuels and Obamas--bad cops and good cops, if you like. And I guess an argument could be made that Senate Democrats could use a little more spine. (Or a lot.) But I can't shake the sense that if you put a guy like that into the Senate, ultimately you lose more than you gain, and the politics of the country becomes that much more toxic.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Grace Note
As an Obama supporter who deeply distrusts the Clintons, I have to grant that the speech Sen. Clinton gave a few minutes ago really couldn't have been better. Justifiable pride in her campaign's accomplishments gave way to a strong endorsement of her erstwhile rival, and then a broad-based substantive case for why her former backers should give their allegiance and votes and energies to electing Obama in November. I guess if I were to quibble, a line or two about McCain--something to the effect that he's an honorable public servant whose positions nonetheless would be disastrous for the country--might have been welcome. But that's a small point in an outstanding speech--one that showed just how much better a politician Clinton has become over the course of the campaign. I'd always appreciated her mastery of policy detail and grudgingly admired her resilience and indefatigable (albeit at times delusional) approach. But today for the first time it became clear that the "growth as a candidate" the pundits keep talking about is real, and has more positive manifestations than, say, willingness to embrace a brain-dead pseudo-populism on a question like the Gas Tax Holiday.

My guess is that the speech will play well with one group of Clinton supporters--the emotionally invested feminists who will conclude that on the issues, Obama and the Democrats are so far preferable to McCain and the Republicans that they would come home, sooner or later, anyway. But the explicit appeal probably will speed that process and maybe boost their level of investment in Obama's success. I'm not sure, though, that she reached the second group: those "hard-working whites" who just felt more comfortable with Clinton, whether because of brand loyalty, economic arguments, style points, or bigotry. Meanwhile, I read on TPM that the McCain campaign will make a play for Clinton voters based on those same atmospheric/cultural arguments. It should be interesting to see whether economic self-interest (the old core Democratic argument to the voters in play, if you believe as most do that feminist-motivated Clinton supporters probably will come home to the Dem) trumps that Scary Black Guy/Thinks-He's-Better-Than-You ("Hyde Park academic") factor. Also if Obama tries to turn the tables and point out that McCain isn't exactly Mr. Blue-Collar by birth, marriage, or lifestyle.

Ironically it's hard to imagine a better potential surrogate for Obama pushing back against that Republican appeal than Bill Clinton. But I don't know if Obama would ask, and I don't know if the former president would accept, that assignment.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

V-C Day!
Obama clinches the nomination!

I won't deny more than a little schadenfreude at the Fall of the House of Clinton. But this is really about a candidate I'm honored to support, a leader who represents the best of our aspirations and principles--and the nation's still-vital capacity for self-correction. There was no more eloquent statement the Democrats could make this year in rejecting the disastrous Bush presidency than nominating a man named Barack Hussein Obama, son of a mixed-race marriage and an immigrant father, community organizer and constitutional lawyer, champion of the country's finest reform tradition, meritocracy and the notion that American leaders can be both principled and tough.

(For that matter, the Republicans couldn't have made a stronger statement in rejecting Bush than nominating John McCain, who once honorably opposed Bush and still maintains that he represents a break from, rather than continuity with, the train wreck of the current administration. But they had fewer choices.)

I am trying to keep my hopes for this race, and for Obama himself, somewhat in check. The contest will have its ugly moments and Obama will make his share of mistakes. But Democrats picked the best candidate, and he will represent the party at its best. It's a time to celebrate.
Radio Day
I made two appearances on New York-area public affairs radio shows today talking about "Schools That Work," the career and technical education I authored for the Center for an Urban Future that came out last month. This morning I did a 15-minute segment on The Brian Lehrer Show, which airs on WNYC; in the afternoon I spent about a half-hour on Talkback, a show hosted by Hugh Hamilton on WBAI. Conveniently, their offices are on the 10th floor of the building in which CUF is located on the 20th. The links above are to the shows. On the latter, I should be about a half-hour in.

i've done a lot of radio interviews over the last five years or so, since the policy reports I write began to get some attention, but I found myself surprisingly nervous sitting down with Lehrer. I was gripping the table and very worried that I'd have to use the COUGH button (or that I'd catch my throat and would fail to use it). Part of it probably was that I'd been worried before I got to the studio because I gave away all my copies of the report and couldn't review it--which you think wouldn't be necessary after writing the damn thing for a year, going through countless drafts, and getting pretty deeply involved in this world of education that I hadn't much grappled with previously. And in a sense you'd be right; this was probably as much about a security blanket as anything else. I re-wrote my talking points on the subway heading there, and felt ready to go. But Lehrer moves so fast, and is so deft at going back and forth between multiple guests--I was on with a principal at one of the schools I profiled in the report, who joined by phone--that my nerves quickly gave way to mild frustration at having so little time to get to all the points I wanted to hit. (Well, that and his forgetting to give the URL where people could find the report.) On the whole I was pretty happy with how it went.

The Hamilton show didn't feel quite as good, though I don't think it was terrible either. I've been on with him a few times in the past, always (I think) previously by phone. The atmosphere in WBAI is quite different from WNYC--more like a college radio station, and if anything probably less formal than the overly professionalized WBRU-FM I remember from Brown. (I did a show at the AM station, and was program manager; people either showed up, or didn't.) The longer segment reflects that more relaxed atmosphere, and Hamilton asks more open-ended questions. These probably don't play to my strengths; I tend to give too-long answers, and it sounds like I'm thinking about it--which is good in-person, but bad on the radio, where it can come across as stumped silence. He also crossed me up a little about halfway through the segment, asking me if I myself attended a career and technical education high school. I didn't, and we moved on.

As he was walking me out afterward, Hugh apologized for the question. He'd been listening to the Lehrer segment in the morning "while ironing my shirt," and what he heard was John Widlund, the principal who was on with me, talking about how he'd gone to a vocational high school.

What's gratifying about this press attention--aside from the obvious ego-feeding stuff, which I won't deny--is that people really care about it. The calls we got on both shows, and the comments online at the first link above, make this very clear. After spending eight years mostly writing about workforce development, an important but not particularly easy-to-explain field of policy, I'm not used to having a public much interested in my work. I like it; it's a great motivator. And this particular question of how to balance work/career preparation (long- or short-term, for adults or youth) and education feels like something I'll be spending a lot more time on over the next few years.