Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sailin' Shoes

Amazing, yet fitting, if the presidency of George W. Bush is remembered in the YouTube hive mind for Bush's having shoes fired at him during a press conference in Iraq.

In the big scheme of things, I know Rick Perlstein is right and we shouldn't applaud physical assaults upon heads of state. But I was delighted to see Dubya being nearly pelted by footwear. It's quite poetic, an Iraqi using this Middle Eastern form of insult, little understood by neocon America, and previously seen directed at the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein during the early days of the U.S. invasion. There is a nice karmic symmetry to that. It's also sadly apropos that it took an Iraqi journalist to do what I kept wishing an American reporter would do in a Q&A with Bush: let loose with a burst of visceral rage at the lies and destruction.

Give the President this much credit, he did an impressive job of dodging the shoe whipped at his head from close range. It's a testament to the most unambiguous achievement of his White House career: his keeping himself physically fit.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Righteous Dahlia

Writing in Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria remarked that, in our current worldwide economic crisis, we are living history: are living through a seismic shift that will permanently alter many of the conditions of life that we’ve taken for granted. TNR’s Michael Crowley responded: gee, what about 9/11? Wasn’t that a momentous historical event, huh, Fareed? Granted, these were throwaway remarks, but Crowley’s response was small-minded. Sure, 9/11 was a major shock to many classes of Americans, with a terrible ricochet effect in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. But many people around the world were untouched by 9/11. The loss of innocent life was terrible, but not more terrible than terrorist events (some state-sponsored) in the Balkans or East Africa or other parts of the world in recent years. Meanwhile, the global financial downturn will touch just about every human being on the planet.

9/11 didn’t change everything, as some Americans have said. It was just a major wake-up call, signaling the end of American exceptionalism. As the world gets smaller, perhaps even flatter, the destinies of nations become more intertwined, more similar. None of us is that much safer than the rest. Americans' sense of ourselves as a chosen people, blessed by divine providence, or simply protected by power and geographic isolation, was brought crashing down. Tragically, in the wake of this disillusionment, we squandered our highest claim to being exceptional: our faith in inalienable human rights and the rule of law.


I want to thank Dahlia Lithwick for this tightly-argued, righteously angry column about the prospects of investigating and punishing the worst abuses of the U.S.’s so-called War on Terror.

I was growing resigned to the thought that, for the sake of partisan comity, the incoming Obama administration would not aggressively prosecute cases of torture and other war crimes by Bush Administration officials. Silly me. The voices of civility and seriousness and jaded moral flexibility have led down the wrong path over and over again, and the same voices haven’t suddenly become wiser just because Barack won the election.

Many liberal commentators, thinking perhaps of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process after the end of apartheid rule, have argued there is a trade-off between truth-telling and legal remedies. Some propose a truth commission offering legal immunity in exchange for testimony, and Obama's leaky transition team have telegraphed some sympathy for this approach.

Lithwick demolishes this supposed trade-off.

…I just cannot bring myself to believe that the full story will ever be told to our collective satisfaction. Even if every living American were someday to purchase and read the truth commission's collectively agreed-on bipartisan narrative, weaving together John Yoo's best intentions and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's torment on the water board, sweeping national reconciliation will elude us.

This passage breaks my heart, but it’s so true. Who can place any real hope in the charade of a bipartisan commission? In this country, they are invariably exercises in ass-covering, with an end product that both parties can interpret to their liking. Hawks and Doves, Idealists and Realists: call the two sides what you will, it's not a dispute over facts that is the source of their differing views.

…[W]e already know the truth of what happened… We may not have every memo, and we may not be able to name every name. But do truth commissions alone ever reveal the full story? If we decline to hold lawbreakers to account, we may find out a whole lot of facts and arrive at no truth at all. Is the truth that if the president orders it, it isn't illegal? Or is the truth that good people do bad things in wartime, but that's OK? Is the truth that if we torture strange men with strange names, it's not lawbreaking? What legal precedent will this big bipartisan narrative set for the next president with a hankering for dunking prisoners?

…It seems that after 9/11, the solution to the problem of too much law was to simply do away with the stuff. And the solution to the lawlessness that followed 9/11? Do away with any legal consequences for the perpetrators. If there exists a more perverse method of restoring the rule of law in America than announcing that legal instruments are inadequate to address them, I can't imagine it.

…Nobody is suggesting that those who authorized torture and wiretapping were sadists or brutes. But they did a lot worse than mix stripes and plaids. They broke the law. They violated domestic and international laws, and they committed war crimes. They did so deliberately and with the "cover" of cynically bad legal memoranda. And those who have been entrusted as the nation's top law enforcers now claim that public disapproval is punishment enough.

…[As we try to imagine] a perfect truth commission or a perfect congressional inquiry (done by a perfect Congress that had suddenly grown a perfect spine),

(Bullseye, Dahlia. Are we going to leave this to Harry Reid and Joe Lieberman?)

it occurs to me yet again that we already have a pretty perfect system for investigating terrible wrongdoing and punishing wrongdoers. And we call it the justice system for a reason. For eight years we've been told, time and again, that the U.S. courts just aren't good enough to try terrorists, and that they aren't smart enough to monitor wiretapping, and that they aren't capable of keeping state secrets. Anyone who believes they are also not good enough to investigate government lawbreaking might reasonably be asked what's changed.
Not that anybody asked me, but I would suggest that sadists and brutes were making policy with respect to torture and eavesdropping. We persisted for so long in inhumane interrogation methods that were plainly illegal, and plainly ineffective at getting accurate evidence, that the only rationales are (1) the pursuit of brutal pre-ordained "intelligence findings," or (2) the fact that somebody or -bodies liked the way it felt, being an all-powerful ruthless inquisitor. But we have such a terrible time in our culture separating the criminal from the crime. We can accept that a leering jarhead holding a dog leash is a torturer. We have trouble accepting that a man in a Savile Row suit might be one as well.

Let's face it. No one should expect Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld being handed over to officials in the Hague, however richly they deserve that fate, or being dragged into an American court. The GOP obviously wouldn’t stand for it, and most likely the public wouldn’t stand for it. But take someone like John Yoo. He’s not a household name. Yet he’s the author of the egregious torture memos, the fabricated fig leaf that the Bush White House used to get away with their sadistic interrogation regime. His name is mud in liberal legal circles. But Yoo is a young man, a professor in good standing at a leading law school, and I find it disturbingly easy to imagine in 10 to 20 years, when the political carousel spins around again, hearing John Yoo and Supreme Court in the same sentence.

The guys at the very top, Cabinet-level men, shielded from legal harm by their visibility, are finished in public life, permanently tarred by the Bush record of failure and dishonor. We can be relieved to that extent. But some of their lieutenants could do damage for years to come. The Obama Justice Department can’t throw up its hands in the cases of people like Yoo and David Addington. It needs to state for the public record that John Yoo implicated the people of the United States in crimes against humanity. Dubya himself is one thing. If Republicans want to argue that John Yoo is above the Geneva Conventions, well, bring it on.

Friday, November 21, 2008


What good is getting our first African-American president if I can't get a blog post out of it? All I can say at the moment is, I always seem to have more to say about politics when I'm unhappy with how things are going than when I'm satisfied and hopeful.

Here at least is something on the economy: Michael Lewis in Portfolio magazine, on the end of Wall Street as we know it. I'll grade myself on a curve and say I understand about 2/3 of this piece. To me Michael Lewis will always be first and foremost the author of Moneyball, the story of the rise of stats gurus in the management ranks of major league baseball, and a trademark Michael Lewis tone and attitude are evident in both pieces of writing. Moneyball's prophet/cynic Billy Beane is a lot like Steve Eisman in the Portfolio article, the short-selling artist who got rich while foretelling the destruction of the investment banking industry. Lewis humanizes the financial disaster nicely in the part depicting Eisman and his colleagues, on the day the roof came crashing in, watching people on the street in lower Manhattan, knowing their work and vision has been vindicated while feeling the rumble of a Biblical wave of destruction, something like Yahweh's vengeance wreaked on a slack and heedless people. Also interesting is the final scene, Lewis's pleasure or fascination in the company of a charming monster, John Gutfreund, morally repugnant yet proud.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

“Rock On”

(The parting instructions of the Democratic Party poll greeter at my district this morning)

Nothing left to do but watch the returns. The thing about this presidential campaign is, it’s been evident that Obama had the lead and the inside track since late September: since the economic/bailout crisis and McCain’s spastic response to it. So for Democrats, the last month has been an exercise in not jinxing anything, not counting chickens before they hatch. From a practical aspect, of course, Obama’s campaign didn’t want anyone becoming complacent or relaxing, but there’s been a superstitious aspect to it as well: not believing our luck, and fearing that vocalizing would cause it to vanish. Like a baseball dugout where the pitcher is working on a no-hitter. Five weeks of biting one’s tongue produces a weird tension and slightly frenzied mental state.

See here: an Ezra Klein e-mailer fearing “the gods of overconfidence”.

See also here: my favorite schmuck media-head, John Dickerson of Slate, is full of concern for all the pollsters and politicos who will look bad if Obama doesn’t win.

More later.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Change I Can Believe In

I was at the Detroit airport two Sundays ago, having a sandwich and a beer during a layover. Who knows why, but this bar & grill had its TV tuned, not to NFL football, but to a pro-am charity bowling event in which NBA basketball stars were paired up with pro bowlers. I think Dwyane Wade sponsored this thing; it was like the old Bob Hope celebrity golf tournaments, translated from the links to the hardwood lanes.

They would alternate: a tall loose-limbed African-American would roll, then a slightly older, stockier white man with a bad haircut. The white men were the pros, and each one typified the anti-style of championship bowling: the stoic expression, the custom-fit leather wrist brace, the practiced and precise delivery. The basketball guys were the amateurs and interlopers, I suppose, though with the twist that they (D-Wade, Lebron, Chris Paul) have a lot greater wealth and celebrity than the bowlers. They engaged in some good natured trash-talking, laughed at the bad balls, whooped at the good balls; they generally acted as if they were playing pick-up hoops at some nameless playground with no video cameras present.

I watched for just a short time but got caught up in it. Obviously I didn’t keep score (my hands were full with my pulled-pork sandwich), but it was remarkable to me how well the NBA players bowled. Kevin Durant, 6-foot-9 and skinny, would casually scoop up a bowling ball and sling it, seemingly without aiming, and likely as not get a strike. Most remarkably, the white guys awkwardly but gamely joined in the NBA-style fun. They pumped their arms, let out a yell, gave fist bumps to their NBA partners after a successful roll.

Maybe I’m being foolish or condescending—I don’t watch the Pro Bowlers Tour regularly, so for all I know giving high-fives and doing a dance to celebrate picking up a 7-10 split is normal behavior. It just seemed incumbent on the white guys to adapt themselves to the style of the black guys. In the context of sideline celebrations at a sporting event, a racially loaded context in my experience, I found that heartening. Anyway, black and white, pro and amateur all seemed to enjoy themselves and enjoy one another. And I’ve never enjoyed watching bowling so much.


This past weekend I went with my wife to her 25-year high school reunion. It was low-key and actually quite a bit of fun. This is a small rural high school in eastern North Carolina; the class of ’83 numbered about 70 people, about half of whom showed up for this reunion, bringing significant others as appropriate.

Several people at the party reflected on something one of their teachers said at the time of their graduation: that the class of ’83 was remarkable for its spirit of friendship and respect across racial lines. And I believe it. I had met a couple of these people before, but don’t know them well, and basically experienced the gathering as an interesting slice of life, sort of an ethnographic case study.

Some people had settled in the area, marrying their high school sweethearts, going into the family business in some cases. Some had settled far away. Some had moved away then come back, perhaps to care for ailing family members. (There was not a lot of nostalgia for the town itself, some blunt confessions of how happy folks were to graduate and move away.) Some are making good money, some are just getting by. Some are professionals, some are blue-collar. And there are whites and African-Americans sorted across all these divides.

I can’t say there was no racial tension. At dinner, there tended to be tables of black folks and tables of white folks. I didn’t see any interracial couples. But there was a lot of conversation and affection and teasing across racial lines, a lot of testimony of cross-racial teenage crushes. One African-American member of the Class of ’83 has served as mayor of this community, the first black mayor of the town. Maybe the most “successful” alumnus, who had traveled from his home in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia to attend, is African-American. He would seem to have "come the longest way" from childhood to adulthood. But he had some grateful words about the small-town values he’d been raised with, the work ethic and civic responsibility instilled in him.

I guess I partly just want to testify: I was in a group of rural Southern red-state Joe Sixpacks who are not flat-out racists. We didn’t take a poll, but I’d guess many of the whites will vote for McCain. Lord knows, Southern whites are prone to talk about blacks a lot differently in their own living rooms than out in public. They’re not idiots, however, they are the 40-something products of integrated schools and integrated workplaces, and they won’t panic at the prospect of a President of a different race. It’s a mobile society we live in, insecure and uncertain, but fluid and increasingly global. Small-town people can be open and knowledgeable about the world. Race and class and locale are obstacles, but not insurmountable ones.


I saw a poll the other day that indicated that 44% of white voters support Barack Obama. They don’t all love him, they are not free from prejudice toward him. But reporters are relaying quotes like, “We’re voting for the colored boy; we’re voting for the Muslim.” (“Colored boy” actually is a cleaned-up version of a term I heard quoted.)

This is a point where a pessimist will bring up the dreaded Bradley Effect; 44 is a baseline against which to measure that effect. But 44% is better than John Kerry or Al Gore did among white voters.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bucket Brigade

Today Washington is in a frenzy to pass a bill to bail out Wall Street banks.

About the Bush Administration’s initial proposal, I can’t argue with Paul Campos’s take at Lawyers Guns & Money. L’etat, c’est moi is about right. Bush’s friends in high places never suffer the sting of failure, not when average taxpayers can be made to suffer it for them.

John Cassidy comments at the New Yorker site. He closes with a reference to the New Deal. My mind is wandering back to some public school classroom and some American History lesson, probably from 10th or 11th grade. I don’t think my teacher in the Morris County, New Jersey public schools was a raving Bolshevik. But he did take on faith that the New Deal reforms, especially stuff like the Glass-Steagall Act, were a good thing, a sensible response to the excesses of the 1920s, and above all an irrevocable thing, like the polio vaccine. Nobody would roll back the clock to un-invent these safeguards. Sometimes I wish America was really like my teachers said it was.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Culture War Round-Up

Tim Burke has been reading Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland and shares some thoughts about the origins of the culture wars that Nixon fueled and that are with us to this day. This is a great post, with great comments attached to it.

Part of his point is that the culture wars are not entirely trumped-up, that there are some real grievances underlying them. Burke cites Jane Jacobs as the “good Nixon,” a liberal anti-technocrat – a provocative assertion, maybe an arguable one – is urban renewal best characterized as impartial technocracy, or the work of sophisticated special interest groups?

The post touches on what might be called the “What’s The Matter with Kansas” dilemma: that liberals and conservatives both claim to be fighting elitism, but the liberals define elitism primarily in economic terms, and conservatives in cultural terms. Burke short-circuits this dilemma in a way. It’s important to see that culture war is not one of great massed armies, Rich versus Poor or City versus Small Town. It’s close-in guerilla fighting between people who are demographically similar, between the Jesus decals and the Darwin decals in the same parking lot.

Burke’s conclusion is that conservative anti-intellectual reaction can get out of control, refuse to stay in its box.

Rotwang writes that American anti-intellectualism leaves an exemption for the neurosurgeon, the engineer, the indispensible expert. If there’s historically evident danger to culture war, it is that it is hard to keep it nothing more than a Punch-and-Judy pantomine, hard to keep it confined to a narrowly intramural struggle within specific professional or social hierarchies. There are pathways out of Nixonland that go into very dark, dangerous places that no one wants to traverse.

I’ve written elsewhere that creationism (a branch office of American anti-intellectualism) is incompatible with modern technology, and that conservatives are hypocritical or (more likely) oblivious to the contradiction. Nobody wants to go to a neurosurgeon who is the product of home schools and Patrick Henry College. Burke writes that’s a de facto exemption that we grant, but one that might not always hold up under duress.


McCain has an ad out now that attacks Obama for supporting sex education for kindergarteners. Turns out the ad is a lie – so McCain will be taking off the air very soon, right?

Here, Slate’s The Big Sort blog comments on the McCain ad, and refers to a sex ed controversy in Charleston, WV (Kanawha County) in 1974. I vaguely remember this controversy; my family had moved away from Charleston just a few years before this, and the part about somebody shooting at a school bus rings familiar.

Somebody did a graduate thesis in which he interviewed pro- and anti-sex-ed Kanawha County residents. Their stand on this issue was a powerful sorting variable: it predicted people’s occupation, what kind of church they went to, what part of the county they lived in. A telling factoid about the interface of cultural versus economic classism: UMW miners went on strike, crippling the coal industry in the state, to protest their children receiving sex ed in school.


George Saunders in the New Yorker has what ought to be the final word on Sarah Palin.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tippecanoe and Palin Too

William Henry Harrison was the Whig candidate for President in 1840. Harrison's fame was as a hero of the Indian wars: he commanded the victorious U.S. forces at the Battle of Tippecanoe. John Tyler was his running mate: a cynical choice, recruited from the Democratic Party to the Whigs expressly so he could be placed on this fusion ticket. The campaign is remembered for the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!" Harrison was the oldest man ever to run as a major party nominee for President prior to Ronald Reagan; now, of course, John McCain holds that distinction. Harrison was a wealthy landowner, but his campaign portrayed him as a humble frontiersman.

Tippecanoe won, and upholding his rugged frontier image, he gave his inaugural address without his topcoat on a frigid winter day. He caught a chill which developed into pneumonia, and he died just a few weeks into his tenure. Tyler ascended to the Presidency, in this then-unprecedented circumstance in our history. The legitimacy of Tyler's administration was questioned, and not surprisingly he turned out to be a weak President who failed to pass any of Harrison's agenda and whose tenure helped bring on the demise of the Whig Party.

My point? To show off my haphazard knowledge of XIXc history, mostly. I don't wish McCain any corporeal harm, in fact if he wins I will pray without ceasing for his health, and lend him my topcoat if needed. I was just struck by some curious parallels here.

Riding A Tiger

Today we learn that the word lipstick is a registered trademark of the Republican Party. I’m grinding my molars to a nub over here.

I’d like to keep this short; I’ve been working on a post for days, and every 12 hours or so my opinions change. I’ll say this for Sarah Palin, she has shaken things up, made them interesting. I can’t think of a similar instance of someone going from “Who?” to Most Talked About Politician in America practically overnight. This time a week ago, just hours before she gave her speech in St. Paul, everybody right down to Peggy Noonan and all points leftward was sure that Palin was a disastrous choice and might have to pull a Thomas Eagleton. Now she bestrides our poor land like a Colossus in three-inch heels. Oops, sorry, was that last part sexist of me?!?

Here’s what I want to write on the wall today: There are many twists to come in the Sarah Palin story, and no one can predict or control where the story goes. You can’t tell me this is playing out the way the McCain team expected. I saw Steve Schmidt on TV eight days ago, and there was panic in his eyes. You think they knew about the pregnant teenage daughter? Hell, do you think McCain deliberately would choose a running mate who would overshadow him like Palin has? Not on your life. Sarah Palin unleashed a tornado that swept away all the norms of logic and civilized discourse. It’s like Lord of the Flies in politics right now, and the GOP has an unquestionable advantage when it’s like that. They have the superior instincts for raw survival and fighting dirty.

The other day I mentioned the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, how the Senators on that committee (including Joe Biden) fought so hard and gracelessly to keep up with unfolding events. Thomas had been insufficiently vetted. Nobody had anticipated the appearance of Anita Hill. Hill’s testimony thrust sexual harassment and workplace equality onto center stage, unleashing angers and resentments across America that the Villagers had little idea about. It was a maelstrom that left no opportunity for crafting a response, by anybody of any party, in Congress or the White House or the media. Washington was riding a tiger.

For a few giddy days, we compared the Palin gambit to Tom Eagleton, sometimes to Dan Quayle. The best comparison is to the Clarence Thomas gambit. While mollifying the right wing base of the GOP, Thomas was a choice calculated to confound the Democrats, to be hard to respond to, by virtue of his race. Substitute gender for race, and the same is true of Palin. Palin also was insufficiently vetted, and so issues of gender and family have emerged unexpectedly. They conjure raw emotions and a highly volatile story line.

I take a little comfort in that: the story still holds some surprises. The Thomas analogy isn’t comforting, since the conservative status quo won out in the Thomas nomination battle. He seemed like damaged goods in the immediate aftermath, but 16 years later you’d hardly know it. But maybe the Obama campaign’s Post-Rapid-Response M.O. will flip the script. Maybe Biden learned some lesson from the Thomas fight that will come in handy in the Palin fight. Fingers crossed. In the end, I figure America will get the President we deserve.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sarah Sixpack

This blog has a new tagline, "grounded in a recognizable American lifestyle," courtesy of this article about Sarah Palin in Politico. Because it's equally true of your humble blogger, who humbly submits his name for consideration for the GOP presidential ticket in 2012.

(I never realized Politico was quite such a cyber-birdcage liner.)

For a generation now, Republicans have pounded home the message that government is the problem, because it's full of pointy-headed elites who think they know what Joe Sixpack needs better than Joe himself. Well, bushwah! Better to have Joe Sixpack himself lead the government, guided by good old-fashioned American common sense, plus how his bunions are feeling on a given morning. Or for a shot of variety, let's nominate sexy Sarah Sixpack, who will dominate China and Russia but submit to her husband, who will bring home the tax cuts and fry them up in a pan.

It seems to me this is where Republican political logic points us. The last thing we want are people in high office who are smart or conscientious or the least bit finicky. Let's elect leaders who are average at best: recognizable and relatable to us. Semi-competence and lack of vision are just what this country needs in a candidate. An umimpressive resume` is an essential qualification.

Republican political logic, sadly, has jumped the shark. Sure we recognize the Palin family, just like we recognize (and maybe try to avoid) a ne'er-do-well relative who borrows money and never repays it. There's always a market for practical common-sense leadership, but the GOP brand name used to connote stability and respectability. The soap-opera-fication of the party has not gone over well. Too many scenes out of an episode of Montel Williams. Too many Congressional page scandals, too many shotgun accidents, too many wide stances.

I feel like I've been posting here a lot lately, but I guess I haven't posted since it came out that Sarah Palin is about to become a grandmother. I don't want to roast the Governor for that, I think very few people on the left or right want to vilify her or her daughter. But I think many of us could really do without the alternately petty and prurient melodrama. The daughter is pregnant. Her boyfriend talks like an ass on his MySpace page. The family is conducting a vendetta against the sister's ex-husband. Sarah is spiteful toward all her political foes. It's soap opera stuff. Americans love it in many contexts but we're tired of it in our politics. If McCain couldn't give us Accomplished or Experienced, he could have done a better job of giving us Stable and Wholesome.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


Sorry, this could have been folded into the last post: Read Matthew Yglesias on the Palin selection, and more generally on a difference in approach between the Obama campaign operation and the McCain campaign.

Obama's spokespeople have their own way of doing things, and their own timetable. It's enough to make working journalists annoyed, and even more casual observers like me nervous. Bill Clinton in '92 was really good at responding to GOP mudslinging within a day. That, I would have said, was the role model that the Obama '08 campaign needed to follow. Instead, Obama's people don't bother to return mud for mud immediately. They are more proactive and deliberate. You could view Obama's speech Thursday night as tying up a few loose ends at once, and hopefully in a more coherent and impactful way. It's unorthodox, maybe brilliant, but a little nerve-wracking. My boy Tomasky worried on his blog a few days ago that in his judgment McCain had won about 25 of the last 30 news cycles. David Axelrod would respond with a shrug.

All will be revealed in the big campaign postmortem articles run in Time and Newsweek the second week of November. Until then, fingers and toes crossed.

Disjointed thoughts about Sarah Palin

I'm 75% percent sure that the choice of Sarah Palin will prove to be a disaster for John McCain, and 25% terrified that it was a stroke of genius.

From all I can tell, McCain really wanted Lieberman but was told that Lieberman wouldn't fly. McCain dislikes Mitt Romney, an insiders' favorite, plus Romney had other strikes against him. Other plausible candidates seemed blah. The deadline was looming. Maybe the Maverick was a little spooked by the How Many Houses affair, by Joe Biden and what was generally a strong week for Obama. Choosing Palin was abrupt, hurried, desperate and/or flippant. I've heard the words "irresponsible" and "gimmick" used, and they seem appropriate. The choice was all about making a splash and winning a news cycle or two, not at all about governing. Gravitas ain't everything, and it is viewed erratically through the prism of gender, but there is such a thing as gravitas, and Palin lacks it. She simply doesn't sound ready for prime time, in my judgment.

Not everybody shares my judgment, of course. What scares me is to remember that America is a country where Kelly Clarkson is a pop star and Ornette Coleman is an unknown. Not to mention, the country where 50 million people or so voted for George W. Bush. A lot of Americans don't care about gravitas. A lot of Americans like rooting for the underdog, snatched out of obscurity into the limelight.

A lot of Americans also confuse feminism with chivalry. It's tempting to belittle Palin for being a beauty-pageant winner, "just another pretty face," but it would be really easy for a Democrat, especially Joe Biden, to get into trouble with that approach. Remember the backlash Rick Lazio got when he raised his voice to Hillary Clinton in a debate? That would be as nothing if Joe Biden insulted Sarah Palin, doe-eyed mother of a Down's syndrome baby and yadda yadda yadda. I don't know what would be more grotesque, the idea that John Kerry went down to defeat because he was perceived as a traitor, or that Obama-Biden went down because they were perceived as hostile to women and/or families.

My wife told me a joke she saw online today: when you look at all Sarah Palin's highly conservative views on guns, oil, abortion, and all the rest, she is "Cheney without the Dick." That's hardly the greatest joke, but it made me think about the fact that Cheney and Palin are both Westerners. Palin takes being a Westerner to new extremes; I don't think she's ever lived outside of Alaska, except for attending college at the ancient ivy-covered enclave that is the University of Idaho. Palin's husband, I just learned today, is a commercial fisherman. Palin and Cheney share a basic disdain for government, a reverence for the market, a strong commitment to the rights of individuals and of property. They are the vanguard of conservatism in a lot of ways. Democrats feel we are being progressive, in a literal sense, i.e. advancing progess, being pioneers, fulfilling America's destiny, when we push for the rights of women, of ethnic minorities, of gays and lesbians. In sum, you might say, when we identify with cosmopolitans. Republicans still idealize and identify with the old frontier of ranchers and loggers and wildcatting oil men. To Democrats, Barack Obama embodies America's best future. To Republicans, Sarah Palin embodies it just as much.

Like much of the liberal blogosphere, I've thought a lot, mostly in negative terms, about the culture of Washington insiderdom. It's not small-d democratic, but also not Capital D or Capital R, per se. It's fundamentally self-interested, concerned with its own status and prerogatives. I believe Beltway society (the media especially) has bent over backwards to be kind to John McCain this year. They promote his image as a maverick, give him loads of good will for his POW experience, and loads of column inches about it, but he earned this measure of favor by being in Congress for 30 years and schmoozing the right people. If anything, the DC Establishment exalts the resume`: what school you went to, what job you held and for how long, who you know in high places that will vouch for you. If Beltway society stands for anything, has any integrity, it will rise up in near-unison to oppose Sarah Palin. If Sally Quinn didn't like the Clintons....

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Obama party

So we dragged our kids to our friends’ house for an Obama convention speech party. My wife and I were tired as usual on a Thursday night, so we wavered. The debate was Getting The Kids (and us) to Bed at a Decent Hour on a School Night, or The Family Sitting Rapt in Front of the TV Watching History Being Made, and the latter conceit won out. We had beers and sodas, we all ate pizza, and the grown-ups watched the speeches.

We were clinging to the hope that Bruce Springsteen might come out and do a short set. Not really hoping, I guess, more jokingly, saying That’s enough of Tim Kaine and his out-of-control eyebrow, let’s have Brooooce! I noticed that they played a Stevie Wonder record, and soon after that Stevie Wonder himself came out, then later they played a Springsteen record, and I thought I detected a pattern. Plus, I argued, the coolness factor had dropped off when Michael McDonald performed after Stevie, and needed to be jacked back up. A short discussion of the artistic merits of Michael McDonald ensued. Anyway, it was more entertaining than just paying attention to Mark Udall.

Bill Richardson came out. Somebody wondered aloud about Richardson’s prospects: could he have been the VP choice, could he be a Cabinet nominee. Somebody else referenced his so-called zipper problems, which led us to a discussion of John Edwards. Our host, a dyed-in-the-wool North Carolina Democrat and no prude, was scathing in his verdict on Edwards: phony, reckless with the party’s fate, shut down all his vaunted pro-education and anti-poverty initiatives the minute his campaign folded-—my friend, naturally disposed in favor of Edwards, was merciless. Man, what a job of self-immolation John Edwards did.

Al Gore came out, did a fine job, at home in his own skin at last, able to say emphatically how things would have been different with him in office. I thought of Gore and John Kerry, who by all accounts did a great job the previous night, and daydreamed a passage of Obama’s speech: It could easily have worked out differently. We could have been nominating a successor to President Al Gore this week. Or we could have been re-nominating President John Kerry for a second term. That would have been so much easier and more pleasant, and the US would be so much better off. You don’t have to be an over-the-top conspiratorial crank about the Florida recount or the Swift Boat episode to feel that a cosmic wrong has been done. It really is not so much about Obama and his ambition, he has been sent to right the cosmic wrong. Two paragons of so-called electability were rejected by the political gods; Obama is what the gods required.

(Okay, Obama can't say that about himself. Like the Abraham Lincoln comparisons, they need to come out of someone else's mouth.)

Obama finally came on, at 10:15 ET. My youngest had fallen asleep, and my older two were not in the TV room, they were hanging out with their friends upstairs. My oldest said she would watch the speech on YouTube later. So much for the wonder of history being made.

I wanted him to levitate like a dervish, I guess, and he didn’t do that. It’s a pleasure to watch him in action, even on cruise control, he’s so graceful, but he rarely went into rhetorical overdrive. He got quite specific about his economic platform, a bit of a laundry list in my opinion. (Boiling domestic politics down to tax cutting leaves me cold. Are we such a nation of money grubbers? Never mind, don’t answer that.) He hit a couple of points that seemed slightly perfunctory to me: tough talk about Afghanistan (see, I’m not a complete pacifist), fathers’ responsibilities (see, I’m a Bill Cosby sort of black man). But then the thought occurred: so many corners had been clamoring to hear Obama give details and substance, instead of flash, and this is what he was doing. He was listening to the well-intending voices of moderation and conventional Democratic Party wisdom, and obeying them. He was also listening to the malicious voices of the GOP and right-wing media, and throwing their charges back at them.

There were a couple of brief moments of rhetorical flash: when he talked about patriotism, and at the end when he referenced the anniversary of MLK’s I Have A Dream speech. The MLK reference was handled nicely, done but not overdone. Then it was all over but the fireworks and confetti and photo ops of the cute Obama-Biden blended family.

We were tired but pleased. The speech had been a success, the setting and the crowd were unmatchable, the four days of the convention had crescendoed nicely. I carried my daughter to the car in my arms and we drove home.

Josh Marshall’s final word.

Also Michael Tomasky’s.


Word has just come from my co-worker that McCain has tabbed the governor of Alaska as his VP. I had to be reminded of her name: Sarah Palin. I’ll say this for McCain, he sure pulled a surprise: all the talk the last 24 hours has been, Romney or Pawlenty? I guess this is a play for the PUMAs; McCain’s trying to reach out to women who feel dissed by the Democrats.

Here is a way to sum up the campaign so far: with his VP choice, Obama sought to reassure us, convince us of his moderation, and so he turned to a familiar old comfortable shoe of a guy, Biden. (Hideously ugly, hopelessly unfashionable? Maybe. But comfortable and familiar. Washington has never been on the cutting edge of high fashion.) McCain with his choice has thrown a Hail Mary pass way downfield. This move is dramatic but risky. I hardly know the first thing about Sarah Palin, but I know which position I would rather be in: seeking to reassure and demonstrate moderation rather than throwing a Hail Mary.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Credit where due

Bill Clinton's speech last night in Denver filled in many of the gaps in Hillary's speech two nights ago. Let's just get that on the record. Bill saying that Obama is ready for the office, and is the right person at this time -- that was good to hear.

It'd be nice to have a Democratic Convention we didn't parse so closely, one of these quadrennia.

Oh well, off to an Obama-speech party.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Never seen a PUMA except in a zoo

I decided to add Pandagon to the blogroll here. Welcome back, Jesse Taylor. Also, if one has a blogroll it should include Michael Tomasky, the best liberal pundit Morgantown, West Virginia has ever produced.

Tomasky today listed some things Hillary Clinton could have said in her convention speech last night but didn’t. I didn’t watch, I confess, although my wife did and thought Hillary did a fine job. But Tomasky is on target. In particular, Hillary could have said something to counteract the argument that Obama is a show horse, not ready for the job of president, the argument she pushed during primary season and which John McCain has now picked up pretty much word-for-word. In my daydream version of her speech, Hillary said “You know, we ran a pretty darn good campaign, 18 million votes, accomplishments A, B, and C, but you know what? Barack Obama ran a better campaign.” This is not a controversial statement, and I’d think it would do her psyche some good to acknowledge that her campaign made tactical errors. And it would do Obama a lot of good for her to assert that he won legitimately, not by playing the race card or gender card or gaming the primary system somehow. The rules were the rules, and he played the game a little bit better.

I guess if I’m going to spill my neuroses about Bobby Abreu’s batting statistics, I can do the same about discord in the Democratic Party. I don’t completely doubt that PUMAs exist: I have observed them in their ideal habitat, as callers-in to the Diane Rehm Show. But I struggle with the notion that PUMAs exist in numbers sufficient to really threaten Obama’s candidacy. Really? You’re really such a committed feminist that you’ll throw the White House to John McCain? McCain of “cunt and trollop”, “Janet Reno is Chelsea’s father” fame? I’m not panicked but I am vexed. My youngest daughter is a Hillary dead-ender herself, but I cut her some slack since she’s seven years old.

But people are funny. They're perverse and cling to hurts and delusions in spite of objectivity and even self-interest. Big Dog Bill, the Man from Hope, was deeply wounded to be painted as a racist; never mind how crazy it was that his status as Virtual Black Candidate would transfer to his wife and outweigh the impact of an Actual Black Candidate. Hillary seems hurt not to have been more seriously considered for Obama's VP slot; never mind how obviously awkward that would be with her marriage and after the bruising primary fight. Some women Democrats really are in a frenzy for Clinton out of some potent blend of their own thwarted hopes and Hillary's celebrityhood; never mind how good Obama is on women's issues, and how few real alternatives there are in our system.

The ancestors of the PUMA are the Soccer Mom and the NASCAR Dad: specimens that loom a lot larger in the minds of political elites than in the voting public at large. This is what I tell myself to keep from panicking. But y’know, I openly wished for a competitive primary race, and this is the result: some people are truly agitated that Their Candidate didn’t win, and fractious Democrats is a story the media loves to tell at every opportunity. As Tomasky says, the party would have a similar problem even if Clinton’s and Obama’s roles were reversed, and he were the runner-up. And as with the Joe Biden nomination for VP, I have succumbed to the realist point of view that what the MSM says does have an impact.

A note on the shoes: Oh, man, I had forgotten they were called Clydes! A big shout-out to Walt Frazier: you were great running the point, dude, how the Knicks have missed you the last twenty years, and I hope Just For Men is being good to you. I had a pair of these when I was about 13, dark blue with the light stripe. My biggest complaint was that the color ran like crazy if the shoes got wet—like, if the wearer had a newspaper route (a shout-out to the Washington Star: you had your moments as well) and was out before dawn on the weekends shlepping papers, taking short cuts through the dewy grass of a Northern Virginia suburb. Newsprint all over my hands and arms, blue suede dye on my feet. Those were the days.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Joe Biden

Sure, fine by me. I started to write, I don’t think any plausible VP choice of Obama's would have put me off terribly, but that’s not exactly right. I’m in the bag for Obama, I’m going to vote for him regardless. But if he had made a longshot counterintuitive choice like Brian Schweitzer, I would have called that a mistake, emphasizing Obama’s relative newness. If he had made a big lurch in a rightward direction by choosing a pro-life person or a Republican (go ahead and laugh, but Colin Powell and Chuck Hagel were bandied about), I would have called it a mistake, looking embarrassed by the Democratic brand. I hesitate to admit it, but while I admire Kathleen Sebelius and Janet Napolitano, a woman candidate would have made me nervous: too much pioneering on one ticket. So Biden is fine by me. I’d have been marginally happier with Jack Reed or Chris Dodd, marginally less happy with Evan Bayh (tainted by association with the DLC).

Not that I am a big Biden fan or ever was. I guess I like my politicians a little rumpled or professorial or something; I always found Biden a little more slicked-back and in-my-face than I’d have liked. I noted the bankruptcy bill a couple years back. I’m old enough to remember the Neil Kinnock plagiarism scandal, as well as Biden’s role in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, where he gave Thomas a wink and a thumbs-up prior to the unexpected appearance of Anita Hill, after which time Biden took on the aspect of a man holding a tiger by the tail. (Sort of a high-tech fisking.) The thing is, and this may be inconsistent with everything I’ve posted on the whole Intertubes or even thought in my own little brain the last eight years – the thing is, Biden is a loyal party man, a time-server, and the Villagers know him and like him. He is considered a family man and non-elitist salt of the earth, by the silly standards on which these things are judged. He’s a safe choice and will reassure the Sabbath gasbags. The Neil Kinnock thing (which I rate as a lesser offense than the bankruptcy thing, but Kinnock is the thing the GOP will bring up) was 20 years ago, and somewhat like Ted Kennedy after his presidential hopes were basically eclipsed, Biden has worked hard in the trenches of Capitol Hill and rehabbed his image. He’s strong on foreign affairs, he will argue strenuously on behalf of a Democrat-led foreign policy. He would be effective in the role of President of the Senate. He shores up some of Obama’s perceived weaknesses. Did I mention he is a safe choice?

It’s easy to overrate the importance of the running mate for bringing along his home state or some subgroup of voters. It doesn’t bother me that Biden is from a tiny state that was safely blue anyway. The most important aspect of the VP selection is that it is the first major decision the nominee makes as nominee, and it creates an impression of the candidate as decision-maker. Beyond the identity of the pick, I think the Obama people handled the selection process shrewdly. They built suspense nicely and maintained it as long as humanly possible. The professionalism displayed suggests that they didn’t just have a finger in the wind, but actually did the promised homework, to find somebody personally compatible with Obama and possessing the traits Obama was looking for in a governing colleague. The campaign’s discipline in not leaking was especially important for keeping McCain’s how-many-houses? gaffe on the front burner for an extra news cycle or two.

It’s true that Biden was one of the “usual suspects” throughout the last couple weeks of feverish speculation. But Biden and Bayh seemed like equally good bets, the press could never nail it down, and perhaps drove itself a little crazy those last few days. Chet Edwards was a hot rumor in the last 48 hours of uncertainty, and Hillary Clinton as Veep came to be viewed as not-loony whereas a month ago such a thought was beyond the pale even of professional D.C. rumor-mongering. In sum, I don’t buy the suggestion that Biden was an anticlimactic choice.

(The Hillary gambit seduced my wife late last week, she was openly wishing it would be Hill for VP, and to my surprise I actually would have been open to that: it certainly would have made a big splash, probably would have transformed the convention in Denver into an unabashed love-in, and might have been a game-ender as some pundits opined. The Spousal Unit was bummed to learn that the pick was Biden. But clearly Hillary has baggage; hell, her baggage has baggage. An Obama-Clinton ticket would have been all about the campaign, at the expense of governing effectively.)

I get the point that Biden weakens Obama’s change message. Biden voted in favor of the 2002 Iraq war resolution, and just by virtue of being in Congress for 30 years, he can hardly be cast as a change agent. But the way things are developing, Iraq seems not to be the dominant issue—Obama’s soundness and readiness to lead seem like the dominant issue. The Veep contestants who were “pure” on Iraq would all have seemed relatively sketchy and insubstantial. I hate buying into the Villagers’ view of Obama as sketchy or elitist, I reject that view, but it matters, God help us, what the Villagers think, and dammit, I want to win, and this, Obama’s soundness, is the issue that has presented itself. I’m not looking for purity here. I want the Democrats to win because I am a partisan, the party label matters, and if the GOP doesn’t suffer after the trainwreck of the last eight years, then U.S. presidential politics will have become ruinously unaccountable and celebrity-driven.

Biden weakens the change message, but not fatally so. Take Iraq: Maybe this is self-justifying rationalization, but Biden repented of his pro-Bush vote fairly early (in ’05) and today is a plausible proponent of the bring-the-troops-home-ASAP message, more plausible than Hillary or Evan Bayh would have been.

Postscript: As I have commented on another blog, if I knew how to get a bet down and could get appropriately long odds, I would bet that McCain will nominate David Petraeus for his veepee. Just a hunch.

Fantasy baseball hopes on life support

I just fell to fourth place out of 14 teams in my fantasy league. I’d been in third for quite a while, and was really hoping to climb to second; the guy who almost always wins the league is running away with it, per usual, so second place will definitely be a moral victory. Instead I fell back. Factors: My usual inability to make a profitable trade. My usual lack of astuteness at judging starting pitchers. A couple of injuries, plus Jimmy Rollins going completely in the tank the last few weeks; he seems to be trying to play his way out of Philadelphia.

I’m pretty resigned to my fate, and if I weren’t there’s not much I can do about it now. I’m vexed, though, when I think about who to keep from this year’s roster for next year’s. Lance Berkman is a no-brainer, I suppose. Billy Wagner would be a solid choice, but his arm injury throws that choice into doubt. Randy Johnson has been lights-out the last month, but he’s about to turn 45; that’s older than me, for Chrissakes. Roy Oswalt: unusually inconsistent this year. Matt Cain: good young pitcher on a crummy team.

Bobby Abreu is a perfectly plausible keeper candidate. I think of him as a 30-30 guy, which he isn’t anymore, and will never be again at his age (34). Yet I am haunted by the memory of a year I gave him up in a trade, stupidly, because somehow he didn’t live up to my dazzling expectations for him, although there it is in the numbers, in his unassuming way he racks up counting stats just by virtue of being on the Yankees, the goddamn New York Yankees… Bobby Abreu is up in my psyche way more than is even remotely justified.

Then there’s the cases of Jimmy Rollins and B.J. Upton. Here I have another heart vs. head dilemma: there’s nothing that bothers me more in a player than a record of not hustling, and both of these guys have developed such a record this year. Rollins is in his early 30s and you have to figure he won’t be putting up another MVP type season. Upton is still quite young (24?) but his eventual superstardom seems much more doubtful now than a year ago. But one thing about both of them is you can mark them down for 30-40 stolen bases, and guys who rack up SBs at that rate and are otherwise decent, are quite valuable.

Tentative list of four keepers: Berkman, Cain, Oswalt, Upton. In the mix: Rollins, Abreu.

Monday, August 11, 2008

John Edwards and the Case of the Implied Covenant

Alternate title: I Hate It When Mickey Kaus Can Say “I Told You So.”

When we first met John Edwards, he was already a self-made man, if a rather one-dimensional one. He was a brilliantly successful lawyer with a lovely family but no political or civic commitments to speak of. (Prior to the 1990s it’s not clear that Edwards voted in public elections, that’s how little engaged he was.)

Then his oldest son died in an auto accident, and that was supposed to be the conversion experience, the awakening to a broader horizon, a higher plane. Also a forging experience, a trial by fire: if a man can endure having to identify his son’s body at the morgue, he can endure anything. So John would make his mark in national politics. It was his mission, to honor Wade’s memory and strike a blow against the chaos and oblivion that Wade’s death represented.

He made it to the U.S. Senate in 1998, his first time out, hardly breaking a sweat except for injecting a few millions from his own fortune into the campaign. Truth be told, Lauch Faircloth was a lousy opponent. Faircloth would never have beaten Terry Sanford in ’92 except for Sanford’s poor health and (as Democratic pols noted closely) Sanford’s vote against the first Gulf War.

John fit the Bill Clinton profile rather well: charm and a Southern drawl combined with a progressive sensibility and obvious campaigning skills, the gifts of oratory and empathy, of “feeling their pain.” He lacked Clinton’s lifelong fervor for politics, but his talent rivaled Clinton’s; observers spoke of Edwards in similarly glowing terms. Plus he seemed to correct some of Clinton’s flaws. He certainly had the picture-perfect family life and marriage, with Elizabeth in some ways an improved version of Hillary: equally smart and less abrasive. Later, in his post-2004 makeover, Edwards would make economic populism and poverty reduction his hallmarks. He would also recant his 2002 vote to authorize Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Each of these moves seemed to respond to the most often-heard gripes from the left about the record of Bill Clinton and by this time Hillary Clinton as well.

Being a Senator was a drag for John. No slight intended—it seems to be a confining place for many talented and restless pols, especially liberals. So in the 2004 cycle he tested the presidential waters, made a decent showing, wound up as Kerry’s running mate. John got mixed reviews for his work as the VP nominee, but a bright spot (to me at least) was the performance of Elizabeth: bright, telegenic, but always a support and complement to John, never stealing the spotlight in a harmful way. (A definite contrast from Teresa Heinz Kerry.)

The Democratic ticket lost, and in the meantime Edwards had relinquished his Senate seat. So there he was in early 2005, gainfully unemployed as a Presidential Candidate in Waiting. In the midst of this pirouette came the initial diagnosis of Elizabeth Edwards’s cancer. John withdrew from public life in view of Elizabeth’s health crisis, but the assumption (or hope) was that the hiatus was temporary. Indeed, within about a year John was back in the news, and Elizabeth’s cancer had been integrated into his political bio. He was newly concerned about health care reform, newly attuned to the insecurities of American families. His second presidential bid was soon green-lighted.

In the 2008 cycle, Elizabeth was hands-down the most appealing thing John had going for him. His young family and the special partnership he and Elizabeth had were foregrounded; she was as visible a presence on the hustings as the demands of her treatment and the family would allow. Her 2007 cancer recurrence was merely a bump in the road. The couple was so forthcoming, even bold and in your face, in disclosing details of Elizabeth’s medical struggles. His supporters had a special affection for the family, and felt they had an intimate understanding of life in the Edwards household. This was all by design.

None of this stands up to the revelation of Edwards’s affair with Rielle Hunter. His reputation and political persona are in tatters. The domestic tableau, the family solidarity with Elizabeth in her cancer fight, the image of John and Elizabeth as perfectly meshed gears in both public and private life: those images are ruined. The noble mission of service to the public good, of a rendezvous with destiny, doesn’t jibe with a rendezvous with Ms. Hunter: flatterer, thrill-seeker, professional hanger-on, above all a bit of a flake. And the Bill Clinton parallels are heartbreaking for the unlearned lessons, uncorrected flaws. Besides the womanizing, there are the legalistic denials of the National Enquirer story, and the hush-money payments engineered by Edwards’s fixer Fred Baron. The last part doesn’t out-Nixon Nixon but it just might out-Clinton Clinton.

I’m not entirely sure why I come down hard on Edwards when I spent a lot of time defending Bill Clinton in Monicagate. It would be better if our politicians’ consensual sex lives didn’t impact their career trajectories, but given the Web and round-the-clock cable and tabloid journalism, it’s hard to picture a time when Francois Mitterrand standards will be in effect in the U.S. And none of our current crop of pols has really challenged the tabloid standards. Part of my disappointment with Edwards is that, more than most, he made his marriage and family part of his campaign resume`. Even Bill and Hillary weren’t joined at the hip quite like John and Elizabeth. As Hanna Rosin puts it, you live by the confessional culture, you might die by it.

I don’t quite know what to do with the “recklessness” charge, that John E. was putting the Democratic Party in unthinkable jeopardy by pursuing the nomination with this time bomb in his back pocket. This underestimates the basic psychological defect of all presidential hopefuls, who consider themselves Men or Women of Destiny.

I sure do want to win this year, though. Many would say I failed to recognize the threat posed by G.W. Bush in 2000, but at least the U.S. was in basically sound health at that time, versus a shockingly degraded condition right now. I’m willing to compromise on principles such as candidates’ privacy, and ideals such as public campaign finance, to help the cause of Obama and the Democrats in November. And I really hate that the Edwards scandal has revived alternate history scenarios that fuel the outrage of the Hillary dead-enders.

As usual, there are other, better writers making my points more effectively. Slate’s XX Factor blog has had some lively reflections from various angles. See also Pastor Dan at Street Prophets on the implied covenant between leaders and followers.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Entitled Mediocrity, a.k.a. The Dubya Administration

William Deresiewicz has an article in The American Scholar, "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," that is getting some well-deserved play recently. I suppose it's reminiscent of David Brooks's "The Organization Kid" from 2001, but the 2008 version adds a fitting post-Enron, post-G.W. Bush perspective.

Deresiewicz writes from his recent experience teaching Ivy League students, and comments on the social and emotional constraints they operate under: fear, careerism, conformity. The Ivies exalt a specialized type of intelligence, the analytical, at the expense of other intelligences. As has been remarked elsewhere, getting admitted is for some students the hardest thing about the Yale or Harvard experience, and once you're in, it's tempting to go with the flow and not make waves.

Deresiewicz observes that Ivy Leaguers have a lot more of a safety net than State College kids, and this carries over into a public, adult sense of entitlement that is corrosive to American life.

For the elite, there’s always another extension—a bailout, a pardon, a stint in rehab—always plenty of contacts and special stipends—the country club, the conference, the year-end bonus, the dividend. If Al Gore and John Kerry represent one of the characteristic products of an elite education, George W. Bush represents another. It’s no coincidence that our current president, the apotheosis of entitled mediocrity, went to Yale. Entitled mediocrity is indeed the operating principle of his administration, but as Enron and WorldCom and the other scandals of the dot-com meltdown demonstrated, it’s also the operating principle of corporate America . The fat salaries paid to underperforming CEOs are an adult version of the A-. Anyone who remembers the injured sanctimony with which Kenneth Lay greeted the notion that he should be held accountable for his actions will understand the mentality in question—the belief that once you’re in the club, you’ve got a God-given right to stay in the club. But you don’t need to remember Ken Lay, because the whole dynamic played out again last year in the case of Scooter Libby, another Yale man.

Proletarian fuck-ups lead to jail time, bankruptcy, or some other kind of socio-economic annihilation, with overtones of shame. When a CEO raids a pension fund, or a government official fixes a contract or squelches an intelligence report, banishment is short; the luckless party bounces back with shocking quickness. People marveled when Michael Brown, good old Brownie, fired in disgrace as the head of FEMA, was soon hired back as a consultant apparently to "analyze" his own failure. The case of Alberto Gonzalez, who is having trouble finding work in his post-Attorney General phase, is notable for being an exception. Of course, Gonzalez's social background is hardly the stuff of secret societies or horse shows.

One possible response to Deresiewicz is to roll the eyes at the the self-pitying elite angle, the "poor, poor me, having to serve on the faculty of Yale and Columbia" angle. And this is my partial response, when Deresiewicz extols "the opportunity not to be rich," and complains of difficulty conversing with the plumber who comes to his house to do a repair. The best part of the piece, though, may be his reflections on the purpose of intellectual life as opposed to a career.

Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile. It means foreswearing your allegiance, in lonely freedom, to God, to country, and to Yale. It takes more than just intellect; it takes imagination and courage. “I am not afraid to make a mistake,” Stephen Dedalus says, “even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity, too.”

I've rarely seen that though encapsulated so well. I'm currently reading David Halberstam's The Powers That Be, which provokes thoughts on the "liberal bias" of journalism and the arts. (Halberstam writes of Henry Luce: "Why, he often wondered aloud, were all the talented writers liberals?") I get impatient with the David Horowitz - Michael Medved argument, that academia or the media is a liberal enclave due to some conspiracy, instead of due to a quasi-natural sorting process. Liberals are overrepresented on campuses and newsrooms the same way, and for similar underlying reasons, that conservatives are overrepresented on Wall Street. What marks the intellectual is the social commitment, the desire for communal progress and uplift, and such a commitment coincides with liberalism much more closely than with conservatism. An oversimplification, but a useful, fundamentally true one.

It was good and timely for me to read this article, as a parent. The eldest daughter and I are coming off a rough school year, her eighth grade year. To make a long story short, she brought home some lousy report cards, and I browbeat her about it. It's not that I expect her to be an Ivy Leaguer, she would be the first in her family if she became one, but I have definitely subscribed to the school of thought that says, Make the best grades possible and maximize the "quality" of the college you get into.

Much of this is midlife projection on my part. While I feel I lucked out in the college-admissions racket, getting into a better college than I probably deserved to, I also wish I had been savvier and more focused in my student days and seized more opportunities. I see 20-somethings eclipsing me and I find myself envious, which is a personal problem, not one to be dumped on my kid. She really does have a good mind, creative and idiosyncratic and daring, and I certainly don't want to fence it in. The best school, the best job, the best life for her are ones I can't even picture yet.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hacks and wonks

(The news about George Carlin's death, strangely enough, reminded of this post I wanted to make.)

It tickles me to learn that Nate Silver, a top sabermetrician (aka baseball stats nerd) whom I’ve been reading for several years now in Baseball Prospectus, is making a name as a politics blogger. I’d been thinking, hmm, where have I heard that name before? Newsweek magazine clued me in.

I could go on at stultifying length on the lessons of baseball analysis that can be applied to other walks of life. Trying to be brief: There are these rarified arenas of society that are daydream fuel for great swaths of Americans, especially men. Politics is one, sports is another, financial markets are a third I’m sure--supremely competitive, highly remunerative, high-profile businesses. Among those who actually succeed, who ascend to the highest levels of these fields, the effect of egos and status is often to create a bubble of privilege and self-congratulation, the corrosive arrogance of insiderdom.

Yet all of these fields are quite amenable to wonkery, that is, understandable to any interested lay person with brains and diligence. (Also, a little training in the use of statistics never hurt.)

It's all too tempting to divide the political universe into two groups, Hacks and Wonks. To be sure, hacks and wonks are mutually dependent, and arguably the greatest political figures combine the best of hack and wonk. But the last generation or so of American politics, the Dubya years especially, have been marked by a rising tide of empty hackdom. Maybe it's just that television is an inherently hackish medium, and the Net is inherently wonkish. Anyway, it's high time for wonks with DIY attitude to push aside the more hackish hacks. Is that clear enough?

A longtime hero of mine, or maybe anti-hero is a better term, is Bill James, the baseball writer and patron saint of sabermetrics, a guy from the sticks with no qualifications or pedigree in baseball (or journalism either), who, beginning in the late 1970s, transformed the baseball business with the patient, persistent application of logic and evidence. It helped that he took a certain gusto in puncturing myths and pretensions. For me the example of Bill James looms in the background when I survey the blogosphere. Baseball was a relatively easy nut to crack (for many years now, reams of data about it have been published in each day's newspaper) but the proliferation of information in the Internet Age is causing many inside rackets to bust open. It can be a beautiful thing.

George Carlin, 1937-2008

I can't claim to have been a big fan. I never owned any of his albums or books. He was one of those show-biz figures I liked and enjoyed bumping into, on the Tonight Show or where have you. Truthfully, I'll have a similar feeling of sadness when Cheech and/or Chong passes away, though I recognize that Carlin was a more important figure.

I liked knowing he was around, and I rooted for him in his public struggles with substance abuse. Actually, one of my stronger memories of him, and I don't know if this was a stand-up bit or something I read in an interview with him, is his description of the allure of the rituals of drug use: getting out the paraphernalia, cutting up the cocaine or et. al. I was never a heavy drug user, but that resonated with me, that there were a number of things besides the high that reinforce people's behavior with drugs.

The other thing I remember best about Carlin was his routine comparing baseball and football. As well as being funny, it was precisely on target, and it opened a little window into the American psyche. I'm more of a sports fan than a aficionado of stand-up comedy, but here is where Carlin's wide ranging observations intersected with my parochial interests and rang my bell. I bet a lot of casual comedy fans were similarly touched, maybe shaken up, by George Carlin.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Hillary to pack it in?

Reports are that Hillary Clinton is going to suspend her campaign after the polls close this evening in Montana and South Dakota.

This Jeff Greenfield piece from this afternoon, looking back on the Clinton-Obama clash, declares that Hillary got caught in a time warp. I agree, but I would describe the time warp quite differently. To Greenfield, it has to do with convention fights: since 1984, the political class has figured out that convention fights are to be avoided at all costs. That's why the superdels are refusing to swing Hillary's way during her late charge. Defying the pledged delegate math would guarantee the dreaded primetime free-for-all in Denver.

Well, sure. But: To me the point is less that we would have a floor fight at the convention, than that the aggrieved party would be the Netroots. Sorry, I don't like that word, but substitute the word of your liking for the youngish Web-wired Democratic enthusiasts whose dollars have propelled Obama and whose spirit and attitude animate his campaign. The race evolved into one where Clinton represented the pre-Netroots era (fat cat donors, old media, hawkishness for its own sake) while Obama represents the Netroots era (lots of small donors, hip to new media, multilateralism). The Netroots is where the greatest energy is. It's arguable which side is the better bet for a win in 2008, maybe it's a toss-up, but the Netroots side holds a chance at a political transformation to last a decade or more.

So: No Pissing Off the Netroots.

I may have to eat these words, but my hope is that in the end, the long Democratic campaign will not have damaged Obama, but may turn out to have helped him. He and Hillary have been at center stage all spring, both have shown impressive mettle, even chutzpah, and John McCain (maybe due to lack of ready cash) has been a bit on the sidelines. The national conversation has been about the Democrats; they will have an opportunity to define the election; the fundamentals are much in their favor.

I could well be wrong; Clinton's wins in big states like OH and PA showed Obama's vulnerability. (Give Clinton credit, she really did put on a late charge, and in a circa-1984 environment, the momentum shift would have mattered.) And the protests at the Rules Committee meeting on Saturday (where the Florida-Michigan half-vote compromise was passed) were disturbing, and listening to NPR's Diane Rehm Show on Monday morning confirmed, despite my incredulity, that there are in fact people who compare the Florida-Michigan deal to the 3/5ths compromise of the antebellum era, and who swear they will defect to McCain over the shafting Senator Clinton got.

My view of the Florida-Michigan fight is reflected here. Clinton's position was absurd. The essential problem is that Clinton and her camp did not behave honorably. There was a handshake deal among all the candidates over how to handle Florida and Michigan. When it became advantageous to welsh on the deal, the Clintons welshed. Next time lawyers and contracts will have to be involved on the front end. This is the dark side of the Baby Huey in-it-to-win-it ethos that the Clintons have.

Hillary partisans threatening to defect to McCain? I think we have to run that risk. Balance that against the adrenaline shot the GOP would get if they were running against Hillary, plus the risk of the Netroots and African-Americans sitting it out in November.

See Josh Marshall about Bill Clinton and his time warp. Also, Michelle Cottle sympathizes with the denizens of Hillaryland this evening.

Friday, May 30, 2008

He Had an Idea, An Awful Idea

I'm trying to write something for Le Chapeau Haut--you know, the East African edition of that cyber-rag I usually write for--and I have a thought, that I can't use for the 'Chap', but need to get out of my system.

I've had trouble knowing what to say about Obama v. Clinton, partly out of fear of giving offense some way, but probably more out of fear of being flat wrong. The real losers have been been the commentators and analysts, of various stripes: the pollsters whose stats have been wide of the mark, the consultants who cleave to 1996-vintage CW, those in both parties and the media who were hungry to identify frontrunners, who scrutinized the money race as of late 2007 thinking it would be decisive, or who expected some avalanche of post-New Hampshire momentum toward one candidate to wipe the others off the map. So many people have been so wrong so often, including us jackleg bloggers, partly since so few of us have perspectives that reach back before Al Gore invented the Intertubes. Neither the D nor the R race has resembled any other in recent years.

Yet, and I'm thinking now of the D side, as much as the race has defied predictions, and as weary and brittle as we've all become, people nonetheless are hardened in their declarations of What Ought to Happen. No one seems humbled to the point of altering their attitude, to one of openness to new dawns, of surrender, of simply watching what happens with a frank refusal to anticipate the outcome. Hell, many are eager and willing to jigger the rules to bring about the desired outcome, democracy and legitimacy be damned.

Hmm, now I'm bent way over and my bias is showing. How embarrassing. Despite all of the above, I remain hopeful for the future of progressivism, and like a right rank fool I am going to make a prediction: that we will look back on Obama-Clinton 2008 as a turning point, an invigorating tonic in our politics. As long, slow, drawn-out, enervating, and inconclusive as the last few months have been in the Democratic campaign, the storyline has stubbornly refused to be superficial, in spite of the diligent labors of the many highly-paid professionals whose jobs are to keep American politics superficial and dumbed-down. Race, class, gender, and religion have all cropped up, and to a remarkable degree we've discussed them like adults. (Even the arguments about Democratic Party rules and superdelegates and so on, while often self-serving and sometimes infuriating, have not been superficial, I submit; they go to what kind of party we should be.)

And the discussion is going to continue for five more months, and beyond. This election is not going to be Swift Boated, not by some provocateur who tosses a bomb then flees with his motives and bank accounts unexamined. Bushism and its aftermath have made us hungry for a serious campaign.

Political commentators like to use poker as a metaphor, as in "playing the race card." But far from being a game of poker, politics this year has felt like a chess match. No player has been able to lay down a hot-button issue then decisively sweep all the chips off the table. Instead, when issues come up or are deployed, they have lingered on the game board. They interact, they exert their different properties and valences, their actualities and potentialities, and observers get to mull them over at leisure along with the contestants themselves.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Links for the day

Rebecca Solnit, “Men Explain Things to Me.” I forwarded this to my wife. I’m debating if we should show it to my teenage daughter as a warning or if it would depress her too much. There is a guy we know who would not accept that water is wet if a woman was giving him the information.

Rick Perlstein, “The Myths of McGovern.” Via Ezra Klein. Pertinent in light of yesterday’s discussion in TNR and elsewhere: John Judis says the PA Primary casts grave McGovernesque doubts on Obama’s electability. Others (and I am with them) wonder why 1972 is so often dredged up for comparison. Fun fact: One time in 1984 I saw George McGovern eating lunch in the same restaurant I was in. You may touch me, don’t be afraid.

Colson Whitehead, “Visible Man.” Funny and sad.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Shades of 1968

Three things I came across today while misusing my time and my employer's bandwidth:

Paul Auster, "The Accidental Rebel" (NYT) -- Auster recalls his involvement in the 1968 Columbia University student strike, whose 40th anniversary is this week.

Alexander Linklater's portrait of Christopher Hitchens (Prospect UK). A well-done and highly sympathetic profile of the professional contrarian.

(Though even this sympathetic article, like all articles about Hitchens, alludes to his heavy drinking; Linklater describes him as a functioning alcoholic. When I've criticized Hitchens I have tried not to say anything about his reputation for boozing, it doesn't seem fair or terribly relevant, but Hitchens must approve of this description.)

Brian Morton, "The 'New' New Left" (Dissent) -- Morton praises a group of bloggers that includes most of my favorites (Eric Alterman, Josh Marshall, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein) as representing a renaissance of liberal thought and commentary.

Morton makes an observation about the youngish crop of left bloggers:

By saying they're ambitious, I mean that most of these writers share a politics that is interested in deep-going social reform—you could say it's a social-democratic politics, although few of them would use that term. (As far as I can tell, they have absolutely no interest in socialist thought, which, in my opinion, is a good thing. At any rate, I can't see that any of them has been hobbled intellectually because of a lack of opinions about Bukharin.)

Because most of these writers came of political age after the end of the Cold War, they're not afraid of being red-baited, and this fearlessness in some curious fashion makes them freer to mount radical critiques of U. S. policy than older generations of writers grouped around Dissent and schooled in the socialist tradition. It is odd, but refreshing, to see the emergence of young liberals who are blunter in their critiques of capitalist political and social arrangements than an older generation of democratic socialists could allow themselves to be.

Ezra Klein concurs, and extends the observation to Clinton and Obama: since Obama came of age in the post-hippie era, he is free from the need that Clinton often feels to self-consciously distance herself from the trappings of hippiedom.

From Paul Auster's account, the trappings of hippiedom were all he was really interested in, but he got swept up in a collective mania for student protest: "I went because I was crazy, crazy with the poison of Vietnam in my lungs." He was one of the hundreds of students who seized and occupied Columbia buildings for a week. In the end they were arrested and roughed up by the cops. "But no regrets. I was proud to have done my bit for the cause. Both crazy and proud."

Auster concludes:

I hesitate to draw any comparisons with the present — and therefore will not end this memory-piece with the word “Iraq.” I am 61 now, but my thinking has not changed much since that year of fire and blood, and as I sit alone in this room with a pen in my hand, I realize that I am still crazy, perhaps crazier than ever.

It's fascinating, the haunted ambivalence, even erasure with which he invokes Iraq and our contemporary situation. Certainly, comparisons with the present can be overdrawn. Crazy and proud, though, is a familiar combination today. Many partisans now seem proud even to go down in defeat, roughed up and bleeding. Instead of fights with the cops, we have Internet flame wars.

I really do recommend the Hitchens article, and I speak as someone who's spent the last decade feeling angry toward and betrayed by the man. Hitchens is someone else formed by 1968, for better or worse. The political traumas of his era intersected with his personal life in some complicated ways. I bet if I tried I could shoot a few holes in Linklater's account, but I don't feel like it. I feel a renewed sympathy for him, and feel that if I can "reconcile" with Christopher Hitchens I can reconcile a lot of things with a number of people. One of my daughters has declared that politics is just something that grown-ups use to make themselves seem smart. That remark really irked me at the time, which is a sure sign that it has a lot of truth. Politics, or political argument, is at one level a prissy parlor game, and however hard we try to hone our skills at it, we'll lose on some days. Every day, extremely bright people with understandable motivations, maneuver themselves into ridiculous rhetorical positions.

Which reminds me of Obama and Clinton. How tired I am of them! How dreary the flame wars they inspire have grown! But they won't go away, at least not for several weeks. Their next round of entrenched warfare is going to be here in North Carolina, and I feel like collateral damage already. A while back I was excited at the prospect of our primary being more than an afterthought, but it also feels like something less than a real election, more like an upcoming production of amateur dinner theatre, promising several overwrought and hackneyed performances, and an ending you can see coming a mile off.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Ice and snow in Ohio today. Which campaign has superior traction in harsh winter conditions? Who are the hardier foul-weather voters, Feminazis for Clinton or Trustifarians for Obama? What does it mean, WHAT DOES IT MEAN???

Another pendulum swing, this time in Clinton's direction. (So many have assumed that the inexorable lean in the last few days of a primary has been toward Obama; it doesn't seem to be the case this time.) I'm not morally troubled by Obama's Canuck scandal, the "Austan Goolsbee in Ottawa with the phone call" affair. But I suppose it has taken some of the sheen off of him. It turns out Obama is a politician, not a breed apart. Let's see how he deals with the problem on a politician's terms.

Clinton sounds shrill and desperate lately, to me, but the polls don't agree. It seems as though people simply want this race to be prolonged, whichever candidate they prefer. Maybe they find it entertaining, or maybe they want the eventual nominee to have been really put through the wringer, to really have earned it.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Music and Movements

The Revealer linked to an article, entitled "One Nation Under Elvis," and the teaser copy hinted that it was one of those pieces arguing that country music is misunderstood, that it's really a voice for progressivism. I girded my loins for battle; a Steve Earle here or there may complicate the picture, but he doesn't really outweigh the scores of Toby Keiths and Lee Greenwoods singing on country airwaves.

That teaser didn't begin to do justice to the article, though. I love this piece, and I will remember Rebecca Solnit and Orion magazine. Solnit starts with a story of a group of environmental activists who walk into a bar frequented by lumberjacks, and the scorn and intolerance evidenced between the two groups over the issue of what music to play on the jukebox, Dolly Parton or Bob Marley. "It was not a great movement-building exercise. How far were you going to get with a community when you couldn't stand their music or even be diplomatic about it?" That's the peg for a really sharp analysis of the split in the environmental movement, between the coastal political elites advocating for environmental reform, and the white working class of the great American interior who bear the brunt of the environmental abuses that need reforming.

Admittedly I can be a bit of a Southern chavinist at times, but Solnit echoes an observation of mine: For Northeastern or California liberals to demonize white Southerners categorically, is sometimes a self-justifying move: "Racism is pervasive. The pretense that it belongs solely to poor people who talk slow lets the rest of us off the hook."

Here is her account of the origins (and unintended outcomes) of genteel environmentalism:

The environmental movement’s founding father, John Muir, was himself a Wisconsin farm boy, and he did not so much flee the farm for the wilderness as invent wilderness as a counter-image to the farm on which his brutal father nearly worked him to death. Muir worked later as a shepherd and lumber-miller in the Sierra Nevada and much later married into an orchard-owning family, but he didn’t have much to say about work, and what little he did say wasn’t positive. The wilderness he sought was solitary, pure, and set apart from human society, corporeal sustenance, and human toil—which is why he had to forget about the Indians who were still subsisting on the land there. This apartness and forgetting so beautifully codified in Ansel Adams’s wilderness photographs has shaped the vision of much of the environmental movement since them.

The Sierra Club, which Muir cofounded with a group of University of California professors in 1892, saw nature as not where one lived or worked but where one vacationed. And traditional American environmentalism still largely imagines nature as vacationland and as wilderness, ignoring the working landscapes and agricultural lands, whose beauties and meanings are widely celebrated in European art. More recently, as environmentalists have found themselves dealing with more systemic problems—pesticides, acid rain—they’ve begun to shed the sense that the rural and urban, human and wild, are separate in ecological terms, but that awareness has done little to actually connect rural and urban people and issues.

Today, rural citizens see themselves in an unappreciated, fast-shrinking middle zone between wilderness and development (even though agriculture is often the best bulwark against sprawl). In many ways, rural culture is dying, and that seems to push many rural people into near-paranoia. During the water-scarcity crises in the Klamath River region on the California–Oregon border, farmers spoke of “rural cleansing” and seemed to believe that environmentalists wanted to empty out the countryside. Some of them do. Rural life, other than sentimental fantasies of an idyllic past, cowboy fetishism, or the pseudo-ruralism of people who live in rustic-looking settings but commute to work in the white-collar economy, is largely invisible to most of us most of the time. It’s true that agriculture and wilderness are often in competition—the farmers of the Klamath Basin are competing with salmon for water. But if rural culture and rural life were positive values also being defended, the negotiations might go better.

Solnit finds reasons for hope in the racial and cultural eclecticism of the post Baby Boom generation, and the potential of global warming and sustainability to unite us under a broad perspective. From her closing paragraph:

The anti-environmentalist right has shot itself in both feet in the past few years, losing credibility and constituency, and a smart and fast-moving left could make hay out of this, to mix a few fairly rural metaphors. It would mean giving up vindication for victory—that is, giving up on triumphing over the wickedness of one’s enemies and looking at them as unrecruited allies instead.

I can't help myself: Right now, that sounds like an Obama campaign ad.

Friday, February 22, 2008

What Yglesias said

Boo-ya. Shazam, even.

Domestically, the Republican Party rests on the idea that government can only do harm, never good. Put them in office, put the anti-government party in control of the government, they are in a position to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. Vandalism. Drowning the baby in the bathwater.

On national security, the GOP runs on fear, so bad things happening (terrorism or war being waged on us or our allies) is good for them.

These are the stakes in 2008. We’ve arrived at a diseased, decadent place in our politics where the Republican Party has little to no incentive to make good things happen. Having a conservative party is inevitable, and having that party be healthy and responsible is desirable, but right now, for America's sake, the GOP needs a good solid period of wilderness exile.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Who's a maverick and who ain't

Last night the New York Times posted a story about John McCain’s relationship with lobbyists, notably a female telecommunications lobbyist who was seen in his company a lot circa 1999, the first time McCain ran for President.

The above seems like a weak summary of a 3000-word story, but really, there’s not that much more substance to it. A number of observers have remarked how odd the story is on the page, as a news story. It talks around two issues: whether McCain had an affair with this lady, and whether McCain’s sense of his own integrity matches up to his actions relative to political money. But it’s a lot of smoke, not much fire.

The inside-the-Beltway, inside-baseball aspects of it are of most interest to me. The story reflects a self-consciousness on the Times’ part about its and the press’s role in creating the image of McCain the Maverick; there’s an impetus, if not to contradict, at least to complexify McCain and address the media’s complicity in his rise. (See also Ryan Lizza’s recent New Yorker profile of McCain.) A sidebar to today’s controversy is that The New Republic has a story about the debate within the Times’ offices whether to print the McCain + lobbyists story or not -- they’d been working on it for well over two months. The McCain campaign says that the TNR’s reporting forced the Times’ hand, which rings plausible to me. TNR’s Gabriel Sherman says the story seemed dead just a couple of weeks ago, and Times managing editor Bill Keller basically dared Sherman to write the meta-story to a story the Times killed. This all could be the result of a game of chicken gone amusingly wrong.

About the sex angle, I don’t care and would just as soon not know if McCain had this affair or not, but GOP primary voters might not feel the same, and the Romney campaign, for one, was intensely interested in whether or when a McCain adultery story would hit. The ethics angle is more troubling, but a recap of McCain’s career as a so-called reformer is not especially timely. The timing is important, and it may have worked out ideally from McCain’s vantage: too late to affect the primary season, too early to affect the general election.

I almost, *almost*, feel sorry for the NYT. Buffeted by wingnut invective on one side, the challenge of the Internet on another, the legacy of Judy Miller, Jeff Gerth, et. al. on another, the Grey Lady really doesn’t know which end is up a lot of the time. I’ll be interested to see if the story has any lasting impact, and if so, whether the impact is positive or negative for McCain. Claiming to be the victim of a jihad by the New York Times may be just the thing to unify the Republican base behind him.

I suppose it will be a good thing if today marks a break in the fawning treatment that John McCain usually gets in the political press. Far from being a saint, McCain is vain, ill-tempered, has a warped view of foreign policy, and should never be given unsupervised access to nuclear weapons. A curious thing, though, is that I have enjoyed getting this more complex and nuanced view of McCain. I started to write “I like him more,” but that’s not exactly right. I’ll never vote for him, and I imagine I’d find him a blowhard. Ryan Lizza writes how hungry McCain is for human contact – he’s a people person, which the great majority of war heroes and conservative politicians are not, and I’d wager that combination accounts for 90% of the seductive effect he has on reporters; take away the POW experience and they’d find him to be a blowhard too. But McCain’s had an amazing life, he has undeniable wit and charm, and there is something compelling and maybe tragic in his elevation of values like honor and courage in the arena of Washington politics. Being a maverick, or just being perceived that way, in a job (GOP Senator) that brutally punishes mavericks, paradoxically gave him room to operate. After a poor start to his 2008 campaign, he caught a series of lucky breaks and “stumbled” (Ryan Lizza’s word) to the head of a party in crisis.

I don’t mean that McCain’s honor or integrity are unimpeachable; his actions fail to measure up to his words. The main thing to say is he doesn’t deserve the reputation of a maverick reformer; his ethical behavior as described in the Times story is merely run-of-the-mill for a US Senator. I remember the Keating 5 scandal better than most people; I had a job during the Bush 41 years that required me to bone up on the savings and loan meltdown. The Times story doesn’t mention it, but the media should make more of the fact that McCain’s campaign is not going to follow the “McCain-Feingold” campaign finance rules. For all this, I still find McCain somewhat sympathetic, if flawed. His self-righteousness and self-regard just give him a notable blind spot. As others have observed, McCain is not a good ass-kisser or vote-panderer. Also, the outrage I might otherwise feel about McCain’s alleged influence-peddling is tempered by the knowledge that he’s not a particularly good fund-raiser – his campaign was flat broke a few months ago, he’s had to scale back his operations substantially (a less luxurious Straight Talk Express, for one thing), and some of his campaign staff are working without pay (though the NYT spins this as an ethically sketchy gift-in-kind). He’s not Machiavellian, he’s just an egotist; he’s never surprised when people do him favors.


I wanted a writing exercise, otherwise I’d have outsourced all McCain-and-the-media commentary to Eric Alterman here.

Here, however, is an example of Dr. Alterman’s puffed-up and wrongheaded views about popular music. It just so happens that I’ve been listening both to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Sweethearts of the Rodeo recently. Frankly, Sweethearts is a straight country record, and a fairly mediocre one. There’s not a thing about it that is more innovative than what Johnny Cash and others had done earlier in the 60s. It just happens to have been made by noted long-haired drug-taking hippie types. Gram Parsons is overrated, and Alterman has been taken in by the hype. Whereas on Everybody Knows Neil Young is doing something distinctive and new. People remember “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down By The River,” which are rock numbers, but the title track and “The Losing End” are closer to alt-country than the Byrds were. Experts may differ and so on, but Alterman is wrong to dismiss EKTIN’s importance so cavalierly.