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.