Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Election 2014: Looking for the weathervane


THE NEW MSNBC pre-election promo ad made its debut over the weekend. The refreshingly speech-free ad features a number of the channel’s hosts and personalities and friends, holding fingers to their lips — fingers marked with the word “VOTE.” After several seconds of this, the ad finally drops the big reveal in another card:

“The Time for Talk Is Over.”

All due props to the folks at MSNBC for this soundless call to civic action, but in some important ways, they couldn’t be more wrong. The time for talk may well be over for the punditburo —  the Beltway crowd and the analysts, the seers and Sabbath gasbags who’ve been talking about the upcoming election since the last one was over.

For most of the country, the time for talk — for a serious discussion of the issues local and national, among themselves and with the people they know and trust — is just getting started. And to go by a variety of recent opinion polls of those American people, they’re talking by not saying very much that’s committal one way or the other. At least out loud.

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As opinion polls come back with results as gridlocked and inconclusive as we think Congress is, what comes clear is an electorate wrestling with a choice of undesirable outcomes: two more years of stalemate and stratagem from a Congress determined to do as little as possible as long as possible; or two years of a unified Congress free at last to exact its own privatizing, corporatist agenda under a majority-Republican banner.

The early money said Republicans were a lock to recapture the Senate, if just barely. That may or may not happen, but what’s been missing in recent weeks is the cocksure certainty that it will happen.

To a great extent, recent polling, demographic assumptions and research used by mainstream media, political analysts and the campaigns themselves have been forced into a state of unknowing, an uncertainty  that suggests the election six days away may be more of a horse race than many have believed. They’re all looking for the weathervane to know which way the wind blows, and all that many campaign seers see right now is the dead calm of no discernible wind at all.

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IN THE Daily Beast on Oct. 22, veteran political reporter Eleanor Clift reported on a recent focus group of women in Charlotte, N.C., and posited their response on the candidates in their pivotal state as typical of voters around the country:

The women gathered around a table Monday night in Charlotte and in New Orleans are registered voters, but this election they’ve pretty much tuned out politics. It’s just too depressing when all the candidates do is bash each other. And world affairs are no comfort either, with Ebola surfacing as the latest scary thing.

Better to put on blinders, they say, and focus on home and family.

The fact that [Sen.] Kay Hagan in North Carolina and [Sen.] Mary Landrieu in Louisiana are women doesn’t much impress these voters, dubbed Walmart Moms for their shopping habits and having at least one child under 18 at home. When asked whether they would vote for Hagan or her challenger, Republican Thom Tillis, they resisted siding with either candidate. Asked if Hagan deserves reelection, not a single hand went up -- which is the same thing that happened when asked if she didn’t deserve reelection.

“All those ads and you don’t know one way or another?” the moderator pressed. Many millions have been spent on television ads in North Carolina, as groups on the right and left try to sway the electorate.

When would they decide? “When it gets closer to the time,” one woman said. How would they decide? “Google it,” said another. When? “Probably the night before.”


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WHAT CLIFT reported is both dispiriting and encouraging. It’s dispiriting because it dovetails so seamlessly with the longstanding political truism that midterm voters don’t show up, as a matter of course — and also because it suggests that, despite years of living with Hagan as their senator, these North Carolinians are even disengaged as to what she’s already done in the state they live and work and pay taxes in.

But it’s perversely encouraging too. It means that despite millions in TV ad money flooding the North Carolina market (about half and half for Democrats and Republicans alike, The Wall Street Journal reported), voters aren’t being pushed into deciding anything on the weight of those ad buys. At least not yet. Whoever wins or loses the ad war really doesn’t matter — not to the public those ads are aimed at, anyway.

Neil Newhouse is encouraged, too, but for other reasons, not necessarily correct. “If control of the senate goes through North Carolina, then these women are ripe for the picking,” said Newhouse, the Republican pollster whose Public Opinion Strategies firm conducted the Charlotte focus group, with Democratic strategist Margie Omero of Purple Strategies.

But if they’re “ripe for the picking,” why haven’t they been picked yet? The power of TV and direct-mail advertising isn’t to be overlooked in a hot race like North Carolina’s. But the question remains: With just days before the election, what more can you do to reach, to persuade these presumably persuadable voters that you haven’t already done?

Omero told Clift: ““There’s a much lower level of engagement than you’d expect given all the ads, and all the money. They’re tuning it out.”

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One reason for disengagement may have to do with efforts, loose in the nation, to suppress voter turnout altogether, and it’s in this matter the Republicans face the biggest risk of blowback — of people finally deciding to show up at the polls out of civic pique, people coming to the conclusion that even if they don’t want to vote, they’ll be damned if one party or the other is gonna stop them from voting.

Republican efforts to curtail exercise of the American franchise are an inherent contradiction. There’s something fundamentally twisted and wrong with a political party that wants the American people to cast a vote expressing their resentment at the same time that party’s doing everything it can to stop a lot of the American people from voting at all.

Undeterred, they’re taking a different familiar tack. The two epidemiological preoccupations of the moment — Ebola and ISIS — are being symbolically exploited by the GOP. Republicans in the states up for grabs and on Capitol Hill have been trying to nationalize the midterms, trying to make November 4th the date of the national immunization election — the date to purge themselves of all things Obama, and by extension the candidates of his party, and everything “bad” that’s happened under his watch.

Stairway to a settlement?


RANDY CALIFORNIA, the founding guitarist of the seminal Los Angeles-based rock group Spirit died on Jan. 2, 1997, in the act of rescuing his 12-year-old son Quinn from a vicious rip current off Molokai, Hawaii. He was 45.

He lived long enough to vent his spleen about something important with journalist Jeff McLaughlin in an interview in the winter 1997 issue of Listener magazine. “I’d say it was a ripoff,” California said. “And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said ‘Thank you,’ never said, ‘Can we pay you some money for it?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it.”

The “guys” referred to by California (given name: Randy Craig Wolfe) are the subjects of a lawsuit that, almost 18 years after the guitarist’s death, will revisit one of his songs and another one, a song that’s made its way into the pantheon of rock under other composers’ names.

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In 1968 Spirit released its eponymous debut album, which included the two-minute-37-second instrumental track “Taurus,” which was written by California, one of the band’s principal songwriters. What’s at issue in the lawsuit filed in May, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, concerns the opening arpeggio of “Taurus” and its role in the composition of “Stairway to Heaven,” the eight-minute rock classic by “the guys,” Led Zeppelin, the famed British rock-blues band.



“What happened to Randy California and Spirit is wrong,” says part of the lawsuit. “Led Zeppelin needs to do the right thing and give credit where credit is due. Randy California deserves writing credit for "Stairway to Heaven" and to take his place as an author of Rock's greatest song,”

On Oct. 10, U.S. District Court Judge Juan Sanchez denied a motion to dismiss without prejudice, setting the stage for a jury trial to proceed — or, best case, a settlement to make a trial unnecessary. The case of Led Zeppelin et al. v. the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust is very much on.

From the June 2 Hollywood Reporter: “The plaintiff is demanding statutory damages, defendants' profits, punitive damages plus equitable relief in the form of an order that Wolfe is credited as a writer of ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ A footnote in the lawsuit indicates that funds obtained from the lawsuit will go into a trust whose proceeds go to buying needy children musical instruments.”

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UPI REPORTS: “To show infringement under U.S. copyright law, you generally need to demonstrate two elements: that an original work was copied to make something substantially similar, and that the copier had access to the original work.”

“Access” would certainly be provable. Led Zeppelin and Spirit toured together not long after the Spirit debut was released, and throughout 1969 — almost certainly sharing songs and ideas on the road, as bands have done forever.

UPI cites John Hartmann, a music scholar and lecturer at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who explained that if it comes to a trial, the case would become one of dueling musicologists battling over how similar the songs are or are not.

“In a court this would be measured by experts, and a jury would have to decide,” he says.

“Measured,” eh? O.K., just for the hell of it ... let’s try to do exactly that from the plaintiffs’ perspective. Let’s play lawyer pretend.

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“Good morning. Your Honor, we hold that the melody to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is materially the same as the song by Randy California. And contrary to the assertions of defense counsel, the similarities don’t end with merely a repetition of the chord progression, which in and of itself isn’t protected by copyright. Nor do they end with ‘Stairway’s’ beginning. The “Taurus” melody is the literal underpinning for much of what follows throughout the eight minutes of ‘Stairway,’ not just the opening passages. And we contend it’s similarity not obscured by amplification or the lyrics on top of the melody.

“Please indulge a granular explanation:



“We contend that the opening two minutes and 15 seconds of ‘Stairway’ are a virtual note-for-note transcription of ‘Taurus,’ with little adornment or variation. It’s our position that this 28 percent of ‘Stairway,’ give or take, is indisputably the provenance of Mr. California.

“Further, Your Honor, the antecedent melody is used intermittently throughout the remaining six minutes, or 75 percent of ‘Stairway,’ interlaced with transitional passages originating with Led Zeppelin. ‘Stairway’ is a layer cake of a song, Your Honor — one you can actually put to stopwatch courtesy of any YouTube video with a recording of the song in question.

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THE FIRST inarguable Led Zeppelin passage occurs at 2 minutes 15 seconds, and lasts 25 seconds. That’s followed by a return to the California melody, about 28 seconds long (from 2:40 to 3:08). That’s followed by another Led Zep passage, lasting 21 seconds (from 3:09 to 3:30), which is followed by a return to the antecedent melody by Mr. California, lasting 29 seconds (from 3:31 to the 4-minute mark).

“Nineteen seconds follow from Led Zep’s brow, from 4:01 to 4:20. Then it’s back to the California melody for 24 seconds (4:21 to 4:45). Then back again to a Led Zep passage for 22 seconds (4:46 to 5:08), and again back to the California melody for 24 seconds (5:09 to 5:33). And then, we finally return to the closing hammer of the gods a la Led Zeppelin for the remaining 2 minutes and 26 seconds of the song.

“This last 2:26, Your Honor, is the greatest departure from Mr. California’s undergirding melody, and would seem to be wholly Led Zep’s own invention, as is the admittedly legendary guitar solo work by co-defendant Jimmy Page throughout that time.

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“Computing then: if we concede the final 2:26 is wholly Led Zep’s creative entity, that comprises about 31 percent of ‘Stairway’ whose origins with Led Zep is uncontested.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Evolution days: Marriage equality in America


THE SEA CHANGE by default that took place on the U.S. Supreme Court’s annual official first day of business marked another turning point in the nation’s slow acceptance of marriage equality. The first Monday on October wasn’t even over and the most judicially activist Supreme Court in years had made history by doing nothing at all.

With its refusal to hear appeals from a quintet of states that challenged lower court rulings legalizing same-sex marriage — Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia and Wisconsin — the high court resisted its own reliably conservative tilt on social issues, opening the door for the most sweeping and seismic shift in civil rights since the era of the civil rights movement.

The Supremes’ no-ruling ruling also paved the way for legalization in half a dozen other states under the same lower courts’ jurisdiction. The Associated Press reported Monday that residents of Colorado, Wyoming, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina “should be able to get married in short order. Those states would be bound by the same appellate rulings that were put on hold pending the Supreme Court's review.”

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It wasn’t an absolute slam-dunk. “Two other appeals courts, in Cincinnati and San Francisco, could issue decisions any time in same-sex marriage cases,” AP reported. “Judges in the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit [Court of Appeals] who are weighing pro-gay marriage rulings in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, appeared more likely to rule in favor of state bans than did the 9th Circuit judges in San Francisco, who are considering Idaho and Nevada restrictions on marriage.”

But the raw numbers of population are compelling. Sam Stein and Amanda Terkel of The Huffington Post reported Monday that: “The total population of those states, based on 2013 estimates from the Census Bureau, is about 190 million. Just over 60 percent of the U.S. population now lives in a state where marriage equality soon will be legal.

“Prior to Monday, that total was just under 44 percent -- if you discounted states where same-sex marriage was legalized but there were still court challenges. In all, the Supreme Court's decision on Monday set the path for an additional 51,579,771 people to live in states with concrete same-sex marriage rights.”

Richard Socarides, a gay-rights advocate and former adviser to President Clinton, told Politico that’s Monday’s news “is a terrific result, for now. It’s a little bit incremental, but I think it’s a fantastic result and we should celebrate today.”

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THE COURT’S consistently liberal wing has taken a wait-and-see approach, apparently content to watch  how the state-by-state expansion of same-sex marriage plays out organically in the real world.

“The more liberal justices have been reluctant to press this issue to an up-or-down vote until more of the country experiences gay marriage,” Walter E. Dellinger III, acting United States solicitor general in the Clinton administration, told The New York Times. “Once a substantial part of the country has experienced gay marriage, then the court will be more willing to finish the job.”

And three weeks ago, at a lecture at the University of Minnesota Law School, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned that “there will be some urgency” for the court to act if the 6th Circuit breaks with the trend toward same-sex marriage accelerated on Monday. Otherwise, she said, there would be “no need for us to rush.”

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Conservatives were deafening in their silence on Monday. For a while anyway. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah issued a statement, calling the court’s decision “disappointing.”

Lee’s statement, a weak retrenchment to conservative values, included a proposal that would make the issue of marriage equality subject to a hodgepodge of state laws. “Nothing in the Constitution forbids a state from retaining the traditional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman,” he said. “Whether to change that definition is a decision best left to the people of each state — not to unelected, politically unaccountable judges.”

Kate Nocera of BuzzFeed reported Monday that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz planned to introduce an equally improbable constitutional amendment “to prevent the federal government or the courts from attacking or striking down state marriage laws.”

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Justice for Jordan Davis


WHEN THE news came on Wednesday, it was like a thunderclap announcing rain in the desert. Michael Dunn, the man who killed Jordan R. Davis, a black Georgia teenager who was shot to death in Jacksonville, Fla., in November 2012 for the crime of playing music too loud, was found guilty of first-degree murder. A life sentence awaits.

These dry, juiceless facts only barely touch on the volatile cross-currents of race and culture that wound through Dunn’s trial. But the outcome of the trial revealed more than itself; it was a frankly unexpected vindication of the idea of a fair trial made real, in a state with a history of weighting the scales of justice on the basis of race.

The jury deliberated for little more than five hours before finding Dunn, a white Floridian, guilty of firing 10 shots into Davis’ Dodge Durango SUV outside a Jacksonville convenience store, killing Davis, then fleeing the scene with his fiancée. This trial followed the one in February, when Dunn was convicted of three counts of attempted second-degree murder. That trial aroused the rage of African Americans for the monstrous human arithmetic announced in the verdict. Dunn was found guilty on three counts of attempted murder (one for each of Davis’ three passengers) and guilty on the charge of firing into an occupied vehicle.

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But on the main count — the charge that Dunn wantonly took a young man’s life with shots from a 9mm — the jury came to no agreement, despite having the options of convicting Dunn on lesser charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter.

The February jury failed to agree on whether Dunn’s killshot — the one that took Davis’ life at the age of 17 — was first degree murder, second degree murder or manslaughter. Thus deadlocked, the judge declared a mistrial on the one count that mattered.

There was no conviction in February for the most serious matter in this case. The verdict confirmed the idea that, in practical terms, Jordan Davis did not exist.

The jury’s relatively brief deliberation in yesterday’s trial made clear a determination not to make the same mistake twice.

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BUT CALL IT Ferguson fatigue: Some news reports in the mainstream media went to great pains to play down the trial’s racial component, describing it in the context of “Florida man convicted of teen’s murder,” a descriptive generality as thematically dishonest as it was factually incomplete. The racial dimensions of the case were there from the start; anyone who read Dunn’s venomous jailhouse letters knew that already. Attempts to scrub the case’s racial overtones bump up against an exhaustion with the spate of race-related police shootings and encounters we’ve been party to all year.

African Americans don’t have the luxury of such willful amnesia. Instead, we’re subject to another malady, a kind of fatalism about how such trials often turn out. It’s a sad leitmotif of black American life vis-à-vis law enforcement: Expect the worst, and you won’t be disappointed.

Some in Jacksonville were expecting the results, but various tweets and comments appending several online news stories about the latest Dunn trial took on a tone of pleasant shock. “Finally, justice for a young black man.” “This is shocking.” “I’m surprised.” “About time.” At the end of the day, that may be the most shocking thing about the verdict: That we’ve become so accustomed to the predictable outcome of the exoneration of such racial violence on the flimsiest of pretexts, it surprises us when the script gets flipped and real justice is done.

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Dunn is done too. In February, Assistant State Attorney Erin Wolfson told USA Today that each of the three attempted-murder counts carries a 20-year minimum mandatory sentence. That’s 60 years right there. Jackelyn Barnard, spokeswoman for the State Attorney's Office, told USA Today that the sentences must run consecutively.

“You are looking basically at life in prison,” Dunn defense attorney Cory Strolla told CNN, in February, when asked to speculate on his client’s time behind bars. “At 47 years old, that's a life sentence regardless of count one.”

Since a first-degree murder conviction in Florida means life without parole, Dunn’s earlier life sentence on the lesser charges gets even worse, if that’s possible. The sentencing hearing, now set for Oct. 17, is already not much more than a formality.

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IF YOU can imagine a bright side to such a trial, it was there not just in the verdict, but also in the jury that delivered it. Seven white men, three white women, one black man and one black woman sealed Dunn’s fate on Wednesday. It was a rare but welcome victory over our reflexive color-based cynicism, our collective tendency to handicap the outcome of a racially-tinged trial on the basis of who sits in the jury box.

Ron Davis, Jordan’s father, understands this. “I wanted Jacksonville to be a shining example. That you could have a jury made up of mostly white people — white men — and be an example to the rest of the world to stop the discriminatory practices,” he said after the trial.

It would be fittingly anodyne if Davis’ message resonates in other courtrooms, at other trials, along with the bittersweet expression of Lucia McBath, the most eloquent family spokeswoman, a mother deprived of a son.

“Words cannot express our joy, but also our great sorrow,” McBath said after the verdict. “We know that Jordan has received justice and his life and legacy will live on for others. But at the same time, we’re very saddened by the life that Michael Dunn will continue to live. We are saddened for his family, his friends and the community that will continue to suffer by his actions.”

“But we are very grateful that justice has been served — justice not only for Jordan, but justice for Trayvon and justice for all the nameless and faceless children and people that will never have a voice.

"Justice can be served, and it’s not based on the color of your skin.”

Image credits: Jordan Davis: The family of Jordan Davis. Dunn: via Talking Points Memo. Lucia McBath and Ron Davis: Bob Mack (pool) via USA Today.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Christie 2016: Presidential access lane reopens



HE’S BACK IN the saddle again, or so it seems. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was his old pugnacious self on Monday, going back on offense against an old nemesis — the unions — but this time doing it on behalf on a fellow Republican governor. Christie was stumping in Wisconsin for Scott Walker, the Badger State’s governor and a man whose road to the White House is as long as Christie’s own.

Recently, though, Christie got what could be a big assist in the resuscitation of his fever dreams of the White House. On Sept. 18, federal prosecutors cleared Christie of wrongdoing in the Bridgegate scandal.

According to a report by WNBC, the New York City NBC affiliate (followed swiftly by other news orgs), the Justice Department found no direct link between the governor and the closure of several lanes on the George Washington Bridge last September, four days of deliberate traffic chaos, an event that complicated the lives of the people of Fort Lee, N.J., and their necessary everyday access to the busiest commuter bridge in the world.

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“Federal officials caution that the investigation that began nine months ago is ongoing and that no final determination has been made, but say that authorities haven't uncovered anything that indicates that Christie knew in advance or ordered the closure of traffic lanes,” WNBC reported on Sept. 18.

While the investigation isn’t finished yet, one former federal prosecutor with no connection to the Christie case said that after nine months of scrutiny, if there’s no smoking gun in such matters, it’s increasingly unlikely one will ever be found. “My experience with federal law enforcement is that, once you reach critical mass, if you don’t have it within nine months or so, you’re not likely to ever get it,” former federal prosecutor Robert W. Ray told WNBC.

The DoJ’s exoneration of Christie presumably clears the lanes of the governor’s political career, and revives his prospects for making a presidential run in 2016. At least theoretically. The apparent end to the Bridgegate mess is a huge imagistic weight off his shoulders. But Christie faces other potential obstacles not far along. And unlike Bridgegate, they lay directly at his feet.

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THE BAD news remains that politically as chief executive it looks like he was not in control of his administration at the time when this occurred,” said Lee Miringoff, Director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, speaking to WNBC, alluding to claims that Christie’s management style over-delegated authority in a way that made Bridgegate possible. “So that remains the downside for him. That doesn’t go away, but this panel provides greater credibility barring any further revelations coming out.”

But Christie doesn’t need other revelations about the bridge fiasco. Another issue facing him is hardly a minor thing.

On Sept. 10, Standard & Poor’s downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating, citing Christie's handling of the Garden State’s $78 billion pension system. An S&P spokesman said in a statement that the matter has “significant negative implications for the state’s liability profile.” The downgrade was the eighth under Christie’s governorship.

“The reduction to A, the sixth-highest level, with a stable outlook follows a Sept. 5 downgrade by Fitch Ratings,” Bloomberg.com reported on Sept. 10. “It gives New Jersey the same general-obligation grade as California, which is on track for an upgrade as revenue exceeds Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s estimates. Only Illinois has lower ratings than New Jersey among U.S. states.”

The other unkindest cut: Bloomberg reports that Christie has now tied his Democratic predecessor, James McGreevey, “for the most credit reductions for a New Jersey governor.”

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That can’t be good news for anyone who presumes to run for president in the midst of an economy that’s hardly lifting all boats at the same time. In fact, if anything’s likely to keep Christie right where he is for the next two-three years — fixing the mess he made, in the governor’s mansion — the state of the Garden State’s economy might be enough.

But then there’s the other thing. In January, Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, accused the Christie administration of linking the payout of Hurricane Sandy hazard recovery funds to the mayor’s approval of a waterfront development project that Christie supported. The intended developer, the powerful Rockefeller Group, was represented at the time of Zimmer’s allegations by the law firm of David Samson, the close friend of Christie who, in March, quit as the chairman of the board of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Christie’s office has denied any wrongdoing in the Hoboken matter.

James Cohen, a Fordham University law professor, told Daily Kos that the Hoboken case could be a heavier concern than the Bridgegate scandal. “Closing the George Washington Bridge, that is very serious. It takes a lot of balls,” Cohen said in January, before the feds cleared Christie. “But this deals with dollars — the misuse of federal tax dollars. The feds will treat that very, very serious.”

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AND THE governor’s gone on to make even more work for himself. In July, Christie vetoed a gun control bill that would have set a limit on gun magazine capacity to 10 rounds or less. Christie decried the bill as “trivial,” which apparently came as a surprise to the relatives of the victims of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Adam Lanza used a 223-caliber Bushmaster rifle and several 30-round magazines to kill 20 children and 6 teachers that day in December 2012.

“We have been trying to get a private meeting with him since May 22nd to talk about this bill and he’s refused,” said Mark Barden, father of 7-year-old Daniel Barden, killed by Lanza that day at Sandy Hook. “He made this statement accusing us of ‘grandstanding’ and using ‘empty rhetoric,’” Barden told the Daily News on July 3. “That is a blow to the memories of our children. People from all over are completely outraged by his language.”

Christie has shown he’s capable of being even-handed in those he outrages. In August, the governor came under withering fire from those in his own Republican ranks when he came out in support of expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s crown jewel. This lets New Jersey accept federal funds to cover poor residents with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty level — an estimated 300.000 uninsured state residents.

The Washington Times reported on Aug. 18 that “his embrace of Medicare does create a political problem similar to the one that dogged 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.”

“The farther away from Obamacare any governor is, the better off they are,” said Charlie Gerow, of the board of the American Conservative Union, to The Times. “The problem is there is some nuance to all of that, and politics is not about nuance.”

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WHICH IS not a problem for Chris Christie. Nuance has never been an issue for this king of the gauntlet throwdown. Since his ascendancy into the national spotlight, he’s prided himself on purveying a brash, unfiltered politics that takes no prisoners, a zero-sum-game style of rule that sharply delineates friend from foe, and doesn’t believe it’s a B.F. Deal what you think of either one. Some in the GOP orthodoxy, for example, still give Christie the apostate’s stinkeye for his walk with President Obama along the Jersey Shore in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, on the eve of the 2012 election.

“It was obvious to many people in New Jersey that he was putting his state ahead of his party,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute Murray, to The New York Times in late November 2012. “You always get points for leadership when you do that.”

If Christie’s serious about 2016, that may be both harder to do and more difficult whenever he does it. Despite being exonerated in the Bridgegate snafu, Christie still has to deal with things that make him a hard sell to the American public.

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Since the recent crises turned up the burn rate of a lot of his PR capital (and because Jersey’s financial woes will do the same for months to come) the governor’s going to have to spend a fair amount of time just telling the country who Chris Christie is — beyond being someone with a selectively autocratic management style and an inclination for going off on anybody who crosses him.

That my-way-or-highway attitude, that element of style feeds into a perception of Republican intolerance that already exists. To make headway as a serious presidential contender in 2016, if he wants to go that way, Christie will have to keep breaking new ground, keep pushing back against the old party optics, the old party orthodoxy. Primary-season audiences may not be ready for that.

Still, one thing at a time. With Bridgegate apparently behind him, the traffic cones most immediately blocking Chris Christie’s political career are out of the way. Job #1: Navigate the slalom of political barriers and potholes not that far down the street where he lives. Job #2: Compute the gas in the tank, and the fire in the belly, as he approaches that next big on-ramp. The one marked “2016 — MERGING TRAFFIC.”

Image credits: Christie and Walker: Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com). Christie portrait: Ralph Freso/Associated Press. Zimmer: Marko Georgiev/The Record. Newtown memorial: Timothy Clary/Getty Images. Christie magazine cover: ©2013 TIME. Obama and Christie: via MSNBC. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why Derek Jeter matters



THE NEW YORK Yankees pulled Derek Jeter from Saturday’s game against the Boston Red Sox. A bad hamstring got him sidelined, but only briefly. He’s expected to play today, which will be a good thing. After today, there is no tomorrow for Jeter in Fenway Park. After the 2014 regular season ends today, there’s no tomorrow for Jeter in Yankee Stadium. Not as a player, anyway.

After 20 seasons as a New York Yankee, Derek Sanderson Jeter is retiring from major league baseball. As if you didn’t know: this year has been crowded with tributes to “the Captain,” from opposing teams (players and management), the media, advertisers, celebrities and every fan of the game too young to remember other players with better stats, longer careers, more coverage in the press.

In our nonstop, stats-driven world — where metrics seem to dominate everything and data appears to decide everything important — Jeter’s pending retirement has led to the inevitable comparisons between his lifetime numbers and other great players who hung 'em up. The contrarian personalities among us have already started the Jeter image deflation machine. In their sad rush to the hard, flat comfort of numbers, they’ve missed much of the point — of baseball, and Derek Jeter, and us, and why the Captain matters to us.

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It’s true that it can be hard to step away from metrics when you’re talking about baseball, a game that lives and dies by numbers: innings pitched, on-base percentage, hits, walks, RBIs, ERAs, WARs, BBs ... and on and on. And some people are more driven by those numbers than others.

Leave it to that walking calculator Keith Olbermann, host of ESPN’s “Olbermann,” to get that point across. All season long, in what we’ve known for months would be Jeter’s final season, Olbermann has conducted his own farewell tour for Jeter, letting his viewers know at every opportunity just how good Jeter was not.

It’s been happening all year, on and off, Olbermann taking opportunities to push back on what he see as a valedictory mythology taking shape in Jeter’s twilight, and to rip the praises from fans and other teams — running down Jeter as if all the tributes coming his way were somehow Jeter’s idea. Olbermann really let the mud fly on Tuesday night: “"Contrary to what you have heard, Derek Jeter is not the greatest person in human history. He did not invent baseball, he did not discover electricity, he is not the greatest shortstop who ever lived. And among all the terrific players in the history of the New York Yankees he is not, by any measure, number one.”

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WHAT FOLLOWED was a crash course in how to gauge the cost of everything and the value of nothing. With his customary snark and bite, Olbermann recited the Baseball-Reference Guide chapter-and-verse comparisons that proved Jeter was middlebrow at best. He wasn’t fit to tie Ozzie Smith’s Nikes, he never won an MVP accolade, he never led the league in homers or RBIs; he was the team captain when the Yankees suffered two American League Championship Series defeats and five American League division losses; he was the team leader when the Yankees suffered the defeat that still stings in Yankee fans’ hearts: the loss of the American League Championship Series to the Red Sox in 2004, when the Yankees blew a 3-0 ALCS series lead.



Olbermann had company. Ted Berg at USA Today started back in February. “Jeter’s offensive game is driven by singles and marked by perennially high batting averages. He hits some homers, but his relative lack of power means he has only cracked the Top 10 in AL OPS (on-base plus slugging) once in his career.”



Jason Kiedel at CBS2 New York said: “While Jeter is a first-ballot icon whose plaque in Cooperstown and acreage in Monument Park are assured, he was never the best player in the sport, is far from the best player in Yankees history and wasn’t always the best player on his own team.”

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But Kiedel also got at some of what Olbermann overlooked about Jeter: “He was not great at anything, but really good at everything. We so lust for the sexy stat — the home run, touchdown and three-pointer — that we just don’t get turned on by the sprawling career of consistent production.”

Right, Jason. Let’s pay that proper respect to endurance and longevity — like we did when Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. was rightly celebrated for playing in 2,632 consecutive straight games. In a time when players move from team to team with jarring irregularity, never around long enough to be a fan favorite, Jeter stayed put with the Yankees, a team known for being demanding in a city that’s never anything but demanding.

Since he debuted in May 1995 with the Yankees — the only team he’d ever play for — Jeter has 3,463 hits (not counting what happens today), five World Series championships, and five Gold Gloves. He was named an All-Star 14 times, and he’s No. 6 all-time in hits (he tied Honus Wagner back in August). That kind of stability with any one team is admirable; to do that with the Yankees, in the white-hot glare of the most irascible fans and media market in the country, is not much short of a miracle.

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KIEDEL GOES on to mention something else. Something important: “The most important point that Olbermann missed — and it must be an intentional omission, because he’s too savvy to miss something so obvious — is that Jeter, unlike 80 percent of his peers, did not take steroids.

“So it’s not fair to just belch the bromides about power numbers without acknowledging that he is one of the few who did it fairly. Look at Jeter’s physique. He never became Brady Anderson, never gained or lost 30 pounds of muscle in one offseason. His body never morphed into the cartoonish contours of Bonds, McGwire, Sosa or A-Rod.

“And that’s an essential distinction. Jeter played old-school baseball by the original rules. ... He is the embodiment of the cliché — doing it the right way.”

And that begins to address what Olbermann and other critics choose to miss: Jeter knows good and well he’s not the greatest shortstop who ever lived. He knows he’s not the greatest New York Yankee who ever lived.

And he never said he was. He never even pretended he was. Day to day over 20 seasons, Derek Jeter was nothing more or less than the very best Derek Jeter he could be. Many days that was stellar. Many other days, well, it was not. Color Jeets human.

Years ago, in the Ken Burns “Baseball” series, the legendary sportswriter Roger Angell observed that “there’s more Met than Yankee in all of us.” Sooner or later, that has to be as true for an actual New York Yankee as it is for anyone else.

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Olbermann and others are so overly focused on the data that defines the game that they miss the magic that inspires the game, the magic that makes baseball more than punching up an equation on a calculator or conjuring an Excel spreadsheet, or anything else you do with numbers.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Shock and stealth: ISIS, the coalition
and ‘perpetual war’


This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

— President Obama, Sept. 10



FOR THE third time in as many decades, the United States is at war in the Middle East. On Monday evening in America, F-15, F-16, F-22, F/A-18 and B-1 bombers bombed in Syria, attacking an assortment of targets — command centers, fuel and weapons depots, troop installations — of the ISIS terrorist organization.

President Obama, who’d been telegraphing his intention to throw this punch, did it the way he wanted to all along: attacking ISIS targets with the full participation of true partners in the campaign, the militaries of some of the major players in the Middle East, building a regional coalition of interested parties with a direct stake in the outcome.

Obama spoke before the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, and then made history by chairing a session of the UN Security Council, to personally hammer home his support of a binding anti-terrorist resolution. That would have raised eyebrows enough. But to do it days after a dramatic and so far successful first strike against ISIS in Syria (one that never had UN approval), raised the stakes for the president, who, despite the risks involved, apparently decided to take Grace Hopper’s wry wisdom, geopolitically applied: For this president, it was better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission.

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The president’s swift action on both the military and diplomatic fronts has also kept the political peace at home; Obama has received full-throated support from prominent Republicans in Congress and elsewhere, even as many on the political left have deep misgivings over the Obama strategy. The effect of all this on Democratic fortunes in November, is anyone’s guess.

For now, though, in preparations for a confrontation with what the president called “the cancer of violent extremism,” President Obama went looking for one coalition. He managed to come up with two. A lot’s riding on how solid and reliable those coalitions are.



Obama set the stage in powerful fashion. In a United Nations speech that pulled no punches there and underscored the punch he’d already thrown, Obama galvanized the General Assembly, making clear that this was a conflict in which there would be no convenience of sidelines.

But though the thrust of the speech was focused on the ISIS threat, Obama widened his rhetorical field of vision. With the impact of climate change, the presence of rampant expansionism (a clear shot at Putin’s adventures in Ukraine) and the mute, insidious terrorism of the Ebola virus rampaging across Africa ... well, the president said, there’s no sitting on the sidelines for any of that, either.

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“We come together at a crossroads between war and peace, between disorder and integration, between fear and hope,” the president said.

“We can reaffirm our collective responsibility to confront global problems, or be swamped by more and more outbreaks of instability," he said. "For America, the choice is clear. We choose hope over fear.”

Transcript of President Obama’s speech before the UN General Assembly

But the speech’s first-among-equals was the Monday attack, in which the United States and “partner nation forces” Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar hit targets in and around Raqqa, Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.

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FOR OBAMA, ISIS was the target of opportunity and necessity. “With access to technology that allows small groups to do great harm, they have embraced a nightmarish vision that would divide the world into adherents and infidels — killing as many innocent civilians as possible; and employing the most brutal methods to intimidate people within their communities.”

“This group has terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and Syria, Mothers, sisters and daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. Bodies have been dumped in mass graves. Religious minorities have been starved to death. In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the conscience of the world.

“No God condones this terror,” Obama said during the 40-minute speech. “No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”

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Then the president addressed that big concern both foreign and domestic: Who would talk the talk and walk the walk, which countries would put their militaries where their monarchies are?

“In this effort, we do not act alone,” he said. “Nor do we intend to send U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands. Instead, we will support Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities. We will use our military might in a campaign of air strikes to roll back ISIL. We will train and equip forces fighting against these terrorists on the ground. We will work to cut off their financing, and to stop the flow of fighters into and out of the region. Already, over 40 nations have offered to join this coalition. Today, I ask the world to join in this effort.”

This was apparently a formality. The five “partner nation forces” Obama named had already had military assistance from Belgium and the Netherlands. France, already bombing ISIS targets in Iraq, is reportedly weighing military strikes in Syria after an Algerian Islamist group beheaded a French citizen. “The question is on the table,” French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTF radio on Thursday.

Turkey is reportedly deciding how, not whether, to get involved. And British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed Obama’s all-in appeal. “This is a fight you cannot opt out of,” he told NBC’s Brian Williams on Tuesday. “These people want to kill us. They have got us in their sights.”

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THE COALITION back in Washington, almost as unimaginable as the one called for at the UN, was strong in the early going, with Republicans refreshingly obeying the old rule that domestic politics stops at the water’s edge.

“When in times of war and of peace it is important that we come together as a nation,” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. “To defeat ISIS, we must cut off the head of the snake, which exists in Syria. I support the administration’s move to conduct airstrikes against ISIS wherever it exists. ISIS is not just a threat to the United States - it is a threat to all nations that value human life and decency.”

Rep. Peter King of New York, never one to mince words, tweeted: “All Americans must stand with President Obama in our war against ISIS — particularly tonight’s air strikes in Syria.” House Speaker John Boehner said “I support the airstrikes launched by the president.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a reliable White House saddlethorn, lent his support.

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Support for bombing inside Syria came from everyone you’d expect. It also had the support of ... Syria. On. Sept. 11, Syrian foreign minister Faisal Mekdad told NBC News’ Bill Neely that his country had “no reservations whatsoever” about then-considered U.S. air strikes on ISIS targets.

Neely reports: “Mekdad called Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad ‘a natural ally’ for the U.S. in its battle against ISIS, saying in an exclusive interview that both countries are ‘fighting the same enemy’ and should be working together — not antagonizing each other.”

“When it comes to terrorism, we should forget our differences … and forget all about the past,” Mekdad said. “It takes two to tango ... We are ready to talk.

Mekdad did emphasize the need to coordinate the logistics of any strikes with the United States — so “there should be no mistakes,” he said. He even characterized it as “a must” for Obama to call Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. That seeming demand felt more consultative than conditional, but no matter: Damascus was notified before the attack began.

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WHATEVER THE long-term prospects for the coalition of nations might be, the short-term prognosis has been good so far. William McCants, a former State Department adviser now with the Brookings Institute, told MSNBC that “before this, there was a lot of infighting, and the United States was not able to corral [Arab states] in a single direction. This strike is not just a physical manifestation that’s come together, but also quite symbolic, because they haven’t been able to achieve it in the prior two years.”

Some in the media have been more downbeat, or certainly more skeptical. They’ve made the automatic assumption that the disaster of attempting to train Iraqi recruits to protect Iraq from ISIS will be repeated in Syria — proposing to make a template of Iraq’s failure elsewhere in the Middle East. That’s not proven yet, and the Syrian people aren’t the Iraqis.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Alessandra Stanley and how to get away
with stereotyping


NEW YORK TIMES chief television critic Alessandra Stanley just published an essay that doubles as a rhetorical crash course in how to get away with stereotyping. Its assertions illustrate, surely by accident,  the obstacles that African American actresses and actors face in pursuit of their profession. It’s also an object lesson in the dangers of making assumptions about people, culture and experiences outside one’s own.

Stanley wrote an op-ed piece on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” and the series’ lead actress, Oscar nominee Viola Davis. The essay, first published in The Times on Thursday and again in the Sunday print edition, starts off on a very wrong foot.

She writes: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called 'How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’” It’s what’s known in journalism as a “grabber” lead, deliberately embracing an offending or provocative phrase in a shock-value way, establishing a thesis that the writer then sets out to categorically defend.

The trouble is, when you do that, when you stray into culturally-misunderstood realms of description, you need to know your way around the territory. You need to know something of the subtleties and complexities of what the trope “Angry Black Woman” entails — preferably as lived experience, or at least as the object of serious sociological study, not just as a phrase you think you kinda sorta know the meaning and nuances of.

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In Stanley’s blinkered, tone-deaf world, race is expected to be in others’ lives as much, as prominent a fixation of life as it apparently is in her own. How else to interpret this passage explaining the Shonda Rhimes cosmology, according to Alessandra Stanley:

“In that multicultural world, there are many African-Americans at the top of every profession. But even when her heroine is the only nonwhite person in the room, it is the last thing she or anyone around her notices or cares about.”

It escapes Stanley that African Americans do not spend every waking minute of their lives with race in the forefront of their minds, despite a society that does all it can to reinforce that as what black people think about 24/7 — an immediate, default self-perception.

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SHE PULLS this again later in the piece: For Stanley, Rhimes’ characters “struggle with everything except their own identities, so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned.”

There’s the implicit assumption that black identity is fundamentally a daily, epic existential struggle waged from within. Note to Alessandra Stanley: Black people don’t think of themselves as a challenge or a problem to be solved.

It would be nice, too, if Stanley bothered to make a meaningful distinction in her assessment of Rhimes’ contribution to the “Murder” series. The critic assumes that the show was created by Rhimes, when it was in fact created by Pete Nowalk, a veteran of other Rhimes shows. This unforced error alone, ascribing to Rhimes the nuances of characters she didn’t create, thoroughly undercuts the scaffold of Stanley’s essay.

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Undaunted, though, she goes on, betraying a perspective that’s anything but enlightened. Consider some of the words she uses to describe the black woman characters of Rhimes shows: “angry,” “volcanic,” “intimidating,” “slightly menacing.” Paging D.W. Griffith.

Stanley hits a rhetorical low when she carves out physical distinctions between “Scandal” star Kerry Washington and Davis, described as “less classically beautiful.” Stanley betrays everything of her perspective with the words “classically beautiful,” a phrase that, despite its futile reach for the diplomatic, only reinforces the Eurocentric stereotypes that African American actresses contend with on a regular basis.

Then she goes on to take a swipe at another TV show. Writing about the addition of Michael Che to the “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live,” Stanley writes that “SNL” “suddenly seems to be on a diversity jag” — looking at it as some kind of social experiment, rather than (first) a smart poach of a young comic talent in his ascendancy and (second) an overdue reflection of more of the national demographic.

It’s all so predictable.

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WILLA PASKIN, writing at Slate, had a more measured, panoramic take: “Angry, like bossy or shrill, is a particularly loaded word to use about women, and even more so about black women. It comes with the implication of unreliability and unreasonableness, the connotation that the unhinged woman in question is easily dismissed, qualities that Rhimes’ characters—and Rhimes herself—barely ever display. Describing these women and Rhimes as “angry black women” is a contortion, shoving them into a stereotype that doesn’t fit.”


At Vulture, Margaret Lyons does a righteous takedown of Stanley’s “classical beauty” canard: “I wonder if any of this ‘classical beauty’ aesthetic could have ever been influenced by racism, maybe, like, generations and generations of it, just like a tooooon of racism and colonialism, like so, so much. Hmm. Who can know.”

Other reactions are calling for action. Color of Change, the grassroots advocacy organization, is circulating a petition demanding an apology from Stanley and a retraction of the piece.


“Characterizing their supreme confidence and competence as ‘anger’ — and describing actress Viola Davis as sexy ‘in a slightly menacing way,’ and ‘darker-skinned and less classically beautiful’ — only plays into destructive stereotypes that impact the lives of Black women every day,” Color of Change wrote in emails sent to supporters. “With so few Black women both onscreen or behind the scenes in Hollywood, high profile, dehumanizing misinterpretations of their work cannot be tolerated.”

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Stanley, of course, defended herself in a statement: “The whole point of the piece — once you read past the first 140 characters — is to praise Shonda Rhimes for pushing back so successfully on a tiresome but insidious stereotype," she said. But her cheap dig at the Twitterati misses the point. Most of them almost certainly read the piece.

And ironically enough, it’s almost unnecessary. The 113 characters of her lead paragraph reveal more about her essay, and the thinking behind it, than she realized. They tell all of the story. If only there was more Stanley could have thoughtfully, incisively, intelligently volunteered.

Patience. We can be sure there’s more to come from the Passive-Aggressive White TV Critic any time now.

Image credits: Stanley: WireImage. Shonda Rhimes: via electronicvillage.blogspot.com; probable actual origin: ABC/ShondaLand Productions. Davis: ABC.ShondaLand Productions. Tweets by their respective creators.

Roger, and out



CHANCES ARE pretty good your NFL fantasy football team is a mess right now. The chances are even better that if you’re a fantasy football commissioner, you’ve got a better handle on your players than the real NFL commissioner has on his.

At this point — in the wake of a near disaster of a press conference on Friday, the potential disaster of a new ESPN news story published hours after he spoke, and the conflicting actions of the last few months — you could probably stand in for the real commissioner, Roger Goodell, the man who currently presides over an institutional clusterf*ck of monumental proportions.

No fewer than five players are the latest poster players for a culture of spontaneous violence, self-serving front office statements and institutional self-protecrtion that defines the National Football League: Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back under fire since February for assaulting his wife in a hotel elevator; Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, indicted last week for felony child abuse after whipping his four-year-old son with a tree branch; Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, convicted in June of assault; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald, facing assault charges for attacking his pregnant fiancée in August; and now, the latest, Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer, arrested on Wednesday for, among other things, head-butting his wife and breaking her nose during a heated argument at home.

The five teams of those players — almost 15 percent of all the teams in the NFL — are also under fire, their managements in a defensive public-relations crouch; some of the league’s flagship corporate sponsors have raised objections, some even bailing out on long contractual agreements with the NFL, with others threatening to do the same; and the nation’s most lucrative professional sports institution faces nothing less than the gravest existential challenge in its 95-year history.

Bill Montel, commenting at The Huffington Post, nails it: “At this rate they'll have to cancel the Super Bowl due to lack of players.”

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So the timing couldn’t have been better for Goodell, the league’s $44 million-a-year commissioner, to set things right, if he could. Goodell emerged on Friday from the secret undisclosed location he’s been at since Sept. 10, the date of his last public appearance, to speak at a press conference in New York. There he announced a broad range of corrective measures intended to address the rash of domestic violence incidents that have rocked the league.

Repeating the mea culpas he’s made since the Ray Rice episode exploded on Sept. 8 — when a second, more damning video of Rice’s violent assault on his fiancée came to light — Goodell said “I am not satisfied with the way we handled it,” he said. “I made a mistake. I am not satisfied with the process we went through. I am not satisfied with the conclusion.”

“I got it wrong on a number of levels,” he said, “from the process that I led to the decision that I reached. But now I will get it right.”

Goodell followed with a series of forthcoming changes: a new personal-conduct policy for NFL players; an investigation to be headed by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III; a partnership with the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a tie-up that will include financial and promotional support; a pledge to institute programs of education, training and domestic-violence victim support at all NFL teams; and a recognition “that domestic violence and sexual assault exists everywhere, in every community, economic class, racial and ethnic group. It affects all of us. These are problems we are committed to addressing.”

“Everything is on the table,” he said. “We can't continue to operate like this.”

Then, in an extensive Q&A session, Goodell was asked by Peter King of Sports Illustrated: “Do you still believe that, to the best of your knowledge, no one in the NFL office had seen the [second] Ray Rice video before it surfaced on TMZ?

“Yes,” Goodell said.

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LATER, WHEN pressed on his actions following the release of the two videos implicating Rice in the assault of his fiancée, Goodell said: “We suspended Ray Rice originally after seeing the first video. When the second video came out last week, that is when we increased our discipline because that was inconsistent with the information we had. It was new information.”

Hours later, in an exhaustive and deeply-detailed 7,000-word story, the Outside the Lines Investigative unit at ESPN provided the closest thing yet to a definitive chronology of the events swirling around the NFL since the Ray Rice domestic-violence incident on Feb. 15. Its variance from Goodellian lore, its departure from the league’s butt-covering script is and will be a problem for Goodell, the Baltimore Ravens, and the NFL.
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