Monday, September 21, 2015

Handicapping 007 #7

DANIEL CRAIG will reprise his role as legendary British superspy James Bond when “Spectre,” the 24th film in the 007 franchise, opens in theaters on Nov. 6. That much we know. What we don’t know is whether or not the film opening in November and the one after that will be Craig’s last ones in the role. Just as unclear is who’ll replace Craig in a franchise role most actors would take out a license to kill for.

The uncertainty of who’ll be on the other end of the spiral tunnel that opens future 007 films has led to a dizzying array of possible replacements, and a situation in which popular culture, history and race have collided in different ways, some unexpected and others utterly predictable.

Shortly after the November 2012 release of the previous Bond film, “Skyfall,” a whispering campaign emerged that proposed Idris Elba, the phenomenal British actor (“The Wire,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” “Pacific Rim,” “Luther”), as the next 007. The idea’s quietly gained traction in the years since. Before exiting her job, Amy Pascal, the now-former Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman, thought enough of the idea that she wrote (in an internal email leaked to the media) that “Idris should be the next Bond.”

◊ ◊ ◊

On Aug. 25, author Anthony Horowitz made his feelings known. When asked about Elba taking on the role post-Daniel Craig, Horowitz, who wrote “Trigger Mortis,” the most recent 007 novel to be okayed by the Ian Fleming estate, said Elba was “a bit too rough” and “a bit too street” to portray Bond. Horowitz backtracked almost immediately, realizing how badly he’d stepped in it by invoking coded language for race (“rough”? “street”? Really?). “Clumsily, I chose the word ‘street’ as Elba's gritty portrayal of DCI John Luther was in my mind but I admit it was a poor choice of word,” Horowitz said in a statement. “I am mortified to have caused offense.”

As Elba gained support — or at least consideration — as the next Bond, oddsmakers trotted out another contender for 007 #7: Tom Hardy. According to BoyleSports, an Ireland-based online betting firm, Tom Hardy is the new odds-on favorite to replace Craig. Odds on Hardy are now at 2/1, BoyleSports announced Sept. 8, while Elba is at 3/1, Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) is 7/2, and Henry Cavill (“Man of Steel,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”) is 4/1.

“Following on from the support for Tom Hardy to take over from Daniel Craig as 007, BoyleSports can report that the gamble hasn’t dried up and punters believe that the deal may be signed sealed and delivered as there is no sign of the plunge coming to a halt,” said BoyleSports spokesperson Liam Glynn, to Entertainment Weekly on Sept. 8.

◊ ◊ ◊

HARDY’S AN estimable actor with a serious resumé. His work in “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Logan” and opposite James Gandolfini in “The Drop” recommends him as a formidable acting talent. He’s certainly got the necessary physical requirements for the gig. And he’s up for the job. “I think anybody would consider doing Bond, wouldn’t they?” he said to Britain’s Sky News.

Well, maybe. If time permits. Hardy’s recent powerful star turn in “Mad Max: Fury Road” makes him the obvious choice to repeat as that character. You don’t sign up for an iconic international role like Mad Max as a one-and-done affair. Mad Max is a franchise, and so is James Bond.

Not that he couldn’t do it, but it’s hard to imagine Hardy taking on both Mad Max and James Bond. Assuming both those legendary movie personae over the next five to 10 years — in addition to any other irresistible roles that come Hardy’s way in the meantime — would appear to be a stretch. One man can only do so much.

◊ ◊ ◊

Other names have surfaced — Orlando Bloom (25/1, BoyleSports says), Michael Fassbender (6/1), and Dominic West (40/1) among them. But there’s more than the slight suspicion that some of these names have come to light as a way of tamping down any groundswell of support for Elba, the actor who would be, if the stars and producers’ objectives align, be the first black James Bond in the history of the franchise.

It apparently can’t be said in polite company, or even suggested (Horowitz found that out), but one reason why there’s Elba pushback has everything to do with race. It’s hardly coincidental that the other actors considered by oddsmakers are all white men. It’s fair to conclude that the decision makers in this process may not necessarily want to make more history than they’d planned. For them, there are fears of how such a choice might compromise the box office for the 007 franchise, one of the most lucrative in movie history.

I observed in 2010: “[A] black Bond would no doubt upset the legions of fans frankly accustomed to seeing Bond kick ass as a white guy.” And you know it’s true. For pop-culture’s strict constructionists — the same people who totally freaked at the sight of a black Star Wars stormtrooper — a black James Bond would throw over 50 years of history (or habit) and kick British culture to the curb.

James Bond is part of the cultural iconography that the public has long identified as veddy British: Aston Martin, the Beatles, Tanqueray gin, Burberry, the Beefeaters at the Tower, Savile Row ... Queen Elizabeth ... and the list goes on. Generations of Bond fans have not unconsciously made the indelible connection between Bond’s nationality and his race. A half-century of that kind of consistent association — this equals that — is a hard habit to break. Many people are hoping that 007 movie producers won’t even try.

If they do, though, Vulture (part of New York Magazine) just released a spirited mashup of Elba from different movie and TV scenes, cobbled together with scenes from the real trailer for "Spectre." If you've had a hard rime envisioning Elba in the role … well, feast your eyes:

◊ ◊ ◊

NAMES COME and go. Back in late 2008, there was talk of Sean Combs taking over as 007. Same for Sam Worthington, who was an oddsmaker’s favorite in 2010. Christian Bale was too.

It goes back earlier than that. In April 2007, Newsweek crowned Will Smith as the most powerful actor on the planet, the only one in history to have eight straight films each gross more than $100 million in U.S. box office, and the only actor to have eight consecutive films he starred in open as No. 1 in U.S. box-office receipts. Smith was also considered for the role.

But what’s the hurry to replace one Bond with another, anyway? “A six-year gap between 1989 and 1995 saw the departure of one Bond — Welsh actor Timothy Dalton — and the installation of another, Irish-born Pierce Brosnan,” BBC reported in April 2010. “A four-year break between 2002 and 2006, meanwhile, saw Brosnan leave the series and Craig take over.”

The England of Ian Fleming's era is as far from England today as shillings are from the euro. In a world of drones and cyberwarfare, spycraft is a very different thing from what it was in the 50’s and 60’s. We live in an increasingly complex, demographically interdependent world. No one understands that like James Bond ... whatever he looks like, two or three movies from now.

Also published in The Omnibus (Medium). Image credits: Craig: Elba: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP. Hardy: Michael Tran/FilmMagic. James Bond and the Queen: © 2012 International Olympic Committee. 007 logo: ® Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation.

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 4):
The shakeout gets started

THE LATEST CNN/ORC poll of Republican presidential contenders is out and the news isn’t good for most of them. But what’s bad for most of them will be good for the American voting public, which before long won’t have so many Republican candidates making promises they can’t hope to keep. Because they won’t be candidates anymore.

The poll, completed and released in the days since the undercard and main-event debates on Wednesday, shows how, for Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump, politics is a zero-sum-game experience. Fiorina took second place in the GOP field in the wake of a second strong debate performance, and the controversy created by billionaire attention enthusiast Donald Trump ... with Fiorina basically gaining what the Donald lost.

Trump remains the frontrunner in the Republican field of candidates; the poll finds him with 24 percent support. But the poll finds an 8 percentage point drop for Trump from just earlier in September. That’s when an earlier CNN survey had him at 32 percent.

◊ ◊ ◊

Fiorina’s now in second place with 15 percent support -- up from 3% in early September. She's just ahead of pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, who basically held serve, slipping by one percentage point into third place (14 percent).

It hasn’t happened completely yet, but as new polls come in and some candidates wake up to the prospect of more months of hotel chicken Kiev, and those candidates take a hard look at themselves in the mirror, it’ll be clear that the shakeout has started, the process of separating those with an outside chance of gaining the Republican nomination from those who never should have declared at all.

Some time in the next few weeks, and maybe sooner if their campaigns aren’t any more robust than that of Rick Perry (who folded his tent a while back), the bottom feeders will stop the bleeding and formally suspend their operations, shutting down what are already Campaigns In Name Only.

That’ll leave us with something a lot more manageable than the horde of contenders we’ve got right now. Whenever that happens, though, it’ll follow the breakthrough process that’s inevitable in a field this large.

◊ ◊ ◊

SOMEONE had to break out of the pack of 1 and 2 and 3 percenters that characterize most of the Republican field, and for right now, and maybe for a while to come, it’s Fiorina. Something in the interaction the former Hewlett-Packard CEO had with billionaire attention enthusiast Donald Trump resonated with women in particular and Republicans in general. They may not say so, but they’re getting tired of Trump’s reflexive bluster, his insensitivity, his vacuous policy positions.

You know what happened, of course. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Trump condemned Fiorina for her physical appearance, with comments that couldn’t be more insulting. “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Trump said. After the story appeared, Trump tried perceptual damage control, saying he was taken out of context and that he wasn’t referring to her physical features.

Payback’s not a bitch, it’s a sentence that is the perfect rejoinder. At the second Republican debate on Wednesday Fiorina was asked if she had a response to Trump’s comments. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO’s reaction was, rhetorically and imagistically, pitch perfect.

◊ ◊ ◊

Fiorina replied: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” The crowd at the Reagan Library & Museum burst into spirited applause, clearly siding with Fiorina, and loudly endorsing a realpolitik rule of thumb: Sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to bully a bully right back.

That explains why, moments later, eggs Benedict still on his face, Trump said, “I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman.”

It’s episodes like this proving that when it comes to retail politics, Donald Trump is a mile wide and two inches deep. He is not a retail politician. There’s little empathy, real empathy, for anyone who’s not like him. He doesn’t even like to shake hands. What serious American politician doesn’t want to shake hands, for God’s sake?

Trump is the archetypal rich Republican, the plutocrat from central casting, the little bastard in spats and cutaway coat who runs the board in Monopoly. And when he talks about women, he might as well be one of the characters from “Mad Men.” He proved that with his “look at that face” comment about Fiorina, and that’s what people reacted to in the CNN/ORC poll.

Trump believes that, to one degree or another, he’s immune to the gravitational pull of American politics. In his political cosmology, the poll numbers always go up, the situation breaks his way, the rules don’t apply to him. That towering hubris was what made his breathtakingly callous remarks about Fiorina possible in the first place.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 3):
The undercard show

ON WEDNESDAY night, CNN, the original cable-news outlet, briefly assumed the persona of its corporate cousin, the Cartoon Network. The shape-shifting that took place at the Republican candidates’ debates at the Reagan Presidential Library & Museum revealed a tale of two highly animated spectacles — the undercard and the main event. But that distinction was pretty much irrelevant.

For most of the 15 candidates populating the two debate performances, and barely registering in the polls, the backdrop of the Boeing 707 that ferried President Reagan around the world is as close to Air Force One as they’ll ever get. That’s why several candidates on the stage in Simi Valley, Calif., had nothing to lose by swinging for the fences.

But even with a lot of heat being thrown and very little light, by the night’s end the debates moved the needle — watch for one or two of the bottom feeders to drop out after the latest polls arrive — and changed perceptions. The blowhard of the moment was, in fact, deflatable. The latest in a family dynasty may not have the political chops of his father and his brother. And surprise, surprise: The last man standing on Wednesday night wasn’t a man at all.

◊ ◊ ◊

The back-to-back debate performances recalled the way half-hour TV game shows or sitcoms are often shot: two on the same day. The first one was manageable. Four candidates — former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — took the stage and basically demonstrated why they were on the second-tier debate.

All four men, polling in the low single digits, did what they could to stake out positions separating them from the pack that would follow in the second debate. For much of Debate 1, Santorum was on the attack, trying to occupy a space that could be appealing to moderate Republicans and attractive to hardliners in the party.

Santorum proposed a 50-cent increase in the minimum wage over five years — the only candidate to take such a heretic, populist stance. But he also said the Supreme Court was “abusive” and had “superseded their authority” with its decision on same-sex marriage, which begs the question of whose authority it was to make that ruling. On immigration, Santorum tried to move beyond the blame game, saying that the argument “should not be about what we're gonna do with someone who's here illegally,” but more about the restoration of American jobs, many of which have gone to immigrants in recent years.

◊ ◊ ◊

JINDAL SAID he’d never support amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Otherwise outlining his bona fides, he said “I've got the backbone, I've got the bandwidth, I've got the experience to get us through these tough times, to make sure that we don't turn the American dream into the European nightmare.”

Pataki said that, if president, he would undertake to enact “a sweeping conservative agenda.” Part of that apparently entails scrapping the Iran nuclear deal. Pataki said he would "reject this deal on day one," criticizing Hillary Clinton for supporting it, saying her tenure as secretary of state “reduced the Middle East to flames.”

Graham, no doubt aware of how far down he is in the race, let his inner hawk fly around the room all debate long. Never mind the myriad foreign and domestic issues facing the next American president, the South Carolina pepper pot said he’s “running for president to destroy radical Islam, to win the war on terror, to protect you and your family.”

His approach couldn’t have been less surgical. “We're gonna destroy the caliphate, pull it up by its roots; we're gonna kill every one of those bastards we can find,” Graham said, channeling Gen. George S. Patton, and overlooking the likelihood that the caliphate has a large measure of indigenous support.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Stephen Colbert’s opening week

NEVER FAILS. The rise of a new late-night star is always accompanied by the first-night postmortem — who was on, what he did, how badly he screwed up or deftly avoided screwing up. But the first show isn’t the best way to get a handle on a show’s real emotional temperature. You can’t judge a pitcher by the jitters on Opening Day. Not accurately, anyway.

“The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” is a great example. After months of buildup, the replacement program for David Letterman’s long run got off to a bright, zany, somewhat unpredictable start with Colbert, his conservative all-beef high-fructose kingmaker persona retired, took over the “Late Show” franchise on Tuesday night.

The first night’s been written and analyzed to death. But what we got in the two or three shows after conveys a better, richer, more balanced idea of the new “Late Show” identity.

And in interviews that moved from the star-struck to the cerebral to the deeply emotional, Colbert’s already shown himself to be more than equal to the challenge of carving out his own identity in a new forum.

◊ ◊ ◊

On the second show, on Wednesday, we got an idea of the Colbert intellectual range. The first guest was Scarlett Johanssen, always a good late-night get. The actress, maybe a tad jet-lagged having just arrived from Paris, did her part as one-half of the mutual admiration society that developed between her and Colbert.

In “Big Questions With Even Bigger Stars,” what we're led to believe will be an ongoing segment, the two of them lay on a makeshift blanket and gazed up at the “stars” and pondered the Meaning of Life. You know, the serious stuff, like, is it better to have feet for hands or hands for feet? And, “What do you think Oprah’s doing right now?”

But at one point before this serene foolishness, Colbert was firing questions at her so relentlessly, Johanssen had to say “Stop it!” — which seemed to settle Colbert down. From then on, things got better, the tone more like a conversation and less like a prosecutor’s inquiry. Which is what you want.

With his next guest, billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, Colbert kept his promise to bring more unconventional guests to his show. Musk (whom Colbert called “the real-life Tony Stark”) wasn’t exactly the most scintillating guest, sometimes impassively answering Colbert’s questions with replies way too brief to make for satisfying television.

◊ ◊ ◊

THURSDAY NIGHT showed us what’s really possible. Colbert brought on a major talk-show get: Vice President Joe Biden, who is thought to be weighing a run for the presidency in 2016. He’s undecided largely because he is still emotionally navigating the loss of his son, Beau, who died May 30 of brain cancer, at the age of 46.

Gently steered toward the topic by Colbert, Biden, in a few short and touching moments, laid bare the breaking heart that is still his.

“My father had an expression and he said, ‘You know your success is apparent when you look at your child and realize that they turned out better than you.' I was a hell of a success, and my son was better than me. He was better than me in almost every way.

“So many people have losses as severe or maybe worse than mine and didn't have the incredible support I have," he said. “I feel self-conscious. The loss is serious and it's consequential, but there are so many other people going through this. For me, my wife when she wants to leave me messages, she literally tapes them on my mirror when I'm shaving ..." One of them was by the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. “'Faith sees best in the dark.' For me, my religion is an enormous sense of solace."

◊ ◊ ◊

Joe Biden is our enduring political empath, an official not just willing but eager to kick ceremony to the curb and engage people in the purest, most visceral, retail-political sense. Watching him struggle with this still-fresh tragedy in the company of a clearly supportive Colbert, made for a riveting emotional moment in the teleculture. This, folks, is what late-night television — what all of television — is supposed to be about: humanity you can feel through the screen.

And when Biden made common cause with Colbert, who lost his father and his two older brothers in a plane crash — on Sept. 11, 1974 — it solidified Colbert’s position at the top of the late-night leaderboard. “You're one of them, ol’ buddy,” Biden told Colbert, turning the tables for a moment. “Your mom, your family, losing your dad when you're a kid. Three brothers. What made your mother do it every day?”

“She had to take care of me,” Colbert replied. “And I had to take care of her... I would say that I raised my mom from that in a few years.” The back-and-forth between them was heartfelt and real as it gets. If your waterworks didn’t turn on after the Biden segment, for at least a moment, odds are you’re already dead.

◊ ◊ ◊

ON FRIDAY, ending the first week on a high note, Colbert brought in comedian and “Trainwreck” star Amy Schumer and nonstop novelist Stephen King. Colbert and Schumer found common ground in their having both been on the cover of GQ magazine. And Schumer, still not a household comedy name, went into details about staying at Jake Gyllenhaal’s house once and eating the actor’s cake.

For his part, King showed up wearing the National Medal of Arts he recently received from President Obama, saying that putting the thing around his neck made him feel like Flavor Flav. Colbert also suggested altering the award to better suit the author’s writing style. “You can sharpen the edge of that and it would make a nice murder weapon,” he told King.

This wasn’t the usual parade of guests tirelessly plugging their latest movie, book or TV show. And there’s more of this to come; Apple CEO Tim Cook, Pearl Jam, actress Kerry Washington and billionaire attention addict Donald Trump are among those slated for “Late Show” appearances. Novel choices all around.

The novelty of the new thing is hard to resist, and that’s what Stephen Colbert is enjoying right now. But his “Late Show” premiere week tells us that, once the new-car smell fades, we’ll be left with a show that won’t embarrass us (even as it routinely surprises us), a late-night host who’s not afraid to break the boundaries — the boundaries that we as viewers didn’t know were there, until he pushed past them.

Image credits: Biden and Colbert, “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” logo: © 2015 Spartina Productions/CBS.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Trump: Some of all the right noises

EVEN WHILE he seems to be winging it in his current bid for the American presidency, the height of unpredictability, you can't help but think that billionaire attention enthusiast Donald John Trump is starting to paint by the numbers. Lately he’s hired at least 10 paid staffers, and brought on Chuck Laudner, a top advisor to Rick Santorum’s 2012 campaign. And The Donald’s been dutifully making the rounds, not content to let his tireless celebrity status run laps for him on the campaign trail. He’s been putting in his time.

With such displays of credibility, Trump intends to show the legions of doubters across the country that this time, he’s serious. Trouble is, Donald Trump is serious about running for president at a time that can’t help him: when America itself isn’t really that serious about who’s running for president. Not yet.

But that fact hasn’t calmed the rattled nerves of the leadership of the Republican Party, which is still deeply skeptical of Trump’s sudden bid for gravitas. Their fears are reinforced by his standing in some recent polls — he was top of the pops in an Aug. 18  CNN/ORC poll, besting rival Jeb Bush of Florida by 11 points (Trump 24%, Jeb Bush 13%). He’s in the same position in the Aug. 27 Quinnipiac University poll, topping Ben Carson by about 15 points. Television news and the late-night crowd can’t get enough of him.

◊ ◊ ◊

At this moment, when Republicans presumably intend to start weighing real options for 2016, Donald Trump is consuming much of the media oxygen that other, more politically credible candidates could use. And that’s the rub: it’s precisely that outsider status poll that the respondents seem inclined to support right now — when there’s nothing on the line but cosmetics. These are the early days of the beauty contest, debates and all.

For now, Donald Trump is the bell cow, precisely the early frontrunner candidate the Republican Party deserves. And they better be careful: Since no other Republican candidate will find reinvention as necessary as The Donald, no other candidate will benefit more from reinvention, or have a more compelling evolutionary narrative — rags to riches, politically speaking — the longer he stays in the race. Longevity bestows gravitas on a presidential campaign by definition. The longer a campaign remains a campaign, the more seriously it’s regarded. Trump’s favorables are likely to improve the longer he hangs around and presumably improves himself as a candidate. We’ve seen the polling evidence of that already.

With relatively few exceptions, if you’ve got a message and a palatable agenda, if you’ve got the big money to grease the wheels of a serious, balls-to-the-wall presidential campaign, you’re going to become more effective as a candidate. There’s no reason to think Trump, writing his own checks, will be any different.

◊ ◊ ◊

AND YET ... one problem for Trump is just political thermodynamics. Momentum is not selectively transferable over time. Having it early is one thing; sustaining it for weeks and months is something else entirely. At this point, Trump’s first-place standing in the polls is the same as a major-league baseball team’s first-place standing ... two weeks after the start of the season. It doesn’t really count for much. It can’t count for much. Not yet. Right now, Trump’s campaign fills another powerful role, one that’s got less to do with policy and everything to do with passion.

Donald Trump has taken point in the GOP’s Visual Persona Sweepstakes. He fills a vacuum of identity, one you wouldn’t expect in a field this crowded. Ironically, with so many candidates running at the same time, the Republicans in the field ran the risk of looking vague, amorphous, faceless, one indistinct Republican morphing grayly into another.

Donald Trump sure as hell took care of that. At least in the pre-early going.

◊ ◊ ◊

His other challenge is something he may not be able to do anything about. It means, to a great degree, that Trump has to transform himself into someone with the potential to be a true statesman — or a politician, if you like — and of all the things Trump has done or been accused of, being statesmanlike probably isn’t one of them.

Past performance is all but a guarantee of future results. We’ve had 40 years of watching him in the public eye, seeing him cultivate the swagger, the braggadocious bloviation, the attitude. He is, quite possibly, the greatest carnival barker who ever lived. But president of the United States? Please.

We hear the expression “take the gloves off,” often if not usually in a political context. That’s where Trump is at a profound deficit. He’s always got the gloves off. For him, there is no countervailing dynamic. For Trump, modulation is something you adjust on a stereo, and if you want nuance, you go to France and get a dog. Since there are no degrees to Trump’s political pugilism, there’s no way to properly gauge his moods or his temperament, no reliable emotional barometer by which to assess his ability to govern. Not to rule, but to govern.

◊ ◊ ◊

AND WHAT plays handsomely with a pre-primary-season audience may not travel as widely or as well in those primaries, and beyond, a year from this November, when the aggregate American voting public gets real about who it wants to have the authority to tell our nuclear missiles, “You’re fired.”

Donald Trump is making some of the right noises, and he’s the beneficiary of the perceptions of people less attentive to policy and more attentive to personality. They say he’s defying political gravity, and in the shortest short term, maybe he is. But further out, as the campaign months grind into winter and spring, Trump will no more defy political gravity than he’ll ever defy the other kind of gravity.

The immutable bylaws of business and those of politics are much the same: Adapt Or Die. They’re not repealing those laws for him or anyone else.

Image credits: Trump: Gage Skidmore. Logo: Trump 2016 campaign.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The 800-pound professor in the room

HILLARY CLINTON called today for Congress to end the 53-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. Her comments, made at a speech at the National Urban League conference in Miami, were more predictable than provocative; the Obama White House ordered restoration of diplomatic relations with Havana last year, so Clinton calling for an end to the formal trade embargo amounts to calling for the logical, eventual next step in what’s already underway.

Clinton did herself no harm in seeking an end to this national embarrassment. But other news about Clinton wasn’t predictable or provocative. Just problematical. McClatchy reported Thursday that classified emails stored on Clinton's private computer server held data from five U.S. intelligence orgs, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Clinton has denied ever knowingly sending anything that was classified. McClatchy said the email matter has put Clinton “in the crosshairs of a broadening inquiry.”

If the recent drip-drip-drip of such bad news, the optics around that news and the prospect for more of it don’t slow down or stop, the Democrats — from party leadership to rank and file — may have to get their heads around that which up to now would have been considered unthinkable: With Clinton hampered (if not actually wounded) in her bid for the White House, the time for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a candidate may be now, or certainly soon, more than ever.

◊ ◊ ◊

Rest assured, few or none of the party leaders can say that out loud, but they have to be concerned in the face of Clinton’s already poor traction with progressives and independents. Now the email mess. And of course, there’s the distaste felt by many Democrats and independents who see Clinton as another archetypal pol making a quarter million dollars for one speech, an insider tainted by the process in spite of herself. That distaste registers where it counts (or soon will count): opinion polls in Iowa.

In March, while the media and mainstream Dems focused on Clinton’s campaign, the Boston Globe threw its weight behind the idea of a Warren campaign, in an editorial that was striking in its urgency (hometown-girl motivations notwithstanding). But The Globe also paid homage to the Clinton resume, and played devil’s advocate to say why Warren shouldn’t run. From the piece: “Clinton’s deep reservoir of support, from her stints as first lady, New York senator, 2008 presidential candidate, and secretary of state, no doubt poses a formidable obstacle.”

True enough. But that runs both ways. That well of experience makes people view you as someone who knows the game by either playing it or running it. Hillary Clinton’s done both. But her big challenge, in this respect, is to reintroduce herself to the American people — and meet for the first time the millions of new voters, the ones who’ll being voting for the first time next year.

◊ ◊ ◊

FOR THESE millennials, half of the Clinton biography might as well be from the Peloponnesian War. She was first lady? First-time voters next year weren’t around for nearly all of that. New York senator? Great, if the millennial cohort all lived in New York 10 or so  years back. Oh those younger voters do remember her 2008 campaign, and her more recent period as secretary of state should certainly resonate for the globally inclined millennial.

But the problem with Hillary Clinton doesn’t stop with the millennials, who may be actually declining in their importance as a reliable voting cohort. For those voters who fully remember the Clinton era more commonly understood to be named for her husband, her candidacy is as much to be feared as celebrated.

Yes, she’s been at the forefront of the championing of the civil, reproductive and economic rights for all Americans, and, more widely in her role as secretary of state.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 2)

THE CLOWN WINNEBAGO required to contain the current field of Republican presidential candidates is mighty crowded, and the field just got bigger (Ohio Gov. John Kasich launched his presidential campaign on Tuesday). At this point, the campaigns of the 16 White House hopefuls amount to a full employment act for standup comics and late-night talk-show hosts.

One of those candidates — for years a reliable source of pop-culture comic relief — has managed to detonate his campaign, and threaten to implode the Republican brand, before the thing’s even started.

Donald Trump, trainwreck

There may be no more effectively immediate way to turn a public figure into a nonentity than by doing what was just done to Donald John Trump, one of the men who would be and will never be president. Hours ago, someone or someones performed a full-on takedown of Trump’s Wikipedia page, The Verge reported. Twice.

It didn’t last long, of course, but it couldn’t be more symbolic of the self-inflicted PR wounds of our reigning carnival barker on steroids, a man whose presidential campaign is nothing more or less than an advertisement for himself.

Trump reignited his never-ending campaign for relevance on June 16, when he formally declared. But the stage and the rhetorical tone were set in earlier speeches, in Phoenix and Las Vegas. We should have known what was coming.

Even before his announcement, the style and bombastic tendencies of The Donald had grievously wounded not just his own presidential bid, but also damaged the GOP’s still-tender hunt for a fresh message and identity. The probable end of the Trump campaign arrived before the certain beginning.

At his formal announcement, at Trump Tower in Manhattan. his longtime embrace of passive-aggressive rhetorical intolerance continued. In several breathtakingly tone-deaf statements, Trump managed to condemn the Mexican people en masse for a host of social ills common to modern times on the long border between the United States and Mexico.

“When do we beat Mexico at the border?” Trump said. “They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us.

“They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists, and some I assume are good people, but I speak to border guards, and they tell us what we are getting," he said. Doubling down on dumb, and stealing a page from the Herman Cain 2012 campaign playbook, Trump said he’d build a “great wall” between the United States and Mexico.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE REACTION was swift and visceral. Days later, NBC, responding to reaction from Hispanic groups, said the network would not air the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants co-owned by Trump. Univision, which broadcasts Spanish-language content to millions of U.S. Hispanics, had already pulled the plug on covering the pageants. Other companies bailed on him too.

“With one short speech about us,” Los Angeles advertising executive Roberto Orci said to NPR, “he tarred the entire Latino culture as being rapists and murderers and terrorists.”

Probably emboldened by a poll that showed him at the top of the early GOP leaderboard, Trump then went on to, well, trump himself. On Saturday, at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, Trump suggested that Arizona Sen. John McCain, imprisoned for five years at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, was something less than a veteran worthy of the respect accorded to everyone serving this nation in uniform.

“He's not a war hero,” Trump said. “He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured.”

The backing & filling began almost immediately, with Trump, forward gear temporarily stalled, trying to move in a kind of lateral gear, sticking to his guns while trying to play down the intensity of the reaction to his words as so much overreaction.

“I believe perhaps he is a war hero,” he said later, “but right now — he said some very bad things about a lot of people.”

But the damage was done. The Donald’s comments took a serious beatdown in the mainstream media and also among ops in the Republican National Committee.

“Senator McCain is an American hero because he served his country and sacrificed more than most can imagine. Period. There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably.“ said RNC communications director Sean Spicer in a statement.

◊ ◊ ◊

And if Trump’s slagging of Mexico and certain American veterans was meant to capitalize on a recent poll that suggested the GOP primary electorate is tired of professional politicians and ergo ready for a fresh breeze, like Trump — he was disabused of that notion by another, more important poll on Tuesday.

That’s when The Des Moines Register, flagship paper of the state of Iowa (that primary primary state next year), published an editorial that could be the first nail in the coffin, or the last, of the Trump 2016 presidential campaign.

It reads in part: “It's time for Donald Trump to drop out of the race for president of the United States.

“If he were merely a self-absorbed, B-list celebrity, his unchecked ego could be tolerated as a source of mild amusement. But he now wants to become president, which means that he aspires to be the leader of the free world and the keeper of our nuclear launch codes.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Striking the colors

YEARS AGO at a new job as an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, I met a colleague, a man proud of his Southern heritage, an otherwise centered, rational man of panoramic thinking.

Unless you crossed him on the reasons for the Civil War.

In one of my first days there, he volunteered his opinion, unprovoked and unsolicited, about the cause of the Civil War, pressing his point — with a certain congenial menace, if memory serves — that the conflict was solely a matter of a spirited regional resistance to tariffs and other economic meddling by the federal government, an attempt to prevent usurpation of states’ rights in matters of commerce, the region’s prevailing agriculture and its chosen means of ... acquiring menial labor.

◊ ◊ ◊

He apparently didn’t know who Alexander Stephens was, and at that moment he wouldn’t have cared. If he’d bothered to look into the history of the conflict, he’d have found the seeds of that conflict in the words of Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America, in the Cornerstone Address of March 21, 1861, spoken in Savannah, Ga., a few weeks before Fort Sumter:

“Our new Government is founded ... its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

That disconnect — between the Confederate cause of my colleague’s extravagant imagination and the Confederacy in fact — has been much in evidence lately. Its predominant visual symbol is closer now to being rightly relegated to history than at any other time in the last 150 years.

◊ ◊ ◊

YOU CAN ALMOST envision what’s happening now if it was written as one of those excited vertical headlines in newspapers common to that era:

In a cascade of events, we’ve come to and passed a tipping point about what to do with the Confederate flag:

The National Park Service is withdrawing merchandise bearing the Confederate flag, including materials in the gift shop at Fort Sumter, where it all began in April 1861. “We strive to tell the complete story of America,” National Park Director Jonathan Jarvis said in a statement, as reported in The Daily Beast “All sales items in parks are evaluated based on educational value and their connection to the park. Any stand-alone depictions of Confederate flags have no place in park stores.”

On Wednesday morning, June 24, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered a Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds. Immediately. “Two workers came out of the Capitol building about 8:20 a.m. and with no fanfare quickly and quietly took the flag down,” The Birmingham News reports. “Moments later, Gov. Bentley emerged from the Capitol on his way to an appearance in Hackleburg. Asked if he had ordered the flag taken down, the governor said, ‘Yes I did.’”

◊ ◊ ◊

On Sunday, June 21, Apple CEO Tim Cook weighed in on the issue, saying that people could effectively honor the nine black people murdered on June 17 at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by “eradicating racism & removing the symbols and words that feed it” — a direct shot at the Confederate flag.

Good as Cook’s word, Apple yanked Civil War-themed video games, including Ultimate General: Gettysburg and HexWar Games, from its popular App Store because of that flag’s appearance in their products.

The Clarion-Ledger reported that Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said that the Confederate part of his state’s flag “needs to be removed.” “We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn said June 22. "As a Christian, I believe our state's flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi's flag." A petition to remove the Confederate part of the Mississippi flag has racked up more than 4,500 signatures.

And CNN has reported that Wal-Mart, retailing’s holy of holies, will end sales of Confederate-themed merchandise — including T-shirts, belt buckles and the flag itself — throughout its 11,495 stores. “We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer,” said Walmart spokesman Brian Nick. “We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the Confederate flag from our assortment — whether in our stores or on our website.”

Better late than never.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE POWER of Southern identity is not an incidental thing. It runs through the art, food, literature, music and motion pictures of this nation like the Mississippi River runs through America itself. Indelible, undying, the American South is a wellspring of inspiration and has been for generations.

But insofar as any part of modern Southern identity has been forged in the fire of resentment a century and a half old, what’s just happened in Charleston, and the national reaction to it, will be some of that identity’s undoing. The South has long grappled with deciding whether to be a part of America or apart from America.

Without the unifying coordinating foundation of resentment, the states that formed the Confederacy have to find a new foundation — for want of a better phrase, a new business model for the future. An existential business model informed by naked contempt for the federal government and thinly-veiled historical rage at its black citizenry just isn’t working anymore. Fact is, it never worked.

Dylann Storm Roof, the young white supremacist who confessed to killing the nine Charleston worshippers, may have done more to undermine the fading defiance of the Confederate mindset than anything done by the civil rights movement or the federal government. His actions in the hopes of creating a race war have probably gone a long way to help preventing one.

◊ ◊ ◊

The phrase “business model” isn’t out of place. Historically, over at least the last 50 years, the Southern states comprising the Confederacy have consistently lagged behind the national average in a number of important categories, including education, college graduation rates, health care, broadband Internet access and other factors.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Holt, Noah and the liberation of TV news

HISTORICALLY, June 19th has been a day for recognition of the delayed liberation experienced at the end of the Civil War. That’s the day in 1865 when a Union Army officer read the Emancipation Proclamation to the black people of Galveston, Texas -- people who found out that day that slavery had been ended ... more than two years earlier.

Among other, uncharitable reactions they may have had, you can be sure that some of their number, students of cognitive dissonance, came to an anodyne conclusion: “Better late than never.”

Students of modern electronic media probably thought the same thing on Thursday, June 18 — another “teenth” in June — when NBC News formally announced that Lester Don Holt Jr. would be the new anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News, the first sole permanent African American anchor in the history of broadcast television news. It was just the latest example of television news of the present, and presumably the future, unshackling itself from the past.

◊ ◊ ◊

Holt, an NBC News reporter for 15 years and for 4 ½ months the interim anchor, took over for Brian Williams, who’s moved on to a new role — undetermined and under fire — at MSNBC, where he was for years while being groomed for his stint in the anchor chair. That ended in February, under unfortunate circumstances.

Holt, 56, called the promotion “an enormous honor.” "I’m very proud and grateful to be part of such an unflappable and dedicated team of professionals as we move forward together,” he said in a statement.

For years now, Holt has been the Swiss Army knife of NBC news programming. As co-anchor of the weekend “Today Show” for 12 years, Nightly News weekend anchor for eight years, and anchor of “Dateline NBC” for four years, Holt may well have passed themselves in the hallway at 30 Rock from time to time. His ubiquity at the Peacock Network and a straight-ahead, professional demeanor helped him gain a very favorable stature at the network, and it’s played a part in keeping NBC competitive against a resurgent ABC “World News Tonight” hosted by David Muir.

◊ ◊ ◊

DESPITE BROADCAST television’s slow erosion of viewers in the face of cable and streaming options, and time-shifting technology like TiVo, the news anchor chair has always held a singular fascination in the teleculture. The last-name-only status of these anchors — Cronkite, Reasoner, Chancellor, Rather, Brokaw — still conveys the idea of their being a mandarin presence in our daily TV lives.

Given the demographically monotonous history of those anchors, Holt’s elevation at NBC becomes even more of a standout event. His rise at the Peacock and the earlier epochal anchor-chair news — Trevor Noah, a relative comedy unknown, was tapped in March to replace Jon Stewart at “The Daily Show” on Sept. 28 — continues a process that’s been under way, bubbling just below the surface for a long time.

The years-long browning of the MSNBC lineup complexion; the growing diversity of field reporters at network and affiliate levels; and the steady emergence of Telemundo and Univision as formidable media brands targeting the Latino population, point to the inescapable: The white male stranglehold on television news is over, as out of date and behind the times as your grandmother’s DuMont.

◊ ◊ ◊

Ironically, the reach for the sustained credibility that NBC makes with Holt’s elevation is contradicted by what’s happening, or not happening, with Williams, the now-former Nightly News anchor. Williams, whose gift for telling tall tales related to his journalistic experience forced him off the air in February, now moves to MSNBC in August, there presumably to assume a breaking-news role not unlike the one he had there from 1996 to 2004.

That’s smart from a financial perspective, and maybe from a ratings viewpoint. Last December, Williams signed a five-year, $50 million contract with NBC; an outright dismissal would have meant NBC writing Williams a monster check (and no doubt watching him decamp immediately for another network).

From a ratings standpoint, moving Williams to his old stomping ground at MSNBC may provide viewers a sense of stability, returning to older, stronger lineup from earlier days. This matters because Andrew Lack has returned to NBC as chairman of NBC News and MSNBC. Lack’s returned to do something about MSNBC’s plummeting ratings. “MSNBC has been on a ratings slide for months; in February, it was down 48 percent in primetime in the 25-to-54 demo and 43 percent in total day compared with the same month last year,” The Hollywood Reporter noted in March.

◊ ◊ ◊

BUT THE viewers are weighing in. A commenter at The Huffington Post remarked: “Within MSNBC, there’s concern that management’s move may create a misperception that journalistic standards are lower at the cable news network. If Williams isn't credible enough to anchor the broadcast news, as the decision may be interpreted, is he credible enough to anchor breaking news on cable?”

Steve Burke, the CEO of NBCUniversal, told HuffPost that Williams' return to MSNBC gives him “the chance to earn back everyone’s trust ... his excellent work over twenty-two years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity.”

People who work at MSNBC aren’t mollified. One MSNBC insider told TheWrap that many at that network are ““dumbfounded how Williams’ 'lack of credibility squares ... with a network striving to be to be looked at more seriously for news coverage.”

Which doesn’t matter to Clay Cullum, who implicitly compared the ratings of MSNBC and NBC in a comment on the Williams situation in TheWrap: “He's in the federal witness protection program. No one will ever find him over on MSNBC.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Williams’ NBC loyalists will have to content themselves with Holt, who hit the ground running not long after his promotion. Holt took “Nightly News” in a new direction last week, anchoring a special one-hour edition of “Nightly” last week, in the face of events in Charleston, S.C., and the Supreme Court’s momentous decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriage.

He didn’t shoehorn everything into a half-hour and then hand off to the affiliates; that one-hour special broadcast was a break with the past, and certainly suggests a willingness on Holt’s part to break with tradition — or with habit — and follow major stories outside the 30-minute box (As Events Warrant, of course).

With NBC and MSNBC under Lack’s experienced hand, we can be fairly confident that the break with the past that Lester Holt represents won’t be the last one.

Image credits: Holt: NBC News via Variety. Noah: Byron Leulemans/Comedy Central. Williams: NBC News.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Agony and grace in Charleston

THEY RANGED in age from 26 to 87. They were three men and six women gathered in the one place you’re supposed to be safe: the bosom sanctuary of the black American church.

But on June 17, Dylann Storm Roof pulled his 2000 Hyundai Elantra into the parking lot of the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., walked inside, pulled out a .45 Glock pistol an hour later, and took their nine lives.

For the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel Simmons Sr., Myra Thompson and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, that sanctuary on Calhoun Street vanished. For the rest of us, what vanished were any remaining well-nurtured illusions that pure, unalloyed, unapologetic racism doesn’t exist in the United States.

Bahari Sellers asked on MSNBC: “If you can’t be black in a church, where can you be black in this country?”

◊ ◊ ◊

With one act, Roof became a lightning rod in the periodically intersecting debates of race relations and gun violence. There’s of course the never-ending battle over gun rights; Roof’s access to a handgun and the way he used it are problematic for Big Gun, the National Rifle Association, and its pro-gun lobby on Capitol Hill.

But the other, deeper, more uniquely American tragedy is there as well. Roof had his reasons for doing what he did, but reason itself had nothing to do with any of them. We knew that once it was learned he hoped to start a race war. We knew that after two private citizens and part-time bloggers discovered Roof’s manifesto on another undisclosed web site. On that site, under the heading of “An explanation,” Roof offered his own cracked manifesto, explaining the actions to come:

“I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

◊ ◊ ◊

THE MURDERS in Charleston were swiftly followed by champions of the non-diagnosis, those who refused to see any causal connection between Roof’s meticulous, procedural plan of execution and the virulent bigotry that motivated him to follow through on that plan.

On June 19, Bill Maher cut to the chase on his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher “The Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, said, ‘We’ll never understand.’ Jeb Bush: ‘We can’t know.’ Jindal, Lindsay Graham, all of them said some version of, ‘It’s incomprehensible. There’s no way to know what motivated a racist to kill black people,’” Maher said. “Fellas, you know what? When a guy like this talks about, ‘The South will rise again,’ he’s not talking about IQ levels. This guy openly said he was trying to ‘start a race war,’ which is delusional ...

“There are words you can’t say on the right. One of them is taxes—as in we’re going to raise them—and one of them is racism. They hate being called ‘racists,’ conservatives, but isn’t denying racism in and of itself a form of racism?”

◊ ◊ ◊

Nothing’s created in a vacuum. In a piece published June 21 in The Daily Beast, Olivia Nuzzi and John Avlon turned over the rock of the Council of Conservative Citizens and discovered a sordid history squirming underneath. In their masterful report, Nuzzi and Avlon explain how the Council of Conservative Citizens bears “a dark lineage, descending from the White Citizens Councils that sprang up throughout the deep South as part of the “massive resistance” to desegregation, spurred by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.”

The reporters explore the history of the council from the heyday of the Jim Crow era up to the year 2007 — when a statement of principles made it clear that the Council opposed “all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action’ and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”

This in 2007. In such an environment, with such a relentless and poisonous history to motivate him, what Dylann Roof did on June 17 wasn’t just possible, it was almost inevitable.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE ZERO-sum-game mentality reflected in the thinking of the Council of Conservative Citizens is all of a piece with an older generation of white Southerners chronologically long removed from the Civil War but fully versed in the Jim Crow era and the years after.

It’s a matter of identity, in their case an identity that’s a product of both regional pride and racial hatred. The old wounds and slights from losing the Civil War, the outrage and resentments over social advances in the Jim Crow era — all have been handed down from one generation to the next; Dylann Roof is just one of the latest to brandish inheritance of this malignant heirloom.

The others are the various nightcrawlers who set fire to at least three mostly black churches in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee ... in the past week. Two other fires — one in South Carolina, one in Ohio — are being investigated as possible arson, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...