Sunday, May 1, 2016

Harriet, Martin and John:
America rethinks its iconography

MARION ROBERT Morrison made more than 160 movies over 40 years during the heyday of Hollywood, won an Academy Award and achieved a level of stardom and respect most actors could only dream of, then and now. But all of that might never have happened if not for a change of his name, the tweak to his identity that helped elevate him to the status of an American cultural dynamo.

By the time Marion Robert Morrison had morphed into John Wayne, the rules for joining the honor roll of American cultural iconography were pretty much established, if not set in stone. (1) It helped immeasurably if you were white; (2) it helped even more if you were a white male. Presidents were automatically admitted, some more quickly than others. Selected actors, esteemed scientists, brilliant generals and notable writers also got past the velvet rope, if in accordance with (1) and (2).

Generally speaking, though, women and people of color need not have applied.

There’s evidence that that’s starting to change, with a shift in the national symbolism that’s not so much socially profound as it is culturally inescapable. The ongoing evolution of the national demographics; a wider bandwidth for symbols of American change, and a corresponding intolerance for our more corrosive legacies have led to this nation finally taking a hard look at who its collective heroes are, and who they’ve almost never been.

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On Friday, the California State Assembly rejected (36-19) a resolution to commemorate Wayne’s birthday — May 26 — as John Wayne Day throughout the Golden State. The resolution was rejected due to what were described as Wayne’s “disturbing views on race.”

The resolution was introduced by Matthew Harper, a Republican State Assemblyman from Huntington Beach, who advanced the proposal after a similar one in Texas was approved last year. The opposition in California didn’t shrink from the Duke’s long shadow.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez were two of the sharpest critics of the resolution, using Wayne’s own words against him. Alejo quoted from a 1971 interview Wayne had with Playboy magazine.

"I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility,” Wayne said. “I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people."

Remember, this was 1971, long after Jackie Robinson and Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall and the Rev. Martin Luther King had become highly admirable fixtures of the national self-image. Among others.

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GONZALEZ, READING from the same interview, mentions how Wayne defended the systematic takeover of land from Native Americans. "Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival,” Wayne told Playboy. “There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves."

Also mentioned were Wayne’s support for the virulent, divisive House Un-American Activities Committee and the extreme-right John Birch Society.

After the bill, ACR137, went down to defeat, Harper had some parting shots, saying that the proposal died because of “the orthodoxy of political correctness.”

"Opposing the John Wayne Day resolution is like opposing apple pie, fireworks, baseball, the Free Enterprise system and the Fourth of July!" Harper said in a statement. Assemblyman Travis Allen agreed, saying that Wayne "stood for those big American values that we know and we love."

Harper represents the district that contains John Wayne Airport, the Orange County airport that was renamed after the Duke died in June 1979, at the age of 72.

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Some institutions have developed a thicker hide about making immediate amends for ennobling a racist antecedent; they’re more open to insisting that bygones be bygones, what matters is now ... and anyway, there’s all that stationery with the old name printed on it, they can’t just throw that away.

On April 4, Princeton University’s board of trustees announced that former President Woodrow Wilson’s name will stay attached to Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, in spite of calls to change it because of Wilson’s segregationist leanings when he was president of the institution.

Yale University similarly pushed back against calls to change the name of its residential Calhoun College, named for the quasi-hysteric former senator and slaveholder John Calhoun, “Removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it,” Yale President Peter Salovey wrote in an email blast.

The AP reported in March on just how insidiously nasty pushing against social change can get in America. “Backlash against a plan to remove prominent Confederate monuments in New Orleans has been tinged by death threats, intimidation and even what may have been the intentional torching of a contractor's Lamborghini.

“For now, at least, things have gotten so nasty the city hasn't found a contractor willing to bear the risk of tearing down the monuments,” The AP reported. “The city doesn't have its own equipment to move them and is now in talks to find a company, even discussing doing the work at night to avoid further tumult.”

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SOMETIMES, redressing past ills is less about enrolling an historical figure in the American elite than it is about rescuing said figure from generations of layered assumptions. It’s about trying to put an historical phantom into context.

Nate Parker’s film, “Birth of a Nation,” blew up the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Moviegoers were in tears watching Parker’s account of the August 1831 Virginia slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, a revolt in which Turner and his band killed at least 50 white people. Rights to the film were acquired for $17.5 million by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The film will be released theatrically in October, intact with its title, which Parker was proud to repurpose from the 1915 film by movie legend D.W. Griffith.

"Griffith's film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance,” Parker told Filmmaker in January. “Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today.

“I've reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change."

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The elevation of Nat Turner to at least a wider level of national curiosity has been preceded by a gradual shift in how other historical figures in the South have been regarded. The evil of slavery that provoked Turner’s actions had its champions, and those regional Confederate icons, reified in concrete and stone, have been humbled and questioned at an unprecedented rate.

In Louisiana: In December, the New Orleans City Council voted to remove four monuments to the Confederacy from various high-visibility locations, including near the New Orleans Museum of Art. With the 6-1 vote officials will dismantle statues of Gens. Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy; and an obelisk dedicated to the Battle of Liberty Place.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu told CNN the move was a "courageous decision to turn a page on our divisive past and chart the course for a more inclusive future."

“It is patently clear that the intention of putting these statues up was to lord over and oppress African-Americans, and this is a symbol in this city of the continued oppression of black people,” activist Malcolm Suber said in August to the New Orleans Advocate.

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IN KENTUCKY: On Friday, James Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville, and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer jointly announced that a Confederate monument topped with a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, would be removed from a location near the university campus where it’s been since 1895.

The monument honoring Kentucky Confederates who died in the Civil War will be moved to another location, they said during Friday’s announcement. "It's time for us to move this monument to a more appropriate place," Ramsey said according to The Associated Press.

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In Maryland: A task force for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recommended in January that two monuments honoring Confederate-era leaders should be moved out of the city's public parks, The Baltimore Sun reported.

Larry S. Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor, proposed the removal of monuments to Roger B. Taney, the fifth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court; and the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.

Gibson called Taney's authorship of the infamous Dred Scott decision, holding that black people couldn’t be citizens, to be "pure racism."

"In my view,” Gibson told The Sun, ”he deserves a place in infamy."

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In South Carolina: the state General Assembly voted last July to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds, and Gov. Nikki Haley signed the bill authorizing its removal.

In a solemn ceremony, a highway patrol honor guard removed the flag from the grounds, where it’s flown since 1961. “No one should drive by the statehouse and feel pain,” Haley said on NBC. “No one should drive by the statehouse and feel like they don’t belong.”

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 8):
Ted Cruz's desperate measures

ARULE of the medical profession for generations is equally applicable to floundering presidential campaigns, one in particular. Hey Ted Cruz! First, do no harm — to yourself.

In the wake of his 0-for-5 showing in the Acela/I-95 Primary on Tuesday, the Texas Republican senator was apparently eager to turn total defeat into some kind of immediate, optical victory.

Cruz made a decision that offers little opportunity for a dignified climbdown — except to finally, formally end a campaign that deserves to be put down.

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Some time between when he was undoubtedly told by his handlers that he’d be flattened on Tuesday and when the returns from the primaries were in, Cruz & Co, decided it was a good time to roll out something they’d surely have been sitting on ... waiting for the right time.

Team Cruz picked Wednesday to announce the politically unthinkable, that Cruz had chosen his vice-presidential running mate: former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, naming Fiorina to join him on a ticket on its way to probable oblivion — the first time in the modern American political era that a candidate with only a marginal chance to gain the nomination, and no chance to win it outright, went so far as to name a running mate in a contested primary season.

Even coming from a candidate known for being tone-deaf to his own political impracticality, it was a breathtakingly inept, transparently desperate move. With sporadic exceptions and inconsistent momentum, Cruz has finished out of the winner’s circle in primaries and caucuses all year long. On Tuesday, Cruz was routed in five states by the juggernaut campaign of billionaire attention addict Donald Trump.

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SO OK, benefit of the doubt. Maybe in your gut you feel Cruz’s action was a bold statement of belief in oneself, a stand on principles. And not to sell that short! We need all of that we can get.

But that’s not what this is. And Ted Cruz knows it, and he knows that we know it too.

This “solemn choice” Cruz announced Wednesday was a blatant cry for attention from a flawed and failing presidential campaign. Its timing — the idea that the Cruz-Fiorina tandem would be more politically potent and palatable for the rest of the primary season than Cruz soldiering on alone — provokes the obvious questions — “Why now?” and “What for?”

It also undercuts the deep objections that Fiorina had with Cruz earlier in the year, with Fiorina ripping into Cruz more than once, on and off the debate stage. At one point, back in January, Fiorina said Cruz “says whatever he needs to say to get elected.”

Wednesday’s actions speak as loudly, apparently, as Fiorina’s own, earlier words.

Fiorina endorsed Cruz back in early March, it’s true, but that was as much a default reaction to Trump, and to a field of other candidates that had been dwindling already, as an outright endorsement of the senator from Texas.

That’s part of what makes this such a dumb move. There’s no heart in it, no belief in anything beyond seizing the news-cycle opportunity of the moment. Look closely at Ted Cruz’s eyes in the pictures of Cruz at the podium, right after the announcement. That deep terror eating away at a public fa├žade from behind the windows to the soul? Hunter S Thompson [raise your glasses] used to describe that look as “the fear.” And Ted Cruz has got it, and it’s obvious.

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Cruz & Co. had reasons for doing this; there’s a calculus at work. With a move like this, Cruz clearly hopes he can limp along, get to Indiana and Nebraska on fumes, pull into the delegate-filling station of California, woo delegates from other, deceased candidacies ... and then hunker down, and pray for rain at a brokered convention — with a ticket already in place.

This other, hopeful scenario takes longer to probably get to the same place. Even if the 112-member rules committee of the Republican National Convention acts on Cruz’s behalf — by releasing delegates to vote on their own personal preference rather than in accord with the popular vote itself, theoretically wresting the nomination from Trump’s little hands — Cruz’s campaign would forever bear an asterisk in political history ... even as it went down in furious flames, losing the general election in November 2016, by margins probably worse than what Trump would have if he’d taken the nomination.

Cruz is losing the optical battle for competence and leadership, two of the attributes that presumably recommended him for the presidency. He’s just made more work for himself.

Once political reality and sixth-grade arithmetic catch up to him, between now and California, in June, Cruz will need to explain the reasoning behind such a politically irrational action, and he won’t look good doing it because it doesn’t really make any sense.

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AS THE DONALD Trump solidifies his vastly more legitimate claim to be the GOP’s nominee, and John Kasich treads water and eats deli, Cruz is unwittingly positioning himself as the outlier candidate — the Republican Bernie Sanders, the candidate whose dogged adherence to principles have kept him in a race he can’t win.

And that’s a perception that’s been in play for weeks now, and not something he can change by naming a running mate in the final weeks of a primary season ... when he’s 10-for-39.

Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign has had the whiff of failure all over it for a while; its spotty results in primaries and caucuses since February prove that. The presumptuous stunt of naming a running mate in a campaign as mortally damaged as his is like appointing a deckhand to be Admiral of the Ocean Sea when the ship is sinking by the bow. And absent a rescue by the USS Rules Committee, it won’t change by one degree the course that ship is on.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Trump's Super Tuesday,
how it happened and what's next

I CONSIDER myself the Republican nominee,” Donald Trump said last night at Trump Tower, at a victory rally celebrating his clean sweep of five northeastern states – a serial victory over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich that was, in fact, something of a forgone conclusion before the polls even closed.

On what Yahoo News called Super Acela Tuesday – aptly named since the Amtrak commuter train service runs through all five states — Trump let the word go forth: He’s the man to stop, and nobody else.

“Honestly, Sen. Cruz and Gov. Kasich should really get out of the race. They have no path to victory at all,” Trump said. “We should heal the Republican Party, bring the Republican Party together. And I’m a unifier.”

Never mind the fact that, even after winning 105 delegates in Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Maryland last night, Trump still needs almost 300 more delegates to reach the magic number of 1,237 that clinches the GOP nomination. The Donald’s fortunes have clearly been revived.

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Of all the reasons why Trump has risen from the resuscitator his campaign needed a few weeks ago may have a lot to do with the voters who didn’t vote as much as those who did.

Nate Silver at Five Thirty Eight writes: “Trump faces unusually high levels of intraparty opposition for a front-runner — or at least he had seemed to until the past two weeks. But Kasich and Ted Cruz are also deeply flawed, and somewhat factional, candidates.

“It’s asking a lot of voters to cast a tactical vote against Trump when that tactic requires (i) going to a contested convention in order to (ii) deny the candidate with the plurality of votes and delegates the nomination in order to (iii) give the nomination to a candidate they don’t particularly like anyway. The #NeverTrump voters might not be voting for Trump, but they might be staying at home.”

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TRUMP IS still in an enviable position compared to Cruz and Kasich, both in the delegate math and in the way he’s positioning himself in a context of inevitability — as befits a man who would be both king and kingmaker.

And who’s to argue? The Koch brothers washed their hands of Trump’s campaign antics a long time ago. The party leadership — specifically the Republican National Committee and its operatives — have been agonizing over how to stop the Trump juggernaut for months.

And they shouldn’t be surprised; they’ve had fair warning. We all have. The Trump campaign has been generating its own meme, its own myth of inevitability since Trump won his first primaries at the dawn of the year.

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When Trump got in the race last year, the RNC, conservative thought leaders and conservatives in Congress knew or should have known they were getting a tough, presumably angry billionaire attention addict who’d been making candidate noises for years. Someone who could pay his own way and speak his own mind, someone who’d spent 30 years as both a businessman at the heart of the nation’s major regional economy and a showman on the margins of popular culture. A candidate prepared to be more than (as Hugh Hewitt put it last night on MSNBC) “Nelson Rockefeller without the art collection.”

Monday, April 25, 2016

Goodbye, sweet Prince

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.
                                                                 — Prince

WELL ... YOU heard the man. Like it or not, we’re called on to do now, in silence and shock, what we couldn’t wait to do on dance floors and in bedrooms all over the world, all those years and weeks and days ago.

When Prince Rogers Nelson died Thursday morning, transitioning to the full spiritual realm, we just couldn’t cope; the news rattled everything, shifted the axis of everything from the moment we heard what had happened. Millions of his fans literally never knew a world without him; never mind the millions more who did, and who miss him just as much.

“He worked 154 hours straight, said his brother-in-law, Maurice Phillips, after a private family service at Paisley Park, the Purple One’s estate/studio in Chanhassen, Minn. “I was with him just last weekend. He was a good brother-in-law.”

Clearly, 36 years into his career, his ravenous work ethic never abandoned him. Neither did his spiritual side, even at the end. Like a heavenly father in his own universe, he worked for six days straight and then some — and presumably rested on the seventh. Or not. Hopefully he did. But still ... gone at 57. The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.

He gave us a lesson about getting through this thing called life. But for a world of fans, it's already been a horrible year. David Bowie. Glenn Frey. Maurice White. Paul Kantner. Keith Emerson. Merle Haggard. And now this. This deep, deep wound. For those fans, now bereft and quietly struggling with his absence, we need something more. We need something to help us get through this thing called death.

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This is what it reads when Twitter cries:

The praise for Prince, the sorrow of his passing begins to hint at what we’ve lost. There’s the music, of course: its irresistible union of the spiritual and the salacious; its adherence to the protocols of funk, R&B and rock at the same time it blew those rules outta the water; its crazy voluminous output; its very existence (especially in the early albums) as the literal work of one man and one man alone.

“We have lost our greatest living musician,” Justin Timberlake said on Instagram. Without question.

But let the record show that (when we were paying attention) we’ve already been witness to other facets of the jewel now and forever known as Prince.

His steadfast insistence on creative control of his work makes him, rightly, an ethical champion to all artists, everywhere. Prince’s legendary battle with Warner Bros. led to what may be the ultimate artists’ symbolic stand: adoption of an unpronounceable glyph as a new identification; renunciation of his own name in defense of his own, purer creative identity.

Prince went up against Goliath and he won. His place in pop-cultural history was locked by that alone.

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HE WAS a songwriter, of course. Sinead O’Connor’s biggest hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U”? Prince wrote that. “Manic Monday,” which helped the Bangles get over? He wrote that too, and more besides. That was for other people.

What got him over, starting with his debut album, released in 1978, was a stream of his consciousness that set the stage for a new sexual frankness in the musical vocabulary, and a freedom of expression in the culture. Prince delighted in pushing every envelope (and every button) there was, and we gladly went along for the ride. Thirty-nine studio albums, five soundtrack albums, four live albums, six compilations, three movies (as the freakin’ director!), 29 tours, hundreds of live performances over a 36-year career ... and that’s not even counting the music we haven’t heard yet.

But he also had a huge and largely unknown role in the national life, combining social activism and philanthropy with breadth and style. In 2001 he anonymously donated $12,000 to the Louisville Free Public Library system to keep an historic library — the first full-service library for African Americans in the United States — from shutting down.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The new old Donald in New York

THE MAN can’t help himself. The evening when Donald Trump won the New York Republican Primary, the candidate briefly assumed the personage of someone you could almost kind of imagine to be ready to pursue the presidency as a serious contender.

CNN was happy to accommodate him. The network had arranged to turn the Empire State Building red last night when Trump was projected the winner— a stunt that crosses the line from journalism to political promotion. It was all part of a signal strategy CNN had devised to immediately announce the winners of the primary, Deadline Hollywood reported.

Clinton got the same treatment when she locked up the primary a little later; the building bathed in regal blue. But Trump got the honors first, reflecting pollsters’ confidence borne out — a lopsided win, a straight-up blowout for Trump over his nearest challenger, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (60%-25%). And a humiliation for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (at 14.5%). And Trump made the most of it last night.

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“To the people that know me the best, the people of New York, where they gave us this kind of vote – close to 70 percent and more delegates than anybody projected in their wildest imagination, I want to thank everybody here,” Trump said in his victory speech Tuesday night.

“Like virtually every other state in the union, jobs are being sucked out of our state and taken out of the country,” he said. “We are not going to let it happen anymore. We are going to stop it. … We are going to keep jobs here, and you are going to be very proud of our country very soon… We will build our military bigger, better, stronger than ever before. Nobody is going to mess with us.”

It as all over in eight minutes — for Trump, an uncharacteristically brief time with his mouth open and his right index finger pointed skyward.

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THERE’VE BEEN other departures from the old script. In picking his spots for TV interviews (lately sending his surrogates to do battle on the air) and making some major changes in his campaign leadership, The Donald had been moving away from his trademark brash, deliberately confrontational style of politics. For a while there was less calling Texas Sen. Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted” and apparently fewer calls from the podium to forcibly remove protesters at his campaign events.

He’s been trying to make a pivot to something closer to a general election strategy, starting to make nice with former adversaries, showing the world a kinder-gentler Donald Trump ... just in time to be taken very seriously.

Then, of course, it all went to hell in a handcart, fast. The minty-fresh Trump surrendered to the sarcastic control freak of the past. At a rally in Indianapolis, hours after Tuesday’s big win in New York, Trump again invoked “Lyin’ Ted,” and singled out a protester: “OK, go, get him outta here,” he said as police bundled the protester out — a not-quite pantomime performed for the umpteenth time since Trump launched his campaign last June.

It didn’t stop there, of course. Never shy about using every weapon available, Trump rubbed it in on Twitter. "Ted Cruz is mathematically out of winning the race," he tweeted today. "Now all he can do is be a spoiler, never a nice thing to do. I will beat Hillary!"

All guns blazing all the time, win or lose. The man can’t help himself.

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Trump’s triumph in New York was as much a victory for regional politics and American primary-season realpolitik as anything else. He was expected to win, first on a favorite-son basis (childhood in Queens, longtime builder of businesses in NYC), and second because of the vacuum of candidates in any position to challenge him on his home turf. Cruz isn’t nearly well-enough known or liked there.

Kasich made the moderate-Republican noises that some secret Trump supporters wished to God they’d hear from Trump, but Kasich wasn’t doing well enough in the polls with moderate voters to be much of a challenge for Trump. Kasich’s second-place finish in New York, ahead of Cruz in a distant third, is another triumph for the same kind of regionalism that’s made Trump the bell cow, right now.

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BUT DON’T get it twisted. The Donald Trump we’ve been seeing for the last ten months is very much the @realDonaldTrump — the same persona we’ve encountered in the mediasphere for decades: the brusque, bullying buccaneer for whom an attack unanswered is by definition a defeat.

It’s the same belligerent showboat style we came to know watching Trump impresario his NBC reality show “The Apprentice” for seven seasons. It’s the same swashbuckling spirit that generated his ambition, his fortune and his reputation as a ruthless businessman who’s just fine with the lives left damaged in his wake.

And he’s the same Donald Trump who has imagistically reinforced the distinction between Us and Them, aggressively cultivated the great divide between haves and have-nots that persists — one of our two deepest wounds — in this broken nation today.

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"No shift in tone, message, or policy at this point is going to erase anyone’s memory of how Trump has been conducting himself and his campaign for many, many months now," said Liz Mair, Republican strategist and founder of Make America Awesome, an anti-Trump PAC, to USA Today.

From the gold-and-leather adornments on everything he designs to the regal, imperious embellishments of his own identity, inherited or his own idea — all hail “The Donald” — Trump is a symbol of everything a broad-based populist presidential candidate is not.

Donald Trump fired himself from any real, deep connection with the broadest sense of the American people, and its often precarious circumstances, decades ago, and he’s never sought re-employment since then. Why would we believe he speaks with any gravitas for those same American people now?

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DONALD TRUMP’S greatest political vulnerability is himself, his past, a public history that, in its totality, has as many weaknesses as strengths for the current Republican frontrunner. At its beating heart is the ethos of a businessman with the motive instincts of a shark; the author of an up by-the-bootstraps biography whose subject never really had to deal with bootstraps in the first place; a showman with a grasp of the size of the stage ... but not quite as sure a command of the size of the audience.

All the pivots in the world can’t change what Donald Trump has always been, what he’s tried to be relative to the people he considers his underlings: a man whose relentless self-identity as a hammer relegates everyone and everything around him to the status of a nail.

He won’t change that in himself in a year on the campaign trail; how he changes people’s perception of that in a country that is only partly a business, and never a dictatorship, is the open question.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Christie Campaign Suspension Bridge

“Sit down and shut up!”
— Chris Christie to a heckler, Belmar, N.J., October 2014

AND THEN there were two ... less. The field of Republican aspirants for the presidency thinned out on Wednesday. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, ended her long-shot campaign, realizing that with several out-of-the-money finishes in the contests so far, her prospects weren’t getting any better.

The other one was a long time coming.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie entered the race for the presidency last June, he did so as a man with monumental challenges before him. As governor of a state with outsize financial troubles, as a figure in a major transportational scandal, as a politician with limited national name recognition before his quixotic foray even started, Christie was the embodiment of the regional pol trying to go large on the national stage without a message large enough — or distinct enough from everyone else — to justify staying in.

He had his moments but they were too few and far between. On Wednesday, it all caught up to him. After the New Hampshire results were posted — Christie came in sixth in that state's primary with 7.4 percent of the vote — that was it. Flanked by family and campaign associates, Christie “suspended” his bid, pulling the plug on a campaign that was pretty much circling the drain from the start.

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The governor had opportunities at the national level to moderate his trademark blowhard outrage. He took the stage at the 2012 GOP National Convention, throwing red meat with the best of them, arousing the faithful with his deeply partisan, bowling-jacket politics. That was expected.

But Christie made the most of another opportunity, one that was harder to compartmentalize in the context of national politics. Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey shore that October, and the Pantone-red governor who dissed President Obama early and often found himself in the untenable position of supporting the president as the storm — a confluence of three separate weather systems at once — raged through the region.

“He has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area,” Christie said after Sandy hit. “The president has been outstanding on this, and so have the folks at FEMA. … The president has been all over this and he deserves great credit,” Christie said. “It’s been very good working with the president and his administration.”

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THAT WAS the same Chris Christie who, at an Oct. 19, 2012, Romney rally in Virginia, said, “the president doesn’t know how to lead. … He’s like a man wandering around in a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership and he just can’t find it ...”

After Sandy, of course, it was back to business as usual. For Christie, business as usual meant the pursuit — casual at first, serious later on — of the presidency. That takes money, money Christie never really generated. Politico reports that “[f]undraising was never a strong point for Christie ... In the fourth quarter of 2015, Christie raised only $4.2 million and ended up with roughly $1 million cash on hand. By comparison, in the first three weeks of January alone, Christie faced $5.2 million worth of attacks ads, according to FEC data.”

But it really wasn’t about campaign money anyway. There was never a compelling reason to vote for Christie because, end of the day, there was no compelling reason for Christie to run in the first place. What he brought to the table was always duplicated by other candidates with more money, a more palatable message (or at least a more palatable delivery) and fewer problems at home to be embarrassed by.

And his meme of brusque, argumentative Joisey plain-speaking was eclipsed by the loudmouth from Queens, the billionaire attention addict who’s now the party’s frontrunner. The message sent by the voters in every primary and caucus Christie entered was basically the same as the one Christie sent to a Belmar heckler who dared to challenge the governor at a post-Sandy press conference: “Sit down and shut up!”

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FRANKLY, IT’S hard to summon a lot of sympathy for the Jersey mauler.

Confrontation and humiliation have been so much a part of his public persona, his shtick, for so long, it’s difficult to recall a time when they weren’t. That persona (a distillation of the “Jersey way,” he tried to tell us more than once) was something he hoped to export nationally.

But with outrage as a staple good for Republicans this campaign season, it was a case of coals to Newcastle. Flintiness? Mercurial style? An articulation of the popular rage? “Go sell angry someplace else,” the country told him. “We’re all full up here.”

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Christie will have his hands full taking care of state business for the remaining 710 days of his governorship. Like navigating the record nine credit rating downgrades on more than $32 billion in state bonds, highlighting what Moody’s called “"weak financial position and large structural imbalance, primarily related to continued pension contribution shortfalls.”

Like the possible exodus of more than 2 million people from the Garden State, along with a loss of $18 billion in income, according to the state’s Business and Industry Association, and as reported by Like job approval ratings that have dropped into the 30th percentile.

Christie due’s for some down time at home. reported that Christie spent somewhere between 52 percent and 72 percent of 2015 on the road, outside of New Jersey, as he pursued the Republican nomination he wasn’t going to win. Now? He can sleep in his own bed. He can make his way back to Trenton via the George Washington Bridge.

His campaign’s suspension will be the bridge between his lofty political aspirations and the gritty political reality he couldn’t escape. The presidency needn’t elude him forever. But one hopes that next time, like his fellow presidential-candidate asterisk, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Christie will have a real reason for running, and carve out a real distinction between him and every other angry Republican on the campaign trail.

Image credits: Christie: Reuters. Christie and President Obama: MSNBC screengrab. Christie and Scott Walker: Aristide Economopoulos/NJ Advance Media for

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On the #@%$! campaign trail:
Potty-mouth in politics and pop culture

The coarser, meaner, keener political discourse of the 2016 primary season– embodied by Donald Trump’s frequent use of profanity on the campaign trail– has had a long parallel presence in the popular culture. Trump’s antics in the current campaign spotlight the ways Trump may only be the symbol of an emerging frankness in both politics and pop culture, a candor we might have expected in the ongoing collision of new media and old.

On Monday night at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H., Republican frontrunner Trump repeated an audience member’s use of the word “pussy,” the well-known vulgarism for a woman’s genitalia, to describe his primary opponent, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

If that were an outlier, a one-off uttered in the heat of the moment, it probably wouldn’t have aroused so much attention or concern. But Trump has crossed the line of decorum before. The Donald has otherwise legitimized street talk on the stump in a way that’s called into question whether he recognizes behavioral boundaries in seeking the presidency — or whether those boundaries even exist in today’s lightning-fast media environment. ...

Read the full story at TheWrap

Image credit: Trump: Reuters. TheWrap logo: ©2016 TheWrap News Inc.

Coalition man: Sanders nails New Hampshire

THE SUN didn’t rise in the west on Tuesday, primary day in New Hampshire, but by the end of the day, the long-established order in the Democratic solar system had been challenged, and maybe turned upside down.

Bernie Sanders, the passionately populist, iconoclastic independent Vermont senator, won the Democratic New Hampshire Primary on Tuesday, defeating challenger, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. That much was expected to happen. It was even comfortably predicted that Sanders would win by double digits. That’s where the dovetail of expectation and reality breaks down.

What probably wasn’t expected was the breadth of Sanders’ win — an emphatic 22-point spread between Sanders and Clinton (60 percent to 38 percent, with all precincts reporting).

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What definitely wasn’t expected, in fact what couldn’t be known until exit polling told us, was the way Sanders won. According to an NBC News exit poll and reporting on MSNBC, the Vermont senator achieved victory with a majority of voters under 30, with independent voters, with avowed liberals, with gun owners — gun owners! — and ... with women.

“Sanders was the overwhelming favorite of voters who were looking for a candidate they saw as honest and trustworthy (92 percent) and cares about people like them (82 percent),” MSNBC’s Maureen Michaels reported. “[H]e took 88 percent of the vote among those who wanted the next president to be from outside political establishment. Sanders also won 70 percent of those who are unhappy with the way the federal government is working.”

You can build a coalition around that, folks, a demographically diverse, electorally meaningful coalition spanning age, gender, race and even trip-wires like firearm possession. If the results of the New Hampshire Primary tell us anything, if they’re in any way a distillation of the national mood (and that remains to be seen), it says that most if not all bets may be off for the presidential election of 2016.

What they should tell Hillary Clinton amount to the loudest wake-up call of her political career.

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Betsy Woodruff of The Daily Beast reported on Wednesday on the depth of the problems facing Clinton with women. On paper, in theory, that would seem to be a natural cohort of Clinton supporters. But for some women, it all starts with trust. Or the lack thereof.

Woodruff reports:

Numerous Sanders supporters flatly stated that they would under no circumstances back Clinton, citing the criticisms of her that Sanders brings up on the stump every day.

Ashley Bays of Quincy, Massachusetts, who came to New Hampshire to volunteer for Sanders, said she would “absolutely not” back Clinton, ever.

“It would be completely against my ideals,” she said.

“Hillary is obviously not thinking about the best interests of the people,” she continued. “She’s thinking about the corporations that fund her, Goldman Sachs.”

Peggie Greenough, a New Hampshire voter who came to the party along with her husband and three sons, said she wouldn’t vote for Clinton if she’s the nominee.

“I don’t trust her,” she said. “I don’t trust her at all.”

Marilyn DeLuca, of Londonderry, New Hampshire, also said Sanders is “the only candidate out there” with integrity. And she wasn’t exactly enthralled by Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem’s goofy arguments that women are obligated to back Clinton.

“They’re irrelevant,” DeLuca said. “Their time has come and gone.”

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THIS IS PROBLEMATIC for Clinton in ways that go beyond the pure numbers. The history that is her putative strong suit worked against her on Tuesday. She won the New Hampshire Primary in 2008, beating then-unknown Barack Obama. And Bill Clinton won the state in 1992 on his way to the presidency. So Hillary wasn’t an unknown quantity to the people of the Granite State. That previous time in New Hampshire, that long tail of goodwill should have helped her this time, but that never happened. At least not enough.

If Clinton has any hope in the days and weeks to come, the South Carolina Primary on Feb. 27 could be a first step back to the light. Hillary can take some solace in Tuesday’s results: New Hampshire is a demographic outlier compared with much of the rest of the country; it’s more liberal, less moderate and screamingly more white than South Carolina. Clinton’s enduring relationship with older black voters, independents and Rock-Ribbed Democrats might be just what she needs to win.

But there’s always the risk that history repeats: Clinton lost South Carolina to Obama in 2008.

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For his part, Sanders is taking care of quotidian campaign business. Today he wrote a fundraising message email-blasted to supporters of And he’s actively working to get his campaign strong in its broken places. It's still believed, less so now than before, that Sanders has been insufficiently attentive to issues important to black voters.

Presumably mending that fence, he sat earlier today at Sylvia’s, a Harlem restaurant institution, talking with Rev. Al Sharpton about a range of topics — a sound tactical move, considering Sanders’ next contests: the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 20 and the South Carolina Primary on Feb. 27.

No doubt Sanders got the geographic benefit of the doubt on Tuesday; he’s from Vermont, one state over from New Hampshire, and regional affinities still count for a lot in retail American politics. But he can’t count on any of that in Nevada and South Carolina. In the Palmetto State, in particular, Sanders’ self-identification as a “democratic socialist” isn’t likely to be as widely embraced in the South as it was in Dixville Notch.

But one thing at a time. On Tuesday night after his Granite State win, Sanders said that, for all its apostate, outsider appearance, his presidential campaign “is about having the courage to reject the status quo.” By the end of the month, we’ll know whether the electorate elsewhere in the country believes that’s transferable. So will Hillary Clinton.

Image credits: Sanders top: Reuters/Rick Wilking. Clinton: Reuters/Faith Ninavaggi. Sharpton and Sanders: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 7):
Trump falls in Iowa; levitation revoked

“‘No one remembers who came in second.’”
--Donald Trump, December 2013, quoting professional golfer Walter Hagen

MONEY MAY BE, as Arthur Jensen famously told us in Network, the basis of “the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today.” But Jensen didn’t know a thing about running for the presidency.

Donald Trump discovered firsthand Tuesday night that money, and the name recognition that often goes with it, aren’t always enough. The billionaire attention addict lost the Republican Iowa caucuses, placing second behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (28 percent to 24 percent), despite the patina of inevitability The Donald has gone to great lengths to create since he began his quest for the presidency eight months ago.

It was the comeuppance that many in Republican circles, the media and the general public had been expecting, predicting and/or hoping since then. For those long months, Trump’s nativist antics have alternately enthralled and enraged Americans unaccustomed to such dangerously risible behavior (at least this early in a campaign).

He paid the price on Tuesday, committing some serious unforced errors, including the kind of neophyte move that would have gotten contestants bounced from his “The Apprentice” TV show: Not knowing what he was doing.

◊ ◊ ◊

Trump seemed to get away with political murder, with a series of xenophobic proposals, Islamophobic innuendo and a passive-aggressive rhetoric that, miraculously, kept him in the frontrunner’s perch from almost the beginning. It was as if the laws of political gravity had been repealed.

That levitation license got pulled by the people of Iowa on Tuesday night.

Then, not missing a beat, Trump resorted to the kind of behavior that he can’t stand in other people: Being a sore loser.

"Ted Cruz didn't win Iowa, he illegally stole it. That is why all of the polls were so wrong any [sic] why he got more votes than anticipated. Bad!" Trump tweeted Wednesday morning — moments before he tweaked the tweet by deleting the word “illegally.”

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IT GOT WORSE. Then he demanded a do-over. He tweeted: “Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified.”

This is Donald Trump in Butthurt World, a new territory for the king of tough talk and real estate, and it’s aroused a still-building narrative that The Donald’s campaign is in serious trouble — in open water surrounded by sharks, or in the middle of the desert circled by vultures.

WTF happened? You can chalk up Trump’s Iowa defeat — the only word in the language for it — to three glaring missteps that his handlers, proxies, advisers and campaign toadies should have seen coming from a long way off:

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He skipped the Iowa debate. Even for a man with an ego the size of Trump Tower, when you’re campaigning for the presidency, it’s necessary to do the fundamentals, which means paying the proper respects to the people you presume to lead. Politics 101 says that when you’re campaigning in Iowa — a state proud of its status as an early litmus test for the viability of presidential contenders — you don’t miss an opportunity to make a connection.

One such opportunity was at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, where the seventh and last GOP debate went down ... without him. Frontrunner Trump, miffed that Fox News hadn’t paid him the genuflections he’s used to (by dumping Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly) decided to skip the debate.

Doing that, he missed his last, best chance to make his case for being president before the people of the Hawkeye State — many of whom were prepared to vote for him. It was a huge and unnecessary slap in the face of voters prepared to make a difference in his campaign. It told Iowans, like nothing else could, that their concerns, their interests, and ultimately their support, didn’t matter.

Woody Allen once observed that “80 percent of success is just showing up.” Trump should have taken his fellow New Yorker’s advice.

◊ ◊ ◊

His nastiness finally caught up to him. Iowans have to put up with a lot by way of their first-in-the-nation status. That invariably means seeing candidates at their worst, people who aren’t ready for prime time, drive time or any other time.

But with Donald Trump, that meant their having to contend with a meme of ugliness that Trump cultivated with all his heart.

From vilifying Mexicans, Muslims and Muslim Americans, presiding over beatdowns of protesters at his own campaign rallies, and generally never taking an opportunity to look like the statesman he thinks he wants to be, Trump reveled in the role bestowed on him in the latest issue of Esquire Magazine — Hater In Chief. It was, reportedly, a title that Trump embraced. It was apparently something the good people of Iowa wanted nothing to do with. Not enough of them to get Trump a win, anyway.

◊ ◊ ◊

His Shih Tzu ate his campaign homework. Trump, a man who has taken great pride in preparation in the business world, revealed himself to be woefully unready for campaigning, in Iowa or anywhere else. Among the other post-caucus disclosures Trump made on Wednesday was the fact that he didn’t know what a “ground game” was.

For even the most casual student of American politics, this is so basic it beggars the imagination how you think you start or run a campaign without it. The ground game — the army of volunteers, drivers, doorbell ringers, people working the phones, senior citizens planting the yard signs, interns living on pizza and adrenaline, the freakin’ true believers on the ground in the state you want to win — is indispensable to a modern, well-oiled presidential campaign. Simply put, you won’t win without it. You can’t win without it.

And not only did Trump not have a good ground game ... until recently, and by his own admission, he didn’t even know what a ground game was.
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