Monday, March 21, 2005

Condi for President?!

Our new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, lately given to wearing angular, edgy-looking black leather like Neo's squeeze in "The Matrix," is on some kind of a roll. In short order she's met with the leaders of South Korea, Japan and Israel, called on the European Union not to sell arms to China, then turned right around and asked China to help out defusing the situation with North Korea.

You can't make this up.

In the course of transforming the contours of the world to accommodate the new Pax Americana, Madame Matrix has managed to get her name floated, albeit very early, as a possible contender for the Big Chair, a credible Republican nominee to make a quest for the Presidency of the United States.

Well, hell. Not even Oprah did that, and she's got more money than God.

The naysayers, as you might expect, are out in force already. Eleanor Clift, Newsweek columnist, has a long piece in the magazine's current issue, explaining, in thoroughly credible argument, why it'll never happen. Clift's argument comes down essentially to one issue: abortion. Rice can't win the 2008 nomination, Clift says, without abandoning her own pro-choice position and embracing the conservative anti-choice position that has been a bulwark, maybe the bulwark, of the Republican Party for generations.

True enough. "For the GOP's base of social conservatives, cultural issues overwhelm economic concerns," Clift notes. The problem with adopting such a one-dimensional pillar of party identity is that it tends to leave a multitude of blind spots, other issues that are important to the American people as a whole. Sooner or later, a failure to address those other issues leaves a party vulnerable to being seen as out of touch, inattentive and insensitive to circumstances in the here & now.

The presumably rock-ribbed Republicans who first floated Condi's name must have understood that. The question, assuming Clift's calculus is correct, is why they'd put her name out there in the first place if they weren't sending a signal, deliberate or otherwise, suggesting a willingness to begin to think of their own party's future as being dependent on more than one highly emotional issue.

Perhaps Condi was mentioned as a concession to the fact that, at this point, there's no one else out there in the GOP with the emotional firepower, the je ne sais quoi factor necessary to get people fired up. Maybe Condi's name was one of those "trial balloons" you hear about. But whatever their motivation, the GOP namesayers knew it would elicit a reaction, and might even give them some direction on which candidate might be more electable.

And that's exactly what makes Condoleezza Rice such an intriguing speculation: With the exception of the abortion issue, she's highly electable. She's spent years establishing her political bona fides; her previous position, as national security adviser, and her current role as secretary of state would be enough to qualify anyone else -- certainly any other white male of a similar stature -- for a run at the presidency.

What Clift considers the major drawback is not necessarily a problem that can't be overcome. Clift's argument is a perfectly rational one politically speaking, and a dovetail with the more conservative wing of the party. And therein lies the problem with that argument. For all the attention paid to the improbability of a Rice presidential scenario, there's no escaping who it was that came up with the idea. This was a Republican notion -- yes, maybe a wild dream, maybe a fanciful what-if broached for the sake of provoking a good cocktail-party discussion.

But somewhere in the Republican party there are those at least willing to entertain the possibility of a break with the reflexes of the past -- reflexes that, if continually obeyed, do little or nothing to broaden the reach and appeal of a party still burdened with the image of white male millionaire elitism. For these Republican stalwarts, the notion that their party should be continually held hostage to this single issue compromises its future and its potential for expansion, regardless of the success of the last two presidential election cycles.

Yes, the more conservative side of the party will oppose the idea (another reflex action). But most Republicans in the broad body politic aren't as adamantine and one-dimensional as those who lead the party. They can't afford to be. Their lives aren't the stuff of political abstraction; they don't have the luxury of that kind of philosophical absolutism. They live down here on the ground, like the rest of us. Their politics, their Republican politics, is grounded in a reality that, whether they like it or not, encounters and incorporates the everyday experience of America, the presence and impact and influence of people who don't look like the Republican leadership. People who look and think like Condoleezza Rice.

The Republicans found out in November who some of those people are; African American voters broke with the usual okey-doke presumptively Democratic paradigm and voted for Bush. In raw vote totals, that bloc of black votes, millions more than in 2000, almost certainly made the difference in Ohio, this election's pivot-point state, for the GOP to prevail. There's no good reason to think that kind of attitude shift has to be a temporary thing; the Republicans who advanced Condi's name must have faith in the symbolic momentum of the administration's minority appointments -- more, and higher profile, than in Clinton's administration.

That kind of momentum for change is squandered, wasted if the party reverts back to its historical reflexes. In their allegiance to abortion as the litmus-test issue for electability under the party banner, the Republicans run the risk of being viewed as a one-issue party, a body that is, rightly or wrongly, defined by the American electorate as blind to anything but establishing and enforcing laws that intrude on their very personal lives.

Monday, March 7, 2005

The way we say we live now

In 1999 Jack Nicholson mooned the crowd at the Golden Globes Awards, receiving applause and gales of riotous laughter from the assembled guests, and no punishment. In 2005 Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss pretended to moon the crowd at a pro football game; the National Football League fined him $10,000.

Those two very different reactions to two not dissimilar events underscores the depth of the nation's cultural divide — one recently characterized with color-coding — and an unease in the national mood. There's a disconnect somewhere.

The election in November revealed some of the country's ambivalence; the colors red and blue came to be a kind of code for differing values and passions.

But that divide's also reflected in a seeming disconnect between outrage and actions — the things Americans say they’re angered by and the ways Americans indicate that anger, or fail to for very long. The reactions also show how popular culture, sports and other outlets of the national economy thrive on that outrage, even depend on it for their survival.

Football officials, talk-radio commentators and a range of other Americans, were incensed at an ABC promotional spot aired during the Nov. 15 broadcast of ABC's “Monday Night Football.” The promo featured Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in a steamy faux locker-room encounter with actress Nicollette Sheridan, a star of ABC's “Desperate Housewives.”

Despite the outrage after the incident, or maybe because of it, “Desperate Housewives” continues to enjoy ratings success; the show is regularly one of the top three shows on network TV. Lately it's been the second-most popular show behind “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” a bonanza for CBS. Since the Monday Night debacle, “Housewives” went on to win two Golden Globe awards, including one for best comedy.

God knows it's not just TV. The popularity of fast foods like Hardee's Monster Thickburger (1,420 calories, 107 grams of fat), has florished despite prevailing concerns about health and diet, and the outrage of doctors and nutritionists.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based nutrition and health advocacy organization, called the Monster “the fast-food equivalent of a snuff film.”

That hasn't financially hurt the company; the Monster is part of a high-calorie line of burgers Hardee's introduced in April 2003. Since then, chairman Andy Puzder told the Associated Press, sales for the restaurant chain have risen steadily.

Poker's rising popularity on cable television programs — shows that feature celebrities playing the game for highly lucrative stakes — is at odds with the parents, educators and state officials largely opposed to poker playing among high school students.

The clamor for change in professional sports — in the wake of a widening steroid scandal in baseball and the fallout from the Nov. 19 brawl between basketball fans and players for two NBA teams — hasn't yet had a material bottom-line effect on the national obsession with athletes and athletics.

Despite a history of fighting that goes back years, for example, the NBA started the 2004-05 season with strong fan attendance: Seventeen sold-out home-opening games — a record — brought fan attendance to 95 percent capacity for the first week of the season, the AP reported in November.

The record eclipsed the previous sold-out home opener mark of 15, set during the 1997-98 season, The AP reported. The league is on a pace to meet or exceed last season's attendance level of 20.28 million fans, despite the Nov. 19 incident.

These dovetailing contradictions point to attitudes at war: America's storied permissive, live-and-let-live ethos doing battle with the equally powerful forces of rectitiude and social conventions.

For some of those who run afoul of those conventions, the way back to mainstream respectability is all too clear. Reliably, consistently, the path to good graces runs through television. Just ask Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens). Or Hugh Grant.

Or Janet Jackson. Maybe nothing illustrates the split between outrage and action like the controversy around her “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl.

Jackson bared her right breast for all of five seconds in a dance number with singer Justin Timberlake.

There was a brief but intense backlash in the ensuing weeks and months: Jackson was dropped from some high-visibility projects, endured the scorn of pundits and op-ed writers; and became a favorite target of opportunity for late-night TV. Bad Janet.

Then came the rebound: Jackson took the obligatory All Apologies Tour of some of the same TV talk shows that skewered her. She made an appearance on CBS's "Late Show With David Letterman" and had a guest-host spot on NBC's “Saturday Night Live” — two of the more reliable stops for a star on the road to rehabilitation.

“Damita Jo,” the Jackson album released months after the Super Bowl flap, sold more than 3 million copies — disappointing only when compared to her previous record sales — and the singer got two Grammy nominations in December. Janet reborn.

Or consider Martha Stewart, the domestic diva now serving a five-month jail sentence in West Virginia for lying about a stock sale, is set to resume her high-profile life with a one-hour, daily syndicated TV show to be broadcast on NBC starting in the fall. Stewart's resurrection in the public eye started before she even got out of jail!

Gil Reavill, author of “Smut,” a forthcoming book on the hypersexualization of popular culture, finds the nation's hot-then-cold reactions to the objects of its ridicule is a matter of an ever-shorter attention span.

“We’re so inured to the constant drumbeat of ‘new story, new story, new story’ that there’s not many stories that hold our attention for that long,” said Reavill, whose book will be published by Sentinel/Penguin in April.

“It’s the nature of the human beast,” Reavill said. “You lose interest; the novelty of something wears off. It’s a tireless search for novelty.”

For Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, the seemingly-modern split between what Americans do and what Americans profess takes place against a broader backdrop of history:

“At Plymouth plantation, you had the pilgrims who came here to pursue a religiously-based life with strict parameters,” Thompson said. “But if you look at court cases, a lot of those people didn’t always adhere to those standards.”

“We enjoy the feel of moral outrage at the same time we're guilty of the things we claim to be outraged about. TV is something you consume in the privacy of your home. A lot of people who are outraged are also consuming a lot of the programming they’re outraged about,” he said.

“In some cases, what's happening is the moral-outrage books have been cooked in a number of ways,” he said. “Of course, moral values are important. But Americans have their sanctimonious attitudes on an a la carte basis.

“This is both the country that's most obsessed by sex and the country that's most embarrassed by sex. Put those together and you’ve got a recipe for exactly the situation we have now.”

For Thompson, television is symbolic of a wider division. “In some things it’s fairly easy to draw the battle lines; the usual suspects line up in the usual places,” he said.

“TV is obvious because it's everywhere. But in other ways — with high school football in Texas, for example, where the very people arguing against the blasphemy of American media, with its violent images, argue that the sanctity of American football should be preserved in all its glory — it's clear no one set of philosophical prinicples are applied across the board.

“America’s history is one big makeover show,” Thompson said. “We've always been a nation that seems perfectly comfortable with contradictions. The ability to navigate those contradictions with a straight face is characteristic of the American identity.”
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