Saturday, December 29, 2007

The two Johns

They couldn’t be more dissimilar in their personal styles, the way they relate to and connect with people, their ages and the states they’re from. But former Sen. John Edwards, fighting strongly in Iowa in the 2008 race, and Sen. John Kerry, veteran of the 2004 campaign, may well be joined at the political hip in one meaningful respect: an ability to tough it out, to emerge Lazarus-like from the crypt of low expectations by the public and, especially, the press.

Americans are still deep down in love with the underdog story, and the arc of Edwards’ campaign has been one that Americans have embraced before. Largely written off last summer in a crowded field — and overlooked by a media smitten with the rock-star incandescence of Barack Obama — Edwards has been steadily building momentum (the proverbial “big mo”) and now the former North Carolina senator contends for, at least, a strong second in the Iowa caucuses set to start on Thursday.

John Kerry took the much the same route to the nomination in 2004. For months Kerry languished in the weeds, plagued by single-digit results in the polls. But the results of the Iowa caucuses that year vaulted the Massachusetts senator out of the Democratic pack, and made him the new front-runner in a field about as crowded as the current one.

And right now Edwards is a literal whisker behind or ahead of Obama in the eleventh-hour polling in Iowa, depending on which poll you read — and always well within the margin of error. Edwards, a famed trial lawyer, has been making what he’s called his “closing argument” in recent weeks.

"
“We have to stop the corporate greed that’s killing the middle class in America,” Edwards told a receptive audience Friday at the Colt Drum & Bugle Corps Center in Dubuque. “[I]f we elect another president appointed by the status quo — from either party — the middle class will fall further behind and our children will pay the price.”

Edwards “these are the stakes”-style rhetoric has all the high drama and stark either/or scenario of a strong summation in court; what’s as strong as Edwards’ message is this way he sends that message: in the context of a courtroom, with the citizens of Iowa empowered as nothing less than jurors.

Whether Edwards convincingly pulls off the Jimmy Stewart role — whether or not Iowans believe him and in him enough to give him a first unassailable campaign victory — remains to be seen, probably late Thursday. But the big mo is definitely with him, maybe enough to get him at least two cheers for the underdog. Or more.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The 97 percent solution

Twas the day after Christmas and Paris Whitney Hilton, heir to the hotelier fortune that bears her name, did what millions of other Americans did: Go shopping. A bargain hunter like the rest of us, the hotel heiress went in search of bargains (only she went to Lisa Klein in West Hollywood, one of the high-end boutiques she frequents). For Paris, however, the mag stripes on the back of her credit cards may be holding different data before much longer. This Christmas may be the last of the sort of wonderful life she’s grown accustomed to. Things are changing at the House of Hilton.

Twas also the day after Christmas that Barron Hilton, chairman of the Conrad Hilton Foundation and an earlier heir to the hotel chain that bears his name, announced his decision to donate 97 percent of his fortune, currently estimated at $2.3 billion, to charity. Reuters reported the news on Wednesday.

In a statement, the foundation said that Barron Hilton, son of the founder, intends “to contribute 97 percent of his entire net worth, estimated today at $2.3 billion, including the created trusts, at whatever value it is at the time of his passing.”

Reuters reported that the mission of the foundation is to back ventures that provide clean water in Africa, education for blind children and housing for the mentally ill. Based on the language of Conrad Hilton’s will, job one is “to relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute.” The foundation assets will swell to about $4.5 billion under the terms of Barron Hilton’s plans announced Wednesday.

“Paris Hilton was not immediately available for comment on her grandfather’s plans for his fortune,” Reuters reported, high up in the story.

Now, we’re not ordinarily big on schadenfreude. We just won’t go there. But there’s no escaping the sense of poetic justice at work. One’s tempted to cast for a moment Paris Hilton in a variation of the role of Regina in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” jilted from her inheritance by her father, favoring her brothers. Or something from the start of “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” But we might have seen this coming.

Paris has done more than shop in recent years. In 2003, about the time when most of us knew she was even alive, Paris Hilton Gained Notoriety when a videotape of her and her boyfriend having sex was released on the Internet.

Reuters neatly conflated the next four years: “She parlayed her notoriety, fueled by tabloid headlines about her partying lifestyle, into a celebrity career that has included a reality television show, a book, a music album, and film roles. Then this year she spent more than three weeks in jail for violating probation in a drunk-driving case.”

That smartly-condensed nutshell embraces the “career” of the most celebrated person in popular culture to be, by and large, famous for being famous and nothing more. Paris Hilton has, by coincidence and design, become the symbol of a certain vulgar aridity in popular culture, the literal expression of a by-the-numbers ethos of ascension to those fifteen minutes of fame. Like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears -- the two other tragic musketeers of pop culture -- she’s that painfully irresistible magnet, that train wreck you can’t help but look at as you drive down the highway.

Remember what happened last November? At a nightclub in Vegas promoting her own record release? Singer Joshua Radin did, and put it on his MySpace page. “Paris, who had been swilling straight vodka from [a] Grey Goose bottle for hours, gets up on stage, has the people in charge throw her ‘record’ on the house stereo for her to lip sync two of her songs,” writes Radin. “She gets up on the stage, pukes, leaves. . . I find the music business charming.”

Well, Granddad apparently didn’t. Reuters reported that Jerry Oppenheimer, author of the 2006 book “House of Hilton,” said Barron Hilton “was embarrassed by the behavior of his socialite granddaughter and believes it has sullied the family name.”

That’s not hot.

What happens next? In the short term, nothing. Paris Hilton still stays at any Hilton Hotel on this planet for free. The service on her diamond-encrusted Vertu cell won’t be cut off (hell, her mobile carrier is probably paying her). With her investments (assuming she's made any) and lavish event appearance fees, she won’t be serving you your Chicken Club at the Wendy’s drive-thru window anytime soon.

But still, it’s got to be some kind of wake-up call. At one level or another, Paris Hilton got a taste of mortality the day after Christmas. Just like the rest of us fighting subprime mortgages, insane gas prices and a nagging sense of disquiet in spite of the Christmas lights. And still very unlike the rest of us. Grandpa’s announcement won’t be exactly a change to the simple life – 3 percent of $2.3 billion is still $69 million. But it’s a far cry from the stellar money she no doubt envisioned.

Welcome back, Paris. Welcome back to a place a few decimal points closer to our wonderful life.
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Top image: Kevin Mazur. Bottom image: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Tancredo TKO

For months now, pundits and pol-watchers have been quietly marveling at the resilience of the presidential campaign of Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Republican congressman whose one-issue platform – ending illegal immigration – seemed to defy political gravity and the laws of politics that dictate the need for candidates to address a wide range of issues.

Like the audience at a professional prize fight, the press and observers asked themselves the same question you’d ask watching a fighter getting his brains beaten out round after round, a man who manages to stay on his feet even as the blood streams into the eyes he needs to see: “What the hell’s holding him up?”

We don’t have to ask that question anymore. Tancredo more or less quietly ended his quest for the presidency on Thursday, his 62nd birthday, narrowing the still-crowded GOP field by one (depending on whether you count the phantom campaign of Alan Keyes, a political nonentity this season if there ever was one).

Tancredo’s quit statement is a leitmotiv of the campaigner making an early exit: We made the points we had to make, we elevated the issue of [insert issue here] to a level of importance that the other candidates ignored … our work is done here.

Sure enough: On Tancredo’s Web site, the former candidate says that “earlier this year when I feared that the issue would not be championed by any of the top candidates I threw my hat in the ring. It was the only way I could be certain that the candidates would be forced to take a stand. … we have succeeded beyond my most optimistic expectations of a year ago.”

“We have come so far together, and through our efforts we have made a stunning and, I believe, permanent impact on the debate over securing our borders and preserving our nation.”

Tancredo, a bantamweight contender at best, might well have said “no mas, no mas” when he hung ‘em up, like Roberto Duran did, but that would have been contrary to the rabidly xenophobic spirit of his signature issue, and the weaponized passions of so many of his followers: “English only, please!”

It’s that spirit that led candidate Tancredo to actively try to bully U.S. immigration officials into deporting Jesus Apodaca, an honors student in his home state, because of Apodaca’s illegal status. The Immigration and Naturalization Service promised Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell it would not move against Apodaca (GPA 3.9!) until Congress weighed the case, the Denver Post reported in September.

There are at least three good reasons why Tancredo made an early exit beyond the self-serving statement of having completed his educational mission of raising the issue of illegal immigration to a fever pitch.

First and most obvious: Tancredo ran out of cash, the mother’s milk and gasoline of American presidential politics. Tancredo consistently underperformed against the other candidates on fundraising, and made little or no headway in the polls beyond momentary surges pegged as much to his appearances in the debates as anything else.

Second, Tancredo ran out of momentum. The singular energy he brought to the illegal-immigration debate began to dissipate. Ironically enough, Tancredo’s campaign lost power the more widely the immigration issue became the substance of the other campaigns. His lock on the topic was more diffused, and less particular to him, as other more viable candidates starting talking about it. Over time, there was increasingly less of a reason for Tancredo’s being on the campaign trail at all.

Last, Tancredo’s Republican colleagues ran out of patience. There’s no escaping the polarizing high negatives his campaign has generated among Americans across the board. Now factor in the damage Tancredo has done to the marginal efforts to rehumanize the Republican Party for millions of Latino voters predisposed to vote against the GOP [See "For Latinos, the gusano turns"]. Something that was already an uphill GOP battle before Tancredo’s insurgent campaign even started became an effort Sisyphus would have looked forward to. Tancredo was beginning to do more damage to the Republicans than the Democrats. (Maybe this was quietly communicated to the candidate by the party leadership. Ya think?)

Tancredo’s vitriolic proposals -- building a wall on the southern U.S. border, deporting all illegal residents at an estimated cost of $200 billion -- deepened a rift between the Republicans and the Latino bloc that, until recent years, could be counted on for support in the voting booth. That was then. Today? No mas.

But even in defeat, this fighter will have people shouting his name at ringside. For all his vicious looniness, Tancredo leaves ‘em screaming.



Roberto Lovato, writing on AlterNet, understands: “Viewed from the vantage point of recent political history, Tancredo's wild and often wacky political journey has taken him from being a relatively unknown young David to become a more seasoned leader, a King David of immigration politics who will continue to exercise power far beyond the humbler days when he was a lone voice crying in the anti-immigrant wilderness of the GOP. …

“While Republican candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire and other primary states will no longer find themselves in a campaign in which they ‘try to out-Tancredo Tancredo,’ political ads and debate sound bites chock full of ‘get-tough on immigrants’ rhetoric may well prevail beyond the primaries. That Tancredo has helped turn mainstream what was formerly right-wing fringe is clear …”



Tancredo lost this bout in a TKO: While the fighter was still upright when he threw in the towel, he was battered by the exigencies of American politics, and by misinterpreting the sheer weight of the populism he’d been counting on. With Americans only giving him lip service on the immigration issue, and not advancing his fortunes either with more robust fundraising or a rise in the opinion polls over the 11 months of his campaign, Tancredo has discovered (however reluctant he is to admit it) just how narrow his base of support really was.

For his supporters, it’s back to the drawing board to find a more viable candidate who can champion the immigration issue. For his detractors, it’s an early Christmas present, one they’d no doubt accept with a parting shot: Gracias, Tomas. No permita el golpe de puerta usted en el asno en su salida.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

“Gordon Gekko, NBC News”

The New Voice of NBC News! NBC News anchor Brian Williams teased viewers with it the week before. And tonight’s broadcast featured the debut of a voice Williams said we’d recognize. Sure enough, popping up just over the John Williams theme song, you heard it: “From NBC world headquarters in New York, this is NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.”

But this wasn’t the clarion voice of a veteran newsman or statesman or former president. This was the voice of a detective with an obsession. This was the voice of Gordon Gekko, the unscrupulous financier who launched a thousand subordinated-debt transactions in "Wall Street." This was the voice of Michael Douglas.

It was hard to wrap the mind around it, at first. In some ways it still is. And it signals a change for NBC News, though the meaning of that change – in reporting, public perception, communication style — is anyone’s guess.

We might have guessed something was up when, weeks earlier, Brian Williams made a big deal on the air about the new Nightly News set, acting for anything like a kid who couldn’t wait for Christmas to open the presents. That set was unveiled on a Monday, and included a monstrously high-tech desk, a beast of blue and brushed silver ready for double duty on the set of “Star Trek IX: Wrath of the Anchorman.”

Then there was his better-than-expected appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” which included a skit on changes to the Nightly News opening. Talk about foreshadowing.

You can hardly blame Douglas. It wouldn’t be the first time a network has linked its reputation to the sound of a voice. For years you couldn’t find daylight between CNN and the voice of James Earl Jones in the public mind. Douglas had the opportunity to hitch his voice’s wagon to something that is, finally, a service rather than a product. The information and entertainment that are at the core of NBC’s identity dovetail nicely with Douglas’ public persona.

It’s not such a stretch as, say, Gene Hackman’s longtime role as the voice of Lowe’s Home Improvement and Oppenheimer Funds, or Kevin Spacey representing the Honda Accord, or Jeff Bridges moving Duracell batteries (a year or so after a stint as the voice of Weyerhauser).

That’s the way NBC rolls. Score one for Douglas. But still. With the rollout of NBC’s new voice, we’re unconsciously invited to make a comparison between the signal broadcast television journalist of our time famed for a perfect signature line – “And that’s the way it is” — and an Oscar-winning actor-producer just as famous for another, more unfortunate avatar of the culture: “Greed is good.”

You wonder if NBC brass thought of that.

Williams apparently appealed to the actor's sense of history. "I appealed to Michael's sense of romance and sentimentality and his love of the industry," Williams told USA Today on Tuesday. "I called him and said, 'On top of all you've done as an actor, producer and Academy Award winner, this will mean a small slice of immortality in our industry. It also means wherever you are on Earth, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, you'll know your voice is on the air.'"

Clearly, at NBC … things have changed. The torch has been passed to a new generation of network executives smudging the already-blurry line between journalism and entertainment. “We’re in the boredom-killing business!” fictional network anchor Howard Beale screamed from the rooftops in “Network,” more than 30 years ago. Maybe Beale (or more properly “Network” author Paddy Chayefsky) was right.

Meanwhile, Rosie O’Donnell is said to be working on a little something for ABC.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Oprahbama!

Pop culture and politics hooked up again yesterday. It was just one of them things, a short-term fling much like others in the past. But when Oprah Winfrey appeared at campaign events for Barack Obama in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, it was more than a media marriage of convenience. In her first pitch for a candidate, Oprah put her vast marketing and publicity machine at the disposal of a presidential aspirant -- effectively making herself, however briefly, an arm of the campaign, the first credible bid by an African American for the White House.

The Oprahbama show kicked off Dec. 8 in Iowa, where 18,000 people attended an electric rally at the U.S. Cellular Center in Des Moines. "For the very first time in my life, I feel compelled to stand up and speak out for the man who I believe has a new vision for America," said Oprah, who announced her support for the Obama campaign in May -- support backed up with a $3 million fundraising effort in September.



The next day Oprahbama hit South Carolina, with a tumultuous rally at William Bryce Football Stadium in Columbia. "For the first time, I'm stepping out of my pew because I've been inspired," Winfrey said. "I've been inspired to believe that a new vision is possible for America. Dr King dreamed the dream. But we don't have to just dream the dream anymore. We get to vote that dream into reality," she told the crowd of -- believe it -- about 30,000 people at the site, a second location for the rally after demand for tickets outstripped available space at the first venue choice.

Later on Sunday, about 8,000 people filled about half of the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H., for a taste of the rock & roll-style whistlestop. "Ain't you tired of the old way of politics?" Winfrey asked. "Yes!" the crowd roared back.



Whether this rapid-fire exercise in campaign appearances was successful depends, of course, on perspective. It beat the hell out of the star power summoned by a campaign stop by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who appeared with her mother and her daughter, Chelsea -- stars of lesser magnitude.

And Oprah is a goddess of daytime TV, and most popular among white women older than 55; they comprise 40 percent of her audience, according to Nielsen Media Research. Of her 7.6 million daily viewers, 78 percent are white and 18 percent are black, Nielsen found. It's perfectly conceivable that some of Oprah's downhome, accessible luster may well rub off on a candidate who, despite his current broadening appeal, still has a wonkish aspect many Americans can't emotionally get their hearts around.

But there's also a question of what's really gained. Mark Halperin of Time magazine makes the not insubstantial point that the embarassment of riches Oprah bestows on Obama amounts to so much coals-to-Newcastle. "Winfrey's endorsement ... helps bring the following four things to Obama: campaign cash, celebrity, excitement and big crowds.

"The four things that Obama has on his own in great abundance — without Winfrey's help — are campaign cash, celebrity, excitement and big crowds."



Others in the punditocracy have again brought out the E word -- electable -- which long been thrown at the Obama campaign, basically another way of suggesting that Obama is too young, too fresh-faced for the presidency, a man with not enough fat under his chin or enough experience in Washington to be a credible commander-in-chief. This collective wisdom assails Obama, claiming that "the presidency is no place for on-the-job training." Such arguments conveniently disregard the fact that, unless you've done it before, there is no job like the presidency but the presidency -- that in every meaningful respect, on-the-job training for the most powerful job in the world is less an option than a necessity.

With scant weeks left before the first caucuses, and the downtime all the campaigners, Democrat and Republican, have quietly agreed to during the Christmas holidays, it's anyone's guess how Oprahbama will translate to actual votes.

There's a lot of chinpulling left to be done, and endorsements by the various newspapers could make a difference. On Saturday the Des Moines Register editorial board endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton for the caucus.

"Who is best prepared to confront the enormous challenges the nation faces — from ending the Iraq war to shoring up America’s middle class to confronting global climate change?" The Register asked.

"The job requires a president who not only understands the changes needed to move the country forward but also possesses the discipline and skill to navigate the reality of the resistant Washington power structure to get things done," the Register said. "That candidate is New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Stardust is a fickle thing -- it lands briefly on someone's shoulder before it drifts away in the cultural wind, only to turn up somewhere else on someone else. Obama has been gaining ground steadily on his own; it's open to debate whether the glitter under the wheels of the Obama campaign bus gives him more traction, or takes it away.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The other Hollywood writers

We’ve seen them for more than six weeks now, the famous and the relatively unknown, Hollywood writers and the celebrities they write for, walking the picket lines in Los Angeles, carrying the red-and-black signs announcing the Writers Guild of America’s strike against the major TV and motion picture studios.

The strike has snarled plans for the upcoming TV season, the Golden Globe awards and, possibly, the Oscars (a Hollywood institution that depends on writers like no other).

The last such strike, in 1988, lasted just shy of six months, and cost the U.S. entertainment industry about $500 million, according to Agence France-Presse.

But another storyline has gone pretty much undeveloped, and it’s one that speaks to many of the issues that the writers are striking about: Fairness. Equal treatment. Access to the ability to earn a living. It’s a compelling backstory, but it’s one about the Hollywood writers that we never hear much about.

Before the big walkout started on Nov. 5, the WGA was itself under fire for its treatment of women and minority writers. A May report commissioned by the WGA West found that, except for female TV writers, women and minority writers haven’t made much headway in gaining fair employment and earnings in Hollywood.

The report, subtitled “Whose Stories Are We Telling?” was written by Darnell Hunt, the director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, and a professor of sociology at UCLA. Hunt also wrote a report on the same issue for the WGA in 2005.

For minority writers, it’s the same old song: meager progress and slim hopes for advancement in their profession.

“While there have been some noteworthy advances made by women and minority writers on certain measures, in certain sectors, and at certain companies, there are few signs that the overarching industry dominance of white and male writers is easing to any significant degree,” Hunt wrote.

Hunt finds that minority representation in television employment has declined, while representation in feature film production has remained flat.

"More than 30% of the American population is nonwhite, yet writers of color continue to account for less than 10% of employed television writers," said Hunt, in the report executive summary. "These numbers will likely get worse before they get better because of the recent merger of UPN and the WB into the new CW network, which resulted in the cancellation of several minority-themed situation comedies that employed a disproportionate share of minority television writers.

"The situation is grimmer in film," he added, "where the minority share of employment has been stuck at 6% for years."

There’s less than welcome news for older writers as well. “{T]he employment share for the largest group of older writers has remained flat in recent years, and older writers are significantly underrepresented on television show staffs, particularly at the major networks,” Hunt writes in the report.

"This year's report has a familiar ring to it," WGA president Patric Verrone wrote in the introduction. "While there have been some advances made by women and minorities in some sectors, white male writers continue to be a disproportionately dominant portion of the writing work force."

“For minority writers, past trends showing gains have either slowed or stopped altogether,” Verrone wrote.

Meanwhile, there’s a good chance of things getting more confrontational between Hollywood creatives and the industry, on this and other employee issues, before they get better. Alex Nogales, CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, has asked the Writers Guild to make diversity progress a goal in its negotiations. The guild starts talks in July for a new film and TV contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) – this while the current strike against the studios continues with no end in sight.

As reported by the Hollywood Reporter, WGAW diversity director Kimberly Myers boiled it all down at a May 8 panel discussion at WGAW headquarters in Los Angeles announcing the report, expressing the situation that’s confronting Hollywood’s writers and American media in general, from newspapers to editorial Web sites, and everything in between: "The stories we tell are only as diverse as the writers who tell them."
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Image credit: Replysixty > released to public domain

Saturday, December 8, 2007

For Latinos, the gusano turns

A new poll reports a shift in political attitudes we might have seen coming from a long way off: No doubt because of the corrosive effects of conservative attitudes on illegal immigration, Hispanic American voters are expressing, in double digits, more of a preference for Democrats than Republicans in the next presidential election — eleven months from now.

“The 2007 National Survey of Latinos shows that the gains that the Republican Party had been making this decade in partisan affiliation among Latinos have dissipated in the past year,” said the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.

The survey of registered Hispanic voters by Pew found that they favor Democrats by 57 percent to 23 percent. That advantage for the Democrats has widened since July 2006, when the Pew group found a 21-point difference.

It gets worse for the GOP: Pew found that 41 percent of Hispanic voters found the policies of the Bush administration were harmful, compared to 16 percent who found those policies helpful. Forty-one percent said the Democrats were handling the immigration issue more capably, compared to 14 percent who said the same of Republicans.

That’s a shift in voter preference that’s been suspected anecdotally for some time; the new Pew data makes it more than just idle speculation.

What’s to be seen is how it translates to actual turnout. An earlier study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that while Hispanics accounted for half the nation's population growth between the 2000 and 2004 elections, they accounted for just one-tenth of the increase in the votes cast.

The more recent Pew survey suggests that historical non-appearance at the polls is likely to change – powered in no small part by the rising attention to the immigration issue as championed by Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo in his divisive and xenophobic presidential campaign, which didn’t begin until months after the earlier Pew study was released.


That likely jump in voter participation isn’t a guess, either: the latest Pew survey, using Census Bureau statistics from this September, and extrapolating from voter behavior in the 2004 vote, estimated that 8.6 million Hispanic voters will turn out in 2008 – an increase of 1 million over 2004.

From the survey: “Hispanics loom as a potential "swing vote" in next year's presidential race. That's because they are strategically located on the 2008 Electoral College map. Hispanics constitute a sizable share of the electorate in four of the six states that President Bush carried by margins of five percentage points or fewer in 2004 –New Mexico (where Hispanics make up 37% of state's eligible electorate); Florida (14%); Nevada (12%) and Colorado (12%). All four are expected to be closely contested once again in 2008.”

For the Republican Party … these are the stakes: To redeem themselves with the fastest-growing minority group in America, already 46 million strong; to start the process of wooing a voting bloc repudiated by conservative ideologues; and to start undoing the serious damage done. If the Pew report is an indicator of what happens next year, the GOP’s efforts would be best started now — to help their chances in 2012.

Image credits: Top: Cesar Bojourquez > Flckr > Licensed under Ceative Commons Attribution 2.5 > Wikipedia. Lower: Andy Thayer > released to public domain

Monday, November 26, 2007

Thompson hounds the Fox

Fred Thompson got all up in Fox News Channel’s business on Sunday. On “Fox News Sunday,” Host Chris Wallace got a taste of what happens when you face down the man who played the DA on “Law & Order.”

Wallace was engaging Thompson on his dismal showing in the latest polls, and Wallace used commentary by conservative columnist (and Fox News check-casher) Charles Krauthammer and Weekly Standard executive editor (and Fox News check-casher) Fred Barnes to make the point that Thompson’s campaign seemed to be adrift, losing steam – and Republican support — at the worst possible time.

References were also made to a CNN/WMUR poll that showed Thompson’s support in New Hampshire had collapsed to 4 percent, putting him in sixth place among the Republican presidential hopefuls.

Reacting to what was clearly an attempt to blindside the candidate with a blizzard of negatives from his own party, Thompson objected to Wallace’s use of the two previously mentioned Fox News shills to make the point of Thompson’s having a lackluster campaign. Objected loudly, in language that deserves to be read verbatim:

THOMPSON: “...for you to highlight nothing but the negatives in terms of the polls and then put on your own guys who have been predicting for four months, really, that I couldn't do it, kind of skews things a little bit. There's a lot of other opinion out there."

WALLACE: Do you know anybody who thinks you've run a great campaign, sir?

THOMPSON: It's not for me to come here and try to convince you that somebody else thinks that I've run a great campaign.

WALLACE: Well, but that's why I —

THOMPSON: I'm talking about — no, let me ask you —

WALLACE: — I'm just asking you the question.



THOMPSON: When you get past New Hampshire and look at some of these other states — states that I'm leading in in the South, for example — and straw polls that I've won, endorsements that I've got — I've got more endorsements in the state of Georgia than all the other candidates put together. So I understand the game of buildup and I understand the game of takedown. And we all go through it. And I'm perfectly willing for you to do that with regard to me as you do the other candidates.

WALLACE: I was going to say, senator —

THOMPSON: But you have the right to put in your one side, and put in the Fox side, and I have the right to respond to it. And thankfully, you've given me that opportunity.

WALLACE: I was going to say, senator, I'm glad I asked the question, because I got a heck of an answer.

Wallace did indeed. Thompson's was the kind of combative reply you’d expect from a Democrat going up against Fox’s right-wing ideologues, an answer that laid bare Fox News’ penchant for attack-dog inquiry.

Thompson may not win the nomination, but his appearance Sunday makes it clear he’s not going gentle into this good night. He’s strong enough to stand up on his own hind legs and cry “foul!” when he thinks the media isn’t playing fair -- even the media that's historically on his side. Game, set and match to the former senator from Tennessee.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Black like us

Cultural flamethrower and hanging judge Stanley Crouch’s indictment-by-origin of Barack Obama in the Nov. 2 New York Daily News suffers from an obvious myopia about how history gives way to the present day, how old ancestral conflicts resurface in the reflexes of the moment, how and shared historical heritage isn't necessarily as convincing a determinant of commonality as shared contemporary experience is.

In one of the most corrosive comments made concerning Obama's ethnicity, Crouch writes that Obama's bona fides as a black man are suspect. "After all, Obama's mother is of white U.S. stock. His father is a black Kenyan. Other than color, Obama did not - does not - share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves."

"So when black Americans refer to Obama as 'one of us,' I do not know what they are talking about."

What they are talking about is something besides history, that series of cascading antecedent events you can't do anything about. Most black Americans aren’t engaging with Obama and his ever-widening presidential campaign at the level of his personal history – his birth and childhood being events he had no control over; his heritage, like our own, a fact of life at the innocent, vulnerable outset of life. African Americans have been, apparently like Crouch, long plagued with retroactive vision, an insistence of looking back instead of looking forward. This tragic misdirection of vision has its legacy in everything from the rate of incarceration for young black men to the continued decline of African American health.

What Obama proposes, and what many Americans embrace him for, is taking nothing less than the risk of the courage, the nerve — yes, the audacity — to look ahead, not because of our history but in spite of it. The themes of his campaign call for working past the usual pressure points, intraracial and interracial, and to see the things we do have in common – both as Americans and, more privately, more personally, as African Americans.

Crouch’s focus on the candidate’s historical origins is one from a purely academic perspective, an abstract vision of clarity from the world of ivy walls. For Obama's black supporters down on the ground, it’s another story. At least once in the campaign, Obama related that he was passed up a cab driver in New York -- an experience once common in the city. Notwithstanding the fact that such snubs don't happen that much there anymore, when Obama was passed up by that cab driver (who may have gone down the street and picked up a white passenger instead) – guess what? That’s the level of discrimination too many black Americans still encounter, to varying degrees, every day. In that everyday respect, Barack Obama is very much black like black America.

Black Americans still very much still share what Crouch calls “a common body of injustices” with people around the world. Blacks in Mexico and Latin America continue to face discrimination based on skin color, and people of color are routinely targeted for hate crimes in countries from Russia to Germany. Taken as a whole – from Obama deprived of a taxicab to racially motivated slights and attacks – black Americans have a common cause with black people worldwide, obvious without speaking, as plain as the faces we wear, the ancestry we share, and the popular culture we permanently embody. Palestinian teenagers wear basketball jerseys with Shaquille O’Neal’s number. A little boy sprints around the bazaar in Tangier on market day wearing a Michael Jackson T-shirt. Will Smith is a global box-office phenomenon. Years after his last fight, Muhammad Ali is still one of the most recognized, and revered, people on this planet.

Around the world, people want to be black like us. Not black like you, Mr. Crouch. Not even black like Barack Obama. They want to be black like black America.

When that cab driver passed Barack Obama, do you think the driver considered the ancestral origins of the man on the curb before screeching away? No. Hell no. He wasn’t thinking about ancestry, he was reacting to the color of the man hailing that cab. And that’s the world where most black Americans live today – a world that understands, in ways both positive and poisonous, that we have much in common even when we think we have little in common.

To start down the slippery slope of intraracial divisions, to play the old game of blacker-than-thou -- only the slightest variation on the “paper-bag” rule common to some blacks at the turn of the 20th century, that cotillion "Our Crowd" set who used the color of a paper bag to decide who their friends were within the race -- is to jump back into the worst kind of divisiveness, a divide-and-conquer behavior that is truly counterproductive.

Obama’s campaign is succeeding precisely because for many Americans it represents the first real, credible, quantifiable opportunity for attitudinal change in American government perhaps since the presidential campaigns of either John or Robert Kennedy, and certainly since the 1992 Clinton campaign. That that groundswell of support should be in the service of an African American candidate is, for his supporters, so much the better. His campaign ratifies the possible truth of the American promise, the American trademark: Everybody gets at least a shot at the brass ring. Even a brother with a last name that’s not from the Social Register, or the log books of slaveholders in the American South.

If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee in 2008, it will be a milestone step toward a reframing of America’s long and agonizing dance with race and identity. Many hurdles remain, not the least of them being the challenges of telling black Americans that in the everyday world his experience as a black American is similar to their own. Identical would be too much to ask for, Mr. Crouch. There's diversity within singularity.
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Image credit: Crouch: Jewishworldreview.com

Monday, November 12, 2007

The life of our time

Norman Mailer -- the “presumptive general” of American letters, bibulous provocateur, showman, existentialist, misogynist, wannabe mayor, and lover of women, essayist, journalist, novelist, playwright, director, six times a husband and nine times a father, author of more than 30 books and burr under many complacent saddles of American life, died Nov. 10, of renal failure at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, at the age of 84.

With his passing, American literature has lost perhaps the greatest literary exponent of that “greatest generation” Tom Brokaw has championed – and every generation since. His was the life of our time.

In a career that spanned just short of sixty years, he threw light – often raw and interrogation-brilliant, sometimes refracted through the prism of a formidable ego – into a multitude of America’s hidden corners.

The phrase “presumptive general” fit its subject perfectly. All we ever really knew about him was a consequence of conflict. It informed our first understanding of who Mailer was. His debut novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” a fictionalization of a patrol experience in the Pacific theater of the war, was published in 1948, and remained No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list for 11 straight weeks.

He constantly harangued with the press as his prodigious output continued. Works that followed were variously attempts to reveal some deeper, inner precincts of the human experience, including sex, power, and the third-rail issue for our American time, race -- or attempts to extrapolate the turmoil and chaos of his own life to the tumult of his times.

He stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife in 1960. He arm-wrestled with Muhammad Ali in 1965. While filming “Maidstone” in 1968, he bit off part of Rip Torn’s ear after Torn reportedly attacked him with a hammer.

Mailer was on point for some of the pivotal protest events of the Vietnam War era, including the 1967 march on the Pentagon (resulting in “The Armies of the Night” and his first Pulitzer Prize) and the 1968 Republican convention, an assignment for Esquire that led to “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.” His style had evolved amid the battles of the day -- the Times’ Charles McGrath described it as “bold, poetic, metaphysical, even shamanistic.”

If his delivery was evolving, so too were his interests. “Of a Fire on the Moon,” initially an assignment for Life magazine, became a book on the 1969 U.S. moon landing. “King of the Hill” was a short but arresting reportage of the second Ali-Joe Frazier fight.

His writings would come over the years to ricochet around history, from “Ancient Evenings,” his ambitious novel on ancient Egypt, to “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” a hard-boiled detective story, from “Marilyn,” a coffeetable appreciation of Marilyn Monroe as pop-culture archetype to the book generally regarded as his best – “The Executioner’s Song,” his deeply-felt, passionately-drawn study of the life of murderer Gary Gilmore, for which Mailer won his second Pulitzer Prize.

In 1991 the novel “Harlot’s Ghost” ventured the Central Intelligence Agency as a kind of postwar government secret society, a clandestine cross of MI6 and the Vatican. A biography of Picasso was issued in 1995; in 1997 he published “The Gospel According to the Son,” a first-person novel about Jesus.

There was vast sweep and unquenchable interest. But Michiko Kakutani, a frequent antagonist and writing Nov. 10 in the International Herald Tribune, regretted Mailer’s inability to write some hypothetical Big One, doing so in language that let death awaken no sympathy.



“Instead of writing a great Tolstoyan novel about America that would "speak to one's time" and capture the social and political pulse of the nation, he increasingly produced tendentious novels that were scaffolds for his eccentric, sometimes perverse ideas about violence and sex and power, what he once called "the mysteries of murder, suicide, incest, orgy, orgasm and Time."

Mailer has been accused of literary prostitution, of cranking out books more motivated by compensation than by inspiration. But the accusations seem mean-spirited and out of character with people who would truly understand the process of literature. Never mind that he needed the money, most writers can relate to that. But Mailer’s diversity of topic, of the focus on his creative and emotional lens at any given time, must eventually reflect a diversity of mind, if a thematically scattered one.

To accuse him of enduring hubris and self-importance about his writing and his role in the wider national life is to finally accuse every writer of having nothing more or less than ambition. What major leaguer with any self-respect doesn’t want to swing for the fences every time he steps to the plate? What heavyweight champion in mothballs doesn’t harbor the dream of one more fight?

Somehow, in his embrace of combat was our own. Charles McGrath, writing in the Times, described him, fairly, it must be said, as “an all-purpose feuder and short-fused brawler, who with the slightest provocation would happily engage in head-butting, arm-wrestling and random punch-throwing. Boxing obsessed him and inspired some of his best writing. Any time he met a critic or a reviewer, even a friendly one, he would put up his fists and drop into a crouch.”

In the 1970s it was combat with feminists and proponents of women’s liberation. In the celebrated raucous April 1971 debate with “The Female Eunuch” author Germain Greer, he declared himself an “enemy of birth control.”



At times his provocations seemed less based in any serious differences on feminine issues, and more the willful exercise, like the child who pulls the wing off a fly just to see what happens. Sometimes to riotous result:

At the University of Colorado, just after beginning a speaking engagement in 1973, he called on the women in the audience – angry proponents of women’s liberation, then in its heyday as a social movement -- to “hiss me resoundingly.” When the women complied, Mailer replied with a perfect timing. “Thank you, obedient little bitches,” he said.



Maybe, Gore Vidal once seemed to suggest, it was showmanship for its own sake. Vidal, one of Mailer’s more storied and frequent antagonists, once wrote: “Mailer is forever shouting at us that he is about to tell us something we must know or has just told us something revelatory and we failed to hear him or that he will, God grant his poor abused brain and body just one more chance, get through to us so that we will know. Each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells. Yet of all my contemporaries I retain the greatest affection for Norman as a force and as an artist. He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements.”

For all his eccentricities, he seemed to remain hard-wired to shifts not of the public mood, but of the public psyche. In 1984 Mailer was the main force in bringing together writers for a conference, “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State,” perhaps sensing even then (two years into Reagan America) the value in discussing the divergence of imagination in the two vast spheres of public life.

Speaking in an interview with Andrew O’Hagan at the New York Public Library in June 2007 -- well into the era of 9/11, this time that has rattled America’s sense of its own existence -- Mailer expressed what far too many Americans seem to feel these days: a sense of loving but almost fatalistic resignation to the quirks and volatilities of the one you can never leave. “In a certain sense, I’ve been angry at America most of the years of my life, but I’ve always been in love with America in the oddest fashion. … In other words, one’s country is one’s mate.”



And for writers, the practitioners of a solitary craft, one of his valedictory comments, shortly before his passing, is troubling – or damn well should be.

“I think the novel is on the way out,” Mailer said. “I also believe, because it’s natural to take one’s own occupation more seriously than others, that the world may be the less for that.”

Setting aside the possibility of that comment as his outsize ego’s parting shot – “When I’m gone, it’s all over” – it’s perhaps better to reach for the deeper point he made, one consistent with his philosophy as well as his observations: that in a relentless 24/7 age of instant communication – witness the blogs and message board we speak through at this moment – the novel may call on powers of rumination and reflection that are rapidly dissipating; nuance, shading and personality are flattened to accommodate a growing impatience; the subtleties of the tale are subject to abbreviation based not on its own substance but on our quickly vanishing time in which to absorb it.

Today, the story is too easily storyboarded. For the way we would communicate the texture and nuance of our traditions, our cultures, our values and dreams, there can be no clearer warning than that.



He did not go quietly. Mailer was a bitter foe of the Bush White House, condemning the weaponized misnomers of the administration in the furtherance of various Bush initiatives, particularly the war in Iraq.

He took on the Bush administration with the same brio as in his heyday, when he sparred with Johnson and Nixon for the inanities of their respective White House tenures. In 2007 he called George Bush “[t]he worst president in America’s history. He’s ignorant, he’s arrogant, he’s stupid in all ways but one, which is he’s immensely shrewd about the American people, particularly the less intelligent half of America.”

But for the most part, in his later years he was less a brawler than a champion in his winter, weighing in with pronouncements justifiably but reliably more mandarin in sparsity and style with every passing year.

The Times’ Charles McGrath captured perfectly the bearded, emeritus Mailer, recalling “something he had said at the National Book Award ceremony in 2005, when he was given a lifetime achievement award: that he felt like an old coachmaker who looks with horror at the turn of the 20th century, watching automobiles roar by with their fumes.”

In “The Spooky Art,” his 2003 cut-and-paste catalog of mea culpas, and a reckoning of the literal performance of his art and his craft, Mailer offers another telling aspect of his philosophy, a gauntlet throwdown, a valedictory and a summation of his life as durable for a headstone as for history itself.

“[H]e has had the courage to be bold where others might cry insanity.”

That our epitaphs should be the same.

So long Norman. Requiscat in pace, Nachem Malek.

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Photograph by Carl Van Vechten

Friday, November 9, 2007

Losing Facebook?

The wildly successful online social network Facebook has a new advertising platform that presumes to get its 52 million members to embrace “conversational” marketing, making them so many walking extensions of brands of advertising, getting those members to discuss various products with their friends, virally spreading the advertisers’ message.

The new strategy announced on Nov. 7, in an event hosted by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg (pictured), bids to let advertisers reach prospective customers on pages that let those members become “fans” of a product. Another component of the new strategy, dubbed Beacon, lets marketers send Facebook members alerts when a new product is being discussed by the Facebookers’ friends. Powerful companies like Verizon, Conde Nast and Coca-Cola have already signed on.

“The whole aim,” reports Mark Walsh of Online Media Daily, “is to turn Facebook users into product endorsers who can spread brand messages virally through their online connections.”

But for all the hoopla accompanying big advertising’s entrée to the “social graph” that is Facebook’s singular niche in the world of commuication, Facebook may have overlooked something fundamental about its own community – a cultural distinction that could short-circuit marketers’ best-storyboarded plans.

There’s no denying that the Facebook strategy could be a boon to advertisers increasingly eager to target potential customers in their native habitat. Advertisers online are relentlessly exploring new ways of demographic, contextual and behavioral targeting, the better to sell their products to people who actually want them. For them, the Internet is fertile territory; the market research firm eMarketer reported recently that ad dollars continue to migrate to the Web, expected to top $21 billion in 2008.

But Facebook’s eager appeal to marketers gives some of its 52 million members cause for concern.

One matter has to do with the pertinence of the brand to the Facebook user’s lifestyle spend. For the untried brand – the company hoping to stretch beyond its usual demographic – it could well be seen as a transparent bid for attention, with none of the necessary understanding of the desires of the consumer in question. Charles Rosen, founding partner of Amalgamated ad agency, may have got it right in the Online Media Daily story. "If a marketer isn't already projecting itself as a meaningful brand with a distinct message, then going on Facebook isn't going to help."

Another thing already concerning some in the blogosphere has to do with privacy – an old issue for Facebook. In September 2006, the social site made a misstep when it introduced News Feed, a feature intended to reveal everything members did on the site, from declaring a favorite song to the process of adding or subtracting friends contacted on the site -- bird-dogging members’ movements in a fashion some said was straight out of Orwell.

“The outrage was enormous,” reported Bruce Schneier that month in Wired News. “One group, Students Against Facebook News Feeds, amassed over 700,000 members. Members planned to protest at the company's headquarters. Facebook's founder was completely stunned, and the company scrambled to add some privacy options.”

What Wired News characterized as “the Facebook riots” was an object lesson for Facebook, which discovered ways in which privacy was, and remains, the third-rail issue for many of its members.

Does Beacon create a new privacy issue? Is the new Facebook initiative different enough from the “News Feed” goof to prevent members from feeling violated again?

True, the Beacon feature gives members the choice of opting out of the interaction with advertisers. But one suspects that Facebook’s newest flirtation with marketers will be seen as a betrayal of sorts.

Consider the Facebook demographic. The site, begun as a networking project among Harvard students in early 2004, still has a majority of its users who are very young, despite inroads with an older audience. The Wall Street Journal reports the average Facebooker is all of 21. One blogger, citing graphs charting the ages of Facebook users at two universities (Connecticut College and MIT), pegged the age of the average Facebooker as between 15 and 26 years old.

Those are the years of independence and willful rebellion, of sticking a finger in the eye of anything that moves, of all kinds of activities meant to frustrate all kinds of authority figures. Like corporations and advertisers with deep pockets.

What if Facebook users decide not to play ball? Some part of the latest Facebook strategy will no doubt depend on contextual targeting. Say if a Facebook member writes to another member something about the iPod. Tipped off by the word “iPod,” the Beaconized message received by the second member from the first member may well contain the Apple logo and a link to the Apple home page for news or a sales message about the portable music device.

But what if the Facebooker writing the first message decides to deliberately frustrate the Beacon feature – describing the iPod as an “eye-A od-pay,” invoking pig Latin or some other coded language (“Jobs machine,” “portapoddy”), as a way to thwart the marketer’s contextual connection? No context engine is that good.

Is that a stretch? Maybe. Since Facebook’s Beacon feature is intended to be voluntary, anyone who agrees to use the Beacon service may well not mind linkages to the products and brands offered by marketers. But the potential for such benign mischief is certainly there.

Now as always, the Internet is happily populated by mavericks and iconoclasts of all stripes, many of whom delight in frustrating the best intentions of major corporations – the better, in their minds, to keep the Internet on the frontier of electronic freedom.

One of the early appeals of Facebook was its unruly, renegade nature – the very essence of the viral online experience that users may feel is, to one degree or another, being commoditized away. Zuckerberg & Co. may not have considered a main reason for Facebook’s phenomenal success: its status as a sanctuary from advertising, a place to go to get away from marketers and advertisers, not to be subjected to a new way of being hounded by them.

Facebook’s new venture may have the intent of furthering the conversation between members of a community, and widening that community to include sellers of products the community wants. But there’s a thin line between opening the bazaar to salesmen and being a salesman yourself.
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Photo credit: This photo is released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license.
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Update: MediaPost reporter Wendy Davis writes on Nov. 9 about another issue for Facebook: “[R]eal questions have surfaced about whether the [new Facebook ad platform] program is even legal. … The problem, according to University of Minnesota Law School professor William McGeveran, is that a 104-year-old New York law prohibits advertisers from using photos, drawings or other likenesses of people without their written permission. Courts in other states as well have held that people can sue when photos or drawings of them are used in ads without their consent.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Blowin' with the wind

In a story published yesterday, The New York Times notes something we’ve quietly observed for about a year now: that the MSNBC cable channel has shifted in its willingness to take on the Bush administration, with some of its more popular chat hosts going after the administration as reliably and automatically as the Fox News Channel is ready to praise that administration to the skies.

Emboldened by consistently high ratings for “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” a program whose host, Keith Olbermann, has sought to take on the role of a latter-day Edward R. Murrow in confronting the Bushies on just about everything, MSNBC is now even entertaining the idea of giving unrepentant madcap leftie Rosie O’Donnell her own prime-time show. If it happens, O’Donnell would join Olbermann and Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” as on-air champions of the left.


Longtime viewers of MSNBC will note that it wasn’t that long ago that Phil Donahue, another chat host with a decidedly left-leaning agenda, was cashiered from the network – ostensibly because of poor ratings, but possibly as a result of reaction by MSNBC brass, who issued an internal memo ordering Donahue’s dismissal for being out of step with America’s then-mostly hawkish sentiments about the Iraq war.

“He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives,” the memo read in part. The memo, leaked to the All Your TV Web site, warned that Donahue’s program could be "a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Maybe Donahue was just a victim of bad geopolitical timing. Since his dismissal in February 2003, the U.S.-led war effort has endured a steadily increasing death toll, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, controversies about cowboy contractors killing unarmed civilians, financial oversights, and growing concerns about the role of Iran in the conflict and political instability in neighboring Pakistan. All strong reasons for a shift in popular sentiment about the war, and for reporting sensitive to that shift.

Whatever the specific reasons, it’s been clear for many months – certainly since the midterm elections last year -- that MSNBC feels more confident about taking on the administration, with increasingly confrontational questions for its apologists and excusers. MSNBC is clearly moving with the populist tide.

“[W]hether by design or not, MSNBC is managing to add viewers at a moment when its hosts echo the country’s disaffection with President Bush,” The Times reported yesterday.

For sure. The Times reported that “Tucker,” the early-prime-time program hosted by the tireless administration apologist Tucker Carlson, is in danger of cancellation, according to an NBC jefe who spoke to the Times under cloak of anonymity.

Even Joe Scarborough, the one-time Florida congressman who retooled himself for cable television and was once the host of MSNBC’s nakedly conservative “Scarborough Country,” has lately had a change of heart, if not of political temperament.


“I’m just as conservative as I was in 1994, when everyone was calling me a right-wing nut,” Scarborough told The Times. “I think the difference is the Republican Party leaders, a lot of them, have run a bloated government, have been corrupt, and have gone a very, very long way from what we were trying to do in 1994. Also, the Republican Party has just been incompetent.”

Whether MSNBC’s new left-leaning perspective continues is anyone’s guess. The network still trails Fox in the ratings, and any military breakthrough stemming from the U.S. troop escalation early this year – if Osama bin Laden is discovered hiding in a spider hole somewhere in the Hindu Kush – might make MSNBC execs rethink the newfound liberal slant of their programming.

For now, though, MSNBC is riding this ninth ninth wave of popular opinion as far as it can. A prime-time show for Cindy Sheehan may not be far behind.
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Phil Donahue photo by Alan Light

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Law & Order: Blindsided Candidate

Fred Thompson’s new series is well underway, but this one doesn’t depend on the outcome of the negotiations with Hollywood writers, set to strike at the stroke of midnight over their share of profits from DVD sales. The latecomer to the presidential campaign has had to address a series of issues raised in a story in The Washington Post, focusing on Philip Martin, a Thompson campaign adviser and close friend, who has had a personal past distinctly at odds with Republican sensibilities, and, uh, the law.

Since June, Martin, a businessman and one of the four co-chairmen of Thompson’s floundering campaign, has been ferrying the candidate to campaign appearances around the country in his twin-engine Cessna 560 Citation, saving the campaign an estimated $100,000 in costs, fully in accordance with Federal Election Commission rules then in place, but costing the campaign in another way.

The Post reported that Martin pleaded guilty to selling 11 pounds of marijuana to an undercover Florida police detective in 1979, but the court withheld judgment pending completion of probation. In 1983, Martin was charged with violating probation and multiple counts of bookmaking, cocaine trafficking and conspiracy, again in Florida. He pleaded no contest to the cocaine-trafficking and conspiracy charges, and got probation.

Chung-chung!

Damage control has begun. Karen Hanretty, Thompson's deputy communications director, told The Post on Saturday that "Senator Thompson was unaware of the information until this afternoon. Phil Martin has been a friend of the senator since the mid-1990s and remains so today."

Thompson communications director Todd Harris chimed in, adding that Martin was apparently exempted from the campaign's usual process of vetting key advisers because "he's a longtime friend."

"There's not a campaign in the world that has the ability to research every one of its supporters going back more than 20 years," Harris said.

Thompson continued damage control in his own behalf. “I know Phil is a good man. He is my friend. He is going to remain my friend,” Thompson said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “He didn’t go to jail, he got probation, he’s paid his debt to society and turned himself around and become a good, productive, successful citizen.”

Four questions come immediately to mind:

If Martin was such a “longtime friend,” how could Thompson not have known about such shady dealings? Let’s take the candidate at his word. If Thompson truly didn’t know about it, why was friendship alone enough to opt Martin out of the vetting process? Since Thompson knows about it now, what happens to Martin’s role in the campaign going forward? And what does it say about Martin’s basic character that he would have this monstrous shadow in his past and not tell the candidate about it?

At an impromptu Sunday news conference, Thompson elaborated somewhat, saying Martin “thought it was over and done with and forgotten about, I’m sure. But of course nothing is ever over and done with and forgotten in this business.”

We don’t know what’s worse: Thompson’s apparent lack of knowledge about such a close adviser, or his apparent naivete about the half-life of potentially embarrassing past events in the lives of public people.

Without question, Thompson's loyalty to an old and trusted friend speaks well of his own personal character – the irrefutable evidence of a real stand-up guy.

But this latest episode is just one more … thing to deal with in a campaign that’s been struggling to get out of first gear from almost the beginning. It’s just so unseemly, so base and tawdry, and the kind of ugly mud that threatens to slow the traction of the Thompson campaign bus even more. No matter how it all plays out, it just looks bad.

Thompson seems to understand this. "I'm going to have to take a look at it," he told "Meet the Press." "I'm going to have to talk to Phil and make sure I understand the nature of the situation and figure out what the right thing is. I'm not going to throw my friend under the bus for something he did 25 years ago if he's okay now. On the other hand, I'm running for president; I've got, you know, to do the right thing."

The right thing should have started well before now. Thompson needs to seriously address this issue and get it behind him. From before the official start of his campaign, which was in test-marketing mode for months, Thompson’s bid for the presidency has been plagued as much by internal issues with his staff and advisers as by challengers from other hopefuls for the top job. His campaign bus requires a serious Mr. Goodwrench now. Without one, his bid for the presidency may be, well, over and done with and forgotten about already – and we haven’t even hit the primaries yet.
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Update: One-time recreational pharmaceutical entrepreneur Philip Martin resigned from the Thompson campaign on Nov. 5. Like no one saw that coming. "I have decided to resign my position as chair of 'First Day Founders' of 'The Friends of Fred Thompson,'" Martin said in a statement. "The focus of this campaign should be on Fred Thompson's positions on the issues and his outstanding leadership ability, not on mistakes I made some 24 years ago. I deeply regret any embarrassment this has caused."

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Imus, Act III

Let the towel-snapping begin, maybe: Don Imus, the vitriolic attack dog and shock-jock Lazarus of morning radio, is set to return to the airwaves on Dec. 3. Citadel Broadcasting Corp. made the announcement Thursday, confirming many reports that Imus would come back to East Coast morning drive time, this time on New York-based WABC-AM.

We all know by now why Imus’ return to the air is such a big deal. Imus was cashiered in April by CBS Radio, and his cable simulcast partner, MSNBC, after a controversy arose over his pointless, indefensibly racist “nappy-headed hos” remark about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team [see “Imus in the mourning”]. Since then, Imus retreated to his New Mexico ranch to lick his wounds, cash various checks received after a multimillion-dollar settlement with WFAN (CBS Radio’s flagship New York station) and plot his next move -- the one announced Thursday.

“We are ecstatic to bring Don Imus back to morning radio,” WABC Radio president and general manager Steve Borneman told the Associated Press. “Don’s unique brand of humor, knowledge of the issues and ability to attract big-name guests is unparalleled. He is rested, fired up and ready to do great radio.”

Imus’ latest comeback was bitterly contested by some African Americans, some of whom saw his return to the venue that led to his downfall almost as big an insult as the comments that got him fired. The National Association of Black Journalists weighed in again, following its initial outrage in April with a new broadside in October.

“It seems inconceivable that less than a year after Imus was dismissed from CBS Radio and MSNBC for his vicious insults upon the Rutgers women's basketball team, that Citadel Broadcasting … would consider putting him back on the air," Ernie Suggs, NABJ's vice president of print said in a statement.

On Thursday, activist Rev. Al Sharpton called on Citadel Broadcasting to huddle with advertisers and black groups to explain how they'd stop Imus’ recidivism to “his former vile and biased behavior.”

“Mr. Imus has the right to make a living, but we have the right to make sure he does not come back to disrupt our living,” Sharpton told the AP. “Particularly since these are commitments he made personally.”

Despite the sound & fury from the black press and others, a wait-and-see attitude is what’s called for now. It’s inconceivable that Imus – banished from the national conversation, and reportedly chastened by this latest fall from grace – will revive the same racist, sexist, white-guy-under-fire, locker-room-banter business model that got his ass fired in the spring.

The brain trust at Citadel and others in the Imus camp may dig in their heels and resist the public’s protests, but it’s likely that at least some of the concerns of the wider community will be considered when Imus takes the mike on Dec. 3. In fact, Richard Johnson, Page Six columnist for the New York Post, reported July 16 that a source said “Imus has been scouting comedy clubs looking for a black sidekick who will take the sting out of any future racial cracks like the one that got him booted off the air.”

It would only make sense not to pick up where he left off: the same big-money advertisers that jumped ship en masse in April could be ready to move again if Imus’ new program doesn’t reflect his having learned some lesson from the Rutgers debacle. That bottom-line consideration can’t be easily dismissed, no matter what Citadel’s press releases and orchestrated statements say.

We’ll be waiting and listening – and marveling at how Don Imus’ appetite for self-destruction and instinct for survival seem to go hand in hand. As it is, though, Imus is set to contradict that celebrated quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald lamenting that “there are no second acts in American lives.”

Actually, there are second acts. Even third acts, if your ratings are good enough.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Rudy to Yankees: Drop dead

Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City and the putative frontrunner for the Republican nomination for the presidency, has committed an unpardonable sin of betrayal as a consequence of his zeal for the job. He has not betrayed his party – at least not beyond his progressive positions on abortion, gay rights and gun control, positions that have made many in the GOP uncomfortable.

Giuliani, a longtime fan of the New York Yankees, has truly gone over to the dark side. On Oct. 23, after the Colorado Rockies-Boston Red Sox matchup for the World Series had been decided, the one-time Yankee loyalist announced that “I’m rooting for the Red Sox” to win the best–of-seven contest.

You could hear Yankee fans screaming: “Turncoat! Blasphemer! Quisling! Mofo! What fresh hell is this?” For years now – decades really, since his time as a prosecutor in New York, or even earlier, during his childhood in Brooklyn – Giuliani has tirelessly identified himself as a diehard Yankees fan, Unto Death. Now, in his first bid for national office, the candidate who still hangs his high-priced hat in Manhattan has voiced his support for the team that is, now and forever, nothing less than anathema to a vast majority of New Yorkers, residents and expats alike.

We’ve always known (and more or less accepted) that Rudy Giuliani has a boundless political ambition, a ruthless pragmatism straight outta Machiavelli and grounded in a willingness to do whatever it takes to prevail. But this! From the savior of the City? Mr. 9/11? The day after Rudy’s defection to the boys of Fenway Park, some New Yorkers may have trekked out to Montauk, Long Island, to watch for the sunset.

The reasons for Giuliani’s flirtation with the Beantown Boys may be utterly, geographically parochial. Maybe Rudy just couldn’t stomach the notion of siding with an expansion team younger than his youngest son to win the Fall Classic. Maybe his deeper loyalties lie with the American League, which the Red Sox will represent in the Series, or to Joe Torre, the Yankee manager, a friend of Giuliani and recently fired by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

There could be a political calculus as well. Giuliani is facing what’s thought to be a major challenge in the New Hampshire primary, occurring in a state where he’s spent very little time campaigning (by some pundits’ estimates looking beyond the primaries to the general election). Perhaps, the thinking goes, Giuliani hoped to gain the political affections of the New England states by siding with their favorite baseball sons this year.



Who knows? Despite his alleged loyalty to the conservative cause, Giuliani has adopted maverick stances that point to a certain iconoclastic streak; maybe he figured a contrary position on a baseball team wouldn’t be any different.

For many Americans, however, it is different. For them, allegiance to one’s baseball team carries a greater weight than fidelity to a political party, even if the potential for disappointment is about the same, one to another.

For New Yorkers, Rudy’s switch rankles because of its apparent convenience; it seems to confirm suspicions that Rudy Giuliani’s convictions are elastic, expedient things ready to be thrown over at a moment’s notice.

Consider what he said to the Providence Journal in July. "I'm a Yankee fan," Giuliani said. "I always believe it's a sign of my being straight with people, about not wanting to fool them, that I was one of the first mayors to be willing to say I was a Yankee fan."

But now he’s done a 180. New Yorkers don’t understand. They hold it against him. And no one holds a civic grudge like a New Yorker.

So Rudy’s cast his lot with “the other,” apparently making an early bet that he’ll win not just the nomination but the presidency as well. The jury’s still out on whether he’s right. But if he fails and limps back to New York, tail between his legs, it’s safe to say he won’t be graciously received. The New York Daily News published a deadline that famously distilled President Gerald Ford’s attitude toward a bailout of New York during the city’s period of deep fiscal woes.

“FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” screamed that legendary headline on Oct. 30, 1975.

If candidate Giuliani doesn’t become President Giuliani – and maybe even if he does – the city that has defined him for decades may well tell him the same thing.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Law & Order: Missing Candidate

It could be an episode of one of the “Law & Order” shows, part of the franchise that’s become the 31 flavors of TV law-enforcement drama: A capable, popular politician with a national reputation, a man seeking the presidency of the United States, suddenly goes missing on the campaign trail. His supporters are stumped, his Web site is largely noncommittal about his whereabouts, and even the press (which prides itself on knowing about such things) has no idea where he is. (Cue that signature two-note “chung-chung” sound between scenes.)

That’s the scenario taking shape around the conspicuous absence of Fred Thompson, the former GOP senator from Tennessee and latecomer to the 2008 presidential campaign. Slow off the mark to begin with, the Thompson campaign was trying to gain some momentum, with the candidate dutifully stumping for votes and campaign donations with a folksy demeanor that couldn’t conceal certain … shortcomings about Thompson’s ability to think fast on his feet.

Many in the Republican camp saw Thompson as the heir apparent to the Reagan mystique. With his six-foot-six frame and his long standing in popular culture as a high-profile actor (most recently as New York District Attorney Arthur Branch on “Law & Order”), Big Fred was seen as the one who would rescue the GOP from a relatively uninspiring field of hopefuls. Then came Thompson’s first debate, on Oct. 9.

Call it the debacle in Dearborn: Thompson was, to quote The New York Observer’s Steve Kornacki’s charitable assessment, “rhetorically overmatched” against his challengers for the nomination. Even knucklehead nonentities like Duncan Hunter piled on, fulminating at will. Hunter weighed in against Thompson, slapping him with various haymakers.

“Senator Thompson and some of the other senators here: You all voted for Most Favored Nation trading status for China,” Hunter said. “That set the groundwork for 1.8 million high-paying manufacturing jobs going off-shore, some of them never to return.”

When Thompson had the chance to respond to Hunter’s blistering ad hominem broadside, he was bereft of emotion, offering only a lame retort. “Free and fair trade has been good for America,” he said, saying little more than suggested any passion, any reasoning, any command of the facts.

The response from the crowd, then and later, was predictable: a silence you could almost imagine punctuated by the sound of crickets chirping at night.

It didn’t get any better that evening. Several of the other nonfactor candidates – including Sam Brownback, getting his last licks in before formally pulling the plug on his own campaign’s respirator this week – made telling points at the Dearborn debate. Even Ron Paul kicked ass!

The candidate is no doubt coming to grips with the biggest challenge of his young campaign: less concerned with how to take on his rivals, more worried about how to climb the mountain of expectations his stature and presence in the public eye have created among grassroots supporters in the GOP.

“One of Mr. Thompson’s biggest obstacles is supposedly the high expectations that initially greeted his candidacy,” Kornacki smartly noted in his Oct. 9 column. “That he failed to meet them in several appearances over the summer and in the month after he officially entered the race produced wide – and corrosive – skepticism among the opinion-shaping class.

“The bigger problem is that the fervor that essentially drafted him into the G.O.P. race had to do with style, not substance. That Mr. Thompson seemed to hold positions in-line with the party base and its interest group establishment didn’t hurt, but it was the notion that he could communicate those positions in a powerful and compelling way that led Republicans to demand his candidacy. Like Ronald Reagan, another actor who didn’t always exhibit a command of policy details, Mr. Thompson would win over the masses with a public style that would warm up and win over any audience.

"But faced with an auditorium full of Republicans in Dearborn, he managed to put them to sleep.”

Since then, Thompson’s gone missing from a fundraising breakfast for a New Hampshire mayor. He’s only been in that pivotal state once since he declared in September.

Thompson’s shown signs of getting up off the mat. Earlier today he offered an immigration plan that would cut federal grants for cities and states that fail to report illegal immigrants, or which offer them public benefits.

“It's not only necessary for any meaningful immigration reform, but border security plays a key role in both the interdiction of illegal drugs and in defending America against terrorist threats," he said stumping in Florida.

It’s a start, but only a start. Invariably, Thompson’s handlers and mouthpieces will refer to Thompson's relative absence as part of the process of “retooling the campaign,” a phrase that presumes there were tools at the ready to begin with.

If there are any tools at Thompson’s disposal, he better find them and use them fast. A campaign that started late amid chin-pulling and long deliberation has stumbled badly with months to go before it’s over. It’s something of a given that the wheels have come off the Thompson campaign bus; these next few weeks may show us if the candidate himself is under it.

Chung-chung!
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Image: Photo by Alexander Muse 7/25/07 > Flickr > Uploaded to Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license; Thompson logo from Thompson ’08 campaign

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Everything gone green

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome if you will, the new King of All Media and co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize – Al Gore! Yes, you heard right, the man who once would have been president has bagged the Big One, bigger than the presidency, in many ways. With the announcement from the Nobel committee in Stockholm, the former vice president has completed the latest phase of a recycling process started years earlier, elevating the issues of environmental protection and global warming to a truly global stage.

Speaking in Palo Alto on Friday, Gore, who shares the prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said he will donate all of his portion of the cash prize – about $1.5 million -- to the Alliance for Climate Protection, which he established in California. Taking the high road, Gore said “alarm bells are going off in the scientific community” over the issue of global warming, characterizing it as “a planetary emergency we have to respond to quickly.”

“It is the most dangerous challenge we have ever faced, but it is also the greatest opportunity we have ever had to make changes that we should be making,” he said.

“The climate crisis is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity. It is also our greatest opportunity to lift global consciousness to a higher level.”

The press gathered to hear Gore make his first comments wanted none of it. The moment he stopped speaking and strode out of the room without answering question one, the reporters went into full Pavlovian mode, shouting the obvious (and obviously ridiculous) question: ”Are you gonna run for president?”

Notwithstanding their obligation to ask that question, the answer should have been fairly obvious. Gore’s ascension to the world stage underscores just how unnecessary the presidency is for his résumé.

If there was ever a time Gore didn’t need to be president, this is it. As the author of several best-selling books, founder of a social-responsibility investment fund, the prime mover behind the Current viewer-participatory cable television channel (which got him an Emmy award), on-screen narrator of the film “An Inconvenient Truth” (which won an Oscar for best documentary feature this year), infrequent guest on “Saturday Night Live” and a pivotal figure in mainstreaming the Internet, Gore handily displaces Howard Stern as King of All Media (something Stern never really was in the first place).

But the Democrats’ political reflexes kicked in anyway. Draft Gore, one of at least two ad hoc organizations bent on enlisting Gore to be a candidate, posted an ad in The New York Times all but begging him to throw his hat in the ring. Its companion Web site claimed to have amassed 190,000 signatures seeking his candidacy (as if the field weren’t crowded enough already).

The commentariat weighed in too. On MSNBC cable on Friday, Tim Russert had reasons why Gore wouldn’t seek the presidency. “We’re only 12 weeks away from the Iowa caucuses. Caucusgoers put a premium on someone who’s spent a lot of time and invested a lot of energy in getting to know them in their state.”

Bob Schieffer of CBS News broke down the political logic for staying out of the 2008 presidential campaign. “The core of his support would have to come from that side of the Democratic Party that Hillary Clinton seems to have sewed up,” Schieffer told CBS anchor Katie Couric. “The other part of his support would have to come from kind of the idealistic wing – that would be those voters who are for Barack Obama. I simply don’t see him peeling off very much support from either of those two candidates.”

As a purely political calculus, Schieffer’s is no doubt correct. But it ignores a more basic reason to avoid the presidential race. Gore’s status today – as a public figure who’s shown an ability to reach across the generational aisle, to tap into popular culture at every meaningful level in the service of a cause most people still haven’t fully factored into their daily lives – is bigger, wider than the presidency of the United States.

Al Gore matters on a global level right now, considerably more than he would as a politician. He’s the beneficiary of the public perception of his being part of the solution, rather than just another part of the problem. He’s not about to trade that in to spend a year eating rubber chicken at every Holiday Inn on the campaign trail.

Russert spoke of another practical reason for Gore staying out of the race: Frankly, he’s doing too well where it counts.

“He was at Google at the very beginning, and Google is now $600 a share,” Russert said. “Even I can figure out that math.” (Actually, the day Russert spoke Google closed at $637.39 a share. But when you’re in on the ground floor on the day of the IPO at $85 a share, as Gore almost certainly was as a company senior adviser… well, who’s counting the crumbs?)

Russert mentioned another possibly tantalizing role for the former vice president. “I also think that the next president could really take advantage of Al Gore’s talents, and use him as an ambassador, especially if there is a worldwide effort on global warming. I think he’ll continue to play a very active role as a citizen activist,” Russert said, seeming to align Gore’s possible world-fixer role with that of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister now embracing his new role as ambassador without portfolio, pursuing a solution to the intractable problems in the Middle East.

(On the day Gore won the Nobel, MSNBC.com prominently featured a timely story on the emerging phenomenon of “cradle to cradle” consumer products, goods with a fully-extended recyclable life cycle, their componenrts turned into new materials after their previous use.)

Everything’s gone green. Scientists and environmentalists have been saying it for generations – arguably since Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring,” certainly since the first Earth Day in 1970. Al Gore is the irresistibly visible champion of a cause that’s finally achieved a top-of-mind recognition not so much deserved as required. The new inconvenient truth is, we dare not ignore it anymore.

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Image: Copyright 2006 Brett Wilson > licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 > Wikipedia
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