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 entrĂ©e 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.
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