Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: The ones that got away

So, was it good for you? The highs and lows, the ins and outs and ups and downs? It never seemed to end, 2008 — hell, the world’s official timekeepers have added one second to the length of the year, presumably to correct some celestial blip in the earth’s rotation or somesuch. But maybe they’re just messing with our heads, stringing this thing along for as long and extended an extended long duration as possible.

The ‘Vox won’t go on here picking the highs and lows, etc. A lot of both were the stuff of our watercooler conversations, our letters to the editor, our hopes, our fears, our dreams — our lives.

A lot got our attention, maybe more than enough. But there were some that got away, events that (somehow) flew pretty much under the 24/7 radar of modern times — noted, but forgotten maybe too fast.

We said goodbye to Buddy Miles in February. The drummer for Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys died in Austin, Texas, succumbing to heart failure and a host of health woes. A powerful, propulsive player whose burly, bear-like countenance helped give his sound the throw weight it required, Miles was a versatile drummer who formed his own band, the Buddy Miles Express, which merged funk, rock and horn arrangements. But the drum was center stage: Listen to the punch and power of "Them Changes," the thunder that animated "Machine Gun" (on Hendrix's live album at the Fillmore East) or any of his work as a solo artist. Buddy Miles was the baddest of the bad.

Mitch Mitchell took off to join the rest of the Jimi Hendrix Experience in the amen corner of the sky church. Mitchell, Hendrix's original drummer, died in November in Portland, Oregon, hours after performing at a concert with the Experience Hendrix Tour, and days after a tour stop in Seattle, where we saw him play, slower, clearly a shadow of the dynamo he once was, but still game for the stage. Listen to the Experience's recording of Jimi's classic "Fire." If Charlie Watts' percussion in the '60's was musketry, Mitchell's was machine-gun fire, full auto, an exercise in blistering speed and precision that was perfect for the era.

Bo Diddley passed, and with him the living time signature of rock music. Ellas Otha Bates McDaniels brought that rhythm, that drive to early rock n’ roll. That chunk-achunk-achunkchunk chunk pattern that was part of the DNA of rock? That onstage swagger, that lyric braggadocio that became common to the rock persona? That was on Bo Diddley.

Listen to his classic “Who Do You Love?” It’s all there, all the attitude and passion of every rocker who’s walked out on stage ever since. He never had a strong presence on the pop charts; that level of success according to units shifted and platinum records hung in the hallway eluded him. But rock culture couldn’t have existed without him. Him do we love.

Those of us of A Certain Age remember when personal development hinged, rightly or wrongly, on experimentation with various … chemical agents. One of them was LSD, a felicitous laboratory accident created by Albert Hoffman, the Sandoz chemist whose discovery opened doors of perception that a generation eager for perception embraced and used to define itself and help shape its world view. LSD aroused controversy; the drug expanded and sharpened aspects of the personality that were already there. For some, even many, it was a dangerous experience; the term “acid casualty” has long since entered the language, and for good reason. But Hoffman’s curiosity as a scientist — he took LSD numerous times himself — was and is foundational to the human experience. LSD painted the decade of the ‘60s in indelible colors that are part of the canvas of life today.

Stephanie Tubbs Jones died this year, passing of an aneurysm at the heartbreakingly young age of 58. That's the too-brutal shorthand for a public life that mattered fiercely to her constituents in Ohio, and importantly to the rest of the country, whether they knew who she was or not.The name may not register, but the congresswomen was a political groundbreaker. The first black woman to serve on the House Ways and Means Committee, she’d go on to ably represent her state as chairwoman of the House Ethics Committee. An early champion of Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency, Tubbs Jones carried Hillary’s water in memorable ways. We won’t forget the rhetorical drive-by she and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews performed on a hopelessly ill-prepared Obama spokesman from Texas, calling him on his knowledge of the candidate he supported … and then flashing the gums-showing, gotcha smile that was an indicator of her personality and her utterly irrepressible love of life. Miss you, sister Stephanie.

◊ ◊ ◊

Three of the icons of pop culture whose style and sound got us through younger days came to grips with the same even-numbered birthday, the one that tends to focus the mind wonderfully. Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson all turned 50 this year, saying adios to at least some part of the vigor that typified their earlier careers. Losing a step here and there, as we all do. Of the three, Prince has weathered the storm of time’s passing the best, holding on to that funk, that spirit, that mystery, that Princeness that’s kept The Purple One at, or damn sure near, the top of his game. Madonna has had her issues this year, mounting another tour, saying goodbye to another husband (this time after writing the check for about $75 million), and raising more of the eyebrows she’s raised for years — living a career and a life more or less on her own terms. And Michael … Michael’s still being Michael, for better and, sadly, for worse.

A shoutout’s required for Yankee Stadium, the House That Built Baseball. Spare me, Yankee haters, that spot at East 161st and River Avenue in the Bronx is close to a cathedral as sports has ever produced. Yankee Stadium hosted 37 World Series, 26 of those won by the team whose uniforms hung there. With four consecutive seasons of four million fans each season, the Stadium never lost its allure for the citizens of New York and fans of the game. The team’s getting ready to move across the way this coming season, to the new Yankee Stadium a block or so away. Some things will change. When the original Yankee Stadium opened in April 1923, a grandstand ticket cost $1.10; that decimal point moves sharply to the right next season. But what matters remains: the memories (of the white latticed scallops that ran the whole stadium ‘round, the games, the wall of cheers) and the milestones, which speak for themselves.

This was the year when the newspaper, that fact of everyday American life, came to say a virtual goodbye as it faces its biggest challenges yet, challenges that many are saying can’t be surmounted. As 24/7 media furthered its relentless hold on our lives, the newspaper industry — slow to make changes necessary for its own survival, slow to shift in its perception of its readers, impossibly slow to recognize the value and importance of diversity within its ranks — witnessed a storm of economically-driven layoffs and consolidations that continues today, and is likely to go on for months to come, death by a thousand thousand thousand Web sites.

◊ ◊ ◊

For now, we’ve lost an old reliable friend, one we’d counted on to take care of us when we were old and gray. The bull market we embraced and nurtured for so many years is still in the operating room. The prognosis is for a long-term coma. The vital signs are not good; the stock market was down 34 percent this year over last, the worst year-over-year decline since, you guessed it, 1931, in the depth of the Great Depression. A new team of doctors starts its shift on Jan. 20, and there’s great hope something can be done. But with the stock market thoroughly intertwined with the housing market, and fully connected with the global economic situation … hope is all we’ve got.

And you know what? At the end of the day, hope is all we ever get. This year, last year, next year, Hope (not the campaign rubric but the real thing) is our bright spark, what gets us out of bed in the morning, putting one foot in front of the other, getting to the business of life. Hope, that optimistic peep over the horizon, that gut sense that it’s gonna get better. Despite new fighting in the Middle East, despite old fighting in our old country; in spite of the cloudy forecast, the shadow on the X-ray, the weight of breaking news that summons the unexpected and the unbelievable — in spite of all of it … there’s Hope. Faith in the evidence of things not seen. It’s all we can count on. In some ways, it’s all we need.

It’s down there in the canyon of Times Square, and a hundred thousand other places here and around the world: right now some young man is down on one knee and showing a ring to some young woman. Will you? he asks. Will you take a chance with me? Do you believe in hope? Do you believe in tomorrow?

It’s there in the sunrise. It’s plain as day in the eyes of a child.

And it’s implicit in that song they sing on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange at the end of the last trading day of the year, every year, reliable as clockwork even if the stocks they trade are anything but reliable. High or low, up or down, they sing that song all the way to the last line —

”Wait til the sun shines, Nelly, bye and bye …”

Bye-bye. Until tomorrow.
Image credits: Buddy Miles: Mitch Mitchell: Linda McCartney. Albert Hoffman: Philip Bailey, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license. Stephanie Tubbs Jones: Public domain. Prince: Micahmedia, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0, 2.5, 2.0 licenses. Yankee Stadium: Silent Wind of Doom, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Dead bull: The Huffington Post.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The year in JibJab

It’s a fact of American political life: The year in politics isn’t over until it’s been comically synthesized by the good folks at JibJab. This year was no exception, and for good reason. If you can’t make comic fodder out of this crazy, histoeic, transformative election season, you might as well hang ‘em up.

But JibJab’s 2008 offering covers pretty much everything, from the foibles of the Bush administration to the faux pas of an impossibly large raft of presidential candidates, from Putin’s Georgian intervention to John Edwards’ love child, to the meltdown of the global markets to the seizure of ships by pirates off the coast of Africa.

Have a look and chuckle. That was the year that was, according to JibJab. Thank God that was the year that’s over.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Russian forecast for America

The long relationship between the United States and the Russian Republic has been at a low ebb for years. The last eight years of the Bush administration and its bellicose, hubristic attitude toward the so-called axis of evil (and anyone else the Bushies decided they didn’t or may not like) has led to a kind of hot cold war, with weapons of rhetoric rather than missiles being lobbed back and forth between Washington and Moscow.

In 2007 there was the Bush missile defense shield plan, under which an American-made deterrent to nuclear strikes on eastern Europe would be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic by 2012.

The plan aroused the ire of then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The Bush plan surely helped to bolster Putin’s blatant appeal to the militaristic spirit of the Russian people (the Leader was seen in news reports presiding over teen education camps meant to cultivate animosities among young people — Putin Youth? — towards the United States).

American pop culture's even weighed in: In the most recent Indiana Jones movie, set in the 1950’s. Indy (too long in the tooth to go on bashing the Nazis that had by then decamped for South America) took on the Soviets of the Stalin era with his swashbuckling style.

But the war of words and images has escalated with the growing profile and audience of a little-known Russian military analyst and professor, a man who suggests, with unsettling preciseness, that the meter on the United States as a world power is about eighteen months from running out.

◊ ◊ ◊

In an interview in today’s Wall Street Journal, Prof. Igor Panarin, revisiting a forecast he’s been making for about ten years now, says that the United States will “disintegrate” in 2010, the victim of an economic and moral collapse that would trigger a civil war leaving the United States nothing so much as a pie whose slices would be devoured by other world powers.

“There's a 55-45% chance right now that disintegration will occur," he told WSJ’s Andrew Osborn.

Perhaps understandably, given the rise of a virulent anti-Americanism loose in Mother Russia, this Nostradamus-on-the-Volga is the darling of Russian state media, and the Kremlin. Panarin, a former KGB analyst, is the dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry's academy for future diplomats, has a doctorate in political science, and has been a student of U.S. economics, Osborn reports.

“Mr. Panarin's views also fit neatly with the Kremlin's narrative that Russia is returning to its rightful place on the world stage after the weakness of the 1990s, when many feared that the country would go economically and politically bankrupt and break into separate territories,” Osborn added.

What’s so alarming is the level of detail Panarin brings to this American twilight. Like the dystopia of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” like George Orwell’s “1984,” Panarin’s vision names names, establishes boundaries and sets a rationale for events that is, disturbingly, deeply rooted in reality.

Osborn: “Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar. Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces -- with Alaska reverting to Russian control.”

“He predicts that economic, financial and demographic trends will provoke a political and social crisis in the U.S. When the going gets tough, he says, wealthier states will withhold funds from the federal government and effectively secede from the union. Social unrest up to and including a civil war will follow. The U.S. will then split along ethnic lines, and foreign powers will move in.”

◊ ◊ ◊

In the Panarin cosmology, California forms the heart of the Californian Republic, and will be a part of China or under Chinese influence, like Hong Kong.

Hawaii would suffer more or less the same fate, yielding either to China or to Japan.

Texas would form the stronghold of the Texas Republic, a region whose nine states would encompass what’s now the Deep South, an area that would fall under Mexican control or influence.

Canada — Canada!? — would acquire control of a group of northern and central states dubbed the Central North American Republic.

Washington and New York would be part of Atlantic America, a group of states on the eastern seaboard that (Panarin says) could become part of the European Union. Oh, and Alaska will become a property of Russia.

"It would be reasonable for Russia to lay claim to Alaska,” Panarin said. “It was part of the Russian Empire for a long time." Well, by all means, we do want to be reasonable about this, now, don’t we?

For all the suggestions of dime-novel apocalypse Panarin summons for the United States in a year and a half, there’s something even more disquieting than the forecast itself. It’s not so much what he’s saying as who he is saying it — he’s speaking not as an academic or a scholar, but as a Russian, as a man who himself has witnessed in his own country the same disintegration he predicts for another. It’s unspoken but implicit in his scenario: “we didn’t think it would happen to us, either.”

◊ ◊ ◊

For all of Panarin’s chilling specificity, though, there’s a lot he’s overlooked. It’s one thing to be a student of American economics; it’s quite another to be a student of America.

Panarin’s doomsday vision assumes that any attempt at foreign colonization by any foreign power would result in surrender. Panarin doesn’t entertain the ways in which dogged American regional identities would coalesce in the cause of maintaining the central government necessary to remain a single nation.

The idea, for example, of Canada taking control of a portion of the United States as far south as Missouri, assumes Canada has a military strong enough, 18 months from now, to drive a thousand miles into the interior of this country without a serious fight. Canada has a standing armed forces of about 87,000 active and reserve personnel. There’s more than that many people in Fargo, N.D., alone.

Texas taken by Mexico? We’ve been there before, and we know how that turned out. This time, expect Predators patrolling the skies over what's left of the old mission in San Antonio, and Abrams tanks outside. Alamo II. As chaotic as the U.S. posture might be in 18 months, it’s hard to imagine the armed forces of Mexico prepared to exercise control over a region of nine states inhabited by people as fiercely proud of their independence as the Mexican people are proud of their own. People whose belief in the Second Amendment — the right to bear arms — is evidence of that independence.

California colonized by the Chinese? Not if Arnold Schwarzenegger is still in office.

Alaska re-taken by the Russians? Two words: Sarah Palin.

◊ ◊ ◊

Seriously, what Panarin overlooks most of all are two facts of history it would seem impossible to ignore:

First, he ignores the shift in global economic dynamics that make the United States and Russia partners in a dance neither can get out of. The ways in which a global economy intermingles not just currencies but also circumstances aren’t specific to the U.S. housing crisis, or the economic crisis that followed.

The Russian standard of living, steadily improving over the last decade, has done so largely using a benchmark of acquisitive, Western-style capitalism. An economic interdependence exists, one that suggests that if the United States dissolves, the potential is there for a shared fate. Panarin seems to sense this: “One could rejoice in that process," he said. "But if we're talking reasonably, it's not the best scenario —for Russia.”

Second, and maybe more important, Panarin apparently dismisses the same instincts for survival and self-definition that Napoleon and Hitler overlooked in their attempt to rule his country: the basic, innate, human resistance to domination by another.

Napoleon marched toward Russia with between 500,000 and 650,000 troops in June 1812; he wobbled back to France six months later with perhaps 20,000 left alive. Hitler carpet-bombed Leningrad for almost 900 days, and look what good it did him; a year and five months later the Russian Army was raising the Russian flag over the Reichstag in Berlin. For twenty years, the armies of North Vietnam fought a succession of armies, including the United States, in a drive to unify North and South Vietnam, ultimately defeating the greatest army in the world on the way to charting a destiny as one country, without foreign interference.

We’ll have to revisit the predictions of the Moscow Strangelove a year from this June; we’ll know for sure by then. Maybe before then, Panarin will introduce another variable to his scenario: the resistance factor: For all the internal strife that may characterize a country, for all the economic disasters that may come down, when survival and identity are at stake, never underestimate the ability of a nation’s people to be the people of a Nation.
Image credits: Putin: tk. Divided States graphic: The Wall Street Journal, from data by Igor Panarin. Russian economy graph: Krawndawg, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0, Attribution ShareAlike 2.5, Attribution ShareAlike 2.0, Attribution ShareAlike 1.0 licenses. "Napoleon's Retreat From Moscow" by Adolf Northern.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Just a reminder

It was right there on The Huffington Post this morning: a little reminder (as if we really needed one) of our mortality, of our overall place in the greater scheme of things. Some creative if cynical soul posted to YouTube a computer-animation video depicting what could be that cosmic inevitable: Mother Earth struck by an asteroid — all to the soundtrack of Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky.”

With the voice of the immortal Doris Troy standing in for the cries of billions of people incinerated, the video charts the asteroid’s impact and the subsequent march of superheated air, tsunamis and earthquakes across our globe. At the end of the 4:48 video, we’re left with a final image: the earth rendered unrecognizable, capitals in cinders, continents reduced to ash, oceans vaporized, a planet dead as the moon.

One hell of a way to end one year and start another, but oddly appropriate. As we ramp up for the annual rituals of self-improvement, this little video tells us what we oughta already know: Live your life brightly. Our purchase on this time above ground is shaky indeed.

Happy New Year. No, really.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Clinton’s day-one Job #1

For practically all of this year’s grueling presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton made much of her movements and relationships on the world stage. From the start of her campaign, the Clinton brand of competence and experience was the main selling point transmitted to the nation’s voters.

The American people didn’t buy what Clinton was selling. President-elect Barack Obama did, bought it enough to name her as the next Secretary of State. Now, with new explosions in the Middle East taking place at this literal moment, with the potential for vast violence between Israelis and Palestinians greater than it’s been in years, Hillary Clinton will almost certainly have a new Job #1 on the day one of her taking command at the State Department.

Her handling of the new and emerging unrest in the region has the potential to elevate her star globally in two ways. The first, of course, and most utterly Machiavellian, is raising her profile for a presidential run in 2012. The second is less predictable but shouldn’t be any less welcome: the opportunity to rise to the ranks of America’s most revered public servants, to be remembered not as a president, but as a stateswoman.

◊ ◊ ◊

At this writing, more than 240 Palestinians have been killed, inevitably many of them women, children and the elderly, as a result of Israeli air strikes on Hamas strongholds in Gaza. The Israeli action, announced and defended by outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was called a reprisal for Hamas rocket attacks. One Israeli woman was killed in the latest wave of those rocket firings, and many others were injured. Israel has called up its reserves, so a ground invasion of the region is possible within days.

World leaders have condemned the Israeli action as a wildly disproportionate response to rocket attacks that were, on the weight of casualty count alone, mostly ineffectual. The Bush administration has adopted its customary position, defending Israel and condemning the Palestinian leadership for launching the attacks in the first place. And outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has consulted with Obama on what’s happening and what happens next.

What happens next will obviously be Barack Obama’s first big test on the international stage. No celebrity celebrations, no Ich Bin Ein moments this time. Obama’s reaction to this crisis, and the formulation of policy related to this crisis, will be the first proof of his intention to recentralize foreign policy in the White House, and to abide by some of the pledges made during the campaign.

◊ ◊ ◊

But this is, in a lot of ways, a bigger challenge for Hillary Clinton. We were told for months of her past sitdowns with world leaders, her huddles with the movers and shakers of our time. We’re fast approaching the point when her relationships with those in the Middle East will need to be revisited, and possibly revived — and maybe even created.

You have to wonder, for example, just what kind of a relationship Hillary Clinton had with Barak, currently the Israeli defense minister, previously, in July 2000, when Bill Clinton, then president, met at Camp David with Barak, then Israeli prime minister, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — attempting over 15 days to negotiate what would have been an historic agreement concretizing an historic two-state solution to an historically intractable problem.

Was Hillary Clinton in the room with the leaders? Was Hillary walking on the trails in the Catoctin Mountains with the others? Clinton, it goes without saying, spoke today with Barak by phone about the current situation. That’s where and how relationships are forged — on a firsthand basis, not on the basis of what your husband tells you at the end of the day.

◊ ◊ ◊

Some of the best relationships, and some of the worst, are created under duress. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s other big challenge vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is cultivating another crucial relationship: the one between her and Barack Obama.

There have been reports of Clinton already attempting to make distinctions between her and the Obama admininstration on matters of staffing the new State Department. Clinton has insisted on purging State of those who criticized her during the campaign, and has been just as adamant about insisting on direct access to President Obama, without going through the national security adviser.

The risk is there, right out of the gate, for backbiting, end runs and deception — the kind of fractious intramurals that can doom an administration. That would be a big enough headache combined with such established matters as the Bush II Iraq War, the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and potentially ruinous conflicts in Africa.

The new Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed changes the game. It underscores the importance of the White House and the State Department being on the same page in the playbook — the White House playbook; it makes clear the potential for the first misstep of the Obama administration: internal division on how to proceed in resolving this crisis.

◊ ◊ ◊

This may be Hillary Clinton’s first opportunity to show us a side we haven’t seen from her: Hillary as peacemaker, as negotiator, not in the ceremonial context of a first lady, not in the clubby realm of a Senate subcommittee, but in the high-stakes arena of geopolitics, with the gravitas of a diplomat, acting as a transmitter and interpreter of a foreign policy that, for all her input, will not originate with her.

What’s coming for Hillary Clinton, upon her confirmation as Secretary of State, will be a different day one than the one she envisioned almost two years ago. But given the gravity of events still unfolding in the Middle East, it’s also got to be more than just a day one for new responsibilities.

It’s got to be a day one for a new Hillary Clinton, someone inclined to minimize not just differences in the wider world, but also any differences she has with the administration she works for.
Image credit: Ehud Barak: Agence France-Presse file.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bond? Sean John Bond?

“Quantum of Solace,” the latest in the James Bond 007 franchise, has done well at the box office, so far generating millions in receipts and cementing the actor Daniel Craig in the mind of the public as the buff, brooding, badass incarnation of the celebrated superspy.

“Quantum” is only Craig’s second outing as Bond, so it was a surprise when, earlier this month, Sean (Diddy) Combs, hiphop artist, producer, fashion and fragrances mogul and, oh yes, actor, went public on YouTube with a video meant to promote his new I Am King men’s fragrance, and an “audition tape” to promote himself as … the next James Bond.

“I am best suited to be the next James Bond, OK?” Diddy says in the Dec. 7 video. “We got a black president, you know, it’s time for a black Bond.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s a good bet that Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond novels, has been shaken and stirred in his grave, and that the shepherds of the 007 identity, Danjac L.P., may be surprised — and even intrigued by the possibilities.

It’s not so wild a dream, folks. Diddy proved his acting chops on Broadway — Broadway! — when he starred as Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun” in 2004, garnering favorable reviews from the critics, some of whom were probably surprised Combs read the work of Lorraine Hansberry without a trace of the legendary rap swagger that’s made Diddy, well, Diddy.

Before that he turned in a moving performance opposite Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball,” for which Berry won the best actress Oscar in 2002.

E! Online reported in March that Diddy huddled with Tom Cruise at the Beverly Hills Polo Lounge, and that Diddy was said to be working with Susan Batson, Cruise’s acting coach.

The I Am King promo spot borrows from the Bond mystique with all the customary trappings of derring-do: Diddy on a Ski-doo plying the waters of some foreign capital; Diddy at the casino attracting the attention of a bevy of lovelies (and a horde of sinister types). An air of danger throughout. With all the 007 accouterments on display, it’s not hard to imagine Sean John in the pay of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

And then there’s the current TV ad campaign for Ciroc vodka, part of the Diageo line of spirits. As the Ciroc pitchman, Combs plays to the hilt the role of bon vivant in this homage to Frank Sinatra. The palatial digs. The Rat Pack-style entourage. The Rolls Royce parked in a driveway the width of an interstate on-ramp. Diddy in formal wear, the black bowtie strategically undone. Another bevy of lovelies.

◊ ◊ ◊

If anything doesn’t work with all this James Bond speculation, it’s the timing. Years ago, with the 007 franchise in need of a passion transplant after the departure of charter Bond Sean Connery, Danjac was said to have toyed with the idea of casting a black actor as Bond. Nothing came of it, of course; white males continued in the role, from George Lazenby to Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton to Pierce Brosnan.

With Daniel Craig wowing moviegoers as Bond, it’s hard to make the case for a switch right now — and certainly not on the thin premise that, since there’s a black American president, there should ergo be a black James Bond. Loyalists to Bond's current racial identity are likely to kick up a fuss on the basis of that valid rule: If something's not broken, why fix it?

Ironically, something else that works against the idea is the fact of Diddy's own stardom. Throughout the history of the 007 series, we've seen relatively unknown or under-recognized actors anointed as James Bond, a process that's amounted to being as much the actor's invention as the character's reinvention. Sean Connery, largely unknown before Bond, became an icon through that single role. Moore, once the star of NBC's 60's-era spy series "The Saint," similarly made the most of the 007 persona.

The up-from-acting-obscurity rule doesn't always work (George Lazenby, anyone?). But it worked often enough to suggest that a relative anonymity for an actor cast as Bond wasn't altogether a bad thing.

Diddy as James Bond would turn that on its head: One of entertainment's biggest, most recognized stars would assume a persona already recognizable to the public, and for a lot longer. It would make it a challenge to look at the new Bond and not see ... Diddy. You almost can't help it.

◊ ◊ ◊

You have to wonder, too, how long Diddy would commit to the Bond role. To have any resonance with the public, to impart the sense of continuity the 007 brand deserves, it couldn’t be a one-and-done situation. With all his irons in the fire of pop culture, would Diddy agree to being locked down for three or four films, and all that that requires? Anyone’s guess.

But Craig won’t do Bond forever; the physical demands of the role are high, and Craig, an acclaimed actor before the 007 role came his way, will no doubt want to pursue other, less taxing opportunities. His contract has him down for two or three more Bond films before he’s a free agent.

Then ... who knows? The world’s a changing place. Anything can happen. Maybe one day we will see a homeboy at the baccarat table in Monte Carlo, purring to the world:

“Bond. James Bond. Wassup?”
Image credit: Diddy: Lisa O’Connor/Zuma Press. George Lazenby:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Shoe fly III

Muntazer al-Zaidi, the shoe-throwing Iraqi journalist whose cri de chaussures against President Bush in Baghdad this week made headlines around the world, has apparently seen the error of his well-shod ways, asking Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a pardon for his “big and ugly act” toward the president who ordered the invasion of his country in March 2003.

There’s every likelihood of Zaidi being the recipient of Iraqi justice; the penalty for Zaidi’s action — a serious offense in the eyes of the Iraqi government — is reportedly some serious jail time.

But oddly enough, what’s going on in Iraq, with the kind of gestures that Maliki and Bush have lately made toward each other in the pursuit of a timely exit of American troops from that country, suggests that Zaidi could be the object of his government’s mercy, rather than its retribution for an act that, for all its emotional resonance in the Arab world, was really no more than an act of bad manners.

There may be no more dramatic an overture Maliki could make to prove how democratic principles — among them free speech and expression — are ready to take hold in soon-to-be-postwar Iraq than to exercise restraint in dealing with Zaidi.

This is Maliki’s chance to step through protocol, to present to the Iraqi people a different, less reflexively punitive style of leadership — one that recognizes that the concepts of free expression have a place in the new Iraq that is evolving.

◊ ◊ ◊

For sure, free speech and expression have limits; throwing shoes at a President of the United States has consequences everywhere, and it should have. But Maliki — facing his own bid for re-election — may be advised to look at this matter not just from the viewpoint of a leader, but also from the view of an Iraqi: one of Zaidi’s countrymen, allied from birth with the people first brutalized in a war started by an invader, then further brutalized by the latent but lethal sectarian violence that followed.

To the extent that the American-led invasion was the direct result of the deaths of thousands of innocents, the dismantling of the Iraqi infrastructure, the discomfiture of its citizens, and vast damage to the national morale, Maliki owes more than a nod to his own nationalistic reflexes, and the ways in which Zaidi’s graphically-expressed outrage mirrors that of millions of the people Maliki governs, and whose votes he’ll need to win a new term as prime minister.

Maliki’s decision of a final punishment for Zaida, no matter what it is, will send a message to Iraqis, the Arab world and the world in general. To decree that an act of impassioned, impetuous foolishness should demand a sentence of years behind bars can hardly be the anodyne message intended by a prime minister seeking to unify an already badly fractured nation.

We don’t know what kind of punitive leniency works in Iraqi justice (Is an ankle-bracelet monitor the answer? House arrest? A work-release program?). But there must be some option available to Maliki short of imprisonment. As over the top as it was, the nationalistic fervor Zaidi demonstrated last week deserves a better reaction than that.
Image credits: Al-Zaidi: Abdou4ever, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Bush and Maliki: Public domain.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Shoe fly redux

We saw this coming — "on the heels" of the event itself, of course. No sooner had the original video footage of President Bush under fixed-wingtip attack in Baghdad reverberated around the world, than the new comedians of our time weighed in with their spin on the latest international incident with George Bush's name attached.

Here are three of the most recent we found in a hardly scientific, 10-minute survey of YouTube, clips that are silly, sly and more on target than the shoe thrower was:

This one's our favorite:

And "Empathic Amanda," a double for Sarah Palin, interviews the footwear in question:

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shoe fly (Wingtips of mass distraction)

It's come to this: President George Bush, in Iraq for the last time as president, comes under fire for the first time in his visits there. It was hostile fire that was more symbolic than literal, and it distills everything there is to be distilled about Iraq, the United States and the tragic American misadventure we might as well start calling the Bush II Iraq War.

On Sunday, Bush arrived in Baghdad for a surprise visit to celebrate the signing of the Status of Forces Agreement, which makes sure U.S. defense contractors can maintain their cash flow from the U.S. government until 2011. Bush appeared at a news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Moments after Bush shook hands with Maliki, TV reporter Muntazer al-Zaidi, a Shiite reporter for independent al-Baghdadiya television, stood and shouted "this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog," as he threw two! shoes at Bush, narrowly missing him both times.

Zaidi is said to have nursed a deep resentment of Bush for the thousands of Iraqis who died after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. He also reportedly was briefly kidnapped by gunmen in 2007, and mistakenly detained by U.S. forces.

Exposing the sole of one’s shoe is a serious insult in Iraqi culture; throwing a shoe is worse. Think back to when Saddam's statue was pulled down in that square in April 2003. Iraqis expressed their outrage with Saddam by paddling the remnants of the statue with their shoes as it was dragged through the city's streets.

(Imagine if Zaidi had a bucket of shoes at his disposal; the sight of an Iraqi citizen continuing this airborne Florsheim attack on the President of the United States — like target practice at the county fair — would have been YouTube irresistible.)

◊ ◊ ◊

But leave it to Bush to underscore this minor international incident with the flippancy he seems to think it deserves.

"I thought it was interesting," Bush told CBS a little later, "I thought it was weird to have a guy throw a show at you." It was a statement that, with all its painful and incurious honesty, reflected the disconnect between Bush and the heritage and the culture of the people his invasion purported to rescue.

A more sensitive leader would have realized that, given what's happened to Iraq in the last five years, there was nothing weird about that response at all.

Considering the Iraqi civilian dead (perhaps in the hundreds of thousands), a battered infrastructure and the enduring ignominy of being occupied by a foreign power, Iraqi citizens would probably be inclined to making the same gesture to President Bush themselves, if they could. In the greater scheme of things, Zaidi’s response to the events of his country’s decline was a model of restraint.

By intention or by accident, Zaidi symbolized the frustration of the Iraqi people. His shoe-banging moment may go down in Iraqi circles as their Enough Moment, the equivalent of when Army chief counsel Joseph Welch called the question of rabid anti-Communist crusader Sen. Joseph McCarthy in June 1954: “Have you no sense of decency, at long last?”

That may be why Zaidi’s action has resonated positively around the Arab world. The reporter is under arrest, standing accused by the Iraqi government of having done a "barbaric act." Maliki media adviser, Yasin Majeed said Zaidi would stand trial for insulting the Iraqi state.

But his employer, al-Baghdadiya, demanded his release and demonstrators by the thousands rallied on his behalf in Baghdad's Sadr City, in the Shi'ite enclave of Basra and the holy city of Najaf.

"Thanks be to God, Muntazer's act fills Iraqi hearts with pride," his brother, Udai al-Zaidi, told Reuters Television. "I'm sure many Iraqis want to do what Muntazer did. Muntazer used to say all the orphans whose fathers were killed are because of Bush."

◊ ◊ ◊

At least one toiler in the video fields took note of something potentially more ominous: KataVideo, on YouTube, features the shoe-throwing incident and notes that it took a full six seconds between the last shoe being thrown and the time it took the Secret Service to protectively respond. Six seconds.

We can therefore be real glad the only attack on Bush on Iraqi soil was from a size 10, rather than something with a more lethal throw weight. It's a good thing we know where Richard Reid is. And now with George Bush safely out of Iraqi air space, we're spared any risk of Bush's international image being accidentally martyred by well-aimed footwear. All respect to Muntazer Zaidi, but applying shoe leather to the president of the United States is our job.

He officially gets the boot from us on Jan. 20 at noon.
Image credit: Top image: Pool camera image via The Huffington Post. Zaidi: Evan Vucci, Associated Press.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rachel. About our relationship ...

“The Rachel Maddow Show,” now on the air just over three months, has been a pleasantly surprising addition to the MSNBC lineup, its host a refreshing contrast with the pit-bull-in-a-bar of Chris Matthews’ interrogations on “Hardball” and Keith Olbermann’s channeling of Ed Murrow by way of Bob & Ray on “Countdown.”

If we could, we’d tell her: We’re three months into this relationship, Rachel, and, well, it’s mostly working. It’s clicking. Relax. Don’t try quite so hard.

◊ ◊ ◊

MSNBC’s decision to put a brash, whip-smart, politically progressive on-air personality on her own show has had dividends, of course, beyond the scope of her talent. Maddow is the first openly gay or lesbian commentator in prime-time cable history, but Maddow, as some of her interviews make clear, would have risen to the top of the news-commentary crowd regardless. Smart, funny and fiercely principled are character traits that don’t answer to sexual preference, last time we checked.

Since “Maddow” launched on Sept. 8, she’s come into her own in following the tough act of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.” There’s been evidence of the same kind of early jitters of any prime-time program, and some singular to Maddow. She’s sometimes self-deprecating to a fault, too apologetic, too willing to undercut her own acerbic, erudite, over-the-top sense of humor with “just kidding” or “I’m joking” — qualifying language that suggests, if only for a moment, an insecurity about both the erudition of her comic aside and the ability of her audience to recognize it for what it is.

Subconsciously, and despite working such high-profile gigs as covering the most momentous presidential election in history, Maddow still knows she’s the new hire. Beyond that intrinsically nerve-wracking situation, there’s the extra baggage of being a trailblazer, with all the expectations that trailblazing engenders.

But Maddow hasn’t been afraid to embrace the role of our surrogate on national affairs. We’re confused about the $700 billion bailout? So’s she. We’re worried about the mischief George Bush is still capable of before leaving office? So’s she. There’s a feeling of wanting to belong that’s beyond just building an audience; Maddow’s not afraid to ask politicians and experts the questions we’d ask if we had the chance, and ask them with the same emotional temperature of any concerned citizen.

◊ ◊ ◊

Some aspects of the show we can frankly do without. Like the Maddow show set’s Pantone-patriotic, red-white-&-blue color scheme. The look, reflecting a kind of studied immediacy, visually undercuts her authority on topics of the day. We’re not looking for Doric columns and mahogany furniture, mind you, but there must be a better, less patriotically garish backdrop for her brand of smarts.

There are issues, too, with the “Just Enough” segment, which closes the program. Until recently, Maddow preceded the segment with the statement that, paraphrasing, she needed someone to give her “just enough” pop culture news to keep her conversationally viable at cocktail parties and in the modern world. She’s joined by “pop culturist” Kent Jones, who presumes to lead Rachel through two minutes of the latest news and oddities of pop culture.

The disingenuousness of some of this exercise may have finally come home to Maddow and the show’s producers; lately they’ve gone straight to Jones for his two minutes without Maddow’s explanation of his reason for being there.

It makes sense; Maddow portraying herself as a pop-culture Luddite flies in the face of what’s happening around her. Maddow led Out magazine's "Out 100" list of the "gay men and women who moved culture" in 2008. Podcasts of her MSNBC show are available on iTunes. She's down with Twitter.

Rachel, Rachel: With facts like that in your bio, you don’t need anyone to hold your hand and lead you to pop culture. Right now, in important ways, you are pop culture.

Another thing: faster cutaways to commercials are needed; as it is the camera lingers seconds too long on Maddow, who’s justifiably self-conscious about looking into the red eye with nothing more to say until after the break.

But these are quibbles. In her maiden voyage, Rachel Maddow has so far parlayed a formidable intellect and a telegenic personality into a franchise of her own. Gender preference aside, Maddow’s blazing a whole ‘nuther trail, combining humor with civic accountability as a cable-news personality who's nothing like the Multiple Wise Men we’re used to.
Image credits: Maddow (top): Associated Press. Maddow (flag): via

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Failure by numbers

When all the talking points have been retired (along with some of the people who came up with them), when the masters of spin walk off arm in arm with the masters of war, the enduring arbiter of how well or how poorly a president did while in office is a matter of numbers.

In the presidency, like in baseball and higher mathematics and the daily figures on the stock exchange, the numbers will tell the truth when the administration — any administration — tends to be, uh, accuracy-challenged. Especially when that administration is forty-one days from being history.

Not that anyone in the world is counting.

◊ ◊ ◊

Leave it to ProPublica, a young nonprofit Internet-based newsroom that focuses on investigative journalism, to offer several meaningful snapshots — numerical report cards, really — of the highs and lows of the administration of George W. Bush, mercifully near an end.

The whole thing deserves to be seen at the ProPublica site, but we’ve broken out some of the more compelling figures comparing the United States now and the United States when George Bush took office on Jan. 20, 2001.

For the most part, it’s not a good report. From the state of the economy to the number of unemployed Americans, from the number of Americans without health insurance, the ProPublica report points, with the agony of historical comparison, to a damaged, wounded nation with vast work to do repairing an economy in tatters, a brutalized armed forces and a national debt not likely to be retired by even our children’s children.

There are some bright spots for the beleaguered Bush White House. Example: Under the current administration, U.S. government funding for AIDS anti-retroviral drugs to African nations and other countries deeply affected by HIV/AIDS increased dramatically.

One can only guess the number of lives saved by this ongoing intervention — one of the truly principled moral stands by a government often accused of insensitivity and indifference to those beyond the water’s edge.

(But there’s tarnish even in that triumph; the administration has come under fire for withholding AIDS prevention funds from countries, pursuing a strategy of abstinence-based policies that fails to confront the problem from a less ideological perspective.)

◊ ◊ ◊

The Bush crew has done its level best to further its reflexive practice of message control, the manipulation of perception that will be the hallmark of the Bush White House, doing everything they can to spin the history of this administration before it’s even ended.

But ProPublica’s graphic distillation of the Bush record is the concrete of policies, and the factual consequences of those policies, that’s hardening around the feet of the brain trust at the Bush White House.

These then-and-now snapshots are the Bushies’ worst enemy, the unspinnable facts, cold and clinical and nonpartisan, a reflection of a tragically adventurous, strategically hubristic, fiscally profligate administration out of touch with the country, and the world, it presumed to lead.

Image credits: ProPublica.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Shinseki to VA: One leader hails another

A host of leftist hothouse flowers (genus: impatience) have lately been calling for President-elect Barack Obama to follow though on their idea of a campaign pledge and stroll out on the nearest large body of water while healing the broken economy, resolving world conflicts and restoring the national brand around the world — and do it before you take office, please. Sir.

Quietly, and thankfully, Team Obama has gone about its business and ignored the restless ones inclined to look past governing as process, the ones who want the signing ceremony yesterday.

On Sunday, Pearl Harbor Day, it got even harder to deny, or even doubt, the quickly evolving political acumen of Barack Obama.

The president-elect went some distance to repairing the government’s bond and pledge to its soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan with his latest nomination: former Gen. Eric Shinseki to be the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

"There is no one more distinguished, more determined, or more qualified to build this VA than the leader I am announcing as our next secretary of Veterans Affairs -- Gen. Eric Shinseki," Obama said at a press conference in Chicago.

"No one will ever doubt that this former Army chief of staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans. No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure they have the support they need,"

◊ ◊ ◊

Shinseki spoke truth to power in February 2003, when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers would be required" to quell sectarian disturbances in Iraq. Shinseki’s statements were said to anger then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Within months of his testimony, Shinseki resigned. In keeping with a soldier of deep loyalties, Shinseki kept his counsel, apparently making few comments about the circumstances of his departure from military service, but secure in his knowledge that he’d done the right thing.

On Sunday, the next president essentially told Shinseki, a fellow Hawaii homeboy, that he had his back.

“No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure the have the support that they need,” Obama said. “A graduate of West Point, General Shinseki served two combat tours in Vietnam where he lost part of his foot, and was awarded two Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars.

“Throughout his nearly four decades in the United States Army, he won the respect and admiration of our men and women in uniform because they have always been his highest priority. He has always stood on principle, because he has always stood with our troops. And he will bring that same sense of duty and commitment to ensuring that we treat our veterans with the care and dignity that they deserve …”

◊ ◊ ◊

As with many things Obama, there were layers of nuance and substance below, or beyond, the nomination of Shinseki. We’re left surprised at how many different things one nomination for an administration post could achieve, at so many different levels.

First, Obama’s choice of Shinseki points to a Democratic president-elect comfortable with the presence of principled military power in the White House. Obama’s centrist positioning system may inflame the deep left field, but it makes sense now that the campaigner has become the president-elect. A fairly obvious tacking to the center reflects, ironically enough, precisely the kind of independent thinking the nation voted for.

Naming Shinseki to head the VA, Obama has made the choice of a capable, principled military leader to helm a critical agency at a critical juncture of the nation’s history, and he's done it on his own terms, according to his own principles, rather than obedience to political reflex.

◊ ◊ ◊

Not that there wasn't a political elbow being thrown. Selecting Shinseki for this post is Obama's first real sharp stick in the eye of the Bush administration and its handling of the veterans of the war in Iraq. In one stroke, the Democratic president-elect breaks the Republican grip on the stereotype of GOP concerns for a strong military. The hothouse crew overlooks the ways in which Shinseki at VA is a stunning rebuke to the Bushies.

Then, Obama’s obligatory tribute to the veterans of Pearl Harbor Day, and the remembrance of their sacrifice, took on a resonance beyond the ritual marking of the day. He timed this nomination — one that still matters deeply to veterans — to that “day of infamy” to underscore the importance of protecting (Lincoln again) “those who have borne the battle” in an unmistakable way.

Obama’s nomination of Shinseki fulfills a pledge of achieving diversity within his Cabinet and his body of advisers. If — when — confirmed, Shinseki would be the first Asian American secretary of a presidential administration. And by nominating Shinseki, a Japanese American, for the post on Pearl Harbor Day, Obama does what he can, incidentally but unmistakably, to disperse whatever residue of anti-Japanese resentment remains among the dwindling generation of veterans who remember firsthand the horrors of Dec. 7, 1941.

◊ ◊ ◊

In his farewell speech in June 2003, Shinseki sent a message of what he stood for, a message that would become, five years and change later, both an exposition of the failures of the administration about to exit the White House, and a challenge — and a warning — to the new crew about to move in.

Shinseki was speaking of the military and its leaders, but he might as well have been speaking of the nation, and its leaders.

“You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader,” he said. “You can certainly command without that sense of commitment, but you cannot lead without it. And without leadership, command is a hollow experience, a vacuum often filled with mistrust and arrogance.”
Image credit: Shinseki: Charles Dharapak, Associated Press. Pearl Harbor survivors: Chief Mass Communication Specialist Don Bray, USN.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Presidential morphology

Change has been the mantra of the Barack Obama presidential campaign, and it's already the foundational theme of his administration-to-be.

But if you really want to see electoral change in action (with a little of the digital image enhancement known as morphing), check this video of the 44 men elected President of the United States, from Washington to the O-man. The soundtrack, the slowest portion of Ravel's "Bolero," didn't work for us, but you could almost watch it without any music.

The main attraction is in the faces, the poses, the expressions. It's an American history lesson: 44 men in four minutes. Note the shifts in sartorial style, the predilection for facial hair or its absence.

And check out that big change at the end, a change that's more existential than cosmetic. Marvel again at the chameleon possibilities of these United States.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bearding the lioness

“Every picture tells a story,” the man said. We’re not sure who said it first — Rod Stewart or Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera — but it’s a saying that was maybe never more true than it was on Monday morning at a press conference at Obama transition headquarters in Chicago.

At some point in the proceedings, photographer Jim Watson, of Agence France-Presse and Getty Images, took an evocative shot of three of President-elect Obama’s national security team: current-and-continuing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; national security adviser-designate James Jones; and the next secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. And therein lies the story.

Jones, standing behind Gates and Clinton, appears to be looking at both of them the way he might have eyed targets on the gunnery range all those Marine Corps years ago. Gates, about to exit the frame, seems to be concentrating elsewhere, officious, businesslike, maybe a little resigned, the old spy’s poker face intact, his eyes lowered, focused on pressing business in the middle distance.

While in the foreground, Hillary Clinton bears an expression that conveyed the gravity of the moment, the weight of her pending new responsibilities. And something more.

Look closely. Is that a look of … worry on the face of Clinton, for years the leader of her own political parade? Was it concern on the brow of Hillary? Did Jim Watson capture just the slightest suggestion of an obstacle to her political aspirations — a deer in the headlights?

Sooner or later, faces don’t lie, and at that moment the face of Hillary Clinton betrayed nothing so much as a wariness, almost a bewilderment at the speed of current events and her place in them.

See, for the first time in her long public career, Hillary Clinton is taking orders of national policy, taking direction, from a President of the United States. That never happened in the White House with Bill!

Her expression, however brief it may have been, seemed to convey her understanding of that fact. The stakes just got higher. The game has changed, and for the first time in her political career, she’s being dealt the cards instead of dealing them herself. This is terra incognita for Hillary Clinton.

At various levels of the public-policy debate, as a first lady and a senator and a candidate for the presidency, she has long been the master of her own political agenda. That ended, at least for a while, on Monday morning in Chicago.

And the potential adversary she might be the most concerned with isn’t Obama. It’s James L. Jones, Jr.

We can’t be too precise about what it is, but there’s something about the look, the presence of the former NATO supreme commander, Bronze Star recipient, Silver Star recipient, Middle East envoy and Marine Corps commandant that is compelling. We get the feeling right away: James Jones will brook no foreign-policy freelancers in the Obama White House. It’s in the cut of his jib and the authority of his resume; when this guy said “Follow me!,” manly men damn well did just that, willingly, eagerly. James Damn Jones! That’s a Soldier’s name, the name of someone you’d be proud to march with, to serve with anywhere from … from here to eternity.

◊ ◊ ◊

Over the top? Mea culpa. But there is a widely-held belief that Jones, besides being an able negotiator who eschews conflict, is also necessarily a capable infighter and wily to the ways of Washington, a veteran of not only the military but also the little warfares of the business and diplomatic worlds. Jones brings the gravitas of years spent abroad in the service of national interests, in several different capacities. His acumen as an administrator, his aplomb on the world stage, his sense of discipline rival Hillary Clinton’s own. If he landed on a tarmac near Kosovo, chances are pretty good he really was under fire.

The choice of James Jones for national security adviser may be the strongest signal yet of Barack Obama’s intention to correct perhaps the more perverse, and ultimately tragic, diversions of power over the last eight years. In the Obama administration, foreign policy will emanate from the White House, and nowhere else. It’s a recentralization of not just power but also philosophy of global political leverage that has been long overdue, one that (thank you, Harry S Truman) refocuses the responsibility for foreign policy on the president who devised it.

Slate's Fred Kaplan observed: "While introducing his national-security team ... Obama said that he likes to be surrounded by 'strong personalities and strong opinions.' Jones is certain to be one of them; he's not merely a staff officer; he has his own set of strong views. ... However, his main mission under Obama—and he must have known this when he agreed to take the job—will be to make sure that, once the debating is done, all those strong personalities will carry out the president's decision."

Truman’s famous desk sign read “The Buck Stops Here.” As Obama begins to follow through on the transformation of campaign pledges to presidential policies, as he returns control of foreign policy to the highest levels of the executive branch, he’s sending the signal: With all that's at stake, for all practical purposes, he is the Buck.

◊ ◊ ◊

James Jones knows it, and so does Hillary Clinton. But this all requires a greater experiential pivot for Clinton, being as it is a profound shift in the arc of her political ambitions. She will offer a huge and indispensable assist in the furtherance of the new national agenda vis-à-vis international relations, but the primary thrust of that agenda originates with someone else. It’s not her show any more.

Kaplan, Slate: "It is unlikely ... that Hillary Clinton has inclinations to the contrary—and not just because she appreciates Gen. Jones' bureaucratic prowess. Even accepting the critique that she is looking out above all for her own political future and legacy, she has almost certainly read enough history to know that the most renowned secretaries of state are those who lock step with their presidents—and that those who angle in dissent turn out badly."

In a way, Monday represented a kind of bearding of the lioness in a den that is not her own — and for her detractors, it’s a weird, cheap, ironical triumph to see her working for the man she failed to defeat for the presidency. But there’s no serves-you-right moment here, there’s nothing even remotely consolational about being the American secretary of state — second in the line of presidential succession in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world.

Hillary Clinton will still wield a big stick. A lot’s riding, in both the immediate future and as far away (or as soon) as 2012, on what she does with it.
Image credit: Gates, Jones and Clinton: Jim Watson, Agence France-Presse/Getty Images. Clinton: SEIU Walk a Mile In My Shoes 2008. Jones: Public domain.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The change we voted for

As President-Elect Barack Obama has rolled out his Cabinet and advisers on an almost daily basis, discontent has smoldered among some in the leftist aspect of the Democratic base, grumbling about the absence of progressives among the Obama ministers. That hungry part of the base was placated last week when the stock market showed great signs of life, with the greatest four-day point gain in generations.

But more recently, they’ve grown restive again with the news (long since leaked) that Sen. Hillary Clinton was to be named the next secretary of state.

On Monday at transition headquarters in Chicago, Obama officially introduced his national security team: Eric Holder, former deputy attorney general, nominated to be U.S. Attorney General; former NATO supreme commander and Marine Gen. James Jones, named national security adviser; Susan Rice, former deputy secretary of state for African affairs, named U.N. Ambassador (now a Cabinet-level position again); and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, tapped to be Secretary of Homeland Security.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a member of the Bush administration, was asked to stay on.

“At a time when we face an unprecedented transition amidst two wars, I have asked Robert Gates to continue as Secretary of Defense, and I'm pleased that he's accepted,” the president-elect said.

And … as expected, Obama names Hillary Clinton the next secretary of state.

“I have known Hillary Clinton as a friend, a colleague, a source of counsel, and as a campaign opponent. She possesses an extraordinary intelligence and toughness, and a remarkable work ethic. I am proud that she will be our next Secretary of State. She is an American of tremendous stature who will have my complete confidence; who knows many of the world's leaders; who will command respect in every capitol; and who will clearly have the ability to advance our interests around the world.”

With this the fire drills began. Progressives, activists, reporters, bloggers, pundits, people who ought to know better started running around, hair on fire, howling about the absence of transformation promised during the campaign, in some variation of a stock market dictum: Grumble on the rumor, scream on the news. “Gates? Clinton? Where is the change?” they scream.

While there’s justifiable concern as to how these disparate talents will mesh, it’s premature, and frankly just silly, to suggest that the Cabinet-level officers and others named so far and the others to come don’t represent change. What they point to again is our collective inability to catch up to Obama, our new president-elect, the smartest guy in the room, and the change we voted for.

◊ ◊ ◊

Some of the most profound and meaningful things we experience — in science, in music and culture, in every manifestation of life — aren’t the result of brand new, sui generis devices, processes or events. They’re not as much new in themselves as they are the inventive recombination of the familiar, the recognizable — that which we’ve previously experienced. The Obama Cabinet, as it is emerging, may be another such example of change within the context of continuity.

The combination of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — that blend of Experience and Change dangled in front of us for months during the campaign season — has actually happened. And it’s happened in ways that may prove more effective than if Clinton were the Vice President-Elect.

Last night, talking to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, Madeline Albright put many things in perspective — especially the potential for creative tension within the Obama administration, and the ways in which that tension is change, and the positive kind, at that.

“This is a pretty dramatic break” with the past, Albright said. “What you have are people who have thought a great deal about 21st-century problems, who have views about the issues that are out there … very knowledgeable … that are prepared to give a variety of opinions to the president-elect — I think that’s what so interesting — instead of the kind of groupthink we’ve had for the last eight years.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Part of this drumbeat of discontent of journalists and others isn’t to be taken seriously. It’s the natural contrariness of the 24/7 media, its love of clash and drama, as well as a populist restlessness intensified by life in the Internet era.

Count on it: If Barack Obama had swept in and named a Cabinet of relative unknowns and innocents to the ways of politics and government, the punditburo would be up in arms about Obama making too much change too fast, about that Cabinet being too inexperienced, about Team Obama not having a “deep bench,” about the next president fielding a team that was “too light” to get across the goal line.

What’s a president-elect with a mandate to do? You stick by your guns. You dance with the meme what brung you to the party.

And that’s about where Barack Obama is right now. As he rolls out the rest of his Cabinet, we probably shouldn’t expect any surprising, left-field names. Above just about anything else, Obama values competence, and competence is a byproduct of experience.

◊ ◊ ◊

Look at it like this: Who do you want working on your house? Do you want a contractor who knows his way around, someone who comes to your home with recommendations and a portfolio of his past work? Or do you want someone whose eagerness outstrips his understanding, someone with no record, or a lesser track record, just because he’s a fresh face you’ve never tried before?

That should be an easy call (especially considering the work of the outgoing contractor, who tried to tear the house down).

O ye of flaming hair, calm down. Chill. It’s 49 days before Obama raises his hand to become the next president, and already he is well ahead of his predecessors in both naming his Cabinet and defining at least some of the issues that will be his administration’s immediate concerns.

This is what change truly looks like: a process and not an event.

This is becoming the change we voted for.
Image credit: Obama national security team: Clinton and Obama: Charles Dharapak, The Associated Press.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Obama, Africa and AIDS

The Iraq war and the human and economic fallout that followed will, now and forever, be the primary legacy of the Bush administration. The estimated $580 billion spent so far in the war's prosecution will have repercussions on American foreign policy and the nation's domestic agenda for years to come. The nearly 4,200 American lives lost in that war will resonate with the families of those who died for longer than that.

History will pick and choose from any number of other disasters that George Bush and his advisers presided over, from a mismanagement of the housing crisis and its spillover into the wider economy, to the tragic debacle of Hurricane Katrina. But there's one area in which the Bush White House has excelled, if only by comparison with previous administrations.

Bush's President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) have brought AIDS drugs to almost 3 million people in poor countries, more than under any other American president. The program was reauthorized in expanded form by Congress in July.

When Bush launched PEPFAR in 2003, about 50,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa got anti-retroviral treatment. PEPFAR now supports anti-retroviral treatment for nearly 1.7 million people in the region – and more people around the world, according to The White House.

"The evangelical community raised the awareness of HIV and AIDS to the president," said Rep. Donald M. Payne (N.J.), a ranking Democrat on the House International Relations subcommittee on Africa. "When the Bush administration came in, HIV and AIDS were not an overwhelming priority. Now we have seen a total metamorphosis," Payne told the Post in December 2006.

President-elect Obama thus inherits the responsibility of building on the one global initiative that the Bush administration has, by any reasonable yardstick, gotten mostly right. A lot is riding on what he does, and how soon he does it.

Obama has promised to eliminate obstacles that may have slowed progress of the very program the Bush administration created. He's expressed a commitment to end the Prostitution Loyalty Oath, which requires that U.S. and foreign non-governmental organizations that get U.S. funding must adopt a policy opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.

Obama has backed renewed emphasis on the use of condoms over more ideological approaches stressing abstinence and fidelity. And in October 2007, while still a candidate, he signed a pledge (conditional on winning the presidency) to increase funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and to consider creation of a Cabinet-level agency focused on preventing poverty in the developing world.

◊ ◊ ◊

As evidence of Obama's intent to "hit the ground running," it's a very good start — or it at least has the potential to be one. The President-elect has promised to make focus on AIDS in Africa one of the centerpieces of his first 100 days in office. But other events, global and domestic, have occurred more recently — developments that could derail Obama's efforts to usher in the changes on the timetable he proposed as a candidate.

The crisis in the domestic economy remains a top-shelf concern; the new president will face a daunting challenge from "day one" to keep his pledge of creating 2.5 million jobs over the next two years. Estimates of the cost of plan to rescue an economy hobbled by a mortgage meltdown begin, conservatively, at $500 billion.

And in recent days a new global hot spot has emerged — re-emerged, really — with the deadly terrorist violence in Mumbai. Those attacks on India's most international city are believed by many to have originated in Pakistan. There's a chance, therefore, that India and Pakistan — longtime antagonists that are now both nuclear powers — may resort to their old combustible relationship, this time with the risk of a nuclear confrontation.

Add these relatively recent developments to an already full plate of issues to be addressed — the Iraq war, the war in Afghanistan, the health-care crisis, the need for dramatic action in defense of the environment, and a rising chorus of voices for efforts toward U.S. energy independence — and it's clear that even the most ambitious timetable vis-à-vis AIDS in Africa could be sidetracked.

Here's hoping that doesn't happen.

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In his World AIDS Day speech on Dec. 1, 2006, two years ago today, Obama framed the issue of AIDS in an undeniably all-inclusive context borrowed from the Biblical book of I Corinthians:

"We are all sick because of AIDS, and we are all tested by this crisis. It is a test not only of our willingness to respond, but of our ability to look past the artificial divisions and debates that have often shaped that response. …

"Neither philanthropist nor scientist; neither government nor church, can solve this problem on their own. AIDS must be an all-hands-on-deck effort." 

As President-elect Obama builds his Cabinet, there's every reason to believe this "all-hands-on-deck" approach will inform his strategy against AIDS in the developing world — despite the potential distractions of flashpoints around the globe.

It's an approach that Obama — not as a senator, not as a candidate, but as the next U.S. president — should revisit, not as an idea but as a reality, not as a promise but as a policy.
Image credit: AIDS ribbon: Wikipedia (Netherlands), republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Map, AIDS infection rates in Africa: Sascha Noyes (2004), republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Map data: UNAIDS.
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