Thursday, January 31, 2008

Survivors (Democrats’ edition)

The Democratic Party's coronation machine has been at it again lately, the boiler stoked by some in the media who have been ready to proclaim the drive to the party’s nomination all but over, especially with the withdrawal of former Sen. John Edwards, an amiable but fiercely dedicated voice in the debate, and one we’ll miss. Sen. Hillary Clinton has been already named the presumptive winner. But not so fast. Sen. Barack Obama, the victor of the most recent Democratic primary that had any delegates at stake, is leading in the delegate count.

Why, then, is Clinton seen as the frontrunner? It’s the latest curious appearance of that conventional political wisdom, the groupthink pronunciamentos of the boys and girls of the Beltway — and it ain’t necessarily so.

Let’s drill down into what faces the two survivors in the Democratic contest:

Hillary (the Empress) Clinton lays solid claim to being the historical frontrunner; her past role in the front-passenger seat of White House history is undeniable. With a well-funded campaign, a raft of advisers and political instincts borrowed from hubby Bill, she has a gravitas that precedes her handsomely.

Positives for Clinton: The win in the New Hampshire primary made her a force to be reckoned with all over again. The senator from New York brings a well-oiled machine into Super Tuesday. She's thought to have the women's vote locked up, as well as many states in the west, including the delegate mother lode of California. And there's also the intangible sense of inevitability Clinton has worked hard to convey, a sense that, despite everything thrown at her, she remains the one to beat. Intangibles are emotions, and politics can't exist without them. As a known quantity and a beneficiary of the momentum of the role of women in American life, Clinton is ready for battle.

Negatives for Clinton: It's been said before: Nothing would unify the Republicans like Clinton as the Democratic nominee. Ironically, some of her strengths as a known political operative work against her, too. That inevitability she's worked hard to establish from day one of her campaign has come across as a sense of entitlement, almost an arrogance that's put many would-be supporters off. Her biggest champion, husband and former president Bill Clinton, has lately been as much a liability as an asset, overshadowing the candidate at the very time she needs to be asserting her independence, her own indelible voice. And despite her best efforts, Hillary Clinton remains yoked to an unpopular war -- and by extension, to the Republican administration that made that war possible.

Barack (the Phenom) Obama has been a game challenger, with a solid fundraising presence on the Internet and a stature as the first truly credible African American candidate for the highest office in the world. HIs delegate lead is slim, but ample evidence of his political credibility going into Super Tuesday.

Positives for Obama: The junior senator from Illinois has electrified American politics like no one in recent memory. With the strength of his convictions, a history as a reformer and a politician unafraid to reach across the aisle, and a soaring oratorical style that has brought many in his growing audiences to tears, Barack Obama is beneficiary of his own intangibles and that rarest of presidential candidates: a man commanding a deft blend of passion and policy, one whose pursuit of the office alone has already made him a historical figure. That combination has brought on a string of high-profile endorsements, including the backing of Sen. John Kerry, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, the Chicago Tribune, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, and some in the Kennedy family including Sen. Ted Kennedy, lion of the Senate, and Caroline Kennedy, whose recent op-ed in The New York Times cemented an emotional link between Obama and the still-powerful spectre of John Kennedy, the senator who became president on the strength of a vision of the Great American Possible.

Negatives for Obama: Some of the senator's negatives stem from his relatively short time on the national stage. He is untested as a leader at the highest level (a fact that's not so much a contrast with Clinton as it is a statement of fact on its own). But many of the more compelling negatives for Obama are matters of perception. Time and again, politicians, the press and the public have said that the country "isn't ready" for a black president (betraying more about them than about the country or the candidate). Despite such backward perceptions, those feelings are real and deeply rooted in the American experience. As such, they represent the biggest challenge to the Obama campaign: a need to conquer not only the other candidates but also the immovable force of a racial history that is, in too many tragic ways, less history than current events.

With the Democratic field narrowed to two (after the withdrawal of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a presidential aspirant almost as inspiring as Obama), the choice of either survivor will make history. This tribal council -- the citizens of 22 states (and American Samoa) -- will decide on Tuesday.
Image credits: Clinton: Public domain. Obama: transplanted mountaineer, used under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license > Wikipedia

Survivors (GOP edition)

The chattering class on the Potomac has done its best to come up with informed, Solomonic calculations of the probable winners and losers of the national canvass on Super Duper Monster Tsunami Tuesday, Feb. 5. But a fresher look at various underexplored dimensions of the electorate, and the impact of recent wins by candidates in both parties, point to surprises ahead. The one certainty in this presidential campaign is that the conventional wisdom may not be wisdom at all.

Let’s break down who’s still standing on the GOP side of the aisle:

Arizona Republican Sen. John (Lazarus) McCain. All but left for dead by the pundits not so long ago (yes, Culchavox wrote him off, too), McCain has come roaring back with huge wins in the South Carolina and Florida primaries, establishing solid momentum heading into Super Tuesday, and besting the more comfortably-financed campaign of Mitt Romney two weeks running.

Positives for McCain: The Big Mo, of course. Victory can be contagious and as more of the GOP faithful get ready to vote on Tuesday, the more there’s a sense that McCain may be the one candidate that moderates in the party can get their hearts around. He’s wearing the mantle of the Comeback Kid, and everybody loves a comeback.

Negatives for McCain: His appeal with many in the party is hardly a slam-dunk. Conservative radio attack dog and one-time pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh has vilified McCain on the radio, claiming that the senator’s conservative bona fides ain’t bona enough for him to gain the nomination. Some others on the right have called his personal attributes into question. And then there’s the question of money; McCain’s believed to be driving his campaign bus on vapors, and it’s a long way to the nomination in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt (ATM) Romney. Mitt’s been thought to be coasting since his win in the Michigan primary. With Rudy Giuliani’s exit and Mike Huckabee’s gear stuck in third place, Romney has the advantage of focusing the electorate’s mind on a two-person race.

Positives for Romney: Mitt brings solid financial gravitas to the GOP campaign in a time when the national economy is in a downward spiral. His rep as a best-of-breed corporate turnaround specialist, and an apparently growing self-confidence after one of the most recent debates point to a willingness to stay in it for the long haul. His deep war chest, and a personal net worth in the nine figures point to an ability to stay in it for the long haul.

Negatives for Romney: His wins and near-wins have been hit or miss, and rightly or wrongly, a sense may be building among voters that Romney’s peaking too late, like a football team that desperately fights to come from behind, fighting to get back in the fourth quarter the momentum it had in the first. One more silver medal may be enough to disqualify him from the Nomination Olympics.

Huckabee’s gone as far as he can go on charisma and playing bass guitar [see “The Mike Huckabee Show”]; with single-digit finishes in the last two contests, he’ll be passing the hat at campaign rallies from now on. Right up until he pulls the plug.

So finally, this herd of elephants is thinned out enough to see which one will limp home victorious. Pre-Election Election Day is dead ahead.
Image credits: Both images public domain

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Yes, he can

A rout. A thumping. A buttwhipping. Pick your favorite noun to describe an absolute, inescapable vote of confidence in the idea of change, and an equally inescapable repudiation of business as usual.

If you haven’t heard — if you’ve been under a rock a mile underground somewhere — Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois won the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday, handily defeating Sen. Hillary Clinton by a huge double-digit margin, and sending the clear unmistakable signal that his campaign is well beyond the quixotic, unrealistic images painted by a Billary Clinton campaign more desperate by the day.

In one day the Obama campaign has made good on its initial pledges of being a truly national effort, by reaching black voters (a given in South Carolina), young voters, women voters, older voters and white male voters in the first real coalition of Americans — not just Democrats — the country’s seen in far too many years.

In one day Barack Obama has done nothing less than recalibrate the Democratic presidential campaign, restating the party agenda with language that soars and inspires, invoking a message that resonates.

In practical terms, it’s a whole new race for the White House.

Hillary Clinton, canny pol that she is, didn’t even bothering waiting around for the postmortem. “Mrs. Clinton’s advisers were minimizing the importance of South Carolina even before polls closed, saying the primaries in Florida on Tuesday and in a swath of states on Feb. 5 were of more importance,” Patrick Healy of the New York Times reported. “But she will have to reckon with the rejection of her candidacy by black voters and the mixed support she received from white Democrats and younger voters here — two groups she must have by her side in order to build a cross-section of support in the coming contests.”

“The Clintons will now have to deal with a perception of hollowness about her strategy, that she is leaving it to her husband to take care of things and allowing him to overshadow her political message,” said Blease Graham, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina told The Times.

“We have the most votes, the most delegates … and the most diverse coalition of Americans that we've seen in a long, long time,” Obama told ecstatic supporters at a rally in Columbia, S.C. “You can see it in the faces here tonight. They are young and old; rich and poor. They are black and white; Latino and Asian and Native American.”

And before Obama hit the stage, and again as he addressed them later, his supporters chanted something that really symbolized the power of his building coalition — the sort of “gorgeous mosaic” that David Dinkins hailed years ago in his successful drive to be the first black mayor of New York City.

“Race doesn't matter! Race doesn't matter!”

◊ ◊ ◊

“We're looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington,” Obama said. “And right now, that status quo is fighting back with everything it's got; with the same old tactics that divide and distract us from solving the problems people face.”

"We are up against the idea that it's acceptable to say anything and do anything to win an election," Obama said, in a not-quite-obvious shot at divisive comments made against the senator by former president Bill Clinton, who’s tried to minimize Obama at every turn — even slyly invoking the race card. “We know that this is exactly what's wrong with our politics,” Obama said at the rally. “This is why people don't believe what their leaders say anymore. This is why they tune out. And this election is our chance to give the American people a reason to believe again.”

The crowd roared back, “Yes we can!” 

The way Obama smoked the opposition proved him ready to challenge, in his words, “the assumption that young people are apathetic … the assumption that African-Americans can't support the white candidate; whites can't support the African-American candidate; blacks and Latinos can't come together."

It got better for the junior senator from Illinois before he even left the stage in Columbia. The talking heads at the networks reported that Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, would emerge from a largely private life to make a rare public statement, and an even rarer political endorsement.

“Over the years, I've been deeply moved by the people who've told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president,” she wrote in an op-ed in the Sunday's edition of The New York Times. “That is why I am supporting a presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama.”

For Obama, that hosannah from the daughter of Camelot must have been especially sweet coming in the pages of The Times, which endorsed Hillary Clinton for president a few days before.

◊ ◊ ◊

Saturday’s mini-landslide — Obama won by 27 percentage points, single-handedly winning more votes on his own than were cast in the entire South Carolina Democratic primary in 2004 — and the Kennedy endorsement puts the Hillary Clinton campaign in a serious box.

Much has been made of Clinton’s formidable organization: the war chest, the name recognition, the ties to her husband, the most revered Democratic politician in recent memory. It’s these weapons she’ll be calling on between now and Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, a day in which more than 1,600 Democratic delegates will be in play across 22 states, the closest thing to a general election we’ll have before the real thing, exactly nine months later.

But right now, it’s not about fundraising, it’s not about organization, it’s not about the ground game, it’s not about any of the usual, comfortable metrics of American politics. It’s about digging down to reach a spiritually exhausted electorate where they live, deep in their hearts, deep in the soil of their aspirations for something more. Something better.

Despite the Clinton campaign’s past (and no doubt future) attempt to undercut the groundswell of feeling that’s building for Obama, that tidal wave of passion, of emotional connection to a candidate, is building. And there can be no successful drive to the White House without it.

Any attempt by Billary to short-circuit the emotionalism of the Obama campaign will likely fail. The reason why is simple enough: Right now, America wants more than someone to agree with. America wants someone to believe in. With every passing day, with every vote cast, with every nervous pundit, with every new endorsement from unlikely corners, more and more people are starting to believe in Barack Obama.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Bright lights, duplicate city

Maybe the number of ideas out there for fresh, original television series is smaller than we thought, or maybe the number of network executives with fresh, original ideas is dwindling. Whichever situation happens to be the case, there are two new prime-time TV series (one launched earlier this month, one to debut soon) that strongly suggest prime-time TV is more incestuous than we’d ever believed possible.

We’re referring, of course, to the shows “Cashmere Mafia,” which debuted on ABC on Jan. 6, and “Lipstick Jungle,” set to grace the airwaves of NBC on Feb. 7. The plotlines of each or either of these shows, which you can guess from the titles, is basically the same: Career Girls Take On New York City in a Quest to Have It All. Let the madcap misadventures begin. Then get the cancellation notices ready.

“Cashmere Mafia” explores the exploits of four beautiful, ambitious young women on different career paths, working to effect the right work/life balance as they navigate the wild shoals of modern Manhattan. The show stars Lucy Liu (the “Charlie’s Angels” films, “Kill Bill”) as a high-powered publisher; Frances O’Connor (“Windtalkers,” “The Importance of Being Earnest”) as a high-powered manager of mergers and acquisitions at a major New York company; Miranda Otto (the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, “War of the Worlds”) as the high-powered COO of a major hotel chain; and Bonnie Sommerville (“NYPD Blue,” “Friends” and “The O.C.”) as the high-powered VP of a cosmetics company.

These four musketeers cope with marriage (two are married), family issues and professional rivals in this “dramedy” created by Kevin Wade (who wrote the 1988 film “Working Girl,” starring Melanie Griffith) and executive produced by Darren Star (more about whom shortly).

The public reaction to this “Mafia” hasn’t been promising. The pilot aired Jan. 6, with almost 11 million viewers, and each successive episode has slipped in the ratings. It’s down to about half of that initial viewership, a fact that doesn’t bode well for the future.

Maybe something more positive will happen in the “Lipstick Jungle,” which NBC launches next week. “Lipstick Jungle” examines the lives of three beautiful, ambitious young women on different career paths, working to effect the right work/life balance as they navigate the same wild shoals of modern Manhattan. “Jungle” is inhabited by Brooke Shields (veteran of TV, Broadway and four seasons of “Suddenly Susan”) as a high-powered movie studio exec; Kim Raver (“Third Watch,” “24”) as a high-powered fashion magazine editor; and Lindsay Price (“Becker,” “Beverly Hills 90210”) as a high-powered fashion designer.

One of the denizens of the “Jungle” is married; the rest play the field in a New York City teeming with eligibles in this “dramedy” based on the best-selling novel by Candace Bushnell (more about whom shortly).

You can’t make this up. Well, actually you can. They’ve been doing it for years – “they” being Star and Bushnell, the two pivotal talents behind HBO’s breakthrough series “Sex and the City.”

You remember “Sex and the City.” That series, produced by Star and based on an earlier Bushnell novel, ran for six seasons and featured four beautiful, ambitious young women on different career paths, working to effect the right work/life balance as they navigate those doggone crazy shoals of modern Manhattan.

With not-so-high-powered characters we actually cared about and storylines extracted from real life, “Sex and the City” was something of a breakthrough for cable television (cementing "Manolo Blahniks" in the lexicon of popular culture). If “Cashmere” and “Lipstick” survive, we’ll be told that they're breaking new ground in broadcast television. But these three shows all owe a debt of gratitude -- if not royalties -- to a pioneer of this brand of urban adventure.

All three of them sprang from the brow of the author Rona Jaffe, who, as a 25-year-old associate publishing-house editor, wrote and in 1958 published the best-selling novel “The Best of Everything,” a book that delved into the intertwining lives of five young career women who worked for a New York publisher. A book that became an Oscar-nominated film. A book that became the template, intentionally or not, for “Sex” and “Cashmere” and “Lipstick.”

The bright lights of New York City have dazzled countless others for decades, women and men alike. Now in the terrorist-conscious, multiculti 21st century, that singular experience deserves a real makeover. Maybe with different kinds of people, facing other challenges in different walks of life. It’s a shame that, in a TV season already light on genuine dramatic diversions, we get to watch retreads of retreads. For all their best intentions, and despite weeks of hype, “Cashmere Mafia” and “Lipstick Jungle” are likely to be a long way from the best of anything.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Heath Ledger (1979-2008)

The news hit like a punch to the solar plexus, or, more to the point, straight to the heart. Heathcliff Andrew Ledger, one of the most powerful and promising actors of his generation, was found dead Tuesday at his apartment in lower Manhattan. He was 28 years young.

The particulars are the stuff of the police blotter. According to New York City police, and a story in today's New York Times, a housekeeper had arrived about 12:30 p.m. to do household chores, and entered the bedroom to change a light bulb in the adjacent bathroom, and found Ledger face down on the bed, with a sheet pulled to his shoulders, and reportedly snoring. A masseuse arrived about 2:45 p.m. to give the actor a massage, and when he did not emerge by 3 p.m., called his cellphone and received no answer. The masseuse entered the bedroom, began to set up the massage table, and tried to awaken the unresponsive Ledger. Other phone calls ensued, including one to 911. Paramedics tried to revive him, but couldn't.

"The police conducted tests on a rolled-up $20 bill found in Mr. Ledger’s apartment, but found no evidence that the bill had been used for anything improper," The Times reported today. "No illegal narcotics or alcohol was found in the apartment. Prescription sleeping pills were found near the body, but it is not known if the medication played a role in his death."

The blogosphere is already aflame with various scenarios as to what happened, from cardiac arrest to sleep apnea, from an accidental misuse of prescription drugs to the fruition of a misspent life debauched by drugs. What's undeniable is the loss of a major talent in the ascendancy.

In relatively few films, Heath Ledger established himself as one to watch. With performances as varied as Ennis Del Mar in his breakthrough "Brokeback Mountain" to his affecting role as Mel Gibson's son in "The Patriot," from teen heartthrob confections like "10 Things I Hate About You" to his portrayal of a scruffy veteran of the Venice Beach surf scene in "Lords of Dogtown," from the title role in a dashingly romantic biopic "Casanova" to his upcoming role as the Joker in "The Dark Knight," Ledger deployed a vision and breadth of talent not unlike that of Daniel Day-Lewis, Sean Penn, Dustin Hoffman or Kevin Spacey -- the ability to lose oneself in a role, to make moviegoers forget, however briefly, that there's an actor in a performance on the screen in front of them.

Writing in today's New York Times on Ledger's stunning turn in "Brokeback," A.O. Scott got it pitch-perfect: "What made the performance so remarkable was that Mr. Ledger, without betraying Ennis’s dignity or his reserve, was nonetheless able to convey that truth to the audience. This kind of sensitivity — the ability to signal an inner emotional state without overtly showing it — is what distinguishes great screen acting from movie-star posing. And while Mr. Ledger was handsome enough, and famous enough, to be called a movie star, he was serious enough, and smart enough, to be suspicious of deploying his charisma too easily or cheaply."

Our tendency to scold and second-guess will find ample outlet until the full investigation is completed, and no doubt after that. But it says so much more that such a strong and diverse body of work could come from an actor this young. "Mr. Ledger’s work will outlast the frenzy," Scott writes today. "But there should have been more."

Once more the lights go down on a life too soon. Once again we're forced to contemplate, if not say out loud, the four saddest words in the language of our lives: What might have been ...
Image credit: Ledger as Ennis Del Mar in "Brokeback Mountain" ©2005 Focus Features

Law & Order: Ex-Candidate

“I hope that my country and my party have benefited from our having made this effort,” Fred Thompson said Tuesday as part of a three-sentence statement. “Jeri and I will always be grateful for the encouragement and friendship of so many wonderful people.”

And just like that, the field of Republican candidates for the nomination tightens by one more. Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee, and once-popular film and TV actor, pulled the plug on a presidential campaign that, by even the most generous estimations, was going nowhere fast, and had been from almost the beginning [see "Law & Order: Missing Candidate," "Law & Order: Blindsided Candidate"].

The decision came after Thompson finished a dismal third-place on Saturday in the South Carolina primary, bringing up the rear in a state he'd hoped to win at least partly on the basis of regional affinities.

Thompson's failure to catch fire has been blamed on any one of several factors. He got in too late with too little money. Chaos and dissension within his campaign's ranks was too widespread. The candidate didn't fully grasp some of the details and facts he needed to be effective on the stump and at the debate lectern.

Some say he never found his niche in the campaign. “[I]n South Carolina, he talked more and more of his Christian faith, attacking gay marriage and abortion. But there, too, he found himself boxed in, as Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist minister, had laid a deeper claim to evangelical Christian voters,” the New York Times reported Tuesday.

Others thought his style was too phlegmatic, too laid-back to get any emotional traction with voters. And then there's the fire-in-the-belly issue: many people questioned how badly Thompson wanted it.

Our studio audience has some other ideas. Sam, posting at Web site, weighed in: "He had a strange belief that Internet hype would translate into votes without having to put as much work into the local politics. From the very beginning it was clear their strategy was mass media, and not hundreds of local events. A candidate can effectively use both, but you can't ignore the local joe who is not living on the blogs or watching 24 hour news shows on politics."

Betty in Baltimore, also posting on, offers what may be the unkindest cut of all. “The dude would have won in 1808, no question.”

They don’t play in Baltimore.

Now comes the question of where his supporters turn now. Thompson campaign advisers said he wouldn't make an endorsement in the race, at least not yet. Conventional wisdom right now suggests that Thompson's exit favors John McCain or Mike Huckabee the most.

Whoever carves up the spoils inherits delegates and campaign workers eager to hustle for a conservative with the ground game and the gravitas to win. Meanwhile, Fred Thompson can watch the next debate from the comfort of home, secure in the love of a wife and two young children -- and with a grateful nation's thanks that he stopped the bleeding when he did.
Image credit: Fred Thompson campaign, uploaded to Flickr by Ferrylodge > licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license > Wikipedia

Monday, January 21, 2008

The murky waters of Florida

Florida isn’t likely to be the land of milk, honey and resolution the Republicans think it will be in the runup to Super Tuesday. With the field of the party’s most viable contenders for the nomination effectively winnowed to four (thanks to the long-overdue exit of Duncan Hunter), the GOP leadership has held out the hope that, on primary day Jan. 29th, the big orange — its delegates and its profile on the national political scene — might be the clarifier in a crowded, compressed campaign. Florida, however, may end up clarifying just how murky and unclear the status of GOP frontrunner really is right now.

Look at what’s happened to this point: Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses. Mitt Romney won the Wyoming caucus and the Michigan primary. John McCain won the South Carolina primary. Giuliani hasn’t won anything. With results like that, could anyone name a frontrunner?

Now look at what Florida is likely to yield for each candidate:

Giuliani: Rudy Giuliani has been in Florida for forever and a day, shoring up his bona fides with the state’s retirees, many of whom are New Yorker expats with second or third homes in the state. Giuliani will gain some traction for having been in Florida for so long, as well as residual goodwill for his role (real or otherwise) as New York’s mayor in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

McCain: John McCain, as resolute a cold warrior as there ever was, can count on some support in the Sunshine State from its active-duty and retired personnel, many of whom will be inclined to back the Vietnam War veteran on the basis of having borne the battle, in war and in Congress.

Huckabee: Wunderkind Mike Huckabee will surely siphon some of Florida’s delegates because of a strong evangelical/fundamentalist contingent of voters in the state.

Romney: And Mitt Romney is likely to hold his own there, using his reputation as a millionaire and a big-business turnaround specialist to woo the state’s business community and its more bottom line-minded retirees. Romney can also be expected to get goodwill votes on the strength of wins in Wyoming and Michigan.

Clearly, no one’s got a lock on anything just yet. And that uncertainty is likely to carry into Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, with its delegates across 22 states hanging in the balance.

Also, one can’t overlook the Thompson variant. Since former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson — a reliable third- or fourth-place finisher so far — is still in the running, there’s a good chance his flailing campaign could draw down just enough votes to dangerously tweak the results for any of the other four candidates (though he’s likely to do the most damage to Huckabee).

All in all, it makes for an interesting race on the Republican side one week from Tuesday.

Florida orange juice was never this cloudy before.
Image credits: Top: Released to public domain. Second image: National Atlas (public domain). Third image: U.S. Mint (public domain).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Arming the adversary

There’s an underexplored facet of the Iraq war that may be the best reason for a prudent, methodical exit from the country, a reason to leave that’s at once compelling and ironic: Glock by Glock, one rocket-propelled grenade after another, our arsenal is being used to supply and fortify the very insurgency we’re presumably there to defeat.

The United States has, conservatively, spent $500 billion to date in the prosecution of the Iraq war. Billions more are already committed. The theoretically endless supply of weapons, vehicles and ammunition already ferried into Iraq, and the supplies that are in the pipeline, will increase the same vehicles, weapons and ammunition our troops are facing now and will confront in the future — weapons, vehicles and ammunition now in the hands of the insurgents.

Far-fetched? Over the top? It’s not even new. In August 2007 NPR’s “All Things Considered” examined the growing gun trade in the region, reporting that U.S. weapons donated to the Iraqi police were turning up on the black market in Turkey.

“In the border town of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, officers unwrapped 18 Austrian-made Glock pistols and laid them on a table,” NPR’s Ivan Watson reported. “Mardin Police Chief Ismet Tasan said the guns were originally donated by the U.S. military to the Iraqi police. The pistols were later sold to arms dealers in northern Iraq for more than $1,500 apiece and then smuggled to Turkey, where they can be resold for prices as high as $5,000. ...”

“Turkish officials say this seizure is just the tip of the iceberg.”

That may be a gem of an understatement. Watson reported that “a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report … found [that] the Department of Defense cannot account for 190,000 pistols and rifles that were distributed to Iraqi security forces during the first two years of the U.S. occupation.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The scale gets bigger still. The Government Accountability Office reported in August 2007 that the Defense Department and U.S. forces on the ground could not account for another 135,000 pieces of body armor, and 115,000 helmets issued to Iraqi forces between June 2004 and September 2005.

"They really have no idea where they are," said Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, told Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post in August 2007. "It likely means that the United States is unintentionally providing weapons to bad actors."

Like we said, it’s obviously nothing new, but it’s getting worse. In a December 2007 exclusive, CBS News’ Laura Strickler reported not on the weapons and ammunition missing, but about the vehicles that were unaccounted for. “Tractor trailers, tank recovery vehicles, crates of machine guns and rocket propelled grenades are just a sampling of more than $1 billion in unaccounted for military equipment and services provided to the Iraqi security forces, according to a new report issued ... by the Pentagon Inspector General.”

And researchers at the Center for American Progress gave a breakdown of some heavyweight military machinery, some of which may or may not have been included in the CBS News/Pentagon report.

The Center reported that the United States military in Iraq has lost 20 Abrams M1 tanks, 55 Bradley fighting vehicles, 250 Humvees, 20 M113 armored personnel carriers and 109 helicopters. There are standing armies whose whole, gross military budgets are less than the cost of what we’ve lost track of.

◊ ◊ ◊

You shudder to think of how much of this is on the black market in the region. We can’t help but wonder if somewhere in Iraq there’s a real-life version of Milo Minderbinder, the avaricious U.S. Air Corps mess officer turned black market war profiteer in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” a self-made Halliburton who sold shares in himself and commandeered American war materiel for sale on the black market around the world.

But we really fear the prospect of some new well-armed “bad actor,” another maverick extremist with a vendetta against the United States and the hardware — from small arms to tanks to helicopters — to give that vendetta teeth.

We’ve spent almost half a trillion dollars. Joseph E. Stiglitz, the former chief economist of the World Bank and co-winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics, has suggested the total Iraq war costs will be between $1 trillion (a conservative assessment) and $2 trillion in a moderate scenario.

The war’s costing us our future’s future, but it might be cheap against another metric: The only thing ultimately more expensive than arming your army is arming your adversary.
Image credits: Glock: Reed Williams (public domain). Armed Marines: Lance Cpl. Miguel A. Carrasco Jr., USMC (public domain). Abrams tank: Defense Department (public domain).

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tube roses & thorns V


Chris Matthews, MSNBC’s fulminator-in-chief and host of the network’s “Hardball” program, apologized yesterday for slipping his leash on a recent broadcast, a broadcast with statements that suggested a man and a television program format out of control, statements that point to someone dangerously close to committing media suicide.

In language that was hardly anodyne, Matthews made nice — after withering protests from women’s groups and pressure from his superiors at the network — for post-New Hampshire primary remarks he made on Jan. 9 on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program about presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton, words he now admits were "nasty."

Matthews implied Clinton's post-White House political career got started by way of sympathy arising from her husband Bill Clinton's affair with former White House aide Monica Lewinsky. On "Morning Joe," Matthews said "the reason she's a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around."

Slowly but steadily, a firestorm of criticism began to build. The leaders of the National Organization for Women, Feminist Majority and National Women's Political Caucus sent a letter of complaint to NBC News president Steve Capus, a man no doubt still smarting from the mea culpa he had to perform in the wake of the Don Imus scandal last year [see "Imus, Act III," "Imus, arise!?!," "Back in the saddle again"]. One group picketed NBC's offices on Nebraska Avenue NW yesterday afternoon as a protest, the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz reported today.

On the Jan. 17 edition of his freewheeling program, Matthews did his own All Apologies tour defending much of what he said as legitimate commentary, but adding: "was it fair to imply that Hillary's whole career depended on being a victim of an unfaithful husband? No. And that's what it sounded like I was saying."

Drawing an analogy of unfairness between his comments and saying that John McCain’s political success was a direct result of having been shot down in the Vietnam War, Matthews said: "Saying Senator Clinton got where she's got simply because her husband did what he did to her is just as callous, and I can see now, came across just as nasty -- worse yet, just as dismissive." Matthews said he would be "clearer," "smarter" and more respectful in the future.

With a gaffe of this magnitude, and his belated contrition for it, Chris Matthews is well on his way to becoming the Don Imus of the Beltway, a D.C. practitioner of the same bellicose, ill-conceived, towel-snapping vitriol that got Imus fired in April — dismissed from the same cable network for similar insensitivities about America.

Like Imus, Matthews has recidivist tendencies. In the joint letter, other egregious examples of Matthews’ bad behavior were catalogued. "Chris Matthews is a repeat offender when it comes to sexist attitudes toward women politicians," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, to Kurtz of The Post. "I wasn't really looking for an apology. I was looking for a behavior change, and for him to treat female politicians the same way as male politicians."

Kurtz reported: “As criticism from liberal bloggers and others mounted over the past week, top MSNBC officials urged Matthews to apologize, according to network officials who would not be identified discussing internal deliberations. But Matthews dug in his heels, deciding to deliver the mea culpa only after he had returned from a Democratic presidential debate sponsored by the network in Las Vegas.”

In a recent interview with Kurtz, Matthews stuck to his guns, saying he was correct in linking the Monica Lewinsky affair to Clinton's successful senate campaign. "I thought what I said was unexceptional about what happened back in '98," he said. "She was facing a trial by fire, and the fire was her husband. I knew I was speaking bluntly, but does anyone disagree?"

Toward the end of the Thursday program, Matthews sought to further get a grip on the gravity of his misstep, saying his comment "came over as dismissive, and that's my fault. Maybe I should have said it was an irony."

Note to Matthews: Maybe you shouldn’t have said it at all. Maybe you should have considered how your behavior crosses the still-bright line between reporting and opinion, and how your actions have the potential to affect the outcome of the Democratic campaign by inserting statements by the media into a national debate the media shouldn’t be so much a part of. Ya think?

Exclusionary rule

The Matthews deal was just the latest display of arrogance by MSNBC (the cable network whose online division was our former employer). Last week, the network sought to exclude Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich from the Jan. 15 Democratic debate, going so far as to petition the Nevada Supreme Court to enforce their exclusion — something entirely at odds with a free press in an open society. The state’s high court ruled in favor of the network, reversing a District Court ruling, so MSNBC prevailed in a court of law.

The court of public opinion, however, was another story. The blogosphere lit up when MSNBC won the decision, with comments decidedly against the network. It’s clear from at least some reactions that MSNBC may have won the battle but it’s beginning to lose the war for the hearts and minds of its viewers.

“Absolutely shameful. NBC is in the wrong, morally and legally. It does not serve the public interest to exclude Kucinich -- unless "public" means "corporate," one blogger wrote at the LATimes Web site.

Another: “This is a travesty, an abomination and proves that network conglomerates do not have the public interest at heart.”

Another: “This is infuriating. Pure madness. I'll never watch MSNBC again.”

Still another: “I'm astounded to hear that the candidates are not given equal opportunity to express their intentions, values, thoughts and be heard by the general public. When did everything become so calculated?”

This is bad public reaction that no amount of media spin can change, but curiously it's bad PR that MSNBC doesn't seem to much care about. Which is both strange and sad. With one needlessly calculated move, and through one program host too opinionated for his own good, MSNBC further alienates the press from the public it purports to serve, and sends the signal that it may have lost its way -- and its populist heart -- as an independent newsgathering organization.
Image credit: Matthews: Bbsrock > Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license > Wikipedia. Kucinich: Diz28, released to public domain.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The daily noose

Our country's tortured, tangled racial history -- that briar patch we try to negotiate, that minefield we desperately try to stay clear of -- recently claimed two new victims, both part of a news media that really should know better by now.

The latest case of accidental insensitivity began on Jan. 4, in a broadcast on the Golf Channel. Kelly Tilghman, one of the channel's anchors for coverage of the Mercedes-Benz Championship in Hawaii, was talking with golf legend Nick Faldo, and speculating on the likelihood that Tiger Woods, a golfer for all time, would win the event.

Tilghman, a former touring golf professional and the PGA Tour’s first female lead on-air announcer, talked on the air with Faldo, jesting about what younger golfers could do to stop the force of nature on the links that Woods has become since winning his first Masters in 1997.

"To take Tiger on," Faldo said, "well, yeah, they should just gang up for a while until -- "

"Lynch him in a back alley," Tilghman interrupted with a laugh, speaking in apparent jest and with no malice aforethought.

“That’s right,” Faldo said.

The more ethnically sensitive among you will notice the word "lynch," a word synoymous with an action freighted with an anguished history for African Americans. Tilghman was advised, after the broadcast, that she had uttered the unforgivable, given both the current national touchiness about race matters, and the deep impact Woods has made on the game as a golfer without equal. Tilghman was suspended on Jan. 9 for two weeks, despite an apology to the Golf Channel, its viewers and Woods (a friend of Tilghman for a dozen years).

The verbal faux pas reverberated quickly. Al Sharpton weighed in on CNN, saying the comment was “an insult to all blacks” and calling for her firing.

Woods, the soul of graciousness, said through his agent that "regardless of the words used, we know unequivocally that there was no ill intent in her comments." There almost certainly wasn’t – any more ill intent than when Faldo said “yeah, that’s right” after Tilghman’s comments, almost as a congenial conversational reflex (not much has been made of that).

Golfweek magazine, in its role as a monitor of news events in the golfing world, picked up on the Tilghman suspension with a cover story that sought to put the incident into proper journalistic perspective. Golfweek published the cover story the next week. But Golfweek illustrated its cover story with ... a dangling noose against a purple sky. The cover lines: “Caught in a Noose: Tilghman slips up, and Golf Channel can’t wriggle free." You cannot make this stuff up.

Dave Seanor, the editor who approved the cover, was fired by the magazine, which offered an apology. A statement from the president of Golfweek's parent company admitted that the magazine was “trying to convey the controversial issue with a strong and provocative graphic image. It is now obvious that the overall reaction to our cover deeply offended many people. For that, we are deeply apologetic.”

Seanor told the New York Times' Richard Sandomir that he only meant to make a point about a controversy encircling Tilghman, the Golf Channel and the game itself. “There weren’t a lot of other ideas for the cover," he said. "Either you put Kelly out there or this image, which is emblematic of what this controversy is about.”

Setting aside for now why Kelly Tilghman wouldn't have been just as emblematic of the controversy -- since it started with her in the first place -- we have to wonder how an editor of a top-flight magazine could be so tone-deaf to some of America's deepest sensibilities. The image of a noose still has a deep and agonizing resonance for black Americans.

"Lynching is not murder in general. It is not assault in general,” Sharpton said after the Tilghman jibe. “It is a specific racial term that this woman should be held accountable for," he told CNN.

The Golfweek cover took a bad situation and made it worse -- something that PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem recognized, in a statement calling the cover imagery “outrageous and irresponsible.” He added, “It was a naked attempt to inflame and keep alive an incident that was heading to an appropriate conclusion.”

Our take on Tilghman? As a daughter of the South (born in South Carolina), maybe she was victim of some latent strain of her upbringing, a stray meme of her state's Confederate heritage that surfaced for an unfortunate, inexplicable second. We'll never know. But her two-week suspension is punishment enough on an immediate basis. For all her trailblazing in golf and broadcasting, no matter what else she does in life, Tilghman will wear this bright scarlet asterisk — will face the ugliest sort of suspicion — for the rest of her days above ground.

She shouldn't be subject to any more enduring condemnation, shouldn't be faced with loss of her livelihood any more than Don Imus, the shock-jock radio nitwit whose years-long pattern of over-the-top bigoted remarks finally got him briefly fired -- and then rehired by a different news outlet, for millions of dollars.

One ridiculous error in the heat of conversation shouldn't define an otherwise promising career. It shouldn't be so for Kelly Tilghman any more than it was for Al Sharpton, who had his own trial by media fire some years ago for making an ill-advised decision. Paging Tawana Brawley ... Paging Steven Pagonis ...

The third rail of race -- the cry of "racism" -- still carries a dangerous voltage in America. We shouldn't go near it if we don't have to. And we don't have to now.
Image credits: Tiger Woods: PaddyBriggs, Wikipedia project > released into public domain; Tilghman: The Golf Channel; Golfweek cover: Turnstile Publishing; George Meadows, lynching victim: Public domain

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ads hominem

There's more evidence that it's an advertising world and we're here to make impressions and offer eyeballs. A recent trip to San Francisco yielded two new and fairly novel ways for companies to get their point across.

En route, at Seattle-Tacoma airport, the captive audience being genially goaded into the quasi-strip search in the security line -- tens of thousands every day -- is asked to remove its shoes. And there, in the bottom of the bins where you put your shoes, are ads for Zappos, the upstart Las Vegas-based online footwear company that lays claim to some 4 million customers. In language meant to give you a brief chuckle while the TSA minions give your iPod a fourth or fifth going-over, Zappos has exploited a fact of life in the post-9/11 world and made it its own, with both a savvy understanding of the new terrorist age and a canny way to move shoes down its own conveyor belt -- from the factory to the buyer.

In a similarly sly way, Honda has discovered how to reach San Francisco folks in a place you wouldn't expect. On at least one of the Bay Area Rapid transit trains running between the Embarcadero and Montgomery Street, riders glancing out the window saw more than the tunnel walls as the train whizzed past. It's some kind of a movie, a tweak on the special effects of "Minority Report," an advertisement for one of the auto industry's newest cars flickering by like an Eadward Muybridge motion study. There's no giveaway at first as to who's responsible ... until the stylized H of the Honda logo blinks up. Another reach for the wallet.

A little cooler than skywriting, we must admit, and not as temporary. But still, we wonder what's next. Advert implants at birth, with refresher programming imparted at will by the GPS satellites circling the globe?

Paranoid? Ridiculous? Yeah, a little. But only a little.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Sign O the times

The specifics of the ever-ascendant Obama campaign have been examined inside and out, six ways to Sunday; journalists and instapundits like Culchavox will go a long way to make sure that microvetting process continues. But there’s one aspect of the Obama campaign identity that hasn’t gotten much attention, something that seems to be working almost subliminally.

In a phrase: “Gimme an ‘O.’”

The Obama campaign logo has proven to be an incredibly versatile avatar for the candidate and his message, in ways that aren’t immediately apparent.

The logo has a visual appeal that extends beyond the usual tiresome variations on a flag-draped theme we see so often in candidate logos. It’s an overdone trope of American politics: the candidate’s name side-swiped by a rising star (see John Edwards’ logo) or intertwined with a tweak on the colors of the American flag (look at Hillary’s logo). All of which makes the Obama logo such a striking departure.

On the Obama campaign Web site blog, one woman, “Obama Mama,” took note in a posting from last Feb. 22:

“One huge trend in design right now is the circle. Circles represent infinity, protectiveness (think of encircling arms), and even the Earth. Many women I see wear a diamond circle on a chain around their necks. You see retro circle designs on everything from lithographs to home decor to wrapping paper … This is why I think the graphics people for Senator Obama's campaign are right on the money. Using the O from his name to design his logo is both clever and creative.

“And, as a side note, being a suburban woman, I can safely say that many women I know associate O with Oprah (not to mention the catchphrases "the Big O" and "it's all about the O") ...”

The Obama logo as a subliminal reference to orgasm? We’d rather not go too far in exploring this last point. Some things are best left speculated about — in private.

On the same Web site last Feb. 14, Tower9 explores another side to the logo’s possible subconscious appeal. “Instead of a design it's a message. It appeals to the right brain and conveys an [unconscious] message with archetypal images. … It's the world with a rising sun. It's a row of farmland with a vanishing point going off towards the future. It's America's road to the future, and the circle represents wholeness.”

The Obama campaign has also released variations on its own theme, tweaks in the initial design that embrace various groups. One emblazoned with the words “Obama Pride” adopts the rainbow motif of the GLBT community. Another one, headed Kids for Obama, is an apparently hand-drawn variation of the Obama logo, done in what looks like crayon. The symbol for Environmentalists for Obama features the Obama logo rendered in earth tones — green and gold.

“Know your audience,” the phrase goes. Whether it’s a phrase originally meant for actors, lawyers or authors doesn’t really matter. That advice has a new adherent in the world of American politics.

We’re waiting on the bumperstrip for Concrete Formsetters for Obama.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

All of the above

Now it gets interesting.

Did you see it last night? Sen. Hillary Clinton, digging in at the plate, last of the ninth, two away, two strikes down in the count, swings for the fences — and parks it in the centerfield stands.

Long thought dead in the New Hampshire primary, a walkover for Sen. Barack Obama in the drive to the nomination, Clinton got the political resurrection of her political life, winning the first Democratic primary in the nation — barely.

Once again the press is sitting around scratching its collective blowdried head as to how they got it so wrong. How did this happen? At least four possibilities come to mind:

(a) There was a sympathy vote for Clinton based on voter reactions to the Saturday debate and the Portsmouth incident [see “Misty”], and the sense that the media was piling on.

With so much talk about an Obama juggernaut in the media in the days before New Hampshire voted, with talking heads all but rolling the tumbrels up to the Clinton campaign’s door, the media may itself be partly to blame for skewing the results in their thirst for history-making blood.

(b) Clinton may have won the New Hampshire primary in no small part because of nothing more than a resistance on the part of one state to look as though it was following in lockstep with an earlier state’s beauty contest. New Hampshire is well known for going its own way on matters of politics. As a state with a large number of independent voters and a reputation for a strong attention to the political scene, New Hampshire’s contrarian vote may have not much more than saying to Iowa, “Oh yeah? Well, we’ll show you — take that!”

How better to reinforce the state’s fierce, almost crotchedy electoral independence than to come back with a primary vote that’s completely different from Iowa’s? They don’t like being suggested or told what to do — that’s why they live in New Hampshire!

(c) Some of the people who responded to polls before the voting and exit polls after weren’t telling the truth. This in some ways is the most disturbing. In past American elections the possibility of poll-respondent deception has come up, often connected with races involving nonwhite candidates.

But it remains an inescapable possibility. The fact that no fewer than nine polls all got the outcome wrong suggests either a problem with long-validated polling methodology or, shall we say, untruths by the people who answered the polls.

Or (d) all of the above.

The answer, (d), of course, reflects all the ways Hillary Clinton has become, for now, the frontrunner, the beneficiary of a confluence of events her strategists couldn’t see coming, the bottler of that day’s lightning who at a rousing victory speech thanked all of the angels above her head, and her staff, and the blind collisions of history, chance and desire that makes American politics what it is.

Now it gets interesting.

Because reactions by some women voters suggest that her lock of women voters isn’t absolute. ABC News reported that the woman whose question at the cafĂ© in Portsmouth was the stimulus for Hillary’s emotional response voted for Obama.

"I went to see Hillary. I was undecided and I was moved by her response to me," Pernold Young said in a phone interview with ABC. "We saw ten seconds of Hillary, the caring woman."

"But then when she turned away from me, I noticed that she stiffened up and took on that political posture again," she said. "And the woman that I noticed for ten seconds was gone."

Pernold Young was wasting her time if she expected scenery-chewing from Hillary Clinton. She’s got too much … experience for that. And generally, public figures have more at stake keeping their composures when we’d lose ours. It goes with the territory. But others in the blogosphere have vented their doubts about Clinton’s sincerity — a relatively minor matter that could come up again during the campaign.

And note, too, the margins of victory for each candidate in each state. Obama won the admittedly more informal Iowa caucuses handily, besting Hillary by almost double digits. The New Hampshire contest was much closer; Obama lost by somewhere between 2 and 3 percent in a race that was, for most of the evening, too close to call. That’s hardly a resounding endorsement for Clinton.

“This is very personal to me,” Clinton said in Portsmouth, N.H. — uttering a sentiment that, guaranteed, is felt by every other aspirant for the most powerful job in the world. Hillary’s near-tears moment may have the unwitting effect of validating what everyone knows, and ratcheting up the emotional degree of the campaign for everyone. Now, with Super Tuesday dead ahead, there’s more to fight for.

Now it gets interesting.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Plan B (1)(a)

Momentum is a powerful thing. In politics as in physics, momentum can be the irresistible force that makes supposedly immovable objects change their minds. On the basis of early exit polling from voters in New Hampshire, what may be developing is a momentum behind the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. The polls don't close for hours yet, but the media is reporting a raft of new strategies for the Hillary Clinton campaign -- strategic equations that use defeat as a baseline value.

You could call the new Clinton approach "Plan B," except they've already done that. After Iowa.

"With Barack Obama strongly favored -- even within Hillary Clinton's camp -- to win a second straight victory in today's New Hampshire Democratic primary, both rivals are looking to the next battle grounds," Jackie Calmes reports in today's Wall Street Journal. "But his momentum threatens to swamp her in the next two states as well and shows signs of fracturing her support in the party establishment."

"Already," Calmes writes, "some Clinton associates have begun lobbying for her early exit if she loses the primary by a big margin, as polls suggest she could. ...

"The road may get harder immediately after New Hampshire," Calmes continues. "The all-important Culinary Workers union in Nevada, the next state to vote on Jan. 19, is considering backing Sen. Obama a day after a New Hampshire win, say some high-ranking Democrats. The support of the state's largest union by far would virtually hand him a victory in the labor-dominated caucuses there, Democrats say. And the Clinton campaign is considering effectively ceding South Carolina, which votes a week later. Her once-strong support in the state's large black population eroded and Sen. Obama opened a big lead in polls after Iowa's caucus results energized many blacks with the prospect that a man of their race stands a realistic chance of being nominated."

The uphill Clinton climb has some other problems, issues that point to why they're in the difficulty they're in. Even while dealing with fallout from the Portsmouth incident [see "Misty"], even while they are presumably in the process of tweaking/rethinking/recalibrating the Clinton message, a senior Clinton adviser -- by accident -- revealed at least one of the faults built-in to the Clinton bid for the White House.

MSNBC's Dan Abrams, back on the air again, interviewed Clinton senior adviser Ann Lewis on Tuesday, asking her, generally, "How'd this happen?"

At first Lewis assumed the obvious reflexive crouch. "Oh, I'm not looking backward today, I'm looking forward." [Cue the Fleetwood Mac song. You know which one.]

Then Lewis said, "Looking back at Iowa ... it is clear we didn't do all we could in terms of reaching out to younger voters. We have definitely corrected for that ... "

Thus, with lightning speed four days after Iowa, the Clinton campaign has "corrected" a situation that took months to occur, has suddenly discovered that there are millions of new voters out there that they haven't been reaching -- and now they're reaching them! Problem solved, let's move on.

And that's the problem. The Clinton camp suggests they think recognition of a still largely undiscovered bloc of voters -- younger, more entreprenurial, more politically maverick, more likely to communicate by cell phones instead of land lines -- is something that's achievable overnight, that it's an event or a milestone rather than what it actually is: a process, something that has to be organic and fundamental to the campaign to really work.

One reason for the success of the Obama campaign is his embrace early on of the demographic known as the millennials -- voters between 18 and 24 years old -- and the potential those voters represent. Obama got the need for young voters right outta the gate. The newness, the freshness of his insurgent campaign was a natural for a generation in the process of discovering itself and establishing its own priorities. In a very real way, the Obama campaign evolved with the millennials. Obama's reaping the benefits of that now.

The frantic weaves and feints of the Clinton campaign may come to nothing in New Hampshire; returns are due shortly. But Obama strategist David Axelrod, speaking to the Journal, has what might be solid advice for a Clinton post-Plan B: "I would spend more time trying to tell people why Hillary Clinton should be president and spend less of it about why Barack Obama should not."

Monday, January 7, 2008


It’s come to this. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the tough! tested! experienced! battle-heartened! inside-the-Beltway politico ready to be President of the United States had a little … moment today, in front of God, the press and the citizens of New Hampshire. Speculation has already started as to what kind of pivot point in the 2008 campaign it was: the first sign of Hillary revealing a needed human vulnerability in her machine-like drive to the Democratic nomination — or the first evidence of desperation in her so-far fruitless bid to derail the ascendant rival campaign of Barack Obama.

It happened in the hours before the first actual primary in the 2008 campaign, and just days after Clinton was soundly thumped in the Iowa caucuses.

Clinton was making a twelfth-hour appeal for support as she spoke on the eve of the state's primary, with a plurality of the polls showing her trailing Obama by almost double digits. It was part of the same appeal that, earlier in the day, had her campaign’s leadership calling her big-money donors, asking for, well, more big money (calls no doubt fueled by talk in some media outlets that, astonishingly, the Clinton campaign faced the prospect of running out of money before the expected delegate cornucopia of Super Tuesday in February).

Clinton's eyes welled up and her voice broke repeatedly while talking about her campaign with voters at the Cafe Espresso in Portsmouth, N.H. One sympathetic soul asked how she kept going in the relentless, front-loaded campaign. "It's not easy. It's not easy," she said.

"And I couldn't do it if I just didn't, you know, passionately believe it was the right thing to do," she said, voice cracking. "I just don't want to see us fall backward as a nation. ... "I mean, this is very personal for me. Not just political. I see what's happening. We have to reverse it."

The moment subsided fairly quickly, in under a minute, and there was no actual waterworks from the former first lady’s eyes. But Clinton was clearly near some brief personal precipice.

ABC News got the video … then Fox ... and the Information Age being what it is, that was that.

The Huffington Post screamed the news on its home page in a splash of verbiage and video that made you wonder how HuffPost would handle the Second Coming. And not surprisingly, the site’s bloggers weighed in, indicating some of the different ways voters could look at this spin-proof, misty moment.

Abdiel: Clinton had a mother moment -- and I actually found it refreshing. Up until now, I saw Clinton as a person methodically practicing an academic exercise. Now I'm more inclined to believe that she really DOES care -- that's something new. Didn't see that one coming.

Misterbone: Weird. Did we ever see this emotion even in the darkest days of the Lewinsky scandal? I have no issue with a touch of emotion, especially from a woman, but puh-lease, this is not genuine Hillary at all. She would NEVER let her guard down before the cameras...unless it was premeditated.

Rockyroad: Hillary had better watch out . . . she's becoming a joke. Just as adopting a Southern accent when addressing Southern audiences is cringe-worthy and patronizing, so is manufacturing crocodile tears to engender the empathy of women. As a strong, effective professional woman raised in the South, I find her tactics disingenuous, hypocritical, slimy and just plain offensive. She fails to demonstrate the qualities of leader.

No question about where John Edwards stands. The former senator from North Carolina, and Clinton’s other serious nomination rival, wasn’t buying it. "I think what we need in a commander-in-chief is strength and resolve, and presidential campaigns are tough business, but being president of the United States is also tough business,” he told the Wall Street Journal at a press gaggle in Laconia, N.H.

The Clinton campaign has been having major concerns about Obama since the Iowa debacle. Mike Allen and Ben Smith, of the Politico, noted how a planned negative campaign had been scuttled in the wake of fears of something they couldn’t control:

“The senator’s aides concluded that negative advertising would not work in the compressed time frame between Iowa and New Hampshire, adding to their worries about their ability to change a media and political environment that is embracing Obama as a historic figure. The campaign also worries that fallout from an all-out attack on Obama could harm Clinton’s plans to turn the Democratic race into a grueling marathon."

This is what’s facing Hillary Clinton right now: coming up with a campaign strategy that addresses the chance of someone else’s inevitability, dealing with a juggernaut that she's not a part of. She said early in the campaign that she’d never even considered the idea that she wouldn’t be nominated. Never crossed her mind.

Hillary Clinton may yet prevail. The delegate-rich event of Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, could be expected to boost her delegate count handsomely. And for however well Obama is doing now, some kind of deflation can probably be forecast for his campaign — maybe if no other reason than to cultivate a sense of drama in a campaign robbed of much of that by a ruthlessly abbreviated schedule.

The polling places in New Hampshire open shortly, and the first real quadrennial canvass of the national mood will get under way. Whether Clinton wins or loses, she’ll leave the state smarter by one truth, of both life and politics:

The only inevitable thing is disappointment.

Friday, January 4, 2008

They like Mike

Whether or not you agree with his politics, you gotta give Mike Huckabee credit: The man has the shrewd sense of a survivor, a finely-tuned appreciation for the timing and rhythms of television, and a mastery of campaign aikido that has elevated his presidential quest from the asterisk to the boldface almost overnight.

On Thursday, and almost in lockstep with his Democratic counterpart, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Huckabee captured the Iowa Republican Caucus, defeating challenger Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, by nine percentage points, and officially assuming the GOP campaign's Golden One status. For now, anyway.

"[T]onight is a celebration for everybody on our team, so many of you who have traveled from all across America to be here," Huckabee said at a raucous victory rally in Des Moines. "I'm amazed, but I'm encouraged, because tonight what we have seen is a new day in American politics. A new day is needed in American politics, just like a new day is needed in American government. And tonight it starts here in Iowa.

"But it doesn't end here. It goes all the way through the other states and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue one year from now."

It's left to Mitt Romney to pick up the pieces and figure out what happened. The Iowa aftermath should be especially galling for Romney, who outspent Huckabee by 15:1, only to settle for second place in the first contest that matters. If Romney'd been an employee in the private sector and presented his boss with that kind of return on investment, he'd have been fired.

Huckabee took a not-so-subtle shot at the Romney ATM campaign, saying "people really are more important than the purse, and what a great lesson for America to learn. Most of the pundits believe that when you're outspent at least 15 to 1, it's simply impossible to overcome that mountain of money and somehow garner the level of support that's necessary to win an election.

"Well, tonight we proved that American politics still is in the hands of ordinary folks like you and across this country who believe that it wasn't about who raised the most money but who raised the greatest hopes ... " A classic example of the martial art that calls for using your enemy's strength against him.

In Huckabee's speech one could also detect a reach across the aisle, what sounds like the barest outline of a pitch toward -- what, coalition government? "Americans are looking for a change," the former Arkansas governor said. "But what they want is a change that starts with a challenge to those of us who were given this sacred trust of office so that we recognize that what our challenge is to bring this country back together, to make Americans, once again, more proud to be Americans than just to be Democrats or Republicans. To be more concerned about being going up instead of just going to the left or to the right."

From Iowa it's on to New Hampshire, a state where Christians tend to hide the light of their religion under a bushel and keep it to themselves, hewing to the idea of faith as a private matter. Unilke the more upfront style of the evangelicals that helped Huckabee power to victory in Iowa. "In New Hampshire, only 18 percent of Republicans consider themselves evangelicals," Newsday's Craig Gordon wrote, "and many Republicans here take a dim view of candidates who wear religion on their sleeves." Gordon reported that analysts give Huckabee a probable third-place finish in New Hampshire.

But still, Huck's in a strong position. Finishing third in a state whose residents aren't his natural constituents isn't a bad thing. He's got a win. Romney needs one to stay viable, and Mitt's counting on regional affiliations to get him over in New Hampshire. That would seem to be a lock. Maybe.

For now, the momentum is with Huckabee. All eyes are on him to see if he can duplicate the impact of that TV masterstroke, when he went on the "Tonight" show the night before the Iowa caucuses and won it all the next day. It wasn't quite like Babe Ruth apocryphally picking his home-run spot or Joe Namath guaranteeing a Super Bowl win, but not bad for a novice to the national political game.

Some will no doubt get the water ready in case Big Mike wants to go for a walk.
Image credit: Huckabee: David Ball

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Breaking through

Tonight, three months shy of forty years after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an African American man made America dream anew, and dared that nation to make that dream real.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama won the Iowa Democratic caucus today, defeating a political veteran of the White House and the Senate; a game, tenacious newcomer; the cynicism of other politicians and the press; and for now, at least, beating back the persistent malignant notion that past must be prologue in American politics.

For one Democrat, speaking to the Associated Press, Obama's victory "proves that America is changing when it comes to race and politics."

"Tonight,” Jamal Simmons said, “Barack Obama has made it more true that every black child in America can do whatever they want to if they work hard for it — really."

In fact, Simmons' heartfelt reaction was only part of the story, which was everywhere Thursday evening. Obama, of course, never ran on a platform that could even be remotely considered racialist in scope. The junior senator from Illinois outlined the broader challenges to the country: affordable health care, restoring integrity to government, stewardship of the environment, moves toward independence from foreign oil, and an end to the corrosive debacle that is the Iraq war.

But the other, unspoken takeaway from Obama’s resounding win couldn’t be ignored: In a state with a minority population under 10 percent, a rural state famed for a no-nonsense approach to politics favored by its citizens – citizens older than the national average – Barack Obama put to rout the question of whether an African American candidate could ever be a serious contender for the most important job in the world.

And Iowans responded. “[W]hat seemed to drive them,” the New York Times reported Friday morning, “was the idea that Mr. Obama would present a new face for America in the world, with a coalition of Democrats and independents dispelling skepticism and flooding caucuses in all corners of the state to support a man who came to Washington only three years ago.”

“One of the charges against Iowa is that we don’t really represent the rest of the country, and here’s a chance to make a statement about the inclusiveness of Iowa,” Jon Muller, 42, told The Times.

"You know, they said this day would never come," Obama said in his victory speech in Des Moines, addressing a crowd all but ready for rapture. "They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.

"But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. You have done what the state of New Hampshire can do in five days. You have done what America can do in this new year, 2008."

Their mission, should they choose to accept it? "To end the political strategy that's been all about division, and instead make it about addition. To build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states.

"Because that's how we'll win in November, and that's how we'll finally meet the challenges that we face as a nation. We are choosing hope over fear."

NBC’s Howard Fineman, a lock to grasp the moment of such moments, understood both the challenge facing Obama in New Hampshire and the opportunity represented by Obama and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa Republican Caucus the same day.

Speaking of New Hampshire’s passionately independent voters, Fineman noted how “the interest that independent voters show, and that sometimes people from the other parties show, is a broader indicator of the excitement that some of these candidates are bringing to the campaign,” he said on MSNBC. “People don’t want your usual, traditional political candidates … At least in this first cut, voters are looking for outside-the-box candidates. That’s of appeal to independents.”

For Fineman, Obama’s race — race being the longtime third-rail issue in American life, the elephant in the room that has become the whole room in recent years — signifies “a generational change to a generation that, paradoxically, doesn’t look to race first. Obama’s race becomes a symbol for change, it becomes a mark of change, a measure of change from one generation to another.”

“The guy is a major phenomenon, he just is, and the whole world better look at him.”

For University of Toronto political science assistant professor Renan Levine, who teaches American politics, Obama is desirable "simply from the perspective that he would be a novelty.

“Research has shown voters are attracted to the idea of supporting someone who is a launching a historic campaign," Levine told the Web site in January 2007.

It may be too soon to know how much of Obama’s appeal is based on that sense of novelty, on the American inclination to try out the next big thing for a while, before moving on to something else. The Obama campaign heads now to New Hampshire, a state that is every bit as demographically white as Iowa is, and populated by a citizenry that is fiercely independent and deeply aware of the machinations of American politics.

But his message, hopefully importable to the Granite State, is clear:

A nation that has historically (and sometimes erroneously) thought of itself as a nation that thinks outside the box is ready for a true break with the divisive, antagonistic aspects of its past.

The days of this country being considered a convenient patchwork of warring political duchies, red and blue, are over. In Barack Obama’s cosmology, the nation has the opportunity to truly turn the page on its past, and return to the authority and greatness it deserves.

This is the vision he imparted to the crowd in Iowa (many reduced to joyful tears) and anyone in live-free-or-die New Hampshire, and everyone in the nation beyond:

This is the United States of America. There is no box.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Mike Huckabee Show

On Thursday, at long last, the Iowa caucuses begin. That daylong process starts the first official voting of the 2008 presidential campaign. The Republican candidates, eager to seal their respective deals with the citizens, are planning late-night/early morning vigils to get that last undecided voter. But where Mitt Romney, John McCain and some of the others in the thinning Republican pack are seen out there on the streets, one of their number will get in a little late.

Mike Huckabee’s on the “Tonight Show,” tonight out in L.A., instead of haunting the precincts of Sioux City. Is this a masterstroke or a bone-headed campaign move? You be the judge (along with everybody in Iowa).

When the former Arkansas governor announced the decision to appear with Jay Leno earlier in the day, it spread through the campaign like a grass fire in Malibu. Romney had nothing but scorn for the move — not surprising since Huckabee is the only real challenger to a Romney win in Iowa (not surprising since Rudy Giuliani has opted to keep his powder dry for the Florida primary, and everyone else finishes further back in the pack).

Huck’s move had its perils. To make the “Tonight Show” appearance at NBC’s Burbank studios, he had to cross the picket lines of the still-striking members of the Writers Guild of America — the thousands of film and television writers whose action in November is continuing with no end in sight. In a statement, the Huckabee campaign said the candidate had agreed to appear on “Tonight” "after he was assured that no replacement writers were being used in the show's production."

But to watch Huckabee joisting with Leno is to witness someone who didn’t need any writers working on his behalf. Looking relaxed and rested, Huckabee talked with Leno, fielding questions about his campaign expectations, and his celebrated journey from “triple-wide” Arkansas governor to height-to-weight-proportionate champion of exercise and a healthy diet.

LENO: This is what I find fascinating about American politics. I mean, I kind of follow this kind of stuff. So I've known who you are for a while, but you literally, in the last couple of months, have come from nowhere with hardly any money. Explain how this happened.

HUCKABEE: I'm just trying to keep from going back to nowhere as fast as I can. …

LENO: … You lost quite a bit of weight. How much weight did you lose?

HUCKABEE: About 110 pounds.

LENO: Congratulations on that. What was your secret?

HUCKABEE: The legislature kept eating my lunch every day.

At one point, Leno asked Huck why his campaign was doing so well.

"People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off," Huckabee said, to hearty applause.

And Huckabee isn’t afraid to give props where due. Speaking of another GOP hopeful, John McCain, Huckabee said “John McCain may be a rival of mine in the presidential race, but I have nothing but respect for him. He's a great American hero.”

With the ability to think and speak in the soundbite-brief context of modern communication, and with a winningly self-deprecating sense of himself and the hubbub of a presidential campaign, the man is a natural. At one raw level, at least, Republican prayers have been answered. The GOP leadership has run around, hair on fire for the last six months, asking “where’s the next Ronald Reagan? We need another Ronald Reagan!” Purely from a standpoint of a candidate with an innate ability to connect with an audience, capably use humor and a populist perspective, the GOP could do worse than Mike Huckabee.

But it’s not enough for the American Spectator’s Quin Hilyer: “Huckabee's bizarre propensity for letting criminals return early to freedom, combined with his utter cluelessness about foreign policy, also means that he would get absolutely crushed by the Democrats in a general election contest,” Hilyer says on the Spectator Web site.

None of which may matter to the folks in Iowa. In the town of Sergeant Bluff, for example, Huckabee supporter Bob Dunker told Time magazine that he didn't mind that Huckabee was going to California.

"I'm thinking it's OK for him to get national exposure, because when you don't have money, I think you need to tell your story to America any way you can," Dunker said. "Hey, when he can be here at 9 o'clock on New Year's Day talking to us, he can go wherever he wants tomorrow. I'm sure he'll be back in Iowa Thursday."

Bob Dunker understands what TV really is. Television – and especially late-night television – has become the new bully pulpit, the great equalizer for the campaign with the marginal media spend, one that politicians have effectively used in the past. In August 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the millionaire actor and pop-culture action figure, used late-night TV (another “Tonight” appearance) to launch his candidacy for the governorship of California. Schwarzenegger handily defeated the relentlessly buttoned-down incumbent mannequin Gray Davis that October.

Huckabee understands the medium, and tonight proved it with a solid performance as a Leno foil (not always easy duty) and, between the commercial breaks, making an equally strong showing behind the bass, laying down the bottom for the Tonight Show Band. Huck was good too! The reactions from bandleader Kevin Eubanks and his crew suggested they were pleasantly surprised — this mutha can play! With that impromptu sitting in, Huckabee gained comparison to the beneficiary of another memorable late-night TV moment: in June 1992 on route to his first victory as president, Bill Clinton sat in with the band on the “Arsenio Hall Show,” playing the saxophone (with Ray-Bans smartly in place, no less).

“That appearance rewrote the rules of decorum for presidential aspirants; late-night talk shows were suddenly a viable, even hot, avenue for political appearances,” we wrote on in March 2004.

All of this has been so far lost on Romney and any other GOP hopefuls — the same people who no doubt took up booth space in the diners and delis of Iowa tonight, the ones who’ll line up outside the factory gates in the morning, begging one more time for the undecideds to vote for them.

For Iowa citizens sick unto death of candidates lurking like vultures in their favorite places, Huckabee’s leap to the airwaves may be that distinctively refreshing move – an indication that Huckabee’s presidentially swinging for the fences when all around him are still playing small-ball. They're called style points, folks, and they can yield big hairy dividends. Just ask Bill Clinton or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Departed 2007

It's a roll call you can't quite believe. We already knew it was a bad year; our 401(k) report told us that; so did our neighbor's house where the FOR SALE sign put up months ago gets more tattered every day. And now, reading the names of those we lost this year, we're stunned into silence. The hurricane of weather we managed to avoid was replaced by a hurricane of mortality that caught up to many of our best and brightest.

Practitioners of the painted word were among the year's disappeared. We lost Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, Grace Paley and Elizabeth Hardwicke, lions of American letters all; Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the Pulitzer-winning historian and Kennedy administration "court philosopher"; Mark Harris, the novelist whose Henry Wiggins books made baseball the stuff of literature; and David Halberstam, the Pulitzer-winning reporter who made journalism much the same.

The house band in the next world got exponentially better this year. We lost Max Roach, a fountainhead of jazz innovation, and Oscar Peterson, a pianistic stylist and improviser without parallel. Mstislav Rostropovich, the master cellist whose irrepressible celebration of life dovetailed with a passion for the rights of Soviet-era dissidents.

Joe Zawinul, the jazz keyboardist and co-creator of Weather Report, whose fusion of jazz and rock broke new ground in the culture. We said goodbye to Bobby Byrd, the longtime collaborator with James Brown and co-founder of the Famous Flames, the band with the sound that started America off on the good foot.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, the avant-garde German pioneer of electronic music, died. So did Sekou Sundiata, poet, recording artist, exited, as did Zola Taylor, one of the Platters ("The Great Pretender") and Porter Waggoner, staple of country music for two generations, and Dan Fogelberg, whose plaintive melodies formed a foundation for the soft rock of the '70s.

We lost Ike Turner, an innovator of rock whose version of "Rocket 88" is still held by many to be the first rock record ever released. Don Ho, the Hawaiian crooner whose "Tiny Bubbles" was a pop-culture staple for decades. And Lee Hazlewood, the singer-songwriter who produced Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'." Hilly Kristal, the founder of the legendary CBGB nightclub and one of punk music's early, fervent evangelists, checked out too.

And no matter how bright they turn up the lights at La Scala, it'll never be the same without Luciano Pavarotti, titan of the opera -- the tenor for our time (some will say for all time) -- and Beverly Sills, the diva's diva, with none of the diva's trademark attitude.

There's empty seats in the movie screening room that weren't empty when the year started:

Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish master of film who blended the autobiographical and the phantasmagorical inrto a style of filmmaking all his own. Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian director who broke with conventional film narrative in a series of motion pictures that continue to challenge filmgoers everywhere.

Roscoe Lee Browne, Emmy-winning actor whose regal bearing and commnanding voice served him in a variety of film, stage and television roles. Laszlo Kovacs, the cinematographer whose signature style more or less transformed American film in the '70s and '80s. Mel Shavelson, a screenwriter-director twice nominated for best-screenplay Oscars. Deborah Kerr, the versatile, magnetic Scottish-born actress whose beachside kiss of Burt Lancaster in "From Here to Eternity," and whose dance with Yul Brynner in "The King and I" gave modern film two of its most iconic scenes.

Jane Wyman, who won the Oscar for her role as a deaf rape victim in "Johnny Belinda." Freddie Fields, the flamboyant Hollywood agent, producer and studio exec. Percy Rodrigues, Barbara McNair and Calvin Lockhart, black actors whose roles in films and television helped advance black participation in the most popular art form in the world. And Solveig Dommartin, the passionate French actress whose passing Jan. 11 in Paris at the obscenely young age of 45 made mortality all too sudden, all too real again.

Gian-Carlo Menotti. Anna Nicole Smith. Joe Hunter. Stanley Myron Handelman. Merv Griffin. Brooke Astor. Robert Adler, the co-inventor of the TV remote, first used on the 1956 Zenith Space Command. Johnny Hart, the famed cartoonist whose "B.C." strip made the Stone Age improbably laughable. Tom Snyder, TV talk show host extraordinare. Arthur Jones, inventor of the Nautilus exercise machine and, by extension, the gym-rat culture that emerged in the decades since.

Walter Turnbull, who founded the acclaimed Boys Choir of Harlem. Madeleine L'Engle, 88. beloved author of children's books. Bill Flemming, veteran ABC Sports broadcaster. Roger M. King, the television industry executive who helped make Oprah a household name. Tammy Faye Messner, who with her former husband parlayed the Ameican preoccupation with faith into an evangelism empire, then watched it implode in controversy. Richard Jewell, the tarnished but ultimately vindicated hero of the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing.

And we remember a former colleague, Thomas Morgan III, former NABJ president and editor at The New York Times, a black journalist who made a difference in an industry still predisposed to ignore the African American experience, a man who passed from a heart attack at age 56, on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve.

And there were others, of course. Just as tragically, and more so, we lost Americans who died defending America. Nine hundred and one died in the Iraq war in 2007, and another 111 in Afghanistan. And the year was the deadliest in more than a decade for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Sixty-five were killed in direct relation to performance of their work in 2007.

We measure the gravity of events in terminal degrees. What we are is diminished by what we've lost. Our institutional memory, our social and cultural hard drive, took a big hit in '07. What remains for the living is the usual -- the ritual, the habit: Watch the million-strong throng in Times Square and pray everything goes smoothly. Resolve to do better, to be better. And right before the clock strikes twelve in whatever your time zone is, break out your chosen libation and propose a toast of thanksgiving to being above ground one more day.

Time to reboot. Here we go again. Our personal Gods willing ... here we go again.
Image credits: Pavarotti: Pirlouiiiit, Marseilles. Dommartin: From Wings of Desire. Joe Zawinul: Unknown (possibly Zawinul himself). Stockhausen: edvvc > Flickr: Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Roach: Ozier Muhammad, The New York Times.
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