Friday, February 29, 2008

It's 3 A.M. for Hillary

We might have seen this coming. In the eighty-odd hours between now and Tuesday, March 4, the day of four Democratic primaries, the level of animosity between the campaigns of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has ratcheted up almost overnight, a sound and fury signifying ugly.

The most recent Clinton strategy is a no-holds-barred approach, a so-called “kitchen sink” offensive meant to hurl everything possible at the Obama juggernaut. Today’s escalation of that attack apparently included the kitchen sink, the plumbing and the load-bearing walls of the Clinton campaign.

The latest Clinton salvo was the launch of a new ad already being called the “3 a.m. ad,” a spot that shows young children safely tucked in for the night, asleep in some hypothetical future. “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep,” a narrator says over a grim musical soundtrack, heavy with portent.

The viewer is asked to imagine the phone ringing at the White House. "Something’s happening in the world." Who will answer? “Your vote will decide who answers that call,” the narrator says. “Whether it’s someone who already knows the world’s leaders, knows the military — someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world.”

Cut to: a shot of Hillary Clinton, answering the phone (apparently dressed to the nines at three in the morning).

The Clinton ad — an attempted shot across Obama's bow on the touchy issue of national security — didn’t get the response they might have expected. The Obama camp reacted — in a video response mounted with breathtaking speed — coolly using the same nimble political aikido the Obama campaign has mastered from almost the beginning.

On a campaign stop in Houston, one of the cities in the delegate-rich battleground state of Texas, Obama responded saying the ad raised “a perfectly legitimate question.”

Dismissing the Clinton spot, Obama said “we’ve seen these ads before. They’re the kind that play on people’s fears to try to scare up votes.”

“In fact, we have had a red-phone moment,” he said. “It was the decision to invade Iraq. And Senator Clinton gave the wrong answer, George Bush gave the wrong answer, John McCain gave the wrong answer.”

“I don’t think these ads will work this time, because the question is not about picking up the phone,” Obama said. “The question is what kind of judgment will you exercise when you pick up that phone?”

Setting aside the anachronism of the red phone, a Strangelovian relic from the Kennedy cold-war days, Obama wasn't caught off guard by the Clinton ad, which for some recalled Lyndon Johnson’s famous 1964 “Daisy” campaign ad contrasting the sound of a nuclear-weapons countdown with the voice and image of a child picking petals off a flower — LBJ’s broad suggestion being that a vote for Barry Goldwater could mean the end of the world.

For some in the blogosphere, the Clinton effort is seen as transparently futile. Prakosh, posting at The Huffington Post: “Clinton is really beginning to look desperate and stupid. If anyone has to perform on March 4th it is her insipid campaign. Any other opponent would have seen the polls and thrown in the towel already. If she loses both Texas and Ohio, which it appears she is going to do, and she doesn't drop out, she is nothing but a bad loser.”

Too Tired, blogging on from Texas: “It's 3 AM and the phone is ringing. I pick it up and to my surprise the Clintons have not yet released their tax information and the record of her schedule from the 90s. I [hang] up the phone and turn on the TV and here is Hillary Clinton still telling me that i need a reality check …”

◊ ◊ ◊

Meantime, has released a new pro-Obama video featuring appearances by Ryan Phillippe, Jon Leguizamo, Dane Cook, Jessica Alba, George Lopez and Malcolm Jamal-Warner, among others. It’s not as moving as’s previous effort on behalf of the Obama campaign, but the new one better represents a cross-section of the nation, with more Latino supporters making an appearance.

It’s the latest broadside by proxy from the Obama forces, a countervolley against the barrage from Clinton’s armada … and back and forth, back and forth we go, in the runup to Tuesday’s maybe-pivotal contests, the heaviest political weekend of the campaign. So far.

It has to be said, though, that with its new “3 a.m.” ad, the Clinton campaign may have unwittingly made itself subject to the law of unintended consequences.

Careful readers will, of course, recall what F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote about life at three o’clock in the morning in “The Crack-Up,” his celebrated but tragic literary confessional. There may be more of a message in that choice of time than Hillary’s ad creators had intended:

“At that hour,” Fitzgerald wrote in 1936, “the tendency is to refuse to face things as long as possible by retiring into an infantile dream -- but one is continually startled out of this by various contacts with the world. One meets these occasions as quickly and carelessly as possible and retires once more back into the dream, hoping that things will adjust themselves by some great material or spiritual bonanza. But as the withdrawal persists there is less and less chance of the bonanza …”
Image credit: F. Scott Fitzgerald (1921): Gordon Bryant (public domain)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Showdown lowdown

There was no Rocky Balboa moment, no haymaker to the head, no game-changing statement uttered by either Sens. Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama at Tuesday’s Democratic debate. Having effectively debated to a draw at the third of the one-on-one matchups between them, both Clinton and Obama stayed where they were before the debate even happened.

That fact is hugely problematic for the Clinton campaign. There were hopes in her camp that the third time would be the proverbial charm, that Clinton would land the one punch that would short-circuit the Obama juggernaut. That didn’t happen, and they’re left with the prospect of a tightening race in Texas and Ohio, two of the more pivotal remaining states in the primary season.

Once again, to invoke tennis parlance, Clinton held serve. Her handlers and advisers will no doubt say “it was a good night for the senator.” She needed a stellar one.

Basically, the Clinton campaign needed to have Barack Obama drooling into his shoes for her to prevail. But throughout, Obama displayed much the same unflappable cool that’s characterized his previous debate performances, giving as good as he got on issues from health care to the Iraq war, from the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement to whether or not he should accept the endorsement of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Some in the blogosphere said today that Obama seemed to lack the house-afire charisma so evident at his campaign rallies. Probably true enough. But in the hermetic context of a one-on-one debate, Obama didn’t need to display charisma, he needed to demonstrate competence. He brought it, big time.

“Mr. Obama had the advantage of being the candidate with relatively little to prove,” wrote Adam Nagourney in The New York Times. “The past few weeks have offered increasing evidence that Democratic voters have considered the arguments Mrs. Clinton and others have made against Mr. Obama’s candidacy — not ready to lead the country in a time of war; unexamined and subject to an array of attacks by Republicans in the fall; not substantive enough on the issues — and have, for the most part, rejected them.”

The race for Ohio and Texas, the two big prizes to be carved up on Tuesday (Vermont and Rhode Island delegates are also up for grabs), continues to tighten. But barring some deus ex machina moment, the stage is set for another photo-finish next week.

The Clinton campaign may think it still has time to unlock the mystery of Barack Obama’s appeal before next Tuesday. As the clock clicks down, though, they may discover what legions of Obama’s supporters already believe: There is no mystery to unravel, no secret code to be deciphered. Barack Obama may just be the right candidate at the right time, peaking at the right moment.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hillary Rodham Chameleon

In 1983 Woody Allen released the mock documentary “Zelig,” the story of Leonard Zelig, a walking medical phenomenon with the uncanny ability to transform his physical and psychological characteristics to those of the people around him. What at first seems like a gimmick in the film, which stars Allen as this chameleon man of mirrors, takes on a real and nearly tragic organicity as Zelig assumes identity after identity, so suddenly, so often and so totally, over time, that one suspects he’s lost his grasp on the core identity that makes him … Leonard Zelig.

Politics is transformational business; the candidate fights to change or influence voters’ perception of him or her; if the candidate does this right, the voters change the candidate’s perception of himself. Or herself.

We’ve seen this a lot in this crowded campaign year. A mob of candidates has thinned out to less than a handful, practically speaking, and the process of fine tuning themselves to the public taste has also gotten more distilled. We can see clearly now how it’s done. And to this point in the campaign, none has done it more often than Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Her campaign, gamely fighting for oxygen against Sen. Barack Obama in the runup to the March 4 primaries in Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island, has offered the public a number of candidate sub-identities. With 11 straight election defeats in the primary season, Clinton is thought to be near a tipping point for the very life of the campaign. Husband Bill Clinton even said so.

So the latest rebranding of Hillary has started in Ohio. David Postman, Seattle Times political reporter, was on the road there on Feb. 23:

“Voters in Ohio started to see a new TV ad from Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday, one her supporters say shows the real Clinton.

“That’d be the emotional, religious and humble Clinton from the final moments of her debate last week with Barack Obama, not the Clinton full of facts, figures and policies she recites with a dose of braggadocio.

“The 60 seconds of political vérité — an edited clip from the debate — presents voters with the third real candidate Clinton since the New Year.”

Has it been only three? We’d swear there’ve been more. There’s Emo Hillary, who stopped just short of a mini-meltdown in Portsmouth, N.H. Then Wonk Hillary (a favorite) went on the offensive with a command of minutiae.

Strunk & White Hillary weighed in with pronouncements on plagiarism. Kum Ba Yah Hillary made nice with Obama in last week’s one-on-one debate. Angry Hillary shouted on Saturday, waving Obama campaign literature and crying “Shame, shame!” Then Shakespeare Hillary arrived Monday with sarcasm (the last resource of the desperate), describing Obama as political Pollyanna, her body language sweeping and theatrical, arms open in mock supplication, playing to the cheap seats in the Globe Theater.

Leonard Zelig never changed so fast.

◊ ◊ ◊

It would be laughable if it weren’t true, or seen as true by Clinton’s supporters and those who might be. They ask themselves when she’ll find the right strategy, when the tumblers in the lock will turn. They wonder which Hillary they’ll see today.

They wonder because more and more, it appears, there’s no baseline to Hillary Clinton’s emotional rhythms, no defining persona for voters to get consistently comfortable with. For many voters, the tweaks and morphs that the campaign no doubt first thought were a display of versatility have come to reflect insincerity and calculation.

Hillary Clinton’s talent for triangulation — for seeking the spongy, comfortable, navigable middle amid less-politically palatable extremes — may have finally found its most logical expression, in Hillary Clinton herself. Maybe when you do that long enough and often enough, sooner or later you can’t express who You are anymore.

By now, after 11 straight contests, voters have sent the message that they want more than just someone to agree with, they want someone to believe in — the direct reflection of the inspirational desert the country’s wandered in for almost eight years.

This is Clinton’s dilemma, and there’s a test tonight in Cleveland, at the next one-on-one debate, what some are calling her last chance. That’s the opportunity not for another guise, but to tap into a necessary candor about Clinton the woman, the candidate, the American.

The politician, we already know her. This time, it’s not about expressing a reason for being. It’s about expressing a reason for being Hillary.
Image credits: Clinton: Agence France-Presse. Poster and still image ©1983 Orion/Warner Bros.

Monday, February 25, 2008

An American orchestra in Pyongyang

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, heir to Mahler and Bernstein, the oldest philharmonic orchestra in America, is on the road, arriving earlier today in Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, what the world knows as North Korea. The visit culminates Tuesday with the orchestra, under the direction of Lorin Maazel, performing Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” in a program to be broadcast on state television. It will be the first concert appearance by an American orchestra in that longsuffering Stalinist state.

After years of noise and ugly saber-rattling over North Korea’s right to enrich uranium, possibly for the development of nuclear weapons, the performance could go a long way to calming the still-choppy diplomatic waters between Washington and Pyongyang, restoring America’s cultural influence — some of what Andrew Sullivan calls “America’s soft power” — and bridging the cultural divide that’s often easier to close than the political one.

Van Cliburn did much the same in 1958, when, as a 23-year-old piano phenom from Texas, he overwhelmed the judges in Moscow at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition, an event meant to capitalize on the rise of Soviet global influence — most dramatically shown by the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.

In 1959, deeper still in the cold-war era, Leonard Bernstein, conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic, took the orchestra on a tour of Europe and the Soviet Union, performing Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. And one can’t forget the American ping-pong players who genially stormed Beijing in 1971, doing their bit for diplomacy at a table tennis tournament.

The Philharmonic’s performance may offer some of that frisson of creative freedom, that benign impact as necessary as diplomacy to advance the interests of the West, and more specifically, those of the United States. The wild card, of course, is Kim Jong Il, the reclusive leader of North Korea, a man whose off-the-hook personal eccentricities have underscored in Washington and elsewhere a need to keep North Korea from ever achieving the bomb.

You never know what that crazy Kim will do next; the archest American conservatives and most ardent hawks will no doubt invoke the dark spectre of the USS Pueblo, the Navy intelligence ship seized with its crew by the North Koreans in January 1968, when Kim's father was in charge. The crew was held for 11 months and then released; the ship itself remains in Pyongyang to this day.

That kind of madness would be a stretch even for Kim Jong Il. But probably, the Philharmonic’s visit will go over without incident, raising the promise of another kind of breakthrough: what happens when a baton is thrown across the water, rather than a policy statement or a bomb — a re-emergence of the power of culture to do what power itself is often powerless to achieve.
Image credits: New York Philharmonic in North Korea: Chris Lee, © 2008 New York Philharmonic. North Korea: Kokiri, released under terms of GNU Free Documentation License version 1.2 or later. Kim Jong Il: Probably DPRK government photo. Lorin Maazel: © Chris Lee, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license.

Ralph redux

There was no need Sunday to adjust your set or your mental state; it was not a rerun or a flashback: Ralph Nader is indeed again running for president.

The Sunday-morning news interview shows, otherwise known as "the Sabbath gasbag discussions” (thank you Calvin Trillin), are often prime territory for one Major Political Announcement or another. NBC’S “Meet the Press” was the chosen venue for Nader to declare that, for the third straight election cycle, he would pursue the presidency of the United States. “Diseent is the mother of ascent,” Nader told "MTP" moderator Tim Russert. “And in that context, I have decided to run for president.”

Like the moldy penny you can’t seem to get rid of, our hardy quadrennial challenger is again in the mix, this time unattached (at this writing) to any political party.

His rationale seemed detailed and expansive enough. Nader outlined a wide range of issues domestic and international in need of attention, and at least tried to sharply delineate himself from the Democratic and Republican challengers. Besides ending the war, Nader would seek to get an energy bill through Congress, would support single-payer health insurance, repeal the Taft-Hartley Act and “crack down on corporate crime.”

“Now, you take that framework of people feeling locked out, shut, shut out, marginalized, disrespected and you go from Iraq to Palestine/Israel, from Enron to Wall Street, from Katrina to the bungling of the Bush administration, to the complicity of the Democrats in not stopping him on the war, stopping him on the tax cuts, getting a decent energy bill through, and you have to ask yourself, as a citizen, should we elaborate the issues that the two [Obama and Clinton] are not talking about?”

“… You know, when you see the paralysis of the government, when you see Washington, D.C., be corporate-occupied territory, every department agency controlled by overwhelming presence of corporate lobbyists, corporate executives in high government positions, turning the government against its own people, you — one feels an obligation, Tim, to try to open the doorways …”

Nader has of course long been vilified by Democrats by siphoning away votes from Al Gore during the 2000 election, thereby throwing the contest to George Bush — at least that’s the popular explanation. Some have said that the 2000 election shouldn’t have been such a photo-finish in the first place — that the relative quiet in the country should have made a Democratic victory not just possible but probable.

Whether that’s true, we’ll never know. But on Sunday Nader defended his right to throw his weatherbeaten hat in the ring: “… Without voter rights, candidate rights don't mean much. And without candidate rights — more voices and choices — voter rights don't mean much.”

Russert posited a historical scenario for Nader: that by running again, “when people look back at Ralph Nader, they'll consider him the Wendell Willkie of his generation, someone who kept running and running for president with no chance of winning …”

In response, Nader was off to the races again, re-litanizing his positions and ending with a pitch to his Web site, described as “a gathering center.”

It might be a center to gather at, but it’s not likely to be a gathering place for the center, the broad cross-section of American voters who have already made their preferences clear. In this bid as in his two previous abortive runs, Nader will no doubt play to the utterly disaffected Americans, those who see no hope of their grievances being aired, and therefore amplify their despair by backing a presidential quest with no hope of victory.

A symbolic move? Without a doubt. But the question becomes one of end results — the practical aspect of symbolism. If Nader’s campaign is meant to be a symbolic gesture, what choice, what viable political option does Nader offer that voters didn’t have before he got in the race? Conspicuous by their absence at the polls, stay-at-home voters make their sentiments known, too. That’s another kind of symbolism.

◊ ◊ ◊

What has angered Democrats about Nader’s previous campaigns (and has them and others scratching their heads about this one), what’s so infuriating to them is the time, attention, Web traffic and media oxygen to be devoted to covering the political platform of a man seeking a job he doesn’t really want.

Ralph Nader doesn’t want to be president; he relishes his role as the malcontent, the heckler at the parade, a position less substantive than that which he occupied in Washington as a consumer advocate and activist two generations ago.

And therein lies a problem with third-party bids for the presidency, from Nader’s to Ross Perot’s and others besides: They seem to rely on a wellspring of American cynicism. They’re mounted in hopes that the wide plurality of Americans will vote for them, when most Americans haven’t given up hope on the possibility of change within the two parties they already know and respect (or at least tolerate).

Rather than trying to fly before they walk before they crawl, if third parties are serious about being a viable populist alternative to the two-party system, the best place to start is at the level of government most Americans understand: the grassroots level of state, county and city offices, those neighborhood-specific positions that could form the start of a constituency, the infrastructure of a truly meaningful third-party alternative.

Instead, the idea of third-party campaigns is reliably trotted out every four years, with Nader parachuting in for another quixotic presidential try, and every four years it’s sent packing. The reason why seems fairly obvious: third parties aren’t taken seriously because they don’t seem to take the lives of Americans seriously more than once every presidential election cycle.

That could explain why Nader’s vote total in 2000 (2.7 percent) plummeted in 2004, to .4 percent of votes cast. If he were really serious about a third-party quest for the White House, he’d have been laying the groundwork for Sunday’s announcement — city council by city council, mayoralty by mayoralty, governorship by governorship — when the election was over in 2004. That’s how a third party gets street-credible.

◊ ◊ ◊

Ironically, the populism his insurgent White House bid would generate is already well underway; turnout in the primary season has exceeded previous levels to this point in the campaign, and it’s likely to continue for the general election. Considering the wide cross-section of the country that’s already voted for either Obama, Clinton or John McCain — a span of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual preference and income — there’s less reason for Nader’s campaign now than there was before. People are already asking if it even matters.

Nader’s reset the hourglass on his fifteen minutes, again. We’ll see if what he brings to the campaign party has any substance — if he can offer a Bushed nation more than his own frustrated self-importance before the clock runs out.
Image credit: Wendell Wilkie: New York World-Telegram and Sun (public domain)

Friday, February 22, 2008

The McCain scrutiny

In a story credited to four reporters, assisted by two researchers and no doubt vetted by numerous copy editors and others higher in its chain of command, The New York Times on Thursday called into question, at least obliquely, the ethics and judgment of John McCain, a presidential candidate who has made ethics and judgment the centerpieces of his campaign.

And ironically (or maybe not too ironically, given the public's near-zero tolerance of the press these days), what’s drawn attention from public and press alike has been not the revelations of the story, but the story itself.

The article, written in an expansive feature style, explores the ties between McCain and Vicki Iseman, a lobbyist who had inexplicably “had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him ...”

◊ ◊ ◊

The pundits on the Potomac weighed in almost immediately, calling it a hit job and lamenting what some called a “thinly-sourced” story based strongly on persons speaking “on the condition of anonymity,” the anonymous sources that are, often by necessity, the bane of American journalism. With the phrase "protect the candidate from himself" — which conjures up an image of a man out of control, slave to his own appetites — some even flat-out accused The Times of saying that McCain had a romantic relationship with the lobbyist, something the story only peripherally suggests.

Far from being an unprincipled attack on the candidate, though, most of the Times story is a thorough, nuanced recap of McCain’s earlier tiptoes up to the line of political propriety, and by extension an examination of his fidelity to the principles that have animated both his campaign and his career. The story, for example, takes special note of McCain's friendship with Charles Keating, he of the savings-and-loan scandal that cost taxpayers more than $3 billion.

“Even as [McCain] has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest,” The Times reported.

McCain addressed the issue forthrightly; in a statement released later on Thursday, McCain condemned the Times story as a "hit-and-run smear campaign" and denied its underlying assertions of impropriety.

The Times, assuming the customary defensive crouch, said it stands by its reporting. "On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself," Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said in an initial reply to reader reactions. This sage, impersonal res ipsa loquitor response would perhaps have more traction if it came from another august newsgathering body. As a survey of the relatively recent past reveals, the Times' record for unassailable accuracy has not always been the best.

◊ ◊ ◊

One perfectly justifiable reason for the fresh McCain scrutiny is a quote taken from one of his books, an expression of a personal philosophy — straight talk, if you will — that takes on fresh urgency in light of the Times report. “[Q]uestions of honor," McCain wrote, "are raised as much by appearances as by reality in politics, and because they incite public distrust they need to be addressed no less directly than we would address evidence of expressly illegal corruption.”

A romantic relationship isn’t proven in the Times story; contrary to the wild cries of the chattering class, a romantic relationship isn’t even alleged in the Times story. What's got readers' knickers in a twist is that sexual angle breathing heavy in the second graph. In some respects, it shows a disregard of Journalism 101: The facts at or near the top of a story are central to the story. That's why they're up there.

If the winking tabloid words "romantic" and "relationship" had to be included at all, they should have been positioned in a place directly reflecting their importance to the story's overall assertions. The way the story was published on Thursday, The Times promised something it couldn't possibly deliver.

◊ ◊ ◊

That said, though, The Times offers ample historical grounds for new attention on McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee: His keester in the seats of corporate jets of business executives seeking his support. His hiring a lobbyist to run his Senate office. His role in creating the Reform Institute, a nonprofit group promoting tighter campaign finance rules, followed by his resignation from the group after news reports found the group was getting the very unlimited corporate contributions he opposed.

Even after the potentially damaging impact of the Times story, it seems McCain still doesn’t get it, still doesn’t fully understand how cozy relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists lead to the appearance of questionable honor. On Friday, McCain defended his relationships with lobbyists, some of whom are working on his presidential campaign in senior-level capacities.

''These people have honorable records, and they're honorable people, and I'm proud to have them as part of my team,'' McCain told reporters following a town hall meeting in Indianapolis. The Associated Press reported the meeting with the press on Friday.

The flap over the McCain-Iseman professional relationship — if relationship there ever was — is likely to blow over shortly, pending any followup stories from the Times on the matter. The Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, almost certainly won’t touch it, taking the high ground on the whole thing. All in all, a tempest in a teapot, but just barely.

But more than anything, the Times story is a warning to McCain — and the other presidential hopefuls — that the press understands how, for a restive and relentlessly informed electorate in the Internet age, past performance can be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a possible predictor of future results.
Image credit: McCain: © 2008 Dan Raustadt, reproduced under GNU Free Documentation License v1.2 or later.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Amazing simulations

It gets better for Barack Obama, in unexpected ways. The current primary-season successes of the presidential candidate — 11 wins in a row, counting the results from Americans Abroad — have led to what amounts to the Obama Impersonators' Full Employment Act.

MSNBC's "Hardball" host Chris Matthews, doing his bit to punch up viewers for corporate cousin NBC, said Wednesday that "Saturday Night Live" is in the hunt for the actor to portray Barack Obama on the program, a show with a rich cultural history of presidential impersonation. Dana Carvey was George Bush #41. Darryl Hammond personified Bill Clinton. Will Forte has been channeling George Bush #43 for years. Now, Hardball reports, "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels is said to be holding auditions to find the perfect Obama.

If he hasn't done it already, he might do well to check out the GotADemo Web site, where a vaiety of talents in acting, modeling, singing and other endeavors post videos of their work in a bid for wider exposure. On Wednesday's home page of the site, it's announced that comedian Reggie Reg won a contest for best political impersonator. One of Reg's comedic alter egos is none other than the junior senator from Illinois.

Or there's Ronnie Butler, the Obama dead-ringer working for Tapley Entertainment, a Texas-based company specializing in celebrity look-alikes. Butler, who has starred on "Medium", "Ugly Betty" and "Invasion," must be milking it for all it's worth. "You can even arrange to provide your guests with photos taken with 'President Barack Obama' as souvenirs," the Tapley site says. "He looks, talks and acts like the real person and is a perfect complement to any special event." Here's betting he's even articulate.

And in, a bible for actors and performers, one company, Vertical City Entertainment, posted a casting notice for "a Barack Obama Lookalike: 25-45, physical resemblance, singing, and dance ability a must." The notice is for a "musical short." The company's also seeking surrogates for Hillary Clinton and President Bush. (No word on which is doing the most business.)

So, good luck Lorne Michaels. And congratulations to Barack Obama, again. Win or lose this thing, you've entered the purest realm of celebrity, that meta-realm in which, simply put, you don't have to be dead to see yourself impersonated everywhere.

That phone call? It's Madame Tussaud's holding for the senator. They're ready for the unveiling.
Image credit: New York Post.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

'Thriller' returns

Waaaay back in the day, before things went south, before he turned himself into Skeletor, before the embrace of splendid isolation, before the sordid pedophile allegations and dance moves made on the roof of a car outside a courtroom — before all the trouble … there was this record by Michael Jackson, this music, this sound that came along and did a drive-by on our expectations, and changed everything.

You could dance to it, and you did. You know you did. You danced to it like a young entertainment reporter did at a nightclub in Boulder, Colorado on May 16, 1983, and all eyes in the room were Super Glued to the monitors tuned to the "Motown 25" special airing on NBC, and Michael Jackson came on the screen to the whip-snap-sharp rhythms of “Billie Jean,” and in four minutes and change, making moves robotic and fluid, old-school and anatomically from another world, took pop culture and modern music lovingly, provocatively, by storm.

You could dance to “Billie Jean,” party to it, make love to it. That spring, “Thriller” seemed to make all things possible in the world of music, which was ready for something new after the onslaught of punk, and a kind of vacuum, a widening gap between the precincts of R&B, funk and rock.

More than just a new album, "Thriller" was the spangled, irresistible dividing line between one incarnation of the music industry and another, between one range of pop culture and the next. A longstanding segregation of black artists from levers of vast exposure in the mainstream media — chief among them MTV — ended with the release of “Thriller.”

“Thriller” finally breached that wall of musical segregation with careful, calculated concessions to the rock gods like "Beat It," Dan Charnas observed in the Washington Post. “M.J. achieved nothing less than a reintegration of American music, and he helped pave the way for all who followed, from Prince to Public Enemy.”

And what the album didn’t do to knock down walls when it was released the previous November was done by Jackson’s performance — live on March 25, 1983, taped for air on May 16 by NBC. Both nights were nights for history. It was made first in that TV studio, and then later, with 50 million viewers tuning in from living rooms and bars and nightclubs around the country, where people tried to imitate the “moonwalk” — a move cribbed from James Brown (as anyone who’s ever seen his performance at the 1964 TAMI Show will know) and otherwise ascribed to sources from Cab Calloway to the Red-capped Manakin, a bird indigenous to Central America.

Back then, we all wanted to chase that ice cream truck in the rain. We wanted to be part of what we knew was history. Three songs — "Billie Jean," "Beat It" and the title track — would become the three most recognized songs from what would become the biggest-selling album in history. And the canonization kicked in. What The New York Times said in early 1984 is as true now as it was back then (albeit for different reasons today): "In the world of pop music, there is Michael Jackson and there is everybody else.”

◊ ◊ ◊

If you missed it the first time, it's back. Epic has rereleased "Thriller," with a CD of digitally remastered tracks and remixes, a DVD containing the videos and a 48-page booklet, a package befitting the cover-line shout, "The World's Biggest Selling Album of All Time."

Ever the bridge builder between old and new, Jackson has invested the “Thriller 25” compilation with contributors whose presence underlines Jackson's sense of his own history (HIStory?). The original tracks we know & love are reworked and tweaked by artists very much in the pocket of today. The release includes remix contributions from, Akon and Kanye West — all of which, ironically, punch up just how singular the original recordings really are, after all these years, after more than 100 million copies sold.

That's why some are still waiting for the rerelease of the man himself — on a stage. "I got no taste for the redux: make with the comeback, already,” says Jimi Izrael, blogging on The Root on Feb. 18.

Izrael’s old school to his heart; he echoes what a lot of folks have been thinking. “I’m still a fan. He reminds me of an era when you couldn't produce and sell a hit record from your bedroom so easily: You needed talent to get a record deal. Back in the day, you had to show and prove. Now, the radio is over-run with zeros wearing long chains, saggy jeans and sunglasses.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Izrael understands: There’s a lot to remember, so much that’s been so long in the everyday ether, so long a part of pop-culture’s armature that you almost forget where it came from. The first velocity of the rhinestone glove and the spangled socks into the culture. The red leather jacket. Fred Astaire’s acclaim. The graveyard dance in the “Thriller” video, a cartoon come to dizzyingly electric life. Them all-too-flammable Jheri curls. Lisa Marie Presley. Jordan Chandler.

This year the “Thriller” album is 25 years young. And fans are waiting to see how maturity and time have changed one of the most transcendent artists to hit the scene. Remember, folks, in less than six months from now, on Aug. 29th, the thriller known as Michael Joseph Jackson will be 50 years old. That’s a good time for a "comeback," in one sense.

But maybe a comeback isn't necessary. In many ways, in the many samples and artists, images and sounds around us every day, Michael Jackson has never left the building.
Image credit: The White House (public domain) Record cover: Epic Records. Fair use rationale: Necessary for depiction of the recording described.

Hillary’s cog-diss problem

Where have you heard this before?:

“We arrested our opponent’s momentum.”

“We held our ground in this key battleground state.”

“Our opponent’s margin of victory was smaller than expected.”

“We’re keeping our powder dry for the big battle to come in [put state name here]"

No, these aren’t bullet-point outtakes from the non-campaign campaign of Rudy Giuliani; they are, or have been the operational boilerplate of the Hillary Clinton campaign for the last two weeks.

Therein lies the problem for a bid for the presidency the Associated Press dared to call “fading,” an effort that even her most ardent supporters may be hard-pressed to call anything else.

With Tuesday’s double-digit victories in the Hawaii caucuses and the Wisconsin primary, Barack Obama has amassed 10 consecutive election wins in a row. His insurgent challenge is succeeding wildly against the veteran politician thought of as the presumptive nominee since, uh, day one of this presidential campaign.

And in Texas, one of the remaining big-delegate states up for grabs in the primary on March 4th, patterns of early voting (allowed in the state) indicate probable support for Obama. Think of it: Obama’s already got votes locked up in a state where the primary is still two weeks away. It’s the election-year equivalent of money in the bank (and the Obama campaign has plenty of the real thing too).

As We Speak, the Clinton brain trust is hunkering down with many pots of strong coffee (using Maalox for creamer) in a hotel suite crowded with whiteboards, trying to figure how to cut into the Obama momentum. It will be a merciless job: Clinton lost in Wisconsin by 17 percentage points, in Hawaii by more than 50. By NBC News’ estimation, Clinton must win 65 percent of the delegates in the remaining primary and caucus contests to pull ahead of where Obama is now. The AP reported that Clinton must win 57 percent of the remaining delegates in 14 states and two territories to take the lead. Who's right? Not much difference either way. An uphill battle is an uphill battle.

The situation is such that Newsday went so far as to caption its Wednesday front page with “Fall Preview? Obama vs. McCain” — effectively kicking the Clinton campaign to the curb before the primaries are even done.

◊ ◊ ◊

The problems for the Clinton crew are formidable. Some in the campaign, such as longtime Democratic Goodwrench Mandy Grunwald, are calling for an emo charm offensive — an attempt to rebrand Clinton as a compassionate candidate, the better to reinforce her human side. Others, including the candidate herself, seem to be intent on maintaining an attack strategy: focusing on the Deval Patrick speech that Obama borrowed liberally from recently [see “Unjust words”] and trying to reframe the Obama mystique as a cult (requiring Clinton as a deprogrammer).

But in all of it, there’s more than a whiff of desperation. The Clinton campaign’s furious efforts at reframing the debate, dismantling the public perception of Obama and rebranding the public idea of Clinton herself is something like trying to build an aircraft and fly it at the same time.

There’s a degree of failure baked into their efforts:

There’s a basic problem with “holding your ground.” That is fundamentally a strategy of attrition. If you are holding your ground, you’re not gaining ground, you’re struggling to maintain the advantage you already have. In this scenario, advancing is basically not an option. That's a problem for a military campaign, and a political one.

When the only upside you can point to is losing by 10 or 12 percentage points instead of 15, you’re in trouble. You’re running on cognitive dissonance, an old psychological theory that, roughly defined, means putting the best possible spin on the worst possible situation.

Basically, Hillary’s cogs got dissed on Tuesday night. Her ground game in Wisconsin was thought to be unstoppable; so, too, it was assumed that a lot of people in Wisconsin were like Hillary herself: a mother with blue-collar affinities (if not income). Wrong. Double-digit wrong. Now it’s on Texas, where Obama has already started the process of galvanizing supporters, who have responded with heavy voting in traditionally-Republican strongholds, and pre-emptive protests against voter disenfranchisement.

Back on her home turf in New York today, speaking at Hunter College, Clinton called for a reality check. “Let’s get real,” she said in an auditorium the New York Observer noted was “packed mostly with the middle-aged women who make up her base.” “Let’s get real about this election. Let’s get real about our future.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, Clinton supporter and Democratic Party leader, spoke on her behalf, emphasizing her stature as someone who’s already taken the worst mud the Republicans can throw. “When they take out their 2 by 4,” he said, assuming a batter’s position, “she’ll be ready with her 4 by 8 to hit them back.”

The baseball analogy is clever enough, and topical enough given Clinton’s current troubles: She’s still swinging for the fences, but it may be time for the $100-million plus Clinton campaign to consider using some performance-enhancing substances of its own.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Unjust words

The runner stumbles: Over the weekend Barack Obama, responding in a speech to an assertion by Hillary Clinton that his campaign was less animated by sound ideas than by a hollow rhetoric, used words that were not his. All in all, a minor lapse in judgment, but it’s still a worrying thing, not least of all because it calls into question his one unassailable strength on the campaign trail: the ability to connect to voters’ truths with truths of his own.

Obama said the following on Saturday, addressing voters at a party for the state’s Democratic Party, Obama said "Don't tell me words don't matter! 'I have a dream.' Just words. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' Just words. 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Just words, just speeches!"

Good, solid, rousing stuff — what we’ve come to expect from the best Democratic empath-as-candidate since, go figure, Bill Clinton. But hold up. Do a quick Google. Return with us now to October 2006, at a campaign rally where Deval Patrick, then seeking the governorship of Massachusetts, defended himself from attacks by challenger, then-lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, by saying the following:

"Her dismissive point, and I hear it a lot from her staff, is all I have to offer is words. Just words. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' — just words. Just words. 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' — just words. 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country' — just words. 'I have a dream' — just words."

Howls of “plagiarism!” went up almost immediately from the press and from the Clinton campaign. "If your whole candidacy is about words, then they should be your own words," Clinton said in Madison, Wisconsin, on Monday (CNN). "That's what I think."

Strictly speaking, however, it’s not really plagiarism, certainly nowhere near the plagiarism that leaps to mind a la former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair and other lesser-known violators of journalistic principle.

In practice, you need more than two words (“just words?”) to credibly make a claim of plagiarism. Screaming that this was plagiarism attempts to redefine the gravity of that offense down to a granular level of micro-juxtaposition it really doesn’t deserve.


Those two words were the repeated links in a chain of oft-used (and not-always attributed) quotes from American history. The gist of the speeches of Obama and Patrick are taken from the speeches of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Rev. Martin Luther King, words from the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson. Collectively they’re excerpts of the national Holy Writ, not so much intellectual property as the DNA of the national character. If using those words without the names of their writers is plagiarism, we’re all guilty.

But true enough: When you compare Patrick’s 2006 speech to Obama’s last week, it’s clear Obama is guilty of at least oratorical malpractice, by copying the cadence, historical phraseology and stylistic construction of Patrick’s speech — right down to the “just words?” punch-phrase. (Maybe Obama fell victim to our abbreviated sense of time, our rush to stature. Maybe he thought Patrick’s remarks had already passed enough time to be part of American history and needing no attribution. Are we really moving that fast?)

◊ ◊ ◊

Words are flighty, evanescent little things, even in the age of the Internet (maybe even because of the age of the Internet). We capture these lightning bugs with technology that’s more like a net than a glass jar; we lift quotes and passages from popular and classic cultures all the time, the better to populate the speech of our everyday interactions. We move passages from Web-site commentaries into e-mail, the better to make a point without typing it all in. Our cut-and-paste culture is nothing new. The bar’s higher, though, for someone working the rope lines of the nation looking to lead that nation.

What makes this so galling is the fact that Obama didn’t need to do it. We’ve known for years that he has his own profound gift with words, an oratorical endowment that doesn’t need to crib from anyone. And it won’t do to blame his campaign manager, David Axelrod, for this gaffe, as some in the blogosphere have suggested. Obama’s been enough of his own man in this campaign to speak his own truth to power. It’s Obama’s bad, and no one else’s.

The candidate apparently got the message; on Monday he acknowledged that he should have attributed that part of his speech to Patrick, in a statement that was less an apology than an explanation. "I've written two books, wrote most of my speeches. So I think putting aside the question ... in terms of whether my words are my own, I think that would be carrying it too far," Obama said.

"Deval and I do trade ideas all the time, and you know he's occasionally used lines of mine," Obama said.

Axelrod put it in another intriguing way. "They often riff off one another. They share a world view," he told the New York Times, raising a tantalizing idea: two players exchanging riffs, trading fours as a election strategy — politics as jazz! (Hey, Patrick’s father played the sax in Sun Ra’s band — why not?) "Both of them are effective speakers whose words tend to get requoted and arguments tend to be embraced widely," Axelrod said.

We’ll see if this has any effect on how people voted when polls close today in Wisconsin and Hawaii. For now, let’s call it what it is: not so much plagiarism as a clear-cut case of oratorical impersonation, a hijacking of someone’s populist rhetorical delivery by a man who ought to know better, someone who seems to be strong enough to take his own punch.
Image credit: Sun Ra at New England Conservatory, Feb. 27, 1992. Photo © by Pandelis Karayorgis, reproduced (fair use) under GNU Free Documentation License.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The substance of symbolism

More than once in this campaign year, Sen. Hillary Clinton has tried to establish a contrast between herself and Sen. Barack Obama, her challenger for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.

With the reflexive use of the word “experience” in her campaign rallies, in reference to herself, she’s called into question Obama’s time in the national spotlight, his comprehension of the levers of presidential power — in effect, the very essence of his campaign’s right to exist.

It’s been to now a fruitless attempt to suggest that Obama has no political throw weight — no substance underneath the inspirational surfaces of his public persona. With eight consecutive losses in a row, Hillary’s not reaching people with this argument, not necessarily because it’s a bad argument, but because people don’t believe it.

They are starting to see behind the dull omnipresence of policy. They are starting to see how, with more than policy statements, more than wonkish recitations of data and fact, Barack Obama embodies another necessary reality of a presidential campaign. In addition to wielding the hard facts necessary for a credible run — and there are plenty of his well-articulated positions on everything that matters, if people bother to look — Obama embodies the substance of our symbolism, our peculiarly American way of politics, indeed, our way of life.

◊ ◊ ◊

Consider the U.S. moonshot program. President Kennedy’s daring throwdown in 1961, and its successful resolution some eight years later, would come to be couched and justified in scientific terms. It would aid scientists immeasurably in understanding the genesis and composition of the solar system; it would further the field of planetary research, etc., etc. And not to be dismissive: those reasons and more form a scientifically defensible justification for the undertaking.

But for many people, maybe even most people, that doesn’t feel like the real reason. President Kennedy’s cosmic gambit seemed to have something else at its core, something deeper than science, like a schoolyard dare on steroids, a nod to the human drama of competition, an unprecedented variation on your own backyard bravado when you challenged the neighbor kid to see who had the better arm, to find out who could throw that stone the farthest unimaginable distance.

That dare didn’t originate in Palm Springs with Kennedy sipping martinis with Frank Sinatra, playing his version of “Fly Me to the Moon” on the stereo. It started in the heart, not as a policy but as a possibility. What it said to this country about this country is no less substantial than facts of its infrastructure or the number of hospital beds available to the poor.

◊ ◊ ◊

Arthur Miller understood the power of symbol. "Democracy is first of all a state of feeling," he observed in "Making Crowds," his 1972 essay on the George McGovern presidential campaign. "A nominee, and later a president, is not a sort of methodical lawyer hired to win a client's claim but an ambiguously symbolic figure upon whom is projected the conflicting desires of an audience."

Barbara Ehrenreich, writing in The Nation on a contrast of Clinton and Obama, glimpsed the distinctions, between 2008's candidates: “While Clinton, the designated valedictorian, reaches out for the ego and super-ego, he supposedly goes for the id. She might as well be promoting choral singing in the face of Beatlemania.”

A purely emotional response? For sure, but not to be easily dismissed. Americans have been so oratorically impoverished over the past eight years, maybe it’s no wonder that the emotional aspects of the Obama campaign have been so resonant for so many.

Consider that factor common to personal technology, from Internet browsers to portable music players. It’s called “look-and-feel.” The look-and-feel factor ultimately can’t be assessed according to metrics or data; it’s first and foremost an emotional response to the operability of a device or a system — its ease of use, the way it navigates, the way it looks, the way it feels in your hand.

By all available evidence, then, to this point, the Obama campaign exhibits the look and feel of an everyday companion article, portable, comfortable, accessible, information-rich. Barack Obama is to Hillary Clinton what the iPod is to the CD player.

“Clinton can put forth all the policy proposals she likes —and many of them are admirable ones —but anyone can see that she's of the same generation and even one of the same families that got us into this checkmate situation in the first place,” Ehrenreich observes. “Whatever she does, the semiotics of her campaign boils down to two words—‘same old.’”

What’s shaping up on the Republican side? When former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney threw his delegates to Arizona Sen. John McCain, the announcement photo-op — with McCain standing among the party’s old warhorses — was sadly astonishing in its inability to embrace the emerging America of 2008.

“Trapped in an archaic black-and-white newsreel, the G.O.P. looks more like a nostalgic relic than a national political party in contemporary America,” Frank Rich said in the Feb. 17 New York Times. “A cultural sea change has passed it by.”

Look-and-feel? Barack Obama is to John McCain what the iPod is to the phonograph.

◊ ◊ ◊

Barack Obama would go a long way to creating a climate for atonement, not just (or even necessarily) the narrow and cynical definition of atonement vis-à-vis the tragedy of the American racial dynamic. True enough, Obama as our first biracial president would signal a vast departure from our racial past, beginning the Sisyphean challenge of freeing blacks and whites alike from the mutual burdens of racial suspicion.

“Can’t we all just get along?” Rodney King asked years ago, in the height of Los Angeles’ tragic racial drama. Barack Obama is the living, breathing proof that yes we can get along, and at the most personal, most intimate levels of human interaction.

“I’ve got relatives that look like Bernie Mac and I've got relatives that look like Margaret Thatcher,” the candidate said once to Oprah Winfrey. “We’ve got it all.”

It’s hard to play down symbolism when your opponent is literally a symbol himself.

But Obama as president would also go some distance to healing the global breach with our neighbors, lately alienated and greatly confused by our behavior on the other side of the fence. Domestically and abroad, it’s less a matter of making atonement than of reaching accord.

You can make the case that Obama has already taken the first step toward that scale of national and global reconciliation by the very act of running for the presidency.

Setting aside the monumental stones required for anyone to seek the presidency in any political season, think of the towering sense of self, the self-possession needed to seek the office in this tumultuous year. Now add to that the historically outsized daring to run for the American presidency during an era rife with Islamist terrorism or the fear of same — and to do it with an Islamic surname. The outright nerve of such a conceit, the seemingly impossible irony at its very essence, is unmistakably American: the Obama campaign perfectly reflects — distills — our proven national ability to look at the impossible and see the possible within.

Yes, one phrase naturally follows, as full of sarcasm as it is of wonder: Only in America. And there’s the deeper truth, one understood by Andrew Sullivan, the conservative (!) columnist, writing brilliantly in The, (and last April 24, no less): “The simple existence of Obama as a new president in a new century would in itself enhance America's soft power immeasurably, just as a clear decision to leave Iraq would provide much greater leverage for diplomacy and military force in a whole variety of new ways. Obama would mean the rebranding of America, after a disastrous eight years. His international heritage, his racial journey, his middle name: these are assets for this country, not liabilities.

“This is the reason for his ascendancy. This is what the American people sense and the world awaits. This is what the Islamists fear. That last alone is reason to feel hope.”

◊ ◊ ◊

That hope Sullivan mentions and which Obama has all but trademarked as a campaign basic has many believers. The fact that so many Republicans are coming aboard, publicly or privately, suggests that the base and bedrock of the Republican Party — not the Beltway ideologues and the talk-radio pit bulls, but ordinary Republicans, everyday people who live life down here on the ground — have found in Obama someone who embodied at least some of the very principles they’d been looking for.

“We are the people we‘ve been looking for,” Obama said recently to a roomful of Democrats (apparently quoting Maria Shriver quoting a saying from the Hopi Indians*). He might well have been saying that to Republicans too. And his reach across that aisle, his pursuit of that kind of political common cause, is less about singing “Kum Ba Yah” and more about practicing the realpolitik necessary to position this nation for a torrent of changes to come, whether we’re ready or not.

For eight years we’ve had a CEO, manager, controller, autocrat, tyrant and neighborhood bully in the White House — the descriptors of the Bush brain trust.

Barack Obama, whether his opponents think so or not, has much of the textbook, practical experience to be president: organizer, professor, thinker — all are the macro-word bullet words in his resume. He would be able to wield power and authority like any president; the awesome leverages of the office will see to that. From day one.

But for the first time in far too long, this country will have a leader — someone for whom the American people will symbolize a spirit instead of a catchphrase; someone for whom conviction is not a matter of convenience but the bedrock that anchors the pilings of his ideas and policies; someone whose life trajectory is an index to the possibilities within our own lives.

Symbols are important in American politics, indeed, American politics couldn't exist without them. They are central to the American ethos; they are the other substance of this nation, and this watershed campaign.
Image credits: Obama: realjames016, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 LIcense. iPod: Original uploader: O mores > Wikipedia, reproduced as fair use under the GNU Free Documentation License. CD player: Joonga, released to public domain. Record player: Wikipedia, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0, reproduced for fair use. Bernie Mac, 2007: Rosie Argento, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 > Wikipedia. Margaret Thatcher: Public domain. Obama rally: roxannejomitchell, reproduced under permissions in Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license 2.0. Clinton and McCain images: U.S. Government (public domain). * Thank you Maureen Dowd of The New York Times.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Campaign Jukebox 2008 Update

Some sour notes emerging over use of music on the campaign trail: mathematically challenged Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, still in the hunt for the Republican nomination, has come under fire from Tom Scholz, the songwriter-guitarist-founder of the rock group Boston, for using the 70’s classic “More Than a Feeling” at some Huckabee campaign events.

The Associated Press reported Friday that Scholz, in a letter to Huckabee, complains that the song is being used without his permission. A former member of Boston, Barry Goudreau, has appeared with Huckabee at campaign events, and they have performed the it song with Huckabee’s group, Capitol Offense, the AP reported.

“Boston has never endorsed a political candidate, and with all due respect, would not start by endorsing a candidate who is the polar opposite of most everything Boston stands for,” Scholz wrote in the letter. "By using my song, and my band’s name Boston, you have taken something of mine and used it to promote ideas to which I am opposed. In other words, I think I’ve been ripped off, dude!”

Adding insult to injury, Scholz apparently backs Democratic Sen. Barack Obama for president.

Meanwhile, AP notes that the campaign of Republican frontrunner John McCain has been approached by reps for singer-songwriter John Mellencamp and requested to stop using the songs “Pink Houses” and “Our Country” for his campaign rallies. The “Our Country” song has lately been serving as the advertising anthem for vehicles in General Motors’ Chevrolet division.

McCain’s music department seems to be a little rudderless right now: Last week the Chuck Berry classic “Johnny B. Goode” was heard at at least one campaign event, despite earlier announced plans to drop it from the McCain playlist.

Note to the McCain brain trust: Now might be a good time to ask one of the candidate’s daughters, Meghan, what music is stashed away in her iPod. She’s already blogging about the campaign. “Back in my past life, I wanted to be a music journalist,” she said on McCainBloggette.

How about it, John? Nothing like a little Mars Volta to shake things up.
Image credit: Rtr10, released to pubic domain

The Uncle Sam Home Equity Company

The United States Army has launched a new program to punch up its lagging efforts at getting new recruits, and it’s clearly a sign of something like desperation. Presented with the prospect of falling far short of its enlistment goals, the Army has announced it’s testing a pilot program, incentivizing would-be recruits with up to $40,000 down payment toward buying a home or starting a business after a five-year commitment.

The so-called Army Advantage Fund program is being test-marketed in Albany, N.Y., Seattle, Cleveland, San Antonio and Montgomery, Ala., for up to the next nine months, with possible wider rollout after that. “The Army Advantage Fund will ensure that the quality of life of our soldiers and their families equals the substantial quality of service that they give to the nation," said Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, in charge of the Army’s Accessions Command, in remarks reported Friday by the Associated Press from Albany.

While the Army hit its mark of 80,000 new recruits in the last fiscal year, officials have admitted they’ll be challenged to raise enrollment of active-duty Army, National Guard and Reserve personnel by 74,000 within the next four years, the AP reported.

"What we are hearing from our young people and influencers is that, although it is essential to them to establish home ownership and get started down their chosen career path, many times they question how they will be able to accomplish it," Freakley said in a press release posted on the U.S. Army Web site. "The Army recognizes these challenges, and wants to be a part of the solution by offering young adults the proper funds which will allow them to live their American Dream."

More problematic for those pursuing that American Dream this way is the prospect of participating in what’s been to now an American nightmare: fighting and/or dying in an increasingly unpopular, highly sectarian war. Add to that the unwelcome prospect of recruits waiting until their service is over before buying that home or starting that business — the Army’s unclear about when the money would be available. Who’s to say that much money or more couldn’t be saved by someone working in the private sector, in a lot less time?

It’s an open question whether this new initiative will work, but the Army’s efforts are a sad sign of the times, and a dubious way to get its own house in order.
Image credits: Staff Sgt. Sean A. Foley, U.S. Army (public domain). Bottom: Derek Jensen, released to public domain

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Yes, sweet Virginia, there is more to life than politics, even in this heady campaign year. As the clash of the titans who would be president unfolds, we can use a break from that inevitability swirling around us. Music was always a safe harbor before all this started, so ... here's some of what's lately been on the 'Vox box:

The more you listen to In Rainbows, the latest from Radiohead, the more its sound — seductive, almost hypnotic in spots, by turns sad and raging — becomes something irresistible. The emotional palette of Thom Yorke is richer, fuller now than before. Our subterranean homesick Everyman ricochets from plaintive melody to the driving, insistent rhythms that have endeared this Oxfordshire-based band to legions of fans for a decade.

The power and pulse of "Bodysnatchers," the muted passion of "Nude" and "All I Need" — it's all animated by Yorke's soaring voice and able support by the band, including Jonny Greenwood (still one of rock's underrated guitarists). Underlying everything here is an embrace — sometimes rueful, other times achingly sad — of our mortality. "I am trapped in this body and can't get out," Yorke sings in "Bodysnatchers," in a lyric that seems to embody our universal imprisonment, all of us stuck in moments we can't get out of.

It may be the imagination, or ear-wax buildup, but it seems the digital downloaded version — the one that led everyone to say Radiohead had revolutionized modern music (we thought iTunes did that already) — isn't quiet as crisp, the highs and effects not as delineated, as they are on the CD release. But that's a quibble. Download or disc, "In Rainbows" is a foundation garment for a properly turned-out musical wardrobe. The tour starts in Florida in May. Yeah, you'll be there.

On his latest release in a long recording history, bassist extraordinaire Stanley Clarke submerges his smooth-jazz tendencies to produce The Toys of Men, a record of sonic and thematic expansiveness, and Clarke's best release in years.

The big artists take on the big themes, and these days, war's about the biggest there is. A world rife with tragedies from Iraq to the Sudan to the streets near Paris sparked Clarke's opening track, an 11-minute suite that is a return to the big-canvass approach he's taken in the past. Working with violinist Mads Tolling and Israeli pianist Ruslan Sirota, Clarke encompasses the calm and the chaos of armed conflict. In their hands the weave in the music's narrative reflects the transition from war to peace as a fluid process, if a painful one.

Later, Clarke returns to his legendarily funky form, working with a propulsive and blazingly talented drummer, Ronald Bruner Jr., on "Come On" and "Bad Asses," two tracks that show off Clarke and Bruner, well, showing off. Here and elsewhere, Clarke explores (again) the possibilities of the bass as a melodic instrument — not just with the funk-style slap he basically invented, but even using the instrument itself, strings, wood and all, a a foundation for melody and rhythm. Thirty years after changing everything for anyone who picked up a bass, the so-called Lord of the Low Frequencies has reinvented himself. Again.

Is there something they put in the water in Athens, Georgia, that makes powerhouse rock & roll such a frequent thing? The hometown of R.E.M. (but you knew that) and groups from the B-52s to Bubba Sparxxx has spawned the Whigs, a fierce young trio with a signature sound, lyrical gifts and a creative self-assurance more common to veteran bands. The Whigs' sophomore effort, Mission Control, released in January, recalls the Who, the Replacements and other groups, in its fiery, anthemic approach to rock, yet Athens' newest also summons regional aspects. Jon Pareles, our former colleague from The New York Times, said that “like Kings of Leon and My Morning Jacket, they give what they’ve learned from indie rock a distinctly Southern stamp: a drawl in the vocals, twang and resonance in the guitars, a sense of continuity with the past.”

Rolling Stone swooned in March 2006 that the band “may well be the best unsigned band in America.” Well, not no more. The group’s since been picked up by ATO Records — Dave Matthews’ label, go figure — after the band’s roaring self-produced and –financed debut, “Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip.”

Feast your ears on such anthems-to-be as "Like a Vibration" and "Right Hand on My Heart" (the single getting much play of late). Now, Parker Gispert, singer-guitarist-songwriter, drummer Julian Dorio, and bass player Tim Deaux are polishing their chops on the road and calling their spots in certain high-profile places. The band played on "Letterman" recently, and they're due to stop by the Conan O'Brien show on Feb. 20. It's all a long way from playing places with beer on the floor.

In fact, one of those places was probably central to the band's identity. Interviewed recently on NPR, Gispert said the group's name was an open question until he called up a bar to book the nameless band’s first gig. The owner asked for the name of the band, and Gispert realized … they didn’t have one. He told the bar owner he'd call back. After a half-hour parking-lot conference, "The Whigs" were born.

It’s that kind of loose but purposeful attitude — the soul of intelligent improvisation — that already makes the Whigs endearing as hell. You gotta love a band like that: They’re making it up as they go along, and they’re doing it brilliantly.

Herbie Hancock, a musical shapeshifter if there ever was one, has been changing his colors for two generations now, starting with his early days as a prodigy of the piano trafficking in the hard-bop Blue Note heyday, continuing to his more recent associations with rock and pop figures (helping to reinvent the funk genre along the way).

Likewise, Joni Mitchell, who began her career as a folksinger, invested that music with a bittersweet, feminine poetics it never really had. Then the doyenne of Woodstock gravitated to the supperclub, moving on to work with talents of jazz — Charles Mingus among them — as she broadened her musical palette to embrace the improvisation native to the form.

You just knew they had to hook up, eventually. In River: The Joni Letters, Hancock’s spirited Grammy-winning love letter to Mitchell and her music, Mitchell’s melodies are refigured, often brilliantly, by Hancock and a host of talents whose vocal ranges speak well of Mitchell’s own.

The songs on “River” — ranging from Norah Jones’ torchy rendition of “Court and Spark” to Tina Turner’s treatment of “Edith and the Kingpin” to Corinne Bailey Rae’s sweetly expressive title track, and more — gain a fresh interpretation under the guidance of Hancock the master.

Hancock & Co. break down Joni Mitchell songs you only thought you knew, with pianistic interpretations you probably never imagined. Example: Get your ears around the world-weary rasp of Leonard Cohen on “The Jungle Line.” The song “River,” Mitchell’s evocative tale of a melancholy Christmas, is especially affecting. Bailey Rae, voice almost childlike, is ably supported by the band, whose nuances (and Wayne Shorter’s subtle sax shadings) lift the recognizable melody into a realm of thoughtfulness the original only hinted at.

Hearing these other powerful voices in tribute to Joni Mitchell, then, it’s a little startling when we hear Joni Mitchell herself: on “Tea Leaf Prophecy,” it's there: The singular timeless voice, rueful and romantic, with her talent for gently crowding a lyric into a passage in a way that perfectly reflects the pace of a private conversation, a poem between two people.

This is the voice we grew up with in our days of patchouli and incense. This is music -- translated by singers for our time and a pianist for all time -- that promises to leave today’s listeners spellbound.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Of Time and the P-word

Journalistic ethics — already under fire in this already overheated presidential campaign year — took another hit yesterday. The controversies arising from statements in previous months made by figures at MSNBC — "Hardball" host Chris Matthews and, most recently, David Shuster (for his “pimped-out” comment about Chelsea Clinton working on behalf of her mother’s campaign) were bad enough.

Now Time magazine has stepped into the bad-taste derby. Mark Halperin, the mag’s senior political analyst and editor at large, was interviewed on Barbara Walters’ show on Sirius Radio. Speculating on whether former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards would endorse Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton for president, Halperin had the following on-air exchange with the show’s co-host, Bill Geddie:

HALPERIN: If he picks Obama, the message is: Clinton doesn't represent change. If he picks Clinton, the message is, Obama is not ready.

GEDDIE: Haven't we heard all along that he doesn't like her, haven't we heard this?

HALPERIN: Yes, that's right. And I can tell you, he's really skeptical of her ability to be the kind of president he wants. But, he kinda thinks Obama is … he thinks Obama is kind of a pussy. He has real questions about Obama's toughness, his readiness for the office.

Halperin apologized fast, not waiting for blowback from anybody; you can find his 37-word mea culpa on Halperin’s page on the Time Web site, assuming it hasn’t been taken down in the meantime.

It’s just what the press, already under fire, doesn’t need. There’ve been no comments (yet anyway) from Halperin’s handlers at Time, or from Edwards or Clinton, or from Obama.

But we’ve got to think the person who couldn’t care less about such a comment is Obama himself. With a streak of eight wins in eight primaries and caucuses — and a Grammy award for the spoken-word version of his book “The Audacity of Hope” under his belt — he’s got nothing to prove to anyone.

As for Edwards, whether he used the P-word himself or gave Halperin the context for saying the same thing … well, he can’t escape the fact that he’s watching this contest from the sidelines — going down short of the finish line for the second time in four years.

Hey John! What’s new, pussycat?
Image credit: Fir0002, reproduced under GNU Free Documentation License, version 1.2. Meow.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Fighting the good fight

California Democratic congressman Tom Lantos died early this morning in Bethesda, Md., at the age of 80. That sentence, journalistically factual as it is, can’t begin to express the experiences of a life well lived, a representative who stood for democratic principles — that’s “democratic” with a small D — and a man who, after midcourse corrections in his support of failed U.S. policies, continued to fight the good fight against injustices here and abroad.

That fight started early. Born in Hungary, Lantos was in the resistance movement that fought against the Nazi occupation of his native country, in March 1944. The only survivor of the Holocaust to ever serve in Congress, Lantos moved to the United States in 1947 and began a 30-year career that spanned academia, business and government.

He was first elected in 1980 and never lost a campaign, being re-elected to Congress 13 times. An ardent supporter of Israel, he opposed various U.S. initiatives in the Middle East, including U.S. military aid to Egypt, which Lantos, then the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, argued wasn’t doing enough to stem the flow of weapons and money to Hamas, the Palestinian military organization that is now the government of the Palestinian Authority.

In his time in Congress, Lantos was a vocal champion of a variety of liberal causes, including health-care reform, a woman’s right to pursue elective abortion, aggressive defense of the environment, same-sex marriage rights and the use of marijuana for medical purposes. He also took a stand — literally — against the genocide in Darfur, joining a civil disobedience action with activists and others in Congress at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington to make his feelings known.

Some of his positions ran counter to his reputation as a liberal Democrat. Lantos supported the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as well as the 2003 invasion of Iraq — support that mirrored the majority of those in Congress at the time.

That started to change, emphatically, in 2006, when Lantos expressed vehement opposition to the U.S. troop escalation (“the surge”). During hearings of the House International Relations Committee, Lantos, at that time the ranking member, repeatedly praised the office of the Special Inspector of Iraq Reconstruction, which uncovered evidence of waste, fraud and abuse in the use of billions in American dollars meant to help secure and rebuild Iraq.

He became a reliable critic of the troop surge advocated by President Bush. In January 2007, after Bush announced his plan to increase troop levels by more than 21,000, Lantos was refreshingly matter-of-fact in his opposition. “Our efforts in Iraq are a mess, and throwing in more troops will not improve it."

And during the Bush administration’s much-ballyhooed dog-and-pony show in September 2007, when Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified on the war's progress in generally upbeat tones at a House hearing, Lantos didn’t stint in expressing his opposition to the U.S. war strategy.

"The Administration’s myopic policies in Iraq have created a fiasco. Is it any wonder that on the subject of Iraq, more and more Americans have little confidence in this Administration? We can not take any of this Administration's assertions on Iraq at face value anymore, and no amount of charts or statistics will improve its credibility. This is not a knock on you, General Petraeus, or on you, Ambassador Crocker. But the fact remains, gentlemen, that the Administration has sent you here today to convince the members of these two Committees and the Congress that victory is at hand. With all due respect to you … I don't buy it."

In January, facing a diagnosis of esophageal cancer, Lantos began his graceful exit with a farewell that was charitable and in keeping with his character as one of Congress’ true class acts. "It is only in the United States," he said, "that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust and a fighter in the anti-Nazi underground could have received an education, raised a family, and had the privilege of serving the last three decades of his life as a member of Congress. I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country.”
Image credit: Top photo: Public domain

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Calling the question

Today, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney abandoned his quest for the Republican nomination, and Arizona Sen. John McCain appealed to conservatives to rally around himself as the party’s presumptive nominee. This changes everything, and not just for the Republicans.

In one day, that intraparty discord within the GOP — something the Democrats have quietly but gleefully counted on (McCain vs. Romney vs. Mike Huckabee! Yippee!) — began to end. The coalescing that Republicans are historically known for is happening again, and the only valid counter for the Democrats is to achieve the same kind of intraparty unity, and fast, for exactly the same reasons.

Events unfolded today with a speed that even flummoxed the talking heads. Romney, essentially contradicting statements from the day before indicating his intention to stay in the race, today said “I have to stand aside” for the benefit of the party. He said he was “suspending” his campaign, but for all practical purposes there’s a do-not-resuscitate sign at the foot of his campaign’s bed.

It's probably been there for weeks, and certainly since the disappointments of Super Tuesday.

The Romney effort has shown how too much money, too little message and too on-message a messenger can doom a political campaign. It stems in some ways from a lack of heart, a failure of some basic conviction -- not the bottom-line determination of a CEO in a quest to make the numbers line up right on a SEC filing, but the organic connection to the people the candidate would hope to lead.

He never quite hooked up with people, especially in the south, where he tried hard. There's always been an airlessness about the Romney campaign, a stilted bigness about its everything (oversize net worth, oversize family, oversize pedigree), and a kind of hermetic perfection about the candidate, a man seemingly pitching the American people a business plan rather than a vision.

James Wolcott, in his blog on the Vanity Fair Web site, pulls no punches: “Is there anyone who gives more uninspired, tone-deaf election night speeches than Romney?--he slides right into his stump speech without realizing his poor wife and staffers are up there on stage, the forced expressions on their faces melting like cakes in the rain the longer he drones on. He's like an actor auditioning for a part that's already been filled and nobody has the heart to tell him.”

'Frank discussions'

Wednesday was a day of deep reflections at Rancho Romney. The campaign was auguring in, spiraling out of control despite the millions spent, at least $40 mil from his own kitty — a burn rate of personal campaign cash that extrapolates to $254,777 for each of the 157 delegates Romney nailed down before he closed up shop.

Even before most of the voting was done Tuesday night, the Romney camp released a statement saying that Wednesday would be a day of "frank discusssions" for the campaign, with some announcement later in the day detailing the strategy going forward. The brain trust hunkered down in Boston and sure enough, the campaign said later that they planned to stay in the fight a while longer, despite not getting the results they'd wargamed.

Then came Thursday's change of mind. “Because I love America, in this time of war, I feel I have to stand aside for our party and our country,” Romney said at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

Later in the day, after some nasty comments by rightwingnut author and commentator Laura Ingraham at the conference, McCain spoke (amid catcalls and shouts of “RINO!” [Republican In Name Only]) in his own defense, throwing an olive branch to the wolves before him.

“I am proud, very proud, to have come to public office as a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution,” he said. His more controversial views, such as easing immigration restrictions (a logical consequence of his role in a border state) and tweaking campaign finance laws, have kept him under fire with Republicans for years.

"I know I have a responsibility, if I am, as I hope to be, the Republican nominee for president, to unite the party and prepare for the great contest in November," McCain said. "And I am acutely aware that I cannot succeed in that endeavor, nor can our party prevail over the challenge we will face from either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, without the support of dedicated conservatives.

"It is my sincere hope that even if you believe I have occasionally erred in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow that I have, in many ways important to all of us, maintained the record of a conservative," McCain said.

Others are not convinced. “Boy, the narrower this race gets, I’m surprised to find myself wishing Fred Thompson was still in the running,” said blogger Skull Dugger, on the New York Times Web site. “ ‘Go McCain!’ I guess (bewildered sigh).”

There’s still unfinished business left for the GOP. Some people will be waiting for Ron Paul to pull the plug on the respirator for his campaign, a White House bid that, for all the tantalizing PR he got as an insurgent Republican, never got much attention from the beginning. They probably won’t wait long. Paul’s maverick message — withdrawal from NATO and the UN, ending the federal income tax, troops out of Iraq immediately — never gained traction within the party, and his four delegates don’t figure in the outcome of the race. With all due respect for a sincere and principled effort, Paul’s fifteen minutes were up ten minutes ago.


Of greater concern is the Mike Huckabee factor. Popular with evangelicals, the affable, sharp-witted former Krispy Kreme enthusiast and former governor of Arkansas is the wild electron now, despite ending Super Tuesday with fewer delegates than Romney.

His lock on the indispensable southern states, proven with his five wins, and a personality more voluble, accessible and telegenic than McCain’s, make him, among other things, a natural for the Vice President spot. McCain is said not to like him any more than he did Romney —does John McCain like anybody? — but Huckabee may be the hemlock McCain needs to drink to keep himself alive.

The blogosphere is already aflame over the prospect. Even talk-radio Doberman, former pharmaceutical enthusiast and media Prince of Darkness Rush Limbaugh is pushing a McCain-Huckabee ticket. “Here’s the thing about McCain: he can’t win conservatives in the South by virtue of this primary yesterday,” Limbaugh said Wednesday. “These blue states that McCain won last night are places where he has no chance in November.”

Such an idea for the GOP ticket presents problems for McCain, whose political temperament is way more moderate than Limbaugh. It might be something he’s considering already, but like the man who’s asked by his girlfriend to get married, he’d like to think it was his idea.

But Romney’s exit and the fallout from it really changes the dynamic for the Democrats. In the post “A merger of equals,” the idea was floated that, simply put, an Obama-Clinton tie-up (or a Clinton-Obama ticket) concentrates the mind and heart of the American electorate, consolidates party resources, and indicates a willingness to set aside comparatively minor differences for the good of the Democratic party. That fanciful scenario takes on new weight today.

As the Republicans seem to be about to put past differences behind them, it’s, shall we say, incumbent on the Democrats to do exactly the same thing. Considering the calculus that’s beginning to emerge, a Obama-Clinton/Clinton-Obama ticket isn’t an option, it’s pretty much a necessity.

Putting it all together

Consider what each will bring to the other:

Obama’s bona fides with younger voters, minority voters and independents, proven on Super Tuesday and before, dovetail nicely with Clinton’s strengths among women voters — a significant percentage of the Democratic demographic — and older voters.

A unified bid between the two instantly makes fundraising a far easier exercise, especially for the Clinton camp, whose workers are said to include some asked to work for free (this before the candidate herself ponied up $5 mil to keep things liquid). A joining of fundraising forces over the Internet would turn a very strong Democratic year for political donations into a stellar one.

A Clinton-Obama/Obama-Clinton ticket permanently cements the historic aspects of their mutual candidacies into a single, compelling force of profound historical significance. Intangible? So much the better. People like playing a role in making history. They’ll turn out for that.

And in one lightning stroke, the American people, up to now faced with the choice of either Experience or Change, can have both — the two best attributes of contemporary Democratic leadership assembled in a formidable package that would give the Republicans all they can handle in the fall.

The outcome on Super Tuesday should have been an object lesson to the Dems. When the smoke cleared and the votes were counted, the difference in raw popular-vote totals between Obama and Clinton that day amounted to .4 of 1%. There probably hasn’t been a narrower national vote of any kind, in the primary season or after the general, since Kennedy-Nixon in 1960.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s of course a matter of timing. The primaries and caucuses between now and June need to run their course. But the gravitational process between both Obama and Clinton, that reach for commonalities instead of conflicts, should be starting very soon and, by the first days of June, should be very public.

For Clinton and Obama to come to terms sooner rather than later saves time, money and energy; unites assets that belong together on the basis of party unity, and heads off the nightmare prospect of a bruising brokered convention in August — something that would evoke for voters exactly the disunity and deadlock the Democrats don't need.

With rancor from within coming to a fever pitch, the Republican party has begun the process of closing ranks and redefining itself, conceding that, despite a constant pursuit of ideological purity, sometimes it’s realpolitik that gets the job done.

Obama and Clinton need to learn that lesson too. For the Democrats still standing, the time’s coming to see the power in the political version of economies of scale. The fact that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have each campaigned behind the idea of building a national coalition presents a compelling (if not unavoidable) opportunity: recognizing the need to first build a coalition of their own.
Image credits: Ron Paul: Bbsrock, reproduced under GNU Free Documentation license. Huckabee: ©2008 David Ball.
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