Saturday, March 29, 2008

War movie and rumors of war movie

America fights its wars on the battlefield and refights them in the movies. Two motion pictures — one at a theater near you right now, one that Hollywood is developing faster than usual — will take on the story of the war in Iraq, both the human consequences of America's being there and one of those responsible for our being there in the first place.

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In “Stop-Loss,” which opened on Friday, a decorated Iraq war veteran, Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), rotates back to his Texas hometown ready to start the process of decompression and return to his old life. But the U.S. Army calls him back to active service by invoking the military’s “stop-loss” policy, by which, according to the law itself, “the President may suspend any provision of law relating to promotion, retirement, or separation applicable to any member of the armed forces who the President determines is essential to the national security of the United States.”

King faces a conflict of loyalties — family or country? — as he challenges the redeployment back to a war he thought was personally over. The sergeant’s dilemma is symbolic of that faced by the thousands of American soldiers who have faced the stop-loss policy in real life.

While stop-loss has gained recent attention related to the war in Iraq, it’s a policy that’s been used before. Wikipedia reports that the practice was first significantly used just before and during the first Persian Gulf War, and was invoked during American military deployments to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

It’s anyone guess how “Stop-Loss” will ultimately be received. Initial reviews on Rotten Tomatoes have been 61 percent positive. In a review on the Internet Movie Database, E Canuck of Vancouver, Canada, called it “a ‘Deer Hunter’ for the Iraq war.”

“There is enough humanity, good drama and strong acting in this picture that it may deserve a place in the lineup of memorable or important American war films,” E Canuck said.

The film was directed by Kimberly Peirce, who helmed the powerful Oscar winner “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), but there’s no absolute A-list actor powering its cast, and given the subject there’s likely to be as much attention paid to the film’s controversial premise as to the film itself.

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That won’t be the case for “W,” the film being developed by Oscar winner Oliver Stone, and currently fast-tracked for release before President Bush leaves office in January — possibly as soon as November. The film is described as a look at the “formative years” of George Bush and during his presidency, and the character traits that led Bush and his advisers to launch the war in Iraq.

Daily Variety reported March 26 that some of the film’s casting had been secured. Josh Brolin is rumored to have been cast in the role of President Bush, while James Cromwell has signed on to star as George H.W. Bush (#41). Ellen Burstyn will be Barbara Bush, mother of President Bush, and Elizabeth Banks, star of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” will portray first lady Laura Bush. Production is set to start in Shreveport, La., on April 21.

Stone has been no friend of the Bush administration, and with his track record of films that take a revisionist view of recent American history (see “JFK” and “Nixon”), some are expecting a cinematic indictment of Bush and his policies, an angry one-sided farewell to the 43rd president.

For his part, Stone promises a thoughtful, balanced view. “It's a behind-the-scenes approach, similar to 'Nixon,' to give a sense of what it's like to be in his skin,” Stone told Daily Variety in January. “But if 'Nixon' was a symphony, this is more like a chamber piece and not as dark in tone.”

“People have turned my political ideas into a cliche, but that is superficial. I'm a dramatist who is interested in people, and I have empathy for Bush as a human being, much the same as I did for Castro, Nixon, Jim Morrison, Jim Garrison and Alexander the Great.”

Stone told Daily Variety that "W" would be “a fair, true portrait of the man. How did Bush go from being an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world? It's like Frank Capra territory on one hand, but I'll also cover the demons in his private life, his bouts with his dad and his conversion to Christianity, which explains a lot of where he is coming from. It includes his belief that God personally chose him to be president of the United States, and his coming into his own with the stunning, preemptive attack on Iraq. It will contain surprises for Bush supporters and his detractors.”

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Stone has been capable of surprises before. “World Trade Center,” the 2006 film exploring the lives of a few New York Port Authority police officers before and after the Sept. 11 attacks, stunned many of Stone’s longtime critics who expected a polemic on American foreign policy, but got instead a thoughtful, patriotic, well-received examination of that national trauma through the eyes of everyday people.

Filmgoers might give thanks to the powers that be in Hollywood. “Pinkville,” a film Stone planned to make looking at another dimension of the Vietnam War, was shelved by the studio for reasons unclear. Had “Pinkville” gone into production, it would have been Stone’s fourth film related to the Vietnam War.

“Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Heaven and Earth” would seem to have exhausted the dramatic possibilities of that conflict. The “W” project brings Stone up to a time closer to the present era, one populated with moviegoers for whom the Vietnam War is truly, if sadly, something only understood from the history books.

“W” will boast a strong buzz factor if the actual casting goes as rumored. Brolin’s hot as a pistol in Hollywood, on the strength of his trifecta in “American Gangster,” “In the Valley of Elah” and this year’s big Oscar winner, the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men.”

Burstyn, five-time Oscar nominee and an Oscar winner for “The Last Picture Show” (1971), gives the project even more golden gravitas. Burstyn, film buffs will remember, played the mother of the demon-possessed child in “The Exorcist.” But we’ll resist reaching for any devilish connections between that motherly role and this one.
Image credits: Stop-Loss poster: ©2008 Paramount Pictures. Stone: Towpilot, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Josh Brolin: © 2007, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5. Bush: Public domain.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Six genetic degrees of separation

Honestly, people, you can’t make this up. Aaron Spelling on crack couldn’t have come up with a wilder, more seemingly improbable series of family ties than those reported Tuesday by The Associated Press, in a story that shows how interconnected Americans really are, whether we know it or not, and how politics and history make bedfellows that aren't necessarily strange, but certainly curious.

AP reported that researchers at the New England Historic Genealogical Society discovered, after three years of study, that Sen. Barack Obama is a distant cousin of actor, social activist and former People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive Brad Pitt. It gets better: the Society, based in Boston, found that Sen. Hillary Clinton is related to Angelina Jolie, actress, UN ambassador and companion of ... Brad Pitt.

Had enough? Check this. "Obama, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, can call six U.S. presidents, including George W. Bush, his cousins," The AP reported, from the study. "Clinton, who is of French-Canadian descent on her mother's side, is also a distant cousin of singers Madonna, Celine Dion and Alanis Morissette."

Jolie is ninth cousins, twice removed, to Clinton. They're connected through Jean Cusson, who died in St. Sulpice, Quebec, Canada, in 1718.

The GOP gets equal time in this genetic smorgasbord, too. Republican challenger Sen. John McCain is a sixth cousin of first lady Laura Bush, the society determined. Society genealogist Christopher Child told the AP that the ancestry for McCain, born in the Panama Canal Zone, was harder to trace because of incomplete family records.

"It shows that lots of different people can be related, people you wouldn't necessarily expect," Child said.

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We tend to look at familial lineage as a fortuitous sign of possible future performance in everything from thoroughbreds at the track to luxury cars on the road, from business models to business leaders to ... presidential candidates. John Quincy Adams, elected the sixth President, was the son of John Adams, the second President.

So the concerns about Obama’s experience may go by the boards when you consider some of his distant kin. The junior senator from Illinois apparently has leadership experience built into his genes.

Besides the distant relationship with Vice President Dick Cheney, which Obama has frequently used for obvious comic relief on the campaign trail, his bipartisan lineage includes former president George H.W. Bush (#41), Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry S. Truman and James Madison.

Obama and President Bush (#43) are tenth cousins, once removed, connected by Samuel Hinkley, who died in Cape Cod, Mass., in 1662.

Another Obama cousin? British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.

And there may be no need to worry overmuch about Obama’s ability to sway white Southern men to voting for him. Why? Simply put, he’s one of ‘em. Among the hit parade of Obama forebears the Society discovered was none other than — wait for it — Confederate Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Such stories of commingling in centuries past, and the descendants of same, are always reported with a winking smirk or an on-air chuckle. The novelty factor is part of the media's reaction, of course; but it's also a response to what's long been perceived as a kind of titillating historical sexual mischief.

One of America's oldest open secrets is the presence of interracial relationships throughout the nation's history. The mixed-race experience didn't spring full-blown on the national canvas ten or twenty years ago. It's always been part of the American weave; it's just a part that the nation doesn't talk about.

It goes back to the slave-holding colonies of Virginia and Maryland, the first of the eventual United States to embrace sexual segregation between the races. It continued through the years of the Civil War, when “miscegenation” was made an issue in the election campaign of 1864, with the idea of blacks and whites intermingling being used by the Democrats to discredit the Lincoln administration.

Segregationists in the post-Civil War South enshrined sexual separation of blacks and whites as law and as culture. Over time, more than half of the United States enacted so-called anti-miscegenation laws, barirng marriage of blacks and whites, and in some cases, marriage of whites with either Native Americans or Asians. The last of these laws was overturned in 1967.

But a new day has been underway in America for a long time. According to the last United States Census, there were 287,576 black-white marriages and 1.48 million Hispanic-white marriages — and that was in 2000; the number's surely climbed since then. On the basis of personal affinity alone, you can count a lot of those people pulling the lever for Obama in November.

So this news from Boston plays bigger for Obama than for Clinton, underscoring Obama’s dominant political strength today. Hillary's ancestors and distant relations all apparently hewed to the same race — no interracial surprises in her bloodlines (as far as we know). But the diversity of Obama's family tree more fully reflects the nation's myriad personal histories, its tragically but relentlessly interwoven past. When he talks about building a coalition, he can’t help but mean it: He is a coalition.

There's no way to know if it’ll help him in states like West Virginia — a demographic challenge to his campaign if there ever was one.

But the New England Historic Genealogical Society gets credit for telling us what we already know, deep down where it counts: Our differences aren't differences so much as distinctions. Everyone, it seems, may be six genetic degrees, or less, from everyone else.

Howdy, cousin!
Image credits: Brad Pitt: Airman 1st Class Tanaya M. Harms, USAF (public domain). All others: Public domain.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The McCain scrutiny III

Even as Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton engage in their current battle to the death for the Democratic nomination, to the glee of the John McCain presidential bid, there's indication that Obama and Clinton have begun a conflation of issues that may prove fatal to Republican fortunes in November. For all the acrimony of the Democratic campaign going on, the Democrats' increasing oratorical unity of the domestic economy and the war in Iraq — perhaps the two biggest issues in American lives — may spell doom for the Republicans in the fall.

Pretty much up to now, the campaigns have examined the domestic economy and the Iraq war as discrete phenomena, each deserving of being separated as bullet points in campaign rallies, and certainly separated in the media's questioning during the recent high season for debates.

But recent speeches at Obama and Clinton rallies, more recent estimates of the war's cost exceeding $600 billion, and McCain's tepid performance this week at a "major speech" on economic policy suggest strongly that the GOP drive for the White House may be more vulnerable to its own inadequacies than to the Democratic opposition, whoever that opposition is.

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On more than one occasion, well before the current campaign, McCain has admitted to being a neophyte in the world of economics, despite his role as the ranking Republican member of the Senate Commerce Committee. At first blush maybe some populist reflex reaction kicked in for Arizonans, something they could relate to: Hell, like a lot of Americans, they couldn't figure out the world of economics, either.

But the stakes are higher for McCain as a presidential candidate; what might play as endearingly sympathizable ignorance in your home state becomes more problematic at the national scale, with another 49 state treasuries under your watch.

In the speech McCain made Tuesday in Orange County, Calif., the senator emphasized two principal points. "First, it is time to convene a meeting of the nation's accounting professionals to discuss the current mark to market accounting systems. We are witnessing an unprecedented situation as banks and investors try to determine the appropriate value of the assets they are holding and there is widespread concern that this approach is exacerbating the credit crunch.

"We should also convene a meeting of the nation's top mortgage lenders. Working together, they should pledge to provide maximum support and help to their cash-strapped, but credit worthy customers. They should pledge to do everything possible to keep families in their homes and businesses growing."

For observers, it was pretty weak tea. "The bulk of McCain's speech's recaps the broad outlines of what has transpired in the housing sector and Wall Street over the past year and reads as if cribbed from various state-of-the-economy reports previously delivered by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke," said Salon's Andrew Leonard.

McCain didn't help himself much with one particular excerpt that was, well, breathtaking:

"Already-tight household budgets are ... getting tighter," he told an audience in southern California, an audience whose grasp of this insight surely rivals his own.

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Credit MSNBC's Keith Olbermann for a rundown of three of McCain's more overt admissions of fiscal ignorance:

In January 2000 McCain told The New Republic that "I didn't pay ... attention to [economic] issues in the past."

In November 2005 McCain told the Wall Street Journal that "I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues."

In December 2007 McCain told the Baltimore Sun that "...[e]conomics is something that I've never understood as well as I should."

One quakes with fear for the status of the McCain family budget.

There's already been some spin; much of McCain's speech was a practical call for a variety of ideas on some economic course correction, a plurality of opinions from Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker and others. At one level this makes sense; if you can't do something or do something well, hire a professional who does. But for a candidate whose political ascendancy has had much to do with cultivating a reputation as a maverick, there's precious little that's original about outsourcing your economic strategy.

Quietly, the word is out: This is the best antidote for the economy the Republicans have. This economic naivete, this lack of understanding is the best they're going to get. And this is something they can't retrofit. It can't be "fixed." It's built into the candidate. For McCain, the lack of fresh, thoughtful, nuanced, doable strategies for healing the national economy isn't an Achilles heel, it's an Achilles appendage. For millions of the Americans he will need as voters, this issue is The Issue, and by his own admission, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Commerce Committee hasn't got a clue.

And that's where the Democrats come in.

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"When you're spending over $50 to fill up your car because the price of oil is four times what it was before Iraq, you're paying a price for this war," Obama said Thursday in Charleston, W. Va. "When Iraq is costing each household about $100 a month, you're paying a price for this war."

"For what folks in this state have been spending on the Iraq war, we could be giving health care to nearly 450,000 of your neighbors, hiring nearly 30,000 new elementary school teachers, and making college more affordable for over 300,000 students," he said, according to The Associated Press.

On March 3, The Washington Post's Peter Slevin reported that Obama and Clinton "ask audiences to imagine what $120 billion — the approximate annual cost of the conflict — would buy. They contend that bringing the troops home would liberate cash for economic investment, infrastructure improvements and ... improved care for hundreds of thousands of war veterans and their families."

"It's weird," said Steve Stivers, an Ohio Republican state senator seeking a congressional seat, to The Post. "The economy is just overshadowing everything. When people are worried about jobs and their pocketbook, they don't want to think about things across the world."

Obama, in particular, has traction in the domestic arena, having proposed creating stimulus packages for ordinary Americans, and having some foresight into the current housing mess, in 2007. Sam Graham-Felsen, blogging Tuesday on the Obama community site, observed:

"Almost one year ago to the day, Barack Obama sent a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson urging them to convene a homeownership preservation summit. Today, Clinton is proposing essentially the same thing."

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MSNBC analyst Rachel Maddow, whom we love, on Tuesday expressed the Cornelian dilemma on McCain's reputed strength in military affairs, did so with a grasp of its imprisoning illogic that Joseph Heller might have appreciated: "I think that McCain will make the case that if things get better we have to stay, and if things get worse, we have to stay." Thus is the napalm torch of this war, and its cost, passed to a new generation.

Obama and Clinton are thinking otherwise. "In domestic terms," The Post reported, "the candidates point to the war's cost, suggesting that taxpayer money directed to Iraq could make a difference at home if it were invested in the nation's battered roads and bridges or spent on schools and social services.

The Post continued: "The argument makes sense to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has heard about the war's budgetary impact while listening to constituents at 85 roundtables since early 2007. He said he hears from business owners and government officials that federal support for such things as police and utility improvements is drying up.

" 'They are starting to understand this economically," said Brown, who defeated Republican incumbent Mike DeWine in 2006 with a message that touched on the war, the economy and corruption. "They are seeing that, because of tax cuts and because of the immense cost of the war, they aren't getting what they need locally.' "

And that's why — whether he faces Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or a ham sandwich in the fall — John McCain is in trouble.

With his quiet snarling embrace of national security and our war footing, and not much else, McCain may be the one-trick pony of the presidential campaign, a one-issue candidate outflanked by the opposition's attention to that issue and the issue of the domestic economy. His inability to view those two central American matters as a single motive force requiring attention, his paucity of corrective ideas may be the greatest single shortcoming he carries into the fall — a shortcoming of vision, something way more damaging than revisionist Bosnian history or gotcha screen grabs of a volatile former pastor.

Democratic attack dog James Carville hasn't said it yet this year — as far as we know — but his legendary Clintonian bromide is true again: It's The Economy, Stupid. This is what matters to America. And it may already be too late to matter to John McCain.
Image credits: McCain/Bush: White House (public domain). Iraq map: Permission to republish under GNU Free Documentation License. United States map: Public domain.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mrs. Clinton misremembers

Gamely soldiering on on the presidential campaign trail, Hillary Clinton last week recalled a trip to Bosnia in March 1996:

“I remember landing under sniper fire,” Clinton said at George Washington University on March 17. “There was supposed to be some kind of greeting ceremony there at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

Gee! Wow! Good harrowing stuff, the kind of imagery that makes for powerful campaign moments shoring up Clinton’s claim to foreign policy experience. We can see it: Hillary Clinton as a modern Sgt. Rock, gritting her teeth in a war zone, toughing it out, coolly advancing American objectives under fire in an unfriendly part of the world.

If only it were true. Maybe it was just Hillary engaging in a bit of St. Patrick’s Day blarney. Maybe Hillary forgot what era in which she’s running for the presidency. But life in the era of YouTube makes confirmation of such dramatic claims a slam dunk. As it is, there’s ample evidence that, well, this trip to the ninth circle of hell came up about eight circles short:

Thus, Sgt. Hillary arrived (a dozen hairstyles ago) near Tuzla, Bosnia on a C-17 with her battle-hardened squad: daughter Chelsea Clinton, comedian Sinbad and singer Sheryl Crow, and immediately encountered such belligerents as the eight-year-old Bosnian girl who greeted her warmly on the tarmac.

Sinbad recalled the trip for The Sleuth, the Washington Post blog: "I think the only 'red-phone' moment was: 'Do we eat here or at the next place?'"

On the New York Times’ politics blog, The Caucus, Helene Cooper, Times diplomatic correspondent, reported on Monday that:

“I spoke with William Nash, who was the commander of U.S. troops in Bosnia and was at the Tuzla airport with Hillary Clinton. He said there was no threat of sniper fire at the airport during her visit. He said that Mrs. Clinton was gracious during her visit and took pictures with the soldiers, but “she never had her head down. There was no sniper threat that I know of.”

Longtime Democratic adviser and talking head Robert Shrum told NBC’s “Today” that “what stuns me about this is the explicitness of her recollection.”

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Others have been less charitable. “Who the hell makes shit up about getting shot at by snipers?” asked Reality Man, blogging at the Atlantic Web site.

Blogger Craig, also commenting on the Atlantic Web site, nailed it:

“Just wait until the footage comes in proving Clinton's claims that she:
1) Tore down the Berlin Wall
2) Traveled into space on Sputnik
3) Cornered bin Laden in the hills of Tora Bora

4) Won American Idol in 1986

5) Wrote the bestselling novel "War and Peace"
6) Personally executed Che Guevara

7) Finished second in Star Search”

No word yet on any Clinton claims to creating the Internet.

As you might expect, Team Clinton went into immediate damage-control mode. When she was asked about the discrepancy at a meeting Monday with the editorial board of the Philadelphia Daily News, Clinton sought to spin things differently. “I went to 80 countries, you know. I gave contemporaneous accounts, I wrote about a lot of this in my book. You know, I think that, a minor blip, you know, if I said something that, you know, I say a lot of things -- millions of words a day -- so if I misspoke, that was just a misstatement.”

Setting aside the misstatement in that correction of a misstatement — she talks a lot on the campaign trail but doesn’t utter “millions of words a day” — the latest Clinton gaffe suggests other errors of fact.

The Nation asked: “… if Clinton is distorting what happened in Bosnia — a key section of her foreign policy resume — what else is she fibbing about?”

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Well, if Lord Trimble of Lisnagarvey is to be believed, Clinton stretched the truth about a 1998 trip to Northern Ireland, too.

“Hillary Clinton had no direct role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland and is a "wee bit silly" for exaggerating the part she played, according to Lord Trimble of Lisnagarvey, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former First Minister of the province,” reported Toby Harnden of The Telegraph Web site.

"I don’t know there was much she did apart from accompanying Bill [Clinton] going around," said Lord Trimble to The Telegraph.

Quoting Lord Trimble, Harnden reported that “Her recent statements about being deeply involved were merely 'the sort of thing people put in their canvassing leaflets' during elections. " 'She visited when things were happening, saw what was going on, she can certainly say it was part of her experience. I don’t want to rain on the thing for her, but being a cheerleader for something is slightly different from being a principal player.' "

Such inconvenient claims as these thoroughly deflate Clinton’s primary claim to fame: the experience she’s been touting since Day One of her campaign. They point to a growing disconnect between Clinton’s reality and everyone else’s reality. And reaction to these assertions suggests that voters already understand something that Clinton would just as soon have them forget: There’s a world of difference between breathing the morning air of the commander-in-chief and being the commander-in-chief.

With her less-than-elegant embroideries of the truth, Clinton joins such experiential fabulists as Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter whose fabrications of time and space cost him his job, and cost the Times considerable prestige as a newsgathering organization; and James Frey, the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” an autobiographical work published in 2005, some of its central elements outed in January 2006 as towering fraud.

Such mental conjuring doesn’t stop with high-profile cases. It’s apparently an all–too-human failing. In a 2002 study involving undergraduates at Midwestern and California universities, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and behavioral researchers at the University of California at Irvine actually got many subjects in a research study to claim they shook hands with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland.

“There is good evidence that memories lose specificity over time and become more generalized, author Gillian Cohen writes in the book “Memory in the Real World.” “False memories can be deliberately implanted and recognition tasks show a relatively high rate of false positive responses for false memories and false details of true memories.”

Our fallible memories can have significant consequences. Juries have convicted suspects based on eyewitness testimony that turned out to be less than credible and open to the erosion of time, and the suggestion of prosecutors.

Luckily, the stakes this time aren’t quite so high — just the presidency of the United States hangs in the balance.

Well, perhaps it’s time for Clinton to take a break. Her Democratic challenger, Sen. Barack Obama, had the good sense after a trying week to take some time off, vacationing with his family in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

If Hill does go on furlough, though, maybe there’s a campaign ad in the making:

ANNOUNCER: Hey, Hillary Clinton! You’ve just had a busy week on the presidential campaign trail. What are you gonna do now?

CLINTON: I’m going to Disneyland!

Image credits: Clinton in Bosnia: Outside the Wire. Lord Trimble: © 2006 Fear Eireann; used under fair use rationale. James Frey book: Doubleday Books/Random House

Friday, March 21, 2008

Everyday Obama

“Barack Obama is to Hillary Clinton what the iPod is to the CD player,” we said last month. Now, you can add another everyday companion article to the semiotic arsenal of the Obama campaign.

One enterprising soul in the Out There of the American Internet took it on himself to create a lineup of baseball shirts emblazoned with the candidate’s name designed after the logos of several professional teams in the major leagues.

Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco — they were all there, and more besides, in a brilliant ad hoc strategy that places Obama in the subtext of personal wardrobe and the great national pastime, facets of everyday American life.

Not to be totally left out, Clinton got her name on shirts, but apparently only two, done in the logo styles of the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs, said to be her two favorite teams.

As you might expect, the league was none too impressed with this grassroots appropriation of its team brands, and a legal complaint ensued. The Smoking reported March 18 that a cease and desist letter had been sent by Major League baseball to entrepreneur Morris Levin, ordering him to stop the $20 shirts or face prosecution for trademark infringement. Levin has since closed his operation.

A statement on the Web site reads:

“ObamaOfDreams is closed and offline. We are no longer selling any t-shirts. We can be reached with any questions at

“We are currently working to resolve all outstanding orders. We are not taking any more orders. All outstanding orders will be addressed and we appreciate your understanding and patience as we work through this.”

“Levin, an MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School, has said that he was ‘inspired by Obama's message’ and sought to show his support ‘with cool t-shirts,’ “ the Smoking Gun reported.

With Major League Baseball's heavy legal hammer in play you may or may not still find them available — outside of going to eBay, of course — but the point’s been smartly made. Apparently without spending a dime of campaign money, the Obama forces have largely outflanked Clinton on another kind of inevitability, the inevitability of a baseball shirt in the first throes of spring.

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There’s another image that brings home the epic battle going on between Clinton and Obama. On the Boughetto News Web site, we discovered an artfully-rendered photo-illustration of Hillary and Bill Clinton (Photoshopped into the bodies of Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi) facing off against Obama, his back to the camera, a figure shrouded in black. John McCain, either the Darth Vader or the Emperor Palpatine of this contest, snarls in the distance. This episode of “Pol Wars” is winding down. The sequel opens, and ends, in November.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

'A man of vision,' sort of

Well, that was fast.

David Paterson’s rapid ascension to the governorship of New York, and to a generally favorable view from the public and the tough New York press, took a tarnish Tuesday, when the new governor, his wife at his side, admitted to past infidelities — as his wife, Michelle Paige Paterson, did a few minutes later.

Paterson’s admission came in the wake of stories Monday and Tuesday in the New York Daily News and The New York Times that Paterson admitted having extramarital affairs with different women over several years. Michelle Paterson owned up to doing the same thing.

In a press conference in Albany, Paterson was careful to stress that he had not "violated any law", nor "violated [his] oath of office," nor "misused state [or campaign] funds."

People around the country would be entitled to wonder: Is there something in the water in New York that does this or what? First, then-governor Eliot Spitzer resigned in disgrace after being implicated in a prostitution ring, with possible criminal implications. Then, a day after taking office, Paterson admits to intimacies with a woman not his wife.

Stranger still, the nation got to discover what was, apparently, common knowledge among the Albany press corps. Who says reporters can’t keep a secret?

There were some real distinctions between Paterson’s indiscretions and Spitzer’s, mostly related to time. Paterson & wife strayed years ago and have since apparently reconciled their problems privately, without breaking the law.

But still. It’s no way to start doing the business of the people of New York. Bad personal ethics makes a challenging job that much more so, at least in the short term. It may well be that Paterson was thinking of damage control, thinking about the work to be done to get the state budget passed by April 1, thinking this was something he didn’t over his head until the next election. He couldn't keep this on the downlow forever. Best to just clear the air.

Fair enough. We just hope that’s all to this sordid little story. The air in some parts of New York is bad enough already.
Image credit: Linda: "I live in upstate NY," Used under Creative Commons License Attribution Unported 3.0

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Five years after

The Defense Department announced today the death of an American soldier.

“Spc. Lerando J. Brown, 27, of Gulfport, Miss., died March 15 in Balad, Iraq, from injuries suffered in an incident currently under investigation. He was assigned to the 288th Sapper Company, 223rd Engineer Battalion, Mississippi Army National Guard, Houston, Miss.”

It is a succinct statement, but one profound in its communication of a national agony. Today we mark the anniversary of when those letters began.

Today five years ago — perhaps $600 billion, 3,991 American lives, at least 85,000 Iraqi lives, 29,400 combat injuries, and countless color-coded terror alerts ago — the United States embarked on what would become its longest war, a conflict that may yet prove to be its most inconclusive.

There's more than one measure of its cost. There’s the human cost. For a truly comprehensive breakdown of the known casualty count, check out the excellent icasualties Web site. There in columns and rows of numbers are the figures that represent the human toll, the first most awful currency of the disaster of war. That tragedy, household by household, family by family, speaks eloquently for itself.

There’s the financial cost. The National Priorities Project, an independent organization that analyzes and clarifies federal data to help Americans understand where their tax dollars are going, has a Web site with a counter that brings the issue home before your very eyes. The project estimates the cost of the war to date at almost $504 billion. By the time you read this, the figure will be higher than that.

It may be a lot higher. News outlets such as CBS and NBC today reported the actual cost at $600 billion.

With numbers that astronomical, you need some smaller metric to get your mind around it. How’s this: CNN reported in November that “every minute troops are deployed in Iraq, the American public pays $200,000 to keep them there.”

And that just tallies up what we’ve spent already. Some economists supported by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office have estimated the eventual war’s cost at about $1.7 trillion through 2017.

But other economists, including Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate and adviser to the Clinton administration, and Harvard economist Linda Bilmes have calculated that the real price tag may be closer to $3 trillion.

Stiglitz and Bilmes, who co-authored "The Three Trillion Dollar Conflict: The True Cost of the Iraq War," wrote that projections under $2 trillion don’t include peripheral issues — collateral damage — such as the need to “reset” the U.S. military, basically the cost of repairing or replacing the material and man/woman power the current conflict is exhausting at an unsustainable rate.

Then, to these mind-bloggling expenses of life and treasure, add the intangible but real cost of the United States’ sense of itself.

Since the war started — and certainly since the singular catastrophe of Sept 11, 2001 — this nation has so deeply embraced a defensive psychological position concerning Islamist terrorism — the United States as victim — that it has thoroughly conceded control of the perception by which victory, or anything like it in the context of asymmetrical war, is to be determined.

Often we’ve been told that to leave Iraq with a publicly-known timetable would be an implicit admission of defeat, a strange and presumptuous concession that lets “the enemy” decide the terms of victory and defeat.

But who’s conceding anything to the shadowy “enemy”? Who says they won — even if they say it?

Just as convincing, and even more logical in the classic calculus of war, is the idea that, when the United States exits Iraq it will have won the war, having achieved most of at least its initial stated objectives, and having realized that the objectives left unfinished can mainly, properly be achieved by the people of Iraq.

The conservative obsession with leaving Iraq “with honor” has parallels with the Vietnam experience that should be concerning, if not alarming, to the Republicans. It forces this nation into a victimology that is at odds with everything it stands for. It overlooks many of the usual benchmarks by which a war’s winner and loser are decided.

When you leave the field of battle and the people in a conquered land are working for you instead of against you; when the might of your military has been absolutely validated; when you have vanquished or executed the old regime; when you have helped establish at least the foundations of a participatory democracy … you’ve won. No matter what “the enemy” says.

The defenders of America’s ongoing role in Iraq have fashioned a rationale by which that war, and our personal and financial obligation to it, should stretch on indefinitely under the gauzy pretext of national security. It’s this principle that animated John McCain’s recent, celebrated vow that, if he were president, this country would fight in Iraq for “a hundred years” if necessary to achieve American objectives. War without end, amen.

◊ ◊ ◊

One of the bigger unresolved problems for the United States is coming to terms with a concrete definition of “victory” in the context of an asymmetrical war whose boundaries are less geographical than they are religious and philosophical.

Talking with NPR’s Alex Chadwick, Gen. David Petraeus offered his own definition, saying that victory would mean "an Iraq that is at peace with itself, at peace with its neighbors, that has a government that is representative of — and responsive to — its citizenry and is a contributing member of the global community."

"There is a degree of hope in the Iraqi population that probably was not present back at that time," Petraeus said, adding that, success would hinge on "progress in the security arena, providing basic services to the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government getting their ministries functioning in a way that they are not right now, and getting the economy overall growing so that it can employ what is a fairly substantial unemployed and underemployed population.”

While the Petraeus explanation seeks to be a thoughtfully comprehensive one, there are flaws built in. An Iraq “at peace with itself” and “with its neighbors” is beyond the scope of the American military to oversee. With tribal strife between the Sunnis and Shiites that comprise the majority of the population going back not decades but centuries — centuries before the United States existed — an Iraq “at peace with itself and neighbors” can only be achieved on the terms of those who live there.

The United States can no more broker a truce in an 800-year-old tribal dispute than any other foreign power could come to the United States and militarily preside over a resolution of the racial divisions that stretch back in our history only 230 years. And for most of the same reasons.

An Iraq with “a government that is representative of — and responsive to — its citizenry” has already been achieved. The coalition and its diplomatic proxies helped usher in Interim and Transitional Governments until 2006, when they were replaced with the country’s permanent government, after an election that international monitors deemed free and fair. CNN reported that about 10 million of 15 million registered voters participated in the election for the Council of Representatives — the first such referendum since Saddam Hussein was removed. Pictures of Iraqis holding high fingers stained with the purple ink signifying their status as voters are still powerful symbols both of Iraq's democratic reality and its possibilities.

With the basic structure of a government in place, then, the role of the military gives way to a need for diplomacy and economic intervention as a way to establish and solidify the government’s aspirations to be “a contributing member of the global community.”

The principles of democracy ultimately can’t be enforced at American gunpoint. We’ve observed before: The surest sign of a viable democracy is what happens when you take away the guns you need to start one. If those democratic principles have any traction with the people who live there, those principles and ideals will take hold and flourish on their own. If they don’t, that form of democracy was never meant to be there, and won’t be imposed there by an occupying army. Whether that army stays for a year or five years or fifty.

Or even a hundred.

◊ ◊ ◊

Other items on the Petraeus laundry list may well be the work done by a true global coalition — the sort of WWII Allies-style congregation the Bush administration has conjured for years — or by the Iraqi people.

"Progress in the security arena” will happen on its own terms, again depending on the ability of Sunnis and Shiites to themselves set aside differences in deference to an Iraq resistant to terrorism and extremists. The process of “providing basic services to the Iraqi people” is more a job for the Army Corps of Engineers than for 158,000 combat troops. Later, that effort properly gives way to private companies like Bechtel and Fluor to transform an infrastructure that, at this writing, only affords Iraqis eight hours of electricity a day.

Other tasks — such as aiding the Iraqi government in overcoming ministerial and constitutional gridlock, and bolstering the economy — are more properly achieved by the elected government’s work with coalition partners, any number of experts from the United Nations, officials of the European Union, and leaders in businesses and industries from around the world.

"On this grim milestone, it is worth remembering how we got into this situation, and thinking about how best we can get out," said Democrat congressman John Dingell on Tuesday. "The tasks that remain in Iraq — to bring an end to sectarian conflict, to devise a way to share political power and to create a functioning government that is capable of providing for the needs of the Iraqi people — are tasks that only the Iraqis can complete."

◊ ◊ ◊

Sometime in the near future — maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe as soon as tomorrow — the Defense Department will announce the name of the 4,000th American military casualty of the Iraq war. The commentators and pundits will bow their heads; the editorialists will weigh in with assessments (much like this one); the members of some family somewhere in the United States will witness a military vehicle pulling into their driveway, and scream to themselves, if not out loud.

And a nation consumed with its future and grappling with the present will be forced to confront again a lesson from its recent past:

There is no war more unwinnable than a war that should never have been waged.
Image credits: Iraqi woman: Sgt. Tierney Nowland, U.S. Army, 2007 (public domain). David Petraeus: Robert Ward, Defense Department (public domain). Marine casualty: Alicia M. Anderson, USMC, 2003 (public domain)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A defining moment

Today at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Sen. Barack Obama delivered what must be considered the best speech of his political career. Eighteen days from the inevitable and necessary observation of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the contender for the presidency laid bare the great American stain in an address that brilliantly, eloquently posited an American racial future unchained from America’s past.

Responding to a mounting series of attacks on him and his campaign in the wake of incendiary comments from his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and amid a growing queasiness about the role of race in a campaign that until recently has avoided the third-rail issue of our time, Obama addressed the issue head-on and set the tone — if not the bar — for any similarly frank discussions about race from his challengers for the presidency.

Obama’s proven talent for uniting seemingly disparate elements of the American electorate — look at the diversity of the states he’s won so far in the primary season — was validated again today. By conflating the experiences of all Americans of all races and ethnicities, Obama’s deprived his challengers — though most notably Sen. Hillary Clinton, grappling with him for the Democratic nomination — of the sub rosa racial suspicions they might seek to arouse, specifically in Pennsylvania, the next delegate-rich state of the primary season.

"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy," Obama said of the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, an 8,000-member megachurch in Chicago. "For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

"But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

"As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems - two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all."

These excerpts, moving as they are, don't do the speech its proper justice (you can watch the whole thing on the video near the top of this post, if you like) but they reinforce the importance of Obama's basic principle — the nation as community — that has animated his campaign and provided the foundation for the coalition Obama has been building from the beginning.

◊ ◊ ◊

Columnists and the punditocracy comprehended the moment.

James Fellows, writing for “It was a moment that Obama made great through the seriousness, intelligence, eloquence, and courage of what he said. I don't recall another speech about race with as little pandering or posturing or shying from awkward points, and as much honest attempt to explain and connect, as this one.”

Charles Kaiser in Radar: “He did it. No other presidential candidate in the last forty years has managed to speak so much truth so eloquently at such a crucial juncture in his campaign as Barack Obama did today. And he did it by speaking about race, the most persistent source of hatred among us since America began.

"It turns out that a candidate for president with a white mother and a black father has a capacity that no one else has ever had before: he can articulate an equal understanding of black racism and white racism --and that makes it possible for him to condemn both of them with equal passion.”

Jon Robin Baitz, blogging on HuffPost: “If there was any doubt about what we have missed in the anti-intellectual, ruthlessly incurious Bush years, and even the slippery Clinton ones, those doubts were laid to rest by Barack Obama's magisterial speech today. He reminded us that the dreams of black America do not come at the expense of white America. Someone running for the highest office in the land finally talked about it -- the dark and secret swamp that we Americans dodge at every possible opportunity.”

Trey Ellis (HuffPost): “Obama's speech just now was magnificent not because he relied on soaring rhetoric but because he eschewed it. … His analysis was measured and brilliant in how he empathized with disgruntled and cynical black youths defeated by racism, but urged them to transcend; how he also empathized with struggling white workers unsympathetic to America's history of discrimination and yet urged them, too, to join in the fight to better this nation.”

Andrew Sullivan, in, said “this searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech is the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime. It is a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation. Its ability to embrace both the legitimate fears and resentments of whites and the understandable anger and dashed hopes of many blacks was, in my view, unique in recent American history.”

And MSNBC's "Hardball" host Chris Matthews, whom we've had problems with in the past, was pitch-perfect in his placement of the speech in the wider American pantheon of that which explains America to itself:

"This should be, to me, an American tract, something you just check in with now and then, like reading 'The Great Gatsby' or 'Huckleberry Finn.' "

◊ ◊ ◊

The blogosphere weighed in big time. NickOhio, blogging at HuffPost: "The speech was brilliant. It should show open up the debate and, for better or worse, allow us to see ourselves for what we are... a recovering racist nation. You may not agree with his comments nor his tone, but Senator Barack Obama has just raised the bar a few notches on the challenge to America.

Monicall, also on HuffPost, smartly flips the script on the weight of Rev. Wright’s words and Obama’s own, asking the uncomfortable but necessary questions of an oratorical double standard in the national discourse:

“It's amazing to see those who are dismissing Obama's powerful heartfelt speech as ‘just meaningless talk’ or ‘just political.’ Yet those very same people are putting so much stock in what Rev. Wright says. So only negative rhetoric is believeable and energizing to you. If someone has something powerful and positive to say from their own mouths, you just can't buy that?! 
Why aren't you dismissing Rev. Wright’s words so easily, as meaningless garble. Why are Wright’s negative words viewed by you as so impactful, yet Obama's honesty from his own mouth dismissed as mere rhetoric?”

But Monique, at HuffPost, also makes a telling point – that Obama was under no pressure to stay in Wright’s congregation in the face of language and attitude that offended him. There are, she implies, many ways to vote, first among them with your feet.

“If I heard a minister speak such anger and hatred, I would have the courage to pick myself up and walk right out -- whether the speaker was speaking against whites or blacks.

As a leader, I would expect at least that much from Obama.
 But he not only failed to get up and walk out. He remained in that seat for 20 years.

“Wright's words were not words of transcendence,” Monique blogs. “They are the old, angry words of blame and hate. And not words that would keep me rooted in my seat for an hour, or twenty years.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The media’s tendency to offer immediate analysis is likely to be frustrated this time. The speech — its resonance, its appeal to Americans across the racial divide, its possible impact for voters in Pennsylvania — hasn’t trickled down far enough yet, and probably won’t for a few days.

But Jesse Jackson, on HuffPost, said that Obama “had turned crisis into opportunity.” And that’s likely to be the major takeaway from this speech: Rather than be put forever on the defensive about a pastor’s comments — words Obama didn’t make, had nothing to do with making, words he’s rejected and denounced more than once — Obama has taken this inside fastball and parked it in the centerfield stands. Obama’s speech was an absolute throwdown to the Clinton campaign, a dare to the forces of Hillary to raise their game in the remaining primary contests — to resist using the grim intimations of racial poliltics to advance a candidacy whose philosophical foundation seems to get shakier all the time.

In a speech already ranked as one of the finest in almost half a century, the biracial junior senator from Illinois hasn’t so much reframed the debate on race — God knows, we’ve never really had one — as he has dared the American people to have a debate about race — dared the nation to stop retreating to the reflexive anger and resentment that litter the American past.

◊ ◊ ◊

The most reasoned, eloquent, passionate response to the speech from the blogosphere — maybe from anywhere — came from a place both alien and central to our lives. It came from Zipperupus, a Marine posting on HuffPost from Iraq, fighting one of two foreign wars, at a high burn rate of its lives, treasure and prestige, writing to a nation fighting its own ethnic war, at a high burn rate of its soul:

“The core reason that Obama is ahead of Hillary and will be the next President is because he speaks to our better selves. He doesn't simply cough up a bromide about God and country. He shows us the division, the left/right red/blue black/white divide and tells us that we can fix it by striving for the commonwealth. This is a huge deal.

“I'm tired of fighting. My sword wants to be beaten into a plowshare so bad... I want to go to work putting things back together, and i don't care if the person next to me voted for the other guy or gal. Now is the time to elect someone who stands for unity and healing, eloquence and sacrifice.

“Obama 08”

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Evil Empire

On May 22, the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones movie franchise/industry, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” directed by Steven Spielberg, “opens wide” in about 4,000 theaters in the United States. Harrison Ford returns as maverick archeologist Henry (Indiana) Jones in a film likely to gain old Indy fans and newcomers who’d til now thought Indiana Jones was a second-string forward for the Pacers.

This fourth nod to the jungle movie serials of the 1930s would seem to be hamstrung by its own history. Rooted as it has been, in the years leading to World War II, the Indy saga could have been trapped in a nightmare limbo for its screenwriters: a movie without the designated villain of the Nazis. But with the choice of Russians as the bad guys, the “Crystal Skull” filmmakers have made use of history and, shudder, current events.

The latest story is set in 1957, and this time Dr. Jones confronts the Soviets in what Americans thought then was their march to world domination. They might have called it “Indy’s Last Stand.”

Consider: According to the Indiana Jones wiki, our favorite archeologist was born on July 1, 1899, in Princeton, N.J. The Indy template, “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark,” (set in 1936) was released in 1981. The last one to date, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” set in 1938, was released in 1989. That whole time, Indy was dispatching Nazis, Thuggees, assassins and various other evildoers in Europe, Asia and South America at a brisk clip.

But with so many years between the last Indiana Jones film and the new one coming in May — to say nothing of the time between the first Indy film and the one coming in May — sending him up against bad guys in the 1930’s or 1940’s wouldn’t work logistically.

The Vietnam War wouldn’t start cooking until the 1960’s, and any number of other baddies — from Noriega’s regime in Panama to the rise of Saddam Hussein to the Islamist terrorists we fear today — didn’t arrive on the scene until after that.

That leaves the Russians of 1957 as the only credible villains left for Indy to fight without doing it as a senior citizen.

◊ ◊ ◊

It would have been more of a problem for Spielberg and screenwriter George Lucas not many years ago, when the Soviet Union dissolved and the people of the Russian Republic were discovering the first heady whiff of capitalist freedom — not that long after President Reagan’s now-timeless depiction of the Soviet Union as “the evil empire.”

More recently, the more severe policies of Russian President (now prime minister) Vladimir Putin have made it easy to recast Russia as the Evil Empire Redux. By growing wages and playing to the nationalist desire for a strong leadership unafraid to stare down the West — and with the benefits of an unprecedented oil boom that’s given the economy new clout on the world stage — Putin has returned Russia to a global swagger and military power that remind many analysts and world leaders of the old Soviet Union.

In February 2007, Putin essentially read the riot act to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other Western officials, at a meeting in Munich. “Putin's ‘Munich speech’ drew instant comparisons to another diplomatic outburst: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's notorious shoe-thumping at the United Nations 50 years ago, during an angry outburst against Western imperialism,” NPR correspondent Gregory Feifer reported last year.

“The president has ended democratic reforms and reinstituted authoritarian rule, curtailed freedoms and returned parts of the economy to state control. And he has introduced an aggressive foreign policy that opposes Western countries on issues such as the war in Iraq and the expansion of NATO,” Feifer reported.

With other actions such as a crackdown on dissidents, and the government’s possible complicity in the deaths of some vocal critics of the Kremlin, it’s clear that, for movie purposes at least, Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” has made something of a comeback.


◊ ◊ ◊

Diehard fans are looking forward to the release of “Crystal Skull” with anticipation, but however well-received this film is, it’s almost certain to be the last in a series.

You can see it in the latest poster art. Harrison Ford looks tired; there’s not much of the spark of athletic defiance seen in poster art for the previous trio of films.

It’s understandable. At age 65, Ford is seven years older in real life than the character he portrays. We like Harrison Ford — hell, we like any A-list actor with the stones to insist on doing his own stunts after the age of 60. To his eternal credit, Ford did just that in the “Crystal Skull” installment of the Indiana Jones saga.

But still, 65 years old is 65 years old. You have to think that with a personal net worth in excess of $300 million, five of his best efforts in the National Film Registry, four grown children and his health and good looks intact, Harrison Ford may be ready to commit his most celebrated character to another enduring life-movie: Indiana Jones and the Perils of Retirement.
Image credits: Indiana Jones images © Paramount Pictures. Putin: Ricardo Stuckrt/Agencia Brasil, licensed under Creative Commons License Attribution 2.5 Brazil

Friday, March 14, 2008

A man of vision

A year of expected firsts in presidential politics will also see breakthrough in the fractious world of New York politics.

As we know, the abrasive, combative New York governor Eliot Spitzer will resign his office on Monday, after his being implicated in a prostitution ring. The Spitzer scandal may yet result in criminal prosecution for the former prosecutor known, with some derision, as Mr. Clean.

With Spitzer’s resignation a year and four months after taking office, the way’s clear for his successor, Lt. Gov. David Paterson, to put his stamp on politics in the Empire State. When Spitzer bows out, Paterson will become the first black governor of New York State, only the fourth black governor in American history, and the first legally blind governor in the nation’s history.

Even before being sworn in, Paterson, 53, seems to realize the shoulders he’s standing on. “In some ways I feel I’m sitting on a sandcastle that other people built,” Paterson said Thursday at a press conference in Albany.

Two of those shoulders belong to his father, Basil Paterson, a former New York secretary of state, first black vice-chairman of the Democratic Party, one-time deputy mayor of New York City and a savvy operator within its rough, labyrinthine politics.

A childhood illness left David Paterson totally blind in one eye and with limited vision in the other. But it didn’t stop him from building a career that’s used consensus as a tool for change in his native state.

After working to get David Dinkins elected as Manhattan borough president, Paterson was elected in 1985 to represent the black-majority district of Harlem and parts of New York’s Upper West Side in the state Senate, and established his bona fides there. He lost in two bids for city offices in the 1990’s, but burnished his rep in the state Senate, becoming in 2002 the minority leader of the state Senate, the first such non-white officeholder in the state’s history.

In 2004, Paterson became the first legally blind person to address the Democratic National Convention, the same event at which Barack Obama electrified the nation. He was elected lieutenant governor in 2006. In the roughly sixteen months he’s been there, Paterson has been an able advocate for stem cell research, minority-owned businesses, initiatives against domestic violence, and renewable energy.

His political advances as a blind person have been inspiring in ways that transcend the purely political. "We don’t see a lot of people with disabilities in positions that important," said Suzanne Ressa, marketing director at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults, in an interview with The Associated Press. "He could be a great role model to all those individuals who are transitioning into the work world, because he’s saying, ’Yeah I’m making it happen.’”

◊ ◊ ◊

Now, Paterson’s poised to be an even bigger change agent in New York politics. He already has a groundswell of support from the state Republican leadership. “I want to partner with him,” said Joseph Bruno, the state Senate Majority Leader. “I want to help him, I don’t want to be his adversary,” he said in an interview with NBC’s Mike Taibbi.

Bruno’s comments make sense, of course, since he assumes the powers of lieutenant governor, if not the office itself, when Paterson succeeds Spitzer. Honeymoons don’t last long, especially in Albany, but Bruno’s conciliatory gesture suggests this marriage is off to a good start.

The inevitable question is how this plays out in the national political race. When Spitzer resigns as governor, Monday at noon eastern time, Hillary Clinton loses one of the superdelegates in her current tally. Paterson is also a superdelegate, and a Clinton supporter, but CBS News reported Tuesday that “The Democratic National Committee will likely offer Paterson's original superdelegate vote, which he received through his DNC membership, to someone else.”

Barack Obama, the other most prominent African American politician of the day, may enjoy some popular emotional linkage to Paterson — gilt by association — as he makes his own groundbreaking run for the presidency. Paterson's reputation as both agent of change and conciliator in New York may reflect well on Obama's own similar assets.

◊ ◊ ◊

But Paterson’s already shown signs of being his own man in Albany. He held a press conference Thursday, attended by state workers and a room full of reporters.

“Have you ever patronized a prostitute?” one asked Paterson, clearly thinking he’d put the future governor on the spot.

Paterson took this fastball from the tough, no-nonsense New York press and parked it in the center-field stands.

“Only the lobbyists,” Paterson said, with the timing of a standup comic, to gales of approving laughter.

With a professional sense of purpose, and a wry, playful sense of the way Albany government works, Paterson is set to take a seat in the New York governor’s chair on an upbeat note. Early indications are, it’s likely to be a good fit.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

‘The designated Hebrew’: Billy Crystal digs in

He almost looked mahvelous. But for taking a too-aggressive cut at a fastball moving at 88 miles an hour for a distance of 60 feet and six inches — a ball that needed just three-tenths of a second to trick his 60-year-old eyes — Billy Crystal, debuting as a New York Yankee, might have been a giant.

Crystal, a Yankee fan in utero, realized a personal-best dream Thursday when he made his debut — his first and last at-bat — with the team during spring training, playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at Legends Field in Tampa, Fla., after signing a one-game contract days earlier. “I think I’m the designated Hebrew,” he said at a press conference.

Crystal’s status as a Yankee fan has not been a casual thing. He frequently punctuated the commentary in Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball,” and he directed the 2001 HBO movie "61*", - about the joys and agonies of Roger Maris' pursuit of the single-season league home-run record in 1961.

Still, the Yankees didn’t cut him any slack. Invited by shortstop for the ages Derek Jeter, Crystal showed up and was (like all rookies, we'd guess) subject to team pranks, finding a drink spiked and the laces in his shoes disappeared.

Then, getting a standing O before he even got to the plate, one day before his 60th birthday, William Jacob Crystal dug in, the leadoff man in pinstripes.

Let the venerable Associated Press give you the play-by-play. Or maybe just the play:

Players on both teams perched on the top step of the dugout when Crystal came up. They almost saw something special as he took Jeter’s advice: “Swing early in the count.”

Batting leadoff as the Yankees’ designated hitter in the first inning, he took a late-but-solid cut at a fastball from Pirates lefty Paul Maholm. Crystal hit a chopper that got past first baseman Adam LaRoche, but came down 3 feet foul.

Crystal showed a patient, good eye and got ahead in the count 3-1. Maholm came back with a pair of cutters, and the right-handed Crystal swung over both 88 mph pitches.

“I was mad at myself for swinging at ’em,” he said.

Especially the last one.

“It was ball four,” said plate umpire Mark Carlson, who shook hands with Crystal before the at-bat.

Said Maholm: “I tried to lay it in there for him. I definitely didn’t try to blow it by him.”

“It was definitely a little nerve-racking,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to watch it every day, him getting a hit off me.”

◊ ◊ ◊

"I can always say I led off for the New York Yankees," Crystal said. "That's an amazing feeling. I don’t even know how to describe it. It was so intensely good."

The New York Yankees Web site played it up right: “Yanks lose despite Mussina, Crystal,” read the headline in the story published after the game.

But some bloggers on the sports Web sites were weirdly uncharitable, calling it a stunt that cheapened the Yankee pipnstripes. Hello folks — before it was a tradition, it was a game, a kid’s game. Crystal never forgot that.

Whether the humorless chuckleheads who put him down know it or not, he took a hack at a dream, which is more than most of us can say. A goof? A stunt? Get real. Billy Crystal doesn’t need any more publicity, and God knows the Yankees don’t.

What happened today was a nod to the persistence of childhood, a short laugh at the advances of maturity and the relentless march of time. Billy Crystal took a shot for all of us. He was up three and one and went down swinging. That’s a scenario we all relate to, sooner or later.

“There’s more Met than Yankee in all of us,” the great sportswriter Roger Angell once observed. And if that’s true, and it is, there’s more Billy Crystal in all of us than maybe we’d ever admit.
Image credit: Crystal:, republished under Fair Use Doctrine: photo subject as news story

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A 'monster' of her very own

Last week the Obama campaign had to contend with dismissing Samantha Power, an Obama foreign policy adviser, for comments made in a Scottish newspaper about Hillary Clinton. Power, who called Clinton a “monster,” was summarily exited from the campaign, much to the delight of Clinton loyalists.

Now, comments by Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro point to Team Clinton having a "monster" situation of its very own, one that showcases the Clinton intent to win the Democratic nomination by any divisive, Republican-inspired means necessary. For bloggers, and surely voters, there's a sense that Clinton believes it takes destroying a Democratic village in order to save it — for herself.

Ferraro — Walter Mondale’s running mate in the 1984 Democratic campaign, twice-failed aspirant for the U.S. Senate, and honorary member of Clinton’s finance committee — was perhaps angrily honest in a story by Jim Farber published last week in the Torrance Daily Breeze.

"I think what America feels about a woman becoming president takes a very secondary place to Obama's campaign - to a kind of campaign that it would be hard for anyone to run against," Ferraro said. "For one thing, you have the press, which has been uniquely hard on her. It's been a very sexist media. Some just don't like her. The others have gotten caught up in the Obama campaign.

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she said. "And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."

Ferraro thus undercut the idea of preparation, desire, planning and intellect having anything to do with the ascension of the Obama campaign; in Ferraro's statement was the sense that everything Obama has achieved was best viewed through the narrow lens of race, in the cavalier context of a lucky break.

Clinton tut-tutted the remarks Tuesday, saying only that she disagreed with them. In an Associated Press interview, she called it "regrettable that any of our supporters — on both sides, because we both have this experience — say things that kind of veer off into the personal."

But no, just in case there was any mistake — maybe Ferraro had a slip of the tongue, a momentary lapse of reason — she enlarged on her original comments as she made the rounds of today’s morning talk shows.

Team Clinton refused to, uh, reject or denounce Ferraro’s comments beyond the weak-tea statement offered by the candidate herself.

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama, flush with results from Tuesday's rout of Clinton in the Mississippi Primary (and recovering after a contentious session with Chicago reporters over the weekend), was characteristically circumspect.

"Part of what I think Geraldine Ferraro is doing, and I respect the fact that she was a trailblazer, is to participate in the kind of slice and dice politics that's about race and about gender and about this and that, and that's what Americans are tired of because they recognize that when we divide ourselves in that way, we can't solve problems," Obama said on NBC's "Today" show.

By sticking with Ferraro as a fundraiser, and by offering nothing close to a stinging rebuke, Clinton seems to have set a strategy for winning Pennsylvania, with a thinly-veiled appeal to the baser racial instincts assumed to be found in the rural residents of the state — her perceived base, mainly older white men and women with more modest incomes, the white ethnics who live between the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

In the Philadelphia Inquirer’s excellent “Attytood” blog, Will Bunch distills what Team Clinton is apparently up to:

“A sculptor brought in to mold a Hillary Clinton voter would have crafted Geraldine Ferraro from scratch. She's 72 years old now. White. Female. Ethnic. Catholic. Emotionally vested in the idea that a woman should become president in her lifetime. Hailing from the community that was once the face of white middle-class America. Got where she was with the enthusiastic backing of New York big labor. Has views on the role of race in American politics that aren't exactly ready for prime time, but well, hey, once they get out there you can't really put the genie back in the bottle, now can you?

“Pennsylvania is chock full of voters like this, many of them Democrats. … What matters is that the Clinton campaign is convinced that Archie Bunker is voting in Pennsylvania in April 22, and they clearly will not struggle hard to repudiate any idea -- no matter how loathesome -- that can squeeze out a few extra voters in that regard.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But it’s a risky strategy for at least three good reasons:

• Ferraro’s comments are likely to galvanize the state’s independent voters, who may see Clinton’s passive-aggressive plan of attack as more of the same divisive politics that made them independents in the first place.

• The comments may well antagonize the state’s Reagan Democrats and moderate Republicans — the people in the rural middle of the state Clinton’s counting on to win. Put off by the overtly racial implications of Clinton’s kitchen-sink strategy (reflecting a way of thinking they may share but would no doubt prefer to keep to themselves), and less than enchanted by the prospect of John McCain, they may be inclined to back Obama as one who shares their principles, if not their party.

• The superdelegates whom Clinton so assiduously courts could be lost to her. Already quietly recognizing Obama’s overwhelming lead in delegate count, states won and popular vote, the superdelegates in Pennsylvania and elsewhere may find in Ferraro’s comments the perfect political cover they need to vacate the Clinton camp with impunity.

And there’s a possible further fallout for Clinton. The Ferraro outburst and Clinton’s indifferent response can be counted on to have repercussions beyond that state. Clinton’s national base of black support, already shrinking in recent months, could wither to nothing in the remaining primary contests. If she is somehow the nominee, that support’s likely to be fragmented and indifferent in the general election.

If she were to lose the presidency in 2008, her chances at rebuilding that black base of support for a run in 2012 would evaporate, right along with any vestiges of the storied Clinton special relationship with black voters.

◊ ◊ ◊

Clearly, Clinton’s kitchen-sink-and-fixtures plan isn’t working. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman said that, with Ferraro’s comments, Clinton “just made the kitchen sink bigger, and put more things in it.”

“It’s possible they can’t see what’s happened to their own campaign, in some ways,” Fineman said.

For many voters, though, unreasoned outbursts like this that make it clear why Hillary Clinton can’t be the Democratic nominee. The potential for interparty divisiveness that has been a hallmark of much of her political career has finally transformed into something that reveals her ability — her apparent willingness — to divide loyalties within the very party she hopes to lead against Republicans in the fall.

Jay blogging on Attytood, said “Us black folks liked the Clinton family before this race and supported her in the polling. But then they had to go all racist dogwhistle on us and that support vanished. Folks who don't see or understand how and why that happened are probably Archie Bunker types anyway.”

How all this plays out six weeks from now — whether anyone remembers the Ferraro fury come primary day — is anyone’s guess. But Geraldine Ferraro may well have done for Barack Obama what Barack Obama hasn’t been able to do in Pennsylvania — yet: offer a majority of the state’s voters a clear distinction in campaign styles (and a reason to jettison the politics of racial fear and division), and present superdelegates with a politically palatable last-straw reason for backing Obama, something that many may have wanted to do all along.

And ironically, as Hillary Clinton’s all-or-nothing strategem is developing, Clinton is giving Obama the experience she says he doesn’t have — not the acquired knowledge of contacts and favors, not the rote knowledge of rules of order and procedure on Capitol Hill, but the deeper, bare-knuckles experience of just how dirty politics in Washington can be.

It’ll come as a shock to Team Clinton if, just months from now, the teacher gets beaten by the student.
Update: Geraldine Ferraro has stepped down from her honorary post in Clinton's presidential campaign, The Associated Press reported Wednesday. Ferraro notified Clinton by letter that she would no longer serve on Clinton's finance committee. Campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said Ferraro left the post under her own power.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The McCain scrutiny II

The presidential campaign of John McCain, flush with victories in Ohio and Texas and a lock for the Republican nomination, has won itself some time and breathing space, as the news focus stays on the “Ben-Hur” chariot race to the death going on between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, a battle maybe seven weeks from the finish line.

But a relatively quiet seven weeks on the GOP campaign trail shouldn’t be seen as a cakewalk for McCain’s crew. The senator’s confrontation March 7 with New York Times correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller, and concerns raised by others in a position to know, suggest that going forward, personal temperament will be as much an identifier for McCain as the national security credentials he brandishes.

McCain has had a turbulent relationship with the press, stemming from his associations with journalists in his home state of Arizona. Despite more recent efforts to calm the waters, the reported today, “[r]eporters who actually live in Arizona … say the tense back-and-forth with Bumiller is much closer to the John McCain they know — a sometimes pugnacious politician whose media strategy is a far cry from joking asides and backslaps around the barbecue pit.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It goes back years. The Politico said that reporters trace the first clash between McCain and the state’s leading paper, the Arizona Republic, back to 1989, when McCain was embroiled in the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal.

“The Republic, which had previously backed McCain in his congressional elections, published an editorial in October 1999 that questioned his fitness for the Oval Office. McCain called it further evidence that the paper had a ‘vendetta’ against him,” the Politico said.

"’If McCain is truly a serious contender for the presidency, it is time the rest of the nation learned about the John McCain we know in Arizona,’ the editorial stated. ‘There is also reason to seriously question whether he has the temperament and the political approach and skills we want in the next president of the United States.’"

The situation’s changed markedly since then. This year the Republic editorialized that “[a]nyone surprised to learn that the Arizona Republic judges U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona the best Republican choice for president in 2008 simply hasn't been paying attention.”

Maybe it’s his status as inevitable GOP nominee that the Republic’s reacting to. Everyone, it seems, wants to hook up with a winner.

◊ ◊ ◊

But the Bumiller incident shows that McCain’s temper is hardly a dead issue. According to one of McCain’s Senate colleagues, it’s a big problem.

Recently, five-term Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who endorsed Mitt Romney for president, told the Boston Globe’s Michael Kramish that “[t]he thought of [McCain] being president sends a cold chill down my spine. …”

“He is erratic,” Cochran said. “He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”

The Globe said Cochran “has known the McCain family from the days when they lived in Mississippi and got to know McCain well in the 1970s when Cochran served in the U.S. House and McCain served as a naval liaison in Congress. He said he has seen McCain's temper fly too often in committee hearings or on the Senate floor, although he said he hasn't seen an example in the last several years.”

McCain has had dustups with others on his side of the aisle, including Sen. Charles Grassley, Sen. Richard Shelby and — in a celebrated scrap when McCain used the F-word — with Texas Senator John Cornyn.

◊ ◊ ◊

Cochran confirms something generally observed in McCain's interviews and debate performances, something apparently reflective of his foundational aspect. When he’s confronted on some issues, especially matters related to the war in Iraq, McCain seems to exhibit the latent, barely submersible rage of a man counting to ten before he explodes.

Passporthandle, blogging on YouTube, observed: "This man is still fighting the Vietnam War in his head. He is a very disturbed and troubled man. Consequently, he is extremely dangerous. To put him in the Oval Office would be worse than Bush. Bush is driven by greed. McCain is driven by rage. Pure rage."

Cochran’s concerns about McCain’s temperament open the window to dire possibilities if McCain were to win the nomination and the White House. The most potentially troubling? McCain as domestic steward of the nation's laws and values, governing by deleted expletive; McCain as global representative of the United States with a martial agenda not unlike his predecessor, a commander-in-chief with a short fuse and a petulant bullheadedness that could make George Bush seem like a statesman by comparison.

These concerns, though, didn’t stop Cochran from endorsing McCain on Feb. 8, after Romney dropped out of the contest. Something about that frontrunner status again.

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain’s temper has been enough of an issue for him to even write about it. In his memoir, "Worth the Fighting For," McCain understands that he’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

"My temper has often been both a matter of public speculation and personal concern," the senator wrote. "I have a temper, to state the obvious, which I have tried to control with varying degrees of success because it does not always serve my interest or the public's. I have regretted losing my temper on many occasions. But there are things worth getting angry about in politics, and I have at times tried to use my anger to incite public outrage. I make no apologies for that.”

But in some ways, what’s more worrying than his temper is this way of rationalizing it, of articulating anger as just another basic weapon in his political arsenal.

McCain writes in his book: “When public servants lose their capacity for outrage over practices injurious to the national interest, they have outlived their usefulness to the country."

Maybe. But when public servants lose their capacity for self-control in deciding what is and is not injurious to that national interest, when they lose their ability to prudently react, they may well have outlived that same usefulness — to the nation and the world.

That loss of self-control reared its head in McCain's previous presidential run, in 2000, when the candidate uttered — and defended — his use of a slur against Asians, one that generated considerable reaction from Asian Americans.

The question of temperament — it’s certain to be raised by the American press as something every bit as important as experience. It’s one likely to be raised by the American electorate well before November, maybe like this:

"If it’s 3 a.m. and the hypothetical red phone rings at the White House, do we want an angry man answering that call?"

If the following video is any indication of what Americans are thinking, John McCain's got as much work to do for the next seven weeks as the Democrats. And maybe more:

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