Wednesday, April 30, 2008

From the Fox News History Channel

If only it were true.

Fox News, threatening to bid for something approaching journalistic gravitas after Chris Wallace's Sunday interview with Barack Obama, returned to its singular form Tuesday with a news graphic that was breathtaking for its sadly dumb (if tantalizing) misreading of American history.

The background: Hillary Clinton, Obama's challenger for the Democratic nomination, recently called for a North Carolina debate between herself and Obama, one without moderators, in what she thought was the style of the seven celebrated 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Arnold Douglas, a fiery, diminutive, resourceful Democratic state politician who defeated Lincoln that year for a Senate seat.

Fox News, running hard with the ball the wrong way down the field, came up with a graphic to illustrate a brief "Fox and Friends" on-air discussion about the Clinton debate-format idea. But in the two-portrait image, Lincoln wasn't paired with Stephen A. Douglas. It was ... well, see for yourself:

Historians, American history buffs, and black Americans everywhere were no doubt pleasantly surprised to learn on Tuesday that, according to Fox News, the black abolitionist leader, publisher and author Frederick Douglass rose to a prominence in American life beyond his more celebrated achievements — a groundbreaking role in Illinois politics overlooked for 150 years. As we said before, if only it were true.

Question: Does Fox News have some 'splainin' to do?

Answer: No more than usual.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Swift boat down

On Tuesday, a week before primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, Barack Obama sent a message to those who privately hoped to use the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a club to beat Obama over the head with from now until November. Let the word go forth, the candidate said, that game is over.

In a speech and news conference that dominated the news cycle all day, Obama took the character-assassination strategy of Hillary Clinton and nemesis-in-waiting John McCain off the table as a way to stop his seemingly inexorable rise to the Democratic presidential nomination and, more than possibly, the American presidency.

“I want to make absolutely clear that I do not subscribe to the views that he expressed,” Obama said of his former pastor, at a campaign appearance in Winston-Salem, N.C. He spoke in tones that shuttled from barely-subdued anger to an almost painful deliberation. “I believe they are wrong, I think they are destructive, and to the extent that he continues to speak out, I do not expect those views to be attributed to me.”

“His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church,” he said. “They certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs.”

“I’m outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday,” he said. “I find these comments appalling. It contradicts everything that I’m about and who I am.”

“Whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this. I don’t think that he showed much concern for me,” he said. “More importantly, I don’t think he showed much concern for what we’re trying to do in this campaign and what we’re trying to do for the American people.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The controversial views of Rev. Wright on terrorism, patriotism, race and government complicity in the AIDS crisis— snapshots of which have been a staple good of cable TV for weeks now — got an update, of course, on Monday at the National Press Club. Obama’s former pastor engaged in what Obama, perhaps charitably, called a “performance,” an appearance before reporters that was full up with one-liners, bromides and a fresh recitation of many of the same views that have made Wright problematic to the Obama campaign.

Until now. Though many in the controversy-hungry press think otherwise, and even though the McCain campaign can be expected to try between now and the fall, Obama’s sweeping denunciation on Tuesday — at least his third in rcent weeks — effectively cuts off the oxygen to the Wright controversy.

There’s not much traction to be gained by either Clinton or McCain continuing to harp on and on about Obama’s relationship with Wright when Obama himself has condemned that relationship, in language that couldn’t be clearer or less ambiguous.

And in ways the candidate would be too polite to admit, Obama’s frank statements are a throwdown to the mainstream media, a call for them to elevate their game about the pertinence of the Wright non-issue to the lives of everyday people, and to fully acknowledge Obama’s clear separation from Wright and the disquieting controversy in his wake.

Going forward, Obama seemed to say, the MSM’s handling of the Wright stuff will say as much about the media as about Wright or the candidate.

◊ ◊ ◊

Ironically, the MSM spin may not matter anyway. Obama’s remarks were posted to YouTube almost as soon as he said them — verbatim, no spin, straight no chaser. Reasonable minds in the blogosphere by the millions may come to the conclusion that there’s no there there anymore, that the little corrosive presence the Wright matter once had has dissipated nationally … as it almost certainly has as a burning issue for the people of Indiana and North Carolina.

Obama, the most politically astute champion of communication technology in the nation’s history, benefits from an irony common to the Information Age: His campaign may get out of the doldrums thanks to one video loop replacing another in the national mediascape.

But this was more than a soundbite moment: Obama finally responded to the protracted swift-boat attack on his character with a statement of overwhelming return fire, soundly rejecting attempts to marginalize him as a candidate by race and culture, and resetting his campaign's focus, for now anyway, on the business of mounting a transcendent presidential campaign.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Wright hand man

Seven hundred and seventy-two days after Barack Obama promised an interview with Fox News, he delivered on Sunday, in a half-hour interview with Chris Wallace in Marion, Ind. And now we’ve seen everything. Leave it to Fox— the “fair and balanced” anathema to much of mainstream media — to actually be fair and balanced (compared to the train wreck of the ABC-sponsored debate the week before).

It was just as well. Wallace and Fox should be happy; 772 days ago there wasn’t nearly as much to talk about. Wallace quizzed the Illinois senator on his “problem” with white male voters (reflected in the turnout in Pennsylvania), government spending, the war in Iraq (in any other situation surely topic A) and some other domestic issues. The big deal, though, was the ecclesiastical elephant in the room, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose comments have created a cottage industry in guilt-association techniques.

But this Obama interview — in his greater embrace of detail and specifics, things that mattered deeply and personally to Americans, rather than the loftier but more imprecise dimensions of inspiring social change — was different. Obama was surer this time out. In his willingness to take on the media’s “anguished columns” about his campaign’s problems, and to address the need to change the strategic dynamic in Iraq, it was clear the steel and sharpness of delivery was there, the fire was back. This was the street fighter people were looking for, a theoretician who could lace up the gloves when he had to. And he had to now.

The interview was generally well received; it went hand in glove with a more hands-on, personal campaigning style in Indiana, one of the two states next to be contested in the Democratic primary race. But Obama got an assist from an unlikely source.

As part of his own campaign for rehabilitation, Wright did an interview with PBS’ Bill Moyers on Friday, and followed that up with an appearance at an NAACP function in Detroit and, on Monday, an address and Q&A session with reporters at the National Press Club in Washington. With the news stories and analysis that followed, the Obama deathwatchers weighed in. A snapshot of the conventional wisdom has it that Obama, already seen as on the ropes in his fight with Hillary Clinton, is damaged further by the reappearance of Wright in the public eye. Some have dared propose that Obama, the frontrunner for the nomination, should quit the race. You could almost hear them building a gallows down the street from Obama headquarters.

But Wright’s resurfacing and his new comments may have the opposite effect: By highlighting the differences between himself and Obama, Wright may well be inviting the American public to make that same separation. Ironically, Obama gains a source of relief from the Wright issue courtesy of the source of the Wright issue.

◊ ◊ ◊

At the National Press Club, initially offering an almost academic overview of black American theology, Wright got wound up, saying that the criticism over select snippets from his sermons — a kind of “Wright’s Greatest Microseconds” collection that puts the United States in the Biblical context of an empire subject to decay equal to the abandonment of its principles— was “not an attack on Jeremiah Wright, it has nothing to do with Barack Obama, this is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African American religious tradition.”

Wright’s comments this week and last, and some of his sermons reflect his grasp of the realpolitik aspects of black American theology, a worship that has long combined spirituality and social activism. And those comments are something much of the media wasn’t ready for: an attempt to more deeply contextualize the gotcha soundbites they’d gotten comfortable with, with information about a form of American religion that the media’s never been comfortable with.

But most importantly for Obama, they reflect for Americans the experiential split between one generation of black Americans and another — Wright’s a product of the agonies of the Jim Crow era, Obama’s the inheritor of the gains achieved through that struggle.

And more.

Wright at the National Press Club: “Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on soundbites, based on polls … preachers say what they say because they’re pastors, they have a different person to whom they’re accountable. As I said whether he gets elected or not, I’m still going to have to be answerable to God November 5 and January 21. … I do what pastors do; he does what politicians do.”

Politicians can’t spin Rev. Wright, and the media can’t spin Wright elaborating on his own words. When Wright said his expressions had “nothing to do with Barack Obama,” it forces the media narrative to include his own disavowal of any linkage of thought between Wright and Obama. Wright’s saying “I do what pastors do; he does what politicians do” enables the public to see the basis of a largely unexplored intraracial divide, a divide between the spiritual and the secular — a divide based on nothing less than how to look at the world. That’s something every American can understand, regardless of race.

By laying bare some of the generational distinctions between black Americans — the same kind of distinctions all Americans are subject to — Jeremiah Wright may have done more to position Barack Obama in the national mainstream than Barack Obama could have done on his own.

◊ ◊ ◊

Most of the media this week and last seemed to relish in taking the Obama-under-siege line. In her line of inquiry and foundational assumptions built in to some of her reporting lately, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell seems to be so in the tank for Hillary, you wonder if she’s in line to be press secretary in a new Clinton administration.

But every goodbye ain’t gone; the Chinese ideogram for “crisis” is the same as the one for “opportunity.” Barack Obama’s reigning crisis may have taken a step toward resolution in ways few could have expected. And with eight days before primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, he’s taking the opportunity to step up the populist game — not to reinvent himself, a la Team Clinton, but to reintroduce himself, seeking (like Rev. Wright) that second chance at making a first impression.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The McCain scrutiny V

Sen. John McCain got fresh vetting over the weekend, when the New York Times published a story suggesting (again) that the Arizona senator and presumptive Republican nominee’s actions are at odds with his publicly stated policies. It’s among the first signs of the withering scrutiny to come.

Over a stretch of seven months, The Times reported Sunday citing public records, McCain’s cash-strapped campaign gave itself a leg up in the 2008 race by using a corporate jet owned by a company headed by his wife. For five of those months, The Times said, the jet, owned by Hensley & Company, was used almost solely for campaign-related purposes. This despite the fact that McCain supported legislation in 2007 requiring presidential candidates to pick up the actual cost of flying on corporate jets.

Cindy McCain is the chairwoman of Hensley & Company, one of the country’s largest distributors of Anheuser-Busch beer and other products.

“The senator was able to fly so inexpensively because the law specifically exempts aircraft owned by a candidate or his family or by a privately held company they control,” The Times reported.

“Because that exemption remains, Mr. McCain’s campaign was able to use his wife’s corporate plane like a charter jet while paying first-class rates, several campaign finance experts said,” The Times said.

While it’s not expressly against the law, McCain’s action is pretty clearly an end-run around the spirit of the law he supported, if not the letter of the law itself.

It’s another of the multitude of questions just now starting to swirl about the fitness of John McCain for the highest elective office in the world. This matter, coupled with other issues — some of them explored in two new books about McCain — adds to growing concerns that the presidency demands a wider emotional latitude, a broader experiential skill set and a greater philosophical consistency than those he apparently has at his disposal.

◊ ◊ ◊

In "Pure Goldwater," co-written by former White House counsel John Dean and Barry Goldwater Jr., the son of conservative icon Barry Goldwater, McCain, who succeeded Goldwater as Arizona senator, comes under fire for exploiting the name of Goldwater as a fundraising ploy in 1992, during McCain’s involvement in the Keating Five savings & loan scandal. Goldwater’s support for McCain “began to cool” after the episode, the authors write.

This unwarranted appropriation of the name of a legend of conservatism wasn’t unlawful, of course, but this adds to concerns over the appearance of unethical conduct — what McCain has called “questions of honor” — that have gotten scant mention in the press.

Another incident may not make it into the wider press because, simply put, the R-rated language involved can’t be repeated on television or in most newspapers.

In the book “The Real McCain,” author Cliff Schecter recounts an incident that makes other evidence of his volcanic temper pale by comparison. In a passage whose basic veracity was confirmed by three Arizona reporters, Schecter writes:

“In his 1992 Senate bid, McCain was joined on the campaign trail by his wife, Cindy, as well as campaign aide Doug Cole and consultant Wes Gullett. At one point, Cindy playfully twirled McCain's hair and said, ‘You're getting a little thin up there.’ McCain's face reddened, and he responded, ‘At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt.’ McCain’s excuse was that it had been a long day.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Add this verbal attack to past documented reports of physical attacks against other congressmen, GOP and Democrat alike: an incident with Rick Renzi; a dustup with Strom Thurmond, then at 92 the oldest living Senator in a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing in January 1995. An F-word throwdown with Sen. Charles Grassley.

Sidney Blumenthal, writing in a Salon opinion piece in January 2007, recalled some of McCain’s other heavyweight bouts: “McCain's political colleagues, however, know another side of the action hero -- a volatile man with a hair-trigger temper, who shouted at Sen. Ted Kennedy on the Senate floor to ‘shut up,’ called his fellow Republican senators ‘shithead,’ ‘fucking jerk,’ ‘asshole,’ and joked in 1998 at a Republican fundraiser about the teenage daughter of President Clinton, ‘Do you know why Chelsea Clinton is so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father.’ As recently as a few months ago, McCain suddenly rushed up to a friend of mine, a prominent Washington attorney, at a social event, and threatened to beat him up because he represented a client McCain happened to dislike, and then, just as suddenly, profusely and tearfully apologized.”

“Within the Republican Party nearly everyone who has had serious dealings with McCain distrusts him (including traditional Republican moderates, not just conservatives). While taking right-wing positions on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, his simmering resentment of Bush led him to virtually caucus with the Democrats in early 2001 (before Sept. 11), using the Democratic Leadership Council as his back channel. Then, abruptly, he rushed to embrace Bush.”

◊ ◊ ◊

In February 2000, McCain apologized for his use of the term “gooks,” a monstrous slur against Asians, and his defense of its use as a reaction to his Vietnamese captors during the Vietnam War. Earlier that month, McCain was asked by the San Jose Mercury News about his use of the slur in October 1999.

"I'll call, right now, my interrogator that tortured me and my friends a gook, OK? And you can quote me,'' McCain said in February 2000. McCain enlarged on the comments, calling his Vietnam-era captors "cruel, mean, vicious, sometimes sadistic people. And ‘gook’ is the kindest description I can give them, the most printable.''

Then, after taking a phone call, with an opportunity for circumspection, McCain didn't miss a beat in his follow-up: "I hated the gooks,'" he said. "And I will hate them for as long as I live.''

McCain later apologized profusely for the comments. “For 5-1/2 years, I was mistreated by Ho Chi Minh's henchmen. My fellow prisoners were treated even worse,'' McCain said in a statement. ``Although I will never forgive my prison guards for the atrocities they committed against my cellmates, I have always held the people of Vietnam in the highest regard and have worked in support of the Vietnamese-American community in this country at every opportunity. …

“I deeply regret any pain I may have caused by my choice of words. I apologize and renounce all language that is bigoted and offensive, which is contrary to all that I represent and believe.”

As you might expect, McCain has defended his outsize passion of legislative matters. “If I lose my capacity for anger, then I shouldn't be president of the United States," he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace on April 6. "When I see the waste and corruption in Washington, I get angry."

But it is, or oughta be, deeply worrying that a man who would be president of the United States in one of the most dangerous times in history is apparently comfortable with employing anger as a baseline emotional response to the myriad challenges that would cross his desk as steward of the economy, commander-in-chief and global symbol of the American mood.

◊ ◊ ◊

Those matters are concerning enough. What’s even more distressing has been McCain’s refusal to release his health records, particularly important for vetting McCain, the prospective oldest president upon inauguration, and a survivor of a form of cancer from which, one doctor told The New York Times, “a patient is never completely clear.”

In March, Leonard K. Altman, a New York Times reporter, who is also a doctor, wrote a story about McCain's past bout with melanoma, and the chances that it might return. Altman, who didn’t speak with McCain's doctors (who no doubt told them not to do so), talked to experts about that especially dangerous form of cancer, for which McCain had surgery in August 2000, at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. Those experts told Altman that McCain’s “prospects appear favorable,” because he has survived this long without a recurrence of the disease.

But, Altman reported that, “Since the 2008 campaign began, doctors not connected with Mr. McCain's case have expressed intense interest in the extent of the face and neck surgery he underwent.”

Those doctors told Altman that “the surgery appeared to be so extensive that they were surprised his melanoma was not more serious -- perhaps Stage III, which would give him a bleaker prognosis. These doctors said they would be surprised to learn that such an operation would be performed without evidence that the melanoma had spread.”

◊ ◊ ◊

In fairness, some other doctors interviewed by the Times disagreed, but releasing these records would help settle this current matter, one at odds with McCain’s previous, exhaustively full disclosure of his health records before his 2000 campaign.

“In 1999, during Mr. McCain’s first race for president, he gave the public an extraordinary look at his medical history — 1,500 pages of medical and psychiatric records that were amassed as part of a United States Navy project to gauge the health of former prisoners of war,” Altman reported on March 8.

“At least three times since March 2007, campaign officials have told The New York Times that they would provide the detailed information about his current state of health, but they have not done so,” Altman reported.

“The melanoma removed in 2000 was Stage IIa on a standard classification that makes Stage IV the most serious. For Stage IIa melanoma, the survival rate 10 years after diagnosis is about 65 percent. But the outlook is much better for patients like Mr. McCain, who have already survived more than seven years.

“For patients with a melanoma like Mr. McCain’s who remained free of the disease for the first five years after diagnosis, the probability of recurrence during the next five years was 14 percent and death 9 percent, a study published in 1992 found.

“[W]ith melanoma, a patient is never completely clear,” Dr. Richard L. Shapiro, a melanoma surgeon at New York University, told The Times.

"If melanomas do recur," the Times reported, "standard treatment options are limited for many to surgery and a difficult form of chemotherapy. The chances of long-term survival diminish."

McCain had promised to release the records in April; since Altman’s story, however, the release date for this health records has been pushed back to May.

◊ ◊ ◊

Whenever some in the mainstream media get tired of the endless echo chamber consumed with Barack Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — a piling on that’s done the media and the public it purports to represent a great disservice — John McCain should expect to be firmly in the crosshairs of attention. There’s been a relative quietude about issues concerning the Republican candidate — a calm that, sure as night follows day, will end soon, maybe by the first week of June.

Have we heard everything there is to hear about McCain’s relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman? What's his relationship with televangelist the Rev. Rod Parsley, who denounced Islam as a "false religion"? And his continuing association with Rev. John Hagee, enemy of Catholicism? Those relationships, those comments will tell the nation as much about McCain’s bedrock character as the missteps that he or his campaign proxies would lay at Obama's doorstep.

Whether the punditocracy investigates these issues or not, John McCain faces his own uphill battle from now to November: a fight not so much against his Democratic challengers as a battle with his mercurial reputation and his own insurmountable past.
Image credit: Melanoma: DermAtlas (Wikipedia), republished under fair use rationale

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The fight of his life

In the runup to Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Primary, some inventive souls posted to YouTube a wildly inventive cut-and-paste video, “Baracky,” that cast Barack Obama as the lead character in “Rocky.” Just like Rocky Balboa did in the 1976 Oscar-winning film, Obama lost the fight, the senator from Illinois outpointed by the judges in the voting booths of the Keystone State.

Now, against all odds, despite the favorable delegate lead he enjoys, forces are arrayed against him — some even within his own party — to deny him the Democratic presidential nomination he’s nearly earned, and to do it on the basis of manufactured technicalities. Battling both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, Obama’s fighting a two-front war.

His next fight’s in two weeks. Here’s what’s necessary to win that bout and at least some of the others:

It’s time for Obama to face the issue that revealed itself in Pennsylvania: White men are having second thoughts about Obama. He has to understand that, for many white male voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, it matters that they connect with a candidate, that they feel relaxed in his presence, that they feel some form of the kinship that in many ways has less to do with race and more to do with emotion and camaraderie. It matters to them that he knows how to throw more than gutter balls in a bowling alley.

The issues of the day — the economy, health care, the Iraq misadventure, social security, the state of the environment — have to be front and center again, and not couched in generalities and ripostes, but with specifics, proposals and ideas John Q. Kozlowski can get his mind and heart around. The ideas are out there; even a casual look at the Obama Web site proves that. Now Obama has to boil down that position paper to language that resonates, with specifics that illuminate.

The hypothetical but real "Kozlowskis" of the primary season — those rust-belt, white male, blue-collar voters said to be disinclined to vote for Obama purely because of race (according to the Ed Rendell cosmology) — still may not vote for him. But the effort to reach out to them will go a long way to undercut any lingering resentments to the "bitter" comments. And doing so sends a signal to superdelegates still sitting on the fence: that Obama will do what's required to look for common ground — a unifying philosophy the supers will appreciate (even if the senator can't bowl to save his life).

This approach, relentlessly applied from now until June, will start to rewrite the narrative of the campaign: While Hillary Clinton remains stuck in neutral with continued repetition of the Jeremiah Wright and electability issues, Barack Obama has regained the high ground by revisiting an early chapter in his campaign playbook: “Connecting With People Where They Live.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama needs to come back to an approach that he and Clinton both mounted earlier in the campaign: a conflation of the economy and the war in Iraq. Uniting those two issues in the minds of voters, and doing it with matter-of-fact everyday examples, will send a serious shot across the bow of the McCain campaign — challenging the Arizona senator on the two issues to which he’s most vulnerable to attack: a ruinous and unpopular war, and a troubled national economy that he admits he knows next to nothing about.

In that brewing bruising battle with McCain, Obama needs to be prepared to call into question the double standard of perceptions that weighs his past missteps with Wright equally with the more recent association between McCain and the Rev. John Hagee, who called the Catholic Church “the great whore” — a personal association that McCain has neither rejected nor denounced, and one for which he should be held accountable.

And it’s time for Obama to come out swinging against the fifth column inside his own party. It’s time for Obama to confront, directly but eloquently, the central fallacy of Hillary Clinton’s hoary “electability” argument: she’s no more or less electable than he is, and for many of the same reasons she would bring against him.

Assuming that what Clinton has said earlier in the campaign is true — that gender is as big, as immovable, as problematic an impediment to American progress as race is — and with the evidence of the nation’s history of bias against women, it’s clear that Hillary Clinton is, like Obama, equally wounded by popular attitudes that have absolutely nothing to do with qualifications and everything to do with the way they were born.

So much for Clinton “electability.”

◊ ◊ ◊

In his battle with Clinton, Obama needs to drive home, again and again, the real electability issue: the irrefutable fact of his sizable lead in the accepted metrics of the primary season: delegate count, and nothing else. Obama has to make it clear that “electability” is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholders who count (besides the superdelegates) are the millions on people who have voted for him already and the hundreds of thousands who’ll vote for him between now and June 3.

This more aggressive attack will be condemned by some Obama supporters, the faint of heart who were hoping that Obama would continue staying above the fray, dismissing his attackers with weak-tea responses that, genteel though they have been, overlook the gravity of the accusations.

Can’t be helped. The true believers will be there for him. The angels at the base of his fundraising pyramid will be there. It’s time to take off the oratorical gloves.

And it's time for Obama to regain that ability to respond to new, evolving realities on the ground. To a large extent, Team Obama has done exactly that, shown an uncanny knack for making a quick pivot when necessary, answering charges from rivals before the cement hardened. Remember the "3 a.m." ad from the Clintons? Remember the Obama campaign's almost-immediate response? There's never been a swifter response to a campaign smear in the history of modern American politics. In the real-time context of 21st-century communications, Team Obama proved it was a master of the game.

Obama needs to get back to that. Now.

“Politics ain’t beanbag,” said Finley Peter Dunne, the celebrated Chicago humorist. True that. Politics is war by other means, but just barely other means. There are growing concerns that, after all the promise and electricity of the campaign’s early months, Barack Obama may have brought a Bowie knife to a gunfight.

Enough of this emo-Zen strategy. Aikido is fine, but nothing rings an opponent's bell like an oratorical two-by-four to the head. Nice guys don’t always finish last but they often get their teeth kicked in. It is time for Barack Obama to summon again the passion and populist fire that's brought him this far, and add to it a proportional response to the new assaults against him, an answer equal to what’s at stake — nothing less than the arc of this nation’s future.

No more “bitter” tears. No holds barred.

Why? Get real: Not even Rocky Balboa had to fight two opponents at the same time.
Image credit: Clinton: Boxers: From Edmund Price's "The Science of Self Defense: A Treatise on Sparring and Wrestling," 1867

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pennsylvania postmortem

No matter what happened for Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on Tuesday night, it was a great night for John Mellencamp.

After the results of the Pennsylvania Primary finally came in, with Sen. Hillary Clinton, the winner by an admittedly handsome 10 percentage points over Sen. Barack Obama, ending her victory rally with Mellencamp’s “This Is Our Country,” the wheatfields-and-flags anthem used until recently to sell Chevrolets. Not to be outdone, Obama’s rally ended with Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” an upbeat number that left Obama supporters on a high note — as high a note as possible after a bruising primary battle he was not expected to win.

For Clinton the win means a chance to fight another day, to battle on to the Guam caucuses, on May 3, and the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, coming on May 6, and to revive for superdelegates the idea that she may yet pull a rabbit out of her hat in order to win the Democratic nomination.

For Obama, Tuesday’s clock-cleaning means a need to retool his populist message; to refine strategies for fighting a two-front war, against both Clinton and Republican rival Sen. John McCain; and to gird for the battles in Indiana and North Carolina.

◊ ◊ ◊

But in practical terms, Clinton still faces the battle that’s more uphill. Her win in Pennsylvania, despite all the attention paid to its importance by the media and Team Clinton itself, gained her little ground on Obama’s delegate count advantage (one reason why the Clinton campaign has so eagerly embraced a rather perverse new math, attempting to make popular vote the new defining metric of the primary season, rather than delegate count).

And just as important, Clinton’s fundraising efforts are hurting badly. Despite raising an estimated $3 million online in the hours after winning in Pennsylvania, Team Clinton has been basically operating on a hand-to-mouth basis for weeks now. Obama’s highly-liquid cash operation — an ATM powered by 1.5 million loyal supporters, some of whom make Obama donations part of their monthly household budgets — is flush by comparison.

At least some of Wednesday’s vote in Pennsylvania hinged on perceptions about who could best fix the economy. “The Pennsylvania Democrats who cast their ballots in Tuesday’s primary did so with the economy weighing heavily on their minds, according to surveys of voters leaving polling places,” The New York Times reported Wednesday. “Those surveys showed that more than half the voters questioned believe that the worsening state of the American economy is the most important issue confronting the country, with about 90 percent saying the United States has already slipped into a recession.”

If voting Tuesday was tied to Pennsylvanians’ idea of who could repair the national economy, those voters might have taken a look at the Clinton campaign’s finances. The Obama campaign raised $43 million in March to Clinton’s $21 million. Team Clinton has $10.3 million in campaign debts, with only $9.5 million available to pay them. The Times reported that Obama’s campaign is spending 75 cents of every dollar it raises. Clinton’s campaign is burning a dollar and 10 cents of every dollar available.

A fair question, Pennsylvania: If Clinton’s likely to be so good for the economy, why can’t she keep her own campaign books in order?

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama was roundly criticized by the political analysts in the postmortem shows, usually by those lamenting why Obama couldn’t “close the deal,” couldn’t defeat Clinton in a state he wasn’t expected to win in the first place. Some offered dire Chicken Little predictions about an Obama-McCain matchup in the fall, saying essentially that if Obama couldn’t win “the big states” in the primaries, he’d never capture them in the fall.

But the idea of trying to extrapolate the results of an intra-party contest as the likely results of a watershed general election is meaningless. In the general election, independents locked out of primary voting, as well as Republicans crossing over to vote as Democrats, will weigh in. Many of those voters, added to Obama’s still-swelling popular vote totals, would make Obama just as formidable against McCain as Clinton would be.

Then consider the results of Wednesday’s Gallup daily tracking poll, finding that Obama is still favored nationally over Clinton by eight percentage points. It all suggests that Americans think the only real “deal” to close is the one in November.

All of which may explain Team Clinton’s growing attempts to revise the rule book of the Democratic primary season, calling on superdelegates to consider both raw popular-vote totals and even hypothetical electoral college votes before making their decisions about who to back now in the primaries. Never mind the delegate count. The Clinton campaign is trying to have it both ways: to undercut the importance of superdelegates even as it woos those same delegates to Clinton’s side.

And that same Gallup tracking poll that Wednesday showed Obama favored over Clinton paints a different story for the fall: McCain leads over Obama by one percentage point in a theoretical matchup. Last week the opposite was true. It’s a back & forth that illustrates the sturm und drang of this election, the war between old world and new that may come to a head less than seven months from now.

There’s a clear sign of that conflict. Maybe Obama and Clinton’s tweaks to their campaign jukebox playlists last night were no accident. John Mellencamp, who played at an Obama rally last night, apparently plans to perform again — at a Clinton rally — sometime between now and the Indiana primary.

Without realizing it, he may be the walking embodiment of the country’s ongoing political ambivalence. Indecision 2008. Ain't that America?
Image credit: Mellencamp: Chitrapa, via Wikipedia (public domain)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The hand that feeds bites back

Thanks to an audiotape recorded at a recent private fundraiser (one that wasn’t for Barack Obama), Hillary Clinton’s talent for triangulation — learned at the side of her husband, the master of the game — may cost her another constituency vital to her efforts now or in the general election. What she said on the tape, at odds with what she said earlier, will add new fuel to criticism of Clinton’s presidential campaign as being animated by a calculated, meretricious insincerity, a passive-aggressive sort of political ruthlessness that can’t conceal its intent to stay a course, regardless of the consequences.

On the tape, excerpts of which were on The Huffington Post on Friday, Clinton blamed what she described as the "activist base" of the Democratic Party – with the liberal advocacy organization singled out for special attention — for many of her Super Tuesday losses, claiming that those activists "flooded" state caucuses and "intimidated" her supporters.

At the donors’ fundraiser, which occurred sometime after Super Tuesday, Clinton said: " endorsed [Sen. Barack Obama] — which is like a gusher of money that never seems to slow down. We have been less successful in caucuses because it brings out the activist base of the Democratic Party. MoveOn didn't even want us to go into Afghanistan. I mean, that's what we're dealing with. And you know they turn out in great numbers. And they are very driven by their view of our positions, and it's primarily national security and foreign policy that drives them. I don't agree with them. They know I don't agree with them. So they flood into these caucuses and dominate them and really intimidate people who actually show up to support me."

In a statement to The Huffington Post, Eli Pariser, MoveOn’s executive director, was quick to respond with corrections: "Senator Clinton has her facts wrong again. MoveOn never opposed the war in Afghanistan, and we set the record straight years ago when Karl Rove made the same claim. Senator Clinton's attack on our members is divisive at a time when Democrats will soon need to unify to beat Senator McCain. MoveOn is 3.2 million reliable voters and volunteers who are an important part of any winning Democratic coalition in November.”

◊ ◊ ◊

That would have been bad enough. Clinton wasn’t apparently just wrong on the facts, she was wrong on the factors that hold a party together, wrong on the realpolitik that separates one body of like-minded believers from another.

Clinton’s remarks, you see, followed comments she made in April 2007, at the closing remarks during Political Action's Virtual Town Hall meeting on Iraq, solicitous, almost gushing comments at odds with what she said after Super Tuesday:

At the very time Hillary Clinton needed to be shoring up the foundations of some kind of base of supporters, when she needed to be building an online infrastructure that would have made fundraising easier, when she needed to be solidly behind the Democratic Party’s vanguard of loyal voters, Hillary Clinton was dissing the very people necessary to win.

Some in the blogs wondered if the tape was really leaked to the press by the Clinton campaign itself, as a way of reinforcing her bona fides, shoring up the increasingly porous electability argument, and attempting to paint Obama into another elitist corner. That would seem to be a stretch: Malign your bedrock of voters as a way to make yourself look more mainstream, when you already couldn’t be more mainstream if your political life depended on it? No savvy candidate’s political instincts could be that bad. Right?

◊ ◊ ◊

Clinton’s intra-party flip-flop is the latest chapter in the Clinton-train-wreck narrative that has been building, slowly but sure, since Super Tuesday, when the first torpedoes struck the hull of her inevitability. It deepens suspicions of her sincerity, arouses suspicions of her loyalty to the base of the Democratic party, and contributes to the idea — something surely considered by the superdelegates still pulling their chins on the sidelines — that the factionalism she awakens in people, almost as a reflex, would do the party more damage than good in a general election 200 days away.

One blogger cuts smartly to the chase in articulating the internal divisions Clinton would face as the Democratic standard-bearer.

Buckygreen, blogging at The Huffington Post: “Let me get this right. Hillary now believes that 3.5 million party ‘activists’ that provide a ‘gusher of money’ and major voter mobilization capabilities don't count. And African-American voters don't count, young voters don't count, educated voters don't count, women who support Obama don't count, almost 1.5 million individual Obama donors don't count, former Clinton cabinet members don't count, small states don't count, red states don't count, caucus states don't count, total states won doesn't count, popular vote doesn't count, pledged delegates don't count. OK that'll work how exactly in the general?”

Adlib (HuffPos): “You're not going to attract [superdelegates] by attacking the most active campaigners and contributors to the Democratic party.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Howard Wolfson, Clinton campaign communciatons director, responded to the MoveOn incident weakly: "There have been well documented instances of intimidation in the Nevada and the Texas caucuses, and it is a fact that while we have won 4 of the 5 largest primaries, where participation is greatest, Senator Obama has done better in caucuses than we have," he told HuffPost.

The Clinton campaign’s latest unforced error proves a disregard of a basic political tenet: Keep your friends close — period. This audiotape calls into question the fidelity Clinton has to the principles of the Democratic Party she wants to lead. And right now when voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere need to draw a bead on the candidate, this tape raises a still-nagging question: Which Hillary Clinton is the real one?

Whatever the ultimate blowback from this turns out to be, the Clinton campaign faces a response from those who understand that the same loyalty the candidate demands from others is what the party’s loyal base demands from her.

Sometimes when you bite the hand that feeds you, the hand bites back.

Friday, April 18, 2008

For your viewing pleasure

The campaign year brings out the best and the worst in people, especially the international superstars of radio and cable TV. These are three recent moments of campaign coverage you will enjoy:

◊ After a testy exchange with MSNBC political analyst and radio talk show host Rachel Maddow, Joe Scarborough, the self-described “recovering Republican” and host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” lost his customary cool and exited from David Gregory’s “Race for the White House” program while the show went out live. Check the video below. Toward the end you’ll hear a series of mechanical clicks, then in the four-shot of the panelists, John Harwood’s in the box where Scarborough was about one minute before:

For anyone who’s tired of Scarborough’s relentless grandstanding on his “Morning Joe” show, on which the former Congressman from Florida routinely interrupts and ridicules co-host Mika Brzezinski, Scarborough’s comeuppance was a welcome and overdue thing. In the dustup, Maddow comes across as one of MSNBC’s brighter lights: a fierce intellect who’s not afraid to take on a bully when the need be.

◊ Seems like everyone weighed in on Wednesday’s debate, but it wouldn’t be a party without Jon Stewart. The pride of Comedy Central spoke his mind about the Philadelphia non-debate debate as only he can. Watch this skewering of Barack Obama’s less-than-stellar performance:

◊ Finally, it wouldn’t be a campaign year without the lowest common denominator being heard from. The LCD’s able representative, radio DJ and former recreational-pharmaceuticals specialist and vodka enthusiast Don Imus, offered his trenchant post-debate analysis on Thursday. In a simulcast on radio and on the RFD-TV cable network, Imus called Obama is "almost a bigger pussy than" Sen. Hillary Clinton. The slur from the disc jockey — fired last year after equally salacious, equally bizarre comments about the Rutgers University womens’ basketball team — shouldn’t be a surprise for those who’ve followed his chemically-enhanced career, its highs and lows. See for yourself:

Let us know what we're missing. If you've encountered interesting campaign-related videos, leave a comment and URL at the end of this blog, or drop a note in the chat widget on the home page. Do this early and often. Why not? There's so much material to work with these days.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The debate that wasn't

The gotcha dimension of the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign finally slipped into the presumably high-minded realm of the debate in Philadelphia on Wednesday, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama forced to contend with answering questions that were less about the people’s business and more about providing material for the tabloids and soundbite shows.

The scorecard snapshot is simple enough: It was a decent night for Clinton, a worse night for Obama, and a dismal night for ABC News, proxy for the American press.

When given the opportunity to seek answers to the issues most concerning to Americans — from health care to the housing crisis, from the broader national economy to ending the war in Iraq — the ABC moderators put front and center the comparatively unimportant matters. From the Rev. Wright issue to Obama’s “bitter” comments to the flag lapel-pin flap, from Clinton’s Bosnia mistakes to her insistence of a better electability, many of the early debate questions were the stuff of the tabloids.

◊ ◊ ◊

What this debate called for was journalists willing to invoke the same “inverted pyramid” approach to inquiry as is basic to reporting. The inverted pyramid is a basic rule of Journalism 101: The important stuff of a news story goes at the top, becoming less and less central to the narrative as the reader works toward the bottom of a story.

It’s not a stretch of journalistic logic to think that, in what’s likely the last debate of the primary season, journalists would ask the deeper, more meaningful questions related to Americans’ wallets and well-being right out of the gate. By and large, they didn’t.

“Last night, I think we set a new record because it took us 45 minutes before we even started talking about a single issue that matters to the American people. It took us 45 minutes!” Obama said Thursday at a rally in Raleigh, N.C.

“Forty-five minutes before we heard about health care. Forty-five minutes before we heard about Iraq,” he continued. “Forty-five — 45 — minutes before we heard about jobs. Forty-five minutes before we heard about gas prices.”

Obama mentioned what should be the most embarrassing thing for the moderators: that a debate moderated by presumably disinterested, skeptical journalists “was the roll-out of the Republican campaign against me in November. That is what they will do. They will try to focus on all these issues that don’t have anything to do with how you pay your bills at the end of the month.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Two matters made the debate even worse. First, one of the moderators was ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, host of the Sunday-windbag show “This Week,” was a senior political adviser to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, and later Clinton communications director. The previous relationship between Stephanopoulos and the Clintons should have been a huge red flag for ABC. The appearance of a conflict of interest, as all good journalists know, can be just as bad as a real conflict. This, apparently, never crossed the network’s mind.

Second, the order of the questions suggested an ordering of priorities at odds with the concerns of American voters — the storied pocketbook issues often central to Americans’ motivations in the voting booth. That was bad enough. But by virtue of the order in which the substantive questions were asked, Stephanopoulos and co-malefactor Charles Gibson (who ought to know better) were complicit in what’s known in journospeak as “burying the lead,” relegating the real news (or the real questions that might have provoked real news) to a position of relative unimportance.

The real news of the debate occurred when Hillary Clinton, responding to a question about Iran, Israel and the wider Middle East, said the United States “should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel” — a statement that suggests Clinton would duplicate the kind of us-versus-them line in the sand that typified the United States relationship with the eastern bloc (read: the Soviet Union) during the cold war.

Clinton went further, saying that “an [Iranian] attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States …” No mention of diplomatic overtures beforehand. No mention of consultation with the Congress. Clinton leaped straight to the shock & awe scenario — and wasn’t even challenged on this by either of the moderators.

◊ ◊ ◊

Hunter, blogging at The Daily Kos: called the debate “so deeply embarrassing to the nation that it will be pointed to, in future books and documentary works, as a prime example of the collapse of the American media into utter and complete substanceless, into self-celebrated vapidity, and into a now-complete inability or unwillingness to cover the most important affairs of the nation to any but the most shallow of depths.”

“… ABC had two hours of access to two of the three remaining candidates vying to lead the most powerful nation in the world, and spent the decided majority of that time mining what the press considers the true issues facing the republic. Bittergate; Rev. Wright; Bosnia; American flag lapel pins.”

At this writing, ABC News has received more than 19,400 comments posted to its post-debate story, most responses apparently in the negative.

Craig, posting on the ABC News Web site: “The so-called debate aired on ABC last night was more debacle than debate. The American people deserve to know where the candidates stand on the issues, not rehash a laundry list of gaffes and mistakes.”

But people weighed in from everywhere. RTM, posting at The Caucus blog of the New York Times Web site: “This debate was dreadful. If Stephanopoulos and Gibson’s trite questioning is the best ABC can offer, then the network should just shut down its news division and call it a day.”

Dee, posting to the Times site from Dallas: "We are in the middle of not 1 but 2 wars, we are in what many feel is a full blown recession, gasoline is fast approaching a record $4.00 a gallon, people are losing their homes and livelihoods in record numbers and instead of homework and college applications, the youth of today would rather film themselves assaulting each other for You Tube! But the issues most concerning ABC in a debate of 2 candidates for whom one could very possibly be the next leader of the free world is why one of them does not wear a flag lapel pin!!! Give me a break!!!"

◊ ◊ ◊

Earlier Wednesday, the New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen backed Obama. “"He has the depth, the reflectiveness, and the resilience to be our next president," Springsteen said on his Web site. “He speaks to the America I've envisioned in my music for the past 35 years, a generous nation with a citizenry willing to tackle nuanced and complex problems, a country that's interested in its collective destiny and in the potential of its gathered spirit.”

In his Web letter, Springsteen both summed up the tone of the campaign so far and anticipated Wednesday night’s foolishness in Philadelphia. “Critics have tried to diminish Senator Obama through the exaggeration of certain of his comments and relationships,” he wrote.

“While these matters are worthy of some discussion, they have been ripped out of the context and fabric of the man's life and vision ... often in order to distract us from discussing the real issues: war and peace, the fight for economic and racial justice, reaffirming our Constitution, and the protection and enhancement of our environment.”

Maybe Bruce should moderate the debates in 2012.

ABC News brass will dig in their heels and say the moderators acted responsibly and professionally — adopting the customary defensive crouch of news corporations caught in controversies of their own making. But it’s a wasted effort. ABC ripped away the illusion of journalistic objectivity and played to the dumbest common denominator on Wednesday night. This non-debate debate revealed more about the sad state of American journalism than anything else.
Image credits: Stephanopoulos: Garret Nuzzo-Jones, Blacksburg, Va, (Wikipedia), republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. Springsteen: Sister72 (Wikipedia), repubished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

‘Bitter’ pill and antidote

When is a controversy not a controversy? With the Pennsylvania primary hanging in the balance, the media’s talkingest wags and the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and John McCain have leaped on what was thought to be a fatal gaffe committed last week by Sen. Barack Obama.

But the lack of negative traction Obama’s comments have gained for Clinton and McCain, and Obama’s forthright defense of those comments, suggest that the expiration date for that kind of rabble-rousing by Obama’s challengers for the presidency may have finally arrived.

Obama, speaking to campaign donors at an April 6 fundraiser in San Francisco, said the nation’s smaller municipalities, heir to dismal economic circumstances, were subject to bitterness manifested in religion, and in some of the tropes of national intolerance.

“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” he said. “And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not.

“It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Fans of events of the World Wrestling Federation must have reveled in the political tag-team attack that followed.

First Clinton pounced, calling his comments "elitist" and "out of touch" on Saturday, in a reflexive play to the rural vote that Clinton hopes to curry favor with in Pennsylvania on April 22.

“I think his comments were elitist and divisive,” she said on Monday. “You don't have to think back too far to remember that good men running for president were viewed as being elitist and out of touch with the values and the lives of millions of Americans,” she added, referring to Al Gore and John Kerry, the 2000 and 2004 Democratic nominees.

"I think it's very critical that the Democrats really focus in on this and make it clear that we are not (elitist). We are going to stand up and fight for all Americans," Clinton said.

McCain got in the ring on Monday at the Associated Press Annual Meeting in Washington: calling Obama's comments “elitist” and saying they were a “contradiction from what I believe America is all about.”

"These are the people that produced a generation that made the world safe for democracy," he said. "These are the people that have fundamental cultural, spiritual, and other values that in my view have very little to do with their economic condition."

◊ ◊ ◊

It was not Obama’s best choice of words; actually, coming from the most oratorically gifted American politician on the scene, it seems curiously offhand and tone-deaf to the sensibilities of the very people he needs to win between now and November. More important, the comments suggested an insensitivity to traditions and values that are, for better or worse, some of the nation’s most deeply embraced.

“Are working people bitter? There’s no doubt that many are extremely bitter over the economic hand they’ve been dealt,” The New York Times Bob Herbert wrote today. “ … But ‘bitter’ has a connotation that is generally not helpful in a political campaign. Bitter suggests powerlessness and a smallness of spirit. Most people would prefer to be characterized as ‘angry’ — a term that suggests empowerment — rather than ‘bitter,’ with its undertone of defeat.”

Hoping to capitalize, Clinton went so far as to including on her campaign music playlist the John Mellencamp song “Small Town” at at least one campaign rally. Once again, the naysayers envisioned Obama circling the drain.

But what happened next — what’s happened since — has been one of the latest surprises in a campaign full of them.

Obama proved he could stand in the fire, even a fire of his own making, and turn a negative into a possible positive. Simply put, he didn’t back down from what he said days before. And by standing his ground, he may have done himself more good than harm.

At a CNN “Compassion Forum” on Sunday last night, Obama expanded on the April 6 comment.

"What I was saying is that when economic hardship hits in these communities, what people have is they've got family, they've got their faith, they've got the traditions that have been passed onto them from generation to generation. Those aren't bad things. That's what they have left. And, unfortunately, what people have become bitter about -- and oftentimes have told me about, as I traveled through not just Pennsylvania, but I was referring to states all across the Midwest, including my home state -- is any confidence that the government is listening to them. They don't think that government is listening to them."

On Monday, at the annual Associated Press editors’ meeting in Washington, Obama addressed again both his comments and the knee-jerk critiques to those comments.

“I may have made a mistake last week in the words that I chose,” he said. “But the other party has made a much more damaging mistake in the failed policies they’ve chosen and the bankrupt philosophy they’ve embraced for the last three decades.”

“If John McCain wants to turn this election into a contest about which party is out of touch with the struggles and hopes of working America, that’s a debate I’m happy to have. I think it’s a debate that we have to have … I believe that the real insult to the millions of hard-working Americans out there would be a continuation of the economic agenda that’s dominated Washington for far too long.”

“If I had to carry the banner for eight years of George Bush’s failures, I’d be looking for something else to talk about, too.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Clinton’s piling-on role didn’t go unnoticed. Arianna Huffington blogged at The Huffington Post: “By cynically twisting Obama's comments about small town voters in a way that confirms every right-wing demagogic caricature of her own Party, Hillary Clinton has adopted the frames, lies, stereotypes and destructive clich├ęs long embraced by the likes of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. She has clearly decided that the road to victory runs through scorched earth. The question is, if she succeeds, what kind of Party will she be left to lead?”

What should be more worrying to the Clinton campaign is that, as reported by The AP’s Mark Scolforo on Monday, some Pennsylvanians found Obama’s comments were no big damn deal.

The AP: “Truck salesman Bob Bildheiser, 49, said he is tentatively supporting Obama and that he agreed with the point that Obama was trying to make about the nation's economic problems.

“ ‘The people are bitter about the economy, about jobs, about the gas prices. It's terrible,’ he said. …

“Dennis Yezulinas, [a] Clinton supporter in Shenandoah, said he is more offended by the rhetorical fight that followed Obama's comment than by the remark itself.

“ ‘Not just for the good of the Democratic Party, but for the good of the country, they need to make it less contentious," said Yezulinas.”

Mary Ellen Matunis, a Clinton backer from Shenandoah, said, “I was not offended. Poor choice of words, but I think it was just misspoken.”

"People are bitter in small towns," said Thomas Frank, author of "What's The Matter With Kansas?," a book on the shifting political dynamic of middle America. "People are bitter everywhere,” Frank told the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein. “I don't know if you have seen the stock market — people are bitter about their situation. It doesn't strike me as a very controversial statement."

In his HuffPost column on Saturday, Robert Creamer used a headline that made pretty plain the hypocrisies behind the latest spate of Obama bashing: “It Takes Real Chutzpah for a Guy Who Owns Eight Houses (McCain) to Call Barack Obama an ‘Elitist.’”

And Hillary Clinton, whose gold-plated tax returns were released recently, is similarly vulnerable to being revisualized in a hurting blue-collar state, despite her best working-class guises. How can anyone who’s half of a matrimonial/political corporation whose assets over seven years topped $109 million make any credible claims to being anything but an elitist?

◊ ◊ ◊

The Monday Gallup Daily Tracking Poll — an admittedly fluid thing based on daily snapshots of perception and which side of the bed you got up on — showed that, in the short term at least, the “bitter” pill didn’t really need an antidote. Obama had maintained a 10-point lead over Clinton, a lead first established the week before.

The reasons why this hasn’t exploded in Obama’s face are anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s just campaign fatigue. Or Obama may have accidentally tapped into something that Pennsylvanians can relate to, deeply and personally: a willingness to stand one’s ground. Rather than go into all-apologies mode after April 6, Obama stood up like a man who’s got a pair, elaborating on what he’d said, sticking by it on principle. In doing so, he may have gained grudging respect, if nothing more, among the very people thought to be opposed to him on the basis of race alone.

(And maybe more respect than Hillary Clinton. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s statement in February that “I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate” makes an inference that Clinton should be less than comfortable with: True enough, those Pennsylvanians unwilling to vote for Obama just because he’s black may be predisposed to vote for Clinton just because she’s white. On the basis of our historical and persisting patterns of bias, then, those same Pennsylvanians would be just as likely to vote for McCain over Clinton because McCain’s a white man. )

When is a controversy not a controversy? When something, anything happens in a presidential campaign so hard-wired to controversy itself that it’s getting hard to make meaningful, enduring distinctions between one event and another.

When the ones who’d try to exploit it to their advantage get hoist higher on the same petard.

When the objects of that exploitation tell pollsters, reporters and neighbors at the corner bar: “The people are bitter. ... It’s terrible.”
Image credit: PA logo: State of Pennsylvania.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

N.Y. to Boston: Not in my stadium

George Steinbrenner don’t play that. That’s the message sent today by the principal owner of the New York Yankees, and legions of Yankee fans around the world (CULCHAVOX included), to the loyals of the Boston Red Sox in response to an act of baseball sabotage. Or, actually, attempted sabotage.

The news hit the New York Post just before the weekend: A local construction worker and a diehard fan of the Boston Red Sox secretly buried a Red Sox jersey — number 34, worn by the anathemized Red Sox slugger David Ortiz — in a space behind home plate at the New Yankee Stadium, which is currently under construction across the street from the original House of Ruth in the Bronx.

As even casual baseball students know, the relationship between the Yankees and the Red Sox is a storied antagonism. The enmity between the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war pales by comparison. It stems from the legendary Curse of the Bambino, a wrath of the baseball gods that the Red Sox incurred when they traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000 in 1919. That schneid endured for the Red Sox until 2004, when they won the Series, beating the Yankees in a game that routed the Bambino curse — as baseball curses go, probably forever.

But it wasn’t enough for Beantown. The Post was told Thursday by two construction workers on the same job that the jersey had been buried in August by a Red Sox partisan who did it for a prank. The Post did not reveal the workers’ identities “because they are not authorized to speak to media” and because they’d rather not play any role in their bodies turning up in the weeds somewhere near one of three regional airports.

The perp was identified as [cue Darth Vader music] Gino Castignoli, a Bronx stonemason who, the Post reported, pleaded guilty in 2002 to involvement in a gambling operation connected to the Gambino crime family.

◊ ◊ ◊

Let the Post give you the play-by-play to Sunday’s big dig: “After reading about the traitorous act in The Post, the two workers approached a construction manager and said they remembered Castignoli, who only worked at the Stadium one day, and thought they knew where he must have placed the shirt.

“They led the manager to a service corridor near the site of the planned Legends Club restaurant, behind home plate and toward the third base side.

“After the hardhats pointed to the spot, workers brought out jackhammers and dug furiously for five hours, creating a 2-foot- by-3-foot, gravel-filled pit in their search for the tainted threads.

“They spotted the jersey at 3:25 p.m. and called Yankee brass. The cursed shirt was about two feet deep in cement."

Castignoli is said to be unrepentant. He may not be that way for long; there’s been talk of civil, and possibly criminal, charges against him. Unless that Ortiz jersey was wrapped around a low-yield nuclear device or a brick of C-4 plastique, criminal charges would seem to be a stretch. But Castignoli may have to eat the reported $30,000 it cost the Yankees to do the five-hour excavation. Plus a probable loss of, uh, community goodwill.

◊ ◊ ◊

Some diehard Yankee fans feared the worst would be necessary, and called for a complete excavation of the site a la “CSI,” in case there’s something else down there. Those fears are so far baseless; the conspiracy of jerseys (and dunces) apparently ends at one.

In any case, according to the Baseball Spiritualist Book of Rules and Regulations, since the Yankees haven't moved in to the new place yet, there’s technically no curse at all:

3.05 (a) No curse, epithet, execration, hex, jinx, whammy or blood oath shall be deemed spiritually enforceable if the physical headquarters and/or stadium of the team to be cursed is under construction; or shall be enforceable if said team is undergoing a transition from one physical headquarters and/or stadium to another.*

"It would take more than a Red Sox T-shirt to put a curse on the Yankees," said team spokesman Howard Rubenstein, to The Post, on Friday. Lately, that’s been true, but for reasons Rubenstein didn’t anticipate. They’ve been playing .500 ball, more or less, since the season started. Captain Derek Jeter was injured April 7 in a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But the Yanks won the very last opening home game to be played in the old Yankee Stadium, defeating the Toronto Blue Jays 3-2, back on April 2. So much for your curse, Castignoli.

New Yankee Stadium opens in 2009. Even before the stadium opens, though, the New York Yankees have unearthed something more important than a dirty shirt: Their own refreshed appreciation of the long standing of their history as a winning franchise, and a fresh realization of the fans who love the team and that history.

For the Red Sox? This is really nothing new. After all, the act of burial isn’t that unfamiliar to them.

God knows, they’ve been buried often enough before.
Image credits: Stalin: Public domain. The Devil: Ortiz: Toasterb > Wikipedia, republished under GNU Free Documentation License v. 1.2 or later. * Not really.

Friday, April 11, 2008

That was the news model that was

It’s a rumor with the weight of a fact, whether it becomes one or not. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Katie Couric, the $15 million-a-year anchor, managing editor and iconic face of CBS News, may be leaving the network as soon as next year — years ahead of her contract’s current expiration in 2011. (The Journal story follows one that The Philadelphia Inquirer published in 2007, saying essentially the same thing.)

The network, of course, denies loudly, issuing not one but two statements downplaying rumors of Couric’s possible departure. The Journal quoted a “CBS Evening News” spokeswoman saying “We are very proud of the 'CBS Evening News,' particularly our political coverage, and we have no plans for any changes regarding Katie or the broadcast."

If the talk of her departure is true, there could be a lot of reasons. From almost the start of Couric’s tenure at the Tiffany Network in September 2006, reports surfaced of Couric clashing over content and style with Rick Kaplan, the legendary (and some have said legendarily difficult) veteran executive producer. Couric has been said to be coveting the longform possibilities of a gig with “60 Minutes.” And then there’s the other grating fact: Except for one brief period, the Journal reported, “Ms. Couric never bested the ratings of interim anchor [longtime CBS Washington correspondent] Bob Schieffer,” brought on in the wake of the Dan Rathergate scandal. When the temp outshines the franchise player on the bottom line, that’s trouble.

From the network’s viewpoint, the reason for Couric to go would have to do with money. For CBS, a network under pressure to cut rising costs, paying an anchor $15 million a year is hardly feasible in today’s economy.

But another real reason for Couric’s possible exit may have to do with a historic, or at least historical, sense of timing: The half-hour dinnertime news format she has inherited — the legacy of Douglas Edwards, Dan Rather and, yes, even Walter Cronkite — isn’t where most of America lives anymore.

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James Poniewozik, blogging Thursday at, understands. “Katie was brought in on the premise that she and her star power — plus a revamping of the newscast format—could bring in new viewers to the evening news … She cannot. God cannot. It is a losing proposition. … Couric's newscast has been an expensive final refutation of the desperate belief that it is possible to reverse the slow, inexorable decline of network news.

“Network newscasts are a holding effort. They are a rearguard action. They are prisoners of demography and cultural shifts that are as irreversible as the physical laws of the universe. Namely: fewer Americans have the time or inclination to watch a half-hour TV newscast at 6:30 in the evening …”

This is partly, even mostly true. What’s inarguably in decline is the broadcast version of network news.

Cable network news programs are very much in the ascendancy of both shaping and being shaped by people’s evolving expectations of television. Jon Lafayette of TV Week reported last August that ad-supported cable television had twice the viewers of broadcast television in prime time — a doubling of viewer share for the second straight year.

Ironically, it’s the historical failure of broadcast news execs to grasp the implication of that distinction that’s contributed to their model’s demise. If/when Katie Couric exits from CBS, she may well be the one to turn off the studio lights on a news format whose fifteen minutes of pertinence to American lives expired ten years ago.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s true for two good reasons:

(1) The very idea of what news is is evolving at breathtaking speed. The shopworn definition of news according to the broadcast network model — a 23-minute recap of everything you’ve heard in the white noise of the modern world all day long, plus commercials — is dead as a rabbit-ears antenna.

That approach has been shattered by the velocities of modern life; the impact of popular culture; the crazyquilt of irregular work schedules, home-based businesses and graveyard shifts; the advance of the Internet; and a democratization of information so prevalent, so much the air we breathe that we take it for granted. Your news isn’t my news isn’t her news, and there’s no turning back from that.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The McCain scrutiny IV

David Bellavia has borne the battle. A former Army staff sergeant who served in Iraq in the 1st Infantry Division, Bellavia was recommended for the Medal of Honor, nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross, and received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with valor, and the Conspicuous Service Cross. His 2007 book “House to House” recounted his experience fighting for control of Fallujah. Bellavia is vice chairman of Vets for Freedom, a veterans’ advocacy organization. By any reasonable measure, Bellavia has served his country honorably.

But Bellavia, a supporter of Sen. John McCain for president, has a blind spot about certain matters on race and ethnicity in America, a blind spot that reflects poorly on McCain’s candidacy, and raises questions about the candidate’s own ability to make meaningful distinctions in a country waging its own sectarian battles.

On Tuesday, Bellavia introduced McCain at a Vets for Freedom rally in Washington, D.C., offering the fulsome praise for a veteran one would expect from another veteran.

“Senator John McCain has spent a lifetime in service to our nation. His example of unwavering courage is a model for every American,” Bellavia said, in an allusion to McCain’s five-plus years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “Rest assured that men like Senator McCain will be the goal and the men that my two young boys will emulate and admire. You can have your Tiger Woods, we’ve got Senator McCain.”

He didn't. Oh yes he did. That last quoted sentence was not a typo. In a campaign endorsement meant to be a pre-emptive shot at Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois senator who may be McCain’s challenger in the fall, Bellavia conflated Obama with Tiger Woods, the world’s greatest golfer and a cultural phenomenon in his own right.

◊ ◊ ◊

The first most obvious question is why? What in the world would connect Tiger Woods to Barack Obama? The first most obvious answer is unsettling. The one thing that connects them is a multiracial heritage. Obama, of course, is the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas; Woods’ ancestry is African American, Thai, American Indian and Chinese.

The fact that Bellavia said it was bad enough. The author Michael Eric Dyson, speaking on MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” said the comment “bespeaks a sense of racial insensitivity at best, and at worst a kind of deliberate attempt to distance himself from black people.”

It also reflects an inability or unwillingness to make distinctions between people as people; the suggestion is that, to borrow the phrase we recognize, We All Look Alike.

What made it worse is that, when McCain stepped to the microphone, the candidate had nothing to say about this monumental gaffe— letting it pass unchallenged as if Bellavia’s sentiments, Bellavia’s blind spot, were his own.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s other evidence pointing to McCain’s possible discomfort on race matters. On Tuesday, The Politico, quoting from interviews with black leaders in McCain’s home state of Arizona, found a candidate apparently of two minds on relations with black residents.

“Interviews with black civic and business leaders in Arizona found no one who suggested that McCain holds racial animus,” The Politico reported. “And McCain can point to some warm personal and political associations with blacks, some of whom cited his responsiveness to their concerns when they approached him on official business.

“But the widespread perception of activists in the state’s traditional civil rights organizations and the African-American press is that McCain has consistently treated them with indifference.”

“I don’t recall him ever attending any function with the NAACP,” said Oscar Tillman, head of the NAACP’s Phoenix chapter. “Each year we send them an invitation [to an annual banquet], and each year they say no.”

A bigger question is why McCain would make distinctions between one bloc of his state’s black constituents and another — and what those distinctions might say about how McCain would govern this multiracial nation.

McCain has shown signs suggesting that he “gets it,” even if supporters like Bellavia don’t. He’s reportedly set to make campaign stops in Alabama and the Watts district of Los Angeles later this month, the better to shore up his bona fides among black voters.

But as a senator who initially opposed efforts to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a federal holiday; as a senator who opposed making King’s birthday a state holiday four years later; as someone who missed many of the touchstone events of the civil rights movement, John McCain has work to do in this regard between now and November. The man who would be president has as many bridges to build as he has fences to mend.
Image credits: All images public domain.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


In the latest glimpse of the train wreck in slow motion that is the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, Clinton’s chief strategist Mark Penn was removed from that role on Sunday for committing a faux pas that, while toweringly idiotic in its own right, was emblematic — or maybe symptomatic — of Team Clinton’s talent for speaking, and strategizing, with forked tongue.

And Penn’s relationship with Clinton, and the fallout that emerged on Monday, may have serious symbolic repercussions for her faltering campaign in the blue-collar rust-belt regions of Pennsylvania, a state whose primary on April 22 may be pivotal to her campaign’s ability to survive.

Penn, of course, is the venerated pollster; chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, the internationally known public relations firm; and author of “Microtrends,” a 2007 book whose thesis is that the smaller trends of our society are in many ways the most important ones, the trends often responsible for tectonic shifts in culture, politics and technology.

The book was not universally well-received. Ezra Klein, writing last September in In These Times, said it was “so bad that the question — in a fair world — isn’t whether it will destroy his own reputation, but whether it is so epically awful as to take the entire polling industry down with it.”

“Microtrends” in many ways apes the insightful book by Malcolm Gladwell, “The Tipping Point,” a work (published in 2002) that explores the ways in which a concept, a behavior or a trend acquires an irresistible momentum into the wider culture.

The Penn book and its premise worked just fine for Hillary Clinton, who hired him as her campaign “chief strategist” last year. That fact (and Burson-Marsteller’s role in helping a company fight a unionization drive by its 17,000 workers) didn’t exactly endear Clinton to labor leaders. Penn, you see, didn’t take a leave from his post at Burson-Marsteller to take on the clearly partisan position of Clinton’s statistical Richelieu. He took on a dual role, keeping his day job and working the Clinton gig at the same time.

Teamsters president James Hoffa told The New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse last June: “If Hillary is pro-worker and pro-union, she will certainly take steps to rein in Mr. Penn. He cannot serve two masters, working for a pro-union candidate and working for anti-union companies.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s been a rocky if lucrative road for pollster Penn. There’s been much friction between the reportedly mercurial Penn and the Clinton campaign staff, even shouting matches over strategy among top Clinton lieutenants. Then it all went south. Hugely.

On Friday, Penn underwent his own tectonic shift when he was forced to apologize for his role in lobbying, on behalf of the Colombia government, for a bilateral free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States — a free trade agreement that Clinton has publicly opposed as a candidate. Penn claims to have made “an error in judgment” after being criticized for meeting with Carolina Barco Isakson, Colombia's ambassador to the United States, about the proposed pact. Penn suggested that he had conducted the meeting as part of his role as Burson-Marsteller's CEO.

But Barco Isakson was said to have been unclear what hat Penn was wearing — which master he was serving — at the March 31 meeting. Which really doesn’t even matter: Penn's support for the trade agreement, and his work toward getting it done, was an implicit embarrassment for the Clinton campaign, already fighting its own battle with reality and recent Bosnian history.

On Saturday the Colombian government ended its business relationship with Penn and Burson-Marsteller.

On Sunday, Penn got offed from his role as top strategic advisor to the Clinton campaign, although it was later found that Penn still sat in on campaign conference calls with the media, still had a hand in decision-making, and may still continue to draw a salary.

“Don’t blame Penn for everything,” Marc Armbinder said Friday on The And it’s true: this kind of campaign stupid is a hydra-headed beast. Clinton insisted on hiring Penn in the first place, reportedly paying his firm $5 million. And Penn and communications director Howard Wolfson were joined at the hip in some of Team Clinton’s bigger blunders (errors in assessing the strength of Sen. Barack Obama in the Iowa caucuses, and missteps in the branding of their own candidate, among them).

◊ ◊ ◊

But the situation may get worse regardless of who gets the blame. Penn’s, er, error in judgment comes in the runup to the primary in Pennsylvania, a state where blue-collar labor is a sizable and passionate percentage of the electorate. Penn’s hiring by Team Clinton looked bad enough last year. Now the Clinton machine faces the sticky problem of explaining the candidate’s opposition to a free trade agreement that many in labor think would be bad for American workers — at the same time her top honcho was taking money from the foreign government that was working to get that agreement done.

This happens, of course, right after Clinton’s tax returns were released — those somewhat inconvenient documents that showed that Hillary and Bill Clinton jointly earned $109 million in the years after leaving the White House (just a little bit more than the take-home pay for a factory worker in Scranton or Harrisburg, the very people Clinton is desperate to woo).

This happens, of course, just before a key primary election; the polls (not Penn’s, you can be sure) show that a once-comfortable double-digit margin between Clinton and Obama is already down to single digits.

"This will only fuel the Clinton-in-disarray narrative, an untimely blow as Pennsylvania looms," Rogan Kersh, a professor of public service at New York University, told Bloomberg’s Lorraine Woellert on Wednesday.

“Microtrends” says the most important trends in the world today are the smallest ones. Note to Mark Penn: What you call “trends” can go by another name. You can also call them “voters.”

Maybe voters like Moose49, blogging at TPM Election Central: "[E]ven George W. Bush recognized it would be a conflict of interest for Karl Rove to keep his consulting business while working on Bush's 2000 campaign. He made Rove sell his interest in the company. Why Hillary wouldn't have made the same demand of Penn — in fact, why should would hire him at all given his obvious incompetence — is beyond me."

Or maybe voters like Howard B., a blogger at the, who found what may be the crux issue for Pennsylvania’s voters — something they may take to heart, and the voting booth, in two weeks:

“[T]he fact that Hillary would A.) hire him in the first place and B.) keep him around far longer than she should have, only confirmed what a really lousy manager she really is.”
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