Saturday, June 28, 2008

Unified field theory

Union, N.J., wasn’t quite right. Nor, apparently, were Harmony, R.I. or Accord, N.Y. But for the long-awaited Kum Ba Yah convention of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Unity, New Hampshire (pop. 1,715, according to 2006 Census figures) was the proper setting — the right name on the right place for the former combatants for the Democratic presidential nomination to jointly appear Friday for the first time since Obama clinched that nomination.

There have been no news reports of any handholding and swaying among the 6,000 people attending the “Unite for Change” rally in that sunlit open field in Unity. In fact, some Clinton supporters have announced their intention to resist the building tide of good feeling, despite Clinton’s outreach.

The immediate sense was that such sour grapes are best distilled and sweetened into table wine at the Democrats’ new welcome table. But there may be something under that table. Something with teeth.

◊ ◊ ◊

It all sure sounded warm and fuzzy.

“To anyone who voted for me and is now considering not voting or voting for Senator (John) McCain, I strongly urge you to reconsider," said Clinton, calling on her supporters to hook up with Team Obama "to create an unstoppable force for change we can all believe in.”

"We need them. We need them badly," Obama said of the two-for-one deal of Hillary and Bill Clinton. "Not just my campaign, but the American people need their service and their vision and their wisdom in the months and years to come because that's how we're going to bring about unity in the Democratic Party. And that's how we're going to bring about unity in America."

“We are one party; we are one America, and we are not going to rest until we take back our country and put it once again on the path to peace, prosperity and progress in the 21st century," Clinton said.

“For 16 months, Sen. Clinton and I have shared the stage as rivals for the nomination, but today I could not be happier and more honored and more moved that we're sharing this stage as allies to bring about the fundamental changes that this country so desperately needs," Obama said.

And in other, more substantial ways, the unity was real. They’ve apparently beaten their swords into donations: Both Clintons, Hillary and Bill, each made the maximum $2,300 donation to Obama's campaign Friday in an online transaction, aides said. The Obamas reciprocated with the same.

◊ ◊ ◊

All of which screams the question, the obvious one, about what one blogger called “Hillary’s delegate condition”: If all this goodwill, this unity is the real thing, why hasn’t Hillary Clinton released her remaining delegates?

One blog, Clinton Democrats, reported that “In a conference call with delegates June 9, Hillary reiterated she has ‘suspended’ her campaign, which means she is holding on to her delegates. In addition, she said she is seeking 300 more delegates to take to the convention.”

“Someone asked specifically if this meant Hillary would hold on to her delegates until the convention. [Clinton campaign manager Harold] Ickes said yes, so she can fight to make sure the platform includes issues central to her campaign, particularly universal health care. Ickes added that of course pledged delegates were free to work for Obama if they did not want to stay with Hillary until the convention in Denver."

But Hillary’s gambit calls on Clinton delegates to willingly embark on an existential dilemma — pledged to one candidate while working actively for another. You have to assume that if they’ve decided to work for Obama, they realize the value of his policies, compared to John McCain. Since those same delegates can vote their consciences at the convention in August, and having already committed thousands of hours of effort for Team Obama, there’s as much of a chance for Hillary Clinton to be embarrassed at the convention as Obama, and maybe more.

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s left is to get the disgruntled Clinton supporters on the peace train bound for Denver. Some won’t get on board no matter what.

“I will not vote for BO — it was a STOLEN election,” posts Rita on Marc Ambinder’s blog at

“Many of us Hillary Clinton supporters are now John McCain supporters. Hillary and Obama campaigning together will not sway us to vote for Obama,” – says S.A., posting on the Los Angeles Times blog.

Others would disagree.

“There is a stark difference between the Democratic and Republican platforms. I advise S.A. to read both before making a choice. If she supported Senator Clinton because of her policies than the choice is obvious. If she supported Senator Clinton because she is a white woman, well that's another choice.” – says P.C. Chapman, on the LATimes blog.

“I know many Hillary supporters who are behind Obama.
 Hey, I know it hurts, but the pain of losing the Supreme Court to the Conservative Right, the loss of a woman's right to choose, continuing to have our democracy morph into the fascist state that the Republicans have been creating, the pain of knowing that Mobil, Chevron and other oil companies have been awarded NO-BID contracts for Iraq's Oil, and that's why so many people had to die in Iraq... how can you possibly vote for McCain? …” writes Barbara Brockelman, at LATimes.

◊ ◊ ◊

The idea — the theory, if you will — of Obama and Clinton achieving unity in New Hampshire is a fine one, like theories often are on paper. But the torrent of angry pro-Hillary posts and fledgling Web sites launched after Obama secured the nomination suggest that bringing that idea to reality is still an uphill thing. Clinton’s backers still harbor grim suspicions.

In politics as in physics, a unified field theory attempts to bring fundamental forces together under a single framework. But the political version may be harder to achieve:

Gluons and photons don’t write Weblogs.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Don Imus' 14-month 'lifetime' warranty

Just when you thought it was safe to turn on the radio again — he’s baaaack. Don Imus, celebrated and reviled radio talk-show host, returned Monday to his old form, invoking the racist inferences and innuendo that got him fired from his previous radio job — and appearing, at least, to go back on the lofty promise he made to some of his targets of opportunity last year.

On Monday, Imus made comments about suspended Dallas Cowboys cornerback Adam Jones in a segment with his sports announcer, Warner Wolf:

Wolf: Here’s a guy suspended all of 2007 following a shooting in a Vegas nightclub —

Imus: Well, stuff happens. You’re in a nightclub, for God’s sake. What do you think’s gonna happen in a nightclub? People are drinking and doing drugs … There are women there and people have guns …

Wolf: He’s been arrested six times since being drafted by Tennessee in 2005 —

Imus: What color is he?

Wolf: He’s African American.

Imus: Well, there you go. Now we know.

At first blush, it looked like the same kind of blithe but malicious racial character assassination that Imus engaged in in April 2007, when Imus, then working for WFAN radio and simulcasting his radio show on MSNBC cable, called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed ho’s” on the air. Imus, whose previous exploits in a 40+ year radio career have reportedly been fueled as much by vodka and cocaine as by vitriol and populist outrage, was fired by both his employers within a week.

Since then, Imus has rebounded, returning to radio on the ABC Radio Networks and to cable television on Rural Media Networks' RFD satellite network, in December 2007. In full contrition mode, Imus hired two black comedians, Karith Foster and Tony Powell, to act as foils and counters to some of his expected racialist barbs. And in his first program post-Rutgers, Imus seemed to fully recognize the gravity of events around him. Imus pledged to “never say anything in my lifetime that will make any of these young women at Rutgers regret or feel foolish that they accepted my apology and forgave me."

◊ ◊ ◊

Imus sent an e-mail to The New York Times on Monday, and today went on his ABC Radio program to embellish on his earlier explanations, saying he was trying to “make a sarcastic point” about the presence of black people in the U.S. criminal justice system.

“What people should be outraged about is that they arrest blacks for no reason,” he said today. “I mean, there's no reason to arrest this kid six times. Maybe he did something once, but everyone does something once.”

He dismissed the criticism. “How insane would I have to be? What would I be thinking?” Imus said.

Foster, one of three black staffers on the Imus program, came to his defense. "People who interpret what you said as racist clearly didn't hear the whole thing, and they don't know who you are and what the program is about — and they obviously haven't been listening.'' Foster said, calling for context.

Jones himself, reacting today on the Web site of the Dallas Morning News, said “Obviously Mr. Imus has problems with African-Americans. I'm upset, and I hope the station he works for handles it accordingly. I will pray for him.''

“What would I be thinking?” Imus said today, asking the question asked by black Americans and just about anyone else. The Monday episode, of course, wouldn’t be the first time Imus’ subconscious mind decided to go for one of the little walks it takes from time to time, leaving reason and argument, and strolling over to the bigotry side of the street. He’s been there before.

In 1998, when he told CBS’ "60 Minutes" that he hired an African-American producer to "tell nigger jokes."

In 2000, when he described the New York Knicks as “chest-thumping pimps.”

In 2007, when he described Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz as “a boner-nosed... beanie-wearing Jewboy."

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s sad, more than anything else, that a man whose medium is in the center of everything can himself seem to be so out of touch with everything. After last year, and with all that happened since, Imus’ flashes of madcap fire really just don’t matter that much anymore. The viewers he gets on RFD-TV nowadays are one-third of those who watched him on MSNBC. Statements like those he made Monday are a scream for attention, a willful act of malicious rebellion — a bit like a child who pulls the wings off of a fly just to see what happens.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, said he and his organization are still deciding on a course of action. “[I]t plays into stereotypes,” Sharpton said Tuesday of Imus’ comments, on his National Action Network Web site. “Any use of stereotypes is always counterproductive. We will determine in the next day or so whether or not his remark warrants direct action on our part …”

But frankly, no matter what Sharpton decides … we’ve moved on. There’s nothing to see here now, and wasn’t that much to see before. The stakes are higher today. We’re electing a president this year, and we’ve caught Imus’s act before, when he had a way higher profile.

The 2008 Don Imus model may not work any better than the previous models did. There’s supposed to be a Kum Ba Yah upgrade in place, with contrition and apology in the new hard drive. Apparently, though, the old repeat-offender chip still controls the operating system.

Just drag that “lifetime” warranty into the Trash.
Image credit: Imus magazine cover: ©2007, 2008 Time Inc.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Dealing the seal

Self-confidence is a wonderful thing, but it has its limits. Self-confidence veers painfully close to arrogance, and no one wants to go there. Especially a politician whose status as the Democratic nominee is still officially labeled as presumptive.

The Obama campaign has quietly field-tested a new, uh, branding device? nameplate? emblem? at one of the candidate’s more high-profile events. At a meeting of Democratic governors on Friday at the Chicago History Museum, Team Obama unveiled a full-blown campaign seal. Circular in shape, its elements are meant to suggest — “suggest,” hell, imitate is more like it — the Presidential Seal of the United States.

Compare & contrast one with the other. The basics are the same. The eagle is used in both, its talons brandishing olive branches and arrows in equal measure, but the Obama remix features the words “OBAMA for AMERICA.” And just for good measure, the leitmotiv of the Obama campaign, “Yes we can,” is expressed loosely in Latin: “Vero Possumus” (the literal translation is something like “truly we are able”).

Truly, the blogosphere ain’t buying. “I thought it meant, ‘Yes, I Am a Possum,’ said Trubador at the Roman Catholic blog.

“Down here in Texas that sounds more like a rodent infestation,” a poster wrote Friday at The Huffington Post — one of many similar reactions from around the country.

“Nothing says ‘man of the people’ like translating your campaign slogans into Latin,” said Dakota Conservative in a posting Saturday on the Reuters Web site.

And Ainnj, writing at the Reuters site, wonders if the “incredibly silly” seal violates federal law — specifically 18 USC 713, which addresses "use of likenesses of the great seal of the United States, the seals of the President and Vice President, the seal of the United States Senate, the seal of the United States House of Representatives, and the seal of the United States Congress.”

◊ ◊ ◊

As a reflection of a campaign that prides itself on smart image management, the Obama seal is already being seen as a misstep, a day after its debut. It's nothing fatal, though, not a serious overreaching, but the kind of thing that’ll give the late-night TV hosts more material than they deserve. We can imagine them substituting the seal's foreign-language phrase with another: “Hubris in extremis.”

The size of this thing, its more-than-accidental similarity to the presidential seal contribute to the feeling that the H-word may be starting to play a role in the Obama campaign’s subconscious (witness the growing complaints about press accessibility).

But frankly, we want to believe that Team Obama won’t be paying attention to classical-language scholars at all. Maybe they’ll listen to some of the best focus-group responses Obama could ask for: the plain-spoke folks the candidate worked with as a community organizer in Chicago.

They’ll tell him straight-up:

“Barack? Sorry, man, but this Wedgwood-blue plate of scrambled eggs splashed in front of the podium … We’re not feelin’ it, B. Not at all.”
Vox' update: June 23: Team Obama apparently wasn't feeling it either. The Great Seal of Obamaland has been retired. It was last seen being used as a pastry plate at campaign headquarters in Chicago.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Public financing (the public's invited)

Sen. Barack Obama has been characterized throughout the campaign as a fundraising maverick, rich as Croesus and happily exploiting the Internet’s viral aspects to create a campaign-donation apparatus that’s revolutionized political fundraising now and for the future.

His decision Thursday to opt out of the campaign public financing system has already drawn sharp-elbowed attacks from his challenger for the presidency, John McCain, and others who condemn what’s been called a flip-flop of a previous Obama position on public financing.

Never mind that what Obama really agreed to was acceptance of such public financing if his Republican challenger agreed to the same. (“If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election." Obama said in a questionnaire from the Midwest Democracy Network, released Nov. 27).

What Team Obama has been building is effectively a new form of public financing — one that gets closer to politics like it should be: something conducted without being underwritten by the public purse.

Rather than lock himself into accepting the prescribed funds available under public campaign financing laws — an amount that couldn’t have anticipated either the popularity of the Obama campaign or the high burn rate of those dollars that’s sure to come, in the wake of his 50-state electoral strategy — Obama has flipped the script on what “public financing” really is.

His basic argument is a compelling one: that through donations made reliably and passionately by supporters, a political campaign is properly animated not by public money but by the public itself. No machine politics. No heavy corporate influence. In Obama's calculation, a campaign justifiably acquires its financial strength, from the primaries through the general election, through the largesse of those who believe in it.

◊ ◊ ◊

By opting-out, Obama recognizes the ways campaigns don't respond well to arbitrary limits of the funds that keep them going. Accepting the public financing limit prevents a candidate from making the strategic pivots necessary to pursue a successful campaign. If Team Obama had accepted the limit for the 2008 general election, about $84 million per candidate, it would no doubt be forced to abandon its planned strategy of campaigning in all 50 states. That’s problematic when you’ve run an operation that's built itself on breaking down the divisions of red and blue states.

An attempt to mount a truly national campaign — one that doesn’t concede states to the opponent on the basis of history and assumptions, one that invites the widest dialogue and offers the widest exposure — is a necessarily expensive process. With more and better knowledge of his campaign’s reach now than he had seven or eight months ago, why should Obama commit to walking away from what he knows now, and abide by an unfortunate pledge that would stop him from reaching all the states he proposes to govern? He shouldn't.

◊ ◊ ◊

Robert Creamer, a longtime political strategist and writer, gets to the heart of the issue in today’s Huffington Post:

“Our goal shouldn't be to keep money out of politics -- but rather to keep big money out of politics. Public financing is critical to prevent big corporations and the wealthy from continuing their domination of what might otherwise be a truly democratic political system. Public financing should be about preventing plutocracy and facilitating democracy. Political communication, grassroots organization, door to door canvassing, political rallies all cost money -- but they are critical for engaging everyday people in the political process. …

“For decades the Republicans — who are now yelping about Obama's decision — have done everything in their power to oppose public financing of elections. After all, their major constituencies are big corporations and the wealthy,” Creamer observes — and it’s this fact that makes Team Obama’s grassroots approach so powerful.

With its philosophy of a broad base of donors contributing small amounts over time, in manageable and regular increments, the Obama campaign has placed the essence of participatory democracy inside the fundraising machinery that powers American politics. It’s precisely the model of what the phrase “public financing” denotes.

“There will be a whole lot more interest among Republicans in a system of public financing after Obama wallops them in fundraising this fall,” Creamer says.

Barack Obama has seen the future of American political campaign financing, and everyday Americans have a lot to do with it — more than ever before. That’s something to celebrate.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Obama's Mulligan problem

Since Sen. Barack Obama clinched the delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination, the punditburo has thrown up various poll-driven projections of how badly Obama may lose the votes of some key voter demographics, notably white men.

Any number of Chicken Little scenarios have emerged lamenting his inability to reach white male voters on their turf. One recent incident, though, suggests that some aspects of Obama’s alleged White Male Problem may be beyond him for reasons that have less to do with intellect and capability, and everything to do with history.

On May 15 in Marietta, Ga., patrons of Mulligan’s Bar & Grill were offered the opportunity to buy Obama T-shirts created by Mike Norman, the bar’s owner and a man with a reputation for provocative entrepreneurship. The shirts weren’t just a benign attempt to cash in on the building wave of populist support for Obama; the shirts’ design was, let’s say, a singular departure from Obamamania.

The T-shirts featured the words “OBAMA IN ’08” below the image of … the cartoon monkey Curious George, star of the series of children’s books … peeling a banana.

Critics and protests weren’t far behind. Black residents of Marietta staged an impromptu protest outside Mulligan’s, a protest that dissipated with nothing more volatile than cross words and backs turned.

Bo Emerson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that “Norman's daughter Brandi Nabors stopped in to check on him, worried that his opinions might spark more than criticism.” ...

"I don't like people picking on my daddy, cause he's my daddy," she said. "He might come across as a dumb redneck to a lot of people, but the man is brilliant."

◊ ◊ ◊

For others in Marietta, however, Norman’s T-shirt antics were at least a few footcandles short of “brilliant.”

“This is a black eye,” Marietta Mayor Bill Dunaway told the AJ-C. “I abhor the sale of these T-shirts. I am proud of this city, I am proud of the race relations that the city has had.”

Mike Norman came to his own defense. “There is a contingent of folks — red, yellow, white and black — that walk around wanting a reason to be mad, to get their feelings hurt,” he told WXIA-TV, by way of a non-apology apology.

Understandably, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publishing giant that owns the rights to the Curious George character, is “weighing … options with respect to legal action,” according to a spokesman. Not much has been heard from Mike Norman’s T-shirt emporium lately.

Taking up where Norman left off are David and Elizabeth Lawson of St. George, Utah, a couple that created the Sockobama, a monkey sock puppet wearing a suit and a campaign button. MSNBC reported this week that the Lawsons had withdrawn the product and apologized for their slight of Obama — another oblique reference to Obama as a monkey — but then later retracted the apology, claiming that commercial considerations had … changed the situation. MSNBC said the Sockobama was set to go back into production, but at this writing the Sockobama Web site isn’t active.

◊ ◊ ◊

The problem Obama faces, according to the pollsters, is his inability to reach these voters. The real, Mulligan problem is his inability to reach voters whose objection to Obama may be couched in differences of policy, but is just as likely to be based on race. Many of these people have said as much, wearing their bigoted frankness as some new twisted badge of courage.

Others, like Norman and the Lawsons, have resorted to base, insensitive,passive-aggressive associations, riding the swift boat of symbology common to the American racial dilemma.

One of Obama’s deepest challenges is fighting the tide of history. The Scots-Irish, who emigrated to America and Georgia after massive drought in 1717, fought in the Revolutionary War and in the Civil War, often on the Confederate side (Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Nathan Bedford Foorest and Jefferson Davis are some of the Confederate leadership with Scots-Irish roots).

Georgia is one of the states with a large Scots-Irish population, a voting bloc that’s increasingly important to aspirants for the presidency. A cohort of ethnicity common to many residents of Cobb County, Ga., home of Mulligan’s Bar & Grill. A signifier for the 5.3 million residents throughout the southeastern United States and elsewhere who claim that heritage (including Obama himself, who’s Scots-Irish on his mother’s side, and Obama’s challenger for the presidency, Sen. John McCain).

Maybe Virginia Sen. James Webb can help.

In his 2004 book “Born Fighting,” a history of the Scots-Irish people in America, Webb writes of a possible future for the Scots-Irish in politics: " … the final question in this age of diversity and political correctness is whether they can learn to play the modern game of group politics. For if they do, they hold the future direction of America in their collective hands.”

◊ ◊ ◊

We can hope. Or maybe there’s just nothing to be done.

Maybe Obama’s inability to reach some of these Americans and others, and to demonstrate a common cause, is less a reflection of some operational deficit in his campaign and more a retrenching of historical obstinance, a shortcoming of the American spirit.

It’s an inability or unwillingness to see how flying or brandishing the Stars & Bars is as wounding to black Americans as the Nazi flag is to European survivors of World War II.

It’s a willful blindness to the ways comparing one of the nation’s most collectively inspiring political figures to a cartoon chimpanzee is freighted with agony that’s not quite historical. Not yet.

It’s an absence of vision distilled in a campaign button sold at the Republican state convention in Texas last weekend.

You can't reach people who don't want to be reached. Maybe — actually — Obama’s Mulligan problem belongs to all of us.
Image credits: Sockobama: Book cover:

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The 'Vox Republican ticket: McCain*-??? 2008

As the John McCain Straight Talk Express meanders toward the Republican Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, this September, speculation’s growing about who McCain will tap for the VP spot. The list is a long one — some longshots, a few chin-pullers — and only sporadically exciting.

But behind the parlor-game speculation of who McCain’s running mate will be, a growing chorus of whispers is asking how strong a McCain presidential ticket would be in any iteration. Besides the concerns he’s raised for the public all year long for a variety of political and ethical contradictions, missteps and falsehoods, add now the documented swirl of suspicions about the solidity of the McCain marriage.

It's hard to draw a bead on his best options. McCain needs a counter, someone to counterbalance his national-security meme with economic gravitas. The logical choice would be Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whose financial expertise was a big selling point for him during the primary season.

McCain and Romney have reportedly settled their past differences, but who knows how that would hold up on the campaign trail? Chuck Hagel’s name has been mentioned, but the Nebraska senator been a thorn in the boot of the Republican base for his stance on the Iraq war. The fact that Hagel’s said to have been on the short and medium lists for the Obama VP spot would seem to eliminate him outright as a possibility for a place on the McCain ticket. Kay Bailey Hutchinson might siphon off some women voters still angry with Obama about Hillary Clinton, but McCain-Hutchinson is hardly exciting. Richard Lugar’s older than McCain is; adding him would be a nightmare for anyone entertaining the idea of opening the GOP to younger voters.

◊ ◊ ◊

Of course, these scenarios all have one constant assumption: that it’s John McCain at the top of the ticket. Steve Rosenbaum would care to differ.

In a thought-provoking piece in Tuesday’s Huffington Post, Rosenbaum proposes the (‘til now) unthinkable: “McCain will not be the Republican candidate in November. …

“The reasons are simple. He can't win. Now that Obama is the presumptive Democratic nominee -- the polls all show that McCain's pro-war stance and Bush endorsement make him a lost cause in November. That combined with soft stands on litmus-test conservative issues make him an unpopular candidate among the base.”

The question, then, is: who’s next? HuffPost graciously included a list of possibles, including some of the usual suspects (Romney, Condoleezza Rice, Mike Huckabee), the second-tier possibles (Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Hagel) and other names motivated more by short-term electoral gains than long-term governance (Colorado Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, Florida Gov. 
Charlie Crist, Louisiana Gov. 
Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, among them). 

A long list of unlikelies, to be sure. But one name on the list warms the brain stem. Wanna start a conversation at a cocktail party (or a fight)? Float this:

Colin Powell 2008.

Think about it. If the Republicans decided to bail on McCain, they could do worse. Way worse.

◊ ◊ ◊

Consider the electricity factor. If there’s anything in this political world that could shock and dazzle the American electorate about the Republican party, that would be it: a massive defibrillator for the GOP, and the kind of existentially daring choice the Republicans have been loathe to make for decades.

You want change? Think of one of the most widely respected Americans alive at the top of the GOP ticket — whoever else is on the ticket. Not to suggest the VP spot is irrelevant, but the emotional charge is generated from the top. Powell would steal much of Obama’s groundbreaking luster as an African American presidential contender. In one thunderous stroke, the prospect of a black American president would be transformed from a possibility to a forgone conclusion. His presence could stem the bleeding expected among Reagan Democrats and independents uninspired by McCain and inclined to vote for Obama.

And how better for the Republicans to tell the nation that they mean to take ending the war in Iraq seriously? Powell was deceived by the Bush administration he worked for. He personally petitioned President Bush not to begin the Iraq war. His insistence on exhausting nonviolent and diplomatic approaches to dealing with prewar Iraq made him a reluctant warrior on the Iraq-war issue. Time away from the worst of that war’s prosecution, and his principled stand on war as a last resort, work for him with a nation still disposed to recognize him as that rare commodity: a general and a statesman.

If the Republicans want to keep Team Obama up nights, this is the way to do it.

◊ ◊ ◊

And then there’s the one we first considered in December 2006 …

James Baker:

“In a time when the Party is under siege as much from within as from without; when scandals from carnal to financial have undercut the confidence of the party faithful; when the enemy runs Congress; when minorities are deserting the party, lowering percentages that were weak to start with, there’s no danger at all in riding the right dark horse to victory. James Baker is precisely the kind of tough, smart, experienced, pragmatic, multi-hyphenate operator the party needs in order to win.”

Those problems with the Republican Party have gotten worse since the end of 2006, a few months after the GOP suffered a thoroughly Iraq war-related drubbing in the midterm elections that brought Democrats back to power in Congress. As a former Secretary of the Treasury (among his other stations of the cross in Washington), Baker would bring the serious weight of past experience to repairing the national economy. With a reputation for Goodwrenching a number of other seemingly intractable problems, Baker may be just what the Republicans need.

◊ ◊ ◊

If, of course, they decide they don’t need John McCain. It’s hard to know how serious the Republican Party is about being (or being perceived as) the change agent in this election. There’s still the high probability that, content to dig in their heels and ride the horse than got ‘em this far, McCain may remain the nominee.

There's reason he should be. He's stood the test of a primary campaign season, besting a number of game challengers. Any seismic shift in McCain’s presumptive status as nominee would only add fuel to the GOP-in-chaos narrative that’s been quietly building around him for weeks already. With the high risk of alienating the millions who voted for him, and a strong chance that voters would interpret a move away from McCain as a sign of party weakness and a tacit admission of probable defeat, making a change is likely to create as many problems as it solves.

Given time, McCain may fully develop the consistency of positions, the calmness of delivery and the perfection of stagecraft that his campaign sorely needs. He’s been slowly about the process of, well, humanizing himself for the country. In his appearances of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” McCain has played the willing (even eager) object of Stewart’s sly interrogations; that kind of self-deprecation goes a long way in our culture.

But we’ll see. We’re almost to the All-Star break, and the convention is in early September. Who’d have thought this in March — that the party about to be handed a three-month-plus edge in time for planning and preparation for November would be way behind the party whose intraparty squabbles ended in June?

If there's any truth to rumors about his personal issues, what faces the Republicans now may be gut-check time. Is it possible that, this close to the election, the next standard-bearer of the party might actually have an asterisk attached to his name — “ * " denoting, as it often does, "subject to change”?
Image credits: McCain and big flag: T toes, republished under Attribution ShareAlike LIcense 2.0. Powell and Baker: Public domain.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Visions of Los Angeles

Everybody here
Comes from somewhere
That they’d just as soon forget
And disguise

— R.E.M.

LOS ANGELES — California, they say, gets to the future of America before anywhere else. If that’s true, this city (with more showroom-sweet Mercedeses per square yard than any place outside German or Saudi Arabia) is sending a signal: that $4-a-gallon gas you’ve been dreading is already in the rear-view mirror. You just didn’t see it coming up on you that fast … and now you’re on your way to $5 a gallon … and life goes colorfully on.

Life under the Bear Flag has always been a thing apart, the state representing the world’s sixth-largest economy is occupied by a patchwork diversity of people who’ve made their separate peace with reality (despite, like the rest of us, being shackled to it).

It’s there when you get off the plane at LAX. The heat that shimmers just outside the terminal. That sense of permission, of the undying possible that permeates everything. Welcome to the dream machine, run by a former bodybuilder from Austria. A filmmaker born in Arizona. An artist born in England. A police chief born in Boston. Welcome ye vagabonds. You’re in the right place for ... everything.

Walk down Wilshire Boulevard. Spanish mingles with French, Korean with Thai. A tanned, muscular cool that takes everything in 80-degree stride; shirtless, hairless, hatless, melanoma be damned. The Lakers are in the NBA finals. It’s another beautiful day. With enough time, money, Botox and CGI, there’s nothing these people can’t do. “See Rome and die”? Maybe. But somehow, you’d rather see L.A. and live. What’s your hurry? It’ll be there tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Whatever “it” is.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The right kind of gotcha: Tim Russert (1950-2008)

Sunday mornings will never be the same again.

Tim Russert, tireless fan of the Buffalo Bills, lawyer, journalist, author, moderator and prime mover of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and the longest-serving host of the longest-running program in television history, died today — Friday the 13th — of a heart attack in Washington. He was a heartbreakingly young 58 years old.

About an hour before he was stricken, he was conducting a question-&-answer session with editors at TMZ reports that paramedics were summoned to the NBC Washington Bureau offices at 1:41 p.m. EDT. Russert was taken to at Sibley Memorial Hospital and pronounced dead at 4:15 p.m.

Russert’s doctor, Michael Newman, told NBC News that cholesterol plaque ruptured in an artery, causing sudden coronary thrombosis.

Russert had been diagnosed with asymptomatic coronary artery disease, but it was being controlled with medication and exercise, and he had performed well on a stress test in late April, Newman told NBC. An autopsy showed that Russert also had an enlarged heart, Newman said.

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Without resorting to the bombastic insinuations of Bill O’Reilly or the prosecutorial pit-bull style of Chris Matthews, Timothy John Russert Jr. got closer to the heart of what makes American politics work, or fail to work, than any television political journalist of his generation, and quite possibly beyond his medium and his generation.

In December 1991 he took over “Meet the Press,” at that time a dry, vacuous, moribund Sunday-morning placeholder, and invested it with a drama and vigor that were a direct reflection of his passion for American politics and government.

His gift for political analysis was more than hobby or inclination; he learned his chops the hard way. Russert was special counsel to New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan for five years, and later an adviser to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo from 1983 to 1984. He later moved into the world of journalism, joining NBC in 1984.

“He was a real-life, old-school television journalist, but at the same time he was someone who really worked in the multichannel environment we have,” said Robert J. Thompson, Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

“He was America’s host for election night,” Thompson told Culchavox in an interview from Syracuse, N.Y. “He was a major force for the civic life of this country.”

The dry-erase board that Russert used repeatedly to explain the mathematical chaos after the 2000 presidential election was an icon of clarity — so much so that its first use by Russert on the air was named by TV Guide as one of the 100 most memorable moments in television history.

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In today’s snapshot valedictories were reactions from the people who were his journalistic adversaries — the people in power or those who wanted to be in power. The one throughline? He was tough and fair.

“He was the standard-bearer for serious journalism,” Sen. Barack Obama said. “There wasn’t a better interviewer in television, not a more thoughtful analyst of our politics, and he was also one of the finest men I knew.”

Sen. John McCain, Obama’s rival for the presidency, called Russert “a great journalist and a great American. Tim Russert was at the top of his profession. He was a man of honesty and integrity. He was hard but he was always fair.”

One aspect of Russert’s fairness doctrine was, for those on the receiving end, probably a little terrifying. In his sixteen years on “Meet the Press,” Russert evolved a deceptively effective interviewing style, a way of rebutting rebuttals that let a politician hoist himself or herself from the petard of their own words.

“The part that was really hard was that he would actually make you debate with yourself,” said Madeline Albright, former U.S. secretary of state, to MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. “He would find some quote that you said many, many years before … and you think, ‘I couldn’t possibly have said this’ … and he really made you walk through it and allow you the time to give an explanation … It was a rare privilege to be on the show.”

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The author and columnist Calvin Trillin once called the Sunday political programs collectively the “Sabbath gasbag” shows. But there was a difference. Under Russert, “Meet the Press” raised the bar on Sunday morning political talk, effectively acting as a model, in tone and style of inquiry, for other Sunday talk shows that followed on cable TV.

Russert and “Meet the Press” made Sundays special. The civilized tone and breadth of discussion were the perfect way to begin the day. Whether what followed were hours of working in the yard or watching the day’s customary sports programs, all too often “Meet the Press” was what got the heart started on Sundays.

GrouchoMarxist, in a comment at The Huffington Post:

Sunday morning:

1. Hangover

2. Coffee

3. Newspaper

4. Meet the Press

Won't be the same without you Tim.

◊ ◊ ◊

In an era embracing the rise of the “gotcha” aspect of journalism — those sudden and sometimes salacious disclosures that seem to be meant as much to embarrass as to enlighten — Russert tried to stand apart.

His was the right kind of gotcha: an attempt to show the ways politicians’ positions were not always consistent, and to show it not with mud-slinging or sly opinionating, but simply by contrasting what a politician said back in the day (whenever “the day” was) and what a politician is saying now. He gladly left ridicule to others who were less talented, and frankly less principled. Russert took the high road.

Marysandra, in The Huffington Post:

As an Irish Catholic daughter of Buffalo, I think I always sort of "got" Tim Russert, we were brought up in a time and place that valued hard work, the Church, family loyalty, and respect and civility. You were never supposed to get "too big for your britches." South Buffalo was a place of fierce Democratic politics, humor, and the ability to tell a good story. Humility and Charity were your duty, after that loyalty to the Buffalo Bills was almost as important as loyalty to family ... He never really changed much from those roots, to my eyes, despite his remarkable career …

◊ ◊ ◊

He was just hitting his stride. Russert was to be honored with a lifetime achievement award for service to journalism at the Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University on June 23.

On election night, any election night, Russert’s eyes revealed a merry anticipation for what was to come. He displayed an animation, an intellect and a spirit that the indifferent lens of television couldn’t help but love.

“The really sad thing about his passing now is that he was gearing up for what might have been his magnum opus,” Thompson said in reference to what Russert undoubtedly planned for NBC’s coverage of the presidential election night to come this November.

For sure, we’re poorer already without Tim Russert’s ability to distill the minutiae of presidential politics into something that everyday people can get their minds around.

For sure, election night in November will have its usual hoopla and foolishness. But the election-night antics will ring hollow this year. As of today, there’s a hugely empty chair at 4001 Nebraska Avenue NW, the address of the Washington bureau of NBC News.

As of today, there's a vacancy in the lives of a father, a wife, three sisters and a son.

As of today, there’s a hole in the life of American journalism.

As of today, there’s a cavernous absence of civility in the public discourse of America.

And there’s no way to fill any of them.
Image credits: Russert, top: hyku, Winter Haven. Fla., republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license. Russert with whiteboard: NBC News

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The McCain scrutiny VIII

With the Democratic bloodbath suddenly, mercifully over, it’s been expected that the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain would have solidified its position, with McCain (the presumptive Republican nominee for almost four months) able to capitalize on the Democrats’ endless barroom brawl by clearly defining himself, fortifying his strengths and shoring his campaign up in the broken places.

The luxury of time is wasted on some people, and John McCain has been one of them. In the weeks and months since his presumptive status, Team McCain has been plagued by internal missteps that are basic to the candidate and his organization. From problematic connections with the lobbyists larding his campaign to inconsistencies on positions about earmarks and the role of Hamas in the Middle East, from questions about character and temperament to continuing problems with characterizing facts about the Iraq war, the Iraqi people and national security (presumably his strong suit), the Arizona senator has shown an inconsistency and imprecision of message that’s been breathtaking.

A statement made by McCain on Wednesday — that a timetable for returning American troops home from Iraq was “not too important" — has aroused doubts about his campaign’s foundational claim that he represents a militarily strong America … indeed, aroused doubts about whether McCain has the military capacity to be commander-in-chief.

Interviewed on the NBC “Today” show by Matt Lauer, and questioned about whether the purported success of the troop escalation known as the “surge” accelerated the value of a timetable for troop rotation from Iraq, McCain said, “that’s not too important. What’s important is the casualties in Iraq. Americans are in South Korea, Americans are in Japan, American troops are in Germany. That's all fine.”

Besides the obvious insensitivity of the “not too important” statement, which Brandon Friedman of, a veterans’ service and advocacy organization, called “a morale crusher” for the troops in Iraq, it contradicted what McCain had said on May 15, at a speech in Columbus, Ohio:

“By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who has sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in their freedom … the Iraq war has been won.”

"The job of the commander in chief is to understand the fundamentals of the conflict in which you have the troops engaged. And it is becoming crystal clear that John McCain doesn't understand it," said Sen. John Kerry, to the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein. "This is an enormous flaw on his candidacy, which is supposedly hung on his ability to serve as commander in chief... There are series of contradictions in his statements that reflect a fundamental misunderstand[ing] of the conflict."

◊ ◊ ◊

The “Today” show debacle was only the latest disconnect between McCain’s historical narrative and support for legislation that resonates with that personal narrative. McCain has consistently opposed passage of a new GI Bill that would increase educational and other benefits to Iraq war veterans — despite his long standing as a veteran and a presumed champion of the military.

The flip-flops are being noticed by others in the military — people prepared to call the senator on his shortcomings (maybe “call the emperor on his clothes” is a better analogy).

“I know he's trying to get traction by seeking to play to what he thinks is his strong suit of national security,” Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO commander, said of McCain in a June 11 interview with Seth Colter Walls of the Huffington Post. “The truth is that, in national security terms, he's largely untested and untried. He's never been responsible for policy formulation. He's never had leadership in a crisis, or in anything larger than his own element on an aircraft carrier or [in managing] his own congressional staff. It's not clear that this is going to be the strong suit that he thinks it is.”

“McCain's weakness is that he’s always been for the use of force, force and more force. In my experience, the only time to use force is as a last resort. ...

"When he talks about throwing Russia out of the G8 and makes ditties about bombing Iran, he betrays a disrespect for the office of the presidency.”

Clark, whose name has infrequently surfaced as a possible contender for the vice presidential spot on an Obama ticket, said McCain “has pretty much bought the central thrust of the Bush administration's foreign policies: relying on threat and bluster [and] isolating people we don't agree with instead of engaging them.”

That McCain association with the Bush White House is especially problematic now, in the wake of the latest bipartisan report on prewar Iraq intelligence released June 5 by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“Before taking the country to war, this Administration owed it to the American people to give them a 100 percent accurate picture of the threat we faced. Unfortunately, our Committee has concluded that the Administration made significant claims that were not supported by the intelligence,” Rockefeller said in the report.

“In making the case for war, the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent,” he said. “As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.”

That McCain association with the Bush White House is especially troublesome, in the wake of a BBC News investigation that estimated that $23 billion in U.S. military equipment and materiel in Iraq is unaccounted for. “It may well turn out to be the largest war profiteering in history," said Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

◊ ◊ ◊

The McCain campaign is facing a challenger that may be insurmountable: the McCain campaign.

Its problem is less political than it is existential, not so much what it says as what it is: a political campaign at odds with itself. Team McCain is under fire for sending inconsistent messages: about McCain and his support of the military; about McCain and his use of lobbyists; about McCain and his command of facts about the Iraq war and the Iraqi people; about McCain and his disdain for congressional earmarks; about McCain and his relationship with a failed and feckless Republican administration.

A Republican strategist thought he had the right prescription. The strategist told The Huffington Post’s Thomas B. Edsall recently that “McCain has not claimed the maverick ground that should be his. He has not seized the mantle of ‘change’ and reform that he could own by going to Washington and saying, ‘you know me. You know I've been a reformer all my life. Now, here's how I am going to change Washington if you elect me president.’”

But a strategy like that would be a hopeless enterprise even if Barack Obama hadn’t previously and legitimately grabbed the brass-ring identity of change agent. A captive of his own political history, willingly tied to the mast of the ruinous Iraq war, and employing a campaign staff thick with K Street lobbyist insiders, McCain can’t hope to lay claim to the mantle of Reformer. He’s been inside the system for too long to be taken seriously as an outsider.

Launched with purpose and ambition and flags flying, the campaign of John McCain is right now in a dead calm, going nowhere, a ship with a compass whose philosophical magnetic north apparently doesn’t exist, a ship that can’t get any distance from the new wreck of the Hesperus that is the Bush administration.

There are no rescue boats on the horizon right now.
Image credits: McCain by flags, McCain in Albuquerque (bottom): T toes, republished under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0. Bush and McCains, McCain and Petraeus: Public domain.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Be It Resolved: Kucinich v. UFO

It was just another busy day, Monday, June 9th, and we had a lot to do, as usual. There was laundry and shopping, pickups and deliveries, interviews and meetings, weddings and funerals in progress for most Americans with oversubscribed lives. And for journalists, things were just as hectic: Obama was increasing his attacks on McCain, Ted Kennedy was being released from the hospital, Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee were having a pissing match, and oh yeah, the stock-market sky was falling again.

While we were otherwise occupied, Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio came to the House of Representatives and dared his fellow Democrats to stand for something. In a four-hour, 40-minute oration as passionate as it was procedural, Kucinich introduced a resolution for the impeachment of President Bush.

Kucinich read his resolution for 35 articles of impeachment into the record — a panorama of deceptions and oversights, from illegal spending of public money “on a secret propaganda program to manufacture a false cause for war against Iraq” to a host of violations of U.S. and international laws, as well as violation of habeus corpus, falsifying U.S. casualty figures from Iraq, illegal wiretapping of American citizens, failure to anticipate the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and failure to properly respond to its aftermath; and violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, through disenfranchisement of black voters in Ohio.

“In all of these actions and decisions, President George W. Bush has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President, and subversive of constitutional government, to the prejudice of the cause of law and justice and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States. Wherefore, President George W. Bush, by such conduct, is guilty of an impeachable offense warranting removal from office.”

◊ ◊ ◊

As we might have hoped, Gore Vidal offered his perspective with his customary pungence and eloquence, on June 11 at We won’t trump that worthy site by copying the whole thing here. Below, though, a few excerpts:

“On June 9, 2008, a counterrevolution began on the floor of the House of Representatives against the gas and oil crooks who had seized control of the federal government. This counterrevolution began in the exact place which had slumbered during the all-out assault on our liberties and the Constitution itself.

“I wish to draw the attention of the blog world to Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s articles of impeachment presented to the House in order that two faithless public servants be removed from office for crimes against the American people…

“Although this is the most important motion made in Congress in the 21st century, it was also the most significant plea for a restoration of the republic, which had been swept to one side by the mad antics of a president bent on great crime. …

“And as I listened with awe to Kucinich, I realized that no newspaper in the U.S., no broadcast or cable network, would pay much notice … It is Le Monde, a French newspaper, that told a story the next day hardly touched by The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal or, in fact, any other major American media outlet.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Vidal is, as usual, mostly right. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann weighed in on the issue the day of Kucinich read the articles into the record. And in an interview with Olbermann, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley capably put the matter in perspective.

“There are plenty of crimes there,” Turley said. “They are all over the record, from destruction of evidence to illegal surveillance to unlawful torture — they’re all over the place.

“It does mean that at least one member of [the House], and actually more than one, are really calling their colleagues to the floor and saying, ‘it’s time to pony up, it’s time to answer the public of whether you stand for the Constitution and against its abridgement.”

Kucinich has been on the receiving end of a lot of abuse in recent years. Early in the Democratic primary season, while he was still in the running, he was relentlessly made the butt of jokes, private and public. We remember the stories abut Kucinich's statement in October 2007 that he'd seen a unidentified flying object back in the 1980's, while visiting Washington state. The national press, laughing behind its hand, had a field day with that one.

◊ ◊ ◊

But it was clear on Monday: the only UFO concerning Dennis Kucinich now is the unindicted felonious organization headquartered in the White House, and accountability for the high crimes and misdemeanors whose gravity was forcefully hammered home the longer Kucinich went on.

It's apparently doomed to fail; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said previously that the House will not be actively entertaining the idea of even trying to impeach President Bush. Today, the House voted 251-166 to send the resolution to committee — the Bermuda triangle of distasteful legislation, where the Democratic leadership can keep the measure in legislative limbo indefinitely.

But a stand on principle can't be ignored, especially in this presidential election year.

Ain't it always the way? Just when the place cards are set for the big dance, everyone knows their role and the music is about to start, someone throws a grenade into the ballroom of our complacency. It may or may not go off, but for a moment, at least, it gets everyone's attention.

This year, we can thank Dennis Kucinich for that. And we should.
Image credit: Kucinich: Public domain.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Clint and Spike and World War II

A battle royal emerging between Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee over cinematic depictions of World War II has revived issues of how African American participation in that epochal conflict has been expressed in the movies. A war that ended more than three generations ago still gets attention, in Hollywood, at least.

Lee recently complained that Eastwood’s recent films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” gave short shrift to the role of black soldiers in the pivotal battle of Iwo Jima. “He did two films about Iwo Jima back to back and there was not one black soldier in both of those films,” Lee said June 3 at the Cannes Film Festival. “Many veterans, African-Americans, who survived that war are upset at Clint Eastwood. In his vision of Iwo Jima, Negro soldiers did not exist. Simple as that.”

Eastwood rejected Lee’s criticism. He admitted to the U.K. Guardian newspaper that a small force of black soldiers did serve on Iwo Jima as a part of a supply company, “but they didn't raise the flag. The story is ‘Flags of Our Fathers,’ the famous flag-raising picture, and they didn't do that. If I go ahead and put an African-American actor in there, people'd go, ‘This guy's lost his mind.’ I mean, it's not accurate.”

In an interview with Germany's Focus magazine, Eastwood said it was nonsense to suggest he had “erased the role of black GIs from history.”

“Does he know anything about American history?" he said about Lee. "The U.S. military was segregated til the Korean War, and the blacks in World War II were totally segregated. The only black battalion on Iwo Jima was a small munitions supply unit that came to the beach.

"The story was about the men who raised the flag, and we can't make them black if they were not there.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Eastwood’s not entirely right: President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, officially ending segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces, in July 1948, almost two years before the United States entered Korea.

But a look at some of Eastwood’s films reveals a solid track record for verisimilitude, and a conviction for casting black actors when their appearance dovetails with his creative vision.

“Bird,” his 1988 biopic of protean jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, was hailed for accurate reproduction of historical details. Eastwood reportedly waged war with his longtime studio, Warner Bros., for four years to get the film made — a direct result of Eastwood’s decades-long love affair with jazz. The film won Forest Whitaker Best Actor honors at the Golden Globes.

Eastwood executive-produced the 1988 documentary “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser,” and reportedly assisted in financing the film. And Eastwood’s casting in other, later, more commercially successful films strongly suggests that his heart’s in the right place on interracial casting. His Oscar-winning 1992 Western, “Unforgiven,” starred Morgan Freeman in a sidekick role remarkable for its depth and nuance. Eastwood worked with Freeman again in “Million Dollar Baby” (2004); Freeman won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar the following year.

◊ ◊ ◊

Lee’s beef with Eastwood would more properly seem to be a problem with Hollywood’s history of depicting black and minority participation in America’s foreign wars.

Such films as “Bataan,” “Crash Dive” and “Sahara” (all 1943) starred integrated casts in WWII storylines, as well as “Home of the Brave” (1949), “The Steel Helmet” (1951) and “Pork Chop Hill” (1959). But these and few others were the exceptions that proved the rule.

The Red Ball Express — the celebrated company of black soldiers responsible for trucking the weapons and materiel needed by U.S. soldiers after the Normandy invasion — has been all but ignored by Hollywood, despite such mainstream depictions of the actual invasion, something that’s been done and redone often in films from “The Longest Day” (1962) to “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). The Red Ball’s exploits were the substance of one film, starring Sidney Poitier — and released in 1952.

Lee is taking matters into his own hands. His new WWII film, “Miracle at St. Anna,” which opens in September, stars Derek Luke ("Antwone Fisher"), James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos"), Kerry Washington (“The Last King of Scotland”) and John Leguizamo (“Summer of Sam”) in the story of four black soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division trapped behind enemy lines in Italy in 1944.

When it opens, it’ll offer moviegoers a refreshing addition to the war-movie canon: a film that puts black soldiers front and center in that pivotal American experience. There’s clearly room for stories about a band of another kind of brothers.
Image credits: Lee: Eastwood: Martin Kraft, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License 2.5. Black aviators: From Toni Frissell Collection (public domain).
'Vox update: A reader (Thank you, Anonymous) sends along a link to what's said to be a screenshot from "Flags of Our Fathers," one of the Clint Eastwood Iwo Jima-related films that Spike Lee called inaccurate for not including black troops. 'Vox can't confirm or deny its authenticity ... but check it out. They look like brothers to me.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Swan song with overtures

Today — Day 505 of her historic bid for the presidency — Sen. Hillary Clinton formally affixed the coda to that grueling campaign, conceding victory to Sen. Barack Obama, whose successful maverick challenge for the Democratic nomination put Clinton on the losing side of maybe the most stunning upset in American political history.

“Well, this isn’t exactly the party I planned, but I like the company,” Clinton said to a tumultuous welcome by supporters gathered at the National Building Museum in Washington.

As expected, Clinton began with the obligatories: effectively thanking the members of the Academy, “everyone who poured your hearts and your hopes into this campaign … you have humbled me with your commitment to your country.”

But in no time Clinton made the pivot Democrats have been waiting for, the switch that the Republicans no doubt have dreaded: a full-throated, unambiguous, unparseable endorsement of Team Obama.

“The way to continue our fight now, to accomplish the goals for which we stand, is to take our energy, our passion, our strength, and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama the next President of the United States,” she said. “I endorse him and throw my full support behind him.”

◊ ◊ ◊

And Clinton spoke to those of her supporters still inclined toward anger at her defeat, making overtures to them in the context of her making a further contribution to the Democratic cause. “I will work my heart out to make sure that Senator Obama is the next president, and I hope and pray that all of you will join me in that effort.”

The senator from New York thus completed the climbdown from her presidential bid, bringing a dignity and grasp of the moment that pretty much eluded her on Tuesday. Today — one year, four months and eighteen days after beginning her quest — she went some distance to restoring credibility and luster to the Clinton brand, even as that era of Democratic politics was drawing to a close (or at least taking a pause until the 2012 campaign).

The importance of her effort for American women — already being called the crucial demographic for the fall election — wasn’t ignored. “I ran as a daughter who benefited from opportunities my mother never dreamed of,” she said. “I ran as a mother who worries about my daughter’s future, and as a mother who wants to leave all children brighter tomorrows. To build that future I see, we must make sure that women and men alike understand the struggles of their grandmothers and their mothers.”

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s still to be decided is how the Obama campaign will make use of Clinton in the general election campaign. Some of Clinton’s statements in the primary season that formally ended today make that at least slightly problematic, whether she’s a surrogate for Obama in the general sense or his running mate. So much vitriol was directed at Obama by the Clinton campaign, so many Clinton soundbites have called into question Obama’s fitness to serve as president, it begs the question of how to undo that damage — how to make peace with the constituencies her campaign has alienated — in the run to the general election in November.

That’s the trouble with the politics of scorched earth: You can’t turn around and immediately start planting seeds in the ground you’ve just burned up.

You can’t make a cat walk backwards. Undoing or minimizing those statements and insinuations made on her behalf will be difficult in the YouTube era, and rest assured the campaign of Republican challenger Sen. John McCain has already started a video library of every Clinton indictment, real or implied, of Obama’s readiness for the Oval Office.

But at least the process of closing those ranks has begun. The reunification of the Democrats is underway. Hillary Clinton lays claim not just to an indelible, historic role as the first credible female candidate for the presidency.

She ends her campaign on a final (if belated) call for reconciliation, and solidifies her reputation as a scrapper, a fighter and, a lot like the figure in that Simon and Garfunkel song, a champion in defeat:

In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down
Or cut him til he cried out in his anger and his shame,
‘I am leaving, I am leaving,
But the fighter still remains’

Image credit: Clinton: Agence France-Presse

Friday, June 6, 2008


When Robert Francis Kennedy died on this date in 1968, his assassination part of the brutal turbulence of that year and that era, the United States lost more than another layer of its relative innocence. The nation lost a piece of its soul, and it's something we still haven't recovered from, two generations on.

In pursuit of personal causes — from his work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California, to his marching with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Poor People's Campaign, Bobby Kennedy didn't lose his sense of right and wrong, never abandoned the magnetic north of his moral compass.

He was a man in touch not just with contemporary politics but also a man with a deep appreciation for classical expressions, words that despite their age resonated with the human experience. At the 1964 convention, still devastated by his brother’s assassination in Dallas late the year before, Robert Kennedy quoted from Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet":

... and when [he] shall die

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

And on the evening of April 4, 1968, announcing the assassination of King to a crowd of black residents of Indianapolis, Kennedy quoted Aeschylus in a speech whose sense of moment and history remains unrivaled:

"He who learns must suffer. Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, and against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God."

That April evening, “he was taking a physical risk,” said Thurston Clarke, author of “The Last Campaign,” a new study of the 82 days of the RFK campaign. “This was a time when the man was able to demonstrate both physical courage and also the moral courage to speak extemporaneously and to give these people some comfort and hope,” Clarke told MSNBC this week.

The word “hope” is one that echoes in our political history, and shouts loud to a brand new American constituency arrayed to support a new passionate hopeful in pursuit of the American presidency.

◊ ◊ ◊

In those whirlwind 82 days, Kennedy embraced the relentless physicality of American politics, wading into crowds with an abandon that held nothing back. “He could have coasted through a campaign or waited until the field cleared and run in 1972,” writes the Chicago Sun-Times John Barron, reviewing Clarke’s book.

“Instead, RFK jumped into the fray, taking on a sitting president and an unpopular war. That might have been challenge enough for anyone else. But Kennedy spent his campaign trying to go after something deeper. He needed to change America. Quite simply and boldly, he desired the elimination of the chronic poverty he experienced firsthand in the Mississippi Delta and on Indian reservations. He wanted to eradicate the racism that led to riots, assassinations and everyday prejudice. His was a campaign, often laced with poetry, which appealed to people’s better natures.”

Robert Kennedy spoke of an America beyond the narrowness of race and class. Robert Kennedy embodied the great American possible. Whether you were a Latino farm worker or someone in any one of the smoldering inner cities, a skinny 12-year-old black boy in Denver, or a not-quite-seven-year-old biracial boy living in Indonesia, it didn't matter. RFK was your champion, whether you knew who he was and what he meant or not.

As perhaps no American politician before him or since, he recognized the potential of this nation to save itself from its deepest flaws and malignancies, its foundational ability to do the right thing, as well as its awful ability to suddenly, ruthlessly break your heart.

◊ ◊ ◊

Today, in another anniversary of his leaving us, that capacity for heartbreak is recognized again — as well as our opportunity, in the here and now of the 21st century, for furthering the social and political change he ushered forward.

In "Interesting Times," a 2004 collection of essays observing American life and culture, I recalled observing, from television and published news reports from a distance, the power of RFK on the stump in 1968, the ways we were impoverished with his sudden absence, the ways we were — and are — enriched by his life and example:

"Here was a man with eyes a little haunted (for all the obvious reasons), smile broad and uncalculating, a man in the midst of a joyous surrender, pressing the American flesh with a heartfelt passion, tie askew if he wore one at all, sleeves rolled to the elbows, the celebrated Kennedy hair tousled and devil-may-care, the campaigner imparting the incandescence of a rock star in his chart-climbing prime.

"Bobby Kennedy had the ascendant energy, the necessary mystery central to a successful political campaign. He worked the rope line like nobody's business, at least in part because he understood, he knew intuitively that there could be no rope line between him and the country he proposed to lead. Sadly, to our eternal national shame, we will never know how good he really was."
Image credits: RFK top: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. RFK April 1968: via youtube (screenshot from broadcast of unknown network origin. RFK gravesite: Wknight94, republished under GNU Free Documentation License, v1.2 and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Power meet power, pound for pound

It’s one of the ironies of American politics: the most intimate moments sometimes occur in the most public places.

On Tuesday night, Barack Obama and his wife and partner in national transformation, Michelle, took the stage at the Xcel Center in Minneapolis, Barack to claim presumptive status as the Democratic nominee for the presidency. A few moments before he spoke, he and Michelle engaged in one of their signature clinches, a private moment to share what was about to happen. Then they gently bumped fists, engaging in a physical ritual that athletes from the pros to the sandlots have been doing for years. It was an innocuous gesture (one we’d probably expect from an ardent fan of the Chicago White Sox). But it was as much a mirror of the nation as a window into the hearts of perhaps the most visible couple in America.

What’s been long called “the pound” was suddenly elevated to the level of political discourse. Journalists in the mainstream media pounced, feverishly trying to grasp the Wider Meaning, or overintellectualizing its name (The New York Times mechanically called it a “closed-fist high-five”). Its meaning, of course, is subject to different interpretations; see MSNBC’s Mara Schiavocampo’s video report on what some Americans think it means.

In the context of American politics, the Obama pound was a visible expression of the idea of teamwork. Like a collection of conditioned athletes or the beta team of a software company, the Obama campaign has managed to harness a variety of disparate talents in the service of one purpose. The pound is a sign of a job well done.

And as a personal expression of realization of the possible, as a sign of love and respect between an African American couple making history with every passing day, the pound sent another signal:

“It was the best moment in romantic politics since Al and Tipper,” said Patrick Riley, a popular culture reporter, recalling the Gore convention slobberfest in August 2000. “It had that kind of romantic, supportive black-love appeal.”

Man & woman, husband & wife. The original Team Obama. Two sources of strength collide, not in combat but in a friendly, physical recognition of what they can accomplish together. Power meet power. Game recognize game. The playoffs are in the books; now it’s on to the championship.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The last dog dies

Back in the 1992 presidential campaign, a young brash Arkansas upstart candidate named Bill Clinton was waging an uphill battle for the minds, hearts and delegates of New Hampshire. Dealing with the cold February weather and fielding never-ending questions about a possibly illicit someone named Gennifer Flowers, he promised a crowd at a Dover, N.H., shopping mall that he’d see it through, he’d tough it out, he’d stand by them "until the last dog dies."

Sixteen years and four months later, his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is on the verge of the end of her own presidential campaign, this one unsuccessful. A canine obituary is in order.

◊ ◊ ◊

“We pledged to support her to the end,” veteran New York Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel, told The New York Times. “Our problem is not being able to determine when the hell the end is.”

For Rangel and 21 other high-powered Democratic members of Congress, the end of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign was — is — here. The Times and The Associated Press reportedly on Wednesday, almost simultaneously, that Clinton would officially suspend her campaign in a two-part valedictory over the weekend: On Friday, at a private gathering for her staff, and on Saturday, at a public event that Obama may well attend.

The end of the Clinton campaign was apparently hastened by those 22 lawmakers, who put pressure on Clinton in a conference call to end her campaign for the sake of party unity, and to make the conciliatory gesture of concession toward Barack Obama — a concession absent on Tuesday, the day Obama made American history as the first black presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.

There’s already been wild speculation — the pundits all but salivating — at the prospect of a Democratic “dream team” arrayed to challenge Sen. John McCain for the presidency. Some have openly speculated on whether Obama has the mettle to resist the pressures from the Clintons and their proxies to put her on the ticket.

“If he can't stand up to Hillary and Bill Clinton, forget about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” The Wall Street Journal said Thursday on its op-ed page.

◊ ◊ ◊

Message received. The Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday that Obama campaign advisers had signaled an Obama-Clinton ticket was unlikely. The Journal reported that people in both the Obama and Clinton organizations said that a stumbling block characterized as “a deal-breaker” was that former president Bill Clinton might resist the release of records of his business dealings and the names of the 38,000 donors to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library — all part of the standard process of vetting vice presidential hopefuls.

But with all the endless attention that's now being given to Obama’s possible vice presidential running mate, and with Team Obama’s statement from Wednesday saying that an Obama-Clinton ticket was probably not in the cards — it’s been forgotten that, almost a month ago, such a political tandem was called unfeasible by someone who deeply matters, to Obama in particular and the nation in general.

On May 9,’s Kristin Jensen reported that Sen. Edward Kennedy, referencing an Obama-Clinton union, said “I don’t think it’s possible” in an interview on Bloomberg Television.

On Bloomberg TV’s “Political Capital With Al Hunt,” Kennedy said Obama should pick someone who "is in tune with his appeal for the nobler aspirations of the American people.''

“If we had real leadership — as we do with Barack Obama — in the No. 2 spot as well, it'd be enormously helpful,” Kennedy said.

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s been overlooked in the three-odd weeks since then is the impact of the opinion of Ted Kennedy, an icon of the Senate and an early and enthusiastic endorser of the Obama campaign. He and Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F. Kennedy and still an inspirational figure in her own right, campaigned for Obama early this year.

And Caroline Kennedy is one of the three-person team who’ll be vetting vice-presidential prospects for the Obama campaign.

Given the symbolic importance of the Kennedy family in American politics, the political value of Kennedy's contribution to the Obama campaign, and considering Ted Kennedy’s recent and heartbreaking diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor, it’s difficult to imagine that Obama would disregard the counsel of a man considered one of the most revered senators in the nation’s history. Not this time. Not now. Already holding the advice of Kennedy in high regard, Obama is even more unlikely today, in the wake of the Massachusetts senator’s prognosis, to dismiss it.

◊ ◊ ◊

Hillary Clinton will finish the long goodbye of her campaign over the weekend, and no conditional language, no hedging of statements will change the outcome of this contest and her place in it. Clinton can be expected to watch the next months of the 2008 presidential race from a box seat on the relative sidelines.

She’ll make the occasional necessarily mandarin statements from time to time, and she’ll certainly be acknowledged in thunderous fashion at the convention in Denver, given the high honor of making a keynote address — probably not unlike the stirring, electric speech Obama made himself at the convention in 2004. And Clinton will rise to that challenge, no doubt turning in a work of oratory for the ages.

But when the time comes for Barack Obama to stand side by side with his vice-presidential running mate in August, Hillary Clinton will be an observer caught up in her own vortex of bittersweet emotions, left to realize that the last dog will have died for her 2008 bid for the presidency, left to ponder four words that will, at least briefly, haunt her and her memories: What might have been …
Image credits: Bill and Hillary Clinton: Associated Press. Obama and Kennedy: ragesoss, republished under GNU Free Documentation License.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Yes he did

That tremor you felt this evening at 6:01 p.m. PDT (9:01 p.m. EDT) was the sound of history arriving, the sound of our comfortable national realities, our long-held national expectations being irrevocably transformed.

Buoyed by millions of African American voters, and a broad cross-section of Americans across the racial and socioeconomic spectrum, Barack Hussein Obama, the biracial son of Africa and Europe, is now the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States of America. The iPod wins.

“ … [B]ecause of what you said; because you decided that change must come to Washington; because you believed that this year must be different than all the rest; because you chose to listen not to your doubts or your fears but to your greatest hopes and highest aspirations, tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another — a journey that will bring a new and better day to America," Obama said in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., before a crowd of 17,000 (with another 15,000 reportedly waiting outside).

"Tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States."

◊ ◊ ◊

It wasn’t all movie moment. Hillary Clinton saw to that. In a campaign rally at Baruch College in Manhattan, Clinton performed a not-quite-dignified climbdown, in a curious valedictory that wasn’t a concession speech despite the numerical evidence, that Obama was well over the 2,118 delegates he needed to win. Clinton congratulated Obama and his campaign "on the extraordinary race they have run." But she congratulated him in the context of the race going on rather than ending, offering a recap of the reasons (popular vote totals) why she should still be the nominee.

“In the coming days, I'll be consulting with supporters and party leaders to determine how to move forward with the best interests of our party and our country guiding my way," she said.

“She did everything but offer Barack Obama the vice presidency,” noted Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, on CNN.

It was obstinance personified. The attitude even extended to the music on the Team Clinton campaign jukebox; her rally ended with Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” and, in an act of curious straight-up defiance, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”

Later, Obama extended an olive branch. “Senator Hillary Clinton has made history in this campaign not just because she's a woman who has done what no woman has done before, but because she's a leader who inspires millions of Americans with her strength, her courage, and her commitment to the causes that brought us here tonight.”

Then Obama renewed his shift in attention to the general election. With both words and actions, he threw a jab at Republican challenger John McCain, the newly-minted nominee taking dead aim at McCain’s relationship with the Bush administration — and the war that administration will be defined by.

“Change is a foreign policy that doesn't begin and end with a war that should've never been authorized and never been waged,” Obama said at the Xcel Center in Minneapolis-St. Paul — the same Xcel Center where McCain will make his acceptance speech in September. “I won't stand here and pretend that there are many good options left in Iraq, but what's not an option is leaving our troops in that country for the next hundred years …”

◊ ◊ ◊

“America, this is our moment. This is our time,” Obama said tonight, reaching again for the Kennedyesque high ground, restating a theme (if not a phrase) he’s used before, but better this time. Bigger. “Let us begin to work together. Let us unite in common effort to chart a new course for America.”

Chris Matthews, co-directing the coverage for MSNBC, got outside his domestic political comfort zone and grasped the wider dimension of what was happening — that nothing less took place tonight than a change in the baseline of American possibility, a change with global resonance.

“Everywhere in the world in a few hours, in Europe and Africa, in Cape Town and Nairobi … in Bangladesh and Asia, this is a huge story,” Matthews said at the moment MSNBC called the South Dakota delegate count for Obama. “[I]n a world dominated by European powers — forever, it seems — this is the first time a major political power anywhere in that world has nominated … a person of color. This is a unique, perhaps trend-setting change in our planet.”

And if the population of the world could vote here, maybe they’d have echoed Thewrldneedsobama, posting at The Huffington Post:

“I'm so happy for America right now, you guys did it!!!! Thank you for give us Obama. I'm in tears … And I'm in Mexico.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Wednesday starts another kind of day one. Obama can be expected to fully make the change into general-election mode. First, there's unfinished business within the party. “At 11:06 p.m. EST, shortly after he left the rostrum in Minneapolis, Obama left Clinton a message congratulating her on winning South Dakota and asking her to call him back. At 12:16 am she did, and offered to "sit down when it makes sense for you,’ " reported.

Then there’s Obama's plans to address what many in the punditburo see as his most glaring political weakness: connecting with the rural, blue-collar white voters who were largely absent for him in the primary season. Seth Colter Walls, reporting in The Huffington Post, reports that Obama plans to head Thursday to Virginia, “right smack in the heart of Appalachia, where he is often thought to be toast because of his outsized losses to Senator Clinton in some of the region's primaries.” James Webb is the state’s Democratic senator.

For Barack Obama, an outsized improbable American dream has taken a huge step toward reality. “Politically, this is like landing on the moon,” said MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann when Obama passed the magic number. What’s left may be the political equivalent of a mission to Mars, the landing exactly five months from Wednesday.

Ignition. Team Obama has cleared the tower.
Image credit: Obama: Associated Press.
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