Thursday, July 31, 2008

One war, two equations

If you thought the wild variables and complete unpredictabilities of the 2008 presidential campaign just don’t add up … you’re wrong. Turns out that this political season, like everything else under the sun, gives way to the science of mathematics (in an equation you may not understand any more than some of the politicians who’ve been running for the presidency).

We have no idea how they got them, but John Dickerson and Chris Wilson of Slate have devised “mathematical formulas based on … public statements” of Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, formulas that seem to distill the candidates’ Iraq-war policies with a refreshing absence of spin, in the unemotional language of math.

On the matter of withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, Obama and McCain are, mathematically speaking, not so far apart.

It’s too complicated to reproduce here; see the whole formula in the Slate story.

Despite their apparent similarity on extracting our 140,000 combat troops from Iraq, there are two inescapable constants:

(1) The 16-month timetable Obama has maintained for months is both credible and achievable is a time frame McCain resisted, then more recently endorsed — a tacit agreement with his challenger. Does Obama get extra credit for being first with the idea?

(2) The war that made that timetable necessary was supported by McCain from the start, a fact that would seem to undercut the functionality of his formula at the outset. Does McCain lose points for a logical conclusion emanating from a faulty premise?

Most Americans’ math skills aren’t that good; it’s hard enough for most of us to balance a checkbook and keep up with the elusive variable of the price of a gallon of gas. But American voters will prove or disprove the two formulas in November.

Until then, note the observation of Albert Einstein on the tenuous relationship between math and what we think is real. Then add politics to the equation: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
Image credits: All in the public domain.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Swift Boat, the sequel (in two parts)

Just when we thought it was safe to go back in the water … the conservative shipsmiths and toolmakers who launched the Swift boat that helped torpedo John Kerry’s chances for the presidency are about to smash bottles of Champagne against the bows of two new Swift boats. Target: Barack Obama.

Media Matters reports today that two books will be released on Friday and on Aug. 4. One, “The Obama Nation,” was written by Jerome Corsi, co-author of “Unfit for Command,” the hit job on Kerry’s military record. The other, “The Case Against Barack Obama,” was written by David Freddoso, a writer for National Review Online. The Politico reported in June that Freddoso learned reporting “at the knee” of syndicated conservative columnist Robert Novak, and worked for Novak as a political reporter on the “Evans-Novak Political Report.”

The books lay claim to taking a hard, sober look at Obama as a candidate. Another examination of Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is expected, as well as a look at Obama as the beneficiary of a “cult of personality” (no doubt with all deliberate suggestion of Benito Mussolini). Regnery Publishing president and publisher Marjory Ross told The Politico on June 23 that Freddoso’s book will offer “a comprehensive, factual look at Obama.” But for Media Matters, this forthcoming assault from a writer and publishers with a history of archly conservative views and dubious journalistic principles means one thing: It’s gut-check time for the mainstream press.

From Media Matters:

“The overt connections between the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's scurrilous campaign against Kerry and the two forthcoming books raise the question for the media: Will they have absorbed the lessons of their highly flawed Swift Boat coverage and give more immediate and more thorough scrutiny to these forthcoming books??”

Media Matters refers, of course, to the curiously slow pivot made in the 2004 campaign by the mainstream press in response to the relentless impugning of Kerry’s military record, his personal character and his fitness for command. Here’s hoping it doesn’t happen again.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s every reason to believe it shouldn’t happen again. Regnery, which will publish the Freddoso book, has a long history of publishing books with an ardently conservative line — from publishing “God and Man at Yale,” William F. Buckley’s first book, and a biography of John Birch in the 1950’s, to releasing two books on Bill Clinton, one of which linked him without proof to a series of tragedies during his presidency. Then came the Kerry character assassination.

Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, will produce Corsi’s book. The company’s books are loudly promoted on the Web site of conservative analyst and former Bush deputy campaign manager Mary Matalin, and Threshold published “An Inconvenient Book” by Glenn Beck, CNN’s conservative talk-show host.

With warnings like that, the mainstream press can’t say it hasn’t been warned, can’t say it was caught off guard by what’s likely to be rhetorical mudslinging of a low order.

◊ ◊ ◊

What can’t be overlooked is something these books and their next-to-last-minute appearance announces: the ferocity of attacks on Obama only reveals how little there’s been to bolster the political fortunes of Sen. John McCain. With the erosion of McCain’s campaign planking of national security matters and conduct of the Iraq war, and his relative absence on matters tied to the economy, there’s little else to do except tear down McCain’s opponent.

The Swift boat strategy bears the smell of desperation, of a last chance at extracting by deception a victory it hasn’t earned in the public square, or the public mind. The mainstream press can, just maybe, slow the tidal decline of regard in that public mind by evaluating the truthfulness of these books quickly — and being as relentless in exposing their flaws and questioning their shortcomings as their authors and publishers will be in promoting the books that bear them.

The Swift boat technique is known for attacks on candidates. It’d be a shame if this time, the press’ reputation suffered the collateral damage.
Image credit: Obama: Frogster, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Unfit for Command cover: ©2004 Regnery Publishing.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Restart me up: Mick Jagger at 65

“What a drag it is getting old,” Michael Philip Jagger told us in 1966, more than half a lifetime ago. In the two generations that followed, Jagger and his band, the Rolling Stones have redefined not just rock music but also the idea of cultural longevity. Despite record sales that have increasingly declined over the years, Jagger and the Stones have carved out a niche in pop culture that reflects a staying power beyond the music that made them famous (they’ve just changed recording labels again).

The fact of Mick Jagger’s 65th birthday on Saturday speaks to relatively clean living, despite the occupational hazards of his profession. The fact that he’s still very much on the A-list of pop culture says as much about that culture, and our rapidly shifting ideas about age and vitality, as it says about him.

We’ve all heard the phrase “40 is the new 30,” or some variation thereof (“50's the new 40,” “30's the new 19” … whatever). The takeaway from that elastic saying is that growing knowledge of nutrition, exercise and any number of advances in medical technology have effectively rolled back the clock on the corrosive impact of age.

◊ ◊ ◊

For Jagger, it seems, 65 may be the new 50. As the father of seven children — five of them sired after he was 40 years old — Jagger’s never exactly respected the idea of slowing down.

In his day job as lead singer for the Stones, Jagger still has much of the onstage energy he exhibited in his earliest years with the band, which started in 1962. Part of it is his own longstanding embrace of physical fitness; part of it is genetic (his father Joe, a former phys ed teacher, died in 2006 at the age of 93); and part of it may be the various, uh, pharmaceutical enhancements common to the rock-star lifestyle.

Whatever combination of genes, inclination and plain old dumb luck may be in play, Jagger’s 65th birthday is obviously a cause for celebration for him, and also for us. With Jagger as a barometer, it seems the age of 65 isn’t necessarily the walkup to death’s door our youth-besotted culture has always insisted it is.

So raise a glass or three to Sir Mick. He said it was a drag getting old at the age of 23. He didn’t know what “old” was, back then, and he probably won’t admit to knowing what “old” is today.

Maybe “old” is as much a state of mind as anything else. Maybe time’s on our side too.
Image credit: Jagger: Jagger onstage: Gonzalo Andres, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The McCain scrutiny XII

Friday’s Huffington Post featured an image of Sen. John McCain that, as pictures often do, told a story of at least a thousand words. The image showed McCain at some 2008 campaign event, holding in his left hand a cell phone —not one created in recent years, but a piece worthy of space at the Smithsonian, one of the early models the size of a brick.

The blogosphere, as you might imagine, has been, well, the blogosphere. Especially at HuffPost:

ChristiB (paraphrasing McCain): “I wonder if I can get on the google with this contraption …”

LAJimm: Come on guys, give him a break. He’s trying to build a bridge to the 19th century.

6WaysToSunday: Looks like the same phone from Dukakis' tank.

VolvoBirkenstock: He's talking to tech support on the Iraq/Pakistan border.

Kahni: That's the phone he uses to contact Czechoslovakia.

We’ve referred to this thing as an “image” — it’s impossible to tell by looking if this is an actual photograph or something cleverly doctored by Photoshop. If it’s really a “photo-illustration,” it’s a very good one. But whether it is or not almost doesn’t matter.

In more substantive ways, particularly on matters on foreign policy and the war in Iraq — matters in which McCain and the Bush administration are in lockstep — the picture perfectly illustrates McCain’s current standing as a man compromising his own best and presumably distinctive qualification, a candidate behind his own curve.

◊ ◊ ◊

For years now, the Bush administration has been steadfast in refusal to engage in direct negotiations with Iran over the issues of uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons — direct talks that Sen. Barack Obama, McCain’s challenger, has publicly supported for months.

The administration, of course, changed course, approving the appearance of a senior U.S. official, William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, at a July 19 meeting of Iranian officials. This was right around the same time the Bushies announced plans to explore the opening of a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran — a necessary precursor to outright diplomatic relations.

For many months, McCain has trumpeted his bona fides on matters of prosecuting the elective war in Iraq, and loudly criticized Obama for his 16-month timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Before Obama’s foreign tour, the senator from Arizona was relentless in attacking both the Obama timetable and Obama’s qualifications to even have a timetable.

McCain was, of course, baldy trumped — chumped? — by Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, who endorsed Obama’s 16-month proposal as fully achievable given the evolution of events on the ground in Iraq, and the expectation of that evolution continuing.

In a heartbeat, McCain’s lock on anything approaching singular wisdom on dealing the Iraq war vanished.

And almost as suddenly, the Straight Talk Express made a wild U-turn.

“I think it’s a pretty good timetable,” McCain said Friday in an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s “The Situation Room,’’ before volunteering his Iraq-war boilerplate: that withdrawal be based “on the conditions on the ground.’’

Blitzer asked McCain why he thought Maliki had backed the 16-month scenario.

“He said it’s a pretty good timetable based on conditions on the ground,’’ McCain said. “I think it’s a pretty good timetable, as we should — or horizons for withdrawal. But they have to be based on conditions on the ground. This success is very fragile. It’s incredibly impressive, but very fragile. …”

“He only had one message to stay on-message with,” said HarrytheHat at HuffPost, “and he couldn't even manage that.”

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s evolving “on the ground” is a gathering sense that McCain’s campaign is expedient to a fault; right now he’s not just making pivots and adjustments but flat-out reversals on policies he was thought to have owned.

Richard Clarke, the always on-message former national counterterrorism adviser, saw this latest McCain self-destruction weeks ago, on the July 14 “Countdown With Keith Olbermann on MSNBC — taking note of a developing disconnect between McCain and … McCain.

“There’s a kind of interesting phenomenon going on. Obama is saying things that turn out later to be obvious and true, and even the Bush administration has to admit it and start doing what Obama was on to months before they were. And yet, McCain is the national security expert?”

As pragmatism replaces posturing, as stagecraft aligns with substance, we’re finding that Barack Obama has an increasingly secure sense of what’s required to be President of the United States.

As the clutch on the transmission of John McCain’s Straight Talk Express grinds hard, the man behind the wheel is finding it hard to get a signal on his phone. The prospects are real that his best chances for assuming the presidency have been self-disconnected and are no longer in service.
Image credits: McCain and the Jurassic phone: The Huffington Post. Obama/Petraeus/Hagel: Staff Sgt. Lorie Jewell, USAF (Public domain)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Welcome to the Obamalympics

While the Obama not-quite World Tour was underway, the Obama presidential campaign announced something probably meant to address one of the vexing issues for the campaign, a catechism from the punditburo and the McCain campaign that “no one knows who Barack Obama is.”

It’s a debatable point in the first place; Obama has in short order powerfully made known his presence as a national political figure of note; and with the deal in Berlin, that recognition has clearly taken on a global dimension.

If you don’t know who Barack Obama is by now, you’ve been living under a rock. If you don’t know who Barack Obama is by the end of the Beijing Olympic Games, you’ve been living under a rock at the bottom of the ocean.

Advertising Age reported Wednesday that the Obama campaign will be among the television sponsors of NBC Sports coverage of the Beijing Games, set to begin Aug. 8. Ad Age reports that Team Obama has purchased a $5 million package of Olympics spots that includes network TV as well as cable ads, in what Ad Age said was “the first significant network-TV buy for any presidential candidate in at least 12 years.”

The Obama campaign would join a parade of high-profile conventional advertisers including Adidas, McDonald's, Nike, Visa and Anheuser-Busch.

"Both the scale and the scope makes Obama's buy unprecedented," said Evan Tracey, the chief operating officer of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, to The New York Times. "This is going beyond the battleground states; this is coverage that the entire country sees. It sort of validates his 50-state posture."

That’s one way of looking at it. We wonder, though, if all this is a bit … over the top. It’s one thing to rightfully assume the world stage as a natural extension of reaching not just the nation you hope to run, but also the world you hope to lead.

But a big-ass ad buy like this takes campaign “branding” to new levels. The last thing a candidate wants to be seen as is inauthentic, disposable, one-dimensional. The danger with this strategy from Team Obama is that verges on overexposure; and it reinforces the idea of Obama as product, not a good idea when you’re trying to connect viscerally with the electorate.

◊ ◊ ◊

We know the Obama campaign will use the time to advance the Obama agenda and proposals, and to make Obama’s case for his approach to leadership in the White House.

But it just doesn’t feel right. There’s a hint of über-alles, flood-the-senses domination about it, something that seems to undercut the drive for a more populist contact with people.

Then again, what’s more populist than TV? Arnold Schwarzenegger used the tube to launch his bid for the governorship of California on “The Tonight Show,” trading yuks with Jay Leno. Reaching people where they live.

Still. We’re just saying. Putting your campaign agenda on the same perceptual par with sneakers and beer may not be wise, or even necessary. There's some risk involved in putting your money where your mouth is when your mouth is doing what money can't do to begin with.
Image credits: Obama: Public domain. NBC Sports logo ©2008 NBC Sports/NBC Universal.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ich bin ein Bürger der Welt

It’s about a mile west of the Brandenburg Gate, and it’s been maligned as a tribute to Prussia’s brute military defeat of three of its neighbors. But today the Siegesschul, the Victory Column that graces Berlin’s Tiergarten Park, was site of a kind of world sociopolitical Woodstock. This time there was only one player; it was Sen. Barack Obama in the role of Jimi Hendrix, and like Hendrix, Obama unfurled his own Star-Spangled Banner, but this time with global overtures.

In what may have been the most anticipated campaign address in American political history, and certainly the one geographically farthest from the American political arena, Obama took the stage before an estimated 200,000 people and began to redraw the world’s perception of the United States of America.

And more: In a speech that touched on a range of global issues — race relations, environmental concerns, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, immigration and the need to refortify the trans-Atlantic alliance — Obama grafted the themes of commonality he frequently used in the primary campaign onto a message for global consumption: now is the time to look for what connects us, rather than what conflicts us.

“I come to Berlin as so many of my countrymen have come before,” he said. “Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen – a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.”

◊ ◊ ◊

In Obama’s rhetorical hands, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was symbolic of the need to tear down walls of race and ethnicity, governmental suspicion and class warfare, in Germany, the United States and the world beyond.

“The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand," he said. "The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.”

“In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right, has become all too common. In America, there are voices that deride and deny the importance of Europe’s role in our security and our future. Both views miss the truth – that Europeans today are bearing new burdens and taking more responsibility in critical parts of the world; and that just as American bases built in the last century still help to defend the security of this continent, so does our country still sacrifice greatly for freedom around the globe.

“Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe. No doubt, there will be differences in the future. But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden. In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more – not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity. …

“People of Berlin – and people of the world – the scale of our challenge is great. The road ahead will be long. But I come before you to say that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom. We are a people of improbable hope. With an eye toward the future, with resolve in our hearts, let us remember this history, and answer our destiny, and remake the world once again.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The point of the event, the centerpiece of Obama’s tour of Europe and the Middle East, was for Obama to deliver what the campaign called “a major speech on the historic U.S.-German partnership, and the need to strengthen Transatlantic relations to meet 21st century challenges.” But implicit in his presence, just his being there, Obama announced something more revelatory to Europe, the world, and the folks back home.

Obama reached for global commonalities, and more. He never uttered these words, but he might as well have, in a tweak of President Kennedy’s statement at the nearby Brandenburg Gate: Ich bin ein Amerikaner. I am an American, and I represent a new iteration of the country you thought you knew. For Germany — struggling with its own problems with unemployment, an economy under challenge and the fractious process of integrating foreigners into its society — Obama may seem like exactly the distillation of intelligence, toughness and pragmatism its citizens have come to expect from the United States.

And for the crowd in Berlin, Obama ratified both the possibilities of a black man, and of a recalibration of American potential. For the first time since the ascension of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and in a political context the first time ever — a black man assumed the default position of what defines an American to the world. It can't have been lost on the Berlin crowd, or the millions who watched around the world, that this son of America embodies the ethnic mosaic America has long purported to be.

“Germans differentiate between America and the Bush administration. They are not anti-American per se; on the contrary,” said Andreas Etges, a Berlin professor and museum curator, to Stephanie Kirchner of Time. “Obama, not only because of his skin color, for many represents the other, better America.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Some have proposed that Europe’s obsession with all things Obama may be a way for Europeans to exorcise the demons of their own countries’ troubled history with racial assimilation by embracing the stranger from far away.

“It's a vicarious thrill,” said Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Europe Program. “After they've switched off their TV screens they're not going to go out and find a black candidate to put forward to lead their own country,” he told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

But what European Obamamania is all about may, ironically, have less to do with Obama than with what Obama represents: a United States returning to the ideals and aspirations that made America the place all countries aspired to be. The ideals and aspirations that make America the nation that America aspires to be.

That’s what Barack Obama symbolized today: another idea of the United States, a fresh version of a familiar favorite — a nation not exactly New! but quite likely, almost probably, soon to be Improved.

The McCain scrutiny XI

As if the last thirty-six weeks of the presidential campaign of John McCain weren’t confirmation enough of a candidate and a campaign leadership facing an uphill challenge of their own creation, the last thirty-six hours have made it clearer still. Sisyphus had it easy by comparison.

By now you’ve heard and seen the toweringly transparent existential relativism McCain & crew insist is reality concerning the U.S. troop escalation in Iraq known as “the surge.” We won’t waste time and bandwidth spelling it all out; the videos that follow are instructive:

This major mistake, this two-part jumble of the very chronology of one of the pillars of McCain’s purported foreign-policy expertise is important for what it reveals about the Arizona senator’s qualifications to be president — in fact, for what it seems to reveal about his basic character.

This serial error strongly suggests McCain’s inability to see how the “surge” as a polish for his presidential bona fides— and the value of the “surge” as a weapon to beat Sen. Barack Obama with politically — are only as good as the reason for starting a war in Iraq.

And there wasn’t any.

◊ ◊ ◊

Since President Bush formally established that flood-the-zone policy in Iraq, in January 2007, John McCain has been more than along for the ride. He’s made much of his early support for the administration “surge,” almost making you think he thought of it. And in the heat of the primary campaign, and especially now in the runup to the general, McCain has appropriated the “surge” and his backing of it as the central argument — the spearhead, if you will — of his attack on Barack Obama’s fitness to serve as commander-in-chief.

His latest “surge”-related campaign soundbite was thisclose to accusing Barack Obama of sedition, the not-so-distant cousin of treason.

Set aside for now that virtual slander of Obama. Consider how the “surge” has formed both the bedrock of McCain’s militarist narrative, and (with Nuri al-Maliki’s call for U.S. troops to leave Iraq) the foundation of his own political undoing.

Those who trumpet the success of the “surge” can’t get around the underlying and broader failure of the war in Iraq itself. Despite its apparent status as a positive military development, the “surge” is a success at the service of a failure, a fragile but quantifiable upside to an ill-conceived and increasingly ruinous war — the same one Barack Obama has said repeatedly “should never have been waged.” The same war Obama has opposed all along.

◊ ◊ ◊

Whatever traction McCain gains politically by virtue of the “surge” is defeated by the fact that the “surge” was a good decision that should never have had to be made in the first place.

Now that Maliki has summoned the political confidence to call for U.S. forces to exit his country, McCain is a victim of the “surge”’s success. His main rationale for keeping American troops in Iraq has largely vanished. With a national mood overwhelmingly against the war in Iraq, McCain’s most unassailable foreign-policy tagline — “He Backed the Surge” — has declining political value, especially to the plurality of Americans who opposed the war since before the “surge” existed.

McCain, and by extension the Bush administration, are prisoners of the “surge,” so much so that they’ve conceded the metrics of victory and defeat to the proverbial Enemy. Chris Hayes, Washington editor of The Nation, saw this [“Countdown,” MSNBC, Monday]:

“The problem for John McCain and George Bush is this: They have defined leaving as losing. Therefore, ergo, we cannot ever leave. It’s always tomorrow or some time on the horizon … at a certain point, it starts to feel like ‘Waiting for Godot.’ No matter what they say, the stage directions keep saying, ‘do not move.’”

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s another possible factor in the equation: the possibility that the forces of terrorist chaos and their enablers now loose in Iraq might be in stand-down mode — creating fewer acts of violence, fewer IED explosions, fewer clashes with U.S. forces — not solely because of the “surge” but also because of their collective anticipation of a change in leadership, and policy, in the United States.

As the “surge” evolved after the arrival of the forces needed to fight it (in June 2007), so too evolved a U.S. presidential campaign that became a referendum on the Iraq war, and a regularity of polling that reflected growing popular opposition to the war.

McCain is already at least nominally on board the idea of withdrawing troops. “By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom,” he said in May. “The Iraq War has been won.”

And with Obama long committed to withdrawing those troops on a shorter timeframe/plane/horizon/continuum than that, one of the key emotional motivators behind the terrorists in Iraq has been undercut, no matter who wins in November. What’s been conventionally described as success by “surge” may have as much to do with expectations of the future in Washington as with events of the present day in Baghdad.

◊ ◊ ◊

Maybe that’s speculation, but what’s true is the damage done to McCain by his growing litany of errors and distortions on matters of foreign policy and the military — from juxtaposing Iran and Pakistan when they have no common borders to trivializing the idea of military action against another country (“bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran”); from confusing Sudan and Somalia to mixing-up Sunni and Shi’a; from misstating his presence on the Senate floor for a vote condemning a Islamic terrorist organization to denying he voted against proposals to increase health-care funding for veterans when his voting record shows he did.

More than once. More than twice.

What’s true is the likelihood that the “surge” as a political weapon for John McCain is subject to diminishing returns: the more it’s used, the less effective it becomes — especially against a nimble, confident opponent who opposed the war that made the “surge” not just possible but necessary.

What’s true is that the Vladimir and Estragon of John McCain and George Bush remain yoked to an unnecessary war, waiting for the Godot of Victory.

One leaves the stage for certain on Jan. 20th, the other may well have left in November.

And neither of them has a clue what Godot looks like.
Image credit: Waiting for Godot cover: Unknown.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Bid, no trump

It’s curious that in the instantly level playing field of 24/7 communications in the Internet age, there’s still the idea that a vast geographic distance makes a difference in sending or receiving a message. Because that thinking persists, Sen. Barack Obama’s continuing tour of Europe and the Middle East — he’s in Israel today — has given Sen. John McCain the chance to have the domestic political stage pretty much to himself.

Naturally, Team McCain has been working on how to steal some of Obama’s thunder — the big impact he’s already made in his meetings with leaders of Iraq, Jordan and Afghanistan, and the huge splash he’s likely to make tomorrow when he speaks in Berlin. Right-wing attack dog journalist Robert Novak reported yesterday that:

“Sources close to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign are suggesting he will reveal the name of his vice presidential selection this week while Sen. Barack Obama is getting the headlines on his foreign trip. The name of McCain's running mate has not been disclosed, but Mitt Romney has led the speculation recently.”

It was a somewhat blatant bid to steal a march on the building Obama juggernaut, and it followed by days McCain’s appearance on all the network morning TV shows, and the release of a new and blazingly ridiculous McCain television ad that actually blames the current gas-price crisis on … Senator Obama.

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain’s attempt to trump the Obama not-quite-World Tour is likely to fail for reasons basic to both politics and television. Simply put, Obama’s positions (and his consistency of expressing those positions) make for good politics; Obama’s personality, rhetorical gifts and inherent novelty as a candidate make for good TV.

McCain truly has the domestic media arena to himself; the news anchors and producers that could effectively shift the focus to McCain are traveling with Obama right now. It’s not about padding their frequent-flier mileage, either. Whether McCain’s team likes it or not, the anchors’ physical presence sets the locational agenda for what the media decides is important, based on their reading of popular interest and the potential for the visual drama that is TV’s lifeblood. Right now, the anticipated frisson of Obama speaking at the Victory Column in Berlin has captured their imagination.

(And that of the Germans. Jefferson Chase of Deutsche Welle reports today that "[O]ne of Berlin's main city magazines offered its readership cut-out American flags to wave at Barack Obama's planned address.")

True enough, the media focus would move if McCain does announce a running mate this week, but only briefly. The media loves a surprise, and Romney’s name has been bandied about as a veep pick for literally months, along with others. Other prospects that may be more surprising (former homeland security chief Tom Ridge, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty) are correspondingly less exciting and less likely.

McCain the maverick may need to be something of a magician. In the wake of two calamitous weeks, and yesterday’s news of a major gaffe of recent history vis-à-vis Iraq and the troop escalation known as “the surge,” and a misplacing of the borders of Iran and Pakistan, McCain needs the deus ex machina of a rabbit pulled from a hat to move the media’s attention, and much of the nation’s, to his center stage.

The right running-mate choice, though, guarantees him prime-time coverage. Hey —

Maybe he’ll pick George Bush!
Image credit: Bush and Romney: Reuters, via Huffington Post

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Truman Show

“I think the problem if you’re John McCain and you’re watching the scenes that have been playing out overseas [is that] the Americans are finally being greeted as liberators. The problem is, they’re the Americans getting off the plane with Barack Obama.”

Ebony/Jet columnist Del Walters, speaking today on MSNBC's "Hardball," thus nails the challenge of perception facing the Arizona senator, the same challenge that Obama has so far responded to in masterful terms. On what is nominally a campaign trip but really a global coming-out party for the junior senator from Illinois, Obama has burnished his bona fides in a whirlwind trip that’s so far combined a hoorah for American troops, numerous visits to world leaders of consequence and — in a press conference today — a reassertion of the civilian leadership of the U.S. military, an unequivocal line in the sand to those who’ve supplanted the commander-in-chief with the commander on the ground.

“What I’ve consistently said is that my job, should I be commander-in-chief, is to set a vision, a strategic vision, of what’s best for U.S. national security,” Obama said today in Amman, Jordan. “I strongly believe that what is best for U.S. national security is to initiate a phased withdrawal and to set a timeframe that’s very consistent with what the Iraqis are now saying, and can be accomplished.”

“The notion is that either I do exactly what my military commanders tell me to do, or I’m ignoring their advice. No, I’m factoring in their advice but placing it in this broader strategic framework that’s required.”

It was an expansive way, of course, of saying The Buck Stops Here — of reviving the spirit of strong command responsibility that President Truman distilled in those four words. But it was also a throwdown to those who figured Obama couldn’t handle the moment of world exposure, or the ones who thought he’d do the okey-doke and concede the broad “strategic vision” of the U.S.-Iraqi military situation to the generals. Like President Bush has done, more or less consistently, since the Iraq war began.

The Truman Doctrine was its own line in the sand against a perceived bid for world domination by the Soviets; philosophically, the W Doctrine ain’t much different; it still promulgates a binary, us-vs-them, zero-sum-game view of the world and everyone in it.

Barack Obama appears to have the good political sense to know that, whatever geopolitical doctrine may bear his name in years to come, a policy starts with an in-house doctrine of accountability — a willingness to own responsibility for the vision that sets things in motion, for better or worse.

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama’s Amman address was one of those moments over the last five days that have helped solidify the idea of a President Obama in the world’s mind’s eye. The cosmetics of this tour — the visuals you’ll be seeing in Team Obama campaign ads from next week until November — couldn’t have been better. Obama huddling with U.S. Gen. David Petraeus; Obama sitting in conference with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president; Obama walking with Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister; Obama with King Abdullah of Jordan (before Obama rode shotgun in the King’s Mercedes back to the airport, with the monarch at the wheel).

Anything can happen, of course. Israel, Germany, France and the UK are dead ahead. The biggest challenge may be addressing the ever-delicate Israeli-Palestinian issues, a farrago of history that’s snagged more than one well-meaning American. But to this point, Barack Obama has hardly disappointed the folks back home. On the contrary: he’s proven himself a master of international stagecraft and someone with a solid command of the need for the kind of overarching vision that has been (being charitable) a more infrequent thing for the Bushies.

Meanwhile, back at the McCain campaign, the whiteboards are out, the Maalox is flowing freely and the Arizona senator may be regretting his recent complaints that Obama hadn’t seen things on the ground in other countries, that he didn’t know enough of the world to be the leader of the world’s leader. For McCain, the chance to have the stage to himself must have initially seemed like answered prayers.

But we’ve heard of their dangers before.

“Answered prayers cause more tears than those that remain unanswered.”
— Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582)
Image credit: Harry S. Truman: Public domain.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Obama on tour, McCain on defense

The campaign of Sen. John McCain has worked hard to build a narrative of negative about the daring and wisdom of Sen. Barack Obama’s pledge to return U.S. combat forces in Iraq within 16 months of taking office.

That persistent attempt to cast Obama in the light of a rookie player not ready for the pros — a foreign-policy lightweight ill-equipped to handle affairs of state on a global stage — has taken meaningful hits recently, maybe none as bad as that delivered over the weekend.

While Obama continues his limited world tour of Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe, Reuters reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he supported Obama's proposal that U.S. troops exit Iraq within that 16-month timeframe.

“U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months,” Maliki said in an interview with Der Spiegel released on Saturday. “That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.”

While cagey enough not to explicitly support Obama over McCain, Maliki said that "[w]hoever is thinking about the shorter term is closer to reality. Artificially extending the stay of U.S. troops would cause problems."

◊ ◊ ◊

“This could be one of those unexpected events that forever changes the way the world perceives an issue,” blogs The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder. “Iraq's Prime Minister agrees with Obama, and there's no wiggle room or fudge factor. This puts John McCain in an extremely precarious spot: what's left to argue? To argue against Maliki would be to predicate that Iraqi sovereignty at this point means nothing.”

“In the U.S., this is all bad news for the McCain campaign,” writes Joe Klein, of Time magaine. “Yes, McCain was right about the Surge, but that is a small, tactical truth too complicated to be understood by most Americans. Maliki Endorses Obama Withdrawal Plan is a headline everyone can understand. ...

“With this happening in the same week that the Bush Administration not only has agreed to sit down with the Iranians but also (and even more significant) is exploring the possibility of establishing a U.S. diplomatic Interests Section in Tehran, another of McCain's foreign policy pillars — the nonrecognition of Iran — seems to be cratering as well.”

This latest hardly-improvised explosive device on the road to the Republican National Convention follows a number of missteps by and surprises for the McCain campaign: McCain’s late-to-the-game pivot on the importance of Afghanistan in the war against terrorism; former economic adviser Phil Gramm’s “nation of whiners” comment; the intraparty bombshell of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a supporter, expressing willingness to sign on to an Obama administration as energy czar; McCain’s clueless denunciation of the foundational premise of Social Security; gaffes and goofs by Carly Fiorina, the new face of McCain economic probity.

Today, the McCain campaign finally responded, with what amounts to weak tea and double-talk. Senior Foreign Policy Advisor Randy Scheunemann released a statement:

“The difference between John McCain and Barack Obama is that Barack Obama advocates an unconditional withdrawal that ignores the facts on the ground and the advice of our top military commanders. John McCain believes withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground. Prime Minister Maliki has repeatedly affirmed the same view, and did so again today. Timing is not as important as whether we leave with victory and honor, which is of no apparent concern to Barack Obama. The fundamental truth remains that Senator McCain was right about the surge and Senator Obama was wrong. We would not be in the position to discuss a responsible withdrawal today if Senator Obama's views had prevailed."

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The towering sophistry built in to this statement becomes obvious when you break down the wall of its magisterial construction:

Scheunemann says Obama favors “unconditional withdrawal that ignores the facts on the ground,” ignoring the fact that many of those “facts on the ground” must be derived from the Iraqi government, not the leaders of a temporary military occupation.

(Never mind the fact that Obama has said repeatedly that his 16-month forecast wasn’t etched in stone or sealed in political amber, but was both a forecast necessarily subject to change based on emerging realities, and a figure he arrived at after consultation with former U.S. military leaders — long before he uttered that estimate in the first place.)

If Maliki repeated “the same view” again today, and his view is consistent with Obama’s own, where’s the short-sightedness and lack of judgment Team McCain alleges Obama is guilty of?

The real truth of the McCain campaign’s remaining options may well have come from outside the campaign, in an e-moment of remarkable candor. The Atlantic’s Ambinder reports having received the following:

“Via e-mail, a prominent Republican strategist who occasionally provides advice to the McCain campaign said, simply, ‘We’re fucked.’”

◊ ◊ ◊

Meanwhile, the Obama Tour continues, likely to rival the reception for a major rock band like U2 or the Rolling Stones. The New York Times today reported the location for his appearance in German on Thursday: at Tiergarten Park in Berlin, at the feet of the Victory Column, aka Der Siegessäule. (Pop-culture ref: it’s the same location where angels gathered in Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” starring the indelible Solveig Dommartin.)

According to Team Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee will “give a major speech on the historic U.S.-German partnership, and the need to strengthen Transatlantic relations to meet 21st century challenges.”

The Times reported that Berlin officials were having a hard time trying to gauge the size of the expected crowd. One local newspaper, Tagesspiegel quoted one as predicting “between 10,000 and a million.”

There’d been talk that Obama would speak at the Brandenburg Gate, arousing unwarranted comparisons to Kennedy and Reagan, who made addresses at the historic Gate.

But Phil, posting Sunday to the NYTimes Web site, grasped the deeper reality, the deeper contrasts between Obama and McCain:

“In the end it won’t matter where Obama gives his speech in Germany, because whether or not he’s standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the Siegessäule, or suspended from the top of the Reichstag, the most startling thing about his speech and trip isn’t going to be the backdrop but rather the huge, international support he already has.

“Remember when the US had foreign policies that didn’t make you embarrassed to be an American while traveling? Clearly the rest of the world is ready for a sharp change from the past 8 years as well.”
Image credits: Obama: Ari Levinson (Autumnfire). Victory Column: djmutex. Both republished under GNU Free Documentation License.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

John McCain's inheritance tax

Sen. John McCain went into the lion’s den on Wednesday, addressing the 99th annual NAACP Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hold up — there was no blood on the floor of the Duke Energy Center. From all indications, the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency was warmly received in as close to a love feast as any Republican has a right to expect.

Give McCain props for at least showing up this year (last year he begged off due to scheduling conflicts. “As you might recall, I was a bit distracted at the time dealing with what reporters uncharitably described as an implosion in my campaign,” he said). The Arizona senator was sharp enough to begin with a big wet olive branch, with praise for challenger, Sen. Barack Obama.

“Let me begin with a few words about my opponent,” he said. “Don't tell him I said this, but he’s an impressive fellow in many ways. He has inspired a great many Americans, some of whom had wrongly believed that a political campaign could hold no purpose or meaning for them. His success should make Americans, all Americans, proud. Of course, I would prefer his success not continue quite as long as he hopes . . . Senator Obama talks about making history, and he's made quite a bit of it already.”

Many of McCain remarks concerned education; McCain pledged to back more aggressive recruitment of quality teachers, and bonuses paid to teachers “who take on the challenge of working in our most troubled schools -- because we need their fine minds and good hearts to help turn those schools around.”

“After decades of hearing the same big promises from the public education establishment, and seeing the same poor results, it is surely time to shake off old ways and to demand new reforms,” McCain said.

“Democrats in Congress, including my opponent, oppose the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program," McCain said. "In remarks to the American Federation of Teachers last weekend, Senator Obama dismissed public support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans as, ‘tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice.’ All of that went over well with the teachers union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools?”

◊ ◊ ◊

On this and other topics — the growth of the federal government, economic empowerment, the value of the NAACP itself — McCain delivered a fairly detailed, articulate address punctuated with charm, at times gently didactic, other times winningly self-deprecating. There was no winging it town-hall style; McCain appeared to grasp the moment of the occasion.

He left openings for contrarians. McCain generally condemned the prospect of “trillion-dollar debts,” with not a word about those debts’ relationship with the ruinous war in Iraq he’s supported since before it began. And even though he tried to make peace for initially opposing the federal King holiday (scattered boos were heard in the audience) many black Americans still hold it against McCain for coming way late to the party — the broad national consensus that King was more than worthy of national recognition on a par with its greatest leaders.

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain’s biggest problem with black America may be not who he is, but what he represents. The relative absence of black support for the GOP in general, and the Arizona senator in particular, has antecedents. It’s bigger than McCain, and it has been for years.

“There’s an issue of trust; it has nothing to do with issues or policy — though I won't say policy is nothing,” said David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank concentrating on African American and minority issues, in an interview. “The problem is that African Americans don't trust the Republican Party because it's a white Southern party. They don't trust the Republican Party to do things in their interest.”

“It seems like the Republican Party is in a continuous search for those elusive black voters,” Bositis said. “The party of Lincoln? I don't think so,” Bositis said. “The Republican party is now the party of Jefferson Davis.”

Bositis said that in 2004, the same year that President Bush installed by recess appointment (bypassing Senate confirmation) Judge Charles Pickering to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, despite Pickering's poor record on civil rights decisions. Pickering condemned the “one-person, one-vote” principle recognized by the Supreme Court and tried to curb remedies provided by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

2004 was the same year that Bush rebuffed the NAACP’s invitation to address the national convention, becoming the first sitting president since Harding to refuse to do so.

2004 was the year after Bush, on what would have been Rev. Martin Luther King's 74th birthday, condemned the admissions system at the University of Michigan, which used race as one of several factors to assess qualification for admission, as “divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The matter goes back generations. Black Americans benefited greatly from a number of policies, including President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and, later, President Truman's 1948 signing of Executive Order 9981, committing the U.S. government to integrating a long-segregated military.

Civil rights programs launched under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (especially LBJ’s Great Society program and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act) locked down the relationship between blacks and Democrats, basically the one that exists now.

But by then, there were serious divisions between Democrats and many of their white southern counterparts angered by Truman's 1948 desegregation order and the party’s evolving support of the civil rights movement. The so-called Dixiecrats — disgruntled Democrats who joined the Republican party in 1964 — were central to the success of Nixon's “southern strategy” in 1968, and in laying the foundation of what would ultimately become the modern GOP.

Those Dixiecrats found a champion in Ronald Reagan who, in August 1980, offered a full-throated support of “states’ rights,” one of the legendarily divisive code words and phrases created in a blatant appeal to white rural voters, and no one else.

◊ ◊ ◊

And that’s more or less what John McCain inherits today: what Marc Racicot, former Montana governor and RNC chairman, once described as “a long period of history where we were not as careful and sensitive as we could have been as a party.”

“The Republican Party has to realize that it cannot be lily-white any longer,” Armstrong Williams, the black conservative commentator, said in January 2003. “Change must come about, and it must start within our house.”

McCain’s appearance at the NAACP convention, not as much courageous as it was compulsory, showed that this self-described political maverick knows when it’s smart not to be a maverick, when it’s politically necessary to tack to the left, or at least the center, to court a skeptical constituency.

But McCain reaps the windbags and demagogues that have populated the most ardent wing of his party — people from the late Lee Atwater, who helped Reagan craft his own take on the corrosive Southern strategy, to the present-day arch-conservative pit bull, lobbyist and tax-reform advocate Grover Norquist, who late last month referred to Barack Obama as “John Kerry with a tan,” to McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm, who presumes to help his candidate lead "a nation of whiners."

John McCain must know — all the self-deprecation in the world can’t change that.
Image credits: Johnson and King: Public domain. Pickering: Reagan: Public domain.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Condé’s nasties

Nothing in the world of publishing has perfected the art of editorial distillation — saying a lot in a little space (or saying little in a space better used for something else altogether) — quite like magazines. They scream and cajole us from the subway platforms to the checkout stands; the hysteria of type and images is so much a part of the lingua franca of our daily informational consumption, it’s become a wash of noise, a blanket of titillation we tend to suspect distorts reality, rather than illuminating it.

Few ply the trade like Condé Nast, one of the largest and most successful magazine publishers in the world, a conglomerate whose brand-name ventures run the spectrum of modern life, from fine dining (Gourmet) to technology (Wired) to shopping (Lucky). Two of Condé Nast’s publications have lately gone down a troublesome road, with covers that have awakened issues of racial and ethnic sensitivities, in an industry known historically for having little of either one.

◊ ◊ ◊

The cover of the latest issue of The New Yorker, venerable iconoclast of the publishing world, the dazzlingly literate party guest who’s liable to say anything, is understandably topical: Barack and Michele Obama are featured in one of the New Yorker’s classic cover illustrations. But today, the magazine came heavily under fire for that depiction:

In the Oval Office, Barack Obama stands in a turban and Muslim attire doing the fist pound with Michele Obama, herself decked out in combat gear and an Afro Angela Davis would have envied, an assault rifle slung over her shoulder. On the wall to Obama’s right hangs a portrait of Osama bin Laden artfully cropped halfway by the page’s edge (perhaps The New Yorker’s way of knowingly pulling back before they went too far over the top). In the fireplace, a burning American flag.

The illustration by Barry Blitt, a frequent New Yorker contributor, synthesized in one image all of the prevailing distortions and misconceptions about Obama, his past, his loyalties and his political mission. Obama has made clear repeatedly that he is not nor ever has been a Muslim; wife Michele has been just as forthright debunking images of her as a 60’s-style radical in Ivy League clothing.

The jury of the punditburo has been out all day, debating the image:

Editor & Publisher editor did a comprehensive roundup of other media reactions.

New Yorker editor David Remnick defended his magazine. “It is an attack on those who would manipulate and lie about him, and we are holding up a mirror to that,” he told NBC. There are other examples of this kind of artistic exaggeration to the nth degree; of course it’s the foundation of satire.

But The New Yorker has taken a step beyond pure satire, one that invites concerns about whether the greater good is served by an illustration that so cleverly distills the artifacts of a national lie. Is this satire in the service of moving beyond our deepest irrational fears vis-à-vis race and ethnicity, or merely satire in the service of deepening those fears, giving them the imagistic credence that equals validity in our visual culture? In that sense, is it satire at all?

Team Obama condemned it, of course, calling it “tasteless and offensive,” but otherwise has pretty much taken the high road, brushed this off the shoulder. Maybe they realize that in that same visual culture, for all their immediate impact, magazines are perishable things, with a shelf life as brief as vegetables in the refrigerator. The New Yorker will feature a new cover one week from now.

◊ ◊ ◊

The cover of the April issue of Condé Nast’s Vogue imprint has been, uh, more of a problem. You know the issue. On the cover, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James is clutching the waist of ubermodel Gisele Bundchen, his teeth bared in a cartoon defiance. This apparent outtake from “King Kong,” directed not by Merian C. Cooper but by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, instantly generated exactly what you’d expect.

Magazine analyst Samir Husni told The Huffington Post he thought the photo “screams King Kong.” Husni said that, given the time and preparation required for a Vogue cover, facile explanations just don’t hold water. "So when you have a cover that reminds people of King Kong and brings those stereotypes to the front, black man wanting white woman, it's not innocent," he said.

Damion Thomas, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at University of Maryland, told the HuffPost that such images of black male athletes "reinforce the criminalization of black men."

Condé makes another perverse statement about the value of black faces on its magazine covers. The LeBron James cover was the first in Vogue's 116-year history to feature a black man, and Vogue couldn't play it straight, couldn't put its first black male subject in the apparel whose style and elegance defines the magazine. Vogue went in for clowning instead.

You’re tempted to think this is something specific to Condé Nast; maybe some bad water got loose in the pipes that run the course of the company’s headquarters in Manhattan. But such evidence of insensitivity to both the country’s racial history and prospects for its multiracial future is an industrywide thing.

In a July 2007 story in Folio:, writer Linda Zebian posits the idea of magazine publishing as “the country club of the media industry.”
Zebian quoted former publisher turned professor of media studies Michael Weiskopf: "With few exceptions the demographic composition of management in the magazine world continues to resemble that of a restricted country club. From the photographs one could just as easily conclude it was the Jesse Helms Awards."

◊ ◊ ◊

Shaunice Hawkins, vice president of diversity & multicultural initiatives for the Magazine Publishers of America, told Folio: that her own organization has had difficulties with researching the presence of diversity in the publishing industry.

"Our industry is a combination of private and public entities so a lot of that information is not readily available. That's one of my biggest challenges. We don't have jurisdiction over our members to say, 'Give us your numbers or else.'"

Thus Condé Nast — and its parent company, the privately held (no public shareholders) Advance Publications — are able to call its own shots over who gets on the cover, and how they’re depicted, with no oversight or accountability to the public.

Reacting to the LeBron cover, Tamara Walker, a Philadelphian interviewed by HuffPost, grasped the wider importance both of that cover and the New Yorker cover that followed— seemed to understand not just what such covers say about Vogue and The New Yorker, or even what they say about Condé Nast, but the message they send about the magazine publishing industry in general.

“If more people of color worked for Vogue in positions of editorial authority, perhaps someone in the room might have been able to read the image the way so many of us are reading it now, and had the power to do something about it.”
Image credits: Covers: ©2008 Condé Nast Publications/Advance Publications.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

War and popcorn

It’s 114 days and counting until the 2008 presidential election, but three film projects — one in theaters now, one set for the small screen starting Sunday, and one eagerly (or anxiously) awaited for release in October — are setting the stage for the farewell to the Bush administration (77 days after that election).

The one with the buzz — Oliver Stone’s “W,” has been on a fast track toward completion since it started. Shooting started in May, and the Lionsgate film is set for release on Oct. 17, less than three weeks before the fall classic. (The teaser poster, above, is priceless).

Josh Brolin, on a roll since his star turns in “American Gangster” and “No Country for Old Men,” will star as George W. Bush, with Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, James Cromwell as George Bush (#41) and Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush.

Much of the rest of the cast has been fleshed out since the principal shooting began: Jeffrey Wright (“Basquiat,” “Casino Royale,” “Quantum of Solace”) stars as Colin Powell, Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Dreyfuss stars as Dick Cheney, Thandie Newton (“Mission: Impossible 2”) as Condoleezza Rice and Stacy Keach as Billy Graham.

Benjamin Svetkey of Entertainment Weekly reported that Brolin spent months nailing down Bush’s singular vocal style by calling hotels in Texas and talking to the people at the front desk, listening to their accents.

Brolin has also been watching videos of Bush walking. The actor told Svetkey that Bush’s gait "changes over the years, how he walks in his 30s, how he walks in foreign lands, before 9/11 and afterwards. People hold their emotions in their bodies. They can't fake it. Especially him.”

“’W.’ isn't an overly serious movie, but it is a serious subject,” Stone told the Los Angeles Times on June 29. “It's a Shakespearean story. . . . I see it as the strange unfolding of American democracy as I have lived it."

Mike Goodridge of Screen Daily reported that Stone described the tone of “W” as in the over-the-top style vein of Sidney Lumet’s "Network" or Stanley Kubrick’s seminal antiwar rapier, "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

Few American filmmakers ever generate the kind of anticipation Stone does, largely because of his visual and thematic daring. “Nixon,” his 1995 take on the presidency of Richard Nixon, starred Anthony Hopkins in the title role, a role in which Hopkins bore no real physical similarity to Nixon. Stone said that his intent was to get to the essence of Richard Nixon, despite a lack of physical verisimilitude. If Brolin’s makeup job as Bush #43 is any indication (see image above), Stone’s playing it visually straight this time.

◊ ◊ ◊

While Stone plots his overview of the life of George Bush, the seven-part HBO miniseries “Generation Kill,” which begins Sunday night, offers a grunt’s-eye view of the war that will be forever connected with the Bush administration.

The miniseries, based on a book of stories by embedded Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, follows the exploits of the U.S. Marine First Reconnaisance Battalion — the tip of the American spearhead — during the first 40 days of the Iraq War, in 2003.

Challenged by equipment shortages, imprecise rules of engagement and inept commanders, the Marines of the First Recon seem to be a microcosm of the American military as a whole in the halcyon days of “Mission Accomplished,” before the worst of the war began to happen.

The cast of “Generation Kill,” which was overseen by a variety of directors, both includes actors and real former Marines, one of whom acted as a technical adviser to insure authenticity. HBO’s excellent track record on edgy, provocative entertainment (“The Wire” and “The Sopranos” are two fine examples of what they’re capable of) suggests this will be destination viewing for the seven weeks of its run.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Iraq war gets the fictional treatment in “War, Inc.” a wild sendup of war as a financial enterprise. In the film directed by Joshua Seftel and co-written by John Cusack, the country of Turaqistan is effectively bought by the Tamerlane Corporation, run buy a former U.S. vice president. The company dispatches a hitman to eliminate an oil minister, one of Tamerlane’s competitors and the last obstacle to Turaqistan’s domination.

Cusack stars as the hitman (yeah, he did it before in “Grosse Pointe Blank”) with support from sister Joan Cusack, Hilary Duff, Dan Aykroyd, Marisa Tomei and Ben Kingsley.

It’s been in release since May and, until recently, only in a handful of theaters. A slow rollout to more theaters started in June, based on popular reception at theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

To date it’s earned about $405,000 at the box office. Many reviews have not been kind; the film scored 32% on Rotten Tomatoes.

But some approved: “A sprawling folly, this uniquely hellish war film has almost breathtakingly impressive (and busy) production values and is anchored by a memorably complicated performance from John Cusack,” said Tom Keogh of the Seattle Times.

Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune said “'War, Inc.' has that provocateur's edge, and it's at least awake to the world around us.”

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s been a building critical mass of antiwar films linked to Iraq; MTV Films released “Stop-Loss” in March, and Errol Morris’ documentary, “Standard Operating Procedure,” laid bare the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. “Redacted” and “In the Valley of Elah” examined the war from the front lines to the home front.

Like the current opinion polls reflecting a groundswell of opposition to the Iraq war, these films are both leading indicators of where we’re going and dark testament to where we’ve been. It’s not a chicken-or-egg issue; which came first doesn’t matter. What’s important is that they’re all here now, in the runup to what may be a moment of broad national change.
Image credits: W teaser poster, Josh Brolin as George Bush: ©2008 Lionsgate Films. Generation Kill cover: Putnam Adult. War Inc. poster: ©2008 Millennium Films.

The McCain scrutiny X

For some time now, the operation of the John McCain campaign bus has been a startlingly democratic (with a small d) enterprise. Early in the year, the lobbyist-friends of the candidate had a hand (or seemed to) in charting the campaign trajectory, to the candidate’s disadvantage. Last month, McCain chief strategist Charlie Black took his turn behind the wheel of misfortune when he said another terrorist event the scale of 9/11 would play to McCain’s advantage.

Add to that list the name of Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator and economics professor, current vice chairman for the Swiss UBS Investment Bank, incidental architect of the housing crisis that plagues the United States, and McCain economic adviser and campaign co-chairman. With one interview, Gramm has taken the McCain campaign vehicle into provocative, even dangerous territory, and made plain the irony of McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, seemingly at the mercy of his lieutenants.

It seems that whoever’s driving the McCain campaign bus may, or may not, be the man with his name on it.

◊ ◊ ◊

Gramm, a supporter of tax cuts and supply-side economics, has long been a champion of a decrease in government regulation, something that the investment banking and mortgage industries have howled for in recent years —something that Gramm, as a UBS Business Group vice chairman, has been, uh, in a position to help out with on Capitol Hill.

Gramm, whom McCain has retained to offer much-needed advice on the national economy, sat down Wednesday for an interview with The Washington Times.

In an overview of modern America, the national economy and the rise of global competition, Gramm, a man with a Ph. D in economics, volunteered that the nation’s problems are more illusory than not.

“You've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession,” Gramm told The Times. “We may have a recession; we haven't had one yet. We have sort of become a nation of whiners. You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline. We've never been more dominant. We've never had more natural advantages than we have today,”

“We have benefited greatly” from globalization in the last 30 years, Gramm said.

“Misery sells newspapers,” Gramm said. (For the growing number of newspaper editors who’ve been laid off this year, some who’ve seen their work actually outsourced to India, it must come as a relief to know that something sells newspapers these days.)

“Thank God the economy is not as bad as you read in the newspaper every day,” said Gramm, who’s being paid handsomely by UBS to lobby Congress to reverse state regulations meant to curb use of predatory lending practices that led to homeowners seduced by lenders and brokers into high-cost, high-interest mortgages they couldn’t afford.

It’s this glaring disconnect, this separation from the realities of millions of Americans, that McCain reinforces with a staff thick with lobbyists pursuing the same special interests McCain has condemned; with inconsistencies on a host of positions, from setting a withdrawal date from Iraq to his own willingness to vote for his party’s leader, President Bush.

◊ ◊ ◊

Gramm damage control kicked in almost immediately. “Phil Gramm’s comments are not representative of John McCain’s views,” a McCain official said. “John McCain travels the country every day talking to Americans who are hurting, feeling pain at the pump and worrying about how they’ll pay their mortgage. That’s why he has a realistic plan to deliver immediate relief at the gas pump, grow our economy and put Americans back to work.”

The presumed nominee put daylight between himself and Gramm with the obligatory town-hall dissent. “I strongly disagree” with Gramm's remarks, McCain told reporters and businesspeople at a stamped products plant in Belleville, Mich. “Phil Gramm does not speak for me. I speak for me,” McCain said, wresting the wheel of the vehicle from Dr. Gramm.

McCain said anyone who’d just lost a job "isn't suffering from a mental recession."

“America is in great difficulty. And we are experiencing enormous economic challenges as well as others,” he said.

And when he was asked by Time magazine whether Gramm might be the treasury secretary in a wildly hypothetical McCain administration, McCain tried to crack wise, responding with some of his characteristic humor.

“I think Senator Gramm would be in serious consideration … for ambassador to Belarus,” he said, “although I’m not sure the citizens of Minsk would welcome that.”

The sound of crickets on a summer’s day was deafening. Less obvious were the screams of the good doctor, clinging to the rear axle of the Straight Talk Express.

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama, as you might expect, parked it in deep right field. “A nation of whiners,” he said at a campaign stop in Fairfax, Va., warming to the issue like a standup comic about to deliver a guaranteed kill. “I want you all to know America already has one Dr. Phil. We don’t need another one when it comes to the economy.

“It’s not just a figment of your imagination. It’s not just all in your head.”

“What John McCain, George Bush, Phil Gramm just don't understand is that the American people aren't whining about the state of the economy; they are suffering under the weight of it — the weight of eight years of Bushenomics that John McCain and Phil Gramm have vowed to continue,” Karen Finney, Democratic National Committee communications director, told The Politico’s Mike Allen. 

McCain has made much of having some 300 economists who have signed on to his Jobs for America plan. Responding to an e-mail from The Huffington Post, seeking reaction to the McCain economic strategy, Michael Connolly, economics professor at the University of Miami (and one of the 300), grasped the connection between the national economy and McCain’s signature issue: the war in Iraq.

“Yes, I support the Jobs for America policy proposal, especially a simplified tax code, lower restrictions on trade, and energy development," Connolly said. "[But] I am worried that continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will tear apart our social fabric and defeat any economic proposal to reduce the deficit and stimulate growth. Guns are crowding out butter.”

◊ ◊ ◊

“I'm going to be honest,” McCain told The Wall Street Journal in 2005. “I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated.”

The education of John McCain continues. Since Phil Gramm doesn’t speak for John McCain but John McCain does, we’ll see how well Phil Gramm instructs John McCain on economic matters from the bottom of the back of the campaign bus.
Image credits: Gramm: Public domain. McCain: T Toes, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license 2.0.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Malefaction Jackson

There’s no denying that Jesse Louis Jackson has been a soldier on the ramparts of the civil rights movement. His role in black American life since the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, his in-your-face method of speaking truth to power, helped to fill a vacuum of inspiration and leadership at a critical time. But in more recent years, Jackson’s been a self-fulfilling parody, a loose cannon of half-baked strategies, slurs and personal missteps that have badly compromised his standing as a national leader.

That decline on the national stage got worse this week. By now you probably know the dirt: Jackson was preparing for an interview on “Fox & Friends” on Sunday, and sitting before a microphone he didn’t know was live. Responding to a fellow guest’s inquiry about speeches on personal responsibility that Obama has given recently at black churches, Jackson whispered what may be his real feelings about Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee — the man who realized what Jackson had failed to achieve in his two abortive runs for the presidency.

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The whispering Jackson appeared to barely suppress anger at Obama, in the wake of the senator’s Father’s Day speech in which Obama called for black fathers to more fully assume the responsibilities of fatherhood and reject the pernicious legacy of out-of-wedlock births, part of the panorama of nihilistic behavior that vexes black America today.

“We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child - it's the courage to raise one.” Obama said as a part of a wide-ranging speech that addressed many issues of black social pathology — a speech that really didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said before by others in the black community, from Bill Cosby to Louis Farrakhan — to Jackson himself (remember his condemnation of "babies making babies"?).

Jackson, apparently, lost sight of that historical perspective that he’s a part of when he made his comments Sunday on the Fox News set. When he said … what he said. Some embarrassments don’t deserve to be excerpted; you need to see the whole thing. Here it is:

“I wanna cut his nuts off.”

There hasn’t been more attention paid to the word “nuts” since 101st Airborne Division commander Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, besieged by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge and offered the chance to surrender, sent that one-word reply to the Germans, in a much-celebrated show of American determination.

Jackson’s use of the word was hardly so heroic. There may be no more psychically corrosive symbol of the subjugation of black Americans than the prospect of castration — a fate suffered by countless black men through American history. Castration was part of the ritual degradation of lynching stretching back to Reconstruction, after the Civil War. Jackson’s sotto voce call for symbolic emasculation of the most successful black presidential candidate in American history spoke volumes about a lingering history we can’t put behind us fast enough.

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Apologizing later, after his comments were broadcast Wednesday on Fox's "O'Reilly Report," and after the gravity of what he’d said began to resonate, Jackson called Obama’s campaign “a redemptive moment for America.”

"For any harm or hurt that this hot-mike private conversation may have caused, I apologize," Jackson said in a written apology released Wednesday. "My support for Sen. Obama's campaign is wide, deep and unequivocal."

It was part of an All Apologies Tour for Jackson, who furthered the written mea culpa with a series of televised appearances essentially repeating the same thing.

It’s a long comedown for Jackson, perhaps the last beneficiary of the perception of unified black thinking in America, in the wake of King’s assassination. It was he who, according to an Associated Press-AOL Black Voices poll in February 2006, was voted “the most important black leader” trailed by none other than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The whisper incident was maybe the best evidence of something black America has known for years: Long ago, the mantle of black national leadership moved, not to one individual in the mold of King or Malcolm X or Farrakhan or any other singular personality, but to no one in particular. With King’s passing 40 years ago, the notion of one person speaking for a monolithic black America largely vanished — right along with the idea of there ever having been a monolithic black America in the first place.

“We have formally entered the post-Jackson reality,” said Rev. Eugene Rivers of the Azusa Christian Community Church, on MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Thursday. The question going forward, he said, “is how do we frame a post-civil rights agenda that … dovetails with the pragmatic politics that Senator Obama brilliantly personifies?”

◊ ◊ ◊

But other questions remain: Were Jackson’s sentiments merely the proof of a once-powerful spiritual and political leader realizing the degree of his own eclipse? Or were they evidence of a generational divide within black America — the same kind of split apparent in the controversy over comments by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, earlier this year?

Despite the fulsome apologies, how valuable can Jackson possibly be now in solidifying black support for Obama in his quest for the presidency?

And finally … after two generations in the public eye, how could he be so tone-deaf to the history of his own people? How could he just get it so wrong, after so long?

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jackson's spiritual mentor, referred to himself more than once in his too-brief lifetime as a "drum major for justice." With this latest accidental revelation, Jesse Jackson's shown that he's a drum major marching in his own parade.
Image credits: Jackson: Still image from Fox News. McAuliffe: Public domain.
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