Saturday, August 30, 2008

McCain-Palin 2008: The odd couple

On Friday, his 72nd birthday, Arizona Sen. John McCain finally made his move for a running mate, again frustrating those within the Republican party, and blindsiding many, when he picked Sarah Palin, the one-term governor of Alaska, a rock-solid evangelical Christian conservative, to join him on the Republican presidential ticket.

It’s an exceeding strange choice, from a campaign that’s had something of a lock on strange for months. Despite its intent to energize a listless conservative base, and maybe play to disaffected women voters, it’s a wrong choice that has more to do with who she’s not than who she is.

There's a lot to recommend about Palin as a populist from the left field of the right wing: the former mayor of Wasilla (pop. 9,000) and a self-styled supporter of gun ownership and drilling in the ANWAR region, she's a self-described "hockey mom" of five children, one of whom was diagnosed with Down's syndrome. A former beauty queen and part-time sportscaster, Palin is a former union member and a true believer in every touchstone of the social conservative cause.

But McCain's choice of Palin dismantles the one claim McCain has had over Sen. Barack Obama, his Democratic rival.

The New York Times’ Peter Baker synthesized it well this morning: “Senator John McCain spent the summer arguing that a 40-something candidate with four years in statewide office and no significant foreign policy experience was not ready to be president.

“And then on Friday he picked as his running mate a 40-something candidate with two years in statewide office and no significant foreign policy experience.”

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By choosing Palin to be the first woman on a GOP ticket, McCain seems to have played into a first-blush sense of being a copycat, of trying to co-opt the meme of change that Obama has made a cornerstone of his campaign. It's a hasty bid to call into question Obama's credentials as a supporter of advances for women.

And there are questions about whether she’s the right woman. All campaign long, McCain has doubled down on the idea of making a vice-presidential choice that would reflect wisdom, a shared world view, and political experience that— if he failed to complete a first term — would be pretty much equal to his own.

Palin as a statement of wisdom? Experience?

Here’s one way to get your head around how bad this looks for the McCain campaign: When McCain announced her as his running mate, Sarah Palin had been in office as governor of Alaska for 635 days.

Barack Obama, already a sitting member of the U.S. Senate, accepted the Democratic presidential nomination on Thursday, 566 days after announcing his candidacy in February 2007.

Sixty-nine days separate their high-profile, bullet-point timelines. This is McCain’s threshold for fitness to assume the presidency.

Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, on “Countdown,” nailed it: “Sarah Palin makes Barack Obama look like John Adams.”

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain gets no real distinguishing benefit from Palin’s reformist life story. Palin has been around her version of the American block, has created her own unique and compelling personal narrative — just like Obama.

The problem for McCain is making Obama’s narrative more unacceptable and out-of-the-mainstream than Palin’s own. Note to Team McCain: When your running mate’s favorite meat is moose, she’s not exactly in the beef-eating American mainstream.

Bigger problems lurk. Besides having compatible philosophical talking points, Palin and McCain share what seems to be a basic component of the McCain campaign: flip-flops on the issues.

In 2006 Palin initially expressed support for GOP Sen. Ted Stevens' much-maligned $398 million pork-barrel project, a bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, the so-called “bridge to nowhere.”

In October 2006, Palin told the Anchorage Daily News that "I would like to see Alaska's infrastructure projects built sooner rather than later. The window is now, while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist."

Palin's support for this pork boondoggle ended only after it was clear federal funding for the project wasn't coming. Put another way: Palin was for the bridge to nowhere ... until she was against it.

Stevens was indicted in July on seven counts of failing to report $250,000 in gifts received from a corporation and its CEO on his Senate financial disclosure forms. Stevens pled not guilty and requested a trial date before the 2008 election.

At Friday’s announcement, Palin took credit for telling Congress “thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere. If our state wanted a bridge, I said, we’d build it ourselves."

A straight-up reversal of position in less than two years, and one you can count being an issue from now til November.

And already complicating her straight-talk pitch is an editorial posted Friday on the Daily News-Miner of Fairbanks, Alaska, stating that Palin is flat-out unqualified for the vice presidency.

You have to ask, who does this choice reach beyond the conservative, evangelical, right-wing base — those voters who will likely turn out for McCain, holding their noses if necessary, regardless of their differences with him?

The bigger challenge is wooing voters who aren’t part of that conservative base. Baker in The Times: “His campaign now needs to convince the public that it can imagine in the Oval Office a candidate who has spent just two years as governor of a state with a quarter of the population of Brooklyn.”

◊ ◊ ◊

If the choice of Palin was meant to reach into the demographic of older women voters previously conceded to Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it fails utterly. Palin’s ardently anti-choice position on abortion rights is fundamentally at odds with those women voters. Clinton’s full-throated convention call to those voters to back Obama seriously undercuts any attempt to pick them off now.

McCain’s choice of Palin almost certainly would have had more traction, more of a galvanizing effect on that chunk of the electorate, if McCain hadn’t waited so long to make it.

If he really wanted to be the maverick he’s claimed to be, he would have made this pick in June. He could have further snagged the Democrats’ process of selecting Obama, roiling the waters with white women voters by announcing Palin earlier in the summer. It would have given the country more time to get to know her.

If this was purely a McCain gender play, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas would have been just as good on that narrow basis, and better in terms of presence in the Senate and gravitas on national issues. Philosophically, Hutchison would have much in common with McCain. If McCain really meant to make the case as a maverick, the choice of Hutchison would have pointed to a willingness to break from the doctrinaire pack — to truly burnish his reformist brand with a running mate whose moderate position on social issues, including abortion, would broaden the party's reach and appeal.

And picking Hutchison — or just about anyone else — would have meant a lot less of the work the McCain campaign is obligated to do from now until November: Telling the American people who Sarah Palin is. When McCain should be focused on sharpening his distinctions with Obama and laying out his path to American governance, much of the campaign’s energy and resources will have to be invested in laying out her biography and relevance for the voters.

We’ll watch with great interest as the McCain campaign tries to do with Sarah Palin in 60-odd days what it’s said the Obama campaign hasn’t done in a year and a half: make the nation comfortable with the candidate.

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With Palin aboard, McCain may have wounded himself on several fronts: He loses the battle for experience bona fides, or at best faces a stalemate. He undercuts the sharp differences he’s tried to make between Obama’s life narrative and the nation’s by picking a running mate whose personal past bears its own exotica. And he’s misinterpreted the politics of those 18 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton, assuming they’re transferable by virtue of gender alone — a sad appeal to a herd instinct that modern women voters want no part of.

With the Republican convention set to start on Monday, hurricanes permitting, the McCain-Palin tandem finally distills the Republican ticket: experience and change, in interchangeably dubious quantities. Conservatives have long wondered whether McCain was experience they could believe in; now the nation’s voters more generally will wonder if Palin represents change they can believe in. Once they figure out who she is in the first place.

Much about the newly-minted McCain-Palin ticket is a matter of preaching to the choir, shoring up the support of the conservative base. Team McCain has work to do with establishing its newest member in the public eye, work to do in getting what the McCain campaign needs to win in November: a bigger choir.
Palin: PFC Christopher Grammer, US Army (public domain). Wading moose, Ted Stevens, Brooklyn from satellite, Kay Bailey Hutchison: all in the public domain. Xcel Energy Center: Rx Strangelove (public domain).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Barack Obama 2.0

Tonight, forty-five years to the day after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dared America to embrace a dream, Barack Obama dared America to actualize it.

In a speech that encompassed the lives and sorrows of people from Iraq to New Orleans, in a straight-up callout to Sen. John McCain on the best way to lead the nation, Obama accepted “with profound gratitude and great humility” the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. The address was smashmouth, it was wonkish, it was red meat, it was an asskicking of the first oratorical order. And it left no doubt — to the 84,000 at Invesco Field in Denver or millions more watching at home — that Barack Obama is more than ready for the combat of the next sixty-seven days.

For Team McCain, the call to “general quarters” just changed to “battle stations.”

◊ ◊ ◊

“Tonight, I say to the American people, to Democrats and Republicans and Independents across this great land — enough! This moment, this election, is our chance to keep, in the 21st century, the American promise alive. Because next week, in Minnesota, the same party that brought you two terms of George Bush and Dick Cheney will ask this country for a third. And we are here because we love this country too much to let the next four years look like the last eight. On November 4th, we must stand up and say: "Eight is enough. …

“John McCain has voted with George Bush ninety percent of the time. Senator McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than ninety percent of the time? I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to take a ten percent chance on change.”

Obama drilled down into specifics, offering details on proposed policies ending tax breaks to corporations that outsource jobs, and creating tax cuts for the middle class and a new energy infrastructure including wind and solar power and “the next generation” of biofuels.

And finally, forthrightly addressing those who said he didn’t have the spine to take on McCain toe to toe, Obama threw down the glove, welcoming a national security debate with McCain.

“If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgment to serve as the next Commander-in-Chief, that's a debate I'm ready to have,” Obama said.

“You don't defeat a terrorist network that operates in eighty countries by occupying Iraq. You don't protect Israel and deter Iran just by talking tough in Washington. You can't truly stand up for Georgia when you've strained our oldest alliances. If John McCain wants to follow George Bush with more tough talk and bad strategy, that is his choice, but it is not the change we need.

“We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country. Don't tell me that Democrats won't keep us safe. … I will never hesitate to defend this nation."

◊ ◊ ◊

The Rev. Al Sharpton, one of MSNBC’s commentator crew, said “He took the gloves off but he never lost the smile on his face. That’s a dangerous opponent for John McCain.”

Jacob Heilbrunn, blogging at The Huffington Post, said: “Obama's performance tonight should silence the doubters about his candidacy. He came out fighting tonight. He showed that he fully understands that the best defense is a good offense and after weeks of absorbing punishment from John McCain, Obama went on the attack. His fluid, tough, and forcefully delivered speech indicates that he will be a formidable and potentially devastating opponent in the fall presidential debates. Anyone who can't see that just doesn't get it.”

Also speaking on MSNBC, Rev. Jesse Jackson (chastened from his most recent personal misstep, but no less forthright about speaking truth to power) put the speech in its legitimate historical perspective: not as a sequel to anything, but its own identity as oratory for this place and time.

“He didn’t make this a King Part II speech, he was smarter than that,” Jackson said. “I think a lot of us were waiting for a King Part II speech. They didn’t get King Part II, they got Barack Part I, and that’s a good thing.”

A slight quibble, though, with the ordinal number Jackson used: We’ve been getting Barack Part I for at least the last 566 days, in a variety of wise, streetwise, principled, passionate permutations.

What happened tonight was a restart, a reboot not of a campaign but of a sense of the vast national Possible, the moment when the software of a virally populist presidential campaign connected with the hard drive of millions of American people.

Tonight, amid fireworks both oratorical and literal, Barack Obama 2.0 went online. Do not expect this system to crash.
Image credit: Obama at convention, Invesco Field fireworks: Dtgwu2005 (public domain).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

DNC Day 3: Game-Change Day

Justin Sullivan of Getty Images took the photograph above at the Pepsi Center in Denver today, the day that — by acclimation — Illinois Sen. Barack Obama became the first African American nominated for the presidency of the United States. It is hoped that Getty Images will not sue for financial damages over an admittedly unauthorized use of Sullivan’s photograph of Moe Spencer, American citizen, in a moment that eloquently boils down two or three hundred years of turbulent American history into the tracks of tears on a grown man’s face.

Justin Sullivan may have closed the shutter on a camera, but this photograph, and the indelible national moment it distills, is more deeply the intellectual, emotional and spiritual property of America.

The United States changed, shifted in its moorings irreversibly at 4:47 p.m. mountain time, when Sen. Hillary Clinton suspended the roll-call vote she and her supporters insisted on, and asked that Obama be nominated by acclimation. Clinton, in a gracious if well-orchestrated display of concession — the second powerful display of the better angels of her nature in as many days — said:

“With eyes firmly fixed on the future in the spirit of unity, with the goal of victory, with faith in our party and country, let’s declare together in one voice, right here and right now, that Barack Obama is our candidate and he will be our president.”

“I move that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois be selected by this convention by acclamation as the nominee of the Democratic Party for president of the United States.”

This was the same night that Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware accepted the nomination to be Obama’s vice president. It’s the night before Obama is set to formally accept the nomination for president — an evening that’s already expected to be the capstone on an incredible year, as well as a call to arms for the rest of the campaign.

But in some ways, it was tonight that was the historic evening — as the face of Moe Spencer suggests. Tonight, for the first time, one of the two major political parties leading the Western world nominated a man of African descent to lead that party and, later, quite possibly, to lead the greatest, most powerful nation on earth.

◊ ◊ ◊

The naysayers in the punditburo who worried about the relatively pacifist tone of the convention’s first night, when Michelle Obama wowed the delegates, were wasting their time. That was evident tonight when, simply put, the Democrats busted a serious cap in the Straight Talk Express of John McCain. It’s anyone’s guess how many pro wrestling events they usually have at the Pepsi Center, but tonight was Tag Team Night at the DNC.

“Last night Hillary told us in no uncertain terms that she is going to do everything she can to elect Barack Obama,” said Bill Clinton of his wife’s gracious statement of support the night before. “That makes two of us.”

“With Joe Biden’s experience and wisdom, supporting Barack Obama’s proven understanding, instincts and insight, America will have the national security leadership we need,” he said.

“I say to you: Barack Obama is ready to lead America and restore American leadership in the world,” Bill Clinton said. “Barack Obama is ready to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States.”

“The Republicans will nominate a good man who served our country heroically and suffered terribly in Vietnam,” Bill said of McCain. “He loves our country every bit as much as we all do. As a senator, he has shown his independence on several issues. But on the two great questions of this election, how to rebuild the American Dream and how to restore America’s leadership in the world, he still embraces the extreme philosophy which has defined his party for more than 25 years.”

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry: “The stakes could not be higher, because we do know what a McCain administration would look like: just like the past, just like George Bush. And this country can't afford a third Bush term. Just think: John McCain voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time. Ninety percent of George Bush is just more than we can take.

“Never in modern history has an administration squandered American power so recklessly. Never has strategy been so replaced by ideology. Never has extremism so crowded out common sense and fundamental American values.”

Joe Biden: “Our country is less secure and more isolated than in any time in recent history. The Bush-McCain foreign policy has dug us into a few deep holes with very few friends to help us climb out.”

“These times require more than a good soldier. They require a wise leader.”

As a blend of substance and stagecraft, the Democratic convention has been masterful already, and promises to be more so tomorrow night, when Obama speaks. But as evidence of a change in the American political machinery, as proof that the wheel of American fortune does turn in a democratic (with a small d) way, nothing trumps tonight.

Moe Spencer will tell you: Tonight was the night the game changed. Because tonight was the night that proved — to all Americans — that anyone can win it.
Image credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

DNC Day 2: Hillary in the house

Any hope the McCain presidential campaign had of picking off the millions of disgruntled Clintonites who threatened — threatened! — to vote for McCain in November just got more unlikely. Tonight on the second night of the Democratic convention, Sen. Hillary Clinton made the full pivot — unparseable, inescapable, unambiguous — toward supporting Barack Obama for the presidency of the United States.

Tonight Clinton made her biggest effort yet to close the breach between the Obama campaign and the women who flocked to her campaign from the beginning.

Tonight in one impressive oratorical stroke, Clinton restored much luster to a political brand and biography badly tarnished in the hard-fought primary campaign, jumpstarted her own presidential prospects in 2012, and went a long way to transforming herself from a politician to what she’s always really aspired to be: a stateswoman.

It was obvious from the start. “I am honored to be here tonight. A proud mother. A proud Democrat. A proud American. And a proud supporter of Barack Obama.

“My friends, it is time to take back the country we love.

“Whether you voted for me or voted for Barack, the time is now to unite as a single party with a single purpose. We are on the same team, and none of us can sit on the sidelines.

“This is a fight for the future. And it's a fight we must win.”

People, it doesn’t get plainer than that.

◊ ◊ ◊

Her speech hit the high points of platform she’d made previously during the primary season, and as expected she called on her supporters to shift their support to Obama for the 69-day run to the election. But Clinton also clearly, forcefully laid out the stakes for women in this election. Invoking the health-care crisis, the energy crisis, the need for improved education, the war in Iraq and women’s rights more generally, made clear her opposition to the opposition: “No way, no how, no McCain. Barack Obama is my candidate. And he must be our President.”

There was an aspect of the valedictory to her address. We heard the obligatory expression of gratitude: “I will always be grateful to everyone from all fifty states, Puerto Rico and the territories, who joined our campaign on behalf of all those people left out and left behind by the Bush Administration. To my supporters, to my champions, to my sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits, from the bottom of my heart — thank you.”

But then Clinton finally confronted and put down what for her supporters had been a central, if unspoken point: that their love for her as a candidate might not be transferable, but their political allegiance certainly, necessarily, is.

“I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me … [or] were you in it for all the people in this country who feel invisible?”

“We don't have a moment to lose or a vote to spare. Nothing less than the fate of our nation and the future of our children hang in the balance."

And with a line barbed enough, pithy enough to stick in the national mind for the rest of the campaign year, Clinton renewed the shotgun vows uniting McCain and President Bush in wartime matrimony: “We don’t need four more years of the last eight years.”

The veteran pols fearing gridlock and outrage on the convention floor needn’t have worried, not tonight anyway. To anyone watching on TV, the Pepsi Center in Denver was something of a love feast, with Obama and Clinton supporters in the hall interchangeably passionate. The Clinton and Obama campaigns have been reportedly in lockstep behind the scenes, so much so that Clinton reportedly got standing O’s before and after her speech. The campaigns are said to be making arrangements for furthering unifying their efforts, and jointly making decisions about the Clinton roll-call floor vote to come.

◊ ◊ ◊

And what about that? Ironically enough, Clinton’s undeniably full-throated support of Obama for the presidency calls into question the very need for the scheduled roll-call vote that Clinton and her supporters have insisted on. A roll-call vote on the convention floor reawakens, if only briefly, the same twinges of regret — or the same shards of anger — her speech tonight so powerfully tried to put in the past. Why the insistence on this numerical validation of what you already know? Why stick the knife in again?

Chalk it up to the competitive Clinton spirit, a spirit we’re likely to get more than a glimpse of tomorrow. NBC’s Tom Brokaw suggests that Hillary’s speech may be the first part of an oratorical game of Can You Top This — that former president Bill Clinton, who’ll follow Joe Biden on the stage tomorrow night, may be even more fulsome in praise of Obama, reaching for the oratorical gifts that have typified his politics for a generation.

Someone in the blogosphere and the infomational beyond will probably say it at some point in the next twenty-four hours: Hillary Clinton will be a hard act to follow. From the evidence presented tonight by Hillary Clinton — senator, candidate, party peacemaker finally gracious in defeat — it wasn’t an act at all.

Monday, August 25, 2008

DNC Day 1: Three cheers for the closer

Something got lost in the frantic runup to the Democratic National Convention just started in Denver. It took Michelle Obama, the wife of the presumptive Democratic convention, to remind us. We’ve been told for months now that Sen. Barack Obama would make his formal acceptance of the nomination on the 45th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That kind of historical juxtaposition couldn’t be ignored.

Michelle Obama reminded us of the historical hookup we’ve managed to overlook. Days earlier this month, on Aug 18, the nation marked the 88th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, extending to women the right to vote. The fact that we overlooked it is exactly the problem.

The short-term wisdom of some in the punditburo said that tonight’s opening of the Democratic convention didn’t go far enough in going on the offensive, of pursuing the pitbull approach favored by Republican strategists and by some cable talking heads who can’t get enough confrontation on the air.

What was less obvious was the masterful move by Michelle Obama, who positioned herself, and by extension her husband’s campaign, squarely in the center of the American experience. It’s the dead center of the national experience that matters deeply to the heart of American women.

In a speech riveting in its understatement and compelling in its nuance, Michelle Obama recounted her own personal history as a woman, a daughter, a wife, a mother and an American, outlined that personal narrative in ways that connected with the experiences of the 153 million Americans who are women.

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"I stand here today at the crosscurrents of that history - knowing that my piece of the American Dream is a blessing hard won by those who came before me," she said. "All of them driven by the same conviction that drove my dad to get up an hour early each day to painstakingly dress himself for work. The same conviction that drives the men and women I've met all across this country:

"People who work the day shift, kiss their kids goodnight, and head out for the night shift - without disappointment, without regret - that goodnight kiss a reminder of everything they're working for.

"The military families who say grace each night with an empty seat at the table. The servicemen and women who love this country so much, they leave those they love most to defend it.

"The young people across America serving our communities - teaching children, cleaning up neighborhoods, caring for the least among us each and every day. ...

"All of us driven by a simple belief that the world as it is just won't do - that we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be. That is the thread that connects our hearts. That is the thread that runs through my journey and Barack's journey and so many other improbable journeys that have brought us here tonight, where the current of history meets this new tide of hope.

"That is why I love this country. ..."

Even watching the convention on TV it was obvious that connection was made. Women throughout the hall, many of them solid as a rock for Obama, others ardent supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton, were in tears as she spoke. In her address, confessional without being maudlin, Michelle Obama had done what the pundits said Barack had not: pierced the barrier between Team Obama and women of all stations of American life.

◊ ◊ ◊

That fact may do more to rip down the purported wall between women and the campaign than any appeal from Clinton, who can be counted on just the same to make that appeal on Tuesday night. Michelle Obama eloquently expressed the common struggle facing all women in this country, and sought to enlist them for service to the country, not just the Democratic party, and not certainly one outsize personality within the party — her husband's or Hillary Clinton's.

And she did it with the best kind of politics: relating a family chronicle not straight out of the Huxtables but a story that ought to resonate with the Smiths and the Wilsons, the Johnsons and Joneses of America. Everyday people everywhere.

Throughout the primary campaign Barack took pride more than once in calling Michelle Obama “the closer.” It’s a marvelously American word with applications from baseball to real estate to the corporate world. The closer is the one who wins the game, seals the deal, locks it down with finality.

It’s ironic that tonight the closer was the opener, the convention’s first full-on identification with America. But if Barack Obama seals his own deal with the American people in November, he can thank the closer for opening the door.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Biden: His time

Saturday in Springfield: It was Joe Biden’s maiden voyage as a vice-presidential running mate, with the Delaware senator thrust overnight into the vortex of presidential politics at a high level. And Biden was characteristically himself, invoking his rust-belt roots and his long presence in the Senate in the service of the Obama campaign.

Swinging from standup lines worthy of the late-night crowd to full-throated cries for a return to populism in Washington politics, Biden was a hit with the 35,000 who showed up outside the Old State Capitol building … and he was the beneficiary of the punditburo’s early blessing: Biden was a pretty good fit. So far.

Even considering the plusses and minuses of all the others being considered for the veep spot on the Obama ticket, Joe Biden makes the most sense at this time in the nation’s history and his own. His rise to this position is more than a validation of old bromides about Never Quitting and Getting Up When You’re Knocked Down. Biden represents the kind of politics that is, ironically, both old and new at the same time.

Strict observers of the calendar — especially those in the McCain campaign — have already tried to equate Biden’s time in the Senate with his being the very opposite of the change that Obama represents. But the particulars of Biden point to a meaningful distinction between him and his contemporaries on Capitol Hill. Compared to what we’ve had for seven years, Biden’s populist approach to politics does represent change, in the best sense of the word.

◊ ◊ ◊

Simply put, Joe Biden is a homebody. Joe Biden is a homeboy. His small-town personal narrative is one that points to an embrace of the solidity of family, an understanding of its foundational importance in American life. For most of the 35 years he’s been in the Senate, Biden has become something of an anomaly: Rather than remain in Washington when his workday ends, Biden boards a commuter train and returns to his constituents, and his home, in Delaware. It’s something he’s done since he first took office in 1972, after the death of his first wife and their 13-month-old daughter, killed in a car accident.

Year after year, he’s done his business — the people’s business — and he takes the train home. Predictable, maybe even a little dull. But if you’re expecting political fireworks — cavorting with strippers, illicit cash stuffed in the Sub-Zero, a tawdry affair in a hotel room — forget it. Go somewhere else. Joe Biden has had work to do.

That work has included working to advance legislation for college loan programs to aid working-class families; and working to enact several laws against violent crime, domestic violence, date rape drugs and the presence of steroids in professional baseball.

As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he took the lead in working to end hostilities in the Balkans, investigating war crimes in the region, and calling Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic a “war criminal” to his face.

As a member of various Senate Judiciary subcommittees, he’s worked on legislation on issues from human rights and the law to terrorism, from border security to consumer rights.

And at the end of the day, he gets on a train bound for Wilmington, his family and a "drop-dead gorgeous" wife.

Joe Biden — along with that other great wielder of the levers of Washington, Sen. Ted Kennedy — may be one of the best examples of how to be in Washington without being of Washington. He’s come to recognize the insularity of life in the machine-on-the-Potomac, and done his best to resist it.

Even as he navigates the corridors of power, Biden understands the importance of bumping up against everyday people, the everyday people who elected him six times to the Senate — the same people who come November may be inclined to give him a much shorter commute to work.
Image credits: Obama and Biden: © 2008 Daniel Schwen, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Biden at Petraeus hearings: Public domain. Biden in Davos: World Economic Forum, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license 2.0.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Obama-Biden 2008

Well … OK. This is where everything seemed to be going for awhile now. With so many attacks on his national security cred and a short public-service resume, (relative to previous contenders for the presidency), it just makes sense that Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, has tied up with clean, articulate Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., of Delaware, the warhorse with wit, the elder statesman of the Senate.

By picking Biden, a veteran of 35 years in the Senate, as his vice presidential running mate, Obama answers the critics who’ve long indicted him with the crime of relative inexperience. Biden is the lunch-bucket aspect to Obama’s Ivy League mien, the gray hair to Obama’s youthful drive, the inside game to Barack’s three-pointer from downtown. Unlike his younger counterpart, Biden truly speaks Washington.

With this combination, Obama’s message of change is married to the solidity of experience. When they appear together later today, at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. (where Obama’s campaign began 560 days earlier), the stage just may be set for a photo-op of the future.

◊ ◊ ◊

It all came together in stealth mode, or something close to it. Some time between 1 and 2 a.m. eastern time on Saturday morning, MSNBC, among how many others, announced via “Democratic officials” that Obama had selected Biden for the ticket. The Obama campaign had tried for weeks to keep the news a secret until supporters could be told first, by text message. The leak spoiled the texting party, but more surprising was the fact that, in the informational oxygen of the Internet age, the campaign kept this hushed-up as long as it did.

We were led to believe that the outcome might have gone in another direction. The media jabbered for weeks about a “short list” of potential running mates, a grab bag of names, including Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh. Indeed, in what might have been a masterful head fake by Team Obama, KMBC-TV of Kansas City reported on Friday that

“…the answer to who [Obama] would name as his running mate may have come down to a bumper sticker printed in Lenexa [Kan]. KMBC's Micheal Mahoney reported that the company, which specializes in political literature, has been printing Obama-Bayh material. That's Bayh as in U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. Word leaked out about the material as it was being printed up by Gill Studios of Lenexa.”

Nice try.

◊ ◊ ◊

The choice of Biden shores up Obama in the broken places. In the Senate since 1972, Biden is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a strong presence on matters related to defense and national security. He’s the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and is no stranger to the rough & tumble of presidential politics, having run twice before.

Biden's working-class Catholic roots are thought likely to help Obama middle- and working-class voters in battleground states like Ohio, and in Pennsylvania, where Biden was born and raised. A son of Scranton, Pa., Biden shares a history in that city with Sen. Hillary Clinton, who made much of her roots there during the primaries.

Biden’s life has been tempered by tragedy. His first wife and a daughter were killed in a traffic accident in 1972, before Biden even took office. Biden battled back from that personal disaster to become a mandarin of the Senate, widely respected by colleagues and by his constituents in Delaware. One of Biden’s self-described high points as a senator was the 1994 passage of the Violence Against Women Act, something that’s likely to help with women voters nursing the collapse of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

◊ ◊ ◊

That’s on the plus side of the ledger. Unfortunately, Biden has a history of being long-winded, and has also committed more than one embarrassing gaffe on the campaign trail. This downside presents a challenge for the Obama campaign. “The big challenge for Biden is to going to be to stay focused, to keep his mouth shut, to not answer in 15 minutes when he can answer in two,” said Newsweek’s Howard Fineman on MSNBC this morning. Team Obama’s immediate need, Fineman said, may be to “keep him on a pretty short leash, lest his enthusiasm run over the banks.”

No sooner than the announcement been made than the opposition apparatus of Sen. John McCain, Obama’s challenger, kicked into high gear, using some of Biden’s own statements against Obama during the primaries. “There has been no harsher critic of Barack Obama's lack of experience than Joe Biden,” said McCain spokesman Ben Porritt in a statement, conveniently forgetting the harsh criticism from McCain himself. “Biden has denounced Barack Obama's poor foreign policy judgment and has strongly argued in his own words what Americans are quickly realizing _ that Barack Obama is not ready to be president.”

For her part, Sen. Clinton spoke glowingly of her primary-season antagonist, calling Biden “an exceptionally strong, experienced leader and devoted public servant.”

“Sen. Biden will be a purposeful and dynamic vice president who will help Sen. Obama both win the presidency and govern this great country,” said Clinton, whose persistent hopes for a vice-presidential nod officially evaporated this morning, but whose name will be placed in nomination in Denver, purely as a formality she and her supporters had insisted on for weeks.

The Republicans will do their best to emphasize the previous differences between Obama and Biden, but McCain’s options in this area are more limited. If McCain taps former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as his running mate, as has been more or less expected for months, McCain faces a new challenge based on the personal dynamic.

“If I were John McCain, I’d hear the footsteps already,” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, advancing the McCain-Romney tie-up scenario. “Romney and McCain don’t like each other. That’s more serious business than having had a tiff or a kerfuffle or two during the primary season. When you’ve got two guys who clearly don’t have the right chemistry against a guy and another guy who might well have it … I think the public’s going to see a comparative advantage going to the D’s on the question of who’s got the right partner at the dance.”

And if this turns into a battle of soundbites meant to embarrass a nominee for his choice of a running mate, McCain’s gonna have splaining to do himself if he picks Romney:

A lot of splaining to do.

That part of the general election equation has yet to play itself out; McCain’s reportedly set to make his veep announcement on Aug. 29, his 72nd birthday, if it isn’t leaked beforehand.

But for now, the Obama-Biden ticket has been received by Democrats as a tandem that makes sound political sense. Intelligently joining gravitas and youthful drive, and composed of two inspirational personal narratives, it's a ticket that could effectively unify working-class centrist voters and the millions of younger and minority voters who've already sided with the Obama machine.

An old Navy man, John McCain knows what “general quarters” means. It’s a signal for a naval crew to prepare for battle. If the McCain campaign hasn’t sounded that alarm before, it certainly will now.
Image credits: Biden: Public domain. Obama and Biden:

Friday, August 22, 2008

Rachel Maddow Now

They fired a shot from the roof of Rockefeller Center on Wednesday, one heard 'round American media. Dropping a shoe we’ve expected was coming down for awhile, MSNBC announced the ascension of Rachel Maddow, one of the network’s better political analysts and an emerging voice in leftist talk radio.

NEW YORK – Aug. 20, 2008 – "The Rachel Maddow Show," a smart look at politics, pop culture and all the day's top stories, will premiere Monday, Sept. 8, on MSNBC, it was announced today by Phil Griffin, President, MSNBC. "The Rachel Maddow Show" will telecast weekdays, 9-10 p.m. ET.

Rachel is unbelievably talented and brilliant; her breadth and depth of knowledge of politics and news is astonishing and I'm so excited to give her a place to really showcase what she can do," said Griffin. "We've established MSNBC as the place for politics and the destination for viewers who want the smartest take on the day's developments. Adding Rachel into our primetime lineup makes perfect sense.

"The Rachel Maddow Show" is expected to present her acerbic, literate view of major news stories, and will no doubt feature another iteration of the point-counterpoint punchups that are a staple of cable television.

◊ ◊ ◊

You’re tempted to call Maddow’s rise in the mediasphere “meteoric,” but meteors don’t move this fast. Maddow has been with Air America Radio since it launched in early 2004. Before joining Air America she worked for WRNX and WRSI, both in Massachusetts.

Maddow made appearances opposite tireless conservative Tucker Carlson in 2006, and later made appearances on CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now.” In January 2008, she was named a MSNBC political analyst, after frequent appearances on other MSNBC political programs such as “Race for the White House,” a stint as a regular panelist on MSNBC's 2008 election coverage, and as a guest on “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.”

She subbed for Olbermann as guest host in April, and she was brought back to host “Countdown” again on May 16. That was the day when “Countdown” was (if just briefly) the highest-rated news program in the highly valued 25–54 age demographic, handily besting Fox News for the same eyeballs coveted by advertisers. She filled in again for eight broadcasts while Olbermann vacationed in July. Then, on August 19 she was confirmed for “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

Oh yeah — in her bid to be the hardest-working woman in show business, Maddow will also keep her hosting gig for "The Rachel Maddow Show" on Air America at 6 p.m. ET. She's also writing a book.

The MSNBC statement said that Abrams, MSNBC general manager, “will remain Chief Legal Correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC; he will be expanding his role contributing to "Dateline" and "Today" and will also serve as an anchor on MSNBC during the day.”

In the statement, Abrams necessarily took the high road. "Putting my G.M. hat back on, I think this is absolutely the right call. I look forward to my future success at NBC News," he said.

But St. Petersburg Times media and TV critic Eric Deggans, blogging on Aug. 20, wondered aloud “how a guy who once ran the channel wound up hosting a legal program on cable at a time when even Court TV doesn't want to be associated with legal stuff anymore. The only question left now is how long before Abrams leaves the building entirely.”

◊ ◊ ◊

As we might have expected, conservatives let fly almost immediately. Right-wing mouthpiece shrieked: Maddow “has become the fresh young voice of a senile leftist ideology whose other spokespeople are graying hippies or wrinkled power-craving vampires. She is what the godless Left used to pray for: socialism with a human face.”

But Maddow’s no neophyte to politics or public issues. She got her bachelor's degree in public policy from Stanford University, and earned her doctorate in political science at Oxford University, which she attended on a Rhodes Scholarship.

More of a problem for conservatives in the media has been her sexual orientation; Maddow, long a champion of gay and lesbian causes, is an out lesbian in a committed relationship. MSNBC gets credit for making a move that, frankly, has been overdue from mainstream media.

But not too much credit. MSNBC has long tried to make its news and commentary programming reflective of a perceived national mood, shifting or cashiering on-air talent to suit the network’s feel for the direction of the country.

In the past six years MSNBC has been through several existential permutations. Between 2002 and 2005, MSNBC brought on (and eventually moved out) Phil Donahue, talk-show veteran and political moderate; Alan Keyes, erstwhile GOP presidential contender; Michael Savage, rabidly homophobic conservative author and radio rottweiler; Pat Buchanan and Bill Press; in a point-counterpoint squareoff; and others, in a slightly frantic search to find the right media mix for a nation that was, to judge from the Republican victories of 2000 and 2004, increasingly conservative.

The Vox’ noted in June 2005:

For some the proof of pandering to an audience perceived to be growing in its conservatism was there in a Washington Times article published in early 2003. The article claimed to quote an internal MSNBC memo noting that Donahue was considered "a tired, left-wing liberal" whose antiwar, anti-Bush sentiments represented "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war." MSNBC brass denied the memo even existed.

◊ ◊ ◊

But that network history doesn’t undercut the obvious gifts as a communicator that Maddow brings to the party. Her ability to distill the sometimes impenetrable machinations of American politics into something accessible to a mass audience gives her a value beyond the math of ratings and viewers.

We like her for a variety of reasons: Over the years she’s proven to be smart, funny, blazingly articulate, principled and fearless. Watch her in action in July; this was when she took on Joe Scarborough, the oleaginous blowhard former Florida Republican congressman and host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” in an on-air exchange that proved she wouldn’t back down from anyone.

For however long her fifteen minutes last, Rachel Maddow is a sharp, smart departure from television's past: someone who’s not so much reframing the public debate as breaking down an old barrier of who gets to participate in it. That’s important and valuable and necessary in this transformative year.
Image credits: Maddow (top): Associated Press. Maddow (flag): via

The McCain scrutiny XIII

In an interview with The Politico, Sen. John McCain of Arizona forgot how many homes he owns. Serious business. Straight face. Let that sink in a moment or two, folks … The Maverick® and champion of the common American didn’t remember how many homes he can call home.

“I think — I’ll have my staff get to you,” McCain told The Politico on Wednesday in an interview in New Mexico. “It’s condominiums where — I’ll have them get to you.”

For most Americans, it’s a luxury of forgetfulness we’d love to have. For the rest of us who aren’t millionaires by virtue of strategic marriage, it’s all we can do to cope with one mortgage during the worst time for homeowners in at least a decade. Pity John McCain — he’s lost track of properties with his name on the door.

Fortunately for the absent-minded senator, some generous soul has posted to YouTube a quick tally of Chateaux McCain, with a suitable soundtrack by Feist. It’s all done in the spirit of helping out a man so embarrassingly well-off that he forgets what Americans can’t afford to forget. Ever.

Here’s to you, John McCain — the would-be American president American real-estate speculators have been waiting for.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The algorithm method

The romantic matching service eHarmony hasn’t exactly cornered the market on online relationship services, but the company — with its silver-haired Christian self-help founder and pitchman CEO, its exhaustive questionnaire, its algorithmically-derived pairing decisions, its glowing customer testimonials — has cemented itself in the American consciousness.

A new eHarmony ad capitalizes on love's evolving dimensions in a way that’s startlingly different from other mainstream relationship Web sites. As far as it goes.

The new ad shows a glowing couple, giddy with the PDAs of blooming love. Chris and Maggie reflect the wonders of finding the right match. The words go up on the screen: “Chris and Maggie, matched July 30, 2004.”

Chris is a white man, Maggie an Asian woman.

Later in the same ad, we’re introduced to Farren and Travis — similarly caught up in the throes of true love, and just as compelling a visible testimonial to the power of love (and eHarmony). We get their back story too: “Farren and Travis, matched March 18, 2006.”

Farren is a white woman, Travis is an African American man.

The “so what?” you’re barely able to suppress right now is exactly the point. Interracial love is and has been a part of the American experience from the beginning; the number of interracial couples continues to grow; the power and potential of the presidential campaign of Barack Obama is part of their legacy.

◊ ◊ ◊

So what took mainstream relationship services so long? eHarmony, which started in 2000, has come to the necessary (and welcome) recognition that not all couples are the same race; that the demographic of the United States in the 21st century no longer fits the usual, comfortable categories.

But you have to wonder why it took eight years for eHarmony and founder Dr. Neil Clark Warren, a friend of Focus on the Family founder and devoted political conservative Dr. James Dobson, to make the minor pivot to recognition of interracial love.

And despite its latest not-quite-groundbreaking campaign, don’t bestow on eHarmony anything like enlightenment. The company, which has reportedly had some 20 million users since it launched, is the target of a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit filed in California in May, for its refusal to include gays or lesbians in its subscriber base.

All of which suggests double-talk from eHarmony and a willingness to erect another firewall of the heart where none really exists. eHarmony’s opposition to these couples outside the mainstream led to eHarmony’s nimble competitor,, to make a point of that exclusion in its own advertising.

Newsweek’s Lisa Miller reported on eHarmony’s weak defense in May: “A company lawyer explains that eHarmony makes matches based on unique scientific research into what makes heterosexual unions work; it hasn't done the same kind of work on gay unions, though it doesn't rule out such research in the future.”

Algorithms don’t make racial distinctions or ignore people on the basis of sexual preference. They’re funny like that. But when you combine algorithms with an agenda, you’ve got trouble, or at least problems. eHarmony’s made one mathematical breakthrough: the discovery that persons inclined to interracial relationships actually exist and thrive in our culture, just like those inclined to single-race relationships.

Maybe the math whizzes at eHarmony will crack another code and discover what we already know: love = equal opportunity employer.
Image credits: Hands: Couple kiss: Public domain. William Cohen and Janet Langhart: © 2006 David Shankbone, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The skin game II

Cosmetic revisionism is a fact of life in the world of fashion; the $250 billion fashion industry couldn’t exist without it. But a new not-quite controversy has again raised the issue of just where people of color, African Americans in particular, fit in an industry that has historically been as much about denying darker hues as a fashion symbol as embracing it.

On Thursday the French cosmetics giant L’Oreal was in damage control mode, denying a report on the TMZ Web site that it had lightened the skin tone of Beyonce Knowles in the L’Oreal advertisement now gracing the September issue of Elle, Allure and Essence magazines.

A post Wednesday on the TMZ site did a side-by-side comparison of Knowles as she appeared in the ad and as she appeared in a recent photograph. The contrast between the two is unmistakable.

“Unless she just got vitiligo — L'Oreal has some serious splaining to do about its bleached-out Beyonce ad!” TMZ shouts with its usual snark.

L’Oreal, maker of Garnier hair products and the Lancome skin care line, begs to differ.

“We highly value our relationship with Ms. Knowles,” the company said in a statement sent to the Associated Press on Thursday. “It is categorically untrue that L’Oreal Paris altered Ms. Knowles’ features or skin tone in the campaign for Feria hair color.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It all might have been nothing more than a tempest in a bottle of peroxide if not for history — the cultural history of America and black folks’ place in it.

Students of popular culture and where black people fit in that culture no doubt recall what happened to Lena Horne, the legendary singer and actress, who signed a contract with MGM Studios in 1942 only to have to endure the insult of studio executives trying to remake her as a Latino.

After the actress rejected this attempt at obscuring her black-American Indian heritage, the studio hired Max Factor to design a special makeup, dubbed “Light Egyptian,” to darken her skin — in part as a sop to moviegoers in the Deep South, who were thought likely to reject such a glamorous woman whose ancestry was black.

It’s not just something found deep in the history books either. On March 4th of this year, the Daily Kos Web site showed side-by-side screen grabs of Sen. Barack Obama taken during the one-on-one presidential debate with Sen. Hillary Clinton in Cleveland the week before. The first screen grab showed an apparently unaltered network news feed. The second screen grab, used in a Clinton campaign ad, shows a clearly darker-skinned Obama.

And then there’s Matt Mahurin’s controversial 1994 Time magazine cover-image “photo-illustration” of O.J. Simpson after his arrest on murder charges. The LAPD mug shot of Simpson was provocatively darkened by Mahurin in a case of creative license that went off the rails.

You want to give L’Oreal the benefit of the doubt; Beyonce’s lucrative relationship with the company, after all, goes back to 2001. And as the Jezebel Web site shows, there's been sensitivity to the subject, reflected in the hiring of black models for fashion ads by L'Oreal and other companies who have discovered that — this just in — black women spend money.

But the goose eggs in the Jezebel table reflecting the number of black models in fashion editorial (magazines) tell another story.

That lack of consistency on the part of Big Fashion about hiring models of color points to a strange irony in this, the identity issue that won't go away: It's, well, sadly illuminating that in our ravenously cosmetic culture, the presumably forward-thinking fashion industry could be so far behind the times they're supposed to be ahead of.
Image credits: Beyonce single: beelover9481, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. Beyonce two-shot: FilmMagic/L'Oreal. Lena Horne: © 2002 Xenon. O.J. Simpson cover: © 1994 Time Inc.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Gangs of America

The presidential campaign of 2008 has gifted the American lexicon with its own clutch of signature words and phrases. We’ve still got some 80-odd days before the election, but “metric,” “downticket,” “scorched-earth” and “dogwhistle” have been part of the political vocabulary for months.

But Sen. Barack Obama’s transcendent presidential campaign has led someone more inspired by Obama’s meaning than his message to come up with a gem of a phrase, a real flight of fantasy: “postracial politics” has entered not just the language but the national psyche in ways that are at least concerning, and maybe even disturbing.

The phrase suggests the ultimate Kum Ba Yah dream: that with Obama’s claim to the Democratic nomination, and maybe the presidency beyond, America will have officially retired the issue and impact of race in American life. The phrase’s gauzy promise also hints that black politics as we’ve come to know it for generations — a model of politics based on populist protest against the biases embedded in the national life — will cease to have a reason for being if Obama raises his hand to take the oath of office next Jan. 20.

“Postracial politics” is a fine idea, but one that fails to look at how black politics is as much a generational issue as a racial one. The flap over Obama’s disagreements with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright over interpretations of American racial history, and more recently the rather ugly disagreements Jesse Jackson had with Obama over the familial responsibilities of young black men, are proof that, whether Obama wins or loses in November, you can’t have postracial politics without first reconciling differences within the race.

It’s as much a matter of cultural assimilation as anything else. Black Americans of Wright’s and Jackson’s generation came to maturity in a United States in which race was the absolute dividing line of the national experience. Back then black people regularly encountered the great national No at every level of their daily lives. From eating at lunch counters to drinking from a water fountain, from getting a quality education to the act of casting a vote, blacks were faced with the persistence of No. Those who dared to try and violate that great No often paid with their lives.

Now, many of the old ways have passed away. Race may well have become less a third rail than a line in the sand: present but ever-shifting, subject to smudging and sometimes capable of being erased altogether. Aspects of black American culture and language are today more often revealed to be what they’ve always been: part of the national bedrock.

And for blacks of the Jim Crow generation, the change that Barack Obama represents is unsettling. For the first time in their history, they’re forced to think outside their comfort zone on matter of race and identity, to confront a social equation that doesn’t always equate blackness with protest and pathology. They’re required now to address the idea that race, while still a distinctive and inescapable fact of American life, doesn’t matter the way it used to.

◊ ◊ ◊

Matt Bai, writing in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, grasps the shift going on in black politics, a shift that points to a new perception of what black politics can be, and is in the process of being:

“The generational transition that is reordering black politics didn't start this year,” Bai writes. “It has been happening, gradually and quietly, for at least a decade, as younger African-Americans, Barack Obama among them, have challenged their elders in traditionally black districts. What this year's Democratic nomination fight did was to accelerate that transition and thrust it into the open as never before, exposing and intensifying friction that was already there.

“For a lot of younger African-Americans, the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama's candidacy signified the failure of their parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle — to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream.”

◊ ◊ ◊

This speaks to what’s been for years one of the basic failings of the Republican Party: its inability to look beyond the long-persistent power structure of America, its inability (or its unwillingness) to embrace the idea that the change Barack Obama represents — not change as campaign meme but as a foundational dynamic of America — is a perfectly natural thing, and nothing less than proof of the evolution of America.

But that Republican failing is just as true of older black Americans still trying to get their minds around the idea that the comfortable black politics they’ve known for years is becoming something they don’t recognize.

As the rise of the Obama campaign shows, what’s happening in this country is no accident, no sudden chaotic transformation sparked by a single event, or at the service of a revolution. This is supposed to happen. The Framers, among other architects and early champions of American democracy, counted on just such an organic shift in political fortunes taking place.

They couldn’t see the Obama campaign coming, and consistent with the mores of their time may well have rejected the idea of a biracial American president (Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, was a slave owner himself). But the Obama campaign and its broad multiracial appeal is the kind of ordered, principled, populist upheaval that makes America America.

You can’t help but recall the schisms of generation and class that Martin Scorsese brilliantly laid out in “Gangs of New York,” his 2002 film that explored, among other things, the intra-ethnic clashes between native-born white Americans and Irish immigrants arriving in America in the throes of the Civil War. The newcomers were assaulted and condemned by the nativists, who saw their immigrant brethren as opportunistic interlopers and invaders.

As events unfolded in real life, though, the high tide of American possibility lifted all their boats; over the next two generations, Irish Americans would achieve power at every level of American social and political life, just like the Anglo-Saxon immigrant Americans who preceded them.

◊ ◊ ◊

As Bai suggests, much the same thing may now finally be playing out for black Americans. Despite old clashes over strategy and how best to become part of the American mosaic, black Americans collectively may be on the verge of a new experience of black politics as something that hasn’t vanished but evolved to suit the needs and challenges of a new era. The internal disputes over strategy are giving way to recognition of the commonality of struggle and the social gains resulting from that struggle.

And to the extent that traditional black politics makes that pivot — as something integral to the national mainstream, rather than aggressively apart from it — other manifestations of identity politics are likely to go through the same change.

In such a scenario, the gangs of America we’ve come to know — the cohorts of population broken down along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and religious and sexual preference — may themselves not disappear; over time their reasons for remaining separatist factions almost certainly will.

“Postracial politics” may not be any more possible than postgender politics or postreligious politics, at least not yet. But Obama’s campaign — along with the successful mayoral campaigns of the late Tom Bradley in Los Angeles and the late Harold Washington in Chicago, and the successful gubernatorial campaigns of Douglas Wilder in Virginia and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts — reveal a nation that’s slowly getting comfortable with reaching toward post-identity politics. Whether we actually get there is anyone’s guess. But given the long and tragic national history on race matters, the reach for is as almost as valuable as the grasp of.
Image credits: Jeremiah Wright: Public domain. New York Times Magazine cover: © 2008 The New York Times Company. Gangs of New York poster: © 2002 Miramax Films. Deval Patrick: Scott LaPierre, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Trailer Park: Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’

The buzz keeps building for the Oct. 17 release of “W,” Oliver Stone’s sure-to-be-original take on the life and times of President George W. Bush. The release of the official trailer for the film is likely to ratchet up the anticipation even more, especially since it cleverly plays against expectations.

There are no upside-down American flags in flames, no rapid-fire montage of Iraq-war footage interspersed with #43’s pronouncements from the Oval Office … the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from Stone, a flame-throwing cinematic provocateur if there ever was one. Instead we get glimpses of a younger, restless, inebriate, itinerant George Bush in training to be himself, much of it done to the strains of “What a Wonderful World.”

This is likely to be Stone’s way of underpromising and overdelivering. The man is more than capable of surprises. Look at how "Alexander" turned out; people were expecting something like "Spartacus," he gave them something closer to "Caligula." No one in Hollywood or anywhere else really expects a by-the-book biopic of this president. Not three weeks before the election. Watch for more trailers — and fireworks — to come.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Wall Street Journal gets the skinny on stupid

Just when it appeared the Republican attack machine in the service of Sen. John McCain can’t get any more outlandish in its ad hominem attacks on Sen. Barack Obama, the GOP’s pit bulls and their proxies in the conservative press manage to drop through the floor of low expectations.

The latest Republican journey to cloud-cuckooland has resulted in a real piece of work in The Wall Street Journal, crown-jewel mouthpiece of owner and media Goliath Rupert Murdoch, a "story" that explores a new reason why Obama is not suited for the presidency:

In a phrase, he’s too skinny.

From a Friday piece in the Journal by “reporter” Amy Chozick:

“Speaking to donors at a San Diego fund-raiser last month, Barack Obama reassured the crowd that he wouldn't give in to Republican tactics to throw his candidacy off track,” Chozick writes.

“’Listen, I'm skinny but I'm tough,’ Sen. Obama said.

“But in a nation in which 66% of the voting-age population is overweight and 32% is obese, could Sen. Obama's skinniness be a liability? Despite his visits to waffle houses, ice-cream parlors and greasy-spoon diners around the country, his slim physique just might have some Americans wondering whether he is truly like them.”

The takeaway from this idiotic political insinuation is that Obama’s physique makes him too elitist to be president of the United States.

You can’t make this crap up. But no — actually you can. Amy Chozick did.

Not long after her outburst appeared in the Journal, the blogosphere was abuzz with a priceless update: Chozick herself had invented the story’s premise after raising the issue in a Yahoo! message board:

Is Obama too skinny to be president?
15-Jul-08 06:04 pm

Does anyone out there think Barack Obama is too thin to be president? Anyone having a hard time relating to him and his “no excess body fat”? Please let me know. Thanks!

Making this act of journalistic solicitation all the more ridiculous is that the Onion News Network, the video spinoff of the wildly successful Onion satiric newsmagazine, tackled the issue of relating candidates' weight and voter appeal as a parody six months ago.

There was, mercifully, at least a shred of real reporting in the Journal story. Chozick quotes Obama's Chicago physician David Scheiner, as saying “the senator works out regularly, jogs up to three miles a day when he can, and has ‘no excess body fat.’"

“Dr. Scheiner didn't disclose his patient's exact weight, but medical observers estimate that the 6-foot-1.5-inch-tall senator appears to weigh at least 10 pounds less than the roughly 190 pounds that the average American man of his height weighs,” Chozick wrote.

◊ ◊ ◊

But the underlying thrust of Chozick’s piece is an attempt to put distance between Obama and the American public on the weakest pretext one could imagine. Never mind the jogging regimen of President Bush. Never mind the attention Republicans religiously paid to the vigor of Ronald Reagan in his run for the presidency.

Never mind the conversion of former Arkansas Gov. and Krispy Kreme enthusiast Mike Huckabee to a low-fat diet that resulted in his celebrated loss of 110 pounds. Never mind the beneficial impact Obama’s personal example could have on the millions of Americans who are overweight or obese, facing the real dangers of diabetes and heart attacks. And never mind McCain’s apparent predilection for a training diet including Butterfinger candy bars, jelly beans, and coffee and doughnuts from Dunkin' Donuts. Obama’s unfit because … he’s too fit.

◊ ◊ ◊

As you might expect, the blogs are all over this one, with shots cheap and otherwise:

Parisienne Dreams at The Daily Kos: “So, would it be fair to say that [McCain] is too handicapped to be President since he can't lift his arms over his head?! And since he can't do that, I've been asking myself, how the hell does McCain bathe? Does Cindy wash him?? Ewwwww, gross, I just got a visual …”

Joe, posting at SadlyNo: “I actually e-mailed Amy at her WSJ address and basically told her that anyone writing an article such as “Too Fit To Be President?” and isn’t SUPREMELY embarrassed by it has something quite wrong with them. Now that I see her crackerjack reporting skills in action, I’m the one who is embarrassed. In her defense — maybe she’s 12 years old? Like, you know, she was given a prime spot in the weekend WSJ because she won a junior high school contest or something. That would certainly explain a lot.”

MarcC, writing a post at the TV blog of the Kansas City Star: “Here we have a Wall Street Journal reporter plagiarizing an Onion story, trolling for comments on the Internet, and then publishing it as a serious news story with no acknowledgment that she did either. Amazing!

All in all, It shows just how desperate the McCain crew and its journalistic enablers in fabrication really are. And despite the story’s comedic underpinnings, Chozick’s story reflects a sad comedown for the Journal, once one of the nation’s two or three preeminent news organizations, with an unassailable reputation.

It’s proof (as if any more were needed now) that The Wall Street Journal could do with a little more weight of its own. “Weight” as in heft. As in gravitas. As in seriousness about covering the issues that really matter. Think that’ll happen?

Fat chance.
Image credits: Obama: MCC Eric A. Clement, USN (public domain). Wall Street Journal page: © 2008 The Wall Street Journal. Burger plate: John Sullivan, released to public domain. Fat guy: Aspen04, released to public domain

Friday, August 1, 2008

Obama's hiphop tango: Consequences of a courtship

“You always hurt the one you love.” The song’s been in the American songbook for generations. The Mills Brothers covered it during World War II; the pop evergreen has been covered by everyone from Spike Jones to Peggy Lee. But probably as many people embrace the title’s wise irony as know the song itself. Sen. Barack Obama is one of them.

For almost two years now, the Illinois senator has been the beneficiary of the support of Christopher (Ludacris) Bridges, the Grammy-winning hip-hop artist, producer and emerging actor whose forthright street style and topical broadsides have garnered sales in the multimillions. In 2006, in the runup to his presidential campaign, and as a bid for some needed street cred, Obama met with Ludacris to talk over strategies for empowering younger voters.

Their relationship, already expedient, just got more complicated. On Wednesday, Ludacris released a video of his latest song, “Politics,” on YouTube. By all accounts, it’s straight-up Luda firing on all cylinders, with shots at Sen. Hillary Clinton, President Bush and Sen. John McCain, Obama’s presidential challenger. In a corrosive two minutes and change, Ludacris calls Clinton an “irrelevant [bitch],” posits McCain in a wheelchair, calls Bush “mentally handicapped … You’re the worst of 43 presidents,” and summons America to “paint the White House black” with the election of Obama in November.

The Obama campaign, adept at fast damage control, launched countermeasures quickly. Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton told The Politico, "As Barack Obama has said many, many times in the past, rap lyrics today too often perpetuate misogyny, materialism and degrading images that he doesn't want his daughters or any children exposed to. This song is not only outrageously offensive to Senator Clinton, Senator McCain and President Bush, it is offensive to all of us who are trying to raise our children with the values we hold dear. While Ludacris is a talented individual, he should be ashamed of these lyrics."

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Less easily resolved is the issue of generational reach; Obama needs the support of the millions of voters, black and white alike, for whom Ludacris is a simpatico social and political voice. The 45 million registered voters between 25 and 44 — a cohort that’s almost certainly right in Luda’s demographic sweet spot for sales — are vital to Obama’s chances to attain the presidency. This latest diss of Luda’s world view can’t help Obama’s relationship with younger voters for whom hip-hop matters, deeply.

The Obama-Ludacris situation reveals one of the ironies of the Obama presidential campaign and its bid for broad appeal: that his speaking truth to power would go up against that of one of his most ardent — and necessary — supporters. Luda will of course say that he and Obama are in lockstep on one truth basic to politics and business: You never forget your loyal constituents. You never turn your back on your base.

But there’s the challenge for Obama: figuring how to appeal to a younger, culturally adventurous and frighteningly intelligent segment of the American electorate without scaring off the wider range of voters — many of whom are still terrified of and confused by hip-hop culture and its drive-by velocity into the mainstream of American life. The conservatives have been only too ready to exploit that fear.

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That wider range of voters forms the base of Obama’s support; and it seems that a d├ętente is possible between Obama and the Luda demographic. Hiphop impresario Russell Simmons endorsed Obama in March. And in the June 12 edition of The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly, writer Charles Mudede interviewed a group of Seattle rap artists, and found a consensus that could be true of hiphop artists in general: Even though some were late getting on the Obama train, they’re very much on board now.

Thig, half of the Seattle hiphop duo the Physics, told Mudede: “As a person of color, I think it’s just plain crazy that someone can transcend race in this country. But that’s what just happened and it surprised the hell out of me that [white] people could look beyond color …

“When I went to my caucus, there was like two black people there. And the white people were hella pumped — Obama hats, Obama buttons, Obama this, Obama that. It’s like we are on the brink of going beyond race … I know America will not change overnight, but it’s still damn impressive.”

And Jace, of Seattle’s Silent Lambs Project, observed that Obama’s campaign means “change is now on a higher level … It’s not just: I can change the way I dress, I can change my ideology. It’s: Look at this brother who’s about to be president of the United States, with a beautiful wife and children, and he hasn’t changed. And he’s the most celebrated individual in this country. So what he’s showing brothers is: There is another way to do this. You can still be cool, still have your street cred, still have a beautiful woman, still make money — all that shit that you envy, you can do it now in a way that is right.”

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How the controversy over Luda’s “Politics” changes things, or even if it does, remains to be seen. Some are already saying it’s no big damn deal. “Hip-hoppers and black folks understand the game,” Jeff Johnson, an activist and host of an upcoming BET news and public affairs show, told The Associated Press. “They're thinking, ‘An Obama who knows how to play the game is still better for me than a McCain.’”

“There are a ton of people who clearly are looking for [Obama] to denounce this in order to continue to view him as credible,” Johnson said. “He, for political purposes, has to separate himself from anything controversially black.”

And John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute — a conservative think tank — told The AP that "I'm not aware of hip-hop music affecting any election so far, and I don't think that this is going to be one, either," McWhorter is a supporter of Obama.

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Ironically enough, there’s thinking that hiphop, so famously ahead of the curve — if not defining what the curve is — was caught off guard by the ascendancy of Obama. The Stranger’s Mudede observed that “hiphop, at a mainstream level, did not see Obama coming, and this might be a sign of its age or its loss of relevance. From 50 Cent to RZA, support famously went to Hillary Clinton’s run at the office. Hiphop missed the future.”

Hiphop and Team Obama appear to be narrowing their differences fast, the better to thwart the possibility of yet another intraracial divide: Obama’s allegiance to Hiphop Nation is every bit as much a generational issue as Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. For Obama, both raise questions over how best to wade in the mainstream — how best not to be portrayed as “controversially black.”

No small thing when (as hiphop has made clear for a generation, and American race relations has made clear forever) to be black in the United States is to be born controversial.
Image credits: Ludacris: PA2 Anastasia Burns, U.S. Coast Guard (public domain). The Stranger cover: © 2008 The Stranger.
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