Thursday, November 27, 2008

Giving thanks

Something big happened earlier this month. We almost managed to forget about it. We got distracted — there was a little election going on in these parts. Maybe you heard.

But it was on Nov. 9, 2004 — in the wake of the previous presidential election — that Our Founder and various ethereal co-conspirators launched the blog you now read, and read not just here in Seattle or even just the United States, but in places on every continent around this wide and shrinking world.

The 'Vox was hoping to achieve a voice online, as part of a blogosphere that was, at that point, even more in its infancy than it is today. After Sen. John Kerry's defeat on Election Night 2004, it was clear the populist voice of the Internet hadn't fully developed. Collectively we hadn't yet generated the — what's the word? — audacity the medium demanded.

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That was then. In 2004 there were an estimated 4 million blogs. Now, four years later, that's grown to more than 130 million. The 'Vox likes to think that this blog's nerve, its guts and maybe even brains have gained a sophistication that's grown with its audience. We hope we're getting to be as smart as the blogosphere is big.

The 'Vox has tried to present something informative and insightful, irascible and maybe even audacious. We've ventured to be an honest expression of a liberal voice that's not quite so much in the wilderness as it was before. Back on Nov. 9, 2004. But as much as anything, we've tried to build something entertaining, a worthwhile pause in the rush toward the unknown, something to get one's head into for five minutes behind a cuppa and a smoke, a celebration of the written word that wants to make you laugh, maybe make you cry, and hopefully make you think. If the 'Vox does nothing else, that's enough.

So, be it resolved from Rain City, on this day of Thanksgiving, the 'Vox says: Muchas gracias. Spasibo, tovarich. Grazie. Arigato gozaimasu. Danke schoen. ευχαριστία. Obrigado. धन्यवाद. Danku. תודה. Merci beaucoup. All due props.

We won't say "couldn't have done it without you." We could have, but it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A failure to communicate

There is a God, and He or She has a profound and wicked sense of humor.

That’s the only conclusion we can come to with the Tuesday report that one of the right wing’s most aggressive apologists has acquired, well, a little problem with the ability to fully get her point across.

The notorious Page Six of Tuesday’s New York Post reported that Ann Coulter, tireless conservative attack-dog apparatchik and character assassin, broke her jaw recently — the story didn’t say when or how — and underwent procedures to wire her jaws shut for an indefinite period of time.

The Page Six report was apparently unconfirmed, but the stalwarts of journalism at The Post thought it was solid enough to publish anyway.

If it’s true, just think: No speaking from Ann Coulter. No verbal assaults on liberalism, the media and any other targets of opportunity from this self-described polemicist. Blessed quiet, for a while, at least.

Now, we don’t want to get all schadenfreudy about this. Breaking any part of your body is a painful thing. And we can all agree that this week — Thanksgiving week — may be the worst time of the year for this to happen, especially for a woman already as painfully thin as Coulter, now facing the dinner-table prospect of a holiday feast by Cuisinart tomorrow. Turkey in the straw, indeed.

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But there’s no escaping it, if it’s true: After years of racial and religious insensitivity and reactionary vitriol on television, talk radio and between book covers, splashing hate on her political enemies and other people, who didn’t deserve it, there’s undeniable poetic justice in this turn of events. If true, Coulter's injury would be the grimly ideal grace note on the Republicans’ winter of discontent, a perfect physical metaphor for a political party stumbling through its own failure to communicate.

We understand that Coulter was preparing to start a speaking tour in support of her new book, “Guilty,” which reportedly lambasts the media for a pro-Obama slant during the presidential campaign. This would complicate things on that score.

But only for a while. Rest assured, she’ll be back at it sometime before the inauguration, staring at us again with those vacant gumball-blue eyes, jabbering with Glenn Beck on CNN or Sean Hannity on Fox, spouting the invective that has made her a rich woman.

We wish her a full recovery, if not necessarily a speedy one. Meantime, let’s revel in the quiet. “Silence is golden,” the saying goes. Never more so than now.
Image credits: Coulter: Anthony Catalano, Brooklyn, N.Y., USA, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license. "Guilty" cover: © 2008 Crown Forum.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Gates of the Pentagon

Barack Obama hasn’t even raised his hand to take the oath of office — right now he’s still the Pre-President of the United States — but already some elements of the anti-war, left-leaning Democratic base are said to have their sustainable bamboo knickers in a twist over Obama’s plan to keep Robert Gates at his post as the Secretary of Defense, for at least a year.

They’re likely even more upset by the fact that, according to NBC News’ Jim Miklazsewski, the plan to keep Gates as SecDef has been “a done deal for some time.” Apparently, Team Obama didn’t even entertain the usual parade of possibles that attend a high-level vacancy at the Pentagon.

There’s much to arouse the suspicions of the loyal base. Gates was the enforcer of the Bush doctrine vis-à-vis the Iraq war; in more than one briefing since he was confirmed in December 2006, Gates seemed to dutifully champion the Bushies’ talking points and, for the most part, just as dutifully executed the policy that preceded him.

For the ardent lefties — a vast percentage of whom voted for Obama three weeks ago today — they feel that they voted for a new government, a shift that in their minds is most clearly symbolized by a turnover of the people running the government they voted to Change.

They’re not rolling the tumbrels up to the Rose Garden yet — can’t do that until at least Jan. 20. But if they pause for a moment, they’re likely to change their minds after getting a glimpse of the grander design that just might be in the mind of the 44th President of the United States.

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There’s a matter of perception. Gates comes across as infinitely more level-headed and pragmatic than his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, whose hawk-in-chief pronouncements were all of a piece for the wounded, angry early years after the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001.

Where over time Rumsfeld seemed to go out of his way to court animosity, Gates has communicated a sense of open-minded practicality at odds with the bellicose Bush neocons. “Gates has been in many ways the anti-Rumsfeld,” said Newsweek’s Howard Fineman tonight on MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.”

“Gates has been widely viewed as a very successful follow-on to the disasters of Rumsfeld in terms of management, in terms of outlook and so forth," Fineman said. "Successful" could be interpreted as someone who (a la Scott Fitzgerald in "The Crack-Up") has the kind of first-rate intellect that lets him keep two opposing ideas in his hand at the same time and still maintain the ability to function.

About what you'd expect from a Vietnam veteran, a former member of the Iraq Study Group, published author and former president of Texas A&M University with a doctorate in Russian and Soviet history.

Still, there’s that boilerplate question from the boiling left: How does holding Gates over in that position dovetail with Obama’s meme of change?

Maybe the books on Barack’s night-time reading stand would be instructive. We already know he’s big on Lincoln biographies and Reinhold Niebuhr. There just may be something in that pile from Sun Tze, “The Art of War,” expressing the brilliant Zen aspect of the idea that sometimes the most provocative change you can make is no change at all.

Obama no doubt understands that — contrary to the Republican philosophy — personality is not the driver of policy in a properly functioning administration. Policy is. The policy for the widely reviled Iraq war isn’t dictated by the Secretary of Defense, it comes from the administration. Just because Gates remains at his post at the Pentagon doesn’t throw that over as a new administration arrives.

Consider. Gates, who moved over to Defense from Central Intelligence, has had almost two years’ experience in managing the Iraq war, as well as an ominously expanding conflict in Afghanistan. He’s been in country several times; he’s widely respected in Washington as a capable, hard-nosed administrator; and with experience at CIA, he’s surely cognizant of the ways in which national security in the military sense dances with security as a matter of intelligence. He’s the right man for the job right now. Just one more of the crazy-smart people that Barack Obama likes to have around him at any given time.

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And therein may lie the kernel of Obama’s strategy. Throughout the campaign, more times than we could count, Obama made the pledge of withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq “in 16 months” of taking office.

You can make the case, and Pre-President Obama almost certainly will, that with Robert Gates in place at the Pentagon, the ability to keep that campaign pledge of Out in 16 Months becomes considerably more doable, more achievable, by making no change in that pivotal position.

A new Secretary of Defense (and the office wing of staff people he brings with him) necessarily requires time to ramp up to the needs of the moment, to get up to speed on the latest developments from the singular perspective of SecDef. Gates doesn’t have to get up to speed. He’s already there. He knows the players — hell, he’s one of the players. No break-in period required.

This is all chin-pulling and surmise, of course. The particulars of the Obama exit strategy are known but to him, his closest advisers, and probably Michelle (who knows everything anyway). But the diehards in the Democratic base should chill for a bit, and let the man they’ve elected do what’s needed — hire or retain who’s needed — in order to get things accomplished.

The Gates at the Pentagon will stay there, for a year or so. But it all seems to be part of the wider plan (and God knows we haven’t had one of those in a while). Continuity trumps chaos, but ironically, continuity isn’t incompatible with change. Order is preferable to intrigue. And isn’t order what we voted for?
Image credit: Gates top: Public domain. Gates #2: Ed Schipul, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Team of teammates

Barack Obama’s post-Bush vision of American government is starting to take shape before post-Bush America even happens. Some fifty-eight days before he’s sworn into office, the 44th President of the United States is building a Cabinet and cadre of advisers that may well be running before they hit the ground.

Obama is reportedly set to name Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Fedeal Reserve Bank, to be the next Secretary of the Treasury. Highly regarded in financial circles, Geithner has worked under two previous treasury secretaries, been a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and helped to engineer the sale of Bear Stearns earlier this year.

Lawrence Summers, a former Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, is reportedly set to be tapped to lead the National Economic Council, and is thought likely to succeed Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve in 2010.

Without meaning to, Bill Richardson may be burnishing his reputation as the Swiss Army knife of Democratic politics. The former United Nations ambassador, Secretary of Energy, Congressman and current governor of New Mexico is said to be in line for the post of Secretary of Commerce.

The fact that Richardson was or will be apparently offered Commerce after it was refused by Croesus-rich Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker may not sit well with Latino Americans, who may suspect (with some justification) that Richardson was the second choice for a Cabinet post with a relatively low public profile.

Robert Gates, the current Secretary of Defense, is expected to stay in that post in the short term, although the potential for popular blowback against Obama’s administration for holding over a Bush facilitator of the Iraq war may prompt a change sooner rather than later.

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And then there’s the big one we’ve been waiting for. Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former antagonist on the campaign trail, is said to have been offered and accepted the post of the next Secretary of State. This has been floated for several days now, accompanied by the various intrigues and deceptions that are common to the Clinton Way.

There's no question that Clinton would bring to that job a formidable intellect, a strong recognized brand, and a wide portfolio of world leaders she calls friends.

But we’ve been led to believe, via some well-timed leaks, that the devil is in the details — among them what access she’d have to the President, and who she can bring in for her staff. According to news reports, I’s are also still being dotted and T’s being crossed on matters concerning the business dealings of Hill’s hubby, former president Bill Clinton, and his Clinton Global Initiative, a charity has raised more than $500 million for a variety of causes, much of it through donors originating outside the United States.

But all the to-ing and fro-ing about her accepting the position, all the Clintonesque drama never really amounted to that much, if you think about it.

Think about it. Hillary Clinton was beaten, soundly and plainly, by a superior candidate for the Democratic nomination. Until the Obama proffer, she faced the prospect of her bifocal days in the United States Senate, just one of a hundred others, tail between the legs of her pantsuit in defeat, with a weaker leverage than she had before she pursued the presidency, outflanked and sidelined on health care —the issue that’s been her abiding passion for twenty years — and fated to be the lioness in political winter.

Who in hell’d want to go back to that?

She’s not ready to settle down, sitting on the porch in Chappaqua holding hands with Bill (or not). Becoming Secretary of State keeps her in play, on the top shelf and (sometimes) leading the news; it enables her to continue the sharklike forward motion necessary for political survival, and lets her ride the coattails of the broadest populist experience in American political history.

Never mind the drama and artificial suspense. The option of accepting the Secretary of State gig was the only real option Hillary Clinton had.

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All props are due to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the eminent historian, biographer and Red Sox fan whom we deeply admire (despite the Red Sox thing). Her 2005 book “Team of Rivals,” a study of President Lincoln’s efforts at building a bipartisan Cabinet of ambitious, disputatious advisers in the runup to a ruinous civil war, is being held up as possibly reflective of President-elect Obama’s own across-the-aisle style.

But the names now afloat in the 24/7 ether of today suggest that the antagonisms implicit in Goodwin’s title may not necessarily be in play in 2008. This is a very serious crew that Obama is building, a group that in the early going, at least, will have every reason to be less a team of rivals than a team of teammates.

Everybody’s watching on this one, and Team Obama knows it. This is one administration that understands going in how high the stakes are, that there’s near-zero public tolerance for machinations and stratagems and bullshit. The kind of thing that happens when an administration has too much time on its hands and not enough to do.

In ways we can’t really see just yet, the Obama administration should be well served by the very diversity of talents and viewpoints these names represent. There’s someone in that list of Cabinet probables to delight and piss off everyone. No doctrinaire conformity with expectation, no automatic racial affinities.

This is a Whitman’s Sampler of government, a box crowded with career thinkers and scholars and politicians. People who know their way around. People who, presumably anyway, know how to get things done when challenged by the demanding, superior intellect of the next President of the United States. People smart enough to submerge their outsize egos for the purpose of tackling, among other problems, the most precipitous financial crisis this country has seen in generations.

By even the most conservative (small “c”) assessments, Barack Obama won a mandate to govern on Nov. 4th; the speed with which he’s assembling a Cabinet and formulating a policy for addressing various national ills suggest a president who recognizes the gravity of what’s facing the country today. There’s every good reason to think Barack Obama will bring to the White House the same focus, the same energy and relentless sense of purpose that he brought to a transformational presidential campaign.

Such is the depth of the crisis, and the utter absence of governmental oversight by the nonentity known as George W. Bush, that in practical terms, Barack Obama and his circle have already effectively taken control of the American economy, and done so out of necessity.

With the help of a majority Democratic Congress and a broad acceptance by the American people, Team Obama is champin’ at the proverbial bit, ready to replace the slow, clueless, twenty-mule team of the Bush administration. The thoroughbreds about to start this dash to the future may be a skittish lot (especially the one at the State Department). Bet on the next president, the man with the whip hand, to take on the challenge of keeping them in line.
Image credits: Geithner: Public domain. Richardson: sskennel, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. Clinton: Bbsrock, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Team of Rivals cover: © 2005 Simon & Schuster. Whitman's Sampler: © 2008 Whitman's Candies, Inc. Barack Obama: Public domain.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Modern times to newspapers: Wake up

We know it’s bad for the U.S. economy, and for everyone who earns or spends money in that economy. And we’ve known the situation has been more than just momentarily dire for the print media, specifically the publishers and journalists who toil at newspapers and magazines. Two recent stories, though, bring home rather painfully just how bad it is if you work for a newspaper in these 24/7 Internet days.

The Denver altweekly Westword reported on Wednesday that staff members of the Longmont, Colo. Times-Call newspaper have been invited to the publisher’s holiday party … but not like you might think. Planners for the party, meant to pay tribute to Ed Lehman, observing his 51st year as the Times-Call's publisher, intend to give the newspaper’s staffers the option of working the party … as valets — parking cars for the arriving guests. Westword's Michael Roberts reported that Times-Call employees who do the valet work will earn the same rate of pay they get for their day jobs.

Editor & Publisher’s Joe Strupp reports on how grave the situation is for the Newark Star-Ledger, part of the Advance Publications galaxy of media properties and a newspaper that has struggled with economic downsizing and its editorial consequences for many months. Strupp said this week in E&P that Star-Ledger reporter Jason Jett and assistant deputy photo editor Mitchell Seidel had been recently reassigned to the mailroom and have been filing, sorting, and delivering mail. Star-Ledger editor Jim Willse declined to comment — and what the hell could he possibly say if he did? The thing speaks, with a sorry eloquence, for itself.

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These events are a sad testimony of an industry in technological and economic decline. The newspaper industry’s woes are nothing new. The newspaper industry has long been a victim of a tragic irony: a craft and a calling responsible for communicating the Now to its readers has been historically reluctant to end its embrace with Yesterday.

It was newspapers that were called to account for their failings to fully report news beyond the concerns of their white male executives and managers, in the 1968 Kerner Commission reports.

It’s newspapers, and the magazine biz (their partners in cultural myopia) that are still criticized for a lack of minority hiring and advancement in the editorial ranks.

It has been newspapers at the tip of the spear of an industry slow to recognize the awesome information-gathering potential of the Internet, then slow to adapt the Internet’s capabilities to their own business model.

And it’s the newspaper business that’s in a free fall so seemingly irreversible, some have suggested that the newspaper business as we’ve known it is a dead issue.

The newspaper industry has dug in its heels, resistant to change as it’s always been.

Want proof? Blogger, publishing industry veteran and media critic Martin Langeveld, whose blog News After Newspapers scouts the frontier of news and information deilvery, blogged about The American Press Institute’s media CEO conference, held on Nov. 13. Langeveld took note of the following excerpt from the API summary of the event:

Participants agreed to reconvene in six months, and to explore additional collaboration. Some spoke of joint investment in research and development of both technologies and products, others of more formal means of sharing information.

“Six months?” Langeveld responded. “What are they thinking? They’ve laid off more than 10,000 people in the last six months — what will be left six months from now? They need to launch a Manhattan project to blow up their industry and start over. Now, not six months from now.”

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The leadership of the API conference apparently has some grasp of how dire the situation is, calling in a behavioral expert to put things in the clear, stark, analytical language that journalists understand.

Some verbate from the API summary:

“According to James Shein, Ph.D., turnaround specialist and professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, companies should start by plotting their place on a "Phases of a Crisis" chart. The earliest stage is indicated by a company essentially blind to eroding conditions undermining its business. This is followed by acknowledgement but inaction, followed by faulty action in hopes of a quick fix, followed by full-blown crisis and finally dissolution of the enterprise. According to Shein, failure to take action at any point on the curve means the enterprise inexorably moves to the next point. As an organization moves down the crisis curve, it will find executing a recovery plan more difficult, and will have less time to do it.”

Shein apparently pulled few punches telling the newspaper leaders the truth.

“The biggest hurdles to progress [are] the industry's senior leadership, including some of the people in this room.” Shein told the group at one point. “I am not sure you can take a look at your industry with fresh eyes.”

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Can this institution be saved? Can this institution be transformed? Time will tell. A blogger writing as Newshare, commenting recently at News after Newspapers, noted that the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute will convene The Information Valet Project from Dec. 3-5 in Columbia, Mo.

“It's just the sort of blow-up-the-industry solution that's needed — a complete change of perspective away from a focus on a product — the newspaper — and to a new relationship with users,” Newshare writes.

For the sake of reporters and editors turned into carhops, for the sake of journalists reluctantly repurposed as mail sorters … one can only hope.

What’s called for is new thinking — utterly, scarily new thinking, something along the lines of what constituted the dividing line between monks writing on parchment and movable type. It’s got to be that stark. That dramatic. That old world-versus-new.

Otherwise … this is the fishwrap nightmare come true, the twilight of the gods of print media, those once-mandarins of communications whose medium, subject to today’s rapacious informational Darwinism, is on the verge of irrelevance.
Image credits: Times-Call logo: © 2008 Longmont Times-Call. Star-Ledger logo: © 2008 Newark Star-Ledger/Advance Publications. 'Len Ganeway,' Brookgreen Gardens, S.C.: Derek Wernher, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Phases graph, American Press Institute. Woodcut, 1568: Public domain.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Goodbye Uncle Ted

Some birthday gifts you never forget, for all the wrong reasons. You’d love to take them back to exchange for something better; that’s when you discover there’s a policy of “no returns.”

Yesterday, on his 85th birthday, Sen. Theodore Fulton Stevens of Alaska — “Uncle Ted” to his loyal constituents — learned there'll be no returns to his seat in the Senate, where he was the longest-serving Republican member. Stevens, convicted on seven counts of felony corruption eight days before the Nov. 4th election, today conceded a loss to his challenger, Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, Alaska.

“Given the number of ballots that remain to be counted, it is apparent the election has been decided and Mayor Begich has been elected,” Stevens said in a statement. For what it’s worth, the Associated Press called the race for Begich last night, once it was determined that Stevens trailed Begich by 3,724 votes, with only 2,500 votes left to be counted.

Begich’s win means that the Democrats have 56 firm votes in the Senate, plus the votes of two independents, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who caucus with the Dems. The tally of 58 means the Democrats are two shy of the 60-seat filibuster-proof majority. Races in Minnesota and Georgia are still to be decided more than two weeks after the presidential election.

Stevens’ defeat means the end of a political career measured in tree-ring time. Stevens, a senator for 40 years, advocated for Alaska before Alaska was even a state, appointed as U.S. Attorney for the then-territory of Alaska in March 1954. The airport in Anchorage is named for him. The man once named “Alaskan of the Century” was acclaimed by a fellow senator as “the Strom Thurmond of the Arctic Circle” (more a nod to his longevity, we hope, than to any flirtations with segregation).

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With Stevens gone, a generational transition continues for the GOP. With graybeards like Mississippi’s Trent Lott, Dennis DeConcini of New Mexico and John Warner of Virginia already retired, and with an Election Day loss of multiple seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives, a vacuum of leadership looms for the Grand Old Party. Ironically enough, the mantra of change adopted by Democratic President-elect Barack Obama throughout his campaign has by accident been taken up by the Republicans as well.

The political wild card in all of this is (or might have been) Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who needed a Stevens victory in order to advance her leverage on the political scene. The thinking goes that, had Stevens won, his fellow Republicans would have called on him to resign. Having a convicted felon in the ranks of the GOP just … wouldn’t look good. Having to expel him would look even worse; no sitting senator has been jettisoned from office since the Civil War.

Palin, who once worked for Stevens' 527 group, had her eye on Stevens’ Senate seat. In a Nov. 12 interview with CNN, she as much as owned up to it. "'I believe I have a contract with Alaskans to serve. I have two more years in my term at this point … as Governor," she said. "If something changed dramatically and if it were acknowledged up there that I could be better put to use for my state in the U.S. Senate, I would certainly consider it."

Had Stevens prevailed at the polls but been forced to resign, Palin would have had to call a special election 60 to 90 days from when Stevens vacated his seat. Palin would have had to make a temporary appointment to hold the seat for the rest of Stevens’ term, which was set to end in 2014.

Republicans in Alaska had already bandied about the name of one potential candidate. You got it: Sarah Palin.

Begich’s victory outright spares us that frightening prospect.

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At the age of 85, Uncle Ted Stevens has earned some quality time off in these, his emeritus years. Various land and construction deals, along with the ties and associations that a senator inevitably cultivates over 40 years, have left him a rich and comfortable man.

The rest of us (down here in the Lower 48) can relax a little, knowing that Alaska has shifted politically from its longtime hue of reflexive red to something closer to the color purple.

A Democrat represents the Last Frontier in the world’s greatest deliberative body. And for now, at least, Sarah Palin will have a better view of Russia than she’ll have of the chambers of the United States Senate.
Image credits: Stevens: Public domain.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A grand jury of his fears

The nerve of some people.

If you want an idea of how fast and how slowly this nation can change on the ticklish issue of race, consider the case of two racist mushwits, an assassination plot, a grand jury and the desire for a fair and impartial jury. But maybe not like you think.

Daniel Cowart, 20, of Bells, Tenn., and Paul Schlesselman, 18, of Helena-West Helena, Ark., were recently charged in Memphis with an assassination plot against President-elect Barack Obama. The authorities told The Associated Press that the two white supremacists were planning a robbery and killing spree in which dozens of African Americans would be murdered, apparently indiscriminately. The assassination of Obama was to be their triumphal act of savagery.

Cowart and Schlesselman were charged with threatening a presidential candidate and taking firearms across state lines to commit crimes.

But The AP reported Thursday that Cowart is seeking to have his indictment dismissed, claiming that the federal grand jury leveling the charges has … too many black people on it for him to get a fair trial.

According to AP, Cowart's lawyer, Joe Byrd, filed a petition Thursday seeking to have Cowart’s indictment dismissed, arguing that the 23-member grand jury that brought the indictment only had two white members, and therefore couldn’t have been fair and impartial.

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Never mind the fact that black American service on grand juries is a relatively rare thing in the first place. The Cowart case isn’t the first time that the historically more common equation of black defendant/white grand jury has been turned on its ear.

In April 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in Campbell v. Louisiana) that white criminal defendants indicted by grand juries from which black people had been excluded could fight the constitutionality of the indictment, on the basis of those juries not representing the defendant or his community.

That ruling largely hinged on the Court's analysis of white defendant Terry Campbell's claim of a violation of the right to equal protection guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment — essentially, Campbell’s right to stand in the role of black people excluded from the jury by asserting a violation of their right to equal protection.

A 1991 SCOTUS decision, Powers v. Ohio, held that a white defendant could challenge the exclusion of black jurors from the trial jury.

But the current case may be the first in which an avowed white supremacist —a man whom authorities believe had vast racial murder on his mind — tried to avail himself of protections more frequently sought by the racially disenfranchised.

There’s inescapable irony in a white supremacist mounting the same jury-of-one’s-peers argument that blacks and other minorities have employed to counter the historical racially one-sided dynamics of grand jury composition. What colossal nerve! Who does this guy think he is — an African American?

On the one hand, it’s an amusing turnabout-as-fair-play situation. But on the other, it’s a perversely reassuring validation of our justice system. White supremacist pursues dismissal of an indictment — on racial grounds. You don’t hear of that happening everyday, now, do you?
Image credits: Cowart: Unknown (possibly from his MySpace page). Supreme Court Building: Duncan Lock (Dflock), republished under GNU Free Documentation License v1.2 or later.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Mr. Feelgood

The latest appropriation of President-elect Barack Obama as artistic commodity showed up on the new cover of Time Magazine, with the POTUS-in-waiting Photoshopped as a brutha remake of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the legendary FDR, right down to the glasses and the jaunty clench of a cigarette holder.

There are dissimilarities, of course: Obama doesn’t wear glasses, and Michelle would beat his brains out if he walked in the house smiling behind a cigarette. But Time’s deft photo-illustration draws a comparison between the two that’s ironically less about visuals and more about emotions.

As much as he was the architect of or catalyst for any number of policies and agencies shepherded through Congress and into American life, FDR was also the empath-in-chief, responsible for imparting the idea of things being better right around the proverbial corner. The rakish angle of FDR’s signature cigarette holder was no accident; the semiotics of such a seemingly uncalculated act communicated the daring, buccaneer aspect of the American character. Relax, FDR seemed to say. We're gonna get through this. We’re gonna be all right.

Fast forward three-plus generations later. In the midst of another existential crisis for the nation, the next president emerges as the same kind of breath-of-fresh-air, a break with the past, someone we can feel good about.

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This in several important ways is Obama Mission #1 right now: Being Mr. Feelgood. Despite there being a need to buckle down to the hard and specific decisions involved in effectively building a government from scratch, with all the wonkish details that process requires, this may be Obama’s most important job in the sixty-seven days before he assumes the presidency and its awesome leverages.

More than the dead statistical certainty embodied in policies and metrics and bailout plans, right now the American people need a sense, a feeling that things are going to improve. They need a smile from the White House, not the calculated smirk they’ve grown unaccustomed to over the last eight years.

By and large, all world leaders are in the reaction business — responding to crises real or perceived. The special ones make more than a sideline of emotional projection, not forecasting the future but projecting their own sense of the future and communicating it, visibly and physically.

Throughout the course of a bruising presidential campaign, Barack Obama has always taken the high emotional road, maintaining an upbeat campaign ethos that has imprinted well on the national consciousness. Obama both prevailed in, and defined, the year of the underdog.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s been a good year for the underdog. Uno won top honors at the Westminster dog show, topping competitors to win best in show — the first beagle to do it in the Westminster's 131 years. “Juno” the movie won a best original screenplay Oscar for writer Diablo Cody. That plucky little indie movie made for chump change made more than $100 million worldwide. Juneau the city (and the state of Alaska it’s attached to) came out from nowhere onto the national media map, courtesy of Gov. Sarah Palin. (Two out of three ain’t bad.)

The New York Giants, never thought to be in contention for ruling the football world, humiliated the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Tampa Bay Rays, a team with the worst record in major league baseball last season, fought its way into this year’s World Series. From worst to first in one year.

Americans deeply love the scrappy little challenger that could. That’s one of the reasons why, over the course of the campaign, Obama built up a reservoir of national goodwill that transcended the particularities of politics, and the raw-nerve insistence of race. He became the guy we liked. The guy we liked to like.

The people of the United States have always had a wary dance with their highest authority figures, by turns accepting them and rejecting them with equal passion. The presidents we’ve revered in the past — FDR, JFK, Reagan, Clinton — found a way to inspire as well as instruct, to make us believe in the home run when all we could see was life as an unending series of grounders and foul tips.

That’s what Obama can do right now, as much as anything else before he takes office.

The new season, of course, officially starts Jan. 20, but the word from the incoming commissioner is already out: No more small ball. Next year we start swinging for the fences again.
Image credits: Time cover: © 2008 Time Inc. Diablo Cody: UPI/Jim Ruymen. FDR: Detail from photo from Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Seven seconds of separation

Thanks to MSNBC talk-show host Joe Scarborough, you’ll get your cup of “Morning Joe” seven seconds later than you could before.

The weekday early-morning news and commentary show made more news than it reported on one day this week.

On Monday, Scarborough talked politics with Time Magazine’s Jay Carney, columnist Mike Barnicle and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski. In comments contrasting the "steady nature" of the Obama brain trust and the proclivities of Rahm Emanuel, tapped to be the chief of staff for the Obama administration, Scarborough made mention of Emanuel’s reportedly piquant and abrasive conversational style ... and revealed nothing less than his own:

Once he’d gotten down off his political high horse and comprehended the reactions of those in the studio around him — Barnicle’s reaction: Priceless — Scarborough was suitably contrite. "Did I say the word?... My wife is going to kill me when I get home... I'm going to go get some soap."

The seven-second delay is nothing new to longtime broadcasters. Started in the 1950’s (often as a five-second delay), the practice evolved from crude tweaks of reel-to-reel tape to accommodate temporary postponements of speech to actual software modules that can now actually insert delays of up to ten seconds in the broadcast of live content.

Now, it seems, it’s time to welcome back an old favorite from yesteryear. MSNBC announced that, starting with the broadcast on Tuesday, “Morning Joe” would be tape-delayed by seven seconds, lest Scarborough’s righteous right-wing vitriol surface again.

Everything old is new again, the saying goes. That’s nowhere more true than it is on the “Morning Joe” set right now. Or seven seconds from right now.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

All chronologies

He’s the human figure on one of the iconic record covers of rock history, a cynically wry statement on the power of our economy and its corrupting influences, and an introduction to the rock band that simply owned the early 1990’s. A lot of pressure for an infant who probably wanted nothing more than his next breast or bottle of milk.

The name Spencer Elden won’t set off bells of memory in your head, but if you’ve heard or own the 1991 album ”Nevermind” by the legendary, tragically short-lived band Nirvana, you’ve seen Spencer Elden in his birthday suit not long after its delivery and his own, baby-boy floating serenely in a swimming pool at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center in Pasadena, Calif. Elden's parents got $200 for making Spencer available for his closeup back in 1991. Later on, some photo-illustration wizard added a fishhook dangling a dollar bill tantalizingly within reach of the waterchild. Instant pop iconography.

MTV News’ Chris Harris reported last week that more than 17 years after Elden's parents dropped him into the pool where underwater photographer Kirk Weddle shot several frames of the baby Spencer, the grown-up Spencer Elden had recently recreated the “Nevermind” cover (with swim trunks on this time).

MTV News reported it wasn’t clear why Elden decided to recreate the cover … maybe just one of those wild-hair moments teenagers get sometimes.

In August 2007 Elden told MTV News that "it's kind of creepy [to think] that that many people have seen me naked — I feel like I'm the world's biggest porn star."

Uh, well … not really, big guy. The major hormones common to your gender hadn’t quite kicked in in ‘91.

Not that he hasn’t explored the carnal dividends of infant celebrity as an adult. Elden told MTV News last year that being the Nirvana baby has a romantic upside. He’s mentioned it when trying to pick up the ladies: "I have to use stupid pickup lines like, 'You want to see my penis ... again?' "

◊ ◊ ◊

A lot’s happened since Nirvana self-destructed — when Kurt Cobain committed suicide in Seattle on April 5, 1994, at the age of 27. Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic’s gone on to political activism. Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl began a second musical chapter of his life with a little band called Foo Fighters. Both have had various legal estate-related skirmishes with Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, who remains, now and forever, Courtney Love.

In 2004, the Library of Congress picked “Nevermind” to be one of 50 albums to be added to the National Recording Registry that year. And the album has gone on in the years since its release to rack up sales of more than 26 million copies worldwide.

In the face of all that importance, all that … heaviness, maybe we should be glad that, just for the hell of it, a relatively uncomplicated teenager got back in the pool where his fifteen minutes of fame began. After 17 years — four times longer than Nirvana burned brightly as a band — Spencer Elden’s keeping his head above water pretty well.
Image credit: Big Spencer: Little Spencer (on Nevermind cover): © 1991 The David Geffen Company.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


The presidential election of 2008 is over. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United States, and its first black chief executive, and nothing in America will ever be the same.

Including the Republican Party.

The debris of the train wreck that was the campaign of Sen. John McCain has barely stopped falling to earth, and the GOP is already huddling in postmortem mode, wargaming scenarios for 2010 — and engaging in the obligatory post-loss soul searching. Where did they go wrong?

The inevitable diversities of opinion about how the Republican brand, and Republican electoral prospects, went so far south point to a central problem with the Republicans. It’s a question of identity. There is soul searching going on within the GOP. The bigger problem for the party is apparently having more than one soul to search.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s the literate, intellectual soul of the Republican Party, the approach to fiscal and cultural conservatism as espoused by William F. Buckley, widely hailed as an architect of the modern conservative movement and a man who once lamented having spent his “entire life time separating the Right from the kooks.”

There’s the NASCAR-and-barbecue soul of the Republican Party, symbolized by the millions who take their emotional cues on politics from the pit bulls of talk radio like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

And there’s the moderate aspect of the party, reflected by loyal pragmatists and centrists like Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, just defeated in his bid for re-election.

Steve Schmidt, campaign director for the McCain campaign, told uberlogger Ana Marie Cox last week in the Daily Beast:

“The Republican Party wants to, needs to, be able to represent, you know, not only conservatives, but centrists as well. And the party that controls the center is the party that controls the American electorate.” Earth to Schmidt: Ya think? What took you so long?

Schmidt said that, but he doesn’t believe it. Or more accurately, he might believe it now but he clearly didn’t believe that statement in the heat of the campaign. Schmidt, along with campaign strategist Rick Davis and McCain mouthpiece-in-chief Tucker Bounds, never played to the center of the American electorate. With more and more use of the politics of division, including coarse appeals to ethnic and racial animosities, John McCain & Co. ultimately did their best to appeal to the conservative base, and there’s nothing centrist about the conservative base.

The McCain campaign expended enormous personal and political energies working overtime to excite its core constituency, but the base was going to turn out for McCain anyway (grudgingly if necessary). Why? Because the Republican base skews older, whiter and more affluent, and older, whiter and more affluent Americans who are Republicans show up and vote. Republicans don’t do staying home on Election Day very well. Staying at home on Election Day is for Democrats. Or so they thought.

◊ ◊ ◊

Observers, some in the GOP itself, have called for the party to take a chill pill, to study the X-rays before writing a prescription.

Ross Douthat of Slate wrote the day after the election: “A pair of defeats as resounding as '06 and '08 have a thousand fathers, no matter how much every right-winger would like to assign paternity to someone else. Which means that the best thing, by far, for the American right would be for every sect within the conservative temple to spend some time in self-examination before it turns to flinging blame.”

And Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, reacting to talk that names are already being bandied about for the 2012 race, was plainer still. “I’m going to tell you something,” he told Jonathan Martin of The Poilitico. “One of the worst things that can happen to the Republican Party in our effort to rebuild is for a bunch of people to start running for president. Anybody harboring that ambition needs to squelch it until after 2010. … Anybody out there running for president is undercutting what’s important. You do this against your own interest.”

Of all the inward-looking debate in this, the GOP’s sackcloth-and-ashes period, there’s been talk about the need for conservatives to hew to their “core principles,” about conservatives vowing never to sacrifice those principles, under pain of becoming a party without a philosophy.

What are those “core principles”? Maybe soon-to-be-former Congressman Shays touched on them when he told NBC News tonight that, in order to be competitive, “you’ve got to reach out to African Americans, you’ve got to reach out to Latinos and you’ve got to be an inclusive party, and we aren’t right now, but we will be or we will be extinct.”

Maybe former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele, an African American Republican, will tap into that spirit when he announces, as he’s expected to do soon, his intent to seek the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee.

◊ ◊ ◊

However long this well-deserved time in the wilderness lasts, the Party of Lincoln and its supporters will ultimately need to look closely at one man, one of their own, and then answer two questions.

The man is Paul Weyrich, the co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority, a darling of the arch conservative movement and to this day a Washington Times columnist and an adviser on conservative political strategies. Weyrich said the following in Dallas, in the fall of 1980:

“Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome — good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

The questions to be answered by the Republican Party are simple: Does this man’s stand reflect your core principles, your values as Republicans and as Americans? Is this in any way what you believe?

◊ ◊ ◊

Whatever soul searching the GOP engages in between now and 2012 stands for nothing without answering those questions first. Everything — every possibility of a conservative populist reinvention in the years to come, maybe even the very future of the Republican Party — depends on the answer to that question by everyone from the party’s leaders to its rank and file.

Plurality is foundational to American government. The majority rules. Without taking the opportunity to expand the potential for being in the majority by expanding the base of the party itself, the GOP sabotages its own future.

The majority rules. Last time we checked, Barack Obama did win this election with a majority of the voting American people. He defeated John McCain by seven percentage points, with more than 130 million votes cast.

Note to RNC leadership: If you want to win with the base, widen the base.

Note to Paul Weyrich: You can’t hold the center of the American electorate if you don’t know what the center of the American electorate is. Guess what? That’s what the votes will tell you. The more of them, the better.
Image credits: Train wreck, Shays, Buckley, Electoral map: Public domain. Steve Schmidt: Mark Silva/The Swamp (Chicago Tribune).

Monday, November 10, 2008

The McCain scrutiny XIX

On Tuesday night, not long after Barack Obama defeated him for the presidency of the United States, Sen. John McCain made a concession speech from a stage outside the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, a speech that was startling in its humility, grace and wisdom.

“My friends, we have — we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him.

“In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving,” said McCain (or an amazing simulation of him).

“This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight. I've always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too. …

“I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”

◊ ◊ ◊

That crack about “an amazing simulation of him” a few paragraphs back isn’t just taking a shot. Almost as soon as McCain had uttered what must be one of the more moving political valedictories of recent times, the blogosphere, the punditburo and people in general asked the logical question? Who is this man? What have you done with John McCain? And if that’s really John McCain up there … where has this sense of fair play and principle and rhetorical even-handedness been for the last six months?

Irony of ironies: Even in the concession speech, there’s another layer to contend with, another John McCain that contradicts the ones we’ve come to know, or at least experience, for the last ten months.

It’s gotta be said: At campaign’s end John McCain was ill-served by a horde of advisers who miscalculated the national hunger for change, the power of the Internet and the intellectual command of a little known governor from Alaska whose fall from grace would parallel his own. He got bad advice from a campaign manager who said, apparently with a straight face, that this pivotal presidential election wasn’t really about issues, it was about personalities.

The candidate became known by the company he kept, too. People don’t like to be told they live in “a nation of whiners,” especially when the man who said it was serving as a lobbyist for an international banking and subprime mortgage corporation that had a hand in the mortgage meltdown. Even as he advised the McCain campaign on economic matters.

◊ ◊ ◊

But make no mistake, much of this fall had to do with John McCain himself. He was bullheaded and impetuous when the nation screamed for compromising and deliberate. He was tics and edges and sharp elbows when the country yearned for curves and poise and cool. He chastised those who invoked race and ethnicity in an already-heated campaign, even while he was either the wink-and-a-nod beneficiary of everything they did, or a passive participant in their character assassination of Barack Obama.

He was tirelessly focused on the peripheral when the country shouted for attention to the issues that matter. He admitted to knowing next to nothing about the economy when the economy was for voters the only thing that mattered. He was convinced the United States economy was fundamentally sound, when the people of the United States knew better. He couldn't remember how many homes he owned, something the people of America can't afford to forget.

There have been other such existential contradictions in the McCain persona for some time now. His hiring of a lobbyist to run his Senate office, even as he championed campaign finance reform that impugned lobbyists. His role in creating the Reform Institute, a nonprofit group promoting tighter campaign finance rules, followed by his resignation from the group after news reports found the group was getting the very unlimited corporate contributions he opposed.

And how could a man with such a supposed command of global affairs and national security, a senator well traveled abroad could be so wrong, so laughably out of touch about the world he’s traveled in? Voters through the primaries and into the general campaign discovered the McCain World Atlas 2008, a curious gazetteer in which Czechoslovakia still exists, Iraq and Pakistan share a common border, Shiites and Sunnis are interchangeable blocs of the Iraqi people, Somalia and Sudan have traded places (as well as Spain and all of Latin America), and Vladimir Putin is the president of Germany.

You’re forced to wonder if a President McCain sent planes to bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb Iran, if they’d actually wind up dropping ordnance down smokestacks in Greenland.

◊ ◊ ◊

But John McCain finally failed to achieve the presidency because he wanted the prize more than he valued what the prize is worth. We are a nation whose natural inclination is to look forward, before moving forward. We don’t do reverse gear very well. We never have and we never will. That’s what the prize of the presidency reflects: our investment in the future, in the wide untapped Possible of this amazing, unpredictable nation. Not what advertises itself as the future in campaign literature.

We want the real thing. The iPod, not the phonograph.

In a splendid essay in The Huffington Post, written three weeks before the deal went down on Election Night, columnist Mike Barnicle nailed the outcome, even then:

“It is a sad story: a proud and independent man permits a handful of advisers to take his hard-earned reputation and alter it to such an extent that the original is now hard to recognize, nearly invisible behind a curtain of cynical ads and the preposterous pronouncements of a woman whose candidacy is an insult to intelligence. …

“Soon, the 'Straight Talk Express' will bank west and head for the Arizona desert and election eve. And John McCain will sit up front, staring out the window, exhausted, as the plane crosses the land he loves and the people -- millions of them -- he failed to connect with because while he was once indeed a prisoner of war, he has spent the last ten weeks letting himself become a prisoner of the past.”

Mercifully, campaigns end — the relentless examination of the candidate and his statements and jokes, practices and policies gives way to something else.

Vaya con Dios, John McCain, you old sidewinder you. For now, we’ve seen enough. There’s nothing to scrutinize anymore.
Image credit: McCain: The Huffington Post (immediate source). McCain world map:

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

America 2.0: The United States of a miracle

8:01 P.M. PT. Bells are ringing tonight. Car alarms whooping and car horns wailing. In Seattle they’re shooting off fireworks in the cold air. Somebody just screamed. Somewhere, servers are crashing from the sudden traffic, cell phone lines are briefly jammed.

And somewhere, everywhere, people are laughing. And people are crying. Tonight, against all odds and truly, undeniably resetting the baseline of American possibility, Barack Hussein Obama, son of Kenya and Kansas, has been elected the 44th President of the United States of America.

The President-elect of the United States spoke after his victory, in Chicago's Grant Park before at least 250,000 people. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

"It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.

"It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America."

◊ ◊ ◊

The election of Barack Obama resets that baseline to what we as a nation have told ourselves — in story and song and national lore, in our education and our popular culture, from the first moment we put our hands over our hearts — this nation stands for. The very concept of a “level playing field” has never meant more, has never been closer to being an absolute American reality, than it does and is today.

For the first time at this nation’s highest elective level, the Idea of America has fully become Praxis and become so in a way that is, more by intent than by coincidence, the single greatest act of bridging the racial divide in the history of this nation. And there's a more enduring sweetness of the moment: this was not achieved through some sudden exercise of the powers of succession, not through blind accident or extraconstitutional emergency, but through a regular, orderly canvass of the American people's desires in a national election. He won the gift outright.

The people of this brilliant, fractious, sentimental, argumentative, utterly unpredictable country chose someone to lead them and represent them to the world, and they chose a black man.

◊ ◊ ◊

There are few words to really express the power of what happened tonight. Nov. 4, 2008 is a new national ground-zero date, a soft ground zero. 11/4 is the day when black and minority Americans moved through the ceiling of our presumptive aspirations.

Not all the way through it, to be sure, but with head and shoulders clear, getting a glimpse of what, for all purposes, is a new world. From today, generations of black and minority children will never know a world without a black American president. The old threshold of what’s truly possible will not exist for them. This is terra incognita, and is an existential liberation the likes of which we’ve never known before as a people.

And this election invites the rest of us, the ones with a perspective of life B.O. (before Obama) and A.O. (after Obama), to a serious reevaluation of the balance of our own lives, and how — with a change at the very top — they might be put to the best and highest use. Something to Shoot For. Unlike before, something completely attainable. For a people hobbled historically and today by an unending series of social and economic woes, and the vacancy of spirit that follows in their wake, that is huge beyond measure.

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama’s pursuit for the presidency was a 50-state journey, conducted at a breathless, relentless pace that raises the bar on what successful campaigns will require in the future. Expect a new Rule #1 for campaigning to emerge: No more conceding states to the enemy. If you presume to run all of the United States, you’ve got to run in all of the United States.

Obama’s campaign has rebranded the American political dynamic, and done it with a lean and vivid African American face. Is there a more telling symbol of this nation than the young eager politician, chock-full of the drive and energy that typify us, the campaigner relishing the sheer physicality of American politics?

Historically the visual symbols of that kind of politics, and the beneficiaries of their templatizing effect on popular expectations, have been white men. FDR. Truman. Three of the Kennedys. Reagan. Clinton. The Bushes. These are what highly successful presidential candidates look like. It’s always been this way.

Well, not no more. Obama crashed through that old iconography. The white male stranglehold on the perception of political dynamism, endangered when he began his quest, formally ended tonight.

That fact need not be an obituary so much as a birth announcement. The idea of a successful American politician has a different look tonight than it did yesterday. A look more like all of America. That’s more of a cause for celebration than anything else.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s pleasantly ironic that the first president of the Internet age comes from an American demographic that has, until fairly recently, been behind the curve of Internet access and knowledge. Leave it to the African American way with the drum, and adaptability.

It was that adaptability that sprang from Obama’s earliest public incarnation that makes his victory at the polls tonight such a transforming thing.

Sen. John McCain and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin ran down Obama on the campaign trail, more than once belittling his experience as a community organizer in Chicago. In doing that, they and the Republican Party missed the move Obama made to the hole — missed the bigger, broader, deeper truth of his organizing experience and what could be done with it in the age of the Internet.

McCain and the Republicans generally articulated the notion of a community organizer in outdated, stereotypical, central-casting terms: the scruffy kid in a peacoat and jeans sticking photocopied leaflets under windshield wipers before retreating to the storefront headquarters for coffee and face time with the hot new help.

They failed to see (right along with most of the country) the genius of Obama’s uncanny way with the new drum of the Internet, and his adaptation of the principles of community organizing — an embrace of the grassroots; developing an agenda among like-minded people; accessibility by the public; a populist approach to fundraising; an unwavering sense of the objective — in the service of a national presidential campaign.

They failed to see it all until the end: For Barack Obama, community organizer, the United States was another necessary and doable undertaking. A bigger community to be better, more perfectly organized.

◊ ◊ ◊

Bells will ring tomorrow. Car alarms’ll go off. And somewhere, everywhere, people will laugh and cry like every other day in life. But make no mistake, this nation has changed tonight, has shifted in its moorings to a different place.

The old equations of race and society are being changed, if not discarded. One of the social obstacles that have defined us and divided us for generations has been called into question, and set aside at the highest level, for the first time in our history. And we are better tonight as a nation than we’ve ever been before.

Briefly in some ways, forever in others, we’re witness to life in the United States of a miracle.
Image credit: Top: Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention, August 2008. All due props to Jeff Riedel of GQ Magazine for what may be the best campaign photograph of 2008. Lower Obama, Obama and Biden: Obama campaign Web site. Sun-Times front page © 2008 Chicago Sun-Times.

Betfair reports

The bookmaker Betfair, which makes predictions based on millions of wagers, is placing its early bets:

The only place that matters

Life don’t wait. It pushes us to deadlines and meetings, appointments and consults all day long. And then there’s the personal life. And then back the other way. And back again. All of it pressing, some of it urgent. There’s probably something important you’re responsible for doing five minutes from right now.

That’s an everyday thing, a consequence of the relentless times we live in. But you know what? That’s really true today. That nagging sense you have of something big happening today is real. Because some time today, there’s a polling place with your name on it. And of all the meetings to be attended and appointments to keep, of all the places that are necessary in your life today, that polling place is the only place that matters.

◊ ◊ ◊

The most bitterly contested, potentially transformative presidential campaign of our lifetime ends today. By now, unless you’ve been living under a rock formation on the floor of the Grand Canyon, you’ve heard from everyone: the ‘Vox, the punditburo, the robocallers, your neighbors, your friends, their neighbors and friends, your conscience, your heart, and the internal voice that shouts or whispers the decision you know you’ve already made (no matter what you told the pollsters).

So … unless you’re having a baby or attending to matters that are literally life and death, there’s nothing left to do but show up, to follow through on what you’ve begun, to finish what you started. No excuses.

Get your nails done tomorrow; they'll look just as bad then as they do now. Hair issues? Put a cap on your head and get down there. Don't have a ride to the polls? Call the headquarters of the candidate — either candidate. They'll get you there. Waitin’ for your buddy to swing by with some herb? Tell him to swing by tonight. Put that gotdamn Nintendo down and Wii your ass in real-time out to where you vote. Football game to watch? Nice try: Monday Night Football was last night. So it’s raining? We’re in Seattle so you get no sympathy from here. Snowdrifts a foot high? Hitch a ride on somebody’s snow machine. Got a cold? Wear a mask. Got the flu? Wear two.

◊ ◊ ◊

It should go without saying: This time, apathy is not an option. It’s never an option, really, if you live and work in and gain the fruits of the world’s leading participatory democracy. But the choices of this election couldn’t be a clearer, less ambiguous demarcation between one iteration of America and another. Between one future for America and another.

To tweak a phrase used during the campaign, this is the election we’ve been waiting for.

Our democracy is a messy thing; sausage-making looks like clean-room duty at NASA by comparison. But the thing about our democracy is the way that, ultimately, all the noise and soundbites, all the Drudges and Rushes, all the Countdowns and Hannitys, all the yea or nay in the 24/7 public square distill to one hundred forty million random, anonymous someones like us individually and collectively making the choice to stand and be counted as one, and over time as one squared by a hundred — to break out of our everyday comfort zones and responsibilities, to check the boxes and pull the levers that define this nation as, even now, the envy of the billions who inhabit the rest of this planet.

And now’s that time. Today. Make your mark. “Stand for the things you know are real. You have you to complete, and there is no deal.” Stand up. Show up. It’s your nation. It’s your life. It’s your time.

Just do it.

VOTE. Be there. Ahora.
Image credits: Top: AP. Middle: © 2008 Bill Larson, Clarkesville Online (Tenn.) Bottom: Republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Map: “Stand” lyrics: © 1969 Sylvester Stewart.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Dixville Notch for Obama

It's 9:10 P.M. PT and ten minutes after midnight on the East Coast, where the town of Dixville Notch, N.H., just posted the first results in the 2008 presidential election:




Don't break out the cold duck just yet. Dixville Notch's record for picking the winner in a presidential contest is mixed; same for its record in the state's celebrated primary. It's hard to know if this extrapolates into an Obama victory.

But you gotta start somewhere. The voices of perhaps 140 million Americans can't all speak at once. Dixville Notch is the first to be heard.

Here we go ...

Voter suppression for dummies

Just when you think you've seen it all, seen every cage and creature in the zoo of this presidential campaign, you look up and you're surprised — or, more accurately, sadly astonished at how fiendishly stupid some people can be.

Some halfwits in Virginia came up with the idea last week to create a fake State Board of Elections flier advising Republicans to vote on Nov. 4 — the real Election Day — and Democrats on Nov. 5.

The Virginian-Pilot reported on Oct. 28: "The somewhat official-looking flier - it features the state board logo and the state seal - is dated Oct. 24 and indicates that 'an emergency session of the General Assembly has adopted the follwing (sic) emergency regulations to ease the load on local electorial (sic) precincts and ensure a fair electorial process.' "

The flier is being circulated in several Hampton Roads localities, state elections officials told the Virginian-Pilot. "We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause but felt this was the only way to ensure fairness to the complete electorial process," it reads in part.

No emergency action has been taken by the Assembly, the V-P reported. It is not in session and has absolutely no authority to change the date of a federal election.

◊ ◊ ◊

It might be easy to dismiss this for what it seems to be: a corrosive practical joke that makes devious use of informational technology, the popular fascination with satire, and the power of officialdom. "I don't smell a rat," you might say, "I smell an idiot!"

Except that somewhere in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, some poor dupe of a soul will see this flier, consider its official looking seal and logos and legalistic language ... and believe it. And show up at the polls the day after the biggest election of our time. And that would be a damn dirty shame.

If you live in Virginia and you're reading this, you're on the Internet. If you're on the Internet, you know better: If you didn't before, you do now: Election Day, for everybody, is Nov. 4. For all the things that divide us as a nation, that's the one damn thing we do together. Tomorrow.

If there's someone you know who's less media savvy, make sure they know. No matter what they've heard, no matter what they've read, it all goes down tomorrow. Do what you can to make sure the only disenfranchised people in Virginia who are disappointed on Nov. 5 are the mentally disenfranchised jokesters who tried to pull this off.
Image credit: Flier: Virginian-Pilot. Joker: GNU Lesser General Public License (author David Bellot, Berkeley, Calif.)
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