Thursday, October 30, 2008

The times they are retrofittin'

If a picture is worth a thousand words (750 online), a new photograph making the rounds of the InterWeb speaks its own volume about links between the time of this presidential campaign and an earlier, epochal American life during wartime. "Everything old is new again," the late Peter Allen used to sing. And pertinent, too, in a cheekily retrograde way.

Four young women in the Lysistrata district of Brooklyn sat recently for a photograph. It was nothing lewd or salacious, just Anna Bean, Karen Maine, Dana Gluck and Lindsay Withers sitting on a couch posing for a group picture ... which became an image circulated worldwide with the caption "GIRLS SAY YES to boys who say OBAMA."

Setting aside for a moment (and only a moment) the in-your-face whiff of sexual innuendo more a product of the era that preceded the women’s liberation movement, the photograph taken earlier this year endows the forthcoming election with an historical resonance not everyone will understand right away.

Not until they see the picture this picture is based on.

The quartet of lovelies in the 2008 photograph was inspired by the famous Jim Marshall photograph of sisters Joan Baez, Mimi FariƱa and Pauline Marden sitting in a sunny living room in 1968. The Marshall photo was eventually circulated as a poster sold to benefit the Draft Resistance, with the caption “Girls go out with guys that say no” — the “no” a direct reference to the military draft then roaring its way through America of the Vietnam War.

Despite its presumably progressive political stance, the Obama retrofit of Marshall's photograph has taken its hits from feminists. Jeff Fecke, for example, writing at Blog of the Moderate Left, noted: "The ad’s problematic, because it’s clearly reducing women’s ability to convince men to their facility with what’s between their legs, not what’s between their ears. A reasoned explanation of why Johnny Maverick would be a disaster for women? Men won’t listen to something like that, especially from a girl. But a blow job might get you your way, sweet cheeks. As such, it devalues women. This much is obvious.

"But it also devalues men, as these things often do. After all, the ad implies that men would put their views of what’s good for the country second behind the prospect of sex. ...

"Just as the poster reduces women to a form of currency, it reduces men to easily bribed fools. And this is from liberal women."

It's some kind of testament to the importance of this presidential contest that a sense of anything goes has run powerfully through the whole campaign. John McCain's sputtering bid for the presidency is still animated by that very philosophy.

Was the Brooklyn quartet trying to make a broader historical hookup between momentous eras? Or were they just feeling frisky? Who knows? However sexually extreme their appeal for Obama votes might be, give the Brooklyn crew credit for espousing a politics whose, uh, passion fits the times.
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Image credits: Top photo: bustmagazine.com (immediate source). Bottom photo: © 1968 the immortal Jim Marshall (via Crawdaddy!).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bill and Barry's excellent adventure

Hot damn it, he's still got it. He hasn't been himself for much of this year, what with his wife’s campaign and all, but tonight Bill Clinton showed why he can still lay claim to being the best retail politician of his generation, and one of the best in our lifetime.


In a one-off rally with Sen. Barack Obama tonight in Kissimmee, Fla., the heart of the heart of Dixie, Clinton put to rest the longtime suspicion that he harbored lingering resentments against Obama for the disastrous arc of the presidential campaign of his wife, Hillary Clinton. If he does, it wasn't obvious tonight.

The 35,000 people who stayed up to attend Bill & Barry's first joint campaign appearance got a great combination: The former president, using his still considerable gifts as a politician on behalf of the possible president, who tonight stepped forward in his way and finally distilled the current economic crisis, and the only sensible solution to that crisis, into something that everyday people could get their heads around.



Bill Clinton made the case for Obama in forthright terms — someone in the press will use the phrase "full-throated," guaranteed — and did it in an historically Republican stronghold, the geographic soul of the NASCAR-and-barbecue wing of the GOP, a state suddenly very much up for grabs.

"Barack Obama represents America's future, and you've got to be there for him next Tuesday," Clinton, with Obama at his side, said to the cheers of a partisan crowd.

Folks, we can't fool with this," Clinton said. "Our country is hanging in the balance. And we have so much promise and so much peril. This man should be our president."

◊ ◊ ◊

Clinton cited four reasons for backing Obama: “Number one, the philosophy; number two, the policies; number three, the ability to make a decision; and number four, the ability to execute that decision and make changes in people’s lives. …

“ … [T]he next President of the United States should be — and with your help, will be — Senator Barack Obama.”

Barack sent some love back. “In case all of you forgot, this is what it’s like to have a great president,” Obama said.

Obama touched on a multitude of points, his usual ones, on the need for new national leadership, and threw down a call for more volunteers in the final days of the campaign — and for a high turnout at the polls. But one passage did it all, spoke volumes for any fence-sitters in the battleground states and beyond who had been waiting for a clear signal of Obama’s comprehension of the stakes of the economy, and his sense of what could save that economy. With unmistakable clarity, Obama brought the issue home.

“When you are growing the economy from the bottom up, when the nurse and the teacher and the firefighter and the construction worker — when they are all doing well, then guess what? Everybody does well. It turns out that when they’ve got money to spend, then they go out and buy the new car, which means that GM and Ford, they’re doing well. And the auto dealer’s doing and the stock market’s doing well, and the investor is doing well. That’s how the economy grows. And that’s what we’re gonna do when I’m president of the United States.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It was the capper on a big-ass day. Before the Barry & Bill Show, the long awaited Obama infomercial spilled into an estimated 40 million homes — Obama’s last best chance for a more intimate dialogue with the American people. With a documentary look into the lives of ordinary Americans, Obama's perfect narrator's voice and lapidary production values, Team Obama's infomercial made history as the first longform political campaign video since Ross Perot flip-charted his way into the national living room in 1992.

Earlier in the day, a rally with running mate Sen. Joe Biden in Sunrise, Fla.; and a stop in Raleigh, N.C. Sometime during all that, Obama squeezed in a taping of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” And on and on, it goes. At this point, it’s all about momentum. More importantly for Obama, it’s about acceleration against all odds.

You'll find that quality in the great race horses, the great runners. Some people call it summoning “an extra gear.” In a grueling race between two evenly matched contestants, you can almost see that final coil of energy unleashed in the genuine thoroughbred, that last mortgage of physical resources in the service of a desire that will not be compromised. It’s come to Obama to put the final kick into the last turn in this bell lap for the presidency.

Funny thing: In this race, the betting window’s still open. It closes in six days.
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Image credits: Clinton and Obama: Huffington Post (immediate source). Obama office: Obama campaign.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Suicide on the Straight Talk Express

It’s a staple of tabloid TV: the video feed from a closed-circuit camera inside a school bus. A fight erupts. Then two. Then all at once it’s a battle royal inside a moving vehicle, the driver just barely managing to keep control of the wheel. Sign of the times.

What would the raw video feed inside the John McCain Straight Talk Express look like right now?

There’s a knife fight in progress in one row of seats in the back, gunfire between two advisers a few rows up, hair pulling between senior aides a few rows behind the driver. Off to the side, the fax machine is groaning with confirmation pages of resumes sent to hiring managers, think tanks and law firms across the country.

You’d expect to find order on this bus, authority consistent with the military discipline of its driver, the man in charge, John McCain — the man with his name emblazoned on the side of the campaign jet.

But it’s all too clear: With policies and statements careering from one side of the rhetorical road to the other; infighting and backbiting among senior staff; and now with McCain’s running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, the Vogue Rogue from Alaska, willfully going off message … the only chauffeur of the Straight Talk Express right now is Toonces the Driving Cat.



Longtime fans of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” will fondly remember Toonces. In a series of one-scene skits first aired during the 1989 season, the puppet feline was inexplicably behind the wheel of a large automobile occupied by himself and any number of screaming passengers, helpless as Toonces, unable to understand frantic English, unable to steer worth a damn, reliably drove the vehicle off a cliff.

Hell, if we’re dropping pop-culcha, let’s go one further: The McCain campaign has gone over that cliff more than once this presidential season, often enough to look like a political version of “Groundhog Day” — in McCain’s case, an endless recycling of the same mistakes.

The final precipice awaits on Nov. 4.

◊ ◊ ◊

The McCain campaign has been in a relative free fall for about two weeks. With diminished financial resources, dwindling crowds at campaign rallies and cratering support for his own running mate, the campaign now has to contend with ethical issues within the party. Again.

The case of Ashley Todd, a one-time College Republican volunteer self-implicated in a case of potentially explosive racial distortion, has been laid at McCain’s doorstep. So far, no response from the standard-bearer of the party of Lincoln — no response to this potential racial IED from one of his party’s own.

And today came news that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms had arrested two men in Tennessee, Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman, neo-Nazis believed to be part of a white supremacist group that intended to assassinate Barack Obama, and perhaps more than 100 other African Americans, more or less indiscriminately.

The men planned the national killing spree with Obama as its last target, Jim Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the ATF Nashville field office, told The Associated Press.

"They said that would be their last, final act — that they would attempt to kill Senator Obama," Cavanaugh said. "They didn't believe they would be able to do it, but that they would get killed trying."

So far, no response from Team McCain.

We can expect statements about these deeply corrosive incidents from his campaign, count on it. But the question is why the inevitable response of condemnation would take more than hours. McCain’s response upon finding that Todd’s statements to police were a fabrication — were a cheap hoax that reawakened the worst in our racial history — should have been immediate. The calculation behind a delayed reaction is hard to understand.

It’s especially necessary from the McCain campaign to respond because of the increasingly volatile exhortations of the crowds at recent McCain and Palin campaign rallies (“Terrorist!” “Kill him!” “OBAMA BIN LYIN’”), outbursts that both candidates have generally downplayed or ignored.

It’s this slowness afoot, this vacancy of spirit, this absence of gumption that’s becoming obvious at many levels.

◊ ◊ ◊

Start with what's happening internally. “The lack of discipline and ability to draft and stick to a coherent message is unreal,” a House GOP leadership aide told Politico’s Jonathan Martin in an e-mail on Thursday.


“The staff has been remarkably undisciplined, too eager to point fingers, unable to craft any coherent long-term strategy. The handling of Palin (not her performances, but her rollout and availability) has been nothing short of political malpractice. … You have half of the campaign saying Ayers is a major issue, and then the candidate out there saying he doesn’t care about a washed-up terrorist. You have McCain one day echoing Milton Friedman and the next day echoing FDR.”

“It’s a natural and human reaction when you’re struggling to make up ground, but that doesn’t make it right,” said Dan Schnur, a former McCain communications adviser, speaking about the defeatist McCain aura to Politico. “As long as the campaign is still potentially winnable, [this is] an unnecessary distraction. This looks like it’s reached a point where the candidate has to step in himself and crack some heads to remind everyone why they came to work for him in the first place.”

◊ ◊ ◊

American political lore has it that the Democratic Party betrays a tendency to become a “circular firing squad,” undercutting the party’s best intentions with the friction and squabbling that, truth be told, the democratic process is heir to, more than the Democratic Party.

The McCain campaign of 2008 has gone the Dems one visual metaphor better. This free-fire zone on wheels is running on fumes right now: a presidential candidacy bereft of message, fractured from within, flat, listless, unemotional.

For the sake, then, of nothing more than keeping up appearances, of achieving at least a semi-dignified climbdown and exiting with principles intact, you’d have to think John McCain would take charge, to stand up on principles, to denounce the actions of Ashley Todd and the two men arrested in Tennessee, and to do it without the consultation and chin-pulling that seem to characterize so much of the McCain campaign.

In short: To make more of a case for him as president, rather than a case against Barack Obama as president. To be the Maverick® he’s always said he was.

Mercifully, the garage lies dead ahead for the McCain campaign. The only question left is: for the next seven days, who’s really driving what’s left of the Straight Talk Express?

We know it’s not John McCain.

Maybe it’s not even Toonces.

Maybe no one’s behind the wheel at all.
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Image credit: McCain: floridatoday.com. Daniel Cowart: Unknown. Keystone Kops: Public domain.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ashley Todd’s October boogeyman

Danger has a new old face and shape in the election-eve United States of 2008. It is a black man with a taste for facial mutilation, a behemoth six-feet four inches tall, preying on young, white, female supporters of Sen. John McCain. It is a kind of demon the nation has faced down in the past. It is, this time like before, a demon that doesn’t exist. But ironically, its victim may be John McCain.

Ashley Todd, of College Station, Texas, a 20-year-old field representative for the College Republicans, was the latest to fall prey to this American boogeyman. News reports detailed her arrest today for lying to police. Todd, extensively interviewed by Pittsburgh police, told investigators she was attempting to use a bank branch ATM in Pittsburgh when a black man in patent leather shoes (!) approached her from behind, put a knife with a 4- to 5-inch blade to her throat and demanded money. She told police she gave her assailant $60 and walked away.

Todd claimed that she suspected the man then noticed a McCain sticker on her car, got angry and struck her in the back of the head, knocking her to the ground and saying "you're going to be a Barack supporter," police said. She said it was then that the man carved the initial 'B' into her face.

Sadly, no. Todd finally admitted to having made it all up. A straight-up hoax. After three days of questioning, Todd "just opened up and said she wanted to tell the truth," said Maurita Bryant, assistant chief of the police investigations division, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Todd had no explanation for why she ginned up the story, police said. She was arrested and charged for making a false report to police. Her Web page of “Life in the Field,” described as “a project of the College Republican National Committee,” was taken down shortly after everything went south.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Ashley Todd incident reawakens an old and sadly convenient scapegoating of black American males. We’ve been here before and before.

This coming Nov. 4 will have its own reason to be remembered. But on Nov. 4, 1994, the black male residents of Union, S. C., were exonerated from broad racial blame when Susan V. Smith, the mother of two children she said were kidnapped by a mythical black carjacker, admitted to murdering those children herself. The all-points bulletin for a black male perp was called off. After nine days of authorities searching. Nine days of black men being suspected for nothing.

In 1989, black men were collectively demonized in Boston when Charles Stuart killed his wife and blamed it on a nonexistent black male phantom, only to commit suicide when his elaborate story fell apart.

These were two examples of complete fabrication of a boogeyman. There are other cases of corrosive racial mental gymnastics, with real people as targets.

In March 1988, Joe Morgan, baseball Hall of Famer and sports broadcaster, was briefly arrested by Los Angeles police — thrown to the floor of the terminal at Los Angeles International Airport while waiting for a flight and mistakenly accused of being a drug courier.

In May 1995, Earl G. Graves, a senior vice president for Black Enterprise magazine, was restrained by two transit police officers in New York, in another case of mistaken identity, an arrest based on a physical description so broad and vague as to be no description at all.

◊ ◊ ◊

That this kind of thing is happening at all this transformative year is bad enough. The way it’s playing out makes things even worse for the McCain campaign than they’ve been already. Beyond the obvious liability this poses for the McCain campaign —already under ethical fire for an increasingly mendacious campaign strategy — there’s reason for suspicion that, oddly, perversely, some part of this may have been anticipated — or more — by Team McCain.

Talking Points Memo’s Greg Sargent reported today that: “John McCain's Pennsylvania communications director told reporters in the state an incendiary version of the hoax story about the attack on a McCain volunteer well before the facts of the case were known or established -- and even told reporters outright that the 'B' carved into the victim's cheek stood for 'Barack,' according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions.”

“John Verrilli, the news director for KDKA in Pittsburgh, told TPM Election Central that McCain's Pennsylvania campaign communications director gave one of his reporters a detailed version of the attack that included a claim that the alleged attacker said, 'You're with the McCain campaign? I'm going to teach you a lesson.'"

But whether or not Team McCain had any direct, actual hand in this latest exercise in racial innuendo almost doesn’t matter. Throughout the last few months, by use of character assassination, and through a passive-aggressive, sub rosa appeal to the ethnically-flavored antagonisms of the crowd, the McCain campaign has laid the groundwork, has offered a tacit approval of and permission for this behavior done on its behalf.

McCain’s continuing scorched-earth practices on the campaign trail made Ashley Todd possible.

The McCain wrecking crew will work mightily over the next days to put distance between Todd and the campaign. But the damage is done — mostly to a presidential campaign whose ethical foundation has long since collapsed under the weight of political ambition.

John McCain doesn’t need any outside boogeymen for his campaign. He’s his own worst boogeyman right now.
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Image credits: Ashley Todd B: Associated Press. Susan Smith: South Carolina Department of Corrections. Ashley Todd perpwalk: Agency unknown. McCain: Public domain.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Wardrobe malfunction

Carrie Bradshaw, move the hell over. There’s a new fashionista shopaholic champion of New York City, and her name is Sarah Palin.

The word got out early this week that the Republican National Committee, apparently so flush with cash that clothing allowances are back in vogue, has ponied up about $150,000 to outfit McCain’s running mate — the woman known alternately as Bible Spice and Caribou Barbie — with a wardrobe and makeup makeover for the rest of the mercifully short presidential campaign.

Exactly what was bought isn’t clear, but credit MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann with at least a tentative breakdown of clotheshorse expenditures. Olbermann estimated that the campaign spent about $49,000 at Saks Fifth Avenue, $75,000 at Neiman-Marcus, and $5,000 at Bloomingdale’s, for a subtotal of $129,000. Adding to that the prevailing New York state sales tax of 4 percent makes for an apparent total of $134,160. Where the other $15,840 went is anyone’s guess. Maybe the McCain campaign took everyone within earshot of the Palin shopping party to Blimpies for lunch.

The RNC’s Sugar Daddy gesture creates another problem of perception. The McCain campaign, you see, has been hammering challenger Sen. Barack Obama for being out of touch with American values, and for being “elitist” in its relationship with hard-working citizens.

It’s hard to see how the RNC/Palin expedition into deepest, darkest Fifth Avenue reinforces its own sense of simpatico with the American people, most of whom won’t spend 150K on clothes in a lifetime. It certainly doesn’t square with the previous views of McCain himself. In May 1993 the candidate, on the floor of the Senate in his former role as champion of campaign finance reform, thundered against campaign spending on personal items … like clothing and personal expenses.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s a bit of a sore point for the clotheshorse hockey mom, whose family assets were estimated by the Wall Street Journal at $1.2 million.



“Those clothes are not my property,” Palin said on Fox News’ “Hannity & Colmes” tonight. “We had three days of usin' clothes that the RNC purchased. If people knew how Todd and I and our kids shop – so frugally. My favorite shop is a consignment shop in Anchorage, Alaska called ‘Out of the Closet’ and my shoe store is called ‘Shoe Fly’ in Juneau, Alaska. It's not Fifth Avenue type of shopping. But RNC purchasing some clothes that are all gonna – they're either returned or they're going to charity. It's not my property.”

McCain’s generosity hasn’t gone unnoticed within the conservative base, either. A high-ranking Republican mandarin of policy and strategy — Chris Matthews of “Hardball” thinks it’s Prince of Darkness Karl Rove — told Politico today that this reckless spend sent the wrong message.

“Lashing out at past Republican Congresses, … echoing your opponent's attacks on you instead of attacking your opponent, and spending 150,000 hard dollars on designer clothes when congressional Republicans are struggling for money, and when your senior campaign staff are blaming each other for the loss in The New York Times [Magazine] 10 days before the election, you’re not doing much to energize your supporters,” said the unidentified GOP architect.

How all this settles with Joe and Joanne the Voter is anyone’s guess. But the Colorforms campaign strategy certainly doesn’t look good. If the clothes a candidate wears and the money spent to buy them could be reasonably interpreted as elitism, Team McCain should be careful in this last dozen days. The empress’ new clothes may contribute to their undoing.
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Image credit: Palin: © 2008 Roger H. Goun, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Country first: Colin Powell endorses Obama

After the long and careful deliberation we've come to expect from him in other matters, Colin Powell announced his preference for president this morning. Powell, a Republican who served the Reagan administration before acting as Joint Chiefs Chairman in the Bush #41 administration and Secretary of State in the Bush #43 administration, has known Sen. John McCain for more than 25 years and has praised McCain, a fellow former comrade in arms, for his service in the military and in the Senate.

Today he endorsed Barack Obama for president.



Interviewed by Tom Brokaw on NBC's "Meet the Press," Powell called Obama “a transformational figure” who would be an “exceptional” leader. “I truly believe that at this point in America’s history we need a president who will not just continue ... basically the policies we have followed in recent years,” he said. “We need a president with transformational qualities.”

“I will be voting for Barack Obama.”

"He has both style and substance," Powell said. "He has met the standard of being president."

One GOP flack, talking to Politico.com, used the customary first-reflex characterization: Powell's endorsement "is the nail in the coffin." That metaphor, however, overlooks a fact of the last two or three months: With a variety of actions by the candidate, the campaign and its proxies in the 527 groups, Team McCain has been pretty good at putting nails in the coffin from inside the coffin.

Powell expressed concern at the missteps of McCain, especially the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for a running mate; Obama character assassinations on the campaign trail; the insubstantial ties of Obama to Weather Underground bomber William Ayers; the shadowy attempt to link Obama to terrorists; the McCain campaign's inconsistent approach to dealing with the economy; and the sub rosa racial innuendos meant to appeal to those voters for whom race isn't just one factor in the campaign but the only factor.

"In the case of Mr. McCain, I found that he was a little unsure as to deal with the economic problems that we were having and almost every day there was a different approach to the problem," Powell said. "And that concerned me, sensing that he didn't have a complete grasp of the economic problems that we had. And I was also concerned at the selection of Governor Palin.



"She's a very distinguished woman, and she's to be admired; but at the same time, now that we have had a chance to watch her for some seven weeks, I don't believe she's ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice president. And so that raised some question in my mind as to the judgment that Senator McCain made."

Powell said Obama "displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems like this and picking a vice president that, I think, is ready to be president on day one. And also, in not just jumping in and changing every day, but showing intellectual vigor. I think that he has a, a definitive way of doing business that would serve us well."

Powell, of course, is only the latest apostate. Conservative radio talk-show host Michael Smerconish backed Obama last week, and so did conservative columnist Christopher Buckley, the son of William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review and an icon of the modern conservative movement. Buckley fils was roundly condemned by his action, and all but run out of the National Review building.

Powell perfectly distilled the reasons behind the growing conservative defections today.



"I've also been disappointed, frankly, by some of the approaches that Senator McCain has taken recently, or his campaign ads, on issues that are not really central to the problems that the American people are worried about," Powell said. "This Bill Ayers situation that's been going on for weeks became something of a central point of the campaign. But Mr. McCain says that he's a washed-out terrorist. Well, then, why do we keep talking about him?

"And why do we have these robocalls going on around the country trying to suggest that, because of this very, very limited relationship that Senator Obama has had with Mr. Ayers, somehow, Mr. Obama is tainted. What they're trying to connect him to is some kind of terrorist feelings. And I think that's inappropriate."

◊ ◊ ◊

There's already been blowback from the most ardent figures on the conservative right. George Will, the tireless conservative apologist columnist (representing the sherry sippers of Georgetown); and Rush Limbaugh, the talk-radio Doberman and former pharmaceutical enthusiast (representing the NASCAR-and-barbecue wing) lit into Powell in short order, suggesting that Powell's endorsement had more to do with race than with principle. We can expect more of this in the next week, as the news of Powell's stand trickles around the country, and the first of the daily tracking polls determine whether it makes any difference.



But the endorsement of the man still revered as an embodiment of the American success story will be hard to spin or ignore.

The McCain campaign has already tried using raw numbers to minimize the damage done. "John McCain has been endorsed by more than 300 retired generals and admirals," a McCain spokesman told WWAY shortly after the general's endorsement (HuffPost report). "That's over 10 times more than what Senator Obama has received."

But this isn't about addition, or even multiplication; this is a matter for numbers expressed with supersets attached. Gravitas to the nth power, and Powell's still got it. Whether the McCain campaign and the conservatives generally like it or not.

"Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier," Colin Powell once observed.

So is a timely endorsement.

We hear America deciding


With eighteen days left in the most momentous presidential campaign of our lifetime, the chattering class continues to couch the race between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain as still being too close to call. While technically that may be true, if you listen to the punditburo yammering about undecided voters and their possible impact on the contest, you only have to look elsewhere to get a real sense of where the campaign is heading.

Today's front page of The Huffington Post tells the story well. More than 100,000 people turned out today at a campaign rally for Obama in St. Louis, in the shadow of the Gateway Arch. Their presence there, the sheer numbers of people willing to devote one day of the weekend to witness a part of American history, speaks volumes in this jaundiced, jaded, cynical time.

As expected at least since The New Yorker backed Obama for the presidency (a first for the magazine), the mainstream print press has made its choice known.

The Chicago Tribune, a conservative paper that hadn’t endorsed a Democrat in its 150-year history, announced on Friday: “In recent weeks it has been easy to lose sight of this history in the making. Americans are focused on the greatest threat to the world economic system in 80 years. They feel a personal vulnerability the likes of which they haven't experienced since Sept. 11, 2001. It's a different kind of vulnerability. Unlike Sept. 11, the economic threat hasn't forged a common bond in this nation. It has fed anger, fear and mistrust.



“On Nov. 4 we're going to elect a president to lead us through a perilous time and restore in us a common sense of national purpose.



“The strongest candidate to do that is Sen. Barack Obama. The Tribune is proud to endorse him today for president of the United States."

◊ ◊ ◊

The Washington Post spoke on Friday: "Mr. Obama is a man of supple intelligence, with a nuanced grasp of complex issues and evident skill at conciliation and consensus-building. At home, we believe, he would respond to the economic crisis with a healthy respect for markets tempered by justified dismay over rising inequality and an understanding of the need for focused regulation. Abroad, the best evidence suggests that he would seek to maintain U.S. leadership and engagement, continue the fight against terrorists, and wage vigorous diplomacy on behalf of U.S. values and interests. Mr. Obama has the potential to become a great president. Given the enormous problems he would confront from his first day in office, and the damage wrought over the past eight years, we would settle for very good.”

“… Mr. Obama's temperament is unlike anything we've seen on the national stage in many years. He is deliberate but not indecisive; eloquent but a master of substance and detail; preternaturally confident but eager to hear opposing points of view. He has inspired millions of voters of diverse ages and races, no small thing in our often divided and cynical country. We think he is the right man for a perilous moment.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The Los Angeles Times, which hadn’t endorsed a presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972, weighed in (perhaps eager to counterbalance the sad historical resonance of that endorsement):

“We need a leader who demonstrates thoughtful calm and grace under pressure, one not prone to volatile gesture or capricious pronouncement. We need a leader well-grounded in the intellectual and legal foundations of American freedom. Yet we ask that the same person also possess the spark and passion to inspire the best within us: creativity, generosity and a fierce defense of justice and liberty.

“The Times without hesitation endorses Barack Obama for president.”

The Boston Globe got out in front of the others, making its endorsement on Tuesday: “The nation needs a chief executive who has the temperament and the nerves to shepherd Americans through what promises to be a grueling period - and who has the vision to restore this country to its place of leadership in the world.

“Such a leader is at hand. With great enthusiasm, the Globe endorses Senator Barack Obama for president. …

“As the first black major-party presidential nominee, Obama has strived to make voters comfortable with a ‘skinny kid with a funny name.’ And yet the historical significance of his bid is impossible to ignore. Voters can make no more powerful statement about America's commitment to inclusion and opportunity than to put forward this man — Barack Hussein Obama, son of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas — as the nation's representative to the world.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But that’s just the professionals clearing their throats, the way they reliably do every election cycle. What’s been striking this year — really for the first time — is the way the nation is making its feelings known.



We didn’t have YouTube in 2004, the year of the last presidential campaign. We do now. What it’s led to is a growing national consensus (if an informal census of campaign-related videos from individual Americans is an indicator) for a presidency that would, from day one, change the arc of the American identity.

They’re voices from everywhere.



They’re voices representing everyone.





The year’s been filled with divisive rhetoric on both sides. But right about now, finally, people are making up their minds, and speaking those minds to power. We can hear America shouting, laughing, arguing, praising, appraising.





We hear America deciding.
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Image credits: Chicago Tribune: Pingping, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license 2.5. L.A. Times nameplate: © 2008 Tribune Company. Washington Post nameplate: © 2008 Washington Post Company. Boston Globe nameplate: © 2008 The New York Times Company.
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'Vox update: The New York Daily News today endorsed Barack Obama for president.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Not the same old song: Levi Stubbs (1936-2008)

A bad year for the sound of music just got worse. First we said goodbye to Bo Diddley, then Isaac Hayes, then Norman Whitfield. Then on Friday we lost Levi Stubbs, leader of the Four Tops, the Voice of Motown, the baritone whose urgent vocal passion launched a thousand thousand love affairs.

Stubbs, ill for years with cancer and the effects of a stroke, stole home in his sleep on Friday, at his home in Detroit, at the age of 72.

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You know those songs in your sleep. “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Walk Away Renee,” “Bernadette.” "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)," “Same Old Song.” “Reach Out I'll Be There.” “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” “There Ain't No Woman (Like the One I Got).” These and more besides, all powered by that unmistakable take-charge baritone, a voice Stubbs himself once described for the Los Angeles Times as “rather loud and raw,” but a voice without which Motown wouldn’t, couldn’t be the motive cultural force it was for 20 years.

The Four Tops, which began in the 1950s in Detroit as the Four Aims, consisted of Stubbs, Abdul (Duke) Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo (Obie) Benson — and it stayed that way for decades. In an era when bands changed members at the slightest sign of friction or difficulty, the original lineup didn’t change for more than 40 years, a record of longevity and tolerance. Recording at least 32 albums for seven different labels, selling at least 50 million copies, the Tops had staying power.

Gary Susman of Entertainment Weekly grasped the tree-ring sense of the group’s endurance: “Unlike many of the label's own hand-groomed and manufactured bands, the quartet was around long before Motown started, and its original lineup continued decades after most Motown bands had become tribute acts filled with ringers.”

As the group that helped establish the power of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team, the Four Tops were effectively American ambassadors to the world.



The Berry Gordy finishing-school approach to stagecraft was part of what gave the Tops their panache. Karen Grigsby Bates, writing on the NPR Web site, observed: “In an era when broken-down bell bottoms, scruffy hair and Army-Navy surplus coats were de rigueur, the Tops were always elegant onstage, whether they were in tuxedos or silk Nehru jackets and medallions.”

But Stubbs’ voice was the signature of their signature sound. With a voice that always seemed on the edge of despair, a curious blend of strength and weakness, Stubbs became the frontman for the group that, with only the Temptations and the Supremes as competition, defined soul music for millions around the planet.


Break out your cassettes or start up your iPod. Listen to “Baby I Need Your Loving.” Revel in the chorus, the way Stubbs made time stop for that fraction of a second that seemed to go on forever.

“Baby I need your loving … Got! to have all your loving.”

Play "Bernadette": Hear Stubbs again, in a performance that wedded menace and loneliness — the way his voice emerges from a silence to cry a woman's name like a man at the end of his rope.

Stubbs, who was known as "the Captain," had been in declining health for years after a cancer diagnosis and a series of strokes in 2000. By then Payton had died (1997); Benson would follow in 2005. With Stubbs' passing, only Duke Fakir remains of the original Four Tops lineup.

But what a career. Peep the videos scattered throughout here. Remember the voice that personified emotional honesty, joy and heartbreak so naked and plain you almost can't stand it. Remember Levi Stubbs.



It's not the same old song anymore. It'll never be the same old song again.
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Image credits: Levi Stubbs: UPI/Bill Greenblatt. Four Tops album cover: © 1967 Motown Records. Four Tops 1990: Associated Press file.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Better ‘Late Show’ than never

Sen. John McCain, suitably chastened for having lied to David Letterman — a man you shouldn’t lie to — returned to late-night TV last night, coming back on “The Late Show” after weeks of being comedically bitch-slapped by the late-night host. All was forgiven, more or less. But even with McCain’s appearance, Letterman didn’t let McCain off the hook. It was priceless: in some ways the best interview with a presidential candidate this year.

The back story: On Sept. 24, McCain begged off an appearance on the program, pleading a need to return to Washington in order to bigfoot the folks on Capitol Hill trying to hammer out a solution to the financial crisis roiling Washington and Wall Street. Turned out that McCain not only didn’t go back to Washington; at about the time he was expected to appear for the “Late Show” taping, he was really across town prepping for an interview with CBS News. An internal CBS News feed revealed the lie for what it was. Letterman was not happy.


Fast forward to last night. McCain rented a helicopter to get to Manhattan after a weather delay grounded his campaign airplane in Philadelphia.

Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra caught the mood in a pitch-perfect way, playing the Who's "I Can't Explain" as McCain walked onstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater. Letterman asked, "Can you stay?"

“Depends on how bad it gets,” McCain said. “I have a son in the Marine Corps and I asked him to Fed Ex me his helmet and flack jacket. But it didn’t get here in time.”

“I think you’ll be alright,” Letterman said.

But not really.

Although Letterman said he was "willing to put this behind us," he came after McCain with his ears back. He asked whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was his first choice as vice president.

“Absolutely,” McCain answered.

Cue the transcript —

DL: If I were to run upstairs, wake you up in the middle of the night, and say, “John, is Sarah Palin really the woman to lead us through the next four, eight years? Through the next 9/11 attack?”

JM: Absolutely. She has inspired Americans. That’s the thing we need. We need inspiration now. We need courage. We need to know that we’re the greatest nation in the world. And we can come through this. I agree with your assessment of the way the world and this country is. And they need somebody they say – this, this is a person who is an inspiration to us. This is a person who has done so many things that are very unusual. So all I can tell you is that if you are looking for somebody, someone who is in the old boy network of Washington, many of whom have gotten us into this ditch to start with, then that’s fine. But I think America is crying out for change. And she represents the kind of change that we need.


McCain asked, "Have we pretty well exhausted this?"

"No, no," Letterman said. "I'm just getting started."



Indeed. Next, Letterman pressed McCain on the hypothetical relationship between Obama and one-time Weather Underground bomber William Ayers, whom Palin has accused Obama of affiliating with.

DL: Who did he pal around with?

JM: William Ayers who said on 9/11 that he wished that he’d bombed more. OK? His wife was on the Top 10 of FBI’s Most Wanted.

DL: But this all took place…when he was active, Barack Obama was eight years old.

JM: Eight years old. And Mr. Ayers in 2001, September 11, 2001, said, “I wished I had bombed more.” It’s an unrep—

DL: But what is that relationship?

JM: It’s all we need to know. Senator Clinton said, “We need to know about the relationship.” First he said he was just a guy in the neighborhood. And so it’s a matter of trusting the word of someone.

DL: I know. I know.

JM: That’s all.

DL: But you will also admit that we cannot really control who we interact with in our lives 100 percent.

JM: How long we interact with them and how we interact with them … But the point in this campaign is the economy, the economy and the economy.

DL: But did you not have a relationship with Gordon Liddy?

JM: I met him, you know, I mean —

DL: Didn’t you attend a fundraiser at his house?

JM: Gordon Liddy’s?


Letterman laughs, and the network breaks away to pay some bills. McCain: Saved by the commercial.

◊ ◊ ◊

For all its attempts at damage control, the McCain appearance on Letterman may have done as much damage as it tried to control. With a few questions delivered in the context of a conversation, David Letterman did as much to undercut the “palling around with terrorists” accusation as anyone in the Washington/New York punditburo axis.

And McCain did his part. When he went on about how “the point in this campaign is the economy, the economy and the economy,” McCain contradicted his own campaign manager, Rick Davis, who said not long ago that the campaign wasn’t about issues but about personalities and character. More evidence of improvisations, more proof of a disconnect somewhere — everywhere — in the McCain campaign.

Thursday night’s “Late Show” broadcast was seen by 6.5 million viewers, the largest audience for the program since December 2005, when Oprah Winfrey made an appearance, according to James Hibbert, blogging at The Live Feed.

What was probably McCain’s last late-night appearance before the vote on November 4 had more than a whiff of failure around it. We didn’t see him exit, but when McCain left the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater last night, no doubt to polite applause, there must have been a sense of his appearance as a kind of cartoon valedictory, a goodbye to someone who stayed on the stage too long, missing (or ignoring) the cues offstage to make a timely and dignified exit. That exit is expected to be more final, more resoundingly emphatic, on election night.
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Image credit: McCain copter party: AP/Carolyn Kaster

Game on

Just when you thought the saturation point for all things Obama had been reached … surprise. Don’t look now, but if you’re a gamer, there’s a good chance that there’s a presidential candidate in your video game.

Obama's campaign ads are now appearing in several sports video games, including the phenomenally popular Madden NFL ’09 football game, according to a Tuesday story in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper and Web site focusing on the movers and shakers of Congress.


Team Obama has purchased space in the popular Xbox 360 game "Madden NFL 09,″ and in "Burnout Paradise," "NASCAR 09," "NHL 09," "NBA Live 08," and five other titles by video game maker Electronic Arts, said Holly Rockwood, EA’s director of corporate communications.

From the Hill story: “Only gamers playing online in 10 states can see the ads, which appear as stadium signage or billboards, Rockwood said. (The ads are downloaded when gamers log on to the Xbox Internet service.) Unsurprisingly, all 10 states are swing states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin. President Bush won all of those states in 2004 except for Wisconsin.”

The ads will be visible until Nov. 3, the day before the election, Rockwood told The Hill.

The Obama ads are apparently featured in ways that are organic to the game environment, rather than just dropped into situations that wouldn't be appropriate. In the street racing game "Burnout Paradise," for example, racers pass a billboard that features Obama's face next to the words "Early Voting Has Begun — VoteForChange.com."

This move, both culturally and technologically shrewd, proves (as if any more proof were needed at this point) that Obama gets it, that he and his campaign intimates truly understand the habits and pastimes of the American electorate.


And the Obama game-ad positions Obama in the alternate reality of entertainment and popular culture like no candidate before him. By implanting his campaign in the world of video games, Obama not only reaches out to the younger cohort of voters needed to win in November; he shrewdly implants the idea of citizen participation in that other world — reinforcing the importance of voting among those most likely to stay home on Election Day … playing video games.

"The 18-to-34-year-old male is the mainstream demographic for the hard-core video gamer," said Van Baker, an analyst for Gartner Inc., a technology market research firm, to Reuters on Thursday. "They're hard to get to because they don't watch much TV and they don't read a lot, so it's a good venue to get that segment."

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Video games are something Obama has apparently been at odds with in the past. In more than one stump speech during this long campaign, Obama, in appeals for stronger parental roles in society and more direct family involvement in the education process, has been hard on the diversion.

“I know how hard it will be to alleviate poverty that has built up over centuries, how hard it will be to fix schools, because changing our schools will require not just money, but a change in attitudes,” he said in February. “We're going to have to parent better, and turn off the television set, and put the video games away, and instill a sense of excellence in our children, and that's going to take some time.”

Obama spoke at Barrington (Ill.) High School in April.

 While addressing students about their future, Obama threw down an ask-not-what-your- country-can-do-for-you gauntlet. “The bad news is, you're going to have to work harder," he told the students, broadly criticizing youth culture as “watching TV, playing video games and avoiding tough classes in school.”

He even mentioned video games last week, in the third presidential debate, as a metaphor for indolence.

Now, it seems, Obama and his advisers have come to the realization that, if you can’t beat the video game as a diversion, join one, and use it to advance the message of the campaign.

Whatever the real rationale, Obama has caught the McCain campaign flat-footed again, and just maybe caught that sizeable video-savvy slice of the voting public off guard — seizing an opportunity nobody realized was an opportunity, positioning the candidate and his message right where Americans live.
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Image credits: © 2008 Electronic Arts.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Obama-McCain III: Wall of airquotes


Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain showed up tonight for the third presidential debate at the Mack Sports & Exhibition Center at Hofstra University on Long Island. The winner was Joe Wurzelbacher.

Wurzelbacher, perhaps the new hypothetical American, the Toledo plumber whom Obama met on the campaign trail was invoked twenty-five times tonight — twenty-one times by McCain. Never mind the audience of millions who watched the debate on television in the United States. Joe the Plumber was the judge and jury before whom McCain and Obama made their best final arguments on fitness to serve as president.

The verdict? Joe the Plumber reportedly went to bed shortly after the debate ended; he’ll no doubt hold a press conference in the morning. But we saw no game-changer, only the product of another furious reboot of the McCain campaign, evidence of a McCain Software Service Pack 2.1.5. There are still bugs in the code and the drop-dead ship date is three weeks from today.

McCain was stronger tonight, more visibly forceful in ways that worked for him and against him. He was more reliably aggressive and on-message than he was in the first two debates, but only just barely. For the most part he was flustered, he was evasive, he was defensive. He made faces and squirmed, rolled his eyes and arched his eyebrows. He acted like the guy in the Preparation H commercial who can't sit still.



M’girl Arianna Huffington got it right:

“McCain's reliance on angry attacks on Obama has been an unequivocal failure. But instead of course-correcting, he doubled down -- coming across as angrier and meaner than ever before. This debate was won on the reaction shots. Every time Obama spoke, McCain grimaced, sneered, or rolled his eyes. By contrast, every time McCain was on the attack, Obama smiled. It was like watching a split-screen double feature -- Grumpy Old Men playing side by side with Cool Hand Luke.”

And if word choice is indicative of a debater’s emotional baseline, McCain was apparently “angry”: he used the word at least five times — four times in the first ninety seconds of his opening comments at the debate.

McCain’s biggest problem is one of consistency — both his own and Obama’s. While a loudly floundering McCain has tried to pivot in response either to national crises or those of his own campaign, the Barack Obama we saw in the first debate was the same Barack Obama who showed up in Hempstead, L.I., tonight. Principled. Methodical. Passionate. Relaxed under fire. And that’s a problem for John McCain.

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For weeks now, the McCain campaign has resorted to character assassination and broad innuendo against Obama, trying for forever to connect him body & soul with William Ayers, a Chicago professor and former leader of the Weather Underground, the radical group that conducted bombings of domestic locations in the early 1970’s. Ayers served on a community board with Obama years after Ayers’ insane antics in the heat of the Vietnam War.

Once he knew about Ayers’ antiwar activities, Obama denounced them clearly, and did so more than once. But for a campaign increasingly empty of original ideas, Team McCain has used Obama’s passing acquaintance with Ayers as the basis for a campaign of guilt by association — a poisonous strategy that’s led to the ugliest kind of outbursts at McCain's rallies, and those of running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

McCain promised to make Ayers Issue #1 for this third debate of presidential finalists. For a man who prides himself in not telegraphing his punches, McCain was generous in spelling out the strategy beforehand: make William Ayers the centerpiece of his campaign for the duration.

When the subject of Ayers finally came up tonight — because Obama forced the issue, boxing McCain into saying to his face what he’d been saying in front of supporters at rallies, waving like red meat — McCain seemed to dismiss the whole business with Ayers. "Mr. Ayers, I don't care about an old washed-up terrorist," he said, pressing for an explanation of a non-relationship that Obama had thoroughly explained, cutting off oxygen to the rationale for a controversy of his own making.



But without question, McCain’s biggest gaffe of the evening wasn’t a gaffe at all but the distilling evidence of a fundamental misreading of the American people, a powerfully telling moment that may well have cost him many of the women voters he needs for even a chance at the presidency — mostly the white women voters he thought he could sway by picking Sarah Palin to accompany him on an increasingly quixotic campaign.

Discussing abortion, the two had the following exchange:

Obama: "With respect to partial-birth abortion, I am completely supportive of a ban on late-term abortions, partial-birth or otherwise, as long as there's an exception for the mother's health and life, and this did not contain that exception..."

McCain: " Just again, the example of the eloquence of Senator Obama. He's for the 'health' for the mother. You know, that's beenstretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything.

"That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, "health."

McCain’s physical use of air quotes of insinuation around the word ‘health’ — as though it were a code word for something else — was emphatically reinforced with body language and the use of the word 'quote' itself: For McCain, the issue of the health of the mother was being used by the pro-choice crowd to justify abortion as a convenience, rather than a medical necessity. McCain’s tone and demeanor practically radiated the idea: the matter of abortion for the woman’s health was just more political sleight of hand, and not to be taken seriously.



The very idea that a senior United States senator could spend a quarter century in that deliberative body and so blithely dismiss a central issue of the reproductive rights debate, could be so emotionally tone-deaf to the critical issue of women’s health as to lard it with winks and innuendo, seems almost impossible to believe. Impossible but true: the health-in-airquotes moment may have finally sealed the electoral fate of John McCain like nothing else could.

If, as some have said, women voters are the pivotal American demographic in this year’s vote, they may well have decided themselves tonight, on the impact of that toweringly insensitive remark, that John Sidney McCain II will not be the president of the United States in 2008. Years from now, historians may look back and point to this night, that dismissive utterance, as the moment that he lost not only the debate, but also the election.

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There are still twenty-one days left for McCain to make his case. A week is a year is seventeen seconds in politics — whatever the metric is this week. But however much time there's left, there's not enough for another reinvention. John McCain said he had Barack Obama right where he wanted him. Trouble is, John McCain had John McCain right where Barack Obama wanted him.

There's clearly a level of desperation in the McCain campaign that has gone past the merely political. There is a mortal aspect to this thing now, the barely suppressed rage of the candidate and the thunderously bad advice of too many of the wrong handlers. The McCain campaign has begun to show the signs, the desperate strategies of a candidate for whom the words "last chance" have begun to reverberate in his ears, in the 3 o'clock in the morning that for John McCain right now is not just hypothetical but real.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Poll position

In case you hadn’t noticed, campaign polls are hardly in short supply; a dime a dozen would be a generous rate of exchange. But one in particular perks up the ears, revealing the way it does a perceptual breakthrough for Sen. Barack Obama.

Among the usual expressions of preference — conferring on Obama a 10-point lead among likely voters — the still-warm Washington Post-ABC News poll offers a snapshot that more or less removes the last slender rationale for a Republican victory in November.

Responding to the question of who they trust more to handle the unexpected major crisis, 48 percent said Obama would do better, compared to 45 percent who preferred Sen. John McCain to get the phone at 3 a.m. The margin of error is plusminus three percent.

The fact of that being a statistical dead heat is a problem for McCain, who used to own the national security issue. The fact of that giving Obama a numerical edge on McCain’s signature issue is an even bigger headache; it furthers the building narrative of McCain’s inadequacy for the presidency.

It also dashes the hope that dare not speak its name.

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The Republicans, you see, have been quietly hoping for the great Something — some deus ex machina, left-field event — to convey unto John McCain the advantage he and his Keystone Kops of a campaign organization haven’t earned organically on the campaign trail.



One of those scenarios already contemplated was the unforeseen catastrophe of a terrorist event. You remember: Charlie Black, a senior campaign adviser, tantalizingly said as much in late June, claiming in an interview with Fortune Magazine that a terrorist event would give McCain a “big advantage” over Obama.

The assumption was — is? — that such an event would send the electorate rushing for the exits away from the Obama campaign, back into the arms of the resolute cold warrior maverick dedicated to keep America safe.

That poll snapshot, plus another that gave Obama a five-point bulge over McCain on the spongy safe candidate/risky candidate question, pretty much puts that on ice. It even suggests that — banish the thought, seriously — if a major terroristic national crisis were to emerge right now, the Obama campaign would still probably prevail on Nov. 4.


And as for other national crises, consider the precautionary actions of each nominee. For his first pre-presidential decision, Barack Obama chose as a running mate Sen. Joe Biden, an old and principled hand on the levers of power in Washington. John McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a toweringly unprepared, monstrously preposterous choice to accede to the presidency should McCain, a cancer survivor, fail to complete his first term.

Then look at how each has addressed the major national event we know about: the emerging daily crisis of the national economy. Obama has advanced, as recently as today, a series of nuanced, doable plans for restoring jobs, the economy and the national infrastructure through tax incentives to employers, changes in access to 401(k) funds and, over time, the repatriation of much of the $10 billion a month the United States now spends to prosecute the Iraq war.

McCain has lurched from talking point to talking point without a vision, a candidate offering nothing to the solution of the financial crisis beyond a grandstanding appearance on Capitol Hill that achieved nothing; a champion of the same deregulation thought by many to be responsible for the crisis in the first place; a man now reduced to tamping down the passions of his presumably most ardent supporters (any number of who almost certainly are on his side only because he was the last man standing after the primaries went down).

◊ ◊ ◊

The WashPost/ABC News poll also made another kind of news that may take longer to fully resonate: For maybe the first time in the history of canvassing for presidential preference, the American people decided that a man of African and American ancestry was trustworthy enough, was safe enough to achieve the leadership of the greatest participatory democracy in the world.

The latest Real Clear Politics poll results dovetail with this sentiment. In seven battleground states, Obama leads in every one, with margins from a three percentage points to more than 10. According to Real Clear Politics, Obama's overall average lead for the election is 7.4 points over McCain.

Those polls may be, as we’ve said, no more than a snapshot, subject to change tomorrow, if not tonight. But there’s no way to minimize their reading of the electorate, that EKG of the American pulse. Those snapshots may be the preview image of the national snapshot that takes place on November 4th.
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Image credit: Obama: Bbsrock, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Obama and Biden: Daniel Schwen, republished under GNU Free Documentation License v. 1.2 or later.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The hunter gets captured by the game

It’s come to this: Sen. John McCain is so bereft of message, so at a loss for a bedrock theme that he was booed on Friday by his own supporters.

This latest reversal of fortune is one we could have seen coming out of sheer political necessity. After more than a week of tireless assaults on the character of Sen. Barack Obama, and a few days of an escalation of rhetoric so intense it led to people in the crowd inciting to violence against Obama, McCain found himself in the unenviable position of undercutting his own strategy — by praising Obama on the stump.



What might seem at first blush like a return to reason, a walk back from the brink of fomenting a national disaster, was really nothing less than the most recent mistake from a campaign increasingly trapped in its own existential ball of confusion.

After a week of whipping the faithful into a frenzy about Obama, now McCain discovered he’s built an animosity machine that would go of itself, despite his best attempts to get it under control. It was clear on Friday that the hunter had been captured by the game — the game whose rules he thought he had mastered.

At Lakeville South High School in a suburb of Minneapolis, McCain was engaged in one of his town-hall forums, presumably back in his element.

A man in the crowd, soon to be a father, said he didn’t want to bring a child into a world of an Obama presidency. The man told McCain he was “scared” of an Obama presidency.

“I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Senator Obama to be,” McCain said. “But I have to tell you — I have to tell you — he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared” of “as president of the United States.”

The crowd booed loudly McCain.



Later at the town-hall meeting, a woman stood up and told McCain that she didn’t trust Obama because “he’s an Arab.”

McCain, visibly flustered, took the microphone from the woman. “No, ma’am, no, ma’am, he’s a decent family man, a citizen who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about.” The crowd applauded McCain.

At another point in the proceedings, after a voter expressed hopes for a “real fight” at the next debate (Wednesday at Hofstra University), McCain replied, “We want to fight, and I will fight, but we will be respectful.”

Then he said, “I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments, I will respect him and I will —”

The crowd booed again. “I want everyone to be respectful and let’s make sure we are, because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America,” McCain said.

The crowd applauded again.

◊ ◊ ◊

This is the danger in McCain’s relentless pursuit of swing voters and the virulently passionate low- and no-information voters he has relied on. McCain has had to walk back his own personal-attack campaign strategy, and contradict the same diehard supporters still left in his corner — undercutting both his own campaign offensive and the passion of those in the base he needs for even a chance at the presidency.

There won’t be much from this event that’ll find its way into a McCain campaign ad. It looks bad when you overrule your supporters at your own campaign rally.



Lawrence O’Donnell, a longtime observer of presidential politics, saw McCain’s dilemma. “Now he finds himself in this position having … created this monster he can no longer control,” he said Friday on MSNBC’s “Countdown.” “It’s a terrible place to be.”

“There’s a way to play this game so that you end up with no good choices,” he said. “We are watching a campaign that has maneuvered itself into exactly that position.”

◊ ◊ ◊

With McCain himself effectively condemning his own strategy of personal character assaults, it will be interesting to watch his plan of attack at the Wednesday debate, whose focus will be on domestic matters.

Meanwhile, his campaign associates are playing for time by trying to redefine it."The four weeks that are left are an eternity. There's plenty of time in the campaign," Republican strategist Joe Gaylord told The AP last week. It’s an idea that piggybacks on the old dictum that “a week is a year in politics.”

But when the real-life clock is so short for a campaign running out of ideas, that luxury bromide is no longer in effect. John McCain is now lurching toward the point at which a week in politics is exactly seven calendar days.

Last licks in prime time

Sen. Barack Obama’s command of electronic media has been pretty well established throughout this long campaign. He’s outflanked opponents in the primaries and the general with savvy use of TV advertising and the Internet. But we’re about to see his biggest telegambit yet.

The Obama campaign announced earlier this week a big media buy of 30-minute blocks of prime-time programming time on Wednesday, Oct. 29, six days before the presidential election. The half-hour program will air on CBS and NBC broadcast networks, and — pending the World Series schedule — on the Fox News Channel.

It’s a bold but smart use of some of the millions in campaign contributions Obama’s campaign has received, and strategically it’s brilliant: This will be his last chance to make his case to the American people in an extended format, outside the confines of the 60-second ad, and without being interrupted by debate moderators who always seemed to pull the plug on his two minutes juust a little bit early.

And it’s got to be said: The Obama Prime-Time Special may well give him last licks on Sen. John McCain and the broad range of character attacks Team McCain has mounted against him in recent weeks. McCain may find a way to respond, but it’ll cost him dearly. Obama has already spread the field of the states in play, forcing McCain to fight hard in states once thought to be a lock for the Republicans. Countering Obama’s prime-time move with his own will require more good money thrown after bad, spending he really can’t afford.

It could backfire: The American people have been carpet-bombed by Obama campaign ads and literature for so long already; we half expect the debut of The Obama Channel any day now. Blowback in a fit of pique is possible.

But Obama’s prime-time plan should be that last spur to anyone still undecided, and it should finally end the talk of those information isolationists who still say they “don’t know anything about Obama.” If they come out from under the rocks under the ocean where they’ve been hiding for the last year and a half, these 21st-century Rip Van Winkles should discover the candidate they didn’t know about, six days before the election they won’t be able to avoid.
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Image credit: CBS eye: Registered trademark of CBS Corporation. NBC logo: Registered trademark of National Broadcasting Company. Both images republished under fair use rationale: logos depicted are necessary to visually symbolize the respective broadcast networks' role in a national political event.

Friday, October 10, 2008

There go my heroes

In a presidential campaign year often more preoccupied with generating heat at the expense of light, it can be hard to see through the clutter, to find those who speak truth to power with eloquence and deftness and humor. Three come to mind, three who found a way to break through the complacency of mainstream media, to say plainly what can’t and shouldn’t be mitigated or disguised:

Tina Fey

For about a month now, the actress, writer and former “Saturday Night Live” mainstay has taken on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in guest spots on “SNL,” nailing the pit-bull governor with impersonations that perfectly capture the ruthless vapidity of the Republican vice presidential nominee.



Fey’s breakthrough brilliance was clear in her devastating sendup of Palin during her first interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric. It’s easy to parody a public figure by appropriating that person’s physical attributes while using the words of a comedy writer. Fey’s sendup was another matter entirely; Rather than write new material for her takeoff on Palin, Fey mostly used the governor’s own words — a virtual transcript of the real Couric interview — to make her point, showing in a howlingly funny skit just how unprepared Palin is for the vice presidency.

If the current trajectory holds and Barack Obama wins the White House, the punditburo will write books and articles about what constituted the turning point in the campaign. One of those turning points should be when Tina Fey revealed to America the fraudulence of the political supernova of the moment, and did it not with made-up words but with the candidate’s own.

Robert Gibbs

When in the course of political events it becomes necessary to administer an asswhipping, call Robert Gibbs.

The Obama campaign communications director was clearly on his game on Tuesday in a post-debate interview with right-wing apologist Sean Hannity on “Hannity & Colmes” on Fox News. You gotta give Gibbs props right off the bat for venturing into that den of angry chowderheads in the first place. Gibbs was presumably there to defend his candidate against the tired, paint-by-numbers guilt-by-association arising from Obama’s casual acquaintance with William Ayers, admitted Weather Underground bomber of the 1970’s (when Obama was 8 years old).



Gibbs went on the offensive against Hannity’s insinuative, why-do-you-beat-your-wife style of interrogation, insinuating in rhetorical self-defense that Hannity was anti-Semitic, on the basis of devoting a segment of his program to Andy Martin, a writer for the right-wing NewsMax Web site.

In a Chicago Tribune article in February 2006, Martin made reference to a federal bankruptcy judge as a “crooked, slimy Jew, who has a history of lying and thieving common to members of his race,'" and voiced "understand[ing] for how the Holocaust took place."

Gibbs was aggressively masterful on Tuesday. He went into the lion’s den and put the lion in a headlock. Hannity got owned. Poned. Schooled. Baptized. Gibbs went on the attack, being as relentless with Hannity as Hannity has a history of being toward his guests. In about ninety seconds you could see Hannity’s cocksure attitude beginning to slide away as Gibbs refuted the premise of Hannity’s attack by turning it on itself. Gibbs dismissed this conservative ideologue, and put Fox News on notice that Team Obama has no reluctance about playing hardball with a month before the vote.

A lot’s been made of Obama’s reticence about getting down in the gutter and fighting a campaign in the mud. There’s no real reason for concern. With real rhetorical street fighters like Gibbs working for him, he doesn’t have to.

Frank Schaeffer

Sometimes it just takes someone with the stones to stand up and say “enough!” to reveal a lie for what it is. Our political culture has had those moments. When Murrow went on the air and stunned Sen. Joseph McCarthy. When Joseph Welch went before the committee and, at long last, put a blade to the throat of McCarthy’s remaining credibility.

We had one of those fine, rewarding and clarifying moments today, courtesy of Frank Schaeffer, an author and a columnist for the Baltimore Sun. In an op-ed piece, Schaeffer spoke directly to Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, addressing the recent tide of vitriolic diehard supporters accusing treason by and urging violence upon Sen. Barack Obama. Schaeffer took serious umbrage with the ways in which McCain’s campaign has appeared to foster, by a silence and rhetorical acquiescence, a mood of rage possibly inciting violence.

And Schaeffer, a registered Republican, was having none of it today. To say he was calling McCain out (in the classic Old West sense) would be an understatement.

“John McCain: If your campaign does not stop equating Sen. Barack Obama with terrorism, questioning his patriotism and portraying Mr. Obama as ‘not one of us,’ I accuse you of deliberately feeding the most unhinged elements of our society the red meat of hate, and therefore of potentially instigating violence.

“Stop! Think! Your rallies are beginning to look, sound, feel and smell like lynch mobs. …

“John McCain and Sarah Palin, you are playing with fire, and you know it. You are unleashing the monster of American hatred and prejudice, to the peril of all of us. You are doing this in wartime. You are doing this as our economy collapses. You are doing this in a country with a history of assassinations.

“Change the atmosphere of your campaign. Talk about the issues at hand. Make your case. But stop stirring up the lunatic fringe of haters, or risk suffering the judgment of history and the loathing of the American people — forever.”

Res ipsa loquitor, folks. That's the best of American conscience, scrubbed of party or ideology. That is golden, and as good as it gets.
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Image credit: Frank Schaeffer: Mother Jones

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Obama-McCain II:That one

Ain’t it always the way? Some revelations you only get after their precipitating events have already happened. That occurred on Tuesday night. Maybe the most telling moment of the second presidential debate took place when the second presidential debate was over.

It was pretty much impossible to see it on the cable networks, which reflexively cut back to the analysts and Learned Ones those networks are employing for the rest of the campaign. MSNBC, CNN, the broadcast nets sprinted back to the studios to tell us What It All Means.

Thank C-SPAN for showing us what it all means. The C-SPAN feed from the Mike Curb Center on the campus of Belmont University in Nashville lingered in the hall for many minutes after it was over, observing the interactions of Sen. John McCain and Barack Obama, the ways they played with the crowd. For a while, anyway.

It was, generously, ten minutes after the debate ended when it was clear something had happened with who was hogging the camera. The ‘Vox wasn’t there and neither were you, but we could sense by the imbalance of who the camera focused on, that someone was conspicuous by his absence. The Maverick® had left the building. McCain and entourage had vanished, and done so quickly. It was a disappearing act that, in the context of the debate he’d just handsomely lost, was more than just bad campaign “optics.” It further conveyed the sense of invisibility Team McCain has gravitated toward in these final days of the election campaign.



Obama was another matter entirely.

Slate’s John Dickerson, who was there, caught the mood perfectly:

“[W]ith McCain out of the room, the affection from swing voters increased. He was mobbed, patted, beamed at, embraced. One woman wriggled up next to him. At one point, about 15 voters posed for a group picture like it was the last day of camp.”

◊ ◊ ◊

We won’t weigh this down with a full-on transcript of the debate last night. Suffice to say that for ninety minutes we — 63.2 million people in the United States and millions more around the world — saw exactly why this race is where it is. In the freewheeling town-hall format McCain has claimed is his strength, McCain met his match in Obama, a challenger who seemed to look more presidential as the event wore on.

Fielding questions on energy independence, national security, the nation’s two foreign wars and the economy — the 8,000-pound gorilla in the room — the Democrat warmed to the format, breaking through what actors call “the fourth wall” between them and the audience. Obama made it personal again, with strong eye eontact, a folksy demeanor and measured responses to his angry opponent.



Not that he didn’t revert to type. When Citizen Katie Hamm lofts a softball to Obama about Pakistan, Barry got to wax sage and professorial, offering his long-standing, and increasingly accepted — rationale for that country and Afghanistan as the real nexus of the war on terrorism. And fielding other questions, Obama elicited a self-possession and confidence that was reflected in the faces around the room.

Contrary to the barroom brawlers in the punditburo who have called for Obama to engage McCain directly in the same mud wrestling McCain prefers, Obama showed the intelligent cool he's brandished all year. For many in the audience, Obama's bearing at the debate — part of the fundamental sang-froid he's exhibited on the campaign trail for many months — would be the same character trait he could be counted on to show as president. "A calm hand at the controls," some facial expressions seemed to say. "Isn't that what we want?"

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain again equated his own personal strength and character in the crucible of imprisonment in the Vietnam War with the strength and character required to run a wounded, battered nation, despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary.

He rightly wants to stand up for Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, and for warning Moscow from further renewal of its historically brutal expansionism. At one moment there was real fellow feeling for a member of the audience, former Chief Petty Officer Terry Shirey, a fellow Navy man. And the crowd seemed to respond with a quiet warmth. So what if McCain didn’t wear a flag-lapel pin for the second debate in a row? This was the cold warrior in twilight, recognizing another once-comrade in arms.

But this was the exception. For a man who supposedly loves the town-hall format, McCain was not on his A game. He launched into fulsome praise for “my hero, Teddy Roosevelt,” instantly mangling one of TR’s signature phrases (“Walk softly — talk softly, but carry a big stick”). (This is how you treat your hero?) Then he trotted out that tired line about looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing the letters K, G and B. And again he floated that idea of forming a “League of Democracies” to oversee various regional instabilities — a body that, as generally described, wouldn’t be any different from the United Nations Security Council we’ve had for 50 years.

◊ ◊ ◊



Consider the unspoken things, what happened between exchanges with the candidates. While McCain spoke, Obama often sat watching his opponent, unafraid of eye contact, visually staying in the game, his body open and accessible.

When Obama spoke, McCain appeared restless, either sitting and taking notes, sipping water, or standing, sometimes with the body language of an impatient man.

Throughout the evening the audience got the John McCain Rage Show, co-starring condescension, irritation and barely sublimated rage. It was there in a thoroughly condescending manner when McCain addressed a question from Oliver Clark about the mortgage crisis.

“But you know, one of the real catalysts, really the match that lit this fire was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," McCain told Clark. "I'll bet you, you may never even have heard of them before this crisis.”



And that anger was there when McCain committed the gaffe of the debate season thus far, committing to political folklore a phrase that will adhere to McCain — not like glory but more like manure — forever.

Attacking Obama on a vote on an energy bill on the floor of the Senate, McCain, suddenly physically animated, said the bill in question was “loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney."

Then he said (with a cringe-inducing sarcasm more physical than rhetorical) “You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one. You know who voted against it? Me.”

There was more rhetorical counterpunch, more thrust and parry: McCain's idea of a $5,000 refundable tax credit for health care that Obama dismantled as a plan to tax company health-care benefits, a zero-sum-game proposal in which one hand of government giveth and the other hand of government taketh away. Or McCain's GOP-ritual blame of minority homeowners for the gravity of the mortgage crisis. Or McCain's trial balloon stunt of proposing that the Federal government take possession of $300 billion in bad mortgages — a bailout on top of the bailout!

But two words put the icing on a cake in the rain. With two words — that one — John McCain revealed the gravity of his dislocation, the degree of his disconnect not just from the candidate who opposes him, but also from the country he proposes to lead. Some in the audience in the hall were visibly tuning out, mentally heading for the exits, already plotting how to get into a post-debate photograph with that one.

◊ ◊ ◊



McCain has over the years effectively crafted a political persona combining the instincts of a nonconformist with the principles of a reform-minded politician. Some of those principles that he stood on and for have apparently disappeared.

More recently, throughout the long and revelatory months of this campaign, John McCain model 2008 has advanced his political star by equating a personal and military valor we’ve never doubted for a moment with the temperament, judgment, vision and character it takes to be president of the United States. The shortcomings in that comparison were obvious on Tuesday night.

The people at the Mike Curb Center on the campus of Belmont University in Nashville didn’t have any doubt, any more than the millions more around the country — many of whom have already voted. If the hordes that crowded Obama after the debate are a sign, they know who they want for president.

That one.
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Image credit: Obama, Oct. 3, 2008: Stan Honda/AFP.
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