Saturday, January 31, 2009

And now for someone completely different

The story of the Republican Party’s current slightly tortured bid for reinvention came down to numbers on Friday; the pain of their shot at rebirth reduced to six ballots, a first vote and five do-overs among 168 committee members seriously debating how to advance the fortunes of a political party in existential distress.

In the sixth round of voting, Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, had prevailed over four challengers in his bid to become the chairman of the Republican National Committee — its first African American leader.

Seasoned and telegenic, Steele takes charge of the operational and fundraising arm of the party in a time of great challenge. His ascension to the Republican leadership is a visible concession to a need for change at the upper levels of the party of Lincoln. The GOP has long been in need of a makeover, an expansion from its appeal to older, rural white men and women, often from the South, a cohort as politically loyal as it is demographically long in the tooth.

Steele has hewed to the Republican ethical and philsophical party line, tacking right with the leadership and his constituents on issues such as keeping the Bush tax cuts permanent, and on opposing a federal amendment to recognize gay marriage. But he’s also gone off script as a moderate who supports limited stem-cell research and affordable health care, among other issues. This aspect of Steele’s political nature, seemingly bipartisan, may serve him well in the Obama age, when conciliation is very much in play.

But at the end of the day, Steele’s evolution — and his RNC victory on Friday — may have more to do with political necessity than with principle; he takes the helm of an organization within a political party adrift. “This is a party that really doesn’t know what it is at the moment … and has made a situational decision,” said Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post on MSNBC Friday. […T]he party hasn’t really defined itself for the next four years.”

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But Steele was feeling it on Friday. After his victory in the balloting, he made clear he grasped the moment of the moment. “It’s time for something completely different, and we’re going to bring it to them. We’re going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community. And we’re going to say to friend and foe alike, ‘we want you to be a part of us, we want you to work with us.’ And for those of you who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked down.’”

Snarling with their backs against the wall!: It’s the kind of attitudinal red meat Republicans like to gnaw on, and now more than ever. Steele’s flash of combativeness borrowed as much from the rhetoric of John F. Kennedy (“friend and foe”) as the attitude of George W. Bush (“Bring ‘em on”).

With that statement, Michael Steele seems to have taken a first step in erasing two lines, two boundaries, at once: His new stature as a successful African American politician — right now the second most visible in the nation — begins to erase at least a perceptual line between black Americans (mostly Democrats) and the GOP. In the November election, black, Hispanic and Asian American support for Obama averaged just under 75 percent. African American pro-Obama turnout was 95 percent. Steele’s wide-open Republican salesmanship can’t possibly hurt in seeking at least a chance at outreach.

And Steele’s rise within the party whose historical antagonism toward blacks and minorities has been a given for generations smudges the distinction between black Republicans and the party leadership, and makes that tiny subset of the nation’s Republicans viable in a way that enlivens a party that needs enlivening. Badly.

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There are fences to mend. The GOP’s numbers for minorities didn’t just occur in the last election cycle, but have evolved due to its policies on affirmative action and immigration, the lingering bad taste of the 2000 election, the persistent wound of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and the range of social, economic and cultural issues that have long defined the Republican party, for black voters at least, as a party apart. That doesn’t change overnight with Steele’s new position. Nothing moves that fast in politics.

Except the Republicans, maybe. Three months after the election, the retrofit of GOP identity is happening at breathtaking speed. Maybe too fast. The wave of election postmortems and remedies in the conservative media suggests a party in a hurry to get to the recovery without having fully absorbed the impact of the diagnosis. There’s a suspicion that, rather than methodically reassessing the American voters and their relationship with those voters, then starting the process to restore that relationship, the GOP has fast-tracked everything related to its recovery, in a reflex reaction to the Obama victory that may be why Steele prevailed in the first place.

The groundbreaking election of Michael Steele to the RNC both undercut some of the emotional weight of President Obama’s first ten days in office, and at the same time helped reinforce the power of Obama’s victory, and what it says about America’s ability to change. What Michael Steele’s six-ballot victory says about the Republican Party’s real, organic ability to change — to be "something completely different" — remains to be seen.
Image credit: Steele: Public domain.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mending global fences

He’s been president of the United States for all of 200 hours, give or take, and Barack Obama has been busy frustrating the critics and the professional polwatchers who keep thinking they know his every move.

The Guantanamo closure announcement, for example, was completely expected, the fulfillment of a longstanding Obama campaign pledge.

It’s what came next that caught people off guard: an action thick with an inescapable symbolism, one with possibly unbelievable dividends. On Monday President Obama conducted his first formal one-on-one interview with a major news organization, but it wasn’t granted to one of the Multiple Wise Men at the American broadcast or cable nets, or to Katie Couric at CBS.

President Obama sat in the White House with Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for al-Arabiya, a Saudi-supported TV news channel based in Dubai, and a news organization with mainstream standing in the Muslim world.

The alphabet networks of the United States were left standing with their eyes against the keyhole of the Oval Office door, while inside that office, the leader of the United States put the concerns and fears of the Muslim world front and center.

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This latest break with modern presidential tradition wasn’t so much a diss of the U.S. media as it was a bid for reasserting a telegenic, conciliatory American presence on the world stage. The president took his case as a world leader directly to the world’s Muslims, presenting the United States as a nation willing to act again as an honest broker (and in sharp distinction from the last eight years, an involved honest broker) in the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict; to begin the process of ending U.S. military presence in Iraq; and to continue the healing begun, however symbolically, when Obama ordered Gitmo closed.

It was an olive branch attached to a powerful message: the days of reflexive marginalization of Muslims, by a government bent on ostracizing and criminalizing them, are over.

Obama’s was also a personal message for the other everyday people of the Middle East. “I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries. … My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that Americans are not your enemy,” the president said in an act of outreach that would have been unthinkable under the Bush regime. “[T]he same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20, 30 years ago, there’s no reason we can’t restore that.”

“My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect,” Obama said.

After his exclusive, Melhem told he was touched by the president. "You can feel the authenticity about him," he told the Web site of Time magazine. "The interview was his way of saying, 'There is a new wind coming from Washington.' Barack Obama definitely sees the world differently from a man named George W. Bush."

As they concluded the interview and shook hands, Melhem recalled, Obama told him, “There will be more.”

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The bipartisan aspect that is shaping the Obama administration may also slowly be yielding political dividends; there’s reason to believe that hands-across-the-water can mean hands-across-the-aisle, too.

Vin Weber, a former Minnesota Republican congressman who advised the Obama White House on Middle East relations, gave the new president high marks for his appearance.

“There are decades and decades of skepticism of the West ingrained in psyches in people of the Arab world, and that's not going to change on a dime simply because we have a new president,” Weber told the National Journal Online.

“What we have is an opening, an opportunity to change the minds of people,” Weber said. “And I think the president has taken the right first steps, and if they see that we're persistent and consistent, I think that we can slowly, over time, change minds.”

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The spectre of terrorism was addressed by the president in ways that made some in the U.S. media recall President Bush’s tendency to demonize. Obama used the word “nervous” to describe the al-Qaida leadership (and Melhem agreed with Obama’s assertion, using the word himself), and the president described al-Qaida’s ideas as “bankrupt.”

It put some wags in mind of Bush’s swaggering “bring ‘em on” and “dead or alive” comments during the height of the Iraq war. But there was more at work in Obama’s comments.

Steve Clemons, the publisher of the foreign policy blog The Washington Note, got the wider implications. “What’s important to understand ‘— which George Bush never did understand — is that terrorists are actually political actors trying to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of certain publics. And Obama, rather than just trying to kill terrorists … is trying to steal their audience.”

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In fact, and all respect to Clemons, President Obama is doing more than that. With this overture to the mainstream sensibilities of ordinary people in the Muslim world, the president has begun the process of depriving terrorists of the emotional oxygen required for terrorism to flourish.

His tone, his personality, his experience and his ethnicity all combine to undercut the rhetoric of separation without which terrorism cannot survive. This may be the first display of the global reassertion of America’s values and character — what Atlantic columnist Andrew Sullivan has called this nation’s “soft power” of diplomacy and culture.

Beyond the impact of an unprecedented interview seen around the world, the world’s sense of Obama as conciliator may already trickling into the global psyche:

Last week Agence France-Presse reported that a barber in Khartoum, Sudan, a man who had recently opened a barbershop in the city, named the shop for Barack Obama, adorning the façade of the shop with the likeness of the American president.

"I opened the shop just before the U.S. presidential election in November, but I waited for Obama's victory before naming it after the president-elect," said the shop owner, Muntasser Jacob. "If the Republican John McCain had won the election I would not have named my shop after him."

When fences are torn down, around the neighborhood or around the world, they’re rebuilt one hammer and nail at a time.
Image credit: Obama interview still: Al-Arabiya via The Associated Press. Obama shop: Unnamed photo agencies, via China Daily Web site.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hit the ground flying

Anyone doubting that Barack Obama means to put his stamp on the presidency fast got a taste of how much can be accomplished with a quick catalog of what Obama’s done in his first full five days in office:

In that time President Obama ordered a pay freeze for senior staff at the White House; signed an executive order enforcing tighter rules on lobbyists to ensure more transparency in government; ordered shut the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, immediately suspending the trials now being conducted there. He ordered an end to the CIA “rendition” prisons, in which terrorism suspects were believed by international rights monitors, and others, to have been tortured by or at the direction of agency interrogators.

He also appointed the esteemed diplomats George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke as envoys to the Middle East, and Pakistan and Afghanistan, respectively. He released his first YouTube weekly address, the online fireside chats meant to galvanize his younger supporters.

The president ended a ban against federal funding for international oirganizations that perform or counsel women on abortions. And according to The New York Times, on Monday, acting on a campaign pledge, he’ll direct federal regulators to fast-track applications by California and 13 other states to establish their own strict automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards — an action that would be a sharp rebuke to Bush administration policy, and one already hailed by environmental watchdogs.

“This is a complete reversal of President Bush’s policy of censoring or ignoring global warming science,” said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress in Washington, to The Times. “With the fuel economy measures and clean energy investments in the recovery package, President Obama has done more in one week to reduce oil dependence and global warming than George Bush did in eight years.”

And what’d you do at work last week? Talk about “hit the ground running.” This is hitting the ground flying.

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What’s taking place, at an almost breakneck pace, is a steady dismantling of some of the Bush administration’s most divisive policies. The Bush federal abortion funding ban, for example, was long seen as a means for his administration to exact a cynical leverage over women, by requiring any non-governmental organizations receiving U.S. funds to agree before they got the money that they will "neither perform nor actively promote abortion.”

It was a blatant sop to the abstinence-based programs favored by the Bush administration and conservatives generally, as opposed to the approach combining abortion counseling, contraceptives, and a pragmatism about sexuality that escaped the doctrinaires of the Bush White House.

The Bush strategy was a clear attempt to put politics above practicality. Obama’s executive order — signed one day after the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — puts that to a stop.

Right now President Obama is raining blows — some glancing, some powerful — on the Bush administration. It’s a measure of how much work there is to be done that Obama has elevated an already serious game. He seems to know, or certainly to sense, that the storied "first 100 days" in wihch every new administration is tasked with accomplishing something, run out fast. And consistent with the take-charge manner he’s shown since he took office on Jan. 20, there are some who might have believed that Obama’s first 100 days started the day he won the election in November.

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In any case, the Obama honeymoon is likely to be a short one. His relationship with the press, once a veritable love feast, came to the verge of ugly last week when the president made what was intended to be a friendly impromptu visit to the White House press office.

Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain were Obama’s two chief rivals for the presidency. What a difference a campaign makes: Now, one of them works for Obama (as Secretary of State), the other works against him (in the Senate). The one thing both had in common is having dismissed Obama’s qualifications, sayng the White House was no place for “on the job training.”

It’s to Obama’s great advantage that he realizes the presidency is nothing but on-the-job training. There’s no other job in the world that prepares you for being president except being president.

In November, Barack Obama politically graduated at the top of his class. With just under a week behind him, and 1,454 days to go, President Obama’s swiftly doing what he can to make himself the most likely to succeed.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The age of ubiquity

You’ve seen it for years and you see it today in television advertising, in the movies, in news reports and still photographs: the black or minority man or woman literally on the edge of the frame, last in a visual series, on or near the very periphery of the visual space you’re looking at. On the margins.

It’s no accident. It’s become such a basic aspect of our culture that its composition is rarely questioned, and infrequently tweaked. But this is a passive kind of poison: You can’t see people who look like you constantly shunted to the visual sidelines without being affected by it.

The practice isn’t as bad, as pervasive as it used to be; years of fitful advances by minorities in the studios and newsrooms and ad agencies of America have seen to that. But it’s still one of the more corrosive features of our relentless teleculture.

It’s going to be real hard to do that for the next four years. That formula changed permanently on Election Night 2008, and it changed again on Inauguration Day. Barack Obama has completed the long process of moving African Americans, and minorities generally, to a place among the larger pixels of American culture.

The word “pixels” isn’t dropped casually. It speaks to the way the visual is our main avenue for communication. Whether it’s on your flat-screen in the living room or a billboard on the highway, we tend to prioritize what’s important by what we see, how often we see it, and how much we pay attention. It's how we order things of interest, influence and impact. Who’s that on the box, what’s he saying? Check it out. What the face is saying might be important. Especially if it’s the president’s face.

That face on television, online and in magazines and newspapers. That face we see every day as an index to what’s crucial, maybe indispensable to the national life.

That face has never been a black face before. It is now, and will be for at least the next four years.

That fact changes the definition — the benchmark — of American normality. Forever.

There are some moments of American discovery that can’t be repealed or reversed. Obama’s inauguration as president was one such moment. With a felicitous irony, it ratified what may be the central emotional principle of participatory democracy: You’re not on the margins anymore when the President of the United States looks like you.

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African Americans have come close to this cultural ubiquity before. It’s a fact for black people over a certain age, those who remember growing up in households where the triptych images of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. hung on the walls or adorned the mantels. For many elders it was a kind of personal iconography; for a lot of folks in the 60’s and 70’s, these men were the accessible saints, the contemporary North Stars of our moral compass.

King had a divinely inspired capacity for summoning this nation to honor its basic principles, but all of King’s transformative career occurred before the advent of modern television and the Internet. President Obama’s ubiquity in American life will transcend King’s own, because of the social advances that King made possible, the political advances Obama made possible, and the technological advances America made possible.

All due respect to Roland Burris, the new junior senator from Illinois, but he’s not the self-described “magic man.” President Obama is. The nation’s new chief executive, everywhere at once, the elected arbiter of all things American, the baseline standard for our lives. The automatic normal.

And black people have never been in that situation before. This is new and exciting and maybe even faintly terrifying.

Oh, the presidential honeymoon will end. Those ads for victory plates and presidential coins won’t be on TV forever. The realities of the job will settle on that slender Obama frame; the challenges once theoretical and now real will hasten the appearance of the salt-and-pepper hair we know he's been hiding with Just For Men.

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And for too many millions of black and minority Americans, Obama’s elevation to the presidency is no panacea. Nothing changes for those without work, in danger of foreclosure, recently laid off, under threat of being laid off. The panoply of social pathologies we are heir to and those who take on ourselves won't vanish. Theirs are lives already challenged everyday.

But even so, now for African Americans especially, there’s something special that wasn’t there before. There's a charge in the air that wasn’t there before, a different fact of the undercurrent of our lives. It’s what you tell yourself: A black man is running the country, a man who’s made a pledge to make things better. Got to get up off this couch, out of these doldrums, away from this funk. A black man is running the country.

And as time passes, that’s when it gets really, wonderfully interesting: when the newness of this ubiquitous moment wears off, and Barack Obama becomes to the American people as a leader what blacks and minorities have always sought to be to America as people: Not three-fifths of anything, but whole and sufficient. Not peripheral, but central. John Q. Citizen. Jane Q. Citizen. Everyday people. The automatic normal.
Image credits: Monitor image (via MSNBC): Michael E. Ross. Obama plate:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The whole world in his hands

We’ve known this was coming for ten weeks now, and still, when it happened, the capacity for surprise and wonder and tears was very much intact. Today was one of those signal American moments, maybe The Signal American Moment: remarkable not because we recognized it, but precisely because we never have before. This is the terra incognita our nation was meant to be. This is, now, finally, the America that America has been waiting for.

When Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States of America, the nation shifted in its foundation; its spiritual longitude, its emotional latitude were in a different place than the day before. Even as he took an oath that confirmed the vitality of some of our bedrock American certainties, his very presence as president called other sure things into question. The country thought it had the racial arithmetic, the calculus of individual achievement, all figured out. And now this.

And for African Americans, the descendants of the slaves who built the house he will now occupy for the next four years, today represents a psychic dividing line, a clear line of demarcation between one world view and another. The late Arthur C. Clarke might have envisioned something like this for a science-fiction novel: a day on which the future announces itself in breathtaking fashion; a world in which people long accustomed to being warmed by one sun woke up one morning to find, inexplicably, a second sun in the sky.

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The challenges facing Obama, and the country, are vast and serious: two foreign wars, one of them totally unnecessary; a disastrous economy; a domestic housing crisis that’s sapped the energy and confidence of millions of homeowners; business closing at a rampant pace; and a physical and emotional infrastructure in need of serious repair.

But with all of that, despite all of that … something in Obama, some happy collision of personal narrative, delivery of message and urgency of the hour, have made him the symbol of our aspirations in what may be the world’s most desperate and dangerous era. His innate sense of confidence. An infectious sense of possibility. His almost-otherworldly calm. A smile that could launch the careers of a thousand dental hygienists.

It’s these intangibles that, ironically enough, are a currency as valuable as any amount of money, any elaborate fiscal policy. That’ll come — the hard numbers will be on the table, preferably sooner rather than later. But for now, the unity he’s inspired in a broke, bone-weary, oratorically impoverished nation is enough.

The first stimulus package Barack Obama’s delivered to the American people is Barack Obama himself.

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For black Americans, the inauguration of Barack Obama happily endangers the bifurcated identity they've known in this country for generations — the “two-ness” of black identity brilliantly lamented by W.E.B. DuBois in “The Souls of Black Folk.” That two-ness for black America was a sense of isolation encountered in “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on with amused contempt and pity.”

With a President Obama, those double strands of black American identity have merged, convincingly and totally. As president, Obama ratifies the realization of a dream whose depth in the black psyche ran deeper than Martin Luther King or even DuBois could know: the dream to be fully African American and American. Barack Obama didn’t bring African Americans into the mainstream. His rise to the presidency confirms, for a people historically cursed for their identity, that they are the mainstream.

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This emotional stimulus doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. The cable networks showed feeds from other networks around the world: BBC, al-Jazeera and others recording how the world greeted the news: parties in Paris and London; quietly cautious optimism in Tehran; street dances in Kenya; cheering in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

All this global big fun has nothing to do with policies and practice, and everything to do with perception. But underestimate perception at your peril. Not for nothing did Time magazine recently portray Obama as a physical surrogate for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The president’s ability to impart a sense of the possible is especially, necessarily directed at Americans, black Americans in particular. But that message is resonating around the world right now. The world is waiting, already more inspired and hopeful than they’ve had any reason to be for the last eight years.

Obama’s gifts — rhetorical, intellectual, political, emotional — may serve him as well as FDR’s did, in a time at least as dangerous as FDR’s was. Chief among those gifts is one that’s both the most ephemeral and the most important. It’s the ability to communicate a crucial rule of recovery — for a patient, an economy, a nation, a world: The first step to getting better is believing you will.
Image credits: The inauguration: Damon Winter, The New York Times. President Obama: Pete Souza, Obama-Biden Transition Office.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Goodbye, farewell and amen

Unless, of course, they’ve undertaken a coup d’etat overnight and subverted the Constitution again, George Bush and Dick Cheney are only hours from passing the torch of the national executive to Barack Obama and Joe Biden, formalizing what we’ve known for far too long: the Republican business model of presidential politics is a thing of the past.

In the morning — that great gettin’ up morning — about nine hours from now, Barack Obama will take the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States and begin the process of dismantling the damage done by the Bush administration. Much of that damage done by Crew Bush #43 was attitudinal, a different way of thinking about the United States’ place in the modern world. And that damage to the nation’s sense of itself, its well-being, its future, may be the worse damage of all.

For Bush & Cheney, there was finally no real strategy, no overarching theme beyond control and leverage for the sake of a gauzy, ill-defined and needlessly belligerent set of principles whose imposition drained the national treasury and alienated the greatest nation in the world from the world.

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We’ll miss the phrase “axis of evil,” that curious mix of words as much the stuff of Churchill and World War II as it would have been a great title for a Motley Crue record. That twist of language established the emotional pretext for global aggression. It was the first sign of the Bush Doctrine, the principles formally lashed together in a National Security Council paper and published in September 2002 — a testament to unilateral and pre-emptive belligerence against any country even slightly considered a threat to the United States.

“Our security will require transforming the military you will lead — a military that must be ready to strike at a moment's notice in any dark corner of the world,” President Bush told cadets at West Point in June 2002. “And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.”

With that distillation of intent, the Bush administration lurched the nation into a war that continues, at a ruinous cost of our fortune, our standing, our precious human lives. What a legacy, guys.

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We’ll miss that cute thing they did with the shredder and the U.S. Constitution, effectively suspending habeus corpus for inmates in a prison in Cuba, and doing it on the flimsiest of pretexts. We can’t forget the way they manipulated the language, turning “prisoners” into “detainees.” Or how they legitimized the phrase “War on Terror,” a meaningless sobriquet whose objective is utterly unattainable.

We remember how they enabled one Attorney General who fired U.S. Attorneys on purely political grounds, and enabled another Attorney General who refused to call the torture of those “detainees” for what it was.

Their policy of wide-open economic deregulation contributed to a corporate gigantism that backfired badly on Wall Street, and a liberalization of credit access that lured impressionable Americans eager for the storied American Dream of homeownership into improvisational mortgages whose terms would ultimately break them, and shatter that dream for them, and millions of other people besides.

And after Hurricane Katrina, the single most devastating domestic meteorological event in modern times, the federal agency that should have made a difference in the aftermath, if not been prepared for the aftermath before the storm arrived, was a woeful evidence of Keystone Kops miscommunication presided over by a feckless administrator who couldn’t find his ass in the Category 6 windstorm that cost too many people their lives.

All while the president did a flyover in Air Force One. And some of the poorest people in this nation were scattered by the water to the four winds, left to wonder if their government ever really gave a good goddamn. Like a lot of the rest of us.

And running throughout the last eight years of the Bush-Cheney tandem, we were witness to a kind of swaggering stylistic cluelessness; a belligerence of style that saw the president manhandling the German Chancellor or taking his wife to India and not even visiting the Taj Mahal; a cowboy rhetoric that put the deadly earnest business of modern war in the language of the dime-novel Western. Dead or alive indeed.

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Bush & Cheney. They left a lot of broken things in their wake, like the sloppy owners of the house who turn a mansion into a fixer-upper before handing over the keys. They nurtured a divisiveness and unease in the country that’ve managed to spill into every facet of our lives, from the economic to the cultural, the religious to the racial.

We’re the heirs to their world view, and a trillion-dollar deficit, a housing market in free fall, a stock market in coma, a badly and needlessly tarnished international reputation, and an overall malaise they’ve done nothing to prevent or overcome. Not bad for eight years’ work.

Let’s raise a glass to Bush & Cheney — phrasally wed forever, like Laurel & Hardy. Or Mick & Keith. Or Archie & Jughead. It’s them that brought us to where we are today, ladies and gentlemen. Remember them. And thank your personal Gods: In the morning, we won’t have them to kick us around anymore.
Cheney and Bush: Public domain. Katrina: NOAA.


She was one of the thousands of people who stood in cold weather at Union Station, waiting for the Obama Express, the train on a whistlestop tour bringing the next President of the United States of America to Washington for his inaugural on Tuesday. She was from Little Rock, Ark., a city with its own grim intersection with history, and she brought her son, a fourth-grader studying the U.S. Constitution.

“What are you thinking of today?” one of the cable reporters asked.

“Today,” she said, “I think of the people who laid the track for this train.”

She was there on Sunday, the day before observance of the Martin Luther King holiday, and by today, Monday, maybe another million Americans had arrived — at Union Station or the area’s airports. Monday was widely promoted as a day of national service: chipping in with beautification projects, community outreach events, food-bank assistance, volunteering and mentoring.

It’d be easy to dismiss it as a stunt riding on the back of history, as a collectivist, Utopian gesture at odds with American sensibilities. But the call to service — made by President-elect Obama and in the populist spirit of King — is certainly something more. It may be, among other things, the start of the Obama transformation of the country’s floor of expectations — a shift in its perception of volunteerism, a move away (if only for a while) from the materialism that’s brought us, in many ways, to where we are economically today.

While much of the nation continued a focus on the Obama future, many looked back at the past. For African Americans the day of the observance, the day before history, it’s natural to think of the people who laid the track for Obama’s train, the pioneers like King and untold others who led the way in dangerous times.

And there’s something to be said for representin’. For just being on location. For millions of the people visiting Washington, after years of disconnection with a government that had long since disconnected from them, the act of being there is valuable. They won’t be handing out food at a shelter and cleaning up a park.

Btu they’re there, in Washington, from Little Rock and everywhere else in the nation, there to represent hope, to physically embody that thumbs-up to the future that defines us, as a people and as a nation. On a day of national service, that’s another way of pitching in.
Image credit: Martin Luther King: (immediate source)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Changeling:Pop iconography and Barack Obama

Organically — the way all real phenomena emerge, from a tsunami in the South Pacific to a nor’easter along the eastern seaboard — Barack Obama has become the first rock-star president of the United States. That fact is meaningless if you’re not a fan of rock music, have no sense of its velocity into the wider culture, and don’t believe that its erratic, flamboyant, unpredictable and potentially dangerous nature tells the story of the postwar American dynamic.

But if you’re at least open to rock culture’s potential for social and cultural change, you can see how what’s about to unfold in Washington five days from right now will be the most small-d democratic political expression of the same viral populism that’s made rock, in the words of journalist Mikal Gilmore “such a great adventure and such a great disturbance in our culture, our arts, and our values.”

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John F. Kennedy, for all his élan and youthful drive, could never have been the first rock-star president. His ascendancy, in fact the whole arc of his presidency, preceded many of the sensibilities of rock culture we embrace today, and overlooked most of the others. The cultural dimensions of Kennedy’s presidency owed more to Palm Springs and Boston than to Muscle Shoals or the Mississippi Delta. Of all the myriad figures of culture that attended the Kennedy inaugural gala, there wasn’t a rocker in the house.

It’s been widely thought that the title rightly belonged to Bill Clinton, the saxophone-wielding, Ray-Banned politician who Elvised his way into the White House almost a generation ago. But Clinton’s rise to the presidency, while it had its insurgent moments, didn’t really have insurgent origins. For Clinton, and not least of all because of his race, his presidential campaign borrowed from rock ‘n’ roll when it suited the campaign. The unpredictable (and therefore uncontrollable) aspects of rock culture were something he dabbled in, capably but occasionally.

When he takes the office on Tuesday, Barack Hussein Obama becomes fully the beneficiary of the kind of pop-cultural iconography our culture has granted to only a few, to fewer still who were African American and, to this point, to no one who’s been president.

Like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, the next president has already attained a place in the iconosphere that, ironically, transcends the office itself. Think of it in visual terms: Any U.S. president of modern times except Bill Clinton would have been a fitting subject for a portrait by Yousef Karsh. Clinton’s portrait, of course, would be done by Annie Leibovitz. If he were still alive, Obama’s portrait would be done by Andy Warhol — one of those legendary multi-panel works, with different interpretations of the same image awash in color and Warhol’s jagged, freewheeling swatches and squiggles that vividly alluded to the energy and mystery of the subject on the canvas.

(The work of Obama portraitist Shepard Fairey stands in nicely.)

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama’s campaign exhibited a sense of rock style and immediacy that wasn’t grafted on at the last minute; the rebel aspects of the rock esthetic were basic to the campaign. From the audacity of even running for president to the grassroots proliferation of a Web-based fundraising apparatus that grew money like a virus in a petri dish to a primary-season soundtrack that spanned Motown and U2, Barack Obama brought rock ‘n’ roll to politics and politics to rock ‘n’ roll. Signed, sealed and delivered.

As with that of the music’s best ambassadors, Obama’s appeal finally spilled over the banks of rock even more widely into our everyday world. The folks at Ben & Jerry’s, whose brands of ice cream have been their own tasty salute to culcha’s movers & shakers (a scoop of Cherry Garcia, anyone?), recently released Yes Pecan, B&J’s tribute to the 44th president.

The artists and writers at Marvel Comics, discovering that Obama was a fan of Spider-Man comic books when he was a kid, have put him on the cover of half the run of the latest Spider-Man edition. It’s expected to sell out in … well, guess what? They’re already gone.

The challenge — the political danger — for Barack Obama isn’t so much in maintaining this level of adulation as much as maintaining this level of passion and energy on behalf of a wider social purpose. He said it many times during the campaign: that his bid for the American presidency was less about him than it was about all of us — U.S.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s a downside to pop iconography; it can be suddenly, weirdly perishable, subject to dissipation when least expected. A misstep real or perceived, one false move on the highwire and … in an instant, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream isn’t selling anymore.

Even though Obama has more convincingly wed the right-now! aspects of pop culture to the more procedurally-driven ways of politics than anyone in American history, it doesn’t mean the marriage won’t have its frictions.

Some fissures between Obama and his earliest supporters farthest on the left have emerged, with them crying “abandonment!” saying he’s walked away from the core principles that won their votes and got him elected — failing to see the distinctions between campaigning and governing, roughly the difference between playing in Washington Square Park and Carnegie Hall.

Americans are an impatient and fickle lot, and they will demand results — especially from a candidate who adopted one of the simplest words in the language as the central plank in his political platform. Change is now more than a campaign meme or part of a slogan; it’s what the country will expect, and the sooner, the more tangible, the better.

We just hope this country’s patient as Obama adjusts to his new role on a bigger stage. We hope they’ll cut a brother a break while he tunes up, does a mic check and hits that first chord with a band he’s never worked with before, in front of an audience the size of a nation.

The house lights go down on Tuesday. Rock ‘n’ roll.
Image credits: Obama: Obama for America. Yes Pecan: Via GOOD magazine Web site ( Spider-Man cover: © 2009 Marvel Comics. Obama crowd in St. Louis: Via The Huffington Post.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

We'll be seeing you, No. 6

The actor Patrick McGoohan died in Santa Monica, Calif., on Tuesday after a brief and undisclosed illness, at the age of 80. If you don’t recognize the name, it might be understandable given the velocity and short attention span of the times. He hadn’t worked in some time, no doubt a concession to advancing age and the relative absence of parts in Hollywood for actors with, uh, that much experience.

But in his prime, McGoohan brought consummate acting skills and a voice that could have made the phone book sound like Shakespeare to numerous roles in movies and on television, one in particular.

He first came to the attention of American TV viewers as “Secret Agent,” in which he starred as John Drake, a British agent involved in various global intrigues. The series roughly dovetailed with the American fascination with espionage according to the 007 movies, followed by “The Avengers” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” series on the small screen. The show’s theme song, “Secret Agent Man” by Johnny Rivers, became a pop music staple of the ‘60’s.

◊ ◊ ◊

If McGoohan’s career had gone no further than “Secret Agent,” he might have been no more than a curious pop-culture footnote. But he went to produce, direct, write and star in a series that paved the way for television as a more daring and inventive medium than it had been before — in many ways, more daring than it’s ever been since.

In 1967 McGoohan debuted in “The Prisoner,” a series whose short life (it only ran for 17 episodes, from late 1967 to February 1968) belies its importance to the medium of television.

In the series, McGoohan plays a British agent who had been involved in various business in the service of Her Majesty. Fed up, the unnamed agent (Drake?) resigns from the service. On the day he quits, he rushes home to prepare to leave the country, ostensibly for a much-needed vacation. It’s then the agent is drugged and spirited away to, well, a secret undisclosed location: a bucolic Village whose inhabitants are seemingly happy and inwardly resigned to their fate, despite their identities having been smudged, their names reduced to numbers.

They are prisoners, a fact never more obvious than when one tries to escape from this not-quite-idyllic situation, only to be pursued by large, white, balloon-like blobs that appeared from nowhere to chase the would-be escapee and induce a briefly suffocating paralysis.

As No. 6, McGoohan spent much of his time plotting his own escape, secretly huddling with others of the same fate and inclination — searching for a way out, a way to exit from a fate and a future that, however benign, was not of his choosing. Every week the show’s opening sequence was punctuated with the following exchange, setting the storyline for newcomers:

No. 6: Where am I?
No. 2: In the Village.
No. 6: What do you want?
No. 2: Information.
No. 6: Whose side are you on?
No. 2: That would be telling. We want information … information … information.
No. 6: You won’t get it.
No. 2: By hook or by crook … we will.
No. 6: Who are you?
No. 2: The new No. 2.
No. 6: Who is No. 1?
No. 2: You are No. 6.

And then, No. 6’s cri de coeur: “I am not a number … I am a free man!

◊ ◊ ◊

What might sound like a thin foundation for a television series was anything but. “The Prisoner” was and remains one of prime-time television’s enduring existential statements, a show that raised issues of freedom, enslavement, conformity, identity and one’s purpose in life that would find their way into entertainments from “The Truman Show” to the current hit TV series “Lost.”

In a tribute published in May 2004, TV Guide noted that "[f]ans still puzzle over this weird, enigmatic drama, a Kafkaesque allegory about the individual's struggle in the modern age."

Part thriller, part science fiction, part Orwellian dystopia, “The Prisoner” changed the perception of prison, daring to propose the idea that incarceration need not be an exercise of iron bars and stone walls — that the deeper prisons are those of our own minds and imaginations.

“The Prisoner,” which also starred a youngish Leo McKern as No. 2, was all of a piece with the obsession with Brit culture of the time; check the Village exteriors (shot in Wales) and No. 6’s jacket, whose lapels (bordered in white piping) still screams “Briton on holiday!” today.

◊ ◊ ◊

McGoohan went on to other roles: starring in such films as “Ice Station Zebra,” “Silver Streak,” David Cronenberg’s sci-fi cult classic “Scanners” (1981), and (in a clever turnabout) as the warden in “Escape From Alcatraz,” with Clint Eastwood. He worked in television, from “Columbo” to “Mastepiece Theatre.” More recently, and memorably, McGoohan starred opposite Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” (1995) portraying the 12th century Plantagenet King Edward I (“Longshanks”), conqueror of Wales and the nemesis of Scottish rebel William Wallace.

But for better or worse, McGoohan was “The Prisoner” to TV buffs and fans of cult television hits. The role was a kind of genial cement — a prison — for McGoohan, who never quite escaped the popular fascination for the series and his role in it. (“The Simpsons” even did a takeoff in 2000.)

But what a prison. Without his realizing it, “The Prisoner” set the bar high for television going forward, its sense of adventure and fun something that risk-averse, prime-time TV has rarely approached since.

That spirit of independence ran deep. In at least one episode, when confronted by a Village superior who demands his conformity to the new order around him, No. 6 utters his fully defining statement, and maybe McGoohan’s own:

“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.”

A fitting passion for his career; a worthy pursuit for our own lives.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hillary on the hot seat on the Hill

Up until right about now, the personage of vast ambition and overweening entitlement known as Hillary Clinton was thought to have the title of Secretary of State all but already appended to her name. The process of Senate confirmation that began on Tuesday — one week before the inauguration of her presumed boss — was to be just a formality.

Leave it to some reluctant Republicans and a columnist (whose rhetorical brickbats make the little boy who called the emperor on his new clothes seem diplomatic by comparison) to cast doubt on a confirmation that seemed a certainty. Their concerns suggest that, for the Secretary of State-designate, Hillary Clinton’s newest problem may be Hillary Clinton’s oldest companion: husband Bill.

Despite an agreement ensuring that the monster fundraising apparatus known as the Clinton Global Initiative (started by Bill Clinton) would be completely separated from her duties and influence as Secretary of State, the Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee aired their worries.

“The core of the problem is that foreign governments and entities may perceive the Clinton foundation as a means to gain favor with the Secretary of State,” said Sen. Richard Lugar on Tuesday.

“The bottom line,” Lugar said, “is that even well-intentioned foreign donations carry risks for United States foreign policy … This was bound to be a dilemma from the moment that the President-elect asked you to become Secretary of State.”

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s no escaping the fact that the Clinton Global Initiative does a multitude of good works on behalf of the world, having raised nearly $500 million to address such intractable problems as the AIDS epidemic, living standards, and other urgent matters that don’t respect borders or governments. Its value in effecting meaningful change isn’t really debatable.

Neither, unfortunately, is the appearance of a potential for conflict of interest. As Hillary Clinton prepares to assume the responsibilities of the world’s top diplomat, as the literal face of American diplomacy, senators have raised the questions of just where the lines between diplomacy and improper influence are drawn, and whether or not Bill Clinton will respect those lines, or try to smudge those boundaries in the name of a foundation with his name attached.

Hillary Clinton on Tuesday dutifully set her objective for the nation’s relationship with the rest of the world, For her, the role of Secretary of State will mean embarking this nation on the pursuit of “smart power,” a strategy of invoking diplomatic, legal, military and cultural initiatives to advance the United States’ agenda with its global neighbors.

On Tuesday, Clinton addressed what’s likely to be her Job #1: the situation in Gaza, proposing a tougher line with old ally Israel, calling the relentless attacks on Palestinian civilians responsible for “tragic humanitarian costs.”

Clinton called for the need for “real security for Israel, normal and positive relations with its neighbors,” and appeared to propose a new and possibly less automatic relationship regarding Israel’s use of force against the Palestinians, even as she called for renewed efforts toward peace in the region.

“As intractable as the Middle East’s problems may seem — and many presidents, including my husband, have spent years trying to help work out a solution — we cannot give up on peace,” she said.

◊ ◊ ◊

It didn’t stop there. In a broad outline of global hot spots from Russia to North Korea, Clinton stated her preparedness to jump into the challenge on, well, day one. “I assure you that, if I am confirmed, the State Department will be firing on all cylinders to provide forward-looking, sustained diplomacy in every part of the world,” she said.

Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, was not convinced. Looping back to the matter of her husband’s foundation, Vitter (still very much about the business of rehabilitating himself after a sex scandal last year) said Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation poses a lot of real and perceived conflict issues.”

Then there’s Christopher Hitchens, the mountain lion at the garden party, writing Tuesday in Slate in his characteristically acerbic fashion, but airing the questions that until now were thought to be fairly dead and buried:

“Why is Sen. Clinton, the spouse of the great influence-peddler, being nominated in the first place? In exchange for giving the painful impression that our State Department will be an attractive destination for lobbyists and donors, what exactly are we getting? George Marshall? Dean Acheson? Even Madeleine Albright?

No, we are getting a notoriously ambitious woman who made a fool of herself over Bosnia, at the time and during the recent campaign, and who otherwise has no command of foreign affairs except what she's picked up second-hand from an impeached ex-president, a disbarred lawyer, and a renter of the Lincoln Bedroom. If the Senate waves this through, it will have reinforced its recent image as the rubber-stamp chamber of a bankrupt banana republic. Not an especially good start to the brave new era.”

None of this is likely to scuttle Clinton’s chances for confirmation. Despite raising the conflict of interest issue, Lugar himself told Clinton that “your qualifications are remarkable” en route to admitting that he planned to vote in favor of her confirmation.

The first big confirmational hurdle of the Obama administration seems to be behind it. Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing was neither a love feast nor a drive-by. With a vigorous defense of her own good works, and deftly dodging involvement with those of her husband, she's apparently prevailed in her first most pressing diplomatic overture: not in negotiations with a confrontational foreign government but with fixtures of her own.
Image credit: Vitter: Via

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Of an outrage in Oakland

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, the French say: the more things change, the more they stay essentially the same. The United States has been the enduring proof of that saying, better and worse. Its too-painful application in the national life was borne out again on Jan. 1, New Year’s Day.

Nineteen days from the election of its first African American president — what may be its most transformative event — the past returned (as if the past had really left the present). As the nation prepares to punch through to a new sense of itself, Oakland, California is smoldering again. A city with a history of police violence against its citizens has lurched tragically into the past.

Early in the morning of Jan. 1, Oscar Grant III was returning to his home in Hayward, about 15 miles from Oakland, riding on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train after celebrating the new year in San Francisco. After an altercation among other passengers on the train, Grant was accosted by BART police officers at the Fruitvale BART station. At least one cell-phone video of the incident shows that Grant was held face down on the station platform floor by two BART officers. One of them, Johannes Mehserle, responding to a struggle real or perceived, then shot Grant in the back. The bullet ricocheted against the platform floor, piercing one of Grant’s lungs. He died about four hours later at a nearby hospital.

The father of a 4-year-old daughter was 22 years young.

Within days of the incident, part of Oakland’s downtown was in flames. Police fought pitched battles with demonstrators, who set small fires and rocked police cruisers as they responded to the unrest. About 120 people were arrested Jan. 7 on charges of rioting, looting, assault and arson.

For Oakland residents of any long standing, the shooting and the aftermath summoned memories of the infamously volatile relationship between Oakland police and the city’s black citizens.

In the 1960’s Oakland cops were notorious for criminalizing young black men, brutally victimizing many of them, and laying the emotional groundwork for what would become the Black Panther Party, founded by Huey Newton, in response to police brutality, in Oakland in 1966.

◊ ◊ ◊

Grant’s family has retained John Burris, a highly regarded civil rights attorney, to build a legal case against the BART agency. On Jan. 4, Burris held a press conference to announce plans to file a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against BART.

At the news conference, Burris called the Grant killing “without a doubt the most unconscionable shooting I have seen, ever … This is the most egregious shooting I have ever seen. A price has to be paid, accountability has to occur … when you lose the life of a 22-year-old who by all accounts — and look at all the people here — was a wonderful, decent young man.”

There is talk of pursuing murder charges against Johannes Mehserle, the officer identified in BART police reports and eyewitness accounts as the man who killed Oscar Grant. There’s been speculation that Mehserle actually intended to use his Taser stun gun on Grant, but may have drawn his service weapon by mistake. That may be conjecture for a while: Mehserle resigned from the BART force shortly after the shooting, and to this point hasn’t made a comment one way or the other about anything.

But the BART leadership has already made at least two concessions to the anguished plaintiffs. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Jan. 8 that BART Director Lynette Sweet said her agency "has not handled this [situation] correctly.” The same day, the BART board of directors formally apologized for the incident. One board member, having seen a videotape of the slaying, said he saw no reason for Grant being shot.

◊ ◊ ◊

The state’s legal machinery has swung into action. Jerry Brown — formerly California governor and mayor of Oakland, and now the state attorney general — announced on Saturday of his plans to send a monitor to the office of the Alameda County DA, to make sure the investigation moves to a speedy conclusion.

"The wheels of justice cannot grind so slowly that it appears that justice is not being served," Brown said at a news conference. He had previously huddled with the local NAACP leaders, who understandably want the inquiry fast-tracked.

Some of this is the boilerplate dimension at work, after the fact: the reflexive defensive crouch of officialdom as it reacts to unnecessary tragedy of its own making; the claims and counterclaims of the lawyers; and, eventually, sure as night follows day, the attempt to subvert reality itself: turning the victim into the assailant, transforming the shooter into the victim.

But the damage has been done: to a family and a city, and to a country desperately hoping to move away from this poisonous aspect of its past. Never mind the historic inauguration we’re waiting for; America’s bright dream of a different tomorrow is tarnished already. A young man with everything to live for, in a nation with everything to hope for, is suddenly, agonizingly, needlessly gone.

“So we’re told, ‘this is the Golden Age,’ ” goes the U2 song. “ … But nothing changes on New Year’s Day.”
Image credits: Oscar Grant III: Grant family members, via the GOOD Magazine Web site ( Protest image: Still from YouTube video. Burris: Still from YouTube video of news conference.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The New York Times [your ad here]

It’s axiomatic of modern times, and especially of any new year: Nothing stays in place. Watch this space. It’s about to happen at the highest level in a few weeks, when Barack Obama takes the oath. It’s already happening in fits and starts: a movie here, a Web site redesign there. And then there’s the New York Times.

Excuse us — that’s The New York Times, archetype and arbiter of all that is central to American journalism, for generations a machine that would go of itself, justifiably a thing apart. Even in the whirlwind of changes that have brought other, lesser newspapers to their knees, The Times has maintained, in its presentation and style, a respectable distance from those journals. To some degree, that ended last week.

On Monday, The Times ran the first display advertising to appear on page one. It was a two-and-a-half-inch high ad bought by CBS, lying horizontally at the bottom of the front page -- "below the fold" of newspaper jargon. That day there was no tsunami recorded; the sun rose in the east and set in the west, right on schedule. But something changed: the ad that ran on perhaps the most prized real estate in American news signaled the Times’ concession to the same winds that are blowing hard against everyone else.

Some will say it’s no big deal: The Times’ online surrogate,, has been running ads on its homepage for years now. Newspapers in Europe have been running splashy display ads on page one for decades. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today have had ads out front for some time. And readers of the Times’ dead-tree editions know that almost invisible two-line ads have been a part of the newspaper for at least as long (see the edition in November 1920, when Warren Harding was elected president; a glance down the page shows that tickets were available for “Mecca,” playing at the Century Theater that evening).

◊ ◊ ◊

Display ads change the game. They generate much-needed cash for a company in dire need of it; the Silicon Alley Insider reported that page-one graphic ads sell for $75,000 apiece, $100,000 on Sundays. (The New York Times Company, parent of the newspaper, is also reportedly putting its share of the Boston Red Sox on the block.)

But with the introduction of page-one display ads, the firewall between advertising and editorial was breached, if only a little. They’re a concession not only to the current economy, but also to the long and furious onslaught of advertising in the modern world. From corporate logos on NASCAR vehicles to the more tastefully appointed company logos on clothes worn in professional tennis … it’s an AdWorld, and has been for all our lives.

In some ways the front page of The New York Times was the last redoubt, the final holdout for marking a line in the sand between the salesman and the news. But we might have seen it coming. The Times’ tastefully-designed surrender to market forces and the economy makes a brutal sense — it’s a visible connection between the news you come to read and the advertising that makes publication of that news economically possible.

For news junkies and purists (and for those of us lucky enough to have actually worked at the Gray Lady), it’s a bit of a bringdown, but an apparently necessary one. These days, now more than ever, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” requires all the ads they can fit in the print edition.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Rebranding the GOP: Four views

The landslide defeat for the Republican Party in November has put the idea of an extreme makeover on the front burner for the GOP. We can’t know yet how much of a grassroots effort in this direction will be undertaken by the party leadership. The Republican Party is in a kind of existential netherworld right now, unsure of its current identity and equally unsure of how to reannounce that identity to the American public. It’s too soon for a postmortem but too late for an intervention.

One way to begin that reinvention, that change in what people think of you, is to change what they see. In a visual culture, this means a logo and a message. Thanks to Newsweek magazine and a group of image specialists and advertising agency creatives, the Republicans get to choose between four logos with the same message: “We’re different now.” Whether it’s believable is another matter entirely.

A slide show on the Newsweek Web site (get there from here) offers four possible rebrandings of the visual Republican image, whimsical and diverting variations on the GOPachyderm. As you might expect, some work better than others.

A button design from The Groop, of Los Angeles, reconfigures the Republican symbol of the elephant in almost abstract terms, superimposing a line drawing of eyes and tusks over a red cross, with the bottom arm of the cross tilted upward to represent the elephant’s trunk. It clearly and cleverly breaks with traditional depiction, but in some ways it goes too far, a design meant for a Republican chapter of the Red Cross.

Another approach, by Pentagram of New York, is more direct in what it intends to do. It directly weds the word “Republican” to other short, punchy words invoking the “re” prefix, and all of them having to do with reinvention or renewal.

It’s a potentially effective approach, but it’s rife with the potential for interparty mischief. It’s real easy, for example, to imagine someone pulling a Dick Tuck trick with the words, recasting them in suitably partisan fashion (“Repugnant. Repressive. Reactionary. Republican.”).

◊ ◊ ◊

Whatever the GOP’s grand plan for, uh, change comes down to really has to start with the product. In that respect, the party has been sending mixed messages, again. No sooner had the election ended than the conservative arm of the punditburo weighed in with various portentous explanations of What Just Happened & Why. Invariably there were calls to tear down the turnstiles, open wide the gates and embrace an ethnic and experiential diversity that hasn’t been the strong suit of the GOP.

All of which goes up against the musical musings of Chip Saltsman, a Tennessee candidate for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, who sent RNC members a lovely holiday gift: a CD of parody songs, one of which was a callous reworking the Peter, Paul & Mary classic “Puff the Magic Dragon” into something called "Barack the Magic Negro."

The song was first played in 2007, on the radio show of right-wing Doberman and former recreational pharmaceuticals enthusiast Rush Limbaugh.

As you might expect, and as he's perfectly entitled to, Saltsman took the right-to-free-speech road. "I think most people recognize political satire when they see it," Saltsman told CNN on Dec. 26. "I think RNC members understand that."

Standard denigrating procedure: There’s nothing harmful about it, it’s legitimate expression, there’s nothing to see here folks. Except that, while it may be as seemingly insignificant as he makes out, it calls into question how serious the Republicans are about doing anything to change their image, and further their relationship, with people that don't look like most of them.

Some of the party leadership seem to grasp this. "The 2008 election was a wake-up call for Republicans to reach out and bring more people into our party," said Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan, on Dec. 27. "I am shocked and appalled that anyone would think this is appropriate, as it clearly does not move us in the right direction."

Clearly, there’s some conflict in that new Republican message. And until the Republican Party decides just which is the face it wants to show to the public — the Re-visionist one or the Re-petitive one — all the image tweaks and message games in the world won’t much help the GOP brand.

It's not hard to figure out why: You can’t send a message before you know what you want to say.
Image credits: Rethink button: Pentagram, New York. Three-image panel: The Groop, Los Angeles. Both images from Newsweek magazine: © 2008, 2009 The Washington Post Company.

Green Zone Day

The future of Iraq began on Thursday, for better and, in the short term a certainty, for worse. A ceremony in Baghdad at a site that's been the U.S. political headquarters in Iraq for more than five years was the location of the beginning of a transition to Iraqi control, by which Iraq assumes control of its armed forces and the Green Zone, the fortified enclave of Baghdad up until now under American control.

Iraqi control of Iraq occurred when the United Nations Security Council resolution expired at midnight on New Year's Eve. At that moment, the United States lost its power to detain Iraqis, and — importantly — lost its control over the impact of Iraqi laws on American contractors, like the hired-gun cowboys of Blackwater, some of whom have been responsible for violence against Iraqi civilians.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in a ceremony at the Republican Palace, declared the day a national holiday. "A year ago, anyone who thought this day would happen would have been seen as a dreamer. Now the dream has come true," Maliki said. "This is the day we have been waiting for ... Sovereignty has been restored."

Americans have been waiting for this moment, to say nothing of the Iraqi people. The cost to each of them has been far too high. This handover of most aspects of controlling Baghdad — some U.S. troops will remain for up to three years, to facilitate the transition — sends the signal to the American people that the endgame is in sight, however nasty the steps might be between now and then.

It tells the physically and psychically brutalized Iraqi people that their nation’s sovereignty is no longer an objective or a goal, but again an accomplished fact — a fragile constitutional democracy requiring care and feeding of a plurality of its citizens.

And the change that began Thursday tells the world at large that the tragic foreign-policy improvisations of the Bush administration are in their last days, even if their effects linger like a bad taste in the mouth.

◊ ◊ ◊

The handover is cause for cautious celebration. Underline cautious: the event was overshadowed by a plus ça change moment: a suicide bomber detonated Thursday in the northern city of Mosul killing three policemen, and wounding five civilians, Reuters reported.

But those convulsions, those lurches between order and chaos, are some of the small steps Iraq will require to make the shift to an indigenous participatory government, liberated from the relentless tyrannies of a dictator, the incidental tyrannies of an occupying army, and the tribal suspicions harbored over the centuries.

Ironically, in some ways, Thursday’s announcement only confirms what’s been known for some time: that for far too long al-Maliki has been effectively the mayor of Baghdad, a man with comparatively little control over events in his country, save that secured for him by the army occupying his country.

Now, with that occupying force quietly making exit strategies, the process of regaining control of his entire nation begins in earnest.

At times in the past, Maliki has appeared to be a woefully ineffectual leader; but he must get credit for presiding over this milestone for modern Iraq. Up to now he's navigated relationships with invaders and citizens with one hand — the hand of autonomy — tied behind his back. Now with more leverage at his disposal, and more at stake as his own election approaches, his diplomatic skills may never be more tested.
Image credit: Maliki: Agence France-Presse.
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