Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Moscow calling ... Tehran too

As President Obama and First Lady Michelle arrive in London for the G-20 summit, there are some rumblings that suggest that something of substance may actually be accomplished at the summit or one of its satellite events. Who to thank for this burst of pre-optimism? Russia, which is represented at the economic parley, and Iran, which isn’t.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev may be officially down with Russian state media, but the head of the Russian Republic isn’t above making adroit use of the Western press when he can. Medvedev did so on Tuesday, when The Washington Post published an op-ed piece Medevdev wrote, and a few days after the Russian leader did a formal sitdown with BBC.

Both appear to be Moscow’s most serious and potentially transformative overtures to the United States in some time, extending to Obama the opportunity to discuss several pressing issues, including missile defense in Eastern Europe, Iran, and the Russian relationship with members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In his WashPost op-ed, Medevedev adopted a novel metaphor for improving relations with Washington. “[R]emoving … obstacles to good relations would be beneficial to our countries — essentially removing ‘toxic assets’ to make good a negative balance sheet — and beneficial to the world. This will require joint efforts … We are ready for that.”

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And a statement today from deputy Iranian foreign minister Mohamed Mehdi, holds out another new hope. Speaking from the Afghanistan Conference in The Hague, Mehdi said Tehran would be receptive to dialogue on the reconstruction of Afghanistan and working to combat drug trafficking (opium is roughly to Afghanistan what marijuana is to California) — all of it a strong suggestion that a thaw is definitely possible in the 30-year chill between Iran and the United States.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered mash notes, calling the Medvedev interview “very forward leaning. A lot of what he said our president would say.” And Clinton, who extended an invitation to Tehran to attend the conference, went on to respond to the gesture from Iran, saying it was “a promising sign that there will be future cooperation.”

The devil is, of course, in the details. It’s still to be seen how the Iranian minister’s offer for dialogue squares with the hardline attitude of Iran’s theocratic leadership; Mehdi’s offer comes about 10 days after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the true spiritual leader of Iran, gave the United States a tongue-lashing meant to be a response to Obama’s Nowruz holiday overture last month.

And Medvedev’s call for common ground is in stark contrast to the presumptive forecast of the “disintegration” of the United States made by Igor Panarin, a well-regarded Russian scholar and former KGB analyst — a forecast that calls for the collapse of the U.S. a year from this June. Which, you wonder, is the real Russian intent?

But for all that, the G-20 summit is already shaping to be a success for the Obama administration, even before the confab begins. Some of the TV analysts are saying it would be “a feather in his cap” if Obama returns from Europe with some working agreements with old antagonists.

But it would be more than that. To come back from a meeting where little more was expected than photo ops, and have a framework for positive dialogue with Russian and Iran, in addition to expected progress on the economic front would be a powerful legitimization of the new American geopolitical persona, and of President Obama’s place on the world stage.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Greater expectations

Tomorrow, hours from now, President Barack Obama leaves Washington for his first overseas trip since assuming office, making his exit as the House and Senate begin to debate his record-setting trillion-dollar budget.

The president flies to London a day after effectively firing General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner and putting GM and Chrysler on notice that the automobile industry needs a serious retooling, and fast. Tonight, the heads of the banking industry are wondering how numbered their own days might be.

And there’s still a strong domestic wind at his back. Jon Cohen and Dan Balz report in Tuesday’s Washington Post:
”The number of Americans who believe that the nation is headed in the right direction has roughly tripled since Barack Obama's election, and the public overwhelmingly blames the excesses of the financial industry, rather than the new president, for turmoil in the economy, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

At this early stage in his presidency, Obama continues to benefit from a broadly held perception that others should bear the bulk of responsibility for the severe economic problems that confront his administration. Americans see plenty of offenders, but only about a quarter blame the president and his team for an economy that's in the ditch.”
Obama heads to Europe having sent both a message for consumption at home and a message for the leaders of the G-20 he’ll huddle with starting on Tuesday: He’s serious about transforming the global economy, starting with his nation’s own. The G-20 summit may well be seen as President Obama’s bid to build his own coalition of the willing to fight the new stealth enemy: a corrosive global economic downturn that plays no favorites. Not everyone is convinced he has the answer.

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French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in what amounts to a plain bid for the economic leadership of the EU (never mind that the Czech Republic is the lead EU nation this time in the rotation), have resisted calls from Washington for monster stimulus packages matching their American counterparts.

The New York Times reported Monday:
“They have found common cause as well in a call for much tougher global regulation of financial markets, putting the blame for the crisis directly on the “Anglo-Saxons” — the United States and Britain, whose free-market practices, not widely copied in continental Europe, are viewed by France and Germany as not sufficiently disciplined by the state.”
Obama, that fresh electric face, that darling of the continent when he was in Europe last July, is coming back. With economies in turmoil, and much of his predecessor’s global damage still unrepaired, his reception in this grim spring may be accompanied by a chill in the air — one that’s got nothing to do with the weather.

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Leave it to Team Obama to call on the formidable rhetorical gifts and the power of a magnetic personality to help sway public opinion. The Wall Street Journal, quoting various officials, reported Monday that, in addition to the official work of the summit of the nations representing 85 percent of the world’s wealth, the president plans to hold a town-hall style event at an arena in Strasbourg, France. The White House is also pursuing a location in Prague as the site of the first foreign policy speech of Obama’s young presidency, the Journal reported.

The president's planned trip to Ankara and Istanbul may have resonance in the Middle East. That leg of the trip will continue Obama’s outreach to Muslim nations (even though Turkey, a nation of secular, internationalist rhythms, may well not be comfortable being identified solely on the basis of its Muslim-majority status). Obama will apparently encounter a Turkish population that reveres him, and a government that’s solidly in the NATO camp, despite an enduring resentment about Turkey not being admitted to the European Union.

Of the three high-profile meetings Obama is to attend, the meeting of NATO leaders and officials in Strasbourg on April 4 may go the furthest in giving the world some of what, in years to come, will undoubtedly be known as the Obama doctrine, a policy already as much a product of inheritance as of initiative. We can expect the thorny issue of NATO’s commitment of troops to Afghanistan to come up; the United States, still stretched to near the breaking point in Iraq, is on the record as wanting more participation from NATO European allies.

The German daily Der Tagesspiegel reported Sunday that U.S. national security adviser James Jones, pre-emptively taking the heat off the boss, said the United States expects more troops in Afghanistan, at least during the Afghan election season, in August.

“Whether these troops stay longer or head home straight after the elections, is another matter,” Jones said in an interview published Sunday.

Jones said it was “self-evident” that the United States would welcome increased deployments from NATO sources. “From the fact that the USA has not made public detailed demands to its allies, one cannot deduce that the request does not exist.”

Translation: “We shouldn’t have to ask y’all to dance.” But for most nations in the G-20, a place on or near the sidelines is a safe place to be. Whether Obama’s proven gifts as a negotiator and emerging gifts as a statesman will be enough to prompt such military commitments in this economy remains to be seen.

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“What a difference an election makes. “[T]he tidal wave of expectation and enthusiasm that Obama rode into the White House is giving way to a more cautious reception in Europe as the administration's policies begin to take shape,” The Guardian’s Ian Traynor reported Monday.

Protests in London have already happened, in anticipation of Obama’s arrival. About 35,000 demonstrators rallied in Hyde Park on Saturday.

The Christian Science Monitor reported Sunday that London police and authorities are bracing for protests of a ferocity that matches the outrage over the financial markets — especially that of the United States. One possible flash point, the Monitor reported, may be an event called “G-20 Meltdown,” an event intended to begin art the Bank of England, with groups converging “for spontaneous live music, street theater, and the hanging of effigies of bankers.”

The Monitor reported that one of the event’s organizers, Chris Knight, was suspended last week from his post in the anthropology department at the University of East London after telling the BBC that real bankers could be “hanging from lampposts.”

And Der Tagesspiegel reported Monday that German Interior Minister Schaubel has ordered a crackdown on “camps” of “hometown faithful German Youth,” whose style, military training and hard-right nationalist doctrine recall that that of the Nazis. Schaubel found the groups in violation of clause 3 of the German Associations Act, which permits the state to ban a group if it believes its activity are contrary to the national interest.

You can debate the timing of this crackdown — the day before G-20 leaders arrive in London, Merkel among them, and a few days before the focus moves to Berlin. But it’s clear: despite the expected pageantry, Europe will show its restive side.

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If there was ever a time for Barack Obama’s conciliatory magic, this is it. But the man astride the world’s largest and most dramatically sputtering economic engine is in a game with the most serious stakes, for his presidency, his nation, and the world. Much will depend on his ability to persuade the G-20 leaders of the interdependent aspects of this crisis, and the ways in which the burden is shared — either by design, now, or by tragic happenstance later.

The expected challenges to his economic agenda from the House and Senate already complicate his efforts overseas; it will be a defining challenge for him to convincingly make the case that his economic strategy is the ideal solution for the world when his own government wrangles over its merits as he speaks.

And then there are the other pressing situations beyond the economy and Afghanistan. Selling the world on a new economic vision would be challenge enough in peace time, but because of renewed concerns with events in Pakistan; rumblings in North Korea; the old divisions with the Iranian Republic; and the flashpoints between Israel and the people of the Palestinian territories, the nations that may be most pivotal to President Obama’s success beyond the G-20 summit aren’t even part of the G-20. The global interdependence he’ll be selling this week doesn’t end with Europe; its scope is more than purely economic.

The young man who wowed them at the blackjack table last summer is coming back to the casino; this time he gets no comps. This time he’s playing with the house money.

Image credits: Obama top: Still from whitehouse.gov video. Obama in German: Der Tagesspiegel. Obama poll results: Washington Post/ABC News. Obama tour map: The Wall Street Journal. Protest parade: Still from Oxfam March 28 video of Put People First G20 rally.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Barbarians on the tumbrels: A.I.G.’s U.S.A. I.O.U.

It was the latest laughable misstep in the fortunes of the American International Group, aka AIG, Inc., the global insurance behemoth whose improvident bets on the future of the housing market — bets made with nothing more substantial than the idea of cash reserves — lit the fuse for the demolition of the national economy, and whose insistence of paying employees bonuses from the public till have made them the symbol of a Wall Street off the rails:

Early this week, undertaking to curb the public relations nightmare associated with the company, AIG announced plans to change the name of the company. The sign at its Water Street headquarters has since come down. Effective more or less immediately, AIG is to be formally known as AIU Holdings — an unfortunate change, for obvious reasons. Bet your mortgage: Some other wiseass in the blogosphere has already conflated the new name with the letters “I.O.U.” There lies a lesson in how the wrong kind of damage control leads to worse damage than you started with.

Some of the worst injuries inflicted by AIG to this country register on another, different bottom line. Enlightened minds (and a lot that aren’t) can debate the wisdom of the managers of AIG in surreptitiously pursuing plans to pay employees with taxpayer money, or the involvement of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in those bonuses being approved to begin with; or the wisdom of trying to pry something north of $200 million from the hands of traders until recently more prepared to part ways with their livelihoods and reputations than with their money.

What can’t be disputed is the depth of class warfare, the palpable sense of Us Versus Them that the AIG/AIU/IOU imbroglio has awakened in the national heart.

We’ve always been a stratified nation. The racial divide is the obvious one, of course, but we’re also split along lines of gender, religion, sexual preference, political affiliation and income. Those divisions are played out every day in the public square. But it takes a crisis the magnitude of the one we’re facing now to awaken the partisanship of our economy, a division that usually stays on the downlow.

Of all the things we don’t tell other people, what we earn is probably No. 1. That changes when everybody’s business is in the street. Our respective firewalls, our tolerances for risk and pain, our conflicting senses of fair play are all out there now, naked and unavoidable, as the national economy faces its biggest meltdown since the Great Depression.

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Journalists are no doubt busy burnishing their bottom lines right now, lining up the book deals they’ll use to explain How It All Happened, the antecedent events that made the AIG mess possible.

One of the best such writers has already weighed in. In the new issue of Rolling Stone, staff writer and journalistic flamethrower Matt Taibbi offers a thorough, pungent and passionate exegesis of the current crisis, how we got here and how the AIG really the leading indicator of something larger, more conspiratorial and ominous: “ … a kind of revolution, a coup d'état. They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations.”

There are a lot of vantage points from which to look at how we got here. We can of course thank Hollywood for one in particular. In 1987, 20th Century Fox released “Wall Street,” Oliver Stone’s muscular, sometimes impressionistic view of one pilgrim’s progress through Reagan-era Wall Street.

Stone, never exactly one for subtlety, smartly distilled the go-go spirit of the times in a shareholder-meeting monologue made by Gordon Gekko, a Darth Vader trader of many ethical lapses:

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“The point, ladies and gentlemen, is that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all its forms — greed for life, for money, for love and knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind, and greed, you mark my words, [will save that] malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

The masters of the Wall Street universe had finally found a defining phrase short enough to put on the family crest in Latin. Champions of Reagan-era deregulation of the financial markets had their reason for being. Michael Douglas, who played Gekko in the movie, won an Oscar for best actor.

And consider it a certainty: In multiple somewheres around the America of twenty years ago, impressionable teenagers and young adults with a talent for numbers and a passion for money watched that monologue and quietly swore it an allegiance, used that noble perversity of an idea as a spiritual calling — took that ball and ran with it, ethics trailing in their wake, all the way to the derivatives desk at AIG.

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If Gordon Gekko gave Wall Street a credo, it’s fallen to the various business news channels of cable TV to give it an identity, one that’s lately revealed how cozy the relationships are between the Wall Street press and the ones they’re supposed to cover.

Almost by default, Wall Street media have adopted the raucous plumage of the floor traders they often interview. Programs like CNBC’s “Fast Money,” “Mad Money” and “Squawk Box” reflect the macho, clubby, red-meat-eating, towel-snapping ethos that powers and animates Wall Street — a boy’s club mentality that, oddly enough, isn’t countered in the least by the addition of female analysts featured on TV business news.

It’s led to a variety of excesses: “Mad Money,” Jim Cramer’s Ouija-board casino cavalcade of investment picks and pans, for example, or the meltdowns of such hypercaffeinated chowderheads as CNBC reporter Rick Santelli, who let his emotions get away from him on Feb. 19 in a mad rant on the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, an embarrassing and naked display of just how deeply have vs. have not thinking permeates the money culture.

And those excesses have led to others. You’ve no doubt seen the reaction to the reaction of the AIG traders to giving up their bonuses. It was probably inevitable: outraged citizens boarding charter buses, rolling the tumbrels next to the estates in Fairfield, Conn., where said traders hang their fur-lined hats. It's like a scene from a Frankenstein movie: metaphorical pitchforks and torches aloft, dogs in full cry while the monster huddles behind the moated castle walls.

Indeed, Connecticut has become something of the ground zero for outrage. Witness the content of some of the e-mails sent to the state Attorney General’s Office — e-mails that, while morally wrong as wrong can be in what they propose, still express a clear idea of the depth of consumerist rage:
We will hunt you down. Every penny. We will hunt your children and we will hunt your conscience … Give back the money or kill yourselves.

You motherfucking, cocksucking dicklickers need to be taken out one by one and shot in the head. There’s a special place in hell for you pond scum …

Your blood will run through the streets in the coming months.

Clearly, Mr. Gekko, greed’s not good for everybody.

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What's taking shape is a crisis as much cultural as economic. What the bailouts of AIG, and the rescue packages for other failing institutions do, as much as anything else, is to reveal for Americans of every stripe and W-2 how rigged the game of financial assistance really is in this nation. They show how the culture of money in America has largely become a rapacious exercise favoring the insiders and dismissing everyday people.

Finally, by pretending that ordinary Americans are the outsiders, Wall Street reveals its utter disconnect with Main Street, where John and Jane Q. Public live in an estate with a kid’s tricycle in the driveway instead of a brand-new BMW; where John & Jane juggle the bills hoping the unemployment check will stretch another week — when they get the next one; where Americans face the decline of their own balance sheets without a bailout in sight.

AIG, or AIU Holdings or IOU Holdups or whatever it calls itself next month, is only the symbol of a deeper disjunction within the American economy. The willingness to ride to the rescue of companies considered too big to fail conceals, just barely, a disdain for a pool of investors too big to ignore: the 100 million everyday Americans who own stock — or who did as of last year … before the deluge.

Wall Street still looks at those everyday Americans as outsiders, and they will right up until the moment they hear the glass wall between Us and Them start to crash, and they gain that unexpected revelation: that the wall separating our fates, futures and destinies never really existed in the first place.
Image credits: Stock ticker: Google. NYC Job-Loss Meter: Crain's New York Business.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

This Just In: Inmates Vacate Asylum in Droves

Quick — Name the celebrated TV newsman described in the following passage: “A latter-day prophet, a magnificent messianic figure, inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times.”

No, that’s not a tag line from an ad for Glenn Beck. Or Sean Hannity. Or Lou Dobbs. Or Bill O’Reilly. Or Don Imus. Rush Limbaugh? He’s just angry, but no, it’s not him, either.

Give up? Here’s a hint: Like all the sclerotic mountebanks mentioned above, he was mad as hell and determined not to take it anymore. And like two improbably successful television personalities in our world, he was the darling of a public that lost patience with traditional media and went looking for something funny and revelatory and fresh.

Yes, it's time to welcome back an old favorite, someone who never really left the building.

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Students of modern American film will remember Howard Beale, the fictional “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” in “Network,” written by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. In the 1976 Sidney Lumet film, Beale, in the midst of great personal trauma, departs from his role of script-fed newsreader and embarks on a journalistic crusade that takes on an unexpected, and ultimately tragic, populist dimension.

Central to Beale’s approach of reporting the news was a certain license with the language, a flight from objectivity, and an effort to personalize the relationship between himself and his audience.

Fast-forward thirty-some years: Beale’s reporting philosophy is now the substance of any number of news programs that blend, some better than others, personal commentary with straight reporting of fact. Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Bill O’Reilly — they all owe their on-camera style, and the audiences that tune in to watch, to a man who never existed.

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Maybe you read the story Wednesday, on the Rasmussen Reports Web site. In its latest national telephone survey, the pollster found something disturbing for print and TV journalists, disgusting for conservatives, and validating for younger Americans:

“Nearly one-third of Americans under the age of 40 say satirical news-oriented television programs like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart are taking the place of traditional news outlets.

“Thirty-two percent (32%) of adults ages 30-39 believe this to be true, while 42% disagree,” according to Rasmussen’s survey.

“Among all Americans, 24% say programs like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are taking the place of traditional news venues, but 45% do not think so. Thirty-one percent (31%) are undecided.”

The numbers aren’t overwhelming, and far from a majority, but that’s not the point. What’s so intriguing in the Rasmussen poll is how it reflects the degree to which Americans are reaching beyond the traditional New York-Washington information axis for their daily diet of the news. What’s even more important is what this says about the nature of what news is.

If news is what you found out about today that you can’t stop talking about tomorrow (or, in Internet Time, what you found out ten minutes ago and can’t stop talking about for an hour and a half), it’s clear that the wide-open opportunity for people to shape their own informational agendas has thrown unlikely heroes up the ratings charts. Real life imitates pop culture. Now more than ever, real life imitates Howard Beale.

TV news shows have of course been working to smudge the line between the news and opinion for years. The Rasmussen poll released Wednesday illustrates just how little of that line is left. It reflects how much the newsgathering process is less driven by media professionals and more by average citizens, everyday people who are by turns either throwing rose petals along a parade route or joining a posse to hunt down the monster of the day with rhetorical torches and pitchforks.

And as the economy gets worse or fails to get any better, as mortgages go belly up under water, more of the public goes online with those torches and pitchforks. Not as journalists, not even as bloggers and trolls, but as citizens. Like Howard Beale, they’re mad as hell, too, and they’re not going to take it any more.

Not without raising their own voices. Not without talking back.

The mainstream media has often expressed the populist sea change in information dissemination as “the inmates running the asylum,” citizen journalists and bloggers elevating their voices and their discontent, and (from the MSM’s perspective) gumming up the process of informing and enlightening the American people.

What Wednesday’s Rasmussen poll told them yet again, is that to a great degree, it’s been the major media’s cloistered, top-down, we-know-best, ivory-tower approach to the news that made those Rasmussen poll results possible in the first place.

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The first real victim of the spread of populist media outrage was the media’s sense of its own invincibility, or at least the invincibility of business models convinced that Americans would continue to hunt for the paper on the doorstep in the morning when they went to work or in the evening when they got home; that Americans could be counted on to gather round the rabbit-ears box, same time, same station, to watch the network evening news. That Americans are living the same informational lives today as they were a generation ago.

That happened sometime before the next victim came along: the daily American newspaper industry. Now, with the demise of the dead-tree versions of the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Ann Arbor News, and the contraction of other newspaper staffs, it’s an industry experiencing a death by ten thousand job cuts.

Now, with Colbert and Stewart raised to lofty heights of exposure they probably never envisioned, and a poll that endows that exposure with measurable influence, the mainstream media is crossing its own Rubicon, confronting a lesson they can't learn fast enough:

Without the inmates, there is no asylum.
Image credits: "Network" still: © 1976 MGM. Entertainment Weekly cover: © 2008 Time Inc.

Stooges arise!

There are some movies you have to see just to see them — the casts of these films are so improbable, so seemingly off the wall, you go to quell your WTF? curiosity. Whether you’re into the story or the writer or the director, you just gotta witness firsthand how they'll pull it off.

The planned big-screen remake of “The Three Stooges” is shaping up to be one of those movies. Variety reported today that part of the cast has been confirmed for a new movie of the characters of the Columbia short subjects that ran in theaters from the 1930s to the late 1940’s, and whose slapstick-and-mayhem antics still show up on television.

The film, to be released by MGM and directed by the Farrelly Brothers ("Dumb & Dumber," "There's Something About Mary"] has nailed down Sean Penn as Larry. The directors are reportedly now focused on casting Benicio del Toro as Moe, and Jim Carrey as Curly.

(What, nothing for Johnny Knoxville?)

Variety reported that the film, set for release sometime in 2010, isn’t a biopic but a straight-up portrayal of the trio in their madcap characterizations. Production will begin in early fall, according to the story.

Penn hasn’t been in a humorous role since starring opposite Robert deNiro in “We’re No Angels,” a 1989 remake of the 1955 Humphrey Bogart-Aldo Ray comedy. While he had some comedic flashes in Guy Ritchie’s 2000 caper, “Snatch,” del Toro established his bona fides — and won his Oscar — for straight dramatic work.

And we’ve been so used to seeing comedy veteran Carrey with his customary beanpole frame, it’s hard to imagine what he’ll look like after gaining the 40 pounds Variety says the Farrellys have asked him to put on for the role of Curly.

Now, this is Hollywood; studio execs paid Oliver Stone good money to make people think Anthony Hopkins looked like Richard Nixon. Clearly, anything’s possible. One thing’s for sure: If the Farrelly boys get the cast they want, this “Stooges” project is a lock to top at least that weekend’s box-office.

It’s as true in Hollywood as anywhere else: You can’t drive past a gaudy roadside attraction, or a train wreck, without stopping to look at least once.
Image credit: Stooges: Still image from "How High Is Up?" (1940), a short subject by The Three Stooges. Fair use rationale: Image is needed to identify the antecedent figures of a comedic enterprise, for purposes of comparing those antecedents with contemporary actors to be cast in a major motion picture. The Three Stooges™ is a trademark of Comedy III Productions, Inc. Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon; still from “Nixon,” © 1995 Hollywood Pictures and Cinergi Pictures.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Meeting the press

Political capital is a perishable thing. The toothsome political opportunities of a young White House can dissipate quickly, becoming as moldy and unusable as any of the science projects lurking somewhere in your refrigerator right now.

George Bush, who practically crowed about his political capital after the 2004 election, turned into a victim of his own deficit spending. Well before the end of his second term in office, it was clear President Bush was spending political capital he didn’t have. The Republican Party paid that bill in November.

Barack Obama doesn’t intend to make the same mistake. Tonight, on his 64th day in office, the 44th president and overachiever-in-chief met the press in a prime-time news conference, firing on all hybrid-powered cylinders in making his case to the media and the American public.

With a telling shot at his Republican critics, a call for more authority over some failing non-banking concerns, a thorough breakdown of his first-term priorities, and an appeal to the American people for patience, President Obama clearly recognized that the most valuable political capital is time — and the nation’s forbearance.

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There may be no more electric visual image surrounding the presidency than to see the president walking down the ornate, carpeted hallway leading to the East Room of the White House, on the way to meet the press. It’s stagecraft personified. And it’s a sign that Obama is growing into the office that both on the way in and all throughout the 58-minute session with the media, the president looks relaxed, animated and completely on point.

He began with prepared, TelePrompTered remarks directed not at the press in the room but the millions watching on TV.

”Now, it's important to remember that this crisis didn't happen overnight and it didn't result from any one action or decision. It took many years and many failures to lead us here. And it will take many months and many different solutions to lead us out. There are no quick fixes, and there are no silver bullets. …

“The budget I submitted to Congress will build our economic recovery on a stronger foundation, so that we do not face another crisis like this ten or twenty years from now. We invest in the renewable sources of energy that will lead to new jobs, new businesses, and less dependence on foreign oil. We invest in our schools and our teachers so that our children have the skills they need to compete with any workers in the world. We invest in reform that will bring down the cost of health care for families, businesses, and our government. And in this budget, we have made the tough choices necessary to cut our deficit in half by the end of my first term - even under the most pessimistic estimates. …

“At the end of the day, the best way to bring our deficit down in the long run is not with a budget that continues the very same policies that have led to a narrow prosperity and massive debt. It's with a budget that leads to broad economic growth by moving from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest. …

“We will recover from this recession. But it will take time, it will take patience, and it will take an understanding that when we all work together; when each of us looks beyond our own short-term interests to the wider set of obligations we have to each other - that's when we succeed. That's when we prosper. And that's what is needed right now. So let us look toward the future with a renewed sense of common purpose, a renewed determination, and most importantly, a renewed confidence that a better day will come.”

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Obama echoed the request of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, made to Congress earlier Tuesday, for unprecedented authority to take over outfits like AIG, performing the same rescue function that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) now performs for troubled banks.

“Bankers and executives on Wall Street need to realize that enriching themselves on the taxpayers' dime is inexcusable, that the days of outsized rewards and reckless speculation that puts us all at risk have to be over,” he said.

“At the same time, the rest of us can't afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit. That drive is what has always fueled our prosperity, and it is what will ultimately get these banks lending and our economy moving once more.”

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If Obama’s gotten good at anything since he was sworn in, it’s in his dealings with the mainstream media. With recent appearances on “The Tonight Show,” a weekend interview with “60 Minutes” and an evolving relationship with the maverick media that helped him win the presidency, he’s shown no fear in dealing with the White House press corps.

That came across tonight. In the Q&A period, Ed Henry of CNN apparently forgot he was dealing with a brother from Chicago. Henry, trying to look tough and aggressive, kept pursuing a marginal point about how Obama didn’t respond immediately, emotionally, reflexively about the AIG bailout bonuses.

“… [O]n AIG, why did you wait — why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage?” Henry asked for the second or third time. “It seems like the action is coming out of New York and the attorney general's office. It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, ‘look, we're outraged.’ Why did it take so long?”

With a single sentence, Obama went all street on Henry: “It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak.” End of discussion, and maybe the beginning of a new respect from traditional media for Obama’s steeliness under fire. Clearly, he won’t seek a fight but he won’t run from one (especially one he can win hands down).

We're 64 percent of the way through that 100-day expiration date of the earlier manifestation of Obama’s political capital, but the president and his team has been making the most of it. Considering that he’s had to do as much to undo some of the actions and policies of his predecessor as he has put his own policies in place, the Obama administration has already achieved a great deal in record time.

With his repeated calls for patience — both from a 24/7 media with the appetite and metabolism of a shrew, and from the American people eager for the change he promised — President Obama is calling on the country and the media to awaken to the possibility that our obsession with small ball —the day-to-day, the knee-jerk response, the minuscule and the incremental — can give way to something bigger, more powerful from a leader determined to swing for the fences when it’s necessary. And it’s necessary now.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A reply from Tehran

On Thursday, in a 3-1/2-minute video message, President Obama extended an olive branch to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and did so on Nowruz, one of Iran’s most revered secular holidays. Iran sent a reply on Saturday, seemingly as harsh and angry as rhetoric from the Iranian leadership has been in the past. Seemingly.

The conventional wisdom would have us believe that the vitriol of Tehran’s response to Obama’s call for “a new beginning” was not what the White House was hoping for. Upon further review, there’s a better chance that the response was exactly what the White House expected. And there’s something to build on, maybe.

◊ ◊ ◊

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the real powerhouse animating the core of Iran’s fervently anti-American leadership — not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — spoke at the shrine of Imam Reza, at a rally in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad, with the authority of the spiritual leader of a republic that, for all the Westernist tendencies of its people in recent decades, remains a leadership by theocracy. “Khamenei holds the last word on major policy decisions, and how Iran ultimately responds to any concrete U.S. effort to engage the country will depend largely on his say,” reported Ali Akbar Dareini of The Associated Press.

So Khamenei spoke his own truth to televised power on Saturday, responding to Obama’s video in a live television broadcast with a frank, show-me-the-money response to the president of the United States.

“They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice. We haven't seen any change,” he said.

“He (Obama) insulted the Islamic Republic of Iran from the first day. If you are right that change has come, where is that change? What is the sign of that change? Make it clear for us what has changed. …” It was a series of broadsides that alluded to the great split occasioned by the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the taking of American hostages in a crisis that crippled the Carter presidency and set the stage for U.S.-Iranian relations ever since.

“Have you released Iranian assets? Have you lifted oppressive sanctions? Have you given up mudslinging and making accusations against the great Iranian nation and its officials? Have you given up your unconditional support for the Zionist regime? Even the language remains unchanged. …”

“They say we have stretched a hand toward Iran. ... If a hand is extended covered with a velvet glove but it is cast iron inside, that makes no sense," Khamenei said.

“They are talking of extending a hand to Iran on the occasion of the New Year and they are congratulating the Iranian people,” he said. “At the same time, they are accusing [Iran] of terrorism and the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But for all the heat of Khamenei’s response, the door to a better relationship was open, at least a hair of a crack.

"We do not have any record of the new U.S. president," Khamenei said. “We are observing, watching and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago.”

For some students of Iranian culture and politics, there’s reason for optimism. What looks like a straight-up rebuff ain’t necessarily so.

Dr. Shireen Hunter, director of the Islam Program at CSIS, told ABC News on Saturday: "Actually, for the first time, Ayatollah Khamenei seemed to accept the principle of reciprocity."

“It seemed like a snub, but then again, context matters,” observes Nathan Gonzalez, author of “Engaging Iran,” writing in The Huffington Post.
“There is a very important reason for Iran's reluctance to change its tone overnight. It is due to a political trend I call the ‘cult of anti-Americanism.’ This is Iran's anti-American brand, one that has been the face of the country since the 1978-1979 revolution toppled the U.S.-backed king. …

Eventually, the cult of anti-Americanism will fade and a new generation of leaders will take the reins of power. In the meantime, the name-calling will continue, even as the United States and Iran work together constructively on the future of Iraq and Afghanistan. For the Islamic Republic, the only country in the Middle East that is truly independent today, being the ‘angry Islamist’ on the bloc is a small price to pay.

◊ ◊ ◊

It might all come down to domestic political consumption — how it plays at home, the populist political commonality shared by Tehran and Washington. Something to build on. Khamenei’s apparently hardline attitude may well belie something more practical, if not actually conciliatory, as the new administration in Washington solidifies its bona fides with the world.

The metaphor of “the ball in their court” is often used (and overused) to describe the need of a contestant in any given conflict, from a tennis match to a test of wills between world leaders, to make the next move.

With a new leader facing profound economic challenges and a nation eager for results in Washington, and a young population of citizens eager for the future in Tehran, we’re witnessing a contest with balls in both courts at the same time. At least — 30 years after the great schism between Iran and the United States —they’re getting back in the game of diplomacy.
Image credit: Ayatollah Khamenei: Khamenei Web site.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Report: Gun-totin' lefty to MSNBC

With its past tendency to shuttle on-air personalities on and off the air with stunning irregularity, MSNBC has since 2001 been building a reputation as a political weathervane, adding or subtracting its anchors in a sometimes-transparent attempt to address the prevailing political mood.

That mood, based on the November election, is decidedly more progressive today than in previous years. Maybe with that in mind — and the fact that MSNBC is enjoying a comfortable lead in cable ratings over arch-rival CNN — it’s been reported that MSNBC is in talks with Ed Schultz, a syndicated progressive radio talk show host and frequent guest on various MSNBC programs, about a more permanent place in the network’s lineup.

The New York Observer reported Friday that that MSNBC president Phil Griffin is huddling with Schultz “about possibly joining the network on a full-time basis.”

One network source told The Observer that an offer's already been made to Schultz. A network spokesperson denies.

Schultz, the self-described "most listened-to progressive radio talk show host in America," broadcasts from KFGO in Fargo, N.D., and has most recently been a fill-in anchor, subbing for David Shuster on MSNBC’s “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” program on March 10 and 18. The Observer reported that Schultz’s appearance sparked rumors that Schultz was being prepped for a big chair of his own.

◊ ◊ ◊

It wasn’t that long ago — February 2003 — that Phil Donahue, another chat host with a left-leaning agenda, was fired from MSNBC, ostensibly because of poor ratings, but possibly as a result of reaction by MSNBC brass, who issued an internal memo ordering Donahue’s dismissal for being out of step with America’s then-mostly hawkish sentiments about the Iraq war.

“He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives,” the memo read in part. The memo, leaked to the All Your TV Web site, warned that Donahue’s program could be "a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Since then, of course, everything’s changed. The nation’s in a different place politically. MSNBC had already staked out a position on the left side of the spectrum last year, as the ratings for the network’s prime-time tentpole, “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” solidified, but there were more shifts coming as the tide turned for Obama during the primary season. You first got a sense of this on MSNBC when “Tucker,” the program hosted by smarmy and tireless conservative apologist Tucker Carlson, was shelved a year ago.

Then came the September addition of “The Rachel Maddow Show,” helmed by Maddow, the whip-smart Air America host and, as a lesbian, a pioneer in mainstream media and champion for gay rights.

If Schultz does come aboard, he would complete MSNBC’s philosophical prime-time shift in its news and commentary programming. There’s a lot to recommend him. As a self-described “gun-totin', red meat-eatin' lefty” who promises “straight talk from the heartland,” Schultz, 55, has a burly, working-class aspect that’s a strong counter to the bluster of Republican voice box and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh.

On the air, Schultz isn’t afraid to bring it when necessary, able to conversationally battle the conservatives toe to toe, raising his voice to match their volume when he has to. In his size (he’s a former football player) and his style, Schultz runs counter to the conservative stereotype of the liberal as insubstantial lightweight.

With MSNBC riding its current ratings wave — Portfolio.com’s Jeff Bercovici reported March 20 that MSNBC handily leads CNN, which slipped to fourth place, even behind CNN’s sister network Headline News (HLN) — you get the sense that Schultz will be both a fresh weapon (as MSNBC keeps up its fight against ratings leader Fox News) and another voice in the increasingly liberal media chorus that suits the times, and the electorate.
Image credit: Schultz: Ty Helbach Photography

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Trib a-Twitter

To borrow the title of a years-ago movie, the newspaper industry is dancing as fast as it can — moving with speed less deliberate than desperate in a bid to remain a vital part of the 21st century information landscape.

Last week was not a good one for dead-tree media: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased operation as a print product and reconfigured itself as a solely online news outlet, the first in the nation to make that pivot. Less than three weeks earlier, the Rocky Mountain News closed up shop entirely.

On Thursday, the Chicago Tribune made its own concession to the relentless presence of the Internet. In its masthead, the Trib published the names of its brain trust in Twitterspeak, with their account names on Twitter, the social-networking utility that’s attaining a critical mass of public awareness. Want to contact publisher Tony Hunter? Reach him on Twitter at @twhunter.

It’s a savvy move for relevance, but with red ink still flowing through its corporate veins, it will take more than that to rescue the company. The Tribune Company, parent of the beleaguered Los Angeles Times, among other media properties, filed for bankruptcy protection in December. The company is looking down the barrel of a $12 billion debt.

Maybe the Trib editors will tweet requests to pass the hat.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A hand to Tehran

It may be the source of robust argument for fifteen minutes at a D.C. cocktail party — historians and analysts and the leaders of the punditburo debating whether it was all a coincidence that, on Thursday, the sixth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, President Barack Obama extended an olive branch to the people of Iran on Nowruz, an ancient secular holiday that marks the start of the Iranian year, a holiday that often coincides with the first day of spring.

You could equally debate how much or how little this president has achieved after 59 days in office, but there’s no doubt Obama has been a master of the clock. Policy announcements, cabinet nominations, prison closings, he's done a lot in a very short time. And after a two-day swing through Southern California to reconnect with the everyday people who elected him, Obama took the world stage from a sound stage, and started the process of healing one of the most deeply wounded American relationships in the Middle East.

In the taped message recorded late Thursday (Friday in Iran), Obama offers “my very best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowruz around the world. This holiday is both an ancient ritual and a moment of renewal, and I hope that you enjoy this special time of year with friends and family.”

“Here in the United States our own communities have been enhanced by the contributions of Iranian Americans. We know that you are a great civilization, and your accomplishments have earned the respect of the United States and the world.

“For nearly three decades, relations between our nations have been strained. But at this holiday, we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together. Indeed, you will be celebrating your New Year in much the same way that we Americans mark our holidays, by gathering with family and friends, exchanging gifts and stories, and looking to the future with a renewed sense of hope.”

It wasn’t all a let’s-have-a-Coke-together-on-a-hillside moment. Much of Obama’s taped address was toughlove directed at the Iranian leadership of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the source of a wide range of threats against Israel and the leader responsible for approving and evangelizing Tehran’s dalliance with nuclear technology — possibly for nonpeaceful purposes.

◊ ◊ ◊

“We have serious differences that have grown over time,” the president said. “My Administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek, instead, engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

“You, too, have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right, but it comes with real responsibilities. And that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization, and the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.”

"I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek," Obama concludes. "It is a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It is a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you, and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace."

Obama ends the address with a Farsi saying, “Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak” — “have a celebratory new year.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It was his second dramatic telegenic bid at Middle Eastern outreach in as many months. On Jan. 26 he conducted his first formal one-on-one interview with a major news organization, but not one of the American networks. Obama huddled in the White House that day with Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiya, a Saudi-supported TV news channel based in Dubai.

Thursday’s message was another genuine Obama moment, the kind of genial throwdown he’s good at — not a dare but a challenge. In language and tone more conciliatory than we’ve heard from Washington toward Tehran in years, the Obama administration is turning the page on eight years of the bellicose cowboy rhetoric of the Bush administration.

Naysayers will say it was showy and over-the-top; the hard right wing will probably call it appeasement; and the Iranian leadership the message was aimed at may well think it’s just geopolitical pandering. But the fact of the message itself breaks new ground in relations between Washington and Tehran. The theocracy in Iran may react with the usual reflexes, but on the street, Obama’s message — bold by being nothing more than solicitous, accessible, human — is an open hand to Tehran, and a gesture that Tehran's leaders will find difficult not to reciprocate.

He hasn't attained the high stature of our best, most celebrated statesmen-presidents. Not yet. But 59 days in, President Obama is demonstrating a command of that primary gift of the best statesmen: an understanding of how the mutuality of cultures and the power of language are nothing less than the mothers of all weapons, and ultimately more effective than conventional weapons.

On Thursday night, the grim anniversary of another kind of war, President Obama fired a salvo of possibility — at least — at the Islamic Republic of Iran. The next move belongs to Tehran.
Image credit: Obama: Still from Whitehouse.gov video. Obama and Melhem: Al-Arabiya via The Associated Press.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cramer vs. Cramer vs. Stewart

If you’ve been burned or buffeted by the last fifteen months of recession, if you’ve seen your 401(k) go into a death spiral, if you’ve watched the analysts on the business news channels and wondered what color the sky is in their world, you had to stand up and shout from your mortgaged rooftop on Thursday night, when Jon Stewart performed the most inspired and satisfying takedown of a TV blowhard in many years.

Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” has been observing not only the collapse of the national economy, but also the forecasts and the reporting on CNBC, the business news channel. Over the last few weeks or so, he’s focused his attention (and his ire) on Jim Cramer, the animated host of “Mad Money,” a program that purports to cut to the chase of the day’s financial news with straightforward, practical advice for the everyday investor.

Cramer, no shrinking violet, returned fire on his program, and in those few weeks the sniping between the two reached a certain fever pitch. It came to a head on Thursday, when Cramer was a guest on “The Daily Show.” The metaphor of Daniel in the lion’s den doesn’t quite do it justice. The Stewart-Cramer confrontation was more lopsided than that.

◊ ◊ ◊

The background: For years now, since “Mad Money” went on the air in March 2005, Cramer has assumed a persona as the wild man of the markets, using a manic, snarling public style that gained gravitas from Cramer’s status as a former hedge fund manager, former stock trader and co-founder of TheStreet.com, a respected (and publicly traded) financial news and analysis Web site.

Over the years Cramer parlayed his red-meat style and financial experience into a genuine franchise, becoming one of CNBC’s signature on-air properties and most easily recognized personalities. He was constantly sought for counsel and analysis by mainstream news outlets — even as the financial crisis deepened late last year, and grumbling grew about the accuracy of many of Cramer’s calls on the market.

The stage was set for a showdown on Thursday, two days before "Mad Money's" fourth anniversary. Forgive the length of this post, but some issues, certain topical matters deserve to be experienced verbatim. Here, then, excerpts from a smackdown for the ages:

STEWART: So let me tell you why I think this has caused some attention. It's the gap between what CNBC advertises itself as and what it is and the help that people need to discern this. … Look, we are both snake oil salesmen to a certain extent —

CRAMER: I'm not discerning...

STEWART: But we do label the show as snake oil here. Isn't there a problem with selling snake oil and labeling it as vitamin tonic and saying that it cures impetigo ... Isn't that the difficulty here?

CRAMER: I think that there are two kinds of people: People [who] come out and make good calls and bad calls that are financial professionals, and there are people who say the only make good calls and they are liars. I try really hard to make as many good calls as I can.

STEWART: I think the difference is not good call//bad call. The difference is real market and unreal market. Let me show you...This is...you ran a hedge fund.

CRAMER: Yes I did.

What follows was a portion of a video clip from a late 2006 video of Cramer in an interview with Aaron Task, executive editor of The Street.com, discussing, among other things, how hedge fund managers profit when they sell stocks short — to derive a profit from the declining value of a stock.

CRAMER [IN VIDEO]: You know, a lot of times when I was short at my hedge fund and I was position short, meaning I needed it down, I would create a level of activity beforehand that could drive the futures. It doesn't take much money.

Video ends.

STEWART: What does that mean? …

CRAMER: I have been trying to rein in short selling, trying to expose what really happens. This is what goes on, what I'm trying to say is, I didn't do this but I'm trying to explain to people this is the shenanigans that —

STEWART: Well, it sounded as if you were talking about that you had done it.

CRAMER: Then I was inarticulate because … I barely traded the futures. Let me say this: I am trying to expose this stuff. Exactly what you guys do and I am trying to get the regulators to look at it.

STEWART: That's very interesting because — roll 210.

Another part of the previous video, this one described by Stewart as “210,” begins:

CRAMER [IN VIDEO]: I would encourage anyone who is in the hedge fund unit, do it because it is legal. It is a very quick way to make the money and very satisfying. By the way, no one else in the world would ever admit that, but I don't care.

TASK [IN VIDEO]: That's right and you can say that here.

CRAMER [IN VIDEO]: I'm not going to say it on TV.

Video ends.

CRAMER: It's on TV now.

STEWART: I want the Jim Cramer on CNBC to protect me from that Jim Cramer. …

STEWART: Now why, when you talk about the regulators, why not the financial news network? Isn't that the whole point of this? CNBC could be an incredibly powerful tool of illumination for people that believe that there are two markets: One that has been sold to us as long term: Put your money in 401ks. Put your money in pensions and just leave it there. Don't worry about it. It's all doing fine. Then, there's this other market; this real market that is occurring in the back room, where giant piles of money are going in and out, and people are trading them and it's transactional and it's fast.

But it's dangerous, it's ethically dubious and it hurts that long-term market. So what it feels like to us — and I'm talking purely as a layman — it feels like we are capitalizing your adventure by our pension and our hard earned money. And that it is a game that you know ... that you know is going on. But you go on television as a financial network and pretend it isn't happening.

CRAMER: Okay. First, my first reaction is absolutely we could do better. Absolutely. There's shenanigans and we should call them out. Everyone should. I should do a better job at it. But my second thing is, I talk about the shorts every single night. I got people in Congress who I've been working with trying to get the uptick rule. It's a technical thing but it would cut down a lot of the games that you are talking about. I'm trying. I'm trying. Am I succeeding? I'm trying.

STEWART: But the gentleman on that video is a sober rational individual. And the gentleman on Mad Money is throwing plastic cows through his legs and shouting "Sell! Sell! Sell!" and then coming on two days later and going, "I was wrong. You should have bought,” like — I can't reconcile the brilliance and knowledge that you have of the intricacies of the market with the crazy bullshit you do every night.

Eventually, Cramer tries to make penitent, pledging to make changes in his reporting and program style:
CRAMER: How about if I try it?

STEWART: Try what?

CRAMER: Try doing that. I'll try that.

STEWART: That would be great, but it's not just you. It's larger forces at work. It is this idea that the financial news networks are not just guilty of a sin of omission but a sin of commission. That they are in bed with them.

CRAMER: No, we're not in bed with them. Come on. I don't think that's fair. Honestly. I think that we try to report the news …

STEWART: But this thing was ten years in the making.

CRAMER: Right.

STEWART: And it's not going to be fixed tomorrow. But the idea that you could have on the guys from Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, and guys that had leveraged 35 to 1 —

CRAMER: I know.

STEWART: — And then blame mortgage holders. I mean, that's insane. … I gotta tell you. I understand that you want to make finance entertaining, but it's not a fucking game. When I watch that I get, I can't tell you how angry it makes me, because it says to me, you all know. You all know what's going on. You can draw a straight line from those shenanigans to the stuff that was being pulled at Bear and at AIG and all this derivative market stuff that is this weird Wall Street side bet.

CRAMER: But Jon, don't you want guys like me that have been in it to show the shenanigans? What else can I do? I mean, last night's show —

STEWART: No, no, no, no, no. I want desperately for that, but I feel like that's not what we're getting. What we're getting is... Listen, you knew what the banks were doing and yet were touting it for months and months. The entire network was. And so, now to pretend that this was some sort of crazy, once-in-a-lifetime tsunami that nobody could have seen coming is disingenuous at best and criminal at worst. ...

The measure of the network, and the measure of the mess... CNBC could act as —No one is asking them to be a regulatory agency, but whose side are they on? It feels like they have to reconcile as their audience the Wall Street traders that are doing this for constant profit on a day-to-day for short term. These guys' companies were on a Sherman's March through their companies, financed by our 401(k)’s, and all the incentives of their companies were for short-term profit. And they burned the fucking house down with our money and walked away rich as hell, and you guys knew that that was going on. …”

◊ ◊ ◊

You can quibble with some of what Stewart said. But not much. The idea, for example, of Stewart speaking from the perspective of a “layman” is a little hard to swallow considering, according to Forbes, that Stewart earns about $14 million a year. Real laymen would be happy with half of half of half of that.

But that’s small potatoes. Cramer was deservedly owned. Pwnd. Schooled. Gutted like a fish. Stewart effectively called the question on the business press doing its job as disinteresting seeker and disseminator of facts, not as cheerleader for the elites of the corporate world.

Sometimes — usually, in fact — a single distilling moment can slice through the rhetorical foliage of an issue. It happened in June 1954 when Joseph McCarthy was finally humbled by Army Special Counsel Joseph Welch in the Army-McCarthy hearings. On Thursday, Jon Stewart asked Jim Cramer, and by extension the business press as a whole, at long last, have you left no sense of integrity?

◊ ◊ ◊

Obviously, you knew this would be the shot heard round the Internet. Server farms across America glowed in the dark on Thursday night as recognized news outlets, and the blogosphere, weighed in.

“No responsible network executive who viewed the tape of Stewart eviscerating Cramer could possibly conclude that he has any credibility as an ‘investment expert.’ His antics may entertain some but they have hurt many,” wrote Dan Solis in The Huffington Post.

“For NBC and CNBC to continue to hold Cramer out as its investment guru would be a travesty that I don't believe even they will perpetuate. Here is a prediction I will make: Cramer will be off the air in sixty days."

“That might have been the most foolish appearance by someone whose name sounded like 'Cramer' since 'Seinfeld' went off the air,” Brian Lowry wrote in Variety.

Joe Peyronnin, an advisor to new media companies and an adjunct journalism professor at New York University, pretty much nailed it in The Huffington Post: “Edward R. Murrow would have been proud were he alive today.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Thursday the 12th was not a good day for Jim Cramer or CNBC, and Friday the 13th was no better.

That was when Portfolio’s Jeff Bercovici reported that the cumulative effect of the Cramer-Stewart broadsides were having a bad effect on CNBC ratings:

“In the first three days of this week, CNBC's Business Day programming block was down 10 percent in the key demographic of adults 25-to-54 versus the same period the week before, and down 11 percent among total viewers. Meanwhile, Mad Money was also down 10 percent in the 25-to-54 demographic, but only 4 percent among all viewers,” Bercovici reported of a trend already setting in before the Thursday night massacre.

Friday was when the first calls for Cramer’s scalp went out. “What is clear now is that Cramer at the very least was presenting a view of the market on air that couldn't have represented what he knew to be true,” wrote Steve Rosenbaum in The Huffington Post. “As he explained in one of the taped 'instructions', Cramer said you can move the market with rumor and innuendo. No surprise, but does CNBC endorse that Cramer’s Mad Money show is entertainment, or financial advice? There's no doubt they're meeting to throw him under the bus this very morning.”

And Friday was when the chief executive of TheStreet.com put in a sell order of his own. Hilary Potkewicz of Crain’s New York Business reported that Thomas Clarke, TheStreet.com’s CEO for the past decade, resigned, effective immediately.

Potkewicz reported that Cramer issued a boilerplate statement upon Clarke’s exit. “I want to thank Tom for his long-time service to the Company and wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors,” it read in part.

The per-share price of The Street.com fell to below $2 per share this week, down from $9.50 a year ago. When the company first went public, in May 1999, it fetched $60 a share, a per-share price that fixed the company’s worth at about $1 billion.

That was then. In the current bear market, in a post-Stewart world, Cramer’s own portfolio is sure to be in decline for some time to come. While you still can, watch “Mad Money” weeknights at 6 on CNBC. You’ll likely be watching the antics of a man who’s already sold his own stock short.

◊ ◊ ◊

Postscript: What looked like a match of Cramer vs. Stewart was really a case of Cramer vs. Cramer vs. Stewart. As good as Stewart’s on-air distillation of Cramer’s financial shenanigans was on Thursday night, there’s nothing to substitute for a longer version of Cramer’s interview with Task, the editor at TheStreet.com.

Time and the need to focus on his guest no doubt kept Stewart from showing more of the tape. We don't have that problem here; therefore, feast your eyes on a six-minute version of Cramer unexpurgated — and unplugged — below. By the end, you'll see why Cramer's days as a financial maven at CNBC must, as a matter of journalistic integrity, be seriously numbered.

Cramer vs. Cramer indeed: The contradictions between the fulminating host of “Mad Money” and the savvy, ruthless, calmly rapacious and ethically challenged trader in the video below point to a man at odds with no one but himself.

Image credits: Edward R. Murrow: Public domain. CNBC logo, Mad Money logo: © 2009 NBC Universal. Cramer-Stewart two-shot: Jason deCrow, The Associated Press.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Are you old school enough to remember Chaka Khan's blazing, bumptious 1978 hit song, "I'm Every Woman"? You could dance to this chart-topper, of course; Chaka Khan wouldn't have had it any other way. But besides its role as a dance-floor staple back in the disco day, its lyrics conveyed the universalist aspects of an anthem. Especially the chorus:
I'm every woman,
It's all in me ...
That sense of typicality, of extraordinariness within the ordinary, was something that eluded black women in the eyes of pop culture, and through no fault of their own. Through the prism of pop culture, black women were always the sassy, plain-spoken, earthy Other -- not so much people as walking stereotypes meant to go no further, to be no more than the relatively narrow and isolationist roles assigned to them by the majority culture.

The walls of that cultural apartheid have been crumbling by degrees for years now. We can thank Michelle Obama for helping to pile-drive a hole through that wall, once and for all.

In little more than seven weeks, Michelle Obama has quietly reinvented the franchise of First Lady. For about as long, the media has obsessed over the bare arms she's displayed on several occasions. We've gotten weekly U.S. Biceps & Triceps Reports about the new First Lady. It's as if Laura Bush had no such physical equipment for the last eight years; that part of the female anatomy apparently didn't exist until Michelle went sleeveless. Without meaning to, she's become a symbol of the national physicality yearning to breathe free.

"Let’s face it: The only bracing symbol of American strength right now is the image of Michelle Obama’s sculpted biceps," Maureen Dowd wrote March 7 in The New York Times. "Her husband urges bold action, but it is Michelle who looks as though she could easily wind up and punch out Rush Limbaugh, Bernie Madoff and all the corporate creeps who ripped off America."

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But of course it's more, it's bigger than that. Besides brandishing a refreshingly revisionist sense of fashion -- one in which the lion of haute couture lies down with the lamb of J. Crew -- Michelle Obama has helped revolutionize the national sense of black femininity and motherhood. Her very presence in the White House resets the baseline of expectations when we think of the First Lady.

She's brought a visible, uncompromising sense of protectiveness to the role of Moms-in-Chief, working to effect a balance of the private and the public for Sasha and Malia, our First Kids. That swing set you can see from the Oval Office? Don't for a minute think that was all the president's idea.

In a mere seven weeks, she's given her quasi-office clout, championing her own causes — including aid to veterans' families, improved nutrition and the plight of working families — in a direct, populist way.

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Then there's the element of style. We've had issues before with Condé Nast, the monster magazine publisher, but they get credit for realizing what the country has known for awhile: Michelle Obama will be an inescapable presence in the fashion world. The publisher has just featured her on the cover of Vogue, the international style & fashion bible, as well as in a smartly electric illustration on the cover of the current issue of The New Yorker.

Maybe the biggest nod to Michelle Obama as everywoman turns up as an item in an online catalog by Taylor Gifts: A T-shirt bearing a sharp illustration of Michelle Obama assuming the physical posture and dress of the iconic Rosie the Riveter, whose original image appeared on a poster that galvanized the homefront during World War II.

The ballooned caption, "We Can Do It!" is a direct import from the original. With the words arrayed to come from the mouth of the new First Lady, the message goes forth: Despite the panorama of social and economic and personal challenges black women face, along with all women, this shout of the possible is a tonic, a throwdown of uplift that probably couldn't come at a better time, or from a better source.

The wire services have for years made it a convention of their copy style: The phrase "first lady" is rendered in the lower case — this despite the seemingly obvious titular singularity that comes with use of the word "first." "Not a formal title," says the Associated Press. Fair enough — for them.

But maybe for the rest of us, it's time to break with that convention. Maybe with this First Lady, we can give the title, and the current titleholder, the props they deserve.
Image credits: Michelle Obama, White House kitchen: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters. Vogue, The New Yorker covers: © 2009 Condé Nast/Advance Publications. Obama shirt: Taylor Gifts catalog.
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