Thursday, October 29, 2009

The dignified transfer: Obama at Dover AFB

Regardless of the voting of press photographers and media associations in any end-of-December tally of their favorite photographs of the year, we may already have the single best, most riveting — and potentially galvanizing — image of 2009.

More properly, it could be any of several images taken today at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, at the intake site where the bodies of American forces killed in action in Iraq, and Afghanistan are formally repatriated, returned to a grateful nation and any number of broken families.

Early this morning, outside the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, in a symbolically profound and emotionally resonant break with modern presidential history, Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, stood at the foot of a C-17 transport plane and publicly saluted the remains of Army Sgt. Dale R. Griffin, of Terre Haute, Ind.

Griffin was one of 18 Americans killed, including three DEA agents, who died this week in Afghanistan. Ten died Monday when a military helicopter crashed after a firefight with suspected Taliban drug traffickers. The eight others died Tuesday, slain by roadside bombs.

With 55 troops killed, October ends as the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the war started eight years ago.

◊ ◊ ◊

President Obama’s appearance at Dover emotionally punctuated the power of a recent shift in Pentagon policy. On April 1, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates approved a policy change that, under strict conditions, allows the media to record the Dover AFB transfer of the bodies of servicemen and women killed in action.

But what could have been another anonymous performance of the “dignified transfer” took on a stark new resonance with the president’s appearance. Obama’s salute finally, at the highest level, unifies the abstract experience of Americans at war with that war’s brutally visceral realities.

When a general calls for 40,000 more troops to fight in Afghanistan, it’s hard to get the mind around the human dimension of such a number. “40,000 more troops”: there’s a pieces-on-a-chessboard feel to the phrase itself; the words denature the human experience that’s behind them.

Standing silent at Dover, President Obama personalized not just the war but its ultimate, visible sacrifice in a way that will both burnish his biography and ennoble the office he holds.

◊ ◊ ◊

The power of the moment wasn’t lost on the man. "It was a sobering reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our young men and women in uniform are engaging in every single day, not only our troops but their families as well," Obama said later at the White House.

And Obama’s Dover salute can be seen another way: as, just possibly, a stunning and poignant rebuke to those on Capitol Hill and elsewhere who’ve basically called for the president to approve — consideration be damned — the request of Gen. Stanley McChrystal for an additional 40,000 forces in Afghanistan.

“Obviously,” he said, “the burden that both our troops and their families bear in any wartime situation is gonna bear on how I see these conflicts and … it’s something that I think about each and every day.”

The president is considering his options, which include more troops, fewer troops or a realignment of assets already in-country. Whatever’s ultimately decided, and when ever it’s decided, Obama has broken new ground for presidential decorum.

Historian Michael Beschloss said it tonight on MSNBC: “He wants to see the cost in person.” There's no greater tribute a president can make to the people he or she places in harm’s way. There may be no more eloquent statement this president can make about his decision on whether they should be in harm’s way at all.
Image credits: U.S. war casualties: Still from MSNBC.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Worldwide Pants down III: Uglier and uglier

Boy, that Dave. This Letterman thing won’t go away, and it’s not just because of people like me. The flap about his serial dalliances with at least some and possibly several of the women who work for CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” and the toweringly dumb extortion plot that followed — had begun to quiet down. There’s so much else going on, and, ironically enough, we need Dave to make sense of things, like we pretty much always have since men wore skinny ties with a straight face.

Except that, right now, we can’t make sense of things with Dave. Not yet. His previous admission of sex with his staffers seemed to be something that was utterly mutual, consensual, a consequence of being with a small group of people for twelve hours a day, or longer.

Nell Scovell thinks otherwise. Scovell, a former staffer on the “Late Show,” made that pretty clear in an article in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. What Scovell (a longtime VF contributor) documents is both a sexual free-for-all in the upper end of the “Late Show” ranks, and an atmosphere charged with something that tiptoes up to the line of sexual harassment.

In the article, Scovell looks at the reflexive crouch taken by some in the media elite who rallied to Letterman’s defense. She takes issue, for example, with ABC’s Barbara Walters (“The View”) that Letterman’s peccadilloes weren’t sexual harassment.

“Actually, it may be,” Scovell writes. “There’s a subset of sexual harassment called sexual favoritism that, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, can lead to a ‘hostile work environment,’ often ‘creating an atmosphere that is demeaning to women.’

“And that pretty much sums up my experience at Late Night with David Letterman.”

◊ ◊ ◊

What comes next can hardly be considered flattering to the pleasantly madcap, topically acerbic Letterman mien.

"I was the second female writer ever hired at Late Night," Scovell writes. "When I applied for the job in 1988, I had no way of knowing how much the odds were stacked against me. In 27 years, Late Night and Late Show have hired only seven female writers. These seven women have spent a total of 17 years on staff combined. By extrapolation, male writers have racked up a collective 378 years writing jokes for Dave (based on an average writing room of 14 men, the size of the current Late Show staff)."

It was Scovell’s dream job; she’d just landed a gig as a story editor for the "Newhart" show and had written for "The Simpsons," but she more or less immediately decamped from L.A. to New York when the callback from the "Late Night" wishing well arrived.

After the high of getting the job, things went “downhill” after that, she writes.

Scovell (who moved on to write several feature films and TV projects) cuts to the chase on the main issues at hand — the issues that could become the basis for any action in the legal arena, if it comes to that:

“Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely.”

Scovell got through a 13-week probationary period, and “The Late Show” kept her on. “[T]hen, about two months later, while looking for a nicer apartment, I realized I didn’t want to commit to a yearlong lease. I’d seen enough to know that I was not going to thrive professionally in that workplace. And although there were various reasons for that, sexual politics did play a major part.”

◊ ◊ ◊

That’s the part of this that gets, to borrow from Dave himself talking about another topic entirely, uglier and uglier. The consensual side of such dalliances is problem enough; Scovell’s account suggests a problem at the institutional level, something built into the “Late Show” DNA, a basic imbalance of gender (and almost certainly racial) representation that pervades the entertainment industry. The kids in the hall are nearly always white males.

“At this moment, there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing for Late Show with David Letterman, The Jay Leno Show, and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien combined,” Scovell wrote. “Out of the 50 or so comedy writers working on these programs, exactly zero are women. It would be funny if it weren’t true.”

Here’s hoping that David Letterman and the late-night industry in general take a look in the funhouse mirror, and get a clue. Comedy is tragedy plus time, someone once observed. This has become a kind of tragedy right out of the box.
Image credits: Letterman, Late Show title box: © 2009 CBS/Worldwide Pants. Scovell: © Colin Summers.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The silence of the justice

On Friday, Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas made one of those offhand, seemingly innocuous statements that have a way of revealing more than was intended. Considering the comment’s place in the decision-making process of a Supreme Court Justice … maybe disturbingly more than was intended.

Jay Reeves of The Associated Press reported that Thomas, who spoke before a group of law students at the University of Alabama on the 18th anniversary of Thomas’ swearing in as a Justice, said that he and the others on the Supreme Court usually know where each of them stands on the cases that come before the court, by virtue of reading the legal briefs of the lawyers there to make oral arguments — the oral arguments fundamental to the American legal system.

What’s so concerning is the idea that at least one of the Justices of the nation’s highest court seems to regard the oral tradition of law as problematical — seems to be comfortable relying on legal briefs to the exclusion of the human factor of dialogue and personal appeal that help make the Supreme Court what it (ideally) is: the last legal recourse when more mechanistic, procedurally-driven interpretations of the law have failed, sometimes in cases in which a second second look is warranted.

◊ ◊ ◊

Thomas, apparently responding to someone’s question about whether the court uses questions to influence the opinions of fellow members of the court, dismissed the notion out of hand.

“All nine of us are in the same building," he said. "If we want to sway each other we know where we are. We don't need oral arguments to do that. It doesn't make any sense to me."

Thomas also called for other Justices to be quiet during oral arguments, and took issue with the practice among other Justices to engage in the back and forth of oral argument that’s both a high court tradition and foundational to American law.

“[W]hy do you beat up on people if you already know [what your position is]? I don't know, because I don't beat up on 'em. I refuse to participate. I don't like it, so I don't do it,” Thomas said.

(It was a variation on something he said in November 2007 at a speech in Michigan in which Thomas said plainly, “My colleagues should shut up! … I don't think that for judging, and for what we are doing, all those questions are necessary.”)

◊ ◊ ◊

The phrase “I refuse to participate” reveals a lot about Thomas’ presence in the transcripts of Court business going back to the previous administration. Thomas has long been the court’s silent Justice; Reeves reports that Thomas “hasn't asked a lawyer a question during arguments in nearly four years.”

It’s curious, then, that the Justice who makes the least use of the interrogative potential of robust oral argument appears to be so ready to dismiss its importance.

Cut to the chase, Justice Thomas?

Maybe not. Abdul, commenting on the story at, makes the justifiable point that for some court business, oral arguments would amount to a lawyers’ filibuster, a lengthy belt-and-suspenders event coming on the heels of those legal briefs the Justices would have already read:

“Justice Thomas is talking about appellate hearings, where the oral argument is a few hours long at best, and there are usually two thorough briefs from the opposing parties, and hundreds of Amicus briefs from third parties interested in the outcome.”

Still, we might be more receptive to the idea if it came from one of the more active members of the court.

James, at, said it was “rather disconcerting how Thomas would just sit there daydreaming [while] the other justices engaged the attorneys. Kind of like the kid in third grade who just sits at his desk with his head in his hand ...”

◊ ◊ ◊

Maybe Justice Thomas is intellectually bored by variations on a theme he’s seen to distraction. “There are things you learn after 18 years,” he said Friday. “You’ve seen just about all that you’re going to see. Most cases are permutations of the same issue.”

While that may be true in the grand scheme of things, there are enough distinctions from case to case to warrant a focus on those particulars — the better to resist one-size-fits-all decisions that fail to account for the specifics, or decisions that rely strictly on the letter of law at the expense of its spirit.

You don’t have to look back that far to see how that’s possible.. On Aug. 17, the Supremes voted 6-2 (Justice Sonia Sotomayor then not seated yet), to order a Georgia federal district court to consider and rule on whether new evidence "that could not have been obtained at the time of trial” should be introduced in the case of Troy Anthony Davis, almost 20 years to the day after the murder of which he was convicted and imprisoned, perhaps unjustly.

The SCOTUS decision followed years of nonstop exposure in the media, and, more recently, a torrent of grassroots protests spearheaded by Amnesty International.

The court agreed to remand the case despite the dissenting votes of two justices, Antonin Scalia (who wrote the dissenting opinion) and … Clarence Thomas.

◊ ◊ ◊

In their dissent, Scalia and Thomas adhered to the principles of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), passed by Congress and intended to limit death-row prisoners to one set of appeals in federal court — to, in effect, clear the glide path to execution, new exculpatory facts be damned.

Hear newly-discovered evidence? Consider new perspectives from the lawyers arguing Davis’ case? Nah. “We don't need oral arguments to do that.”

Efficiency in doing the court’s business is important, and endless oral arguments can do as much to circumvent justice as to ensure it. But there are reasonable questions: If the briefs are generally all that’s needed to come to a decision, why engage in oral arguments at all? How do you learn if you don't ask any questions, if you sit silent as the Sphinx for almost four years?

As Justice Thomas’ very appearance before the law students suggests, sometimes documents aren’t enough to get your point across. The law — a distillation of human interaction — requires human interaction to work. Whether it’s made before a group of law school students or a death-penalty case before the highest court in the land, the personal appeal has no substitute.
Image credits: Thomas: Public domain. The Supremes: Reuters/Jim Young. Troy Davis: Georgia Department of Corrections.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Meet the First Family

The Obama administration made good on its promise to improve the economy of working Americans for one notable working American down on her luck. The result is the new official portrait of the nation’s first family — an image that radiates possibilities for a country still down at the heels.

On Sept. 1, Annie Leibovitz, the photographer who parlayed early work with Rolling Stone magazine with an ascendant fascination with popular culture and made herself a brand name in the process, took the portrait in the Green Room of the White House. 

The 44th president sits with First Lady Michelle, and the daughters, Malia and Sasha (who’s got to stop being so utterly adorable, right now).

Leibovitz needed the work. The photographer, whom I interviewed in 2003, had reportedly borrowed about $24 million from New York-based Art Capital Group, using the rights to her 30 years-plus archive of photographs and the value of personal properties as collateral.

AP reported that last year, “Leibovitz put up as collateral three Manhattan townhouses, an upstate New York property and the copyright to every picture she has ever taken – or will take – to secure the loan.” She got an extension on the loan last month.

Her latest effort is an inspiring thing for Americans in general, and black Americans in particular. Faced with economic challenges and personal headwinds, the country needs these little symbols of normal in a time that’s anything but.

The administration has made much of stimulus packages in the past nine months. Here’s to the emotional stimulus we got, and the financial stimulus Annie Leibovitz needed.
Image credits: The Obamas: The White House/© 2009 Annie Leibovitz. Leibovitz: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Holding Karzai’s feet to the fire: Obama’s no-decision decision

Maybe it’s a consequence of his experience with life and politics in Chicago, or the result of trials in the free-fire zone of his past nine-plus months as president, but Barack Obama has made a habit of pushing his way out of corners his opponents were certain they had him in. The president has done it again on matters concerning Afghanistan.

Many in Congress and around the country thought he could and should be gently but firmly pressured into a rubber-stamp decision to give Gen. Stanley McChrystal the additional 40,000 troops the general wants to send to the Afghan War effort. On Wednesday night, former vice president Dick Cheney offered his two bellicose cents to the debate, saying that President Obama was “dithering” on the Afghan decision, to the detriment of U.S. forces there.

The president has deftly turned the tables and put them right where they belong. In a stunning throwdown, the Obama administration established an implicit linkage between any additional troops for Afghanistan to the successful completion of a runoff presidential election, pitting Afghan President Hamid Karzai against challenger and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah — a new vote meant to correct the blatant fraud, corruption and intimidation that occurred with the previous presidential vote in August.

◊ ◊ ◊

Nobody saw that coming. So much of the debate on Capitol Hill has consisted of shrill, strident entreaties to Obama to fulfill McChrystal’s wishes — to defer to the military man on the basis of experience.

But President Obama, a master of the political rope-a-dope, has reversed the axis of responsibility for the future of Afghanistan, placing the issue squarely on the shoulders of the leaders of Afghanistan — where the burden of proof should have been all along.

This holds Karzai’s feet firmly to the fire, and it also places the American military presence in Afghanistan in a somewhat more conditional context. It’s almost certain Obama won’t order an immediate full-scale withdrawal — a prospect that would create as many problems in the short term as it would solve.

But the president has been carefully weighing his options, including but not limited to a more gradual withdrawal of forces; a more inventive mix of military, technological and diplomatic assets; and a greater role by Afghanistan’s police and military —the people with the most skin in the game.

◊ ◊ ◊

The calls for more immediate military action from those in Congress and the right-wing media combine speak volumes about what we’re accustomed to from our leaders. Over the past eight years, we’ve seen so much foreign policy waged with swagger and smart-bomb shooting from the hip, we’ve forgotten what intelligent deliberation looks like.

Now we know. What to many people looks like a no-decision decision the president is making is really a no-decision-yet decision. But to millions of others, it's already clear President Obama has dared to engage in a thoughtful (and no doubt agonizing) consideration of whether to step up involvement in a war that more and more of the American people oppose — dared to think before acting, to replace rashness with rationale.

Been a long time since we had that in the White House.
Image credits: Obama: Still from White House video. Obama and McChrystal: Pete Souza, The White House. Karzai: Harald Dettenborn.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The high cost of (balloon) inflation

Thanks a lot, Octomom. Look what you’ve started. Our insatiable hunt for publicity, for fame and all of its accompanying financial possibilities has claimed another victim (or more accurately, five of them). As the story of the Heene family of Fort Collins, Colo., continues to unfold, or unravel, we’re getting an object lesson in the perils of pursuit of fame at any cost — and a study of the apparent vacancy, the emptiness of our lives without validation by the public.

Last Thursday the nation’s attention was riveted by the story of Falcon Heene, the precocious 6-year-old boy thought to be aboard a makeshift experimental balloon that was, um, accidentally aloft over the skies of Colorado. For almost three hours the cable networks and news Web sites followed the story, praying the little kid survived the runaway balloon’s aimless flight. When it finally came down … surprise, no Falcon Heene aboard.

The brief panic that ensued — where was the little tyke? Had he fallen out of the aircraft while it was aloft? — ended when Falcon Heene was found later, safe at home. What’s followed in the days since Falcon I fell to earth has been a slow unfolding of what Colorado authorities have flatly said was a hoax, pure and simple.

Now, of course, we’re into the customary post-debacle PR dance: the parents, Mayumi and Richard Heene, have retained legal counsel to assert their innocence; and there’s presumably comic speculation that Richard Heene could pose for Playgirl, the apparent preferred publishing venue of social restitution (Sarah Palin’s accidental son-in-law Levi Johnston is bulking up for an appearance in the same magazine).

◊ ◊ ◊

The Heene adults are looking down the barrel of several serious charges, including conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, making a false report to authorities and attempting to influence a public servant.

The heaviest charges, felonies all, carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison. Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said authorities would be seeking restitution for costs incurred in the attempted rescue. Richard Heene, the family aeronautical engineer, and a storm chaser and aficionado of extreme science, could face federal charges (he notified the Federal Aviation Administration of the incident).

For all the official posturing by Colorado law enforcement, and the justifiable attention paid to scarce financial resources enlisted in the retrieval of not much more than a glorified Jiffy Pop container, the Heenes are ultimately guilty of being the victims of a celebrity-besotted society, a culture contributing to the delinquency of itself.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Heenes and their three sons twice appeared on ABC's "Wife Swap," most recently in March, when they explained their offbeat approach to parenting, and laid out their conviction that they’re descended from aliens.

“When the Heene family aren't chasing storms, they devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send into the eye of the storm,” says a weirdly prescient promo on the WifeSwap Web site.

For the Heenes, and for countless others seduced by the reality programming that makes up so much of the current television landscape, the celebrity bug rivals the H1N1 virus as an unavoidable contagion.

Coming in the wake of the rise of Nadya Suleman, the Octomom, whose kids-by-the-litter approach to motherhood made her a financially lucrative sensation last year, and not long after the “Jon & Kate Plus 8” reality show turned into a marital train wreck suitable for the tabloids, the Heene incident says more about our culture than about the family itself.

In the current still-disastrous state of the economy, Americans are looking for their own bailouts, whether it’s on mainstream TV (“Jon & Kate,” “Big Brother,” “The Amazing Race,” “Survivor”) or on TV of the closed-circuit kind. We’ve seen that many times in the last eighteen months: surveillance images of trucks crashing into closed convenience stores, followed by the redistribution of wealth that happens when occupants of said trucks drag the stores’ ATM machines into the American night.

The Heene affair waits for the next act; the authorities expect the charges to be formally filed next week. When that happens, ironically enough, the Heenes may have found the basis for a TV meta-phenomenon: a reality series about a family seeking a reality series — the perfect distillation of our feverish desire to matter to someone beside ourselves.
Image credit: Balloon aloft: KUSA > CNN. Octomom: Source unknown. Jon & Kate Plus 8 title card: The Learning Channel.

Monday, October 19, 2009


The lawyers at the notoriously self-protective technology machine that is Apple Inc. may be considering legal action against the brilliantly funny, on-point wiseasses who’ve created one of the best video parodies in recent … days.

The parody makes deft use of Apple’s recent iPhone ad campaign, which trumpets the versatility of the thousands of iPhone applications for everyday use (“there’s an app for that”) and tweaks it to make cutting points about the recent behavior of some conservative members of Congress.

The parody's voice-over says: “What’s great about Republicans in Congress is that if you want to heckle the President during his address to the Congress, there’s a Rep for that” (up pops a screenshot of Joe Wilson of South Carolina).

“If you want to suggest that smacking around your wife doesn’t truly count as assault, and neither does killing homosexuals, there’s a Rep for that” (there’s Louis Gohmert of Texas).

“If you want to tell foreign governments that the United States can’t be trusted, there’s even a Rep for that” (it’s Mark Kirk of Illinois).

Want to refute scientific research by preaching biblical prophecy? There’s a Rep for that (John Shimkus of Illinois). Want to press the idea that wives should be submissive to their husbands? Yep, there’s a Rep for that (Michele Bachmann of Minnesota).

There’s a wide variety of Reps available, from Virginia’s Randy Forbes (who proposed to institute biblical law as constitutional law) to Idaho’s Bill Sali (who tried to establish a connection between abortion and breast cancer) to Iowa’s Steve King (who called same-sex marriage a socialist idea).

There’s no word yet on how many of these Reps can be bought by the general public; some, no doubt, have already been bought by others. More Reps are sure to be added to this collection before long.


Ain’t technology wonderful?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Release the Droids!

It made its presence felt on Saturday, in a commercial break during the second game of the American Leagues Championship Series: an ad that said more about what its underlying product was not than what it was.

Droid, the new and much anticipated wireless phone from Verizon, got a huge kickoff in the ad, which accentuates the negative in order to go upside the head of Apple’s seemingly unstoppable iPhone in several ways.

“iDon’t have a real keyboard. iDon’t run simultaneous apps. iDon’t take 5-megapixel pictures. iDon’t customize. iDon’t run widgets. iDon’t allow open development. iDon’t take pictures in the dark. iDon’t have interchangeable batteries. Everything iDon’t … Droid does.”

◊ ◊ ◊

To call this a shot across Apple’s bow is an understatement. With this ad, Verizon, the carrier that will support the Droid phone on its network when the phone rolls out in November, is taking a deliberately provocative tack, a novel advertising approach that snarkily emphasizes the shortcomings of the competition without offering details of what makes Droid better than that competition.

It’s a risky ad strategy that raises the stakes — and the expectations — for the Droid phone, which Verizon developed with Google (whose Android 2.0 operating system is the brains inside) and Motorola (which manufactures the phone).

The Droid project’s advertising seems to be an attempt to steal a march on Apple’s storied merchandizing mystery. There’s an undeniable techie edge to the whole rollout. “Input your e-mail address and Droid will notify you when compromise has been deactivated,” the Droid Web site teases ominously. On the homepage, there’s also what appears to be a countdown clock, with numbers represented by a high-tech cuneiform, apparently ticking down to November.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s an intriguing, counter-intuitive way to roll out what some have predicted (and many have hoped) will be the successful successor to the iPhone. The early buzz in the mainstream media has been positive.

“Make no mistake, this is Android's flagship product, and the first phone that will pose a significant threat to Apple's iPhone,” said Michael Arrington of The Washington Post in a story headlined “Verizon Droid is The Real Deal.”

“The Doid poses a different and more significant challenge to the iPhone than any other phone to date,” Arrington writes in a Sunday story in The Post online. “The Palm Pre could have been that challenger, but it lacked the Verizon network, and users were unimpressed with the hardware. According to people who've handled the device, the Droid is the most sophisticated mobile device to hit the market to date from a hardware standpoint. When you combine that with the Verizon network, you've got something that is most definitely a challenger to the Jesus phone. …Things are about to get very, very interesting.”

Some techies agree. Tony, commenting on the news in Boy Genius Report, positively gushed: “The long-awaited ‘iPhone killer’ has finally arrived. It has the open OS of the G1, the speed of an iPhone 3GS, and “the nation’s most reliable wireless network.” Can you hear me now?

“This will be the phone that will make Android a mainstream OS, not a just a niche product for geeks.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But others in the technocognoscenti ain’t so sure just yet. Matthew_maurice, writing on the Mashable Web site, noted: “I guess if you have a [F]lash and constantly running apps you'll need a replaceable battery. Everyone will carry one or two in their pockets at all times for when their Droid goes dead after an hour. Plus, I'm sure the line of people who can't wait to run 'widgets' will reach around the block at Verizon stores everywhere.”

Suezanne, commenting at Mashable: “I hope the device is better than the ad.”

It’s still to be seen how this plays out, but the Droid is ably positioning itself to challenge the hierophants of the Apple religion.

And wouldn’t it be something if, 25 years after the “1984” ad that wedded the Macintosh to the popular consciousness, a new and plucky hammer-thrower emerged to take on the Big Brother of … Apple? Turnabout’s fair play. We’ll find out whether the terrain on the wireless battlefield has changed next month.
Image credits: Droid logo: Lucasfilm Ltd. Droid homepage snapshot: © 2009 Verizon. Droid image: via

Friday, October 16, 2009

Stopping the Rush

Ladies and gentlemen, the real ego has landed. That huge sigh you heard yesterday came from a hundred conscientious football free agents who don’t have to limit their professional options on ethical grounds, and a million football fans who won’t have to hold their noses when the St. Louis Rams take the field (at least more than usual).

On Thursday, conservative radio firebrand and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh was denied participation in any possible sale of the Rams, a National Football League franchise (5-31 since 2007) thought to be on the block.

A spirited opposition — one that started within the NFL itself, spread to the blogosphere and ultimately found voice with Sharpton & Jackson — have helped scuttle plans for Limbaugh to join the investor group considering a bid for the team, which Forbes says is worth north of $900 million.

The reason, of course, has everything to do with Limbaugh’s long and controversial history of racially and ethnically insensitive remarks on the air. Limbaugh has denied making such inflammatory statements, and did so again on Thursday, fulminating about how the investor group’s decision to exclude Limbaugh from participation was the work of President Obama and the Democratic Party (in league with Satan, of course).

◊ ◊ ◊

Limbaugh said he believed his ouster from the Rams sale was an example of “Obama's America on full display.” He claimed he was a victim of “misreporting, lying, repeating the lies while also saying 'Limbaugh denies,' repeating the made-up quotes, the blind hatred.”

“Believe me, the hatred that exists in this is found in the sportswriter community, it's found in the news business, it's found in the race hustler business,” Limbaugh said.

Check your watch. He should be blaming Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, too, right about now.

For all Limbaugh’s bluster, though, this fall from grace was entirely his own. Media Matters for America has posted an exhaustive, and breathtaking collection of Limbaugh’s race-baiting diatribes going back more than two years.

From fueling the malignant fire of the birther movement (“God does not have a birth certificate. Neither does Obama”) to nasty ad hominem attacks on President Obama; from maligning black Americans as lazy beneficiaries of government paternalism to impugning the reputation of the players in the very league he tried to join (“The NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without weapons”), Limbaugh has a disturbing reputation that handsomely preceded him into the boardroom where it was decided his participation in any purchase of the St. Louis Rams was no longer required.

◊ ◊ ◊

The right-wing media machine was furious on Rush’s behalf. Conservative extremist attack-dog author Anne Coulter said on Fox: “"the NFL is very easily spooked by crazy left-wing hoaxes."

“What happened here, and is happening elsewhere in American life, is that Mr. Limbaugh's outspoken political conservatism is being deemed sufficient reason to ostracize him from polite society.” The Wall Street Journal said in an op-ed.

On MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” conservative analyst and apologist Pat Buchanan took up Limbaugh’s charge that it was all somehow orchestrated by the White House, a diabolus ex machina express from Washington.

Buchanan called Limbaugh’s dismissal “shabby, vindictive, petty. Chris, you and I have made controversial statements, we made statements to regret and apologize for.

“But in this case to blacklist an individual like they do out in Hollywood because they thought they were Communist that cost them their jobs because of something they said … Those folks did terrible things. To do this to Rush Limbaugh. You deny a man a position like that, this is blacklisting in my judgment.

“It's contemptible. Liberals used to condemn it.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But Al Sharpton, also on “Hardball,” wasn’t buying it Thursday. Sharpton, who when necessary works the moral-suasion reflex of the national central nervous system like nobody’s business, took Buchanan and Limbaugh to task for ascribing grim political overtones to what, apparently, was purely a business decision (business decisions often being made as much for reasons of public relations as for reasons of the bottom line).

“I think that if you want to be an NFL owner, you have to be accountable for what you say about those that generate the money in that league,” Sharpton said. “Limbaugh, who has made a career out of holding people accountable, had to be accountable to his own statements, and I think he ultimately was.”

“Let's remember here, Chris, his name was withdrawn by those that submitted his name. The NFL, nobody disqualified him. They withdrew his name. So he can have all of these grandiose ideas of a conspiracy. What sacked him was the people that brought him to the party withdrew him from the party.

“And I think that all of these other implications really don't deal with the fact that the people that thought he was an asset began to think he was a liability.

“He's trying now to make this like this is some wounding of American conservativism. He was rejected by his own partners ultimately.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But shed no tears for the Rushster. With an unprecedented eight-year radio contract worth about $400 million, and merchandising, book sales, speaking engagements and other ancillary income worth millions more, Rush Limbaugh Inc. will remain a solvent enterprise. For him, part ownership of an NFL team would have been little more than an affectation, like a pinky ring.

And maybe he should count his lucky stars. It’s not a good idea to try to catch a falling knife: The St. Louis Rams lost again on Sunday, mugged by the Minnesota Vikings 38-10. The team that was his heart’s desire is 0-5 for the season. But because of that desire, and the vote of confidence in the team it signaled, it’s a safe bet the Rams might save a space for him on the sidelines. Maybe.

That’ll have to do. It’s as close to the owner’s box as he’s ever going to get.
Image credits: Limbaugh: Via Fox News. Sharpton: Still from MSNBC's "Hardball." Rams logo: St. Louis Rams.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Extreme makeover, online edition

Much that’s frustrating, and wrong, about the Republican Party vis-à-vis blacks and minorities is embodied in the newly designed Web site, which launched on Tuesday. It’s a visually arresting bid for big-tent outreach, and one that embodies a contradiction: In its design and much of its content, the new embraces a diversity and inclusion that’s so far eluded the party itself.

Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele told The Associated Press that “takes advantage of various online tools to connect Republicans and concerned Americans across the country to each other and party leaders, creating a larger, more informed, more organized, and more energized Republican community.”

It’s a given, of course, that in a post-Obama campaign world, such a site pursues a younger demographic:, still in beta (development) stage, has the trappings of cultural immediacy, down with YouTube and Twitter, Facebook and Flicker. The site includes several blogs, including one written by Steele (his was launched with the title “What Up?”; someone decided to change the name — to “Change the Game”).

The site boasts a bold, red-dominant color scheme and leaner, more elegant graphics. And the new tries to take a fresh direction in the graphic depictions of party identity. In the navigation bar on the site pages, a mosaic of faces greets site visitors, faces that are male, female, brown and black displayed at random — each face positioned in place of the “O” in “GOP.”

Visually, it’s striking and high-impact. And interestingly, the party’s traditional fan base isn’t readily apparent. The Village Voice noted: “We sat here clicking away for a good long time and the white-male-to-other ratio of the navbar imagery was about 1-to-6. It's still in beta, of course; we can't wait to hear about the focus groups.”

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s more striking is the site’s sections on “Heroes” and “Accomplishments,” with their examples of selective, and revisionist, history.

In Heroes, a photo spread of Republican party favorites includes Pinckney Pinchback, Louisiana’s (and the nation’s) first black governor; Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave turned orator and presidential adviser; and Jackie Robinson, trailblazer in the major leagues.

But while he did campaign for Richard Nixon in 1960 and Nelson Rockefeller in 1964, Robinson more or less abandoned the Republican Party later in 1964, after the GOP convention in San Francisco. In his autobiography, he observed that “[a] new breed of Republicans had taken over the GOP. As I watched this steamroller operation … I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany.”

Robinson ultimately supported Democrat Lyndon Johnson for the presidency in 1964, and Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968. All in all, Robinson is a curious choice for a place in a Web site of and for Republican loyalists.

◊ ◊ ◊

In “Accomplishments,” an illustrated timeline recounts Republican political, social and governmental triumphs between 1860 and 2004: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; the 14th and 15th Amendments, guaranteeing equal protection and the right to vote; the charter for establishment of Howard University; and the first black, Hispanic and Asian American senators in the nation’s history.

But the GOP’s role in other more recent historical events are massaged or omitted. The timeline says that in 1940, the RNC approved a campaign position calling for racial integration of the armed forces. “Not until 1948 did President Truman finally comply with the Republicans' demands for racial justice in the U.S. military,” the timeline says.

But Truman was hardly reluctant about civil rights. In 1947, the Truman administration released a report detailing a proposed agenda of civil rights reforms. In early 1948 he submitted to Congress proposed legislation creating federal agencies tasked with ensuring equal opportunity in employment and voting rights. In July of that year Truman signed Executive Order 9981, officially integrating the U.S. armed forces, and doing independent of “Republicans’ demands.” notes that the author of the legendary 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education was Chief Justice Earl Warren, a Republican. All props to Justice Warren, but Thurgood Marshall, the one who took point in doing the legal legwork that made Brown possible, was a black Democrat.

And curiously, it jumps right from 1957 (President Eisenhower’s move to integrate Little Rock High) to 1972 (Nixon goes to China) without stopping in 1968. But it’d be too much to expect this site to enshrine the year of President Nixon’s Southern strategy, a willfully divisive gambit to wed the GOP to the Southern states with a cynical “states rights” appeal to racial biases — a strategy that laid the foundation for the Republican Party of today.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s much to recommend in the new Visually it’s a spirited makeover, one that reflects an apparently principled, sometimes ham-fisted and certainly overdue attempt to reach outside its demographic comfort zone. But there’s a defensiveness to its content, which fails to address the reasons for the disconnect between the party’s admirable 19th-century history and its angry, confrontational state of affairs in the 21st century.

From ill-conceived Tea Bag Day protests to town-hall shoutdowns of conservatives by conservatives, to race-tinged ad hominem attacks on President Obama, the behavior of many of today’s Republicans and their enablers puts the lie to much of the all-inclusive message of

You have to hope that, like its new Web site, the Republican Party is still in the development stage, too.
Image credits: President Truman: Public domain.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Rush's hour

Not content with his work on the radio providing conservative extremists with validation of certain misshapen ideas about this country, its people and its leaders — or giving those extremists new ideas they hadn’t yet thought of — airwaves windbag and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh is apparently making a play to broaden his profile and his portfolio.

The sports channels and message boards were on fire last week over talk of a possible sale of the St. Louis Rams football organization to St. Louis Blues hockey franchise owner Dave Checketts and … Rush Limbaugh. The talk-radio action figure announced the possible deal on Oct. 6. A half-dozen other bidders are also said to be in the mix.

Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rodriguez, the children of former Rams owner Georgia Frontiere, inherited 60 percent of the Rams when Frontiere died in January 2008. The team’s value is estimated by Forbes magazine at $929 million.

It isn’t clear yet if Checketts and Limbaugh plan to pursue total ownership, or just the majority stake held by the family.

The National Football League Players Union isn’t waiting around to find out. The union has formally objected to Limbaugh as part of any ownership deal, alluding to how past commentaries from the incendiary Rushmeister have had inflammatory, and even racist, overtones. (Especially that time when he was a football commentator for ESPN. That brief foray into sports reporting ended in 2003, after Limbaugh said that black Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated because the “media wants black quarterbacks to do well.”)

◊ ◊ ◊

ESPN reported that DeMaurice Smith, the players’ association director, sent an e-mail to the association's executive committee: "I've spoken to the [NFL] Commissioner [Roger Goodell] and I understand that this ownership consideration is in the early stages. But sport in America is at its best when it unifies, gives all of us reason to cheer, and when it transcends. Our sport does exactly that when it overcomes division and rejects discrimination and hatred."

Smith is a master of verbal diplomacy. In light of Limbaugh’s previous statements, the union is no doubt dismayed at the prospect of working for any organization that could even remotely be construed as Mr. Limbaugh’s plantation.

It’s all part of what seems to be a reinvention of Rush Limbaugh. Recent sightings of the talk-radio Doberman have revealed a slimmer Rush, the once-portly commentator on a diet that’s made him almost runway svelte.

And Nutrisystem Rush has apparently decided that speaking with the mainstream media can help him disprove a commonly held belief: that he’s the spiritual leader of the Republican Party.

◊ ◊ ◊

In an interview with NBC’s Jamie Gangel, to be broadcast Tuesday and Wednesday on the “Today” show, Limbaugh disowned any status as the Richelieu of the GOP, even as he offered his own prescription for what the Party of No needs to win.

“These people think that they can discredit the Republican Party by making me the head of it,” he said. ““I am not the leader of the Republican Party; don't wanna be the leader of the Republican Party,” “It’s silly for them to keep talking about how I’m the leader of anything.”

In a shot at Arizona Sen. John McCain’s failed presidential bid, Limbaugh disavowed any responsibility for the GOP being “shellacked” in November. “I couldn’t hurt him any more than he hurt himself,” Limbaugh said. “He’s right now trying to remake the Republican Party …”

“The Republican Party is not the party of liberal, independent moderates,” Limbaugh said, all but foaming at the mouth. “The Republican Party wins when it is unabashedly conservative. And it’s going to continue to lose until it realizes that.”

◊ ◊ ◊

For all its air of challenge, Limbaugh’s assessment is essentially a call for the Republicans to keep doing what they’ve been doing: doubling down on their regional, isolationist identity at the expense of raising the favorables for the party among the broad cross-section of people in an America growing more ethnically and attitudinally diverse every day.

Rush’s hissy fit with McCain is a barometer of the GOP’s bigger problem: it’s not the usual battles with the Democrats, it’s the emerging and potentially ruinous intra-party skirmishes that signal a party at war with itself. From its arm’s-length toleration of the gay Log Cabin Republicans to the defection of Sen. Arlen Specter from its ranks earlier this year, to the statement by GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham that conservative champion and loose cannon Glenn Beck is “aligned with cynicism,” the Republican Party is in an unprecedented existential wilderness.

Unabashed conservatism is all the Republicans have to sell right now, and it ain’t nearly enough. Before championing any successful campaign or candidate, the Republicans are challenged by the need for an identity as something more than being the minders of the cultural-values tripwire used to separate the GOP from everyone else — an identity that accepts the very people it’s bent on locking out. Winning in 2012, or any other year, should be the last of its objectives.

If the Checketts/Limbaugh deal for the Rams goes down, it’ll call to mind a rule that resonates as much in politics as in pro football.

It’s as true for a losing NFL team (5-31 since 2007) as it is for a hapless political party in self-inflicted turmoil: You can’t win the Super Bowl without a playbook.
Image credits: Limbaugh: Still from "Today" show, NBC. Rams logo: © 2009 St. Louis Rams.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Obama wins Nobel Prize for Climate Change

In 2007 former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in a variety of environmental initiatives in the service of world peace, climate change among them.

On Friday the Nobel Committee awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama for another kind of climate change: officially, “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

But working through the lofty decorous language, Obama won for, among other things, changing the tone of the American interaction with the world, a tone cemented in the contentious eight years of the Bush administration. This prize was awarded for Obama’s applied research into geopolitical climate change, and the ways that a new American administration can usher in a fresh wind felt around the world.

◊ ◊ ◊

The news caught the White House by surprise. “I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee,” he said in the Rose Garden. “I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.”

No longer had the prize been announced than the right-wing hate machine was firing on all cylinder.

“"The real question Americans are asking is, 'What has President Obama actually accomplished?'" reads a statement from Michael Steele, head of the Republican National Committee. "It is unfortunate that the president's star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights. One thing is certain -- President Obama won't be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action."

More problematic and less spinnable for the GOP is the little problem of who they’re siding with in its latest display of Obama hate:

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki called the prize "hasty and too early."

"The appropriate time for awarding such a prize is when foreign military forces leave Iraq and Afghanistan and when one stands by the rights of the oppressed Palestinian people," the semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted Mottaki as saying.

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s even more of an optics problem for the conservatives is that Iran and Hamas at least came down on principle. Their opposition to his winning the prize was at least based on a nuanced rationale, largely staying away from the ad hominem attacks of the conservatives in the U.S.

"Obama isn't the first American president to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but he's the first to win it without having accomplished anything," wrote John Miller, of the National Review. "Obama's award is simply the projection of wishful thinking."

“I think that everybody is laughing," talk-radio windbag and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh said on the air. "Our president is a worldwide joke. Folks, do you realize something has happened here that we all agree with the Taliban and Iran about and that is he doesn't deserve the award. Now that's hilarious, that I'm on the same side of something that the Taliban, and that we all are on the same side as the Taliban.”

“I predict right now that he will find a way to basically turn it down,” Time Magazine's Mark Halperin said on the MSNBC “Morning Joe” program. “I think he is going to say, ‘I share this with the world’ or whatever. I don't think he'll embrace this. Because there is no upside.”

“The damage is done,” “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski said.

Halperin and Brzezinski are, of course, out of their minds. The Nobel Peace Prize burnishes the global reputation of the recipient nation; rejecting it in general — and especially in the case of the United States — sends a signal of closed-mindedness that would do greatly more harm than good. You don’t turn down the Nobel Prize. It’s not a return-to-sender moment. This isn’t something you bought at T.J. Maxx that didn’t fit right when you tried it on at home.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Democratic National Committee — in one of the first broadsides of a new and more aggressive media strategy — responded to Limbaugh with its own sharp-elbowed statement.

“The Republican Party has thrown in its lot with the terrorists -- the Taliban and Hamas this morning -- in criticizing the President for receiving the Nobel Peace prize,” wrote DNC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse.

“Republicans cheered when America failed to land the Olympics and now they are criticizing the President of the United States for receiving the Nobel Peace prize -- an award he did not seek but that is nonetheless an honor in which every American can take great pride -- unless of course you are the Republican Party. The 2009 version of the Republican Party has no boundaries, has no shame and has proved that they will put politics above patriotism at every turn.”

Others got it – understood the recognition of the ways symbolism trumps substance — the ways symbolism sometimes is substance.

In Vienna, the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Obama has already provided outstanding leadership in efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation.

"In less than a year in office, he has transformed the way we look at ourselves and the world we live in and rekindled hope for a world at peace with itself," ElBaradei told The Associated Press.

“He has shown an unshakable commitment to diplomacy, mutual respect and dialogue as the best means of resolving conflicts. He has reached out across divides and made clear that he sees the world as one human family, regardless of religion, race or ethnicity,” ElBaradei said.

◊ ◊ ◊

"President Obama embodies the new spirit of dialogue and engagement on the world's biggest problems: climate change, nuclear disarmament and a wide range of peace and security challenges," said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Oslo sent a message with this announcement, an inconvenient truth at odds with those who’ve said that proven results should be the litmus test for status as a Nobel laureate:

There are many ways to achieve something “concrete,” something “tangible.” The first of these is to set the table for discussion, to establish the atmosphere for outreach, to clear the air of isolationist thinking — and the isolationist policies that follow in their wake. In an era of obfuscation and conflict, the pursuit of clarity and dialogue is itself a revolutionary act.
Image credit: Obama: Still from NBC News. ElBaradei: IAEA.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Year 9, day 1

President Obama is expected to announce, possibly this week, a decision on whether to commit more U.S. forces to Afghanistan as requested. The Afghan War started its ninth year today. After eight full years, 791 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan since the invasion began on Oct. 7, 2001.

As Obama weighs his options for Year 9 of the conflict, various figures in Congress, his own commander and others in the military have recently tried to box the president into the reflexive obligation of civilian leadership to accept the counsel of the military at face value — to accept their request for 40,000 more troops to the region.

Obama faces what will be his most immediately heavy foreign-policy decision, one he’s making with a deliberateness that is, or sometimes appears to be, bordering precariously on indecision.

Whatever he decides, the president and his advisers will hopefully consider the lessons of CBS News foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan, whose “Afghanistan: The Road Ahead” has been airing this week on the “CBS Evening News.”

Logan distilled the essence of the series’ findings last night on “The Colbert Report.” Her chilling journalistic assessment is one in which the true sum of all fears may be about to be realized: the militaristic union of the Taliban extremists and the al-Qaida network in Afghanistan, a merger of terroristic equals, a frightening joint venture situated in and near a fractious nation with nuclear capability.

“In Afghanistan, al-Qaida is so strong. It is the spiritual home of al-Qaida. It is the center … They’re not out of Afghanistan. They’re in Afghanistan and they’re also in Pakistan. And more importantly, what we’re ignoring in Afghanistan is that al-Qaida and the Taliban, they now have the same goal. They may be different entities and you can maybe list 10 different things about them, but essentially they want the same thing. They want the United States out of Afghanistan, they want to see the U.S. fail all over the world … they’re fighting together.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama’s decision will come after one of the boldest attacks on U.S. forces in a year. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed Oct. 3 when two American bases were attacked by Taliban insurgents. It also comes after Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, admitted that the way forward there called for new thinking:

“We must focus our resources and prioritize in the areas where then population is most threatened. We don’t have enough forces to do everything everywhere at once.”

The fact in that last sentence isn’t likely to be changed by a rapid infusion of American boots on the ground — an attempt to replicate the so-called surge strategy that worked to dramatic effect in Iraq.

Hopefully, Obama will call for an Afghanistan strategy that makes more use of a variety of human and technological assets: beefed-up Special Forces operations; more trainers to assist with development of the Afghan military; continued Predator strikes on selected targets (and better intelligence to prevent, or certainly reduce, attacks on innocent civilians); deeper “hearts and minds” outreach into the civilian population; more recruitment of Afghan Americans into homeland security, foreign service, intelligence and inter-cultural agencies; and a more concerted diplomatic effort at making the Kabul government less accountable to the customs and tribalisms of the past and more accountable to its people and their needs here and now.

A broader use of these components in the U.S. military/diplomatic palette could make a “surge” of combat forces unnecessary. In fact, as the noncombatant and diplomatic dimensions of this strategy take hold and yield results, a gradual drawdown of ground troops should be possible (a powerful morale builder for the military and the nation).

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s required isn’t policy by reflex. After a meeting in the White House on Tuesday (one that a WH official called “vociferous”), Arizona Sen. John McCain held a spot news conference right outside. “Gen. McChrystal’s analysis is not only correct, but should be employed as quickly as possible,” he said.

Which is exactly what you’d expect from an old Cold Warrior. And what you’d expect from anyone with military background — that send-me attitude, that gung-ho certainty there’s no problem that can’t be fixed with more boots on the ground. But more U.S. forces in country, thrust more or less immediately into a combat role, means more targets for local animosity, more of a domestic opposition to continuing a war Obama inherited. And more days like last weekend.

If Logan’s CBS report is accurate, a Taliban-al-Qaida tie-up in Afghanistan increases the U.S. challenge there by orders of magnitude. A Taliban-al-Qaida alliance in Afghanistan and a nuclear-armed Pakistan may be the real sum of all fears. But flooding the zone with American forces will not necessarily achieve a favorable result, and certainly nothing that could remotely be called “victory,” a word whose definition in the context of the Afghan War gets more meaningless every day.

◊ ◊ ◊

Rather than the rote reliance on swarms of combat forces, the greater development and use of a multifaceted strategy keeps our enemies off guard, uncertain about which of these methods, or which combination of them, U.S. forces will deploy next, or most prominently. This multifaceted approach would combine ground forces with increased use of other assets acknowledges the growing discontent of the American people, who have indicated their opposition to further escalating the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, and their desire to see U.S. forces out.

And when fully and confidently implemented, a multiple-option strategy establishes the president’s bona fides as a commander-in-chief who will lock step with the generals, or not lock step with them, on a case-by-case, conflict-by-conflict basis — independent of the historical expectation of the president as nothing more than a military rubber stamp.

“Today, war is too important to be left to politicians,” said Gen. Jack D. Ripper, the base commander in “Dr. Strangelove,” renouncing Clemenceau. “They have neither the time, the training nor the inclination for strategic thought.”

Actually, General, uh, they do. The better politicians always have. One of them is president now.

◊ ◊ ◊

We know this is a careful man. You don’t have to go back that far in the Obama administration’s history to see that played out.

In March, Obama held a news conference in the East Room of the White House, a conference to help clear the air on matters related to the AIG bailout. The 'Vox blogged:
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.”

On the one hand, it’s nice to know someone in the White House has that much on the ball about not making intemperate statements, about not shooting from the hip. Eight years of that crap was enough. With everything at stake, it’s a relief, or it should be, that the president is willing to take more than a few days before committing to a course that could change the national military posture, its fortune and its psyche for years to come.

On the other hand, there’s now a need for bold action like some variation on the multifeatured approach outlined in broad strokes above. The presidency of the man who likes to know what he’s talking about before he speaks, and much of his foreign policy credibility, may rest on his ability to do what he’s done before — think outside the box — and what he’s never done at this scale before: refuse to be forced into having no options — refuse to be painted into the corner that could become a trapdoor under his feet.
Image credits: U.S. Afghan toll graph: Wall Street Journal. Lara Logan: Still from CBS News. McChrystal: US Army (public domain). McCain: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden): From "Dr. Strangelove," © 1964 Columbia Pictures. U.S. helicopters inbound, Afghanistan: Public domain.

The unretouchables: White House on the media offensive

“You want to know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way!"

from “The Untouchables,” screenplay by David Mamet

A snippet of dialogue from a Brian De Palma movie more than 20 years old has not-so-quietly become the centerpiece for a new Obama administration philosophy for dealing with the media. Having decided that waiting for the conservative media to be embarrassed by its pattern of distortion and outright lies was a waste of time, the White House in recent days has announced a new strategy.

No more rope-a-dope. Rather than lay back ignoring falsehoods and waiting for the attackers to exhaust themselves, the new White House plan is to challenge them early and often, to challenge conservative efforts to retouch administration players and redefine policy, and to do it before those efforts are fully developed.’s Michael Scherer reported on the new approach today:

“[R]ather than just giving reporters ammunition to ‘fact-check’ Obama's many critics, the White House decided it would become a player, issuing biting attacks on those pundits, politicians and outlets that make what the White House believes to be misleading or simply false claims, like the assertion that health-care reform would establish new ‘sex clinics’ in schools.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs put it best for Time: “The best analogy is probably baseball. The only way to get somebody to stop crowding the plate is to throw a fastball at them. They move.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama, a fan of movies and pop culture, borrowed from Mamet’s line and De Palma’s film in June 2008, speaking in Philadelphia on the campaign trail. “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” Obama said of his opponents. “Because from what I understand, folks in Philly like a good brawl. I’ve seen Eagles fans.”

Some in the mainstream press have expressed concern that Obama’s cri de guerre is meant to include everyone, and they needn’t worry. This probably wasn’t a gauntlet throwdown for those in the punditburo whose opposition to Obama policies is based more on bedrock principles than lunatic partisanship.

It shouldn’t be much of an issue for The New York Times, Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, nor one for the major electronic media (the alphabet networks and their news Web sites), and it’s certainly not a problem for the blogressives in the media who helped put Obama over the top in November.

This was clearly a shot at the more reality-challenged: Fox News loose cannons like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly; right-wing news Web sites like Newsmax and Drudge Report; and such madcap free agents as talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh.

It won’t likely change anything in terms of how they do what they do. But it will make clear that the Zen-master aspect of the Obama political identity isn’t above getting back into the street when the need be. The new Obama media initiative is a bid to send a signal, clear and unmistakable, like a two-by-four upside the head.

White House to right-wing media: Can you hear me now?
Image credit: Untouchables theatrical poster: © 1987 Paramount PIctures. Fox News logo: © 2009 Fox News Channel.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Olympics Loss: Advantage Obama?

The schadenfreude visited upon President Obama after the United States was eliminated from consideration for the 2016 Olympic Games was a sadly astonishing thing. From almost the moment Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Games, the long knives in the conservative media were out in force.

The staff of the Weekly Standard is said to have erupted in cheers; the same thing happened at a meeting of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity when Chicago’s bid to host the Games went down to defeat.

In our culture’s mad embrace of Victory at All Costs, the loss by the United States has been expressed as a personal loss to the president, a defeat that diminishes his brand and that of the nation. Obama had skin in the game; he lived in and was deeply inspired by Chicago; the city was the hothouse where his talent for community organizing flourished; much of his staff are former residents of the Windy City. Losing the bid for the Games had to sting.

But in ways that haven’t fully evolved yet, the U.S. loss in its bid for the 2016 Games may be one of the best things that could happen to Obama.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s no escaping the populist power of something the president said after Rio won the Games. “I believe it’s always a worthwhile endeavor to promote and boost the United States of America,” he said. Right there, and in ways his critics (flag lapel pins in place) don’t understand or won’t acknowledge, the president burnished his patriotic street cred.

That credo, reflecting his efforts in Copenhagen on behalf of this country, speals for itself. It reflects a nationalistic pride that will be hard for conservatives and extremists to spin into something alien and unwelcome.

It’s hard to imagine how the Republicans could have outflanked themselves on patriotism; that used to be their stock in trade, their brand-name product. But right now, as they cheer a national defeat, the Republicans arrayed against Obama in Congress and the right-wing media and elsewhere look downright un-American by comparison.

“Man oh man oh man, the worst day of Obama’s presidency,” cackled talk-radio windbag Rush Limbaugh. “Folks, the ego has landed!” CNN’s Glenn Beck broke the news to his radio listeners, calling it “so sweeet!”

Never mind the boost a win for Chicago would have meant for jobs, infrastructure repair, the construction industry and the overall state economy. Never mind the Zogby poll that found that 84 percent of Americans supported the Chicago bid. The conservative talking points were enough: Obama went down in flames. It’s no wonder the GOP is battling a growing popular narrative that it’s the Party of No. That narrative of Republican obstructionism may be hard to conveniently overcome next year.

◊ ◊ ◊

Ironically enough, the Olympics loss works for Obama in a counter-intuitive way: it reveals that human side of a major world leader, the major world leader, someone who can’t always move mountains despite his best efforts. There’s a humanizing aspect to defeat, one we don’t look at often in a culture that prides itself on winning.

The president knows there’s no shame in making the concerted, principled effort on behalf of something bigger than oneself. It’s not a matter of pity or a maudlin embrace of the “lovable loser.” It’s a recognition that in any field of competition, there are more of the defeated than there are the victorious. The great sportswriter Roger Kahn once observed: “There’s more Met than Yankee in all of us.”

President Obama (a White Sox fan) understands that. So do the millions of everyday people who elected him last year, and the 84 percent of Americans who supported him last week.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Anne Frank dreams at the window

It’s just six short seconds distilled from the events of 68 years ago, and it’s impossible to look at without pondering, in tears, the what-might-have-been for a dreamer standing at a window in wartime Amsterdam.

The Anne Frank House museum recently circulated via YouTube a video that has been apparently available to visitors to the Anne Frank Huis, once the home of Anne Frank and her family, who hid from the Nazis for two years before being betrayed by friends, collected by the Gestapo, and sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Her collection of writings from that period in hiding — “The Diary of Anne Frank” — began as the musings and dreams of a young girl, trying to make sense of life during wartime. Her book has become perhaps the signature populist document of the effects of World War II, and an indelible testament to the power of optimism and the persistence of the human spirit.

In the YouTube video, based on film shot on July 22, 1941, a man and woman, neighbors who apparently just married, descend a staircase on their way to a waiting car. Within moments, the bride and groom are carried away to their honeymoon.

But the seconds in between reveal another story. The camera cuts away to one of the upper stories in the building, where a young dark-haired girl, Anne Frank, stands leaning on a windowsill in freedom before the roof of her world fell in: before she was forced into hiding in another location with her family on July 6, 1942; before they were arrested by the Gestapo on Aug. 4, 1944; before Annelies Marie Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in March 1945.

For six seconds we’re witness to a dreamer, one who just turned 12 years old the month before. What was she thinking that clear summer day? Was she dreaming of going to Hollywood and living a starlet’s life? When she saw the wedding party below, did she make her own secret plans for a wedding one day?

We can never know. But we can hold on to these images and revel in how they help to demystify our sense of who Anne Frank was. The sudden randomness of her appearance in this footage, her presence at an anonymizing distance, and her just-as-sudden disappearance are a soundless evidence of both the bigness and the smallness of our lives — how those people we’ve come to revere, come to hold as somehow larger than life, are symbolic of nothing but life. Life itself.

The video has apparently been around for a while; it’s reportedly been included in several documentaries going back to at least the 1970’s. But circulating it more widely in the YouTube era means that, for many, it’s as profound a discovery today as it has been for countless others in an earlier time. Those six heartbreaking seconds from more than 68 years ago are as vital, as needed now as the diary she started writing in 1942.

And meantime, of course, she won’t be forgotten. A virtual, online museum will be launched next April, as part of the 50th anniversary of the museum. And director-screenwriter-playwright David Mamet is said to be working on a script on the life of Anne Frank.

She would no doubt laugh at that: She got to Hollywood after all, but as a star brighter than any one on the boulevard — a star not on the pavement … a star in her rightful place.
Image credits: Anne Frank top: Still from the video. Anne Frank bottom:
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...