Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Douglass-Lincoln debates (Excerpted from PopMatters)

Their lives were defined by what they opposed as much as by what they supported; they were connected in only the most general terms, shaped by slavery and imprisoned in the amber of our common assumptions.

Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln have been for generations two of the accessible saints of the American iconography. For black Americans, Douglass has been held high as the defining pre-civil rights era example of speaking truth to power. For Americans generally, Lincoln remains the president most responsible for holding a fractious nation together.

In recent years, Lincoln biographies from Doris Kearns Goodwin, James M. McPherson, and Ronald C. White, among others, have taken the wraps off old depictions of Lincoln, their nuanced investigations revealing fresh layers to the complex, driven, conflicted man who would become the 16th President of the United States. Readers of historical nonfiction haven’t been so lucky with biographies of Douglass, the runaway slave who transformed himself into a publisher, activist, and one of the most commanding orators of the American 19th century.

Douglass biographies have been fewer and farther between, and inevitably marginalized, to some degree, on the lower and distant shelves of the bookstore of the national narrative (with the other black studies books) in a kind of de libris historical segregation. The two figures are connected by slavery, the ‘‘peculiar institution’’ that would define them both. It makes sense that that institution should unite them literarily.

John Stauffer’s Giants brilliantly addresses this absence with an eloquent, muscular, compassionate, thoroughly readable conflation of two singular American lives, a biography of two intersecting lives whose grappling with the evil of slavery created a bond uncommon in American history, and almost as rare in American literature. ...

Read the rest at PopMatters

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tiger, Tiger, burning

Just when you think the last shoe’s dropped in the Tiger Woods debacle, there’s another major sponsor heard from. Today, one week after Tiger Woods went before the cameras in his first appearance since his toweringly compartmentalized life exploded last Thanksgiving, Gatorade officially dropped Woods as a spokesman for its line of electrolyte replacement beverages.

“We no longer see a role for Tiger in our marketing efforts and have ended our relationship," a Gatorade spokeswoman said, according to The Associated Press. "We wish him all the best."

John_spray tweeted later in the day: “It woulda been weird to hear him say their slogan, "Is It In You?"

The Gatorade defection and its fallout were what the world’s greatest golfer must surely hope is the endgame to a sordid period and, sure as hell, the sand trap of his biography. But some have said that with last Friday’s mea culpa, he may have made things worse. Which raises the question of what more he’s expected to do relative to other misbehavers in the public square.

Tiger’s phenomenal success in the world of golf, and his unprecedented reach into the sport’s folklore as an African American, has always made him a target and the object of ridicule in some corners. For black Americans, his willingness to equate his black heritage with the other ancestries that form his DNA has always been a sore spot, for whatever emotional reason. And for others, for Americans in general, the behind-the-hand attitude toward Tiger was just the boilerplate schadenfreude that the small-minded regularly impose on those more talented than they are.

So people had the long knives out when he stepped to the podium and apologized, again.
“I want to say to each of you, simply and directly, I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behavior I engaged in.

I know people want to find out how I could be so selfish and so foolish. People want to know how I could have done these things to my wife, Elin, and to my children. And while I have always tried to be a private person, there are some things I want to say.

Elin and I have started the process of discussing the damage caused by my behavior. As Elin pointed out to me, my real apology to her will not come in the form of words; it will come from my behavior over time. We have a lot to discuss; however, what we say to each other will remain between the two of us.

I am also aware of the pain my behavior has caused to those of you in this room. I have let you down, and I have let down my fans. For many of you, especially my friends, my behavior has been a personal disappointment. To those of you who work for me, I have let you down personally and professionally. ...

“I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did is not acceptable, and I am the only person to blame.

“I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in. I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn't have to go far to find them.

“I was wrong. I was foolish. I don't get to play by different rules. The same boundaries that apply to everyone apply to me.”
He was nervous, he was clipped, he was wooden; in a way, regardless of what he said, you can see why Gatorade cut him loose; it was the way he said it, furtive and edgy, eyes not focused, inner turmoil still obvious. It’s been reported that Tiger spoke with President Obama before his statement. If the president offered Tiger any talking points about talking, the golfer didn’t take his advice.

Some of the fallout has been pretty much predictable.

“I’ll be holding a press conference later today to express my regret at not having sex with many, many beautiful women,” tweeted Michael Ian Black.

“Today is the birthday of Copernicus. The first man to prove the world does not revolve round Tiger Woods. Happy Birthday Copey,” tweeted twitwit Craig Ferguson.

Jimmy Kimmel was merciless on ABC late-night, doing a takeoff on Tiger’s situation with a white tiger apologizing for eating Roy (of Siegfried & Roy).

Joslyn James, one of Tiger’s mistresses, sat crying shortly after watching Tiger speak, demanding that Tiger should personally apologize to her. Gloria Allred’s handkerchief slowly enters frame.

What’s more than a little disturbing at this point is the imprecision of the metrics by which we measure the sincerity of Tiger’s contrition, and therefore the metrics we’ll use to accept that contrition. That yardstick of tolerance is too elastic; seems there’s no standard, there’s no goal line. You get the feeling Tiger Woods could step to the podium once a month for a year, and there’d still always be something else demanded from him.

And the focus on Tiger, which both the facts and the culture demand, sidesteps the other players in this mess.

Tiger didn’t grab these women by the hair and throw them into the Escalade. They went willingly, they went with opportunistic forethought, visions of high life and dollar signs dancing in their hennaed heads. To broadly characterize these women as susceptible, gullible pawns thrusts a victimhood onto women collectively, and trades the factors of choice and personal responsibility for a default assumption of gullibility that, I'd say with confidence, most women in this country would reject out of hand.

◊ ◊ ◊

The building notion that Tiger should continue apologizing is problematic at a lot of levels. It suggests that we as a society don’t take him seriously, and it strongly suggests that we don’t take the very idea of apology seriously. Calls for more and more pounds of Tiger’s flesh short-circuit the relationship between apology and corrective action; they lock the accused into a holding pattern of endless apologies, none of which is ever considered enough.

Is it racial? That’s part of it, naturally. African Americans, and minorities generally have been subject to a kind of reductive physics in American life, expending more energy to achieve the same result. But the knives arrayed against Tiger have to do with the adoration of celebrity and those subject to its consequences at this time in the national life, regardless of race, color or creed. In an economy that’s never been this bad no matter how old you are reading this, there’s more malicious delight than usual right now in seeing the lifestyles of the rich and famous run aground in the driveway. For everyday people these days, rich people are a target of opportunity.

The damage done to Tiger Woods’ reputation and his status as a role model will be, in many ways, a permanent thing. Tiger knows he’ll be subject, one way or another, to the sideways stinkeye for the rest of his life. Those whispers, those snickers will always be there. But you watch: those corporate sponsors who sprinted away will wander back into the fold when the heat’s off and he’s got another Masters under his belt.

When those sponsors start drifting back in his direction, they’ll be ready to “move on.” And because they won’t drift back until there’s improvement in the national economy and the marketing-weather forecast for Tiger Woods ... when that happens, for everyone ... we’ll be ready to move on too. Watch and see.

We’re a judgmental nation. Fortunately, we’re also usually a forgetful one.

Image credits: Tiger Woods: pool image from speech. Joslyn James and Gloria Allred: Reuters.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Blair House Project

“I hope that this isn’t political theater,” President Obama said near the beginning of an event as eagerly awaited in Washington as a new James Levine production of “La Traviata” would be in Rome. For more than six hours on Thursday at the Blair House, across the street from the White House, the president met with Republican and Democratic senators and congressmen, for an unprecedented health-care summit meeting, televised for your convenience.

Despite Obama’s appeal, the Republicans (some initially reluctant to show up at all) appeared with talking points, soundbites and props, the stuff of theater at the ready. But by the end of the day, two things were obvious:

(1) The glum faces of Oklahoma Rep. Tom Coburn and Arizona Sen. John McCain strongly indicated that the Republicans had spent their last ammunition and are coming around to the high probability that the process of reconciliation — a straight Democratic party-line majority vote in the Senate — is the next formidable card to be played by the White House to advance the health-care agenda.

(2) The closing statements by President Obama, effectively holding the promise (or the threat) of reconciliation as a distinct possibility may be the best chance for the Obama White House to salvage a beleaguered health-care bill, and maybe the best chance to rescue an increasingly damaged reputation with the Democratic base.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Obama sang-froid was much in evidence, the president’s trademark cool displayed for much of the session. He hinted at where he was going at different times, telegraphing punches he knew the Republicans couldn’t dodge. And President Obama exercised his talent for rhetorical logjam removal: “I think the American people aren’t always that interested in the procedures inside the Senate on how we move this forward,” he said at one point.

The Republican pushback was predictable and hurt by generalities and imprecision. McCain, Obama’s old antagonist on the campaign trail, went at the president in some hazy, ad hominem attack for Obama’s alleged retreat on a campaign promise to put health care negotiations on C-Span. "We're not campaigning anymore," Obama said. "The election is over."

McCain grinned that grin laced with malice, and said that he was “reminded of that every day.” Who do you blame for that, pal?

And while McCain referred to the Senate bill’s 2,400 pages, House Minority Leader John Boehner said “this 2,700-page bill will bankrupt our country.” Historians and molecular physicists would be advised to check, but this may be the first time in the history of America — and the history of physical matter — that a legislative document actually increased in its literal mass while lawmakers were in the act of debating its future.

◊ ◊ ◊

And leave it to the Republicans to play real small ball. “Mr. President,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) said at one point, “can I just interject one quick point here? Just in terms of trying to keep everything fair, which I know you want to do, to this point, the Republicans have had 24 minutes, the Democrats, 52 minutes. Let's try to have as much balance as we can.”

But that penny-ante, high-school-debate crap was, to invoke lawyerspeak, hardly dispositive. The disparity of speaking minutes may have as much to do with the fact that in the room at Blair House were Republicans who’d made up their minds before they got there that the whole thing was a waste of time, some of whom were no doubt prepared to act accordingly.

Mike Pence, the Indiana Republican Congressman and lately an ardent critic of the Obama health care agenda, proved as much when he went on the air before the summit was even finished. “What I think the American people have seen is almost a professor with a petulant group of students,” he said on MSNBC.

Boehner proved as much when he spoke to AOL News before the summit even started and made the case for scrapping the current bill.

And when the Republicans did speak, it was in the soundbites-and-talking-points style that’s characterized GOP identity for years, with one word or phrase used repeatedly to show just how on-message they were. The Democrats were prone to such rhetorical repetitions, too. But reading the transcript it’s clear the Democratic repeats were elaborations and nuance on strategy, more deeply layered and detailed than the Republicans’ strategic 3x5-card monte.

◊ ◊ ◊

The phrase “start over,” or its variants, was used at least half a dozen times by the GOP on Thursday. The Republican embrace of health-care incrementalism surfaced with frequent use of the phrase “step by step.”

There were Republican calls for a “clean sheet of paper,” another Republican favorite (although Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, apparently having a childhood moment, proposed that the White House “take the Etch-a-Sketch” and begin again [“let’s do incremental things where there's common ground”] — maybe the first time health-care legislation has been so trivialized).

“It was synchronized stalling,” Chris Matthews said on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” “What a flaming embarrassment!”

The Republican tendency to embrace talking points extended to rote, nationalist praise. “This bill is a dangerous experiment with the best healthcare system in the world,” Boehner said.

Rep. John Barrasso of Wyoming said it, too: “I do believe we have the best health care system in the world.”

But the definition of something, anything, as The World’s Best necessarily establishes a universe wider than the few. You can’t have the World’s Best anything if the world — or in this case, the American people — has no real opportunity to experience what you’re talking about.

The world isn’t the primary pool of customers for that health-care system, the American people are. And if the World’s Best health-care system bankrupts the people who need it most, if the World’s Best health-care system is financially accessible to a subset of a subset of a subset of that nation’s population ... how good can it possibly be?

◊ ◊ ◊

Old habits are hard to break. As he’s done in the past, Obama made some feints toward bipartisan consensus. Essentially agreeing with the Republicans on incentivizing states to address medical malpractice issues, caps for malpractice lawsuits, and price transparency for medical services.

But by the end, the president’s line in the sand was clear. “Baby steps don’t get you to the place where people need to go. They need help right now. ...

“When I talk to the parents of children who don’t have health care because they’ve got diabetes or they’ve got some chronic heart disease, when I talk to small businesspeople who are laying people off because they just got their insurance premium ... they don’t want us to wait. They can’t afford another five decades.

“The truth of the matter is, politically speaking, there may not be any reason for Republicans to want to do anything. We can debate what our various constituencies think. ...

“If we saw significant movements, not just gestures … you wouldn’t need to start over because essentially everybody here knows what the issues are. And procedurally, it could get done fairly quickly. We cannot have another yearlong debate about this.

◊ ◊ ◊

“The question I ask all of you is ... Is there enough serious effort that in a month’s time or a few weeks time or six weeks time, we could actually resolve something? And if we can’t, then I think we’ve got to go ahead and make some decisions — and that’s what elections are for. We have honest disagreements about the vision for the country and we’ll go ahead and test those out over the next several months until November.”

With that summary statement, President Obama deftly made the pivot from professor to street fighter. With those words, the Republicans were put on notice: With you or without you, we’re going ahead. Reconciliation, the last tool in the toolbox, may be the best tool in the toolbox.

The Republicans, a long time comfortable doubling down on assumptions that Obama would insist on Bipartisanship No Matter What, got a wake-up call Thursday. The Obama they thought they knew ain’t necessarily so anymore. The hangdog Republican expressions in the room said as much at the end of the day.

◊ ◊ ◊

“This is about a fundamental vision of government,” Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said afterwards on CNN. “The Democrats should not fear the future, they should not fear the November elections. They should lead, they should govern.”

And that may be the Democrats’ most effective weapon — a weapon that the Republicans at Blair House seemed to understand:

By losing their concerns over election defeats in November, the Democrats can move almost fearlessly. By indicating a willingness to go “all in” this hand, the Obama White House throws out the powerful suggestion that, vis-à-vis health care, the Democrats may have become that most dangerous political entity: one willing to stand on its principles as a party with nothing to lose but an election, and everything to gain in national credibility before an election.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Republicans manned the spin room from almost the minute it was over. But regardless of their efforts, it was obvious the Obama White House had a very good day on Thursday.

Harold Pollack, writing in the New Republic, understood how Obama addressed the political concerns of two national constituencies at once:
“A racially tinged conservative meme is circulating that President Obama delivers a great speech, but that he is all sizzle and no steak, a teleprompter slave. Nobody watching yesterday could believe that meme. The contrast in health policy expertise — and, at times, sheer intellect — between the President and his Republican interlocutors was almost embarrassing. 

A less-toxic but also misleading meme is circulating among progressives that the President doesn't understand or sympathize with the plight of ordinary working people. That meme was debunked, too.”
Michigan Rep. John Dingell, lion of the House, put the bill and its prospects in perspective: “The last perfect legislation that was presented to mankind was delivered to the Israelis at the base of Mt. Sinai,” said Dingell, the second-longest serving member of Congress and present at the creation of the Democrats legislative drive for health-care in 1955.

“It was on stone tablets, written in fingers of God. Nothing like that has been presented to mankind since.

“What we are going to do is not perfect. But it sure will be better and it's going to ease a huge amount of pain and suffering at a cost, which we can afford ... ”

Dingell’s closing statement is as eloquent a call for progress, after almost a year of partisan wrangling, as you could ask for. Dingell knows what’s at stake. He clearly understands that phrase about the good not being held hostage to the perfect. What’s unknown now is whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others in the Democratic leadership will bring every weapon to bear on advancing this legislation — and not let the good be held hostage to a hoped-for bipartisanship that will never, never materialize.

Obama’s closing statement made it clear: Once you get past the fear of losing an election, you might actually be able to govern. That thought has to be as liberating to the Democrats right now as it is abhorrent to the GOP. Now, with this ball very much in the Democrats’ court, we’ll see if they’ve got the balls to play to win.

Image credits: Obama top: Via Huffington Post. Obama, Kathleen Sebelius and McConnell: The White House. Etch A Sketch: Republished under GNY Free Documentation License v1.2. Dingell: Public domain.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

'Wall Street 2': The Gekko also rises

Cheer up: A diversion from fretting over the sad ephemera of your 401(k) statement will soon be available to you. Get ready to carve out a movie night sometime this spring or summer ... he’s baaaack, and he’s still the one you’ll love to hate, more now than you did 20 years ago. And with good reason.

Gordon Gekko, the suavely cynical investment buccaneer of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” returns later this year in “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps,” the long-awaited sequel to the 1987 film that typified the freewheeling Reagan era of the financial bazaar — the precursor to the financial temblor we’re climbing out from under today.

Michael Douglas, Oscar-winning producer (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and current VOG for the NBC Nightly News, won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Gekko, a ruthless Wall Street trader. The original ended with Gekko on his way to the slammer for an undetermined number of years.

Fast forward to what’s next. In Stone’s sequel, Gekko’s getting out of jail and doing so in high style.

One way or another, this is gonna be a lot of fun. And much of it will center around one player. Taking nothing away from Shia LeBeouf, Carey Mulligan ("An Education"), Frank Langella or Josh Brolin (George Bush in Stone’s “W”), the big draw here, the one who’ll put asses in the theater seats, is Michael Douglas.

He was always nothing less than entertaining in the original, his warped moral principles embodied in a coiffed, gregarious dynamo with a relentlessly cocksure charm. It should be great to see how Gekko the lion has mellowed after X years in the pen. Or if he’s mellowed: some images from the trailer suggest he’s up to his old moneyed tricks. And count on Stone to make a point or twelve about the very real connections between the Reagan-era economy and its hallmark of deregulation, and the fallout we’re enduring right now as a direct consequence of that deregulation.

Taking nothing away from Jason Reitman, George Clooney and “Up in the Air” — the Oscar-nominated film about a man sent around the country to fire people, a movie hailed as the perfect cinematic distillation of our current economic woes — but Oliver Stone may have the last word on his one. With Oliver’s usual twists to be expected, “WS2” is apparently set to scope out the big picture, to tell some story of the wider economy with a focus on the titans and knaves of Wall Street who make those firings necessary in the first place.

Image credits: Douglas as Gekko: From the "Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps" trailer, © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Joe the Engineer: An angry man in Texas

For one brief white-hot moment, Joseph Andrew Stack — he’s already acquired the American nomenclature for evil, identified with all three of his names, like Lee Harvey Oswald or John Wilkes Booth — became the archetypal American: a doer, an achiever, someone willing to act on an idea and exert the energy to bring it to reality. The fact of that reality, of how he made his simmering passions explode to life, is more of a problem for the rest of us. Those of us who share some of his frustrations. Whether we admit it or not.

A little before 10 a.m. on Thursday, Stack, a 53-year-old software engineer nursing years-long outrage with the Internal Revenue Service, flew a single-engine plane from an airport in Georgetown, Texas, to Austin, about 30 miles away, and then angled the plane into the Echelon Building, a seven-story glass-faced structure where almost 200 IRS employees worked.

Stack died in the crash and/or the subsequent fireball and explosion, as well as at least one person in the building. And Stack didn’t detonate in half measures; he went all the way off, apparently setting fire to his home near the crash site before he flew out of the Georgetown airport.

Not long after the incident, which instantly roused memories of and connections of 9/11, federal officials took note of what appear to be Joe Stack’s last words: a long, rambling but fully articulated (if not reasoned) combination manifesto and suicide note that Stack apparently posted on a Web site earlier in the day.

Stack begins: “If you're reading this, you're no doubt asking yourself, ‘Why did this have to happen?’ The simple truth is that it is complicated and has been coming for a long time. The writing process, started many months ago, was intended to be therapy in the face of the looming realization that there isn't enough therapy in the world that can fix what is really broken.”

What follows is a tale of “the storm raging inside my head,” a bildungsroman animated by life as an independent contractor; frustration with the government; outrage with the recent bailouts on behalf of the “thugs and plunderers” in business and the government; personal false starts and thwarted hopes; retirement savings prematurely exhausted; divorce and bitterness; months of peanut butter and Ritz crackers as a staple diet; and the individual powerlessness driving his belief that “desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Some, uh, highlights:
“We are all taught as children that without laws there would be no society, only anarchy. Sadly, starting at early ages we in this country have been brainwashed to believe that, in return for our dedication and service, our government stands for justice for all. We are further brainwashed to believe that there is freedom in this place, and that we should be ready to lay our lives down for the noble principals represented by its founding fathers. Remember? One of these was “no taxation without representation.” I have spent the total years of my adulthood unlearning that crap from only a few years of my childhood.” ...

“I remember reading about the stock market crash before the “great” depression and how there were wealthy bankers and businessmen jumping out of windows when they realized they screwed up and lost everything. Isn’t it ironic how far we’ve come in 60 years in this country that they now know how to fix that little economic problem; they just steal from the middle class (who doesn’t have any say in it, elections are a joke) to cover their asses and it’s “business-as-usual”. Now when the wealthy fuck up, the poor get to die for the mistakes… isn’t that a clever, tidy solution.” ...

“I know I’m hardly the first one to decide I have had all I can stand. It has always been a myth that people have stopped dying for their freedom in this country, and it isn’t limited to the blacks, and poor immigrants. I know there have been countless before me and there are sure to be as many after. But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change. I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at “big brother” while he strips my carcass, I choose not to ignore what is going on all around me, I choose not to pretend that business as usual won’t continue; I have just had enough.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Cybesq, commenting at The Huffington Post, makes an irrefutable point: “You have to love the thought process of lunatics. He rails against the rich, claims they control the government, and then flies his plane into a building of modestly paid government workers.”

But Jason, commenting on Stack’s manifesto at Business Insider, saw something else: “How can anyone call this man insane? It looks to me that his hostility has been building up for several years. Insane implies you are not in control, this man, it seems, was very deliberate in his actions. Thankfully he didn’t kill a bunch of people. Sounds like he tried to "fudge" his taxes, at least one year, you cannot f#ck with IRS, WARS ARE EXPENSIVE! and ‘somebody’ has to pay for them. Watch out people, it's only going to get worse. ...”

James weighed in, also at Business Insider: “He was extremely eloquent and a long way from a crackpot … perhaps he sees the matrix as it really is, perhaps you need to look at what is really going on. Today Wachovia announced that they have only foreclosed on 1% of the people in default.... the country is hurting because of the big banks and Wall Street, and nobody is protecting the average citizen. In fact, the Supreme Court just ruled that corporations can put as much money as they like behind any candidate that they feel.”

◊ ◊ ◊

That’s what so scary about Stack’s mad cri de coeur. Driven to rage by government’s protective instincts for bailing out the airlines and bailing out the banks, but at least appearing to put the needs of people on the backburner, Stack had a personal fuse that was clearly burning white-hot. But the primer cord of his personal and professional lives’ capacity to adapt to change is not so different from our own.

Stack is hardly the first American faced with scorching the earth of his own 401(k) today, years ahead of schedule, to make ends meet. He’s not the first one to be at the mercy of a job market whose bleakness for everyday people seems to grow exponentially month by month (regardless of what the Official Numbers say). He’s not the first to condemn the coziness of American government and American business.

What separates Joe the Frustrated Engineer from the rest of us is either the absence of that one incendiary spark — the big That Does It moment in which a dangerous idea metastasizes overnight, or faster, into a dangerous action — or the absence of willingness to actualize that rage, to nourish that spark with gasoline. For most of us, putting one foot in front of the other, going through the daily grind and looking for something, anything resembling a lifeline, is work enough.

Sometimes, hanging on in quiet desperation is the American way. Sometimes, for the Joe Stacks of America, it’s not.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s anyone’s guess how Joe Stack’s death will be manipulated for political gain. The fire was still burning at that building in Austin and the blogosphere was already speculating on how the Tea Party and its anti-government champions may adopt Joe the Engineer as its patron saint of rebellion, probably to be mentioned in the same reverential language as that reserved for the John Birch Society and the Posse Comitatus.

At HuffPost, kanaka5000notvote4bloomberg, observed: “I heard the teabaggers and the morons at the CPAC convention had a moment of silence for their hero stack.

The New York Daily News reported Friday on some early reactions:
"Finally an American man took a stand against our tyrannical government that no longer follows the Constitution," wrote Emily Walters of Louisville, Ky. …

“Joe Stack, you are a true American Hero and we need more of you to make a stand,” tweeted Greg Lenihan, an engineer in San Diego.
Joe the Plumber, pick up your last check at the cashier’s window. Your services are no longer required.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s no minimizing the towering criminality of his actions on Thursday morning. What separated Joe Stack from the rest of us is the willingness to abide by the social contract, and to accept the value and importance of human life. When you cross that line and venture into the land of the beasts, you get what you deserve. Like having your name invoked with the middle name attached.

Stack’s action on Thursday has been characterized in the media with the word “insane” more than once. Without a mental evaluation, without Stack receiving the “therapy” he spoke of, we’ll never know.

But dubious clinical interpretations aside, insanity isn’t what’s communicated in this 3,000-word manifesto. More disturbingly, what’s communicated is despair, the deep, paralyzing existential despair that in point of fact none of us is that far away from — the same despair millions of Americans wrestle with every day.

Victoria Casseday, commenting in HuffPost, sees this: “The most dangerous species on earth are human beings who feel there is nothing left to lose and all hope is lost. Unfortunately, there are a lot more of them out there just lying in wait of that trigger, that straw that breaks the back of the camel.”

Image credits: Joseph Stack: Via CBS News. Joe Stack Twitter reaction: Via

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Drinking the Kool-Aid Tea

In what may be the most egregious kowtow of a major political party to a political nonentity in at least recent American history, Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, met on Tuesday with members of Tea Party WDC, maybe the most formally established manifestation of the series of ad hoc conservative protesters and extremist malcontents that have rallied under the Tea Party banner for nearly a year.

Steele reportedly huddled with about 50 Tea Party leaders for more than four hours, discussing their angles of attack on the Obama White House, what Republicans and Tea Partiers have in common, and what they don’t have in common, in the runup to the 2010 midterms.

“The chairman believes it is extremely important to listen to this significant grassroots movement and work to find common ground in order to elect officials that will protect these principles,” RNC spokesperson Katie Wright said Tuesday to The Washington Post, offering an olive branch the size of a tree to the cohort of American conservatives that could, maybe, be a force in November.

We may be months away from a political scenario once thought improbable but more and more likely all the time, a variation on the storyline of “King of Hearts,” the 1966 Philipe de Broca film that posits what happens when the inmates run the asylum, and the town it’s located in.

◊ ◊ ◊

The devil and the details are inseparable. Even as the Tea Party makes its mainstream move (a unifying flag-bedecked logo, spokesmen with titles), it’s forced to come to grips with issues that have complicated its existence from the jump.

Credibility has been a problem for the Tea Party set. To this point, the TP’s followers have been characterized by a noisy intolerance that traffics in the symbols of don’t-tread-on-me populism married to silly exercises of self-identification (Tea Party members walked around last April wearing tea bags) and virulent intolerance (others carried signs that equated President Obama with Hitler).

To now, it’s been an orange-pekoe protest whose buffoonery contained just enough extremist rhetoric to make it something to take at least semi-seriously. But it’s hardly enough to suggest it could be a political game-changer for the broad cross-section of Americans who vote.

Another problem for the Tea Party (really, stemming from the first one) has to do with the fraud of its genesis. When the first large-scale Tea Party protests began last April 15, in demonstrations from Oak Harbor, Wash., to Sag Harbor, N.Y., they were heralded as the bellwether of a new grassroots, bottom-up movement in America.

The facts were something else again: A parade of K Street lobbyists and government insiders like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were instrumental in sparking and bankrolling the protests; and Fox News, the conservatives’ media arm, broadcast the Tea Bag Day rallies from various places around the country.

It’s impossible to believe that the fingerprints of such conservative powers could have disappeared from the movement in less than a year. The populist thrust of this movement was blunted from the start, and still is, by the involvement of the same government and corporate insiders the movement was meant to protest against in the first place.

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s the Tea Party’s reason for being? From the start, most people couldn’t see much difference between the bullet-point credo of the Tea Partiers and that of the Republicans. Even today, Americans still can’t find daylight between their mutual positions. The GOP and the Tea Partiers are in lock step on major issues like tax cuts, smaller government and the disturbingly imprecise notion of “returning to American values."

With no substantive differences in their basic philosophy, then, the TP movement is faced with a question: What can it hope to do in Washington that the GOP can’t do with more resources, more lobbyists, more like-minded partisans already on Capitol Hill? Carving out a distinction when there’s not much distinction is a huge challenge if you define yourself as an independent grassroots political insurgency — like the Tea Partiers do.

That’s what the Tea Partiers have tried to do: articulate distinctions between themselves and the Republicans; they’re doing what they can to make their claim of independence stick. “We're not a function of the Republican party,” one D.C. Tea Party member said last April, and said for a damn good reason. Implicit in that statement is an inescapable fact: If the Tea Party finds common cause with the Republicans, the Tea Party has absolutely no reason to exist.

◊ ◊ ◊

An equally foundational problem for the TP movement has been and is its willingness to accept, or certainly tolerate, the very people that most Americans don’t identify with. For almost a year now, the Tea Party has aligned itself with birthers, death-panel believers, ardent nativists and Palinistas that have swelled the TP ranks, and whose approach to politics hasn’t been much more than ad hominem attacks and character assassination.

Now, in a new bid for legitimacy, the Tea Party movement has to figure out what to do with the yahoos that formed its early base, even as it tries to tack toward wider mainstream acceptance — the only thing that could possibly make them a potent political force.

The GOP’s in much the same box. Having tried to leverage the anger of the TP movement to its own advantage, Republicans now face a group whose bid for political independence means throwing the Republicans under the same bus as the Democrats, as a matter of principle. The fact that many in the Tea Party’s ranks are really disaffected Republicans or right-leaning independent voters is hugely problematic for the GOP; they don’t cut into the Democrats’ voting bloc nearly as much as they do the Republicans’.

In positioning itself as a band apart, a bloc of conservative voters the GOP can’t take for granted, the Tea Party movement highlights just how potentially dangerous it is — to the GOP.

Which brings us to the four-hour courtship that took place on Tuesday.

◊ ◊ ◊

Presumably what makes the Tea Party distinctive is its mission statement, a snapshot of which is on their Web site: the party announces that it’s “for and by Americans that want to preserve, protect and promote freedom.”

But since that’s certainly the boilerplate objective of Democrats, Republicans and any political party, you wonder how much traction the Tea Party Nation can generate by November with a glittering centerpiece of a generality like that.

That generality hurts the Tea Party movement. For many Americans, its lack of policy specifics — symbolized by TP darling Sarah Palin, who addressed the first Tea Party convention last week with her political credo scribbled on her left hand, like a grocery list — suggests there’s not much there there, that the TP movement’s sole reason for being is protest for its own sake.

Leave it to the Republicans to ride to the rescue. The GOP, still emerging from the long time in the wilderness that began with Barack Obama’s inauguration, offered specifics with symbolism on Wednesday when about 80 conservative leaders convened on the former estate of George Washington in Mount Vernon, Va., to announce a manifesto restating principles rooted in “constitutional conservatism.”

The so-called Mount Vernon Statement, coming on the eve of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, will have company. An early version of the Tea Party Patriots’ Contract From America, a prepositional tweak on Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America, will be released when the three-day CPAC convention starts, Thursday at D.C.’s Washington Marriott Wardsman Park Hotel.

◊ ◊ ◊

There are already plans for the second Tea Party convention, now set for Las Vegas in mid July. We can guess that’s when the TP movement will start to concretize its beliefs with real policy proposals, not just boilerplate bromides.

Back in 2004, in the runup to that year’s presidential election, the GOP frantically marketed itself as a “big tent” organization, one that would accommodate Americans across the political spectrum. That thinking’s been echoed since by Steele and others in the Republican leadership — even as other Republicans have embraced the idea of thinning the herd, separating the true believers from the fifth columnists (otherwise known as “moderates” and "RINOs").

We’ll watch closely as conservatives grapple with their latest existential dilemma: Do the Republicans grant the Tea Party movement admission to their big tent, or do they sit by and watch as the TP crowd puts up a tent of their own?

And if the Tea Party decides to build that tent, will anyone show up to see what’s inside?

Image credits: Tax Day 2009 protester: Via MSNBC. Gingrich: KyleCassidy, republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Obama protest sign: Unknown. Palin: Via C-SPAN.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Palm Palin: A hand job and its consequences

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin may be either the most daringly self-inventive political figure on the American scene or just the one most desperately in need of a clue. From making the mavericky decision to quit her state post (vacating a power position of some leverage if she really wanted to be president) to writing a roguey book that nonetheless made her a millionaire in as close to overnight as this economy allows, Palin is carving out a reputation as a Rashomon presence in our political culture: adored or reviled, depending on your perspective.

Two recent events bear that out all over again. On Feb. 6 at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Palin addressed the first Tea Party Convention, a gathering of conservative iconoclasts, ideologues and malcontents for whom the Republican Party is, for now, apparently not conservative enough. Palin, a darling of the Tea Party set, vaulted into another variation of her set speech:

“Very good to be here in Tennessee, the Volunteer State. It’s the home of good country music and good southern barbeque, and…great to be at the Tea Party Convention. I guess down here, that’s some southern sweet tea. And you know, up in Alaska, we have a smaller version of Tea Party up there, and we call it ice tea.

“And I am a big supporter of this movement. I believe in this movement. Got lots of friends and family in the lower forty-eight who attend these events, and across this country, just knowing that this is the movement and that America is ready for another revolution, and you are a part of this. ...

“This is about the people ... and it's a lot bigger than any charismatic guy with a TelePrompter,” Palin said at one point, making a reference to Obama's use of TelePrompters.

But something shows up on the replays of her Nashville speech. At one point, when her left hand is momentarily open, it’s visible: there are talking points clearly written on her left hand in ink:

Budget cuts [“budget” crossed out, replaced by]
Tax cuts
Lift America’s spirits

Independent journalist Stefan Sirucek, writing in The Huffington Post, offers a clarification:

“The notes most likely weren't for her speech, for which she used prepared remarks, but for the Q&A session that followed, during which she glanced at the hand in question.

“But in my opinion that's even worse.

“There were no specifics on there, just general concepts and things she supports.

“The takeaway is that this presidential contender apparently can't remember her supposed core principles and needs a cheat-sheet when simply asked about her beliefs.

To quote Charlie Brown: Good grief.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Jotting crib notes on one’s hand is nothing new for public speakers. It’s usually done to spur a speaker’s recall of salient points to be elaborated on at length and in depth. What’s so problematic for Palin is how this plays into the long-building narrative that she doesn’t think on her feet that well.

And what was written — a clutch of bullet-point words and phrases — only superficially dovetailed with anything approaching a policy statement or an original political philosophy. The handwritten notes and the address they stemmed from had only the scarcest detail and insight. They point to how Palin thinks in bromides and slogans, skimming the surface of the nation’s most important issues.

The Tea Party crowd assembled in Nashville wouldn’t have cared that night; they greeted her with rapturous applause, and the kind of automatic hosannas professing an appeal that continues not in spite of the mainstream’s denigration of Palin, but because of it.

◊ ◊ ◊

A new poll released near the same time as Palin’s hand job indicates that the country as a whole is a lot less charitable. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted between Feb. 4 and Feb. 8 found that 52 percent of Republicans say she’s not fit to be president.

Among the general American population, 71 percent of people say she is unqualified for the gig — an 11 percent increase in unfavorables just since November.

A Feb 1-3 Gallup Poll puts it another way. Naming their preferences for the 2012 derby, 14 percent of Republicans or Republican-leaning voters — independents in all but name — support former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the presidency. Fourteen percent is hardly a ringing endorsement, but at this early stage and no firm field of contenders, it’s pretty much expected.

But it’s striking that, after her furious media exposure since the 2008 camapign (a best-selling book, a job as a Fox News analyst, numerous magazine covers and mentions) only 11 percent of those voters in the Gallup survey back a Palin campaign in ’12.

That response could be based as much on disbelief in her political acumen; in some ways it could be their way of saying that right now, Palin’s overexposed, a light burning twice as bright for half as long.

◊ ◊ ◊

Palin’s problem, now and in the ’08 GOP debacle, has been having the ability to build a consensus of like-minded partisans, few of whom have a like mind to begin with. Her initial post-2008 support from regular Republicans smitten with the promise of a new and attractive face has fragmented into backing from the Tea Partiers, whose birther-fueled hate is hardly a platform for a springboard to a national campaign, let alone a shot at a national victory.

And Palin herself speaks in such passive-aggressive, flag-bedecked generalities, she’s created a following built around the flimsiest outlines of a political philosophy. She’s the Great & Powerful Oz from the Yukon.

And since for the most part her talking points dovetail with those of the Republicans — tax cuts, rein in government spending, fidelity to GOP social tripwire issues — the question for the rock-ribbed GOP crowd and independents alike is simple: Why fool around with a Republican Lite when they can have the real thing?

The fact that at this point Romney leads any hypothetical pack of Republican contenders is important. If he’d had a sharper message and been a more inspiring messenger, Romney might well have been the Republican nominee for president in 2008. As it is now, from the standpoint of personal achievement, government service and political credibility, Romney’s electables dwarf Palin’s by orders of magnitude. There’s not enough room on both of her hands to write the reasons why.

Image credits: Palin: Reuters/Josh Anderson. Palin left hand: Unknown. 2012 poll snapshot: Gallup Poll.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Fat Sunday

We interrupt the regularly scheduled joyous hysteria visiting New Orleans on Fat Tuesday with an early bulletin: The New Orleans Saints — a team and a collective metaphor for the city it represents — won Super Bowl XLIV tonight.

That’s not a dispatch from the bizzarro world, as anyone who’s watched this spirited, inspired, talented team win and win and win all season already knows. It was the realest of real deals: 44 days after Christmas, 44 years after the Saints organization was first awarded an NFL franchise, the former whipping boy of the NFL won Super Bowl No. 44, defeating the Indianapolis Colts 31-17.

Fat Tuesday, Feb. 16, was already on the city’s calendar. You can call tonight Fat Sunday. Laissez les bon temps roulez, tout de suite.

◊ ◊ ◊

In a game that had analysts quietly licking their chops at the prospect of coronating Colts quarterback Peyton Manning as Perhaps the Greatest QB of All Time, the Saints spoiled the Colts party with one of their own.

Saints QB Drew Brees mixed it up the hard way, battling back despite an early 10-0 deficit, grinding it out play after play. The Saints combined dogged but spirited offense with opportunistic defense and Garrett Hartley, a field-goal kicker whose points after seemed almost laser-guided.

Saints head coach Sean Payton, who combined undeniable coaching skills with the guts of a burglar and the soul of a riverboat gambler, took risks in different ways throughout the game. Using everything from a smart (and successful) coach’s challenge to a timely reverse to the very act of gambling on Brees (who underwent shoulder surgery after the 2005 season) in the first place, Payton proved he wouldn’t play by the books.

It was most obvious tonight when the Saints, scoring a Hartley field goal in the second quarter to trail 10-6, started the second half with an onside kick.

A pre-fourth quarter onside kick, in the Super Bowl. Find that in the damn playbook. Who pulls shit like that? Payton’s crew does, and the Indianapolis Colts (anticipating the deep kick for a runback) were every bit as surprised as the TV analysts and the crowd at Florida’s SunLife Stadium. The Saints recovered the ball and started the second half of the game with a quick touchdown, and a serious shot to the psyche of the Colts. ESPN said it was the first successfully completed onside kick before the fourth quarter in Super Bowl history.

◊ ◊ ◊

Manning was off his feed much of the night; at times on the sidelines he seemed sullen, rattled and maybe even angry. And the Colts as a team were less than the sum of their well-oiled machine parts. The feared Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney spent much of the fourth quarter sidelined, nursing a still-healing torn ligament in his right ankle, offering himself as a testing aid to the trainers who practiced their taping skills on that ankle the rest of the game.

Little by little the tide turned and stayed turned. Hartley makes another field goal from deep space. Brees hits Jeremy Shockey for a TD that gives them the lead. Payton, bold again, successfully challenges the ruling that Lance Moore had not scored on the 2-point conversion. Saints 24-17.

Meanwhile, Colts kicker Matt Stover misses one from 51 yards out. Colts receiver Pierre Garcon drops a pass; later Garcon was called for offensive pass interference. In the aggregate, the Colts played a decent game, despite some key mistakes that on the whole weren’t more than any other team might post on any given Sunday.

But this was The Super Bowl. The Indianapolis Colts, who had posted stellar numbers all season en route to the best win-loss record in the NFL, had been playing like supermen. They picked the wrong game to turn into mere mortals.

It was all distilled in the last three minutes of the game. Down 24-17, Manning and the Colts mounted a feverish last-minute drive. Manning makes a short pass across the middle, a throw intended for Reggie Wayne. Not today. Looking for the main chance, Saints defensive back Tracy Porter intercepts the pass, and returns it 75 yards for a touchdown.

Game, set, match, title, party.

◊ ◊ ◊

It was hard not to be torn by deep, emotional — and, yeah, racial — affinities either way you placed your bets. You wanted to side with Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, one of only five rookie head coaches to reach the Super Bowl, and one of only three African American coaches (Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith are the others) to get to the big show.

But this year the stakes were bigger than victory for a team, more so than in any other Super Bowl in recent memory. What was at stake for New Orleans was its sense of itself, its idea of the possible four and a half years after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

In the days and weeks that followed the worst domestic meteorological event of our time, many people had written off New Orleans, came to the conclusion that the city couldn’t be saved, that its days as a major port and arterial for commerce, source of a proud gumbo of varied cultures and maverick traditions, and the birthplace of jazz were numbered.

Indianapolis wanted this victory. New Orleans needed it like a body needs a soul, and the Saints knew it. “We didn’t just win for ourselves,” the Saints’ Jonathan Vilma told ESPN, echoing what others on the team had said. “We won for the whole city of New Orleans.”

And not to belabor the racial angle, but the Saints win was a definite, undeniable jolt to the psyche of African Americans throughout the country. The ways that a proud, capable, resilient, once-and-future predominantly black American city could be seemingly on the brink of extinction and battle back not just to survive but to dominate is nothing less than a distillation of the story of black Americans.

In a time of black unemployment rates almost twice the national average, in a period in which black families face foreclosure more often and more quickly than others, the Saints achievement is an emotionally anodyne event.

◊ ◊ ◊

Maybe the Saints just got tired of the whisper campaigns. There was a sense that some people, maybe even a lot of people, had dismissed the Saints chances to win this thing before the game even started. It wasn’t the fact that Manning’s parents and younger brother Eli were in one of the boxes watching the game, ready to celebrate Peyton’s investiture. That was a family thing, and the Manning family roots extend deep into New Orleans’ history (patriarch Archie Manning used to be the Saints QB).

It was … other things. The betting line was against the Saints. Before the game, the oddsmakers at online super-sportsbook had the Colts as four-point favorites; that was pretty much the spread from almost the moment the Saints beat the Vikings two weeks earlier. The Sporting News had anointed the Colts before the fact.

Hell, even the apes got into the act: On Friday, Kutai, an orangutan at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, picked the Colts to win at the zoo’s yearly football forecast event, on the basis of T-shirt selection. The zoo said the Kutai Sports Book was 4 for 5 in earlier Super Bowl picks.

And then there’s Fuel, the new multigrain cereal spinoff of the Wheaties brand, with an initial packaging run that includes the pictures of athletes on the box, including Kevin Garnett, Albert Pujols and … Peyton Manning. It’s the fruition of an ad campaign that started months ago, an ad campaign that apparently never considered the idea that Drew Brees might be one of the faces of the new breakfast of champions.

The good folks at General Mills might want to add a Saint to that whole-grain pantheon right about now.

◊ ◊ ◊

But all that’s, well, water under the bridge. New Orleans was a city that needed a psychic shot in the arm as much as anything else. It got that voodoo vaccination tonight, winning a contest — our national contest — whose outcome really wasn’t as close as the score suggests. “New Orleans is back,” Saints owner Tom Benson said, and who’d disagree?

Speaking of which: As a team in a city deeply animated by music, maybe the Saints got a high-sign from the band that played the halftime show. The Who, that enduring British band of the 60’s, played one of its classics, “Who Are You,” whose title is just another way of invoking the Saints’ rallying cry: “Who dat?”

In the annals of professional football, like in every other part of our vast cultural weave, we know good and damn well Who Dat is now.

Image credits: Saints 2009 schedule: Via Stats LLC. Saints logo: New Orleans Saints/National Football League. Jim Caldwell: Donald Miralle/Getty Images. Wheaties Fuel box: via

Friday, February 5, 2010

The new Candy Crowley

CNN’s ultra-reliable Washington political reporter Candy Crowley has had a little work done in recent months, and the network she works for is making some changes too. The relationship between the two may or may not say a lot about the, uh, shape and complexion of the TV news business.

For anyone who’s watched Crowley over the years, the change between Crowley, say, during the 2008 presidential campaign and this year’s model is striking. Physically striking. Simply put, Crowley has lost a significant amount of weight.

“It's stunning to me that something I consider so separate and apart from what I do for a living has taken up so much space in some people's thoughts. I am a hard-news journalist. That is what I do,” she told the Los Angeles Times in November.

How was it done? The Times James Rainey reports the details on Crowley’s downsizing: “There has been no Lap-Band. No gastric bypass. No surgery at all. Rather, Crowley said, she has been dieting, swimming and working out, sometimes with a trainer, since last December.”

“And, in a change she thinks has made the biggest difference, she has taken up Transcendental Meditation. A couple of times a day, Crowley escapes her break-neck schedule to settle into what the TM website describes as a ‘natural state of restful alertness.’

“ ‘I feel great physically. I feel really good,’ the newswoman [said]. "I'm lighter now in a lot of ways.’”

◊ ◊ ◊

Fast forward to 2010, and change comes fast: Crowley, a 22-year veteran of the network, was named the new anchor of CNN’S “State of the Union” Sunday morning program, succeeding John King, who moves to a new 7 PM newscast on the network, replacing "Lou Dobbs Tonight," which blessedly went off the air, along with its nativist windbag host, in November. Crowley takes over officially on Feb. 7.

“Candy's rare combination of shrewd insight and healthy irreverence for the games politicians play has made her one of the most honored political journalists and a cult figure among CNN viewers," CNN/US President Jon Klein said in an announcement. "Every Sunday she'll translate Washington-speak into plain English that every American can understand, as she has been doing better than any reporter on the beat for decades.”

All of which is true enough, but given television’s predilections for cosmetic consistency and younger women in the studio, some have wondered — perhaps unfairly — if Crowley would have landed such a plum gig without making some concessions to TV’s bimbette obsession.

“Would I have gotten the job without having lost the weight? I don't know. That's an X factor," she said Friday to Gail Shister at TVNewser. "Does the refrigerator light stay on when you close the door? We'll never know."

◊ ◊ ◊

Despite the unfortunate refrigerator metaphor — and no, Candy, the light goes off when you close the fridge door; if yours doesn’t it’s time to step up to a better fridge — Crowley was on point in telling Shister that the “young, blonde thin” woman anchor as default cable-news personality may no longer be the preoccupation it's been in the past.

“I readily admit I'm not the most obvious pick, from a purely cosmetic point of view,” she told Shister. “I'm not going to argue that when you turn on the TV, you basically get young, blonde, thin women. This is changing.”

Well, yeah, some. But not very fast. Now that the glass ceiling has been at least pierced for the YBT (young, blonde & thin) demographic, it’s time to see more advances with other groups.

Tamron Hall, a stunning, competent, stunningly competent MSNBC midday anchor, is one of the few cable-news reporters both female and African American — a combination that seems to be a challenge for the suits in high places to get their heads around. Hall had some company until last year, when her black male counterpart, Carlos Watson, was suddenly absented from MSNBC. Now Hall’s the one shining exception to a rule in cable TV that’s gotten almost too familiar.

For Crowley, her ascension to Sunday-morning gasbag referee was justly deserved. “I think I have the credentials to do this job,” Crowley told Shister. “This company has talked about my credentials first, last and always. I got the job because I'm the best person for the job.” No argument there.

Crowley, who told Shister she lost five dress sizes, inherits a show that’s lost some serious weight of its own, being trimmed from a four-hour Sunday parade float to a manageable hourlong program. It all suggests that CNN is in makeover mode. Here’s hoping that CNN’s initiative is contagious, and other professional journalists whose personal optics are outside TV’s discomfort zone get the same opportunity.

Image credits: Crowley, CNN logo: CNN. Hall: MSNBC.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Sistuhs’ trifecta

Say what you will, this weekend was a great one to be an African American woman. And just in time for Black History Month. Three big events of the weekend just ended have rocked our world, whether we know it or not, in ways we haven’t fully absorbed yet. It was the kind of 1! 2! 3! cascade of cultural advancements that strongly suggest what more and more of us are thinking all the time: this is a sistuh’s world. We of the testosterone persuasion may just be living in it.

On Saturday Serena Williams won her second consecutive Australian Open, and her fifth overall, defeating Justine Henin 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 (in her comeback bid), tying Billie Jean King for Aussie Open victories, and vaulting her ahead of such champions as Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Chris Evert.

On Sunday Serena and sister Venus Williams won their second consecutive Australian Open doubles match, their 11th Grand Slam doubles championship.

The sisters Williams thus cemented an already solid hold on the annals of modern sports history, and Serena pretty much fully redeemed herself for that ‘lil street eruption on the court at the U.S. Open last year. Hey, passion happens; playing down under, Serena channeled it into a convincing win for the record books.

On Saturday in Las Vegas, Caressa Cameron, a broadcast journalism student from Fredericksburg, Va., was crowned Miss America 2010, becoming the eighth black Miss America in the pageant's 89-year history. Cameron, all of 22, bested her opponents in the swimsuit, evening gown, talent and interview categories. She pockets a $50,000 scholarship and will soon inherit the travel schedule of a truly frequent flyer.

And oh yeah, on Sunday night, Beyonce Knowles made musical history at the Grammy Awards when she won six Grammy awards, the most for any female recording artist in the history of the awards.

Mrs. Hova swept the major categories, including Song of the Year, Best R&B Song, and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)”; Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (“Halo”), Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance (“At Last,” Beyonce's shimmering version of the Etta James classic); and Best Contemporary R&B Album “I AM...SASHA FIERCE.”

Serena! Caressa! Beyonce! All in all, a sweet cultural trifecta, and given the state of the overall economy (and the black American economy), one of the few bright spots in a winter whose discontent never seems to end.

Image credits: Caressa: Serena: Via Beyonce: © 2010 60 Minutes/CBS. 
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