Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Teflon, leather and Steele

West Hollywood, Calif., is 2,307 miles from Washington, D.C., but culturally you might as well be talking about the distance between Katmandu and the moon. The forms of entertainment available in that enclave of L.A., the sweeping cultural license that’s the norm out there, don’t always go over well when you're a captive of the social mores of those living hard by the Beltway. Especially when you’re spending someone else’s money on that entertainment.

What happens in West Hollywood doesn’t necessarily stay there. Michael Steele knows that now.

By now you know (unless you’ve been off planet for the last two or three days) that Steele, the embattled but unbowed chairman of the Republican National Committee — the primary fundraising arm of the Republican Party — is under fire again, facing criticism from those in the party and outside it for his role in a debacle that could cost him his job.

On Monday morning, the Daily Caller reported that on Jan. 31, Erik Brown, a Republican who spent $1,946 on “meals” at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard, expensed the charges to the Republican National Committee. The charges were incurred during an after-party for the RNC’s Young Eagles, a group for rising Republican stars 45 years of age and under.

Brown was reimbursed by the committee for the charges, according to Federal Election Commission filings obtained by The Daily Caller, the political news Web site launched by former conservative journalist Tucker Carlson and former Cheney op Neil Patel.

Politico reported that Voyeur is modeled after sets from Stanley Kubrick’s racy 1999 Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman movie “Eyes Wide Shut.”

An RNC spokesman released a statement Monday: “The Chairman was never at the location in question, he had no knowledge of the expenditure, nor does he find the use of committee funds at such a location at all acceptable …”

But on Tuesday, wasting no time in effecting damage control, the RNC fired Allison Meyers, the Young Eagles director, who apparently OK’d the reimbursement.

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Steele has been criticized previously for various misdeeds, all of which pale by comparison with the Voyeur matter. He published a “blueprint” book of strategies for achieving Republican election victories without telling Republican leaders about it. Then he went on a book tour to promote that “blueprint.”

He made other speaking engagements outside the purview of party business and was compensated for them. He announced an embarrassingly half-baked strategy to do a hip-hop makeover of the GOP, meant to welcome those traditionally outside the Republicans’ sphere of influence.

And now this.

Some in the D.C. wing of the punditburo — notably David Wiegel, writing in the Washington Independent and Ana Marie Cox of GQ magazine, talking to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC — have said that, despite this towering screwup on Steele’s watch, the chairman would tough it out and remain at his post. I think Wiegel and Cox couldn’t be more wrong. It’s the distinctions between Steele’s previous missteps and this one that make it highly likely, maybe even inevitable, that the chairman may not be the chairman for long.

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When the Voyeur news broke Monday, there was a little more than seven months before the 2010 midterms. If a week is a year in politics, seven months is a millennium, but the Republican leadership is faced with the urgent need to resolve a dilemma, one brought on by Steele’s apparent financial mismanagement and his equally apparent love for high style and bling.

It’s been estimated in various media reports that Steele started his tenure in the RNC high chair with about $22 million in operating capital; that’s since reportedly evaporated to about $10 million — a burn rate of ready cash that makes the spending of startups in pre-2000 Silicon Valley look modest by comparison.

Monday night on MSNBC, Cox told Maddow that nothing would change at the RNC, and that she looked for Steele to exit his job “in November, when there’s a natural break for him to go.”

Cox’s logic seemed to be that pulling Steele from the chairmanship now would be too disruptive to the Republicans. But is the GOP really prepared to keep watching the hemorrhage of money it needs to gird for battle between now and the fall, just for the sake of maintaining the façade of party unity? Are Republicans content to stand idly by while their prestige keeps sinking without doing something about it?

Cox and Wiegel’s insistence that Steele would stay the course begs the question of what’s to be gained by keeping him on when the damage he’s done — politically, financially and optically — is known already, and likely to get worse between now and November.

It brings to mind what Nazi Major Strasser told Captain Renault in “Casablanca” when discussing any possible departure from the Moroccan city by the freedom fighter Victor Laszlo: “I have been thinking. It is too dangerous if we let him go. It may be too dangerous if we let him stay.”

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It’d be one thing if the calls for Steele’s removal or resignation were coming solely from the progressive left. Then you could understand the Republicans rallying round Steele as a reflex action, holding on to him out of sheer political obstinance.

That ain’t the case right now. The loudest drumbeat for Steele’s ouster is coming from Republicans themselves — those in the party hierarchy, if not exactly the party leadership, conservatives with deep pockets who aren’t likely to be ignored forever.

"For those donors who truly believe in conservative values, this latest news about Steele has to be very disturbing," Douglas MacKinnon, former press secretary to Majority Leader Robert Dole, told Sam Stein of The Huffington Post.

MacKinnon continued: "No matter which side of the aisle you find yourself, if you are giving a political party your hard-earned money, you should have no doubts that it is going to be spent as advertised and not to provide a spoiled, egocentric, out-of-touch chairman with frivolous luxuries which are out of reach of the vast majority of the American people. Michael Steele needs to resign ...”

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It’s all different this time. Party finances are one thing. The party’s image is another. The Republicans face the coming election still smarting from the Larry Craig bathroom debacle, the David Vitter and John Ensign scandals, and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s adventures in Argentina. It’s hard to imagine that donors to the Republican Party (some of whom had already switched their wallets’ allegiances to the Tea Party movement) will ignore the Steele affair in the context of those seamier events that preceded it.

Steele’s own earlier miscues were bad enough, but nothing fatal. The “blueprint” book, the tour to promote it, the chairman’s shameless freelancing on speaking engagements, the silly hip-hop pivot — all are more or less forgivable.

The Voyeur deal is something else again. Whatever Steele’s involvement really is, whether he was actually at the club drooling into his shoes or not, almost doesn’t matter. The steward of the Republican Party purse had a role, however peripheral, in an embarrassment for the party, one that makes a mockery of the GOP’s corner on the family values market.

For Republicans, this is the big one, the unforgivable sin. Republicans don’t weather sex-related controversies that well. The fact that Voyeur’s entertainment apparently featured topless women in simulated lesbian bondage encounters doesn’t exactly dovetail with the GOP’s fidelity to monogamy, nuclear families and full-throated disdain for the GLBT experience.

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This optic embarrassment, combined with Steele’s earlier arrogance and bluster, and his overseeing the dissolution of party money — cash from everyday donors, during the worst economy in generations — right when the party needs it most make you wonder why Cox and Wiegel would predict Steele will ride this one out.

Anyone who’s ever owned a nonstick skillet will tell you: Teflon wears out when the heat's up high enough. Michael Steele’s previous great escapes may not be a guarantee of future results. The Republicans are a hard-headed bunch, but they’re not above adopting a practical solution to a nagging problem: When you’ve got a stone in your shoe, sooner or later (if you’ve got any sense) you stop walking, take that shoe off and shake that stone out.

It’s difficult to see the Republicans running a race from now to November if they don’t.

Image credits: Steele: via Huffington Post. Voyeur logo: © 2010 Voyeur. John Ensign: NBC News. Teflon pan: Andrevan, republished under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license.

'Vox update: The heat's on: Steele is coming under increasing attacks from various Republican and conservative thought leaders, from Tony Perkins, director of the Family Research Council to former GOP senator Rick Santorum, from Arizona Republican Rep. John Shadegg to former Bush 43 strategist and Prince of Darkness Karl Rove. Check their reactions here. Then, call your local sports book ... get your bets down now.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

'24,' 9/11 and the certainty of uncertainty

The Fox series 24 debuted on Nov. 6, 2001, weeks after the worst foreign attack on American soil. In the eight years since then, its fictional forecast of endless terrorism in this country has been a lightning rod for controversy and a source of inspiration for those who championed the fight against the "axis of evil."

Fox's cancellation of 24, announced on Friday and effective with the series finale on May 24, ends a signal moment in the national teleculture when fiction and reality fused in the fall of 2001. ...

The Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning Fox show blazed fresh stylistic trails. Its real-time structure, with each episode documenting one hour in the life of national crisis, was joined with split-screen views, a noisy on-screen digital clock, and a relentless tension and foreboding. These signature touches (as well as characters with complexity and depth, people we actually care about) eventually made 24 the longest-running espionage-based series in television history.

The autumn of 2001 was thick with shows that anticipated the gathering storm of terrorism we live through today. Besides 24, other shows making their debut -- ABC's Alias, CBS's The Agency and NBC's UC: Undercover -- were the canaries in a cultural coalmine, transmitting the new national anxiety about our friends and enemies, foreign and domestic, and how each could trade places in a geopolitical eyeblink.

The Wen Ho Lee and Robert Hanssen espionage cases, the anthrax attacks, would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid and bureaucratic infighting at the FBI were all real-life examples of what 24 tapped into so effectively: the predictable unpredictability of life in an age of terrorism.

Since 2001, of course, other TV series have addressed our nervous Zeitgeist, from the lighthearted (NBC's Chuck) to the deadly serious (CBS's The Unit). But Fox's 24 remains the long-distance runner, the template for national-insecurity-as-prime-time-entertainment in the post-9/11 world. ...

Read the rest at

Image credits: '24' intertitle card: Fox. New York skyline, 9/11/01: National Park Service (public domain).

Monday, March 29, 2010

Seven days of the Democrats

“A week is a year in politics,” some political physicist once observed. By that highly compressed metric, the year between March 23 and today went as well — as perfectly, insanely great — as it ever has for the Democrats. To judge from the succession of Democratic initiatives advanced on Capitol Hill and from the White House, and the rhetorical and strategic energy that preceded them, there’s a fresh chutzpah, a swagger in the step of the Dems that’s at least momentarily got Republicans on the defensive.

It started Tuesday with President Obama signing into law what may be the landmark of his domestic agenda, a sweeping health-care bill intended to cover another 32 million Americans with health insurance — a gambit that brings the United States as close to universal health care as we’ve ever come.

On Friday the president and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a breakthrough deal on a replacement for the START agreement, a proposed landmark treaty that would update the Cold War-era pact, and cut U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles by 30 percent. Pending ratification by the Senate, Obama will sign the formal treaty on April 8 in Prague.

"I'm pleased to announce that after a year of intense negotiations, the United States and Russia have agreed to the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades," Obama told reporters.

"With this agreement, the United States and Russia -— the two largest nuclear powers in the world — also send a clear signal that we intend to lead," the president said.

The domestic triumph of health-care reform, followed in dizzyingly short order by a sweeping proposal to reduce the world’s biggest nuclear arsenals … Is there Red Bull in the water supply at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

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Magic is generally defined as the art of misdirection; on Saturday, the president proved himself to be something of a master of the art. First came the news that, one day into the spring congressional recess (lawmakers lulled into thinking a quiet March Madness weekend was in store), the White House announced it had made 15 recess appointments, vital additions to agencies and boards that Obama made without the Senate’s approval.

It’s hardly unprecedented; recess appointments are a presidential perk that’s been used routinely (President Reagan did it hundreds of times). It’s one the Obama administration has been reluctant to use, a nod to its bipartisan inclination. That was then, this is now; no doubt invigorated by the big health-care win, Team Obama’s clutch of recess appointments was the week’s last slap upside the Republicans’ heads.

It was thought that Obama issued the appointments while safely ensconced at Camp David on Saturday. The news broke a while later that, no, the commander-in-chief was on the ground in frickin’ Afghanistan! President Obama arrived that day, making a surprise visit to U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base, and calling on Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a face-to-face. After six hours or so on the ground, the multitasker-in-chief hotfooted it home, back to the White House. Next mission: a Passover Seder with family, friends and close staff members, on Monday.

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This sense of the wind at the back of the Democrats is contagious. We’ve seen it on the Hill in recent weeks and months, as Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida and Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York spoke truth to power on the House floor during the vituperative health-care debate, with rhetorical flourishes that had more to do with the street than with Roberts’ Rules of Order.

Sen. Al Franken got the badass bug over the weekend. Frankel (who I saw occasionally back in the day at the New York Sports Club on 80th and Broadway in Manhattan, not far enough from Zabar’s, the gourmet-food emporium) was the subject of a media ambush orchestrated by Jason Mattera, a conservative mediaite and wannabe hit-man reporter in the mold of the producers from Fox News.

Nico Pitney of The Huffington Post writes:
“A conservative media activist named Jason Mattera confronted Sen. Al Franken last weekend and has posted video of the incident on YouTube.

“In the video, Mattera introduces himself warmly to Franken and then asks him, "Which portions of the health care bill lower costs? Is it the provision giving $7 billion to fund jungle gyms or the provision mandating that employers provide time off for breastfeeding?"

“Franken asks him to show him the portion of the legislation that gives "$7 billion to fund jungle gyms." Mattera points to a section of the bill he was carrying with him, but when Franken begins to respond, Mattera interjects: "Why is that the job of the federal create an army of monkey bars? Go ahead, answer it."

“At this point, Franken seems to have had enough. "You have to shut up right now and listen to me instead of interrupting me." Mattera says, "I'm sorry, go ahead." The two continue their back-and-forth as Franken heads up a flight of stairs. …
Franken, of course, has been no freshman shrinking violet on Capitol Hill. From the beginning the prickly Minnesota senator has left no ideologue unchallenged, in recent months happily bitch-slapping Sens. Joe Lieberman and John Thune, and getting in the face of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. Ambush-boy Mattera would be no exception.

Franken isn’t just an odd case. What’s striking is the way in which the Democrats, collectively buoyed by one success, have used its momentum to bolster their own self-confidence. And there’s no success quite like a Historic one.

William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the Associated Press on Sunday that the Obama White House "had a political near-death experience over health care the past few months. It turned out OK in the end, but it was a close call. So I think they have to ask themselves: Do they think Democratic elected officials and the electorate have the stomach for a lot more controversy?"

That misses the point of the White House’s recent assertiveness. It’s never really been about deliberately courting controversy; it’s been a matter of getting things done. Of intending to lead. And over the last seven days, that’s exactly what’s happened: a series of achievements, crowded with ceremony and substance.

All in all, it seems, a helluva good time to be a Democrat in Washington. For as long as it lasts.

Image credits: Obama top: Pool. Red Bull: Red Bull GmBH. Obama in Afghanistan: Pete Souza/The White House.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Presidential fists of fury

The epic battle for health-care reform has been recorded in millions upon millions of words, but leave it to the medium of the comics to boil everything down perfectly. Over the weekend The Root published this priceless comic-style distillation of the debate, its players and its outcome written, created and drawn by Lawrence Ross and Joshua Kemble.

Besides the big health-care win, there was news late yesterday that President Obama used the just-started congressional recess to exercise his presidential prerogative, making 15 recess appointments to fill vacancies in his administration and various agencies — bypassing the need for Senate confirmation. Republicans are not happy. Obama's fists of fury strike again.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Nick Veasey's art under the skin

In a world rife with identity-based divisions, it’s the rare and valuable artist who can express the commonalities of the human experience in a way that can’t be debated or challenged or politicized. Kudos, then, to Nick Veasey.

The award-winning British artist and photographer recently published “X-ray: See Through the World Around You” (Viking/Penguin), a survey of 13 years of his experimentation with X-ray imagery, a book of startlingly original images using X-ray technology and some Photoshop manipulation to get under the skin of our everyday lives in stark and novel ways. The New York Daily News ran a slideshow of his work recently.

Some of the most arresting forms of expression and creativity in the culture have less to do with sui generis conjuring — creating something new out of whole cloth — and more to do with juxtaposing or repositioning life’s ordinaries in refreshing new ways.

That’s Veasey’s approach. By using the common medical tool of X-rays and placing its resultant images in an everyday context, Veasey has created darkly whimsical work that speaks to human universality, even as it shows how those tools have already permeated every part of the human condition.

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In Veasey’s hands, the intrinsically diagnostic function of the X-ray takes on a voyeuristic aspect that is one with our relentless thirst for information. That comes home in one image in particular: an X-ray image of a piece of luggage, its contents revealed — an image of a carry-on bag all too common today for security screeners at an airport near you. An expression of 21st-century global security on the gallery wall.

“The Gunman,” an eerily beautiful image of an armed man, is another commentary on life in the post-9/11 world. The X-rays are powerful enough to see through the external contours of the man's foreboding silhouette, and through the gun he’s hiding in a holster, right down to the bullets in the magazine.

There’s no way to tell if this is a hijacker or a U.S. marshal sworn to stop a hijacker. The almost clinical anonymity of the figure, the lack of context for the weapon he’s carrying and why he carries it, gives this image the power of the dangerous ubiquity its subject represents.

Luckily, no human beings were harmed for these images. Since X-rays require several minutes to achieve the stunningly sharp resolution we see (a level of exposure that would be dangerous to living tissue), several of the images were created with either skeletons in rubber suits or cadavers donated by medical science.

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Which doesn’t diminish their emotional impact. You can’t look at these images without embracing the mortality behind them, however wittily expressed. Veasey’s “The Human Race” — a sly postmodern update of some of Eadweard Muybridge’s celebrated motion studies and the various ascent-of-man graphics we’ve all seen forever — puts the totality of human endeavor in a wryly cynical perspective.

But there’s also something darkly hopeful about these shots. There are exactly 206 bones in the human body; when you see those bones in the various skeletal forms of Veasey’s work, arrayed in various human endeavors, what comes clear is what we all have in common regardless of race, color or creed.

In Veasey’s artistic world, utopia is darkly lit. There is no racism, gender bias, religious bent or political persuasion. We are all very much the same.

Mortality is an equal opportunity employer.

Image credits: All images © 2010 Nick Veasey.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Phases of a crisis

The suicide machine known as the Republican Party should be facing a massive recall right about now, the better to find a way to stop the episodes of unintended acceleration that make the GOP vulnerable to going over a cliff between now and November.

There doesn’t seem to be an emergency brake or kill switch anywhere in the machinery. In their inexorable drive toward unswerving ideological purity, conservatives are imposing what amount to loyalty oaths on their followers, and woe unto those apostates who wander too far off the grounds.

David Frum can testify to that. Frum, author, former Bush 41 speechwriter and a true believer in conservative principles, was “terminated” yesterday from his staff position at the American Enterprise Institute, after Frum made on-air comments on MSNBC, and wrote an opinion piece for finding fault with the failed Republican strategy for derailing the health-care legislation that is now the law of the land. In the CNN column, Frum said the health care issue had proven to been a sad turnabout of last year’s conservative confidence:

“The ‘Waterloo’ threatened by [South Carolina Senator] Jim DeMint last year regarding Obama and health care has finally arrived all right: Only it turns out to be our own.”

Frum may also have been cashiered for putting talk-radio Rottweiler and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh in his place. Also from the CNN piece:

“When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say -- but what is equally true -- is that he also wants Republicans to fail.

“If Republicans succeed -- if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office -- Rush's listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less and hear fewer ads for Sleep Number beds.”

Then, in another rare burst of conservative candor, Frum said on ABC’s “Nightline” that the right-wing ideological bent of Fox news, and the Republican Party’s dance with that network was damaging to the credibility of the party.

"We're discovering we work for Fox," he told ABC.

Frum has insisted the excommunication was his idea, after AEI leadership offered him the chance to stay and work for free. It’s hard out there for everyone, even conservative columnists. No doubt disenchanted with making pro bono work a part of his résumé, Frum announced his departure. “Premises will be vacated no later than April 9,” he wrote in a letter to AEI president Arthur Brooks.

Ja Car commented at The Huffington Post: "Somebody forgot to tell Frum AEI is a 'we tell you what to think tank.'"

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It’s more evidence (like you need any more) that the Republican Party is experiencing the kind of existential crisis that occurs in large corporations and other unwieldy human enterprises, and for at least some of the same reasons. There’s insight from the corporate world that’s easily analogized to the travails of the GOP.

The American Press Institute held a conference of CEOs from various media concerns in November 2008. The conference had, among things, the mission of discussing survival options and timetables for the newspaper industry in a time of unprecedented challenge, and crisis, for print journalism.

In a summary, one that made use of the graph you see here, the Institute entertained the advice of a business turnaround specialist and professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who determined that companies under such stress “should start [course correction] by plotting their place on a ‘Phases of a Crisis’ chart. The earliest stage is indicated by a company essentially blind to eroding conditions undermining its business. This is followed by acknowledgement but inaction, followed by faulty action in hopes of a quick fix, followed by full-blown crisis and finally dissolution of the enterprise.”

According to the specialist, “[F]ailure to take action at any point on the curve means the enterprise inexorably moves to the next point. As an organization moves down the crisis curve, it will find executing a recovery plan more difficult, and will have less time to do it.”

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Where the Republican Party is on this hypothetically relentless downhill trajectory is open to debate. Trying to get a sense of “rock bottom” is hard to do when the rocks that are presumably at the bottom keep moving under your feet. Some observers will say the GOP is at the top of this poison wave — somewhere in the vicinity of the P1 value: “Blinded,” unable to look past ideology in order to see the ruinous course it’s on. Others will say the grim slide is well underway, and that the GOP is leaving the P3 zone (“faulty action”) and headed straight for P4 — full-on “crisis.”

Recent behavior by Republicans suggests that they’re on the outskirts of crisis this minute. The leadership would do well to look into this. Despite the fact that the graph was prepared to address problems in a completely different organizational structure, the Phases of Crisis graph looks to be as applicable for a rudderless political party as it is for a newspaper business, another concern that hasn't kept pace with a changing world.

Image credits: David Frum: NBC News. Limbaugh, October 2009: NBC News. Phases of a Crisis graph: American Press Institute/Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

YouBoob: John Boehner goes ballistic, then viral

One of the more sadly astonishing but thoroughly entertaining moments of Sunday’s health-care vote in the House of Representatives came from an unlikely source.

If you were watching the proceedings, you must have seen Ohio Republican congressman John Boehner speaking passionately against the legislation. Actually, “passionately” doesn’t quite describe it. Boehner was clearly off his meds that day, cranking up his address to a fever pitch so quickly, he looked to be having a kind of non compos mentis grand mal seizure.

The genuine article looks bad enough. The unbridled, free-floating rage of the conservatives and their supporters is distilled in Boehner’s call-and-response outburst. But the congressman’s antics will be preserved on more than videotape and in the pages of the Congressional Record.

Someone (God love you whoever you are) reedited’s moving Obama “Yes We Can” campaign video from 2008, adding a loop of Boehner’s rant in counterpoint to the original music track. The remix’s been posted to YouTube, like everything else in creation.

It is hard to imagine any contrast of visuals, any clash of soundbites that more perfectly illustrates the mindsets, the differing philosophies between Republican lawmakers and everyday people. This is the contrast, as stark and plain as black and white, day and night, no and yes.

This is what we’re up against.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The GOP and its malcontents

Sometime on Tuesday night, some idiot cut the propane line on the gas grill at the Virginia home of the brother of Rep. Thomas Perriello, a Democratic congressman who voted for the health care bill that was just signed into law. An organizer for the Lynchburg, Va., Tea Party, posted on his blog what he believed to be the congressman’s address, in case “any of his friends and neighbors want to drop by and express their thanks regarding his vote for health care.”

It goes without saying that a lit match anywhere near that line could have meant a disaster for Bo Perriello, his wife or their four, small, children. Happily, that didn’t happen. But that little incident reflects how the Republican Party in particular and the nation in general are dealing with something even more combustible.

With the passage of the health-care reform bill into law, the Republicans have started the ritual blame game, deciding who in the conservative ranks was at fault for the most stunning legislative rebuke the GOP has sustained in years.

They can start with their philosophical brethren, the good folks in the Tea Party movement.

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The behavior of Tea Party activists in the weeks and days and even hours before Sunday’s pivotal House vote — when TP protesters stained the parliamentary process with hateful posters and old-fashioned racist invective — probably made it easy for Democratic fence-sitters to throw their weight behind the Obama legislation that passed.

But the inflammatory rhetoric of the Tea Party crowd isn’t isolated to the Tea Party. After the vote came down on Sunday, GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa spoke to a crowd of TP activists.

“You are the awesome American people,” King said. “If I could start a country with a bunch of people, they’d be the folks who were standing with us the last few days. Let’s hope we don’t have to do that! Let’s beat that other side to a pulp! Let’s chase them down. There’s going to be a reckoning!”

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On Saturday, Missouri congressman Emanuel Cleaver was spat upon by a protestor. Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and icon of the civil rights movement, was called a “nigger.” And Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank was labeled a “faggot” by protestors who shouted at him as he made his way to work.

South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip and like Lewis a veteran of the civil rights era, told The Huffington Post that he “heard people saying things [over the weekend] that I have not heard since March 15, 1960, when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus.”

And then there was that little outburst on Sunday by Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Texas, the conservative who shouted “baby killer” at Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan on the floor of the House of Representatives, while Stupak was defending his support of the bill.

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Want some more? On the day Obama signed health-care bill into law, Carl Paladino, a Buffalo millionaire and Republican candidate for governor, equated the impact of the new federal health care law to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“The day that bill was passed will be remembered just as 9/11 was remembered in history,” Paladino told Curtis Sliwa during a morning drive-time interview on AM-970. “It was an attempt by these people in Washington to defy the Constitution.”

In the days since the signing, there have been at least 10 attacks or threats against Stupak and other Democratic lawmakers in upstate New York, Kansas, Ohio and Arizona.

And, oh yeah, that severed gas line at Bo Perriello’s home.

You can’t say President Obama’s inauguration 14 months ago didn’t put people to work. It effectively created a full employment act for Tea Party activist sign painters, graphic artists and Web designers all over the country. In their angry Photoshop-capable hands, the 44th president of the United States has been transformed into a witch doctor, a lab-coated mad scientist, Batman’s nemesis the Joker, a surrogate for Osama bin Laden, a Russian general and a darker, leaner version of Adolf Hitler.

The Internet is of course a great conduit for artistic outrage. Recently, for example, the SarahPAC Web site, run by former Alaska governor and political personality Sarah Palin, displayed a map of the United States featuring 20 crosshair designs scattered over various states — 20 crosshairs meant to symbolize the 20 House Democrats thought to be politically vulnerable in November.

And if that ballistic metaphor isn’t enough, check her Twitter page. That’s where, in the wake of conservative defeat last weekend, Palin wrote: “Commonsense Conservatives & Lovers of America: Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!”

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But there’s another element to all this. Clyburn’s sense of the pervasiveness of this attitude — “This stuff is not all that isolated,” he told MSNBC. “It's pretty widespread. I hope it's not too deep" — anticipates the reality documented in a March 2 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC report, the cover story of its quarterly Intelligence Report publication, documents “an astonishing 244 percent increase in the number of antigovernment Patriot groups in 2009.”

“At the same time,” the report reads, “nativist extremist groups have increasingly adopted ideas from the Patriot movement — demonstrating a cross-pollination between different segments of the radical right not seen in years.”

The threads, the links between the Tea Party, the Republican Party and the extremist right are a command of the lexicon of intolerance and a gauzy, generalized opposition to the federal government. But for the Republican Party — nominally the only grownup in the room, the one marginally respectable political group out of the three — these commonalities are dangerous.

With Tea Partiers spitting and shouting obscenities at people doing the people’s business; with Republicans vilifying the Democrats, with zealots like Palin and Tea Party darling Tom Tancredo dictating the terms of discourse, with Patriot groups metastasizing around the country … it’s now gut-check time for the Republicans. This is their opportunity to finally, formally decide what the GOP will be, what it will stand for, in the future. Nothing less than the party’s future hangs in the balance.

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It’s not enough to wag a finger in front of their faces saying, “bad, bad Tea Party,” which is what RNC Chairman Michael Steele attempted on NBC's "Meet the Press” on Sunday. “It's certainly not a reflection of the movement or the Republican Party when you have idiots out there saying stupid things,” he said.

Tea Party leadership tried much the same trick. "I absolutely think it's isolated," Amy Kremer, a Tea Party coordinator, told Fox News on Sunday. "It's disgraceful and the people in this movement won't tolerate it, because that's not what we're about."

But frankly, that’s boilerplate revulsion, day-late dollar-short statements more or less expected. It does nothing to change the evolving symbiotic philosophical relationship between the Republican Party, the Tea Party and the network of ad hoc malcontents the SPLC report warns us about.

Many of their talking points — smaller government, lower taxes, curbs on immigration, unfettered application of Second Amendment rights, an end to federal “intrusion” — are identical. Their demographics (almost uniformly white, largely rural, chronologically older) are, too.

When push comes to shove, there’s not much more than an inch of daylight between them. A Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday seems to bear that out. The survey of self-described Tea Party members found that 74 percent of them vote or are leaning to vote for Republican candidates.

You’re not just known by the company you keep, you’re also known by the company that keeps you. In the wake of the recent incidents, the web of anti-government sympathies that bind mainstream and extremist is a huge problem for the Republicans in November. And one for the rest of the country right now.

◊ ◊ ◊

“We have seen a party of incoherent rage fused with its right-wing subculture, alien to logic and fact,” said The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel today on MSNBC, referencing the Republicans.

We’ve also seen what could be, if not for cooler heads prevailing somewhere, the twilight of the ideologues of the legislative right, and the rise of the extremist fringe to a frightening level of persuasion.

And we’ve seen what may be the start of a sociopolitical variation on a cynical cold-war strategy attributed to an American officer attending the destruction of the provincial capital of Ben Tre in February 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. Associated Press correspondent Peter Arnett quoted the officer: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

The extremist-right movement in America, and their passive-aggressive enablers and proxies in the right-wing media and on Capitol Hill, are similarly engaged in a pursuit of a dangerous strategy that would destroy this nation in order to save it, for themselves.

That’s a bargain this nation should want no part of. Hopefully, we’ll see that in November.

Image credits: Tea Party protest signs: Via The Huffington Post. House Democrats target map: via Talking Points Memo. Carl Paladino: New York Daily News. Sarah Palin: Fox News. Twitter page: via The Huffington Post.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

This is when change begins

It’s no panacea. The process of redirecting the oceanliner of our bureaucracy vis-à-vis health care will take time; the sausage-making process common to American legislation has not been repealed; the full effects won’t trickle down to everyday bedrock for another four years. But today at the White House, President Obama did what at least eight presidents in the modern era before him could not:

With his signing of the 2,409-page Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the biggest shift in health insurance coverage for American citizens since Medicare in 1966, about 32 million uninsured Americans are poised to reap the benefits of the closest thing to universal health insurance in the nation’s history.

A change in the social contract between government and governed has been laid upon the table, signed, sealed and delivered.

“Today, health insurance becomes law in the United States of America,” Obama said in the East Room of the White House.

“The bill I’m signing will set in motion reforms that generations of Americans have fought for and marched for and hungered to see,” said the president. “Today we are affirming that essential truth, a truth every generation is called to rediscover for itself, that we are not a nation that scales back its aspirations.”

Up to now, much of the talking on the issue has been about politics and policy. With health-care reform now health-care law, you make the pivot to perception — of the president and his party. Obama’s too polite to throw it out there, but he’s entitled to ask: How ya like me now?

People forget it was in his special joint session address to Congress, on Sept. 9, 2009, when he made his daring gauntlet throw-down on health care: “I am not the first president to take up this cause but I am determined to be the last.”

Six months and change later, it’s reality. That’s a potent message to put before the voters between now and November, an actualization of his campaign slogan: not Yes He Can but Yes He Did. It’s the kind of big win Obama needed to buttress the Democratic base of supporters tired of congressional gridlock, hungry for the kind of transformational event that Obama’s election showed them was possible in the first place.

◊ ◊ ◊

Certainly, some of the disillusioned independent voters who drifted away from the Democrats in the past year will come back into the fold, galvanized by a refreshingly new Democratic focus on getting things done, and the Dems’ apparent willingness to leave the circular-firing-squad behavior to the Republicans.

And that perception of Democrats as winners will resonate further on the president’s behalf. With passage of a health-care law he pledged the American people, Barack Obama already steps into the ranks of the most socially transformational presidents of the last 100 years.

And we’re not even halfway through his first term.

◊ ◊ ◊

This is when change begins. But let's give credit where it’s overdue. If we want a shorter, less cumbersome name for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, we might try calling it what it really is: the Dingle-Kennedy Act.

Their legislative contributions form the DNA of the new health-care law. No two members of Congress worked harder for what Obama signed into law than Democratic Rep. John Dingle, the congressional champion of health-care reform going back more than 50 years, and Edward Moore Kennedy, the late Democratic senator from Massachusetts who for 40 years made health-care reform not just his job in the Senate but his mission, his calling, to the day he died last year.

Dingle and Kennedy’s work for the healthcare reform that President Obama signed into law was, among other things, an attempt to level the playing field between haves and have-nots.

The New York Times’ David Leonhard gets that. Writing in the Times today about the economic impact of the Obama health care law, he notes how the law begins to change, or at least challenge, the economic disparities of American life — disparities that had their origins in the Reagan administration.

◊ ◊ ◊

“The bill that President Obama signed on Tuesday is the federal government’s biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago,” Leonhard wrote.

“Over most of that period, government policy and market forces have been moving in the same direction, both increasing inequality. The pretax incomes of the wealthy have soared since the late 1970s, while their tax rates have fallen more than rates for the middle class and poor.

"Nearly every major aspect of the health bill pushes in the other direction. … Beyond the health reform’s effect on the medical system, it is the centerpiece of his deliberate effort to end what historians have called the age of Reagan.”

And Leonhard, recounting a story told to him by White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers, reported Tuesday on how Summers, helping his daughter prepare for a college exam, “realized that the federal government had not passed major social legislation in decades. There was the frenzy of the New Deal, followed by the G.I. Bill, the Interstate Highway System, civil rights and Medicare — and then nothing worth its own section in the history books.

“Now there is.”

Image credits: Health-care bill signing: Pete Souza/The White House. Signature: President Obama. Ted Kennedy: via The Huffington Post.

Monday, March 22, 2010

‘This is what change looks like’

“I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.”
President Obama

Yesterday’s date rendered strictly in numerical form — 3.21.10 — looks a lot like what the day turned out to be: a countdown clock on ruinous past practices, the arrival of time’s-up on a national legacy that’s been a national embarrassment before the world. It might have been just another official first full day of spring if not for the fact that lawmakers on Capitol Hill were busy changing the arc of the national future.

With the initiative and energy of President Obama and the negotiating skill of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership, a courageous Democratic Congress voted last night to enact the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the most panoramic change in health insurance coverage for American citizens since Medicare in 1966.

In two dramatic votes last night the Democratic led House passed the Senate bill 219-212, passed the reconciliation bill 220-211. The Senate bill, passed last Christmas Eve, now goes to President Obama to be signed into law in a ceremony on Tuesday morning. The reconciliation bill makes corrections to the Senate bill; it goes to the Senate for a final vote. A motion to recommit was also defeated by the Democrats.

The vote last night and the president’s expected signature in the morning usher in the most sweeping realignment of the terms of the social contract between the federal government and the American people in generations, and the closest thing to universal health care this nation has ever seen.

MSNBC’s Ed Schultz got the gravity of the occasion: “This is a defining moment in our history when it comes to what our priorities are. We have chosen people over profit.”

Talk-radio velociraptor and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh might want to have his Costa Rican real estate agent on speed-dial right about now.

◊ ◊ ◊

“Tonight, after nearly 100 years of talk and frustration, after decades of trying, and a year of sustained effort and debate, the United States Congress finally declared that America’s workers and America's families and America's small businesses deserve the security of knowing that here, in this country, neither illness nor accident should endanger the dreams they’ve worked a lifetime to achieve,” Obama said in the East Room of the White House last night, after the deal went down.

“Tonight, at a time when the pundits said it was no longer possible, we rose above the weight of our politics. We pushed back on the undue influence of special interests. We didn't give in to mistrust or to cynicism or to fear. Instead, we proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things and tackling our biggest challenges. We proved that this government -- a government of the people and by the people -- still works for the people. ...

“This isn’t radical reform. But it is major reform. This legislation will not fix everything that ails our health care system. But it moves us decisively in the right direction. This is what change looks like.”

◊ ◊ ◊

For days now, the Democrats on the Hill have quietly betrayed a growing sense of optimism about passage of the bill, even as they engaged in a variation of Lyndon Johnson-style arm-twisting. And deal-making wioth one noted holdout: Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, a conservative Democrat who'd opposed the bill since November because of what he said were loopholes through which elective abortion could be paid for with public funds.

Stupak insisted on and yesterday received a way to make clear his objection to public funds used for abortion: A pending executive order announced by President Obama, meant to shore up his already-stated commitment to maintaining the Hyde Amendment's policy and language restricting federal funds for abortion in the current health-care legislation. Executive Order 13535 was signed after an agreement with Stupak, who’d threatened a no vote against the bill unless such an agreement were obtained.

“We’ve all stood on principle,” Stupak said at a news conference announcing the deal. “We expect the current Hyde language to apply throughout this health-care bill. “[The president] said there will be no federal dollars for abortion. The president has put his commitment in writing. This is a very extensive order, he does not plan on rescinding it.” ...

“We've always said ... that we were for health-care reform, but there was a principle that meant more to us than anything, and that was the sanctity of life.”

There’s some illogic in Stupak’s argument, though: How do you uphold the sanctity of life as an absolute and oppose health-care reform when opposing it likely means dismissing the sanctity of the lives of millions of Americans here already?

◊ ◊ ◊

The great thing about the Stupak-brokered agreement — besides the fact that its very existence validates the best deliberative possibilities of American government — is something that burnishes the president’s negotiating bona fides: the agreement that led to Obama’s executive order reflects no compromise of Obama’s own principles on the matter of elective abortion. He’s been on the record as saying that under his health plan, no federal funds would be used or siphoned off, directly or indirectly, to fund non-medically necessary abortions.

That was always non-negotiable. What made the difference for Stupak? What finally put the ball over the goal line? Putting the president’s principle in writing. That’s what this all came down to. It’s like what can happen in a multibillion-dollar business deal with lives and livelihoods on the line by the thousands, a negotiation that goes back and forth forever ... finally settled when one side picks up the tab for the chump change of lawyers’ fees.

The fact of President Obama putting in writing what he’d already stated and supported costs him nothing politically; despite the reflex reaction of pro-choice progressives, the executive order betrays no reversal in his previously stated positions. Compromise is a wonderful thing. Especially when you don’t have to make one.

◊ ◊ ◊

Someone on Twitter, hours after the vote: “Dems doing stuff is actually kind of sexy.”

◊ ◊ ◊

In her address from the House floor, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi picked up on a point about the health-care bill’s passage that’s gone mostly under the radar. It’s nothing you can quantify, and that’s one reason nobody’s paid attention to it. But leave it to a Californian to grasp the ways that legislation, when law, will reawaken a vital aspect of the country's identity.

Free to search for better job opportunities, unburdened by the need to keep a job solely because of the inability to get comparable affordable health insurance somewhere else, the American people will eventually be empowered by an Obama health-care law that revives a basic of the American dynamic: the Freedom to Move, to indulge our passion for change and the new in pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s not something the Congressional Budget Office can score, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

◊ ◊ ◊

MSNBC political analyst and tireless conservative apologist Pat Buchanan made only a brief appearance on the air for the vote analysis. His customary on-air bluster was absent. What was more startling: Buchanan, on the air, wearing a bright Democratic sky-blue tie.

◊ ◊ ◊

In some perverse way, the timing of all this couldn’t have been better. Coming to a climax as it has seven months, give or take, before the November election, the now settled health-care legislation now has the chance to work its way into the ordinary experience of American life, to become — like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid before it — an everyday companion article, one of the unspoken ubiquitous existential factors of a modern nation.

Quiet as it’s kept, it’s that fact, the everydayness of health-care reform in America, that the Republicans fear the most. Liberated from the jargon and procedure of lawmakers, health care reform and its benefits become accomplished facts of life, not the precursor to Armageddon, not nearly so exotically socialist as the GOP has painted reform for the last fourteen months. That’s hugely problematic for the Republicans.

The conservatives are already vowing a concerted movement to repeal the bill. Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Michelle Bachmann of Michigan are leading the early charge. But besides the fact that a repeal of the legislation just passed by Congress would require (1) the loss of 100+ Democratic seats in the House this November, and (2) the cooperation of the same president who spearheaded the law’s passage in the first place, there’s a more basic reason there’ll be no groundswell of support to repeal this: It’s hard to get people’s heads around the idea of repealing something that hasn’t fully taken effect.

The problem for the Republicans with the idea (already being advanced) of campaigning against health-care reform is huge on so many levels. It’s lousy politics to campaign against things people actually want, like no children being excluded from health insurance for pre-existing conditions, $250 Medicare rebates for seniors, small-business tax credits — things that go into effect the minute Obama signs the bill into law. And most of the rest of the law doesn’t go into effect until 2014. How the hell do you effectively campaign against a theoretical, against something that hasn’t happened yet?

◊ ◊ ◊

This kind of American progress is not reversible, and the Republicans know it. Like all the tectonic shifts that move this country forward, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 13th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution, from Brown v. Board of Education to the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, the health-care reform legislation is more the advance of an idea than the advance of a law.

Why? Because for all the claims of its intrusiveness, paradoxically, it’s a law that reaches for where the law doesn’t reach: to the bedside of a dying loved one whose end-of-life care is draining a family’s life savings by the day; to the kitchen table of a laid-off worker, a family breadwinner looking down the barrel of COBRA health insurance payments he can’t possibly afford to pay; to a child’s bedroom, where a couple watch their child sleep and engage, agonized, in the brutally practical calculus of wondering how her rare childhood cancer will be paid for as much as how it will be treated.

“I feel a sense that we're on the side of the angels," said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a former Freedom Rider and Civil Rights leader. "When historians pick up their pen and write about this period, they will have to say that the majority party forgot about the politics and did the right thing.”

Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur got it right too. “The health bill that will move forward today is actually a bill about life — life for all of America’s families, including women and children.”

Then Kaptur put it all together, deep emotion registered with a pause you could drive a Mack truck through. A pause and a statement that said everything:

“It is just so ........ profound to be a part of a moment when we truly move America into the twenty-first century.”

This is a defining moment in our history. This is what change looks like.

Image credits: House vote: Still from C-SPAN. Obama and Biden: Pete Souza, The White House. Bart Stupak: Reuters. Nancy Pelosi: Public domain. Obama bottom: Pool image. Rally in St. Charles, Mo.: Pete Souza, The White House.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tiger opens his own cage

We’ve been waiting for Tiger Woods’ other show to drop for a while now, the one that would more fully define his trajectory back into public life after an infidelity scandal whose spread was almost viral. The first one, of course, was that shaky performance on Feb. 19, almost exactly a month ago in front of family, friends and a broadcast seen around the world.

On Tuesday, we got the rest of that strategy. On his Web site, Tiger Woods announced his return to the world of competitive golf begins on April 8, when he plays, as more or less expected and certainly prayed for, for qualification for the hallowed Masters, at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.

“The Masters is where I won my first major, and I view this tournament with great respect. After a long and necessary time away from the game, I feel like I'm ready to start my season at Augusta.

“The major championships have always been a special focus in my career and, as a professional, I think Augusta is where I need to be, even though it's been awhile since I last played. ...”

Executives at the PGA and CBS Sports, longtime home of the Masters are salivating at the prospect of what’s already being projected to be the biggest TV audience for a preo golf event in years, and maybe ever. About 19 weeks after the swiftest image meltdown in merchandising history, advertisers are lining up again. And bet on it: the stock market will be very happy the Monday after Tiger makes the cut. You read it here first.

◊ ◊ ◊

This is a case of a Tiger opening his own cage. He’s setting the terms of his return to public life and, to some extent, the tone in which at least the first days of that return will be conducted. Implicit in this announcement is the idea that, whether you like it or not, whether you like him or not, Tiger Woods is done with mea culpas, he’s through making apologies, and he’s getting more comfortable with the idea of transmuting apology into gold on the golf course, where it counts. Where it matters.

The Augusta crowd in general, and the traditionalists of the Masters in particular, are likely to rally round Woods, protective of him as one of the green jacket family.

But Tiger’s return next month has as much to do with the calendar itself as any grand event-specific strategy he might be mounting. The Masters was the scene of four of his previous triumphs, four of the most electrifying moments in the game. It makes sense to lead with your strength, especially when the event where you've previously brandished that strength is right around the corner.

The British Open and the U.S. Open are still months away. And of course there’s the little problem of perception. Since his endorsement deals with AT&T and Accenture went away, it’d be a bit of a public-relations challenge to show up and compete at the Accenture Match Play Championship or the AT&T National. All of which makes the Masters the logical first move.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Masters brings him back at a venue that’s equal to his place in the game. But Tiger’s storied penchant for control can’t be maintained in the friendly confines of Augusta National forever. Sooner or later, somebody’s gonna lob a verbal grenade he can’t get away from.

Somebody will yell out of a car window and call him back to reality, reminding him that even in a nation besotted by celebrity, a lot of people in America object to him making the beast with two backs with a number of women around the country, none of whom were his wife.

This is when people need to see a new Tiger Woods, not just in his private life, but in his public life too. For all the exposure and endless manicuring of his image, anyone who’s watched Tiger Woods in action on the golf course over the last decade knows they’re looking at a man possessed.

Look at the videos, watch him in the majors: After making a shot, good or bad, Tiger often walks the course with a certain driven aspect, a man barely acknowledging the gallery of sincere well-wishers, a look on his face somewhere between absolute focus and visceral discomfort. He might as well be the Terminator in search of Sarah Conner, with mission prime-directives flashing before his cyborg eyes.

◊ ◊ ◊

That crap’s got to change, at least a little. He seems to know this. Implied but not stated in Woods’s recent vow of self-improvement is Tiger being better to everyday people, and not the everyday people he slept with. The golfer has been accused of affecting a haughty, impersonal manner; don’t be surprised if the new Tiger Woods actually works the gallery at the Masters … leaning into the frame of somebody’s digital-camera shot … lingering with one citizen questioner or another … slowing a little bit in his marches down the fairway … starting to reconnect with the public in general by connecting with the people at Augusta in particular.

We’ll see. Rehab of any kind is a process, not an event. Rehabbing from sex is, must be, coming down off a drug like no other.

The other rehabilitation is the one to rescue the public perception of Tiger Woods, and salvage the good will of many people in this country who feel let down, deceived. Especially the kids.

But America being America, few things will help restore Tiger to the public’s good graces like winning. Victory muffles the sound of a multitude of sins. The American redemption song has a lot of verses. Just ask Robert Downey Jr. Ask Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman). Hell, ask Mickey Rourke. They’ll tell you: Fitzgerald was wrong about second acts.

If they can pull it off, so can Tiger Woods.

Image credits: Tiger Woods top: AP/Charlie Riedel. Tiger Woods logo: © 2010 Tiger Woods and Nick Faldo, 1997 Masters: Stephen Munday/Getty Images. Terminator image from one of the "Terminator" film franchise; Terminator character © 2010 Pacificor. 

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wabbit Season 2059



Its towers chipped and decaying, its grand thoroughfares now reservoirs for trash, a once-proud and glittering metropolis is a hollow, broken husk of its former self. Its self before GreatWar 2.0.

As we ZOOM IN to one particularly abandoned district, we see sporadic signs of life: fires burning in trash cans, bands of marauders roving potholed streets in search of victims: anyone on foot. Almost anyone.


Down a dimly-lit ALLEY off one of the serpentine streets, a figure some distance away blocks the rain-dappled light behind him. The figure, a menace of armor, moves forward. Its hulking shape announces: this is nobody’s victim. SLOWLY ZOOMING toward the figure, its details become apparent: A man, grizzled and grimy, wearing body armor head to foot, one panel bearing an identity label: “FUDD, HUNTER, CLASS 1.” He brandishes a weapon, an over-under 12-load Taser shotgun that glistens in the sparse overhead light. His eyes are fixed in a relentless focus. His mouth doesn’t move but it doesn't have to. We hear his thoughts, an incantation to himself, a mantra willing him to self-control.

Be vewwy … vewwy … quiet. I … am hunting wabbits.

From a working draft of “Fudd v Bugs 2059,” a post-apocalyptic live-action/animated reworking of the classic Looney Tunes cartoon tandem, now in development at Warner Brothers. In the sci-fi update, Elmer Fudd, a seasoned and ruthless casual hunter, has been biomechanically re-engineered by the government and tasked with capturing the last remaining mammal in the family Leporidae of the order Lagomorpha — a rabbit — for breeding in an environmentally depleted world.

His prey: Bugs Bunny, the wily, elusive creature who makes use of the city’s subterranean spaces, and his own survival instincts, instincts technologically sharpened by his time as a test subject in an experimental U.S. military animal-testing program. It’s cat and mouse, hunter and hunted in the nightmare world of 2059.

Tobey Maguire is reportedly on the short list for the role of the gifted hare, as is Jim Carrey. Gerard Butler is being considered for the role of Elmer Fudd; Will Smith has also been approached.

Kathryn Bigelow will direct.

Image credit: Beanjamish,

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Health-care reform: Navigating the tunnel's end

The health-care debate that’s on the verge of becoming American history has hundreds of thousands of personal stories that distill the nation’s perilous situation on health care for its citizens into something accessible. The lofty, procedural, partisan rhetoric of the issue comes down to everyday scenarios. Like the one for Natoma Canfield, a small-businesswoman recently diagnosed with leukemia, a woman whose story typifies the bureaucratic farrago facing those millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions.

Or Michael Brooks’ story. The 12-year-old Omaha boy, faced with a myofibroblastic tumor, a rare form of cancer that was unresponsive to chemotherapy, found that his family’s insurance wouldn’t cover an experimental procedure, according to KETV of Omaha. He faced a grim future until his community — from neighbors, friends and classmates to strangers wandering in off the street — rallied to gather the money for the experimental procedure. Health care by crowdsourcing: a sad sign of the times if there ever was.

It’s that kind of heart-wrenching financial improvisation that may be near an end in the United States. Sometime this week, maybe next at the very latest, President Obama expects to sign into law the most sweeping health-care legislation since Medicare, more than two generations ago, and the realization of an objective that has eluded this nation since Theodore Roosevelt first proposed it in 1912.

The caged death match Republicans have now with House Democrats hinges on so-called deeming resolutions, a procedure under which the yearlong saga of the health-care reform may finally be just about over. The resolution, shorthanded as “deem and pass,” was suggested by Rep. Louise Slaughter, chair of the House Rules Committee, and has been adopted and championed as a strategy by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

It's the latest skirmish in the health-care warfare between the House and the Senate, the bruising and confusing legislative choreography that all these months has looked like gridlock to the American people.

The intricacies of this entirely parliamentary procedure will provoke a headache you don’t need, but Jason Linkins of The Huffington Post, breaks it down nicely:
The House is stuck having to basically pass the Senate health care bill, because the bill cannot be reconciled in conference committee. Why? Because it will be filibustered. However, House members are averse to doing anything that looks like they approve of the various side-deals that were made in the Senate -- like the so-called "Cornhusker Kickback." The House intends to remove those unpopular features in budget reconciliation, but if they pursue budget reconciliation on a standard legislative timeline -- where they pass the Senate bill outright first and then go back to pass a reconciliation package of fixes -- they'd still appear to be endorsing the sketchy side deals, and then the GOP would jump up and down on their heads.

Enter deem and pass. Under this process, the House will simply skip to approving the reconciliation fixes, and "deem" the Senate bill to be passed. By doing it this way, the Democrats get the Senate bill passed while simultaneously coming out against the unpopular features of the same.

◊ ◊ ◊

The conservatives won’t roll over. In recent days, the National Republican Congressional Committee took out a new sky-is-falling ad, a countdown clock in ominous blacks, whites and red counting down the time before the expected vote.

And the conservative press is up in arms. The Wall Street Journal, mouthpiece of media buccaneer Rupert Murdoch, condemned “deem and pass” as an “amazing procedural ruse,” a “two-votes-in-one gambit” and “a brazen affront” to the Constitution. The Journal mentions in passing that the procedure has been used in the past, only going back to 1998 to put it in a shallow historical context.

Researching the issue, though, Ryan Grim of HuffPost found that the practice goes back a hell of a lot farther than that:
The first time that the chamber used what's known as a “deeming resolution” -- the mechanism Democrats are leaning toward using to pass the Senate health care bill through the House -- was March 16, 1933.

Then, as now, it involved a bill that had little support in the chamber among individual Democrats, but all of them knew they had to pass it. Very few Democrats want to vote for the Senate version of health care reform, but most are okay with it as long as it's amended through reconciliation.

Less than two weeks into FDR's first 100 days, Congress needed to raise its debt ceiling, a ritual vote that hasn't gotten any easier for the majority party in the intervening 77 years -- and is still political fodder for partisan opponents.

Instead of voting on the underlying Senate bill to raise the debt ceiling in 1933, the House voted on Resolution 63, which stated that "immediately upon the adoption of this resolution the bill H.R. 2820, with Senate amendments thereto, be, and the same hereby is, taken from the Speaker's table to the end that all Senate amendments be, and the same are hereby, agreed to. 
In other words, it was deemed passed and sent to the president for his signature. ...

“Republicans … have often made use of the deeming resolution themselves -- 36 times in 2005 and 2006, when they controlled the lower chamber. Democrats used deeming resolutions 49 times in 2007 and 2008.
◊ ◊ ◊

The bottom line: We may be approaching the light at the end of the long nightmare tunnel of the health-care debate, and this time there may be no oncoming train to deal with. The Republicans, themselves the beneficiaries of such legislative (and perfectly legal) slight-of-hand in the past (just like the Democrats), may be hoist on the same petard they’ve eagerly used before.

The stage is set for a vote this week. Some Democratic holdouts remain. Kucinich of Ohio, one of the staunchest Democratic opponents of the Obama plan, and a generally rock-solid progressive, was the object of pressure from the White House (as well as Natoma Canfield, who petitioned Kucinich to vote for the Democratic health-care plan with four poignant words: “Everything needs a start").

Citing sources, MSNBC’s Howard Fineman reported late Tuesday that Kucinich was likely to vote for the bill.

◊ ◊ ◊

The final count is expected to be close but Pelosi, DNC Chairman Tim Kaine, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, senior White House adviser David Axelrod and the president himself have all forecasted a win. For health care. This time.

Some in the media think the vote happens on Friday or Saturday, a day or two before President Obama is set to leave for Asia.

The process of health-care reform can’t begin to change fast enough for middle-class Americans. A new report prepared for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that the U.S. middle class is losing health insurance more rapidly than any other income group.

The number of middle-income workers covered by employer health insurance declined by about 3 million between 2000 and 2008. The number of uninsured middle-income wage earners increased in that time from 10.5 million to 12.9 million -- more  than that experienced by any other income group.

This week, finally, President Obama drives to the basket on health-care reform. No shots from three-point land this time. In what may be the most pivotal vote of his presidency, and sure as hell the one with the deepest resonance for the people he governs, the president is doubling down for the need for change.

And change can’t get here fast enough for middle-class Americans. People like Natoma Canfield. People like Michael Brooks. People like anybody looking at you in the mirror.

Everything needs a start.

Image credits: Obama: Still from Ad detail: National Republican Congressional Committee. Natoma Canfield: The Associated Press.
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