Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dismantling security:
The new SPLC report on DHS

For 40 years, the Southern Poverty Law Center has spoken truth to power by wielding the power of truth, and an impressively dogged vigilance, against the enemies of the domestic tranquility even when no one pays attention. Maybe especially when no one pays attention. In an era of almost boundless proliferation of hate groups (more than 1,000 around the country, the organization estimates) and a just-as-boundless hardening of feelings toward minority groups in America, the SPLC has made a habit of calling the question of our fidelity to the principles that make this nation what it is, or what it purports to be.

So it was a surprise that was no surprise that the SPLC just reported on the disconnect between the general perception of who terrorists are, and the truth, and the consequences of that disconnect.

In the summer 2011 edition of the SPLC Report, a periodic newsletter sent to SPLC members (and those, like yours truly, who’ve let their membership lapse), the organization reports that Daryl Johnson, a former terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security, told SPLC that the department had eviscerated the unit investigating non-Islamic domestic terrorism, after receiving complaints from conservatives over a 2009 DHS report on right-wing extremism in the United States.

Excerpting the SPLC report can’t do it the justice it deserves. Here, then, some hearty chunks of the interview between Johnson and SPLC’s Heidi Beirich, an interview whose central points haven’t seen that much light of day in the mainstream media:

Daryl Johnson has been battling extremist groups for two decades. He got his start in the field in 1991, when he worked on counterterrorism for the U.S. Army. In 1999, Johnson left the Army for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, where he was a subject-matter expert on violent antigovernment groups. In 2004, officials at the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) approached Johnson to take a key post as the senior domestic terrorism analyst. He accepted and, for six years, Johnson led a team of experts on domestic extremist groups.

While at DHS, Johnson and his team wrote the April 7, 2009 report, "Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment." The report, which was intended for law enforcement only, was quickly leaked and caused a firestorm among some on the political right who accused DHS of painting all kinds of conservatives as potential Timothy McVeighs.

JOHNSON: The report evolved in a complicated way. It began after a phone call from the U.S. Capitol police in January 2007. They wanted help with then-Sen. Barack Obama's announcement of his candidacy for president. We monitored the Internet for about a month or so looking for threats to Obama. We didn't see anything threat-related, but I started thinking, "What if the U.S. elects a black president? What impact will this have on extremism in this country?" ...

When Obama looked as though he was going to win the nomination [in August 2008], we started an outline. Between April and October 2008, we were immersed in collecting data. My team was still writing a draft of the report when Janet Napolitano became the new DHS secretary in January 2009.

Three months into Obama's administration, Napolitano asked us four questions: Are we seeing a rise in domestic right-wing extremism? If so, is it related to the election of a black president? What are the chances of it escalating to violence? And what are we going to do about it?

I got a tasking from the secretary, which demanded a quick turnaround. We went through all the necessary coordination; many people reviewed the draft and made comments. Several people signed off on the report: two supervisors, the Office of General Counsel, multiple editors, etc. The Office of Privacy signed off, and the Office of Policy had no suggestions.

One office raised issues — the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties [CRCL]. At the time, we weren't required to give them the report, but my boss thought we should run it past them. They had edits, but the main issue related to the definition of right-wing extremism. That office wanted a narrow definition limited to violent groups and individuals. Our subject-matter experts and management felt the definition needed to be broader.

Under CRCL's definition, if you were in the Klan, burned crosses, had a terrorist in your house and donated money to groups advocating violence, you still would not qualify as a right-wing extremist.

SPLC: Any idea who leaked it? 

JOHNSON: The report went to the fusion centers [joint federal, state and local terrorism task forces] and various law enforcement agencies. They, in turn, blasted it out to many more people. It's virtually impossible to know who leaked it, though I have some hunches. Obviously, the person who leaked the report didn't agree with it and had a political agenda.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bachmann in overdrive, and neutral

It takes a certain chutzpah to launch your presidential campaign from a town called Waterloo. In this day and age — in any day and age since 1815 — you’re just asking for it. Even with no knowledge of the battle, the last chapter in the Napoleonic Wars, the late-night crowd would have a field day with the name association alone, dismissing you with a trail of snickers and one-liners that would follow you all the way to the nomination. The one you would lose.

But Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota did just that on Monday, seven months before the Iowa caucuses, heading back to her home town in Iowa to announce her probably quixotic but certainly heartfelt candidacy for the residency in 2012.

Bachmann, who said it was “these Iowa roots and my faith in God that guide me today,” threw down the gauntlet to Obama. “I am here in Waterloo, Iowa, to announce we can win in 2012 and we will win! … We cannot afford four more years of Barack Obama.”

It may have been so much campaign bravado, the blood-to-the-head rush of a first date animating that claim to the White House. Her path to the nomination will be tough enough, littered with obstacles from her opponents and from Bachmann’s own misbegotten rhetorical past. But Bachmann’s apparently ready right now to act on that necessary of any sound presidential campaign: the courage of her convictions. That could be a formidable thing. Or not.

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Bachmann’s biography has roots in many facets of the American experience. The 55-year-old Minnesota representative born of “Norwegian Lutheran Democrats” once worked in a kibbutz in Israel, and is a former federal tax attorney, a small business owner, the biological mother of five children and, at one point a foster mother of 23 teenage girls.

She used to be an active Democrat, once working on the Jimmy Carter campaign before a personal epiphany that occurred while reading “Burr” by Gore Vidal convinced her she was, in her heart of hearts, a Republican.

But this charitable, even spiritual aspect of her past somehow manages to stay under the same cerebral roof with her more goofily provocative, willfully inartful, passionately ideological side. This is the Michele Bachmann who said in October 2008 that she was concerned that President Obama “may have anti-American values.” This is the same representative who walked that back, and that effectively said it again, on and off, up to March of this year.

The same lawmaker who objected to the scope of the questions in the constitutionally required decennial census. The same person who called for Minnesota citizens to be “armed and dangerous” on opposition to the Obama cap-and-trade taxation policy.

◊ ◊ ◊

The same legislator who conjured an army of profligate White House staffers she said were accompanying Obama on his first Asian trip, late in 2010, when in fact the White House entourage was a fraction of the one she fabricated.

The same evangelical federal officer who works with Christian youth ministries, opposes same-sex marriage or any equivalent recognition, and who, in 2004, aligned GLBT Americans collectively with “sexual dysfunction.”

The same member of the House of Representatives who, apparently with a straight face on both occasions, said the United States shouldn’t join the global economy and that the jury’s still out on whether evolution is real or not.

With a lawmaker inhabiting that multitude of personae, wielding that pallet of experiences, you’re excused if you’re inclined to ask the real Michele Bachmann to please stand up, please stand up.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi gets this. “I think she’s both a true believer ... I think that on some level she genuinely believes she has the kind of Joan of Arc-like calling to restore a Christian caliphate in the United States,” said Taibbi (who just wrote a lengthy piece on Bachmann for the magazine) on Wednesday, to Keith Olbermann on Current TV.

“But ... she’s also got this Machiavellian side where she clearly knows when to amp up the craziness and when to tone it down, when to criticize the gay marriage issue and when to forget about it.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Taibbi envisions a possible path to the GOP nomination for Bachmann. First she wins Iowa (certainly possible given her fidelity to conservative values and the fact that she was born there) and does so with the help of those who once backed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Bachmann’s presumed leverage? “The Tea Party has that king-making role in the party right now,” Taibbi said.

But Taibbi’s forecast makes an implicit assumption that’s as likely to be wrong within the fractured, schizoid Republican party as it would be in the universe of the wider American population. Taibbi overstates both the centrality of Tea Party principles to the mainstream Republican Party and Bachmann’s lock on importance to the Tea Party as the best communicator of those principles.

Give or take, Bachmann shares many of the same foundational beliefs as Romney and Herman Cain, the Godfather’s Pizza CEO who’s lately wowed the Tea Party faithful. Other candidates have pledged loyalty to Tea Party tenets. They can’t all win the nomination.

◊ ◊ ◊

And for all her loopy Tea Party appeal, for all the messianic zeal she’s apparently prepared to summon in this quest for the White House, Bachmann’s negatives remain a powerful thing.

She’s trailed by ad hominem, McCarthyite distortions of President Obama, endearing her to the Tea Party sect and no one else; she’s complicated the public’s understanding of her with elaborate, revisionist thinking on climate change and evolution; and her command of American history and geography has been, let’s say, less than sure-footed (confusing Massachusetts and New Hampshire when discussing the American Revolution isn’t helpful).

She whiffed on the history of her childhood home town. In an interview with NBC News, Bachmann said she aligned herself with the values of another Waterloo resident, the actor and conservative icon John Wayne. Only he wasn’t; Wayne hailed from Winterset, about 150 miles away. It’s thought that Bachmann really meant John Wayne Gacy, the infamous serial killer of 33 people.

Then she did it again the next damn day. In an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulus on Tuesday, Bachmann said that John Quincy Adams was one of the Founding Fathers who worked to end slavery in America. Even after Stephanopoulus corrected her, Bachmann dug in her heels and insisted she was right. Which she wasn’t, of course: John Quincy was the son of John Adams, the second president of the United States and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. That Founding Father.

Maybe she was thinking of John Gacy Adams.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The ‘Countdown’ clock resets

“As I was saying,” said Keith Olbermann, host of the Current TV-resurrected “Countdown” program on Monday, June 20, 2011, resuming his role in the national conversation 151 days after “Countdown” signed off on Another Network, 508 days before the next presidential election on which his commentary will presumably have an impact.

“Countdown” blasted back into the American living room that night and the following four, placing Current TV firmly in the vanguard of the prime-time political left alongside MSNBC, Olbermann’s former employer. The new format of “Countdown” is much like its predecessor, a fact that works for Olbermann and against him.

“This is to be a newscast of contextualization,” he said at the beginning, “and it is to be presented with a viewpoint: that the weakest citizen of this country is more important than the strongest corporation; that the nation is losing its independence through the malfeasance of one political party and the timidity of another; and that even though you and I should not have to be the last line of defense, apparently we are.”

Olbermann thus staked out old and familiar territory, as snarky, acerbic champion of liberal values … and as reflexive demonizer of MSNBC. How much the one is celebrated and the other is tolerated may have a lot to do with how well the new “Countdown” counts up the viewers.

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Olbermann is back to blanketing prime-time and beyond: his broadcast goes on at Current TV at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. eastern time, and again at 2 a.m. eastern time. (It was seen last week at 4 a.m. Pacific time.) “Countdown” will be followed weeknights by Current Events, the channel’s rotating series of documentaries, news reports and commentaries.

You have to give KO credit for consistency. Olbermann, always a savvy packager of the day’s events, knew enough not to tamper with a good thing. The Current edition of “Countdown” apes the old, right down to the sonically stylized opening notes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor that have identified the show’s opening since its time on MSNBC.

He’s still throwing papers around at the end of the “Worst Persons” segment; he still reads James Thurber fables on Friday; and his robustly progressive roster of guests — filmmaker/cultural flamethrower Michael Moore; Markos Moulitsas, founder of The Daily Kos; former Powell Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson; author, legal scholar and former Nixon counsel John Dean — has transferred intact to the new network, most with the added (presumably financial) advantage of being official “Countdown Contributors.”

And Olbermann’s targets of opportunity are as wide-ranging as ever. The first week he took aim at (among other topics) Fox News’ selective editing of an interview with Jon Stewart; Arizona Sen. John McCain’s blaming the wildfires in his state on undocumented immigrants from Mexico; and the slow-motion train wreck of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign.

◊ ◊ ◊

In these ways the new “Countdown” is about what we’d expected. It was almost unnecessary for Olbermann to introduce his Premiere Week by telling us what we already knew: “This is to be a newscast of contextualization, and it is to be presented with a viewpoint ...”

Duh, sir. That’s why we’re watching now. That’s why we’ve been watching for years. Olbermann’s statement is a nod to his formalist, archival bent, his sense of history and of mission, and that’s fair. We’ve watched him for that, too.

What’s still to be seen is how many are watching now, how many of his legacy viewers have made and will make the migration from MSNBC to a channel with a fraction of a fraction of as many viewers — one of the sharper distinctions between Old “Countdown” and New. In February, The Hollywood Reporter reported that “Current averaged 18,000 homes in primetime for fourth quarter 2010, lower than any other network measured by Nielsen.” This after being on the air almost five years; this despite being available in up to 60 million homes.

The New “Countdown” has promise. The Associated Press, extracting from figures from the Nielsen Co. reported that on June 20, the new program pulled in 179,000 viewers between 25 and 54, for advertisers the demographic holy of holies. It’s a tenfold increase over Current’s fourth-quarter average last year. If it holds up.

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Another distinction: an admittedly minor matter of look & feel. The new “Countdown” set is sleeker, chromatically cooler than the MSNBC layout; and mercifully, the font used in the program’s intertitles is now something you can actually read.

But the new set notwithstanding, something in the technical aspect of the broadcast isn’t working. Whether it’s the in-studio cameras or the strength of the satellite signal, gremlins are conspiring to make New “Countdown” look flatter, less digitally crisp — less live — than Old “Countdown.” Tommy Christopher noted, in a piece in Mediaite, that “the show continues to have problems with its audio mix, a distracting weakness that lends the otherwise slick show the aura of a made-for-SyFy plague thriller.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Newt’s figment III: Abandon ship

Nominal presidential candidate Newt Gingrich left the United States with his wife Calista on a secret two-week Mediterranean cruise to Greece and Turkey aboard the 450-passenger Seabourn Odyssey. While he and his wife returned to this country, his presidential ambitions may have been lost at sea, adrift in something rather like the wreck of the Hesperus, with a NEWT 2012 bumpersticker stapled to the mast.

It was that cruise that was said to be the breaking point for Gingrich’s army of high-talent, highly-paid advisers and strategists, who waited for the candidate to get serious (and waited for themselves to get paid). The Gingrich brain trust walked out en masse on Thursday, citing irreconcilable differences in strategy with the candidate, and dealing another blow to a presidential campaign for which the metaphor “stuck in neutral” scarcely applies.

The gear you’re in doesn’t matter when the engine isn’t on and you’re still in the garage.

Bob Schieffer, veteran CBS Washington correspondent and no friend of bullshit, offered his plain-spoken assessment of the Gingrich experiment on Thursday. “”This hole he’s in just got a lot deeper today. I think he’s done.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Thursday’s was the latest chapter in the saga of the Imploding Plastic Electoral that’s been the Gingrich campaign from the start.

In the month since bloodlessly launching the campaign on a YouTube video, on May 11, Newt has taken a stand against the Paul Ryan budget plan; furiously reversed himself on that denunciation; hamfistedly navigated the embarrassing revelation of a Tiffany’s bill somewhere between the stratosphere of $250,000 and the ionosphere of half a million; and spent eight whirlwind days pretending to campaign with brief visits to three battleground states.

Then, with the campaign he began placed in sufficient disarray, Newt and wife decamped for their long-planned cruise to the Greek isles, including Mylos, Patmos, Rhodes, and Mykonos.

Gingrich came back to empty offices where his advisers used to be; word’s out they’ve jumped over to work for Rick Perry, the governor of Texas and a man said to be considering a run for the White House.

◊ ◊ ◊

Unperturbed and unrepentant, Newt explained everything later Thursday for his supporters, and outlined his next move, via Facebook:

“I am committed to running the substantive, solutions-oriented campaign I set out to run earlier in the spring,” Gingrich said. “The campaign begins anew Sunday in Los Angeles.”

We’ll see how that goes today or tonight. But whatever Gingrich says from the left coast will hardly undo the damage he’s done to a campaign that was quixotic from the jump. Like Sarah Palin’s flirtations with higher office, Gingrich’s passion for the presidency is a fleeting and insincere thing. He may surprise us, and for the sake of his faltering political legacy, he’d better. When the only people that give your campaign credibility walk out on you, there’s no time for cruise control.

When a presumably serious candidate for the presidency spends more time on or near the island of Rhodes than he’s spending in or near Rhode Island, there’s no room for surprises. Not if he’s serious.

Image credits: Gingrich: Gage Skidmore.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

CBS Evening News’ makeover in reverse

Morgan Freeman is gone as the Voice of God announcing the broadcast, the James Horner theme music has been mothballed, and the CBS Evening News turned a corner this week back to old and familiar territory with a brand new anchor. The "60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley took over for the departed Katie Couric on Monday, with a map of the world from the Cronkite era as the program’s new visual backdrop.

Clearly, it’s back to the future for CBS News; Pelley’s rise to the big chair signals a retooling of the CBS brand, an un-makeover from the flashier Couric style, a return to the stiffer, more straightforward, more vanilla news model that defined CBS News in the years before Couric’s ascension.

But it’s vanilla with a twist: Pelley’s bona fides in hard news, and his long association with “60 Minutes,” could give CBS News an investigative edge in the evening-news format — something, anything to lift the Tiffany Network out of the third-place doldrums it’s been in for years.

◊ ◊ ◊

Pelley’s no-nonsense style is naturally reflected in the play of stories reported this week. Most of them amounted to the expected survey of the major news stories of the week: the Anthony Weiner debacle; the wildfires currently razing Arizona; the retirement of Defense Secretary Robert Gates; the problems with the economy; Americans recovering from the ravages of the weather. It’s for the most part the same informational diets we get from the other network news shows.

But Pelley has the ability to break ranks with some of the other newsreaders. Rather than hand off in-depth stories to an investigative reporter (as ABC’s Diane Sawyer does with Brian Ross or NBC’s Brian Williams does with Lisa Myers), Pelley’s already shown he brings his own investigative reporter’s skills to bear.

This week he teased a “60 Minutes” report, an interview with, and a story on the case of Thomas Drake, a former National Security Agency official and whistleblower just cleared of Justice Department charges of violating the Espionage Act — charges brought because Drake dared to reveal to a Baltimore Sun reporter unclassified information about billions of dollars in waste related to an NSA computer system that utterly failed to function properly, despite Drake’s repeated warnings beforehand.

Pelley’s piece, and his role in its reporting, reflects a journalistic range that could make him the most versatile of the broadcast news anchors. That possibility has already been a part of CBS’ promotion of Pelley to the public. One of the ads that aired before Pelley took over asked the question: “What if you could watch a program that had the integrity, reporting and insight of ‘60 Minutes’ every weeknight? Well now you can.”

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If you’re watching, anyway. The early Pelley ratings don’t yet point to any sea-change shift in viewing habits, if one metro market is indicative of anything. Texas television critic Ed Bark, blogging as Uncle Barky, reported that “former Dallas-Fort Worth reporter Pelley's debut as anchor of the CBS Evening News had 117,737 total viewers to rank third in the 5:30 p.m pecking order behind the NBC Nightly News (159,291 viewers) and ABC's World News (124,663 viewers).”

So much for loyalty to the hometown boy.

It’s early yet, and it remains to be seen if Pelley can help the CBS Evening News climb out of its basement digs on his watch. But the changes already evident in the CBS style, and the speed with which the transition from the Couric to Pelley took place, suggest that CBS News managers are comfortable with a rear-view view— and maybe happy about returning to the past, after the fireworks between Katie Couric and legendary producer Rick Kaplan (who exited from CBS before Couric did).

For better or worse, the Pelley Period has begun. Happily, the new anchor has done his best to play down the star aspect of the anchor’s chair, signing off with a reinforcement of his own communal role by speaking “[f]or all of us at CBS News, all around the world." A picture of an in-house monitor taken by The New York Times' Brian Stelter tries to drive that point home even more.

It’s a good team-spirit attitude. Time will tell if it resonates with the team players he needs all around the country.
Image credits: Pelley: AP Photo/CBS, John Filo. CBS logo: © 2011 CBS Inc. CBS News in-house photo: Brian Stelter/The New York Times via TV Newser.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In the matter of Anthony Weiner

Jeez, just when you think you know somebody. You’ve gone along believing, on the weight of much available evidence, that the face a man’s put before the public is a real one, more or less; that when he speaks his truth to power there are no skeletons in his closet indifferent to negotiation. You think you’ve got him nailed, or at least defined. To be utterly blindsided by surprise seems to call into question our ability to really know anything about anyone. It so reinforces what Charlie Rich said years ago, how “no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.”

That begins to explain the “bombshell” media status of the matter of Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, for whom Monday was a very bad day. In an emotional press conference at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Weiner admitted sending sexually explicit or suggestive photos and messages over the Internet to “about six women over the last three years.”

“Last Friday night I tweeted a photograph of myself that I intended to send as direct message as part of a joke to a woman in Seattle. Once I realized I posted it to Twitter, I panicked, I took it down and said that I had been hacked. I then continued with that story to stick to that story which was a hugely regrettable mistake.”

◊ ◊ ◊

“I have made terrible mistakes that have hurt the people I care about the most and I am deeply sorry,” Weiner said. “I have not been honest with myself, my family, my supporters.”

“… [O]ver the past few years I have engaged in several inappropriate conversations conducted over Twitter, Facebook, email, and occasionally on the phone with women I have met online.”

Weiner said he was not resigning because he does not believe he violated his congressional oath or any laws, and then (waxing charitable) said “I welcome and will fully cooperate with an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.”

Later complicating details have made a virtue of pixielation. On Wednesday, Weiner’s office released a statement just as an X-rated photo turned up on the Internet — a photo of a man’s genitals that was posted on a Web site after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart showed it to the hosts of the “Opie & Anthony Show.” It’s since gone viral, in both pixielated and unexpurgated forms, and will remain so in the ether of the blogosphere until the end of time.

The story also took a poignant twist Wednesday, when reports surfaced that Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is pregnant with their first child.

◊ ◊ ◊

There was some early encouragement. Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a friend of Weiner's and a mensch if there ever was one, came to his defense. “By fully explaining himself, apologizing to all he hurt and taking full responsibility for his wrongful actions, Anthony did the right thing,” Schumer said in a statement. “He remains a talented and committed public servant, and I pray he and his family can get through these difficult times.”

But the knives in Wiener’s own party are out, in force. “In light of Anthony Weiner's offensive behavior online, he should resign,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a ranking member of the Democratic party campaign committee, in a statement. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called for him to step down.

Other reactions weren’t so much piling on as walking away. The White House has had no comment whatsoever. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said “I wish there were some way I could defend him, but I can't.” When asked what he’d say to Weiner if he asked for advice, Reid was blunt: “Call somebody else.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Survival isn't necessarily out of the question. Some of the prospects for his political survival depend on the tolerance of his constituents. Weiner has asserted himself in Congress as a full-throated champion of progressive causes and Democratic policies. New York is one of the more socially tolerant and reliably Democratic states in the country, and early indicators of New Yorkers' feelings, and those in Weiner’s district (Forest Hills, Queens) are apparently consistent with this. A flash poll by NY1 and Marist Institute, released after Weiner’s Monday presser, found that 51 percent of New York residents said Weiner shouldn’t resign; 30 percent said he should.

And some states are more tolerant than others. Despite a hue and cry at the congressional level, Republican Rep. David Vitter (who politically survived a prostitution scandal) had to answer to his constituents in the state of Louisiana, whose electoral history (Huey Long, Edwin Edwards) is littered with politicians charitably described as ethically dynamic.

If Vitter can surmount a sex scandal with real sex involved, Weiner ought to have a fighting chance with an episode in which the only precious bodily fluid involved was his own sweat dripping onto the keyboard.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sarah Palin's historical vacation

A vacation was all she ever wanted, it seems. For the maybe-never-but-possibly-next-year contender for the presidency Sarah Palin®, her latest heart’s desire was a road trip — the perfect all-expenses paid way to take the family to see America. Especially Mount Vernon. And Boston. And Ellis Island. And Fort McHenry. And Gettysburg.

And New Hampshire.

The ostensible rationale for the Palin road trip to East Coast historic sites was sightseeing, a View-Master trip to some of the country’s most revered locations. But back of it all is the veiled possibility (some will say “threat”) that she will join an increasingly growing field of hopefuls for the White House in 2012. That’s still possible, and only Palin knows for sure.

Right now, though, the One Nation tour has to be seen as an act of political unconscious: a cry for attention and relevance from a wayward student of politics and the media, one who’s locked into the shopworn assumption that public exposure is the sole standard of public value, that the more you’re in the public eye, the more credible — maybe even electable — you are.

◊ ◊ ◊

Palin proved that wrong on two occasions late last week, making a bid for the unclaimed title of national revisionist historian in chief. First, on Wednesday, she made hash out of the history behind France’s gift of the “Liberty Enlightening the World” to the United States in July 1876:

“It is, of course, the symbol for Americans to be reminded of other countries, because it was gifted us of course by the French, other countries warning us to never make the mistakes that some of them have made.” It was, of course, a revisitation of what she said about the Statue of Liberty back in September, when she first called the statue a “warning” against “socialism.”

Then it was on to Boston on Friday for a strolling lecture on certain events preceding the American Revolution. Palin, holding forth on the particulars of Paul Revere’s ride, proceeded to mangle an historical event any reasonably attentive fifth-grader could nail down without writing on either hand:

Answering an utterly innocent question, Palin referred to Paul Revere as “he who warned the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms by ringing those bells and makin’ sure as he was ridin’ his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free.”

Blog writer justlw in the Huffington Post: “Probably time to recheck 'The Three Warning Signs of a Stroke.' ”

◊ ◊ ◊

Casual students of history know that Revere rang no bells on his ride from Boston to Concord, Mass., on April 18, 1775, warning people (notably agitators Samuel Adams and John Hancock) that “the British are coming!” on the evening before the battles of Lexington and Concord. In fact the silversmith and engraver instructed associates to hang lanterns in the Old North Church, in Boston’s North End— a signal meant to warn patriots of which route the British would take to advance to Concord. The signal was the origin of the celebrated “one if by land, two if by sea” phrase from Longfellow’s poem.

Not in Palin's history books. Firing a return volley, she showed why her only trip to the White House will be with a visitors’ pass. Rather than owning up to the gaffe — a mistake not altogether unforgivable on the face of it — Palin doubled down on her own certitude. Rather than offer us a glimpse of the accessible, human character that aligns with American experience, Palin blamed the media.

“You know what? I didn’t mess up about Paul Revere,” Palin told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.” “... part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there ...” she said before going on to blame the reporter, saying that the “shoutout, gotcha kinda question that was asked me I answered candidly.”

Sarah Palin is clearly in something of a netherworld of American history, her own last frontier of reality. The only ringing bells may be the ones in her head. Seeing things from the high perch of her own ambitions, anything’s possible.

Having been effectively liberated from a go/no-go timetable by the forecast of former McCain 2008 honcho Steve Schmidt (who said recently [two candidates ago] that the field of GOP hopefuls was such that “serious” candidates might not announce until “as late as the fall”), Sarah Palin is in the position of not having to commit to doing anything right now, happy in her evolving role as trickster and agent provocateur for the foreseeable future. She may not decide to run until the field finally (presumably) settles itself out when the leaves begin to fall. In the fall.

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