Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving thanks for those who bucked the trend

THE MADNESS of the holiday shopping season begins just hours from now. Any military training or martial-arts expertise you have is about to come handy. Assuming you’re finally mobile again after the tryptophantasy of Thanksgiving dinner, you’ve had time to give thanks for, well, being around to give thanks for anything.

From this humble scribe’s perspective, thanks are in order for some people and, yes, some companies that stepped up to do the right thing by the holiday we celebrate today — for insisting that Thanksgiving still means something more, or at least something else besides another dollar, another chance to beat your competitor to an economic pulp, another mad dash to the store for a bargain that will, guaranteed, be there two or three weeks from now.

Tony Rohr

The general manager of a Pizza Hut restaurant in Elkhart, Ind., took a stand for the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving on Wednesday. Rohr, a 10-year Pizza Hut employee who started at the bottom, said to Indiana station WTSB-TV that he was told at a meeting with his bosses that opening the restaurant on Thanksgiving would be required.

“I said, ‘Why can't we be the company that stands up and says we care about our employees, and they can have the day off?’ ” Rohr told WSBT. “Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only two days that they're closed in the whole year, and they're the only two days that those people are guaranteed to have off and spend it with their families.”

For his generosity of spirit, Rohr was fired for failing to knuckle under. WTSB reported that Rohr was given the option of signing a letter of resignation for refusing to open the restaurant. Rohr’s response was priceless.

“I do not resign,” Rohr wrote. “However, I accept that the refusal to comply with this greedy, immoral request means the end of my tenure with this company.” Then, in a masterstroke of heartfelt populism, he added, “I hope you realize that it is the people at the bottom of the totem pole that make your life possible.”

Rohr’s cri de Coeur didn’t go unnoticed. He was featured in a news block on the Indiana station, and he appeared on a segment of “The Ed Show” on MSNBC that night — an appearance that made Rohr’s stand on principle a national event.

Cue the Pizza Hut Ass Coverage Department: After Rohr’s appearance on “The Ed Show,” the Pizza Hut Twitter and Facebook pages were bombarded with people supporting Rohr’s action — many of them vowing to boycott Pizza Hut. In a turnabout, the company’s parent, Yum! Brands, issued an e-mail statement:

“[W]e feel strongly that the situation involving our independent franchisee and the local store manager could and should have been avoided. We fully respect an employee’s right to not work on a holiday, which is why the vast majority of Pizza Huts in America are closed on Thanksgiving. As a result, we strongly recommended that the local franchisee reinstate the store manager and they have agreed. We look forward to them welcoming Tony back to the team.”

Virginia ABC affiliate WJLA reported earlier today that Rohr said he was contacted by his boss, but he hadn’t called back to that point. “He’s not sure if he wants to return to the store where he worked his way up – or if it’s time to look elsewhere,” the station reported.

It may be time to hang up the apron, Tony. Pizza Hut should have another job available for you ... on its public relations team. They could do a hell of a lot worse in that department.

The companies that just said ‘No’

Like steroid-laced wild boars turned loose at a trough filled with tubers and rodents, big-ticket retailers like Walmart and Macy’s, Kmart and Target can’t resist that chance to get one more day of receipts under their bloated belts, family holiday be damned. Others, though, realize that their employees have families too.

The Patagonia outdoor clothing company, based in Ventura, Calif., and founded by mountaineer Yvon Chouinard, stepped forward in a statement to The Huffington Post. “Our company-owned stores are closed on Thanksgiving so that our associates can celebrate the holiday with their family and friends," Jess Clayton, a Patagonia spokesperson, wrote. "This has been our tradition.”

Same with BJ’s Wholesale Club, a membership-only warehouse chain mostly doing business on the East Coast. “Maybe call me old-fashioned, but I feel that it’s an easy decision to make [to stay closed on Thanksgiving],” Laura J Sen, BJ’s CEO, told HuffPost.

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And it was the same with Costco, the Issaquah, Wash.-based warehouse company that’s the second-largest U.S. retailer. Paul Latham, Costco’s vice president for membership and marketing, put it simply in an email to The Huffington Post: “Our employees work especially hard during the holiday season, and we simply believe that they deserve the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with their families. Nothing more complicated than that.”

In an era when the rapacious rush to punch up the bottom line by any means necessary has become the norm, it’s damned refreshing to find some big companies that understand business is nothing without the people behind them. For them, it’s about something bigger than money. It’s about respect in a time when it seems there’s less and less of that around. And that’s always worth giving thanks for. Happily, it’s nothing more complicated than that.

Image credits: Tony Rohr: MSNBC. Patagonia logo: ©2013 Patagonia Inc. BJ's logo: © 2013 BJ Wholesale Club Inc. Costco logo: © 2013 Costco Wholesale Corporation.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Lara Logan’s cautionary tale

BENGHAZI, BENGHAZI, Benghazi — we’ve never been there, it just feels like we have. Over the last year, the name of the Libyan city where four Americans died on Sept. 11, 2012, has been a vicious sort of mantra as used by Republicans on Capitol Hill, a kind of club against the Obama White House, one that Republican lawmakers have brandished to justify the fault-finding mission they’ve been on since practically the day it happened.

But thanks to a network eager to break a story, a correspondent with a pro-military bent, and a security contractor with less of an axe to grind than a book to sell, the scaffold of Republican outrage at the Obama administration lost one of its more reliable supports. The reputation of one of the country’s leading news organizations, already wounded, took another major hit on Tuesday. And the Benghazi debacle continues to be the gift that keeps on giving people headaches.

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On Tuesday, “60 Minutes” executive producer and CBS News chairman Jeff Fager informed the CBS staff that Lara Logan, the veteran CBS foreign correspondent, would be taking a leave of absence from the network as a direct result of the missteps in the now-infamous and thoroughly discredited “60 Minutes” report on the Benghazi incident, a report that largely laid blame for the attack on the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

You know the background by now: On Oct. 27, “60 Minutes” featured a report by Logan on what happened that September night in Benghazi, when American diplomat J. Christopher Stevens and three others were killed in an attack at the American diplomatic mission by still-unknown assailants. Logan and “60 Minutes” based the reporting on a nailbiter of a story by one Morgan Jones, a security official, who told the world about his role in the action during the attack — even adding the bravado touch of how he disabled one of the attackers with a rifle-butt blow.

It made for riveting television; no doubt Hollywood screenwriters were salivating at the prospect of this as a movie — a movie to be based on Jones’ book, “The Embassy House,” set for publication by the Threshold Editions imprint of Simon & Schuster, the venerable publishing company owned by . . . CBS Corporation.

Then it all came undone. And undone again.

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IN STORIES in The Washington Post and The New York Times, the great unraveling began: Much like with a similar fiasco at that network in 2004 — the infamous report about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service — CBS had fallen prey to its own ambitions, and to that not-quite resistible journalistic instinct to get it first, at the clear and present expense of getting it right. For the second time in less than a decade, the Tiffany Network has managed to piss on itself from a great height.

In the Times story, Fager “conceded that CBS appeared to have been duped by the primary source for the report, a security official who told a national television audience a harrowing tale of the attack last year at the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. On [Oct. 31] it was disclosed that the official, Dylan Davies, had provided a completely different account in interviews with the F.B.I., in which he said he never made it to the mission that night.”

The Times reported that “Mr. Davies, identified as Morgan Jones on the “60 Minutes” report and on the jacket of his book, “The Embassy House,” gave three separate interviews to the F.B.I., according to Obama administration officials. Each time he described the events in ways that diverged from his account to CBS . . .

“His interviews with the F.B.I., disclosed [Oct. 31] by The New York Times, were critical in the unraveling of his story. Mr. Davies had already told his employer, the security firm Blue Mountain, that he never appeared at the mission the night of the attack ... Mr. Davies contended that he had not created or approved the incident report and that he had needed to lie to his employer because he had defied orders to remain at his villa. The justification for believing him, Mr. Fager said [Nov. 1], was Mr. Davies’s assurance that had told the real truth to the F.B.I. . . . ”

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When the deal went down, The House That Paley Built went into hair-on-fire mode, waging a three-pronged offensive. CBS brass pulled the Davies “60 Minutes” report down from the CBS News web site. Simon & Schuster announced that it would suspend publication of Davies’ book. And Logan went on “CBS This Morning” to offer fresh mea culpa beignets to go with the morning coffee.

The unfolding farrago, which Fager characterized as “a black eye” in the Times, has an unfortunate precedent. Students of media history will remember the 2004 incident, when the network ran hell-bent with a story that cast the military record of President George W. Bush in a bad light, claiming that documents proved Bush had received preferential treatment during his time in the Texas National Guard.

It was a story that CBS was compelled to retract, one that may have cost former CBS News anchor Dan Rather his job.

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REPUBLICAN TALKING points built around the original “60 Minutes” report’s conclusions on Benghazi were suddenly, embarrassingly, rendered null and void. GOP Rep. Lindsey Graham, the pepper pot from South Carolina who delights in poking and provoking the Obama administration, was an early and vocal champion of the “60 Minutes” report when it first aired on Oct. 27, singing its praises more than once.

Talking Points Memo detailed some of Graham’s serial hosannahs: “He told CNN's Wolf Blitzer last week that the report filed by CBS News correspondent Lara Logan proved that ‘the story told by the administration about what happened in Benghazi doesn't have an ounce of truth in it.’ ”

“Appearing on ‘Fox & Friends’ on [Oct. 29], Graham said that the discredited witness in the ‘60 Minutes’ report "really does destroy the narrative" on Benghazi.”

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What a difference three days make. Graham had nothing to say about the CBS self-retraction for three days, not a mumblin’ word — until a spokesman for Graham finally told TPM that the senator ‘will be a guest on CNN State of the Union discussing the latest on Benghazi and the Iranian nuclear program’ [on Nov. 3].”

That’s when Graham doubled down on the same dumb he’d doubled down on already. On Nov. 3, the senator, who’d been adamant in his demand to interview the survivors of the attack on the consulate in Libya, renewed a threat to put a hold on the nominations of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve and Jeh Johnson to run the Department of Homeland Security.

“I want to perform oversight. I'm not trying to prosecute a crime,” he said on CNN. “All I want to do is talk to the survivors, protecting their security, protecting their identity, to find out exactly what did happen. Was it a protest? Was it an al-Qaida-inspired attack?”

Monday, November 25, 2013

Agreeing to agree: Iran’s pact with the future

AFTER MORE than a generation of multilateral vilification in high places, the Iranian Republic and nations around the world are bringing down the wall between them in a triumph of realpolitik, and reality.

Over the weekend, Iran reached agreement with western powers to begin the ending of its nuclear development program, effectively dismantling the nuclear fear-leverage program that isolated Iran as a nation and made that country a whipping boy and global boogeyman for more than 30 years.

While it’s understood that the devil is in the details, the thrust of the interim six-month agreement sends a genial warning to a waiting world: Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Don’t superimpose the actions of the old Iranian regime onto a new Iranian government eager to shake off its old image under Ahmadinejad and the earlier era of the “Great Satan.”

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The weekend deal hammered out in Geneva on Saturday and Sunday was the culmination of months of numerous back-channel meetings between Iran and the United States, discussions that were apparently equal measures of John Foster Dulles and Tom Clancy. “The deal was in part the result of months of secret talks held with Iran in such out-of-the-way places as Oman, with U.S. officials using military planes, side entrances and service elevators to avoid giving the game away,” Reuters reported Saturday.

“Today, the United States – together with our close allies and partners – took an important first step toward a comprehensive solution that addresses our concerns with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program,” President Obama said Saturday from the White House.

“While today's announcement is just a first step, it achieves a great deal. For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back.”

UNDER THE Geneva deal, over the next six months, Iran agrees to stop enrichment above a 5 percent threshold, neutralize its current stockpiles of uranium at 20 percent enrichment levels, halt progress on enhancing its uranium enrichment capacity, shut down the centrifuges and provide inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency with access to all enrichment sites in Iran.

In exchange, the United States and the so-called P5+1 (the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union) agree to offer Tehran sanctions relief amounting to about $7 billion, including access to about $4.2 billion in oil sales, new access to aircraft and automobile parts; a resumption in trading in precious metals on the world market; as well as agreeing to impose no new sanctions against Iran; and a negotiation of a final agreement if the current deal holds.

Secretary of State John Kerry, invoking the Reagan-era maxim of “trust but verify,” put a spin on it for CNN’s “State of the Union” program Sunday. It was his way of playing down the fears of those in Israel and, for that matter, those in Washington.

“Verification is the key,” he said, “and President Obama and I have said since the beginning, we’re not just gonna verify, or trust and verify, we’re gonna verify and verify and verify. We have to know to a certainty so that Israel, Gulf states, ourselves, nobody can be deceived by what is taking place.”

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was aggressively unmoved. “Israel has many friends and allies,” he said Sunday in a televised address. “But when they’re mistaken, it’s my obligation to speak up clearly and openly, and say so. It’s my solemn responsibility to protect and defend the one and only Jewish state.”

In remarks quoted by The Associated Press, Netanyahu told his Cabinet that “[w]hat was reached last night in Geneva is not a historic agreement, it is a historic mistake. Today the world became a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world made a significant step in obtaining the most dangerous weapons in the world.”

Netanyahu had fellow (and predictable) naysayers in the United States. On Fox News Sunday, Tennessee GOP Sen. Bob Corker sought to overlay his fears about one country onto fears about another. “My greatest concern ... is the North Korean issue: You begin relieving sanctions, you end up basically with no deal.” Corker, who called Saturday’s agreement “big on announcements, short on substance,” conflated Iran’s prospective nuke capability with that of North Korea, which withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, and conducted its first underground nuclear test in 2006.

“From [Iran’s] perspective, they do view this administration as weak,” said Corker, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And I think from their standpoint, they see this as their window of opportunity to negotiate with an administration that has shown that it really doesn't have a lot of the intestinal fortitude that other administrations have had. They've seen that in Syria, and it's been a learning experience for them.”

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SEN. CORKER’S “intestinal fortitude” cheap shot has to confront an inconvenient truth: No one in the George W. Bush administration had the guts to even attempt such an agreement with Iran; the Iranian Republic was of course part of Bush’s “axis of evil”; that comment, uttered in a 2002 State of the Union address, was a clear indication of how far Washington was not willing to go to engage in dialogue with Tehran.

Bush 43 let another chance slip by in 2003, when the United States rejected an overture by Iran to discuss a comprehensive agreement on Iranian nuclear ambitions. "At the time, the Iranians were not spinning centrifuges, they were not enriching uranium," said Flynt Leverett, a senior National Security Council director, to The Washington Post in June 2006.

Richard N. Haass, the head of policy planning at the State Department in 2003, told The Post: “To use an oil analogy, we could have drilled a dry hole. But I didn't see what we had to lose.”

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But concern about the new deal didn’t just break along the usual partisan political lines. Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, also on the Foreign Relations Committee and also a guest on “Fox News Sunday,” said there was worry "as to whether Iran will live up to even these commitments, and this is the first step. ... I think Congress will be watching this very closely. We will not stand by and let this be the final deal.”

The problem for the skeptics, in condemning the agreement, is to identify what steps they would consider progress on the issue of a nuclear-tipped Iran. The distrust that’s been metastasizing over the last 30-plus years — from the United States’ perspective, certainly since the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 — couldn’t possibly be overcome with one grand, all-or-nothing accord. And if such a sweeping accord had been announced on Sunday, it would’ve been met with exactly the same automatic skepticism that Netanyahu, Corker, Cardin and others are expressing right now.

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK and the persistence of memory

WE INTERRUPT this regularly scheduled march through another ordinary day in 21st-century American life to bring you the indelible recall of when and how this day, this date, was and remains anything but ordinary.

The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy 50 years ago was the first collective, grand-mal tragedy the United States experienced through the power and impact of television and modern communication. The instantness we take for granted today in a Twittered, Facebooked, informationally-democratized world didn't exist on that day in Dallas.

And this year, of course, our remembrance of the assassination is catalyzed by our media-assisted reflex for even-numbered anniversaries. But what happened is no more or less a national tragedy this year than it was in 2001 or 1985; it’ll be just as big a scar on the national psyche in 2015 or any other odd-numbered year in the future.

What we lost in Dallas persists beyond the media’s numerical predilections. What we lost abides in the national soul and the national memory, our darkness visible. Nov. 22, 1963, is a date that will live in our infamy, whether we actually remember it or not.

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We recognize the images: a president almost preternaturally handsome; his wife, stunning in beauty and elegance; this dynamic duo taking its place in the dark grey limousine; the crush of Texas citizens around the couple; the movement of the vehicle down Stemmons Freeway, en route to the Trade Mart; the nation’s vibrant leader, minutes then moments from death.

The cloudless sky. The fateful turn into Dealey Plaza. The underpass.

Then, in a literal instant, the impact that’s never left us.

As much as any event in our modern American time, the assassination of President Kennedy ushered in what could be called an era of credible incredulity: events whose sudden impact and monstrous daring both exploded the seeming contours of reality and established a new baseline of reality at the same time.

The murder of JFK was at once something impossible to believe and, once we knew and accepted it had occurred, something that made it impossible to believe that the order and music of the life that preceded it could ever come to pass again. Drop a stone in standing water and it makes ripples on the surface of that water; the Kennedy assassination provoked a psychic tsunami on this nation, and we haven’t recovered from it yet.

And if you were alive then — whether you were a man on the street in Dallas, an office worker in Los Angeles, a CBS news anchor in New York or a skinny, 8-year-old black boy living in Chicago, confused as to why his mother was in tears when he got home from school early on that rainy day — you’ll never let it go now. Because you can’t.

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JOHN FITZGERALD Kennedy templatized the idea of rock star as politician; he captured the heady frisson, the rousing potential of life in the early 1960’s. When he was murdered, something died in America and it hasn’t been fully replaced. Some say politics is the art of the possible; if so, Kennedy was its ablest practitioner in the early 1960’s. The meme of his administration was unofficially distilled in the musical “Camelot,” but it might as well have been a song from “Man of La Mancha”: “The Impossible Dream.”

I wrote this in February 2008:

“Consider the U.S. moonshot program. President Kennedy’s daring throwdown in 1961, and its successful resolution some eight years later, would come to be couched and justified in scientific terms. It would aid scientists immeasurably in understanding the genesis and composition of the solar system; it would further the field of planetary research, etc., etc. And not to be dismissive: those reasons and more form a scientifically defensible justification for the undertaking.

“But for many people, maybe even most people, that doesn’t feel like the real reason. President Kennedy’s cosmic gambit seemed to have something else at its core, something deeper than science, a schoolyard dare on steroids, a nod to the human drama of competition, an unprecedented variation on your own backyard bravado when you challenged the neighbor kid to see who had the better arm, to find out who could throw that stone the farthest unimaginable distance.

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“That dare didn’t originate in Palm Springs with Kennedy sipping martinis with Frank Sinatra, playing his version of 'Fly Me to the Moon’ on the stereo. It started in the heart, not as a policy but as a possibility. What it said to this country about this country is no less substantial than facts of its infrastructure or the number of hospital beds available to the poor.”

Paging Jules Verne. Put a man on the moon in less than 10 years? Talk about an impossible dream. And we did it anyway.

This anniversary has reawakened speculation of why it’s necessary. Inquiries into the Kennedy assassination have implicated a number of usual and unusual suspects. The conventional wisdom has long pointed to Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone nut, the human cypher whose three trigger pulls on a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle from a window in the Texas School Book Depository altered history.

But the Miami Herald reported this month about a prediction made by Joseph A. Milteer, a right-wing zealot who was recorded by an FBI informant almost two weeks before the assassination in Dallas, recorded making an eerily accurate assessment of how Kennedy could be murdered by someone with a high-powered rifle from an office building.

Other conspiracy theories have focused on the Mafia; on operatives of Fidel Castro and the Cuban government; on E. Howard Hunt, a one-time CIA operative and a figure in the Watergate scandal; on the driver of the Kennedy limousine; on Texas Gov. John Connolly; on one of the police officers in the motorcade — even on Jacqueline Kennedy herself.

Last week, Budha, a commenter on the CNN Web site distilled the conspiracists’ more outrageous notions with one of his own, couched in a grim humor: “It was Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick.”

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ONE REASON why many people continue to believe it was a conspiracy stems from a governmental inquiry that undercuts the contention of the Warren Commission Report, long accepted as holy writ. In March 1979, a report was issued by the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

From the summary: “Scientific acoustical evidence establishes a high probability that two gunmen fired at President John F. Kennedy. ... The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. ... The Warren Commission presented the conclusions in its report in a fashion that was too definitive.”

Those who dismiss the conspiracy theorists have to reckon with that; with the lack of a united front from the government; and with the benefit of 15 years of hindsight reflected in the House Committee report, 15 years of additional research and information that Warren Commission researchers didn’t have access to.

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And (less important to them but no less real) they have to contend with the fragility of human nature, and the ways in which human nature cherishes the value of the individual. There are reasons why JFK conspiracy theories exist with such power into the present day.

First, of course, they satisfy our deepest cynicisms about the shadowy efficacies of government — suspicions borne out by Watergate (which absolutely was a conspiracy), the events of 9/11 (another conspiracy, this one foreign in its origin) and how this nation reacted to those events (with the conspiracy of opportunistic overreaction that pulled this country into a war in Iraq we never needed to fight).

But also, conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy are powered by the belief that no one person would do such a thing. The monstrous events of November 1963 have a magnitude that, we want to believe, couldn’t have been done by one person.

There’s a scope to the crime in Dallas that seems to indicate collaboration, a plurality, an Us-ness. It’s frightening to contemplate that such an event could be powered by an I, a single person (despite ample historical evidence that individuals are capable of such actions). There must have been a wider, more malign agenda. We want to believe that each of us, any of us, is sufficiently humane to resist such base temptations — that only in concert with other such temptations ready to be actualized for a darker purpose could this kind of a crime against our nation ever take place.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The book of numbers:
Reid and Senate Democrats pull the nuclear trigger

GIVE THANKS early: This morning the United States Senate voted, 52-48, to actually get something accomplished, on the terms of the majority in the United States Senate.

After years of Republican obstruction for the sake of obstruction, and after months of threatening to do it, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gained a long-contemplated (or threatened) change of the Senate rules, a parliamentary shift that will seriously undercut Republican use of the filibuster on all executive and most judicial appointments, with the exception of those to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The move — the so-called nuclear option — ends the Republican addiction to filibusters, and stops the longstanding requirement of a 60-vote supermajority to advance nominees by President Obama. Now, a simple majority of 51 votes in the body will be required to advance those nominees — a procedural change that The New York Times said was “the most fundamental shift in the way the Senate functions in more than a generation.”

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“The need for change is so, so very obvious,” Reid said on the Senate floor before the vote. “It’s clearly visible, it’s manifest we have to do something to change things. ... Gridlock has consequences, and they’re terrible. It’s not only bad for President Obama, bad for this body — the United States Senate — it’s bad for our country.”

Reid reached back into his Old Testament, invoking a passage from the Book of Numbers: “If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.”

He was indirectly referencing a January pledge by Senate Republicans “to work with the majority on process nominations” for the president’s team “in a timely manner, by unaminous consent, except in extraordinary circumstances.” Reid said that was about three weeks before those Republicans worked early this year to block the nomination of Chuck Hagel — a Republican himself — to be secretary of defense. The Senate GOP left that nomination hang for more than a month.

There’ve been other Senate Republican promises made and broken on advancing presidential nominees for a full vote — something like a series of instances when Lucy promised not to move the football as Charlie Brown got ready to kick it, only to pull the ball away from him at the last possible moment.

But the real numbers Reid was talking about were the numbers that changed later that morning, when simple majority arithmetic came to the modern Senate. Under the new rules, the 55 Democrats that comprise the majority of the Senate are actually in control of that chamber of Congress. It’s an end to the tail wagging the dog.

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IT’S BEEN a long time coming. You’re forgiven if you think you’ve heard the phrase “nuclear option” in a legislative context before. Two years ago, Reid invoked such a move to prevent Republicans from forcing votes on amendments to legislation against Chinese currency manipulation with post-cloture filibusters.

That time, the Senate voted by a margin almost identical to today’s vote (51-48) to stop what amounted to filibuster by amendment after senators already voted to move to final passage of a bill.

Today’s vote was a bigger, bolder, wider move upholding the idea that nominees by the executive branch were entitled to a straight up-or-down vote in the Senate — and stopping the outright rejection of those nominees without so much as a hearing.

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Republican senators wasted no time in crying in their beer. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander said today’s nuke move “creates a perpetual opportunity for the tyranny of the majority because it permits a majority in this body to do whatever it wants to do any time it wants to do it."

“This should be called Obamacare II, because it is another example of the use of raw partisan political party for the majority to do whatever it wants to do any time it wants to do it," Alexander said during a floor speech, as reported by Talking Points Memo.

Arizona Maverick® Sen. John McCain said Democrats “are going to have trouble in a lot of areas, because there’s going to be a lot of anger.”

“Democrats won’t be in power in perpetuity,” Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby said Thursday, to The Washington Post. “This is a mistake, a big one for the long run. ... I think it changes the Senate tremendously in a bad way.”

Senate Minority Leader McConnell made with the darker threats to Democrats. “You will regret this,” he warned today, figuratively waving his fist in the air. “You may regret it a lot sooner than you think.”

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TRUE ENOUGH, history has a way of coming back to bite you in the ass. The new shift in Democratic lawmakers’ attitude toward the filibuster has come 180 degrees since 2005, when Senate Democrats used it against what was then a Republican majority.

Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow at The American Enterprise Institute, took note of that in an October 2011 op-ed in The Washington Post:

“Recall that in 2005, Republicans contemplated invoking the nuclear option over a matter of substance — to stop Democrats from using filibusters to delay judicial confirmations. Before that crisis was defused, one Democratic senator railed against the GOP plan as an attempt to trample the rights of the minority, calling it a violation of ‘the constitutional principles of checks and balances’ and declaring, ‘If there were ever an example of an abuse of power, this is it. The filibuster is the last check we have against the abuse of power in Washington.’ ”

“The senator’s name? Harry Reid.

“When Reid was in the minority, the nuclear option was an ‘abuse of power.’ Now that he’s in the majority, it’s simply business as usual.’ ”

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But it’s not business as usual according to 2005; that’s what made Reid’s move this morning necessary in the first place. The difference between 2005 and now is relatively simple: Democratic filibusters in 2005, during the Bush administration, were more targeted, more specifically employed as a tactic against particular instances of legislation on a case-by-case basis.

What we’ve seen from the beginning of the Obama administration is the use of filibusters by Capitol Hill Republicans as part of an orchestrated pattern of obstruction, a tactic intended to stop the Obama White House agenda comprehensively, tout court, across the board, on every piece of legislation with the president’s support or his authorship.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

‘Up Late’ goes down early

WELL, THAT didn’t take very long, did it? Just when you were getting comfortable with something new on MSNBC Friday nights, just when “Up Late With Alec Baldwin” was ready to be weekend destination viewing ... the show’s gone (at least temporarily), the apparent victim of the frequent and outsized passions of its host.

Last Thursday, Baldwin was videotaped apparently using an anti-gay epithet against a photographer during an incident on a street in New York. Then the next day, he obliquely threatened a Fox News reporter outside his apartment in Manhattan. “If you’re still here when my wife and kid come out, you’re going to have a big problem, you know that?”

He later said, “You are as dumb as you look. You are with Fox, right?” reported the incident, among other news outlets. MSNBC suspended Baldwin on Friday, furloughing his weekly program for two weeks.

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Almost immediately, Baldwin fired up the apology machine, taking a full-court-press approach to damage control. ”Anti-gay slurs are wrong,” he tweeted. “They not only offend, but threaten hard fought tolerance of LGBT rights ... I’m grateful to all of the ppl I meet + hear from who recognize that I would never say something to offend my friends in the gay community.”

In a statement on MSNBC's website, Baldwin said he “did not intend to hurt or offend anyone with my choice of words, but clearly I have — and for that I am deeply sorry.” The Emmy-winning “30 Rock” actor said that he was trying to protect his family but took actions that undermined “hard-fought rights that I vigorously support.”

And in a statement published Sunday in The Huffington Post, Baldwin offered a more expansive perspective of the recent events.

“I never used the word faggot in the tape recording being offered as evidence against me. What word is said right after the other choice word I use is unclear. But I can assure you, with complete confidence, that a direct homophobic slur (or indirect one for that matter) is not spoken. In the wake of referring to a tabloid ‘journalist’ as a toxic queen, I would never allow myself to make that mistake again, nor would I expose my wife and family to the attendant ridicule.

“My friends who happen to be gay are baffled by this. They see me as one who has recently fought for marriage equality and has been a supporter of gay rights for many years. Now, the charge of being a "homophobic bigot," to quote one crusader in the gay community, is affixed.”

But Bill Carter of The New York Times reported Friday that members of the LGBT community Baldwin referenced have taken umbrage with the actor. Carter reported that “numerous representatives of the gay community have spoken out against Mr. Baldwin, including the organization GLAAD, which noted that the actor had a history of speaking out against discrimination. GLAAD said: ‘Mr. Baldwin can’t lend his support for equality on paper, while degrading gay people in practice,’ and added: ‘It’s clearly time he listens to the calls from so many L.G.B.T. people and allies to end this pattern of antigay slurs.’ ”

◊ ◊ ◊

IT’S NOT as if there haven’t been previous examples of Baldwin impersonating an I.E.D. He apologized after using homophobic slurs to threaten George Stark, a reporter for the Daily Mail (UK), who claimed that Baldwin’s wife, Hilaria Thomas, had tweeted about wedding gifts and television appearances during James Gandolfini's funeral in June.

“I’d put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I'm sure you'd dig it too much,” one Baldwin tweet read. “I'm gonna find you George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I'm gonna fuck you... up,” he added.

He was involved in a Feburary dustup with New York Post photographer G.N. Miller, reportedly making racist remarks, calling the man a “coon” and a “crackhead.”

He went off on a photographer in August in lower Manhattan, days after Thomas gave birth to their daughter. He shoved New York Daily News photographer Marcus Santos outside Manhattan's Marriage License Bureau in June 2012. He was jettisoned from an American Airlines flight in December 2011 for refusing to turn his phone off while playing Words With Friends. In September 2011 he clashed with a barista at a Starbucks on upper Broadway, calling her an “uptight queen.”

◊ ◊ ◊

All of this costs Baldwin serious exposure in the public square. The recent incident that led to MSNBC suspending his program forces an exit from the national tele-conversation that couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“Whether the show comes back at all is at issue right now,” Baldwin said at HuffPost. “My producers and I had a very enlightening and well-researched program prepared to air on November 22nd itself, dealing with John Kennedy's assassination. That show is off the air now.”

Though the removal of “Up Late” is supposed to be a temporary thing, it’s hard to see how MSNBC can possibly bring the show back with Baldwin as host. The problem with Baldwin’s explanation of recent events is that it contains a previous, self-admitted example of precisely the kind of slur (“toxic little queen”) Baldwin is accused of using this most recent time. Obviously, it’s more of a push to buy into your explanation of an incident when you’ve admitted doing previously that which it’s necessary to deny this time.

◊ ◊ ◊

WITH A HANDFUL of “Up Late” programs, Baldwin proved to be an insightful, inquisitive talk-show host fast learning the rhythms and boundaries of the talk-show format (building on what he learned last year subbing as host for “The Last Word,” Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC program). From the start he was good and getting better.

In his first show, a sitdown with Bill de Blasio (then New York City Public Advocate, now Mayor-elect of New York City) Baldwin displayed an amiable but relentless interview style, as he probed de Blasio on the policies he’d pursue as NYC’s mayor.

Baldwin also had a great interview with Debra Winger, the three-time Oscar-nominated actress who opted out of Hollywood at least temporarily to focus on family and her activities as an anti-fracking activist.

The viewers were there: The Los Angeles Times reported on Oct. 14 that the de Blasio program “drew an average of about 654,000 viewers ... an improvement of 53% compared with MSNBC's Friday night telecast in the hour-long 10 p.m. time slot a week ago.”

◊ ◊ ◊

FOR NOW, there’s not much left except the postmortem according to the blogosphere. Hannalee, commenting in HuffPost: “I’m not saying I would be in his place -- probably not. I hear and believe everything he's saying about being provoked by insane media vultures. I'm sympathetic to people trying to protect their private lives. But to me it seems that Baldwin does not have sufficient control of himself. ... It might not improve his relationship with the media -- but I’d say Baldwin needs some anger management, something that might make him particularly angry!”

GHO, HuffPost: “Because you have once more lost your temper and embarrassed yourself, the good work of your coworkers at MSNBC may go unseen.”

Jae at the People magazine Web site: “Does anyone believe him? Those are practically the exact same words he used to defend himself the last time he was caught using gay slurs.”

◊ ◊ ◊

His actions may put MSNBC in an untenable position. In light of his track record for public detonations, and the nature of both the new accusations and his own admitted intemperate comments, it would be, well, toxic for a network that prides itself on Leaning Forward to overlook a case of backwards behavior.

Which is uniformly too bad: Baldwin (at least for now) loses a powerful platform for expanding his voice and his brand beyond impromptu fisticuffs and Capital One ads. MSNBC loses its bid for fresh Friday-night programming. And the viewing public is denied its welcome parole from one night of MSNBC’s “Lockup” prison-doc series. A low-down dirty damn shame all the way around.

Image credits: Baldwin top, 'Up Late' title card, Baldwin and Debra Winger, MSNBC logo: © 2013 MSNBC.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Elizabeth Warren: Hillary Clinton’s nightmare, or not

WE’RE 1,086 DAYS — just under three years — until the next presidential election, and already the speculation machine is well stoked as to who’ll get into the race to come. For the most part, the guesswork has centered on which Republican will take a shot at the White House. Much of the early parlor-game debate is focused on the viability of what you could charitably call the usual suspects — Christie, Cruz, Rubio, yet another Bush.

There hasn’t been as much attention paid to possible Democratic hopefuls for the presidency, largely because it’s been generally assumed that Hillary Clinton, the walking résumé of achievement in high places, is thought to command the inside track for a derby that won’t start in earnest for another two years. So strong is her hypothetical position that, so says the conventional wisdom, any possible Democratic contender would be faced with monstrous blowback from Hillary loyalists who argue that it’s “her turn,” and would be guilty of rank apostasy, or maybe even outright party disloyalty.

Noam Scheiber’s having none of that. In an exhaustive and compelling Nov. 10 essay in The New Republic, Scheiber, a TNR senior editor, contends that Clinton’s most formidable nemesis could be Elizabeth Warren, the new senator from Massachusetts, someone whose bona fides dovetail with the rise of an angrier, more populist and more vocal American electorate, one whose demographics speak as powerfully of the national future as Clinton’s qualifications speak of the national past.

◊ ◊ ◊

Scheiber writes of the groundswell of support for Hillary Clinton in the context of a gathering inevitability, and the problems built into that: “There is a feature-length Hillary biopic in the works, and a well-funded super PAC—“Ready for Hillary”— bent on easing her way into the race. And then there is Clinton herself, who sounds increasingly candidential. Since leaving the State Department, Clinton has already delivered meaty, headline-grabbing orations on voting rights and Syria.

“Yet for all the astrophysical force of these developments, anyone who lived through 2008 knows that inevitable candidates have a way of becoming distinctly evitable. With the Clintons’ penchant for melodrama and their checkered cast of hangers-on—one shudders to consider the embarrassments that will attend the Terry McAuliffe administration in Virginia — Clinton-era nostalgia is always a news cycle away from curdling into Clinton fatigue.”

A Clinton campaign (if there ever is one) is tasked with addressing nightmares that Warren has nothing to do with.

◊ ◊ ◊

ONE OF THE bigger problems for Clinton right outta the gate is countering the very sense of inevitability that appears to give her a singular advantage. It’s something that goes against the idea of fair play and a level playing field:

For any Democrats of a mind to run for the presidency, and for Democratic voters more loyal to the party and its principles than to any beneficiary of a cult of personality,  there’s every good reason to push back against the idea of Hillary Clinton gaining the nomination by some national acclimation, winning it as a cakewalk or a coronation, whether Warren runs or not.

Those voters remember the last time Hillary Clinton’s nomination was a forgone conclusion, in 2008, when the stars seemed to align until some skinny biracial senator from Illinois got in the race and changed everything. They’re not eager for history repeating.

◊ ◊ ◊

Another issue for Clinton, and one she won’t be able to fully push back on, is her implicit reliance on recent American history, and people’s recall of that history, to help propel her to the White House. This dependence on her own biography as a vehicle to the presidency confronts the same demographic shifts that are likely to plague the Republicans, and for some of the same reasons.

Simply put, if Hillary Clinton chooses to run, she’ll depend to one degree or another on Americans’ memory of the relative quiet in America during the Clinton administration. Her bona fides to some extent count on Americans remembering the Good Old Days® of the Clinton years — not necessarily a good idea considering the ways the national demographic has changed since 1992.

The harbingers of that change are collectively known as the millennials, Americans born in the years between 1983 and 1992. Some monitors of U.S. demography, like the Pew Research Center, place that emerging cohort as being born between 1981 and 2000.

◊ ◊ ◊

WHICHEVER ONE you go with, they’re the Americans for whom the facts of the Clinton biography aren’t really even a memory — because they either weren’t alive when Bill Clinton was president and Hillary Clinton was first lady, or they were too young for the Billary years to have mattered.

In March 2012, Time magazine estimated there were about 80 million millennials in the United States. All of them won’t be able to vote in 2016, but most of them will. And few of them have the existential allegiance that Hillary can count on from voters who lived through the Clinton years, those loyalists more favorably disposed to support a Hillary Clinton campaign. That will make it hard to exploit her public record across the board.

Those millennials — ignorant of or indifferent to the Clinton story, skeptical of legacy politics in general, technologically savvy, more populist by inclination than their baby-boomer parents — could be a huge force in 2016 for an outlier candidate with a proven appeal, a shown willingness to take on the hidebound orthodoxies of Washington and Wall Street.

Someone just like Elizabeth Warren.

Scheiber alludes to this new philosophical positioning: “Increasingly, Democratic donors are looking for ... a candidate who represents something larger than their own ambition. With Obama, it was all about hope and change. With Warren, it would be about a distinct worldview. But as different as their sources of appeal are, both allow donors to feel as if they’re part of a larger crusade. By contrast, the long-standing knock on the Clintons in these circles (unfair in many ways) is that they primarily represent the cause of themselves.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Warren has her problems too. Two reasons emerge for why she may not be the right person to challenge Clinton. The first: It just may not be her time. She’ll need to raise millions of dollars, and crank up a fundraising and ground-game apparatus that would probably have to call on the Obama campaign machine for help — help they wouldn’t necessarily get if Clinton decides to run, and maybe even if she doesn’t.

Warren has fundraising chops, for sure; Scheiber reports that Warren raised $42 million in her successful Senate bid; she did it despite her status as a blood foe of Wall Street, and by extension the serious fundraising capabilities of Wall Streeters eager to hitch their moneyed wagons to a winner in 2016. But $42 million, a nice chunk of change, is couch-cushion money compared to what Warren would need for a credible White House campaign.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Weak Tea: Moderation wins Election 2013

WE’VE GOTTEN accustomed to divided government, have for years now. That much is navigable, by virtue of our previous experience with the more civilized partisan divisions between Democrats and Republicans, or their antecedents. Given the checks-and-balances dynamic basic to American government, some amount of schizoid governance is pretty much unavoidable.

(And considering the proven perverse tendency for Americans to put one party in control of the White House and the other party in control of much of Congress, and then complain when nothing gets done, it’s also pretty much our own damn fault.)

But the current GOP presence in Congress is something else again. Besides the usual D vs. R skirmishes, we have a Republican Party that’s more and more divided within itself. The obstructionists and extremist heretics allied under the Tea Party banner are increasingly resistant to calls for legislative practicality from some comparative moderates in the mainstream GOP.

That infighting drama — a hardly epic battle to determine the defining identity of the Republican Party for at least the short-term future — may be playing to an increasingly empty hall (at the state level, anyway). Tuesday’s election results, four in particular, indicate that patience with the antics of The Tea Party faction of the Republican crew is wearing thin.

As centrist Republicans weigh the party’s prospects for next year and 2016, they’ve begun a pushback against Tea Party extremism and against the prevailing conservative ethos of isolation from the voters of a younger, browner, less ideologically reflexive, more culturally diverse national population. You know ... the voters they need to win.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Democratic victory in Virginia, a direct party-specific renunciation of the Tea Republican brand, speaks for itself. In his first run for election office, Democrat Terry McAuliffe won Tuesday’s election for governor, beating his Republican challenger, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, in a 2-point squeaker, and gaining support from the commonwealth's women and African American voters, a strong enough showing from independents, and ... 4 percent of Republicans.

Since Cuccinelli got punched out, the conservative blame machinery has been working overtime finding fault for Cuccinelli’s loss. Analysts and right-wing media said that Cuccinelli lost the Virginia race because he didn’t raise enough money; that he lost because not enough national GOP figures flew in to shake his hand (or to hold it); that he lost because he waited too late to seize on a winning message; that he lost because of the controversy over outgoing governor Bob McDonnell’s addiction to trinkets and gifts; that he lost because he somehow wasn’t conservative enough.

Less frequently have you heard the real reasons: Ken Cuccinelli lost because he was a bad candidate, a man without a message, an ultraconservative in a state that’s long been anything but ultraconservative. Republicans in general, and the Tea Party cohort of Republicans in particular, may take a while coming around to those reasons, but they’re good ones.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE PUSHBACK on Tea Party politics is gathering steam where you least expect it. In Alabama, a deep southern state where you’d expect to find common cause with the Tea Party’s independent streak, attorney and moderate Republican Bradley Byrne defeated Tea Party stalwart Dean Young on Tuesday in the congressional runoff in the Alabama 1st.

The narrative was obvious: Byrne positioned himself as the adult in the room, ready to advance the interests of a business community eager for a Republican they could get behind. Young framed himself as a deep-red, passionate Tea Party loyalist, a friend of evangelicals pissed off with the federal government, a man prepared to take more of the Tea Party's irksome ritual rage to Washington.

Sean Sullivan of The Washington Post reported: “The campaign marked the first big electoral test for business-minded Republicans in their showdown with the GOP’s tea party wing. Riled by the recent government shutdown and standoff over the debt ceiling, the business wing of the party decided that it was time to fight back against the tea party insurgency. ...

“For business leaders, the victory in Alabama is a much-needed boost of momentum headed into 2014, when they will be looking to elect like-minded candidates to other seats across the map ...”

◊ ◊ ◊

Sometjmes, the Tea Party doesn’t even have to be on the ballot in order to be rebuffed. It has to be said: When you strip out the cult of personality that’s often built around a politician in office, the fact is that, absent wanton malfeasance or obvious incompetence, it’s hard to vote out an incumbent. Considering that, New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s landslide win over Democratic challenger Barbara Buono was easily expected, despite the state’s history in the Democratic column. He had more money at his disposal. He had the name recognition that a sitting officeholder always enjoys.

But what gives Christie’s expected victory such surprising legs is the breadth of voters that made it possible. Christie swept every demographic of race, gender and age on Tuesday. He almost doubled his share of African American voters from his 2009 election, and increased his standing with women and seniors.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll of likely New Jersey voters the day before the election, “Christie leads 66 - 29 percent among men and 57 - 36 percent among women, 94 - 5 percent among Republicans and 64 - 29 percent among independent voters. He even gets 30 percent of Democrats, to Buono’s 64 percent.”

This is bigger than just reaping the dividends of incumbency. Chris Christie has tapped into at least the optics of outreach. Whether that’s exportable by the governor beyond New Jersey remains to be seen. But there’s a message for the Tea drinkers, if they’re listening: Electability matters.

◊ ◊ ◊

It sure as hell matters to moneyed Republican interests in Georgia, where former donors to the Romney 2012 campaign have made contributions to Michelle Nunn, a Democrat, Bloomberg reported on Oct. 30. Nunn, the daughter of former Democratic senator Sam Nunn, is running for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss.

“The vast majority of Americans say they don’t want the government to shut down, they want middle ground,” said John Wieland, founder of John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods, to Bloomberg’s Laura Litvan. “Michelle understands that middle ground, and that’s why we wrote the checks.”

◊ ◊ ◊

SOME IN the conservative priesthood haven’t gotten their heads around this idea yet. “Running toward the middle is the old paradigm,” Brent Bozell, the chairman of the ForAmerica conservative grassroots group, said to Beth Reinhard of The Atlantic. “Politics is solidifying and mobilizing your base—and the hell with the middle.”

Putting it charitably, Brent Bozell is out of his mind. The proof of that is as plain as Tuesday night’s results out of Virginia, New Jersey, Georgia and Alabama. It couldn’t be simpler to understand: Working the base, however aggressively, won’t always get you where you need to go in a statewide election (never mind a presidential). Pitching exclusively to the voters in your base is preaching to the choir. And if it’s the most ideologically inflexible members of the Republican base, that choir has fewer and fewer people in it all the time.

Sooner or later, reinforcing a political message among those already predisposed to favorably respond to it, without trying to broaden that core of reliable voters, is a formula for planned obsolescence. When you walk away from the middle, you walk away from the wide and deep cross-section of voters you need to win. You walk away from electability.

Tea Party Republicans found that out the hard way on Tuesday night.

Image credits: McAuliffe: CNN. Cuccinelli: Cliff Owen/Associated Press. Christie: News12 New Jersey via CNN. 

Hizzoner Mr. Bill:
De Blasio and a new New York

AMID THE raw emotions in the few short months after 9/11, Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire who might have been king, celebrated his first victory as the 108th Mayor of the City of New York in November 2001, at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers, an upscale hotel off 53rd Street and Seventh Avenue in midtown Manhattan.

Bloomberg celebrated his second mayoral victory four years later, at a ballroom at the Sheraton New York and Towers in midtown Manhattan. He marked his third campaign victory to occupy Gracie Mansion four years after that, at a ballroom at the Sheraton New York and Towers.

You’re forgiven if you think New York City government has some longstanding election-night contractual arrangement with the Sheraton. It doesn’t. Nor is the mayor obligated to mark victory from anywhere in the borough of Manhattan. This was obvious Tuesday night, when the incoming 109th Mayor of New York City, Democrat Bill de Blasio, having crushed his Republican challenger Joe Lhota by 49 points, thanked his supporters from a stage at the Park Slope Armory, off Eighth Avenue and 15th Street in Brooklyn, N.Y.

◊ ◊ ◊

If you’re looking for symbolism (and what NYC mayor’s election isn’t full of that?) there’s plenty to be found in the contrast between these two addresses. The Sheraton is a leading hotel, all swank and polish and gleam, with rooms between $250 and $750 a night.

The Park Slope Armory was completed in 1893; in September, Brooklynites celebrated Healthy Kids Day at the location, a site of one of the city’s more enduring, accessible, affordable citywide fixtures:  the YMCA.

We can expect more breaks with upper-crust ceremony from de Blasio, if his victory speech last night is any indication. De Blasio, who was the city’s public advocate since 2009, parlayed undeniable personal charm, a fellow feeling for New Yorkers, and the presence of his own family as a symbol of civic unity into a winning mayoral campaign as racially, ethnically and geographically ecumenical as any in the city’s history — and certainly since the “gorgeous mosaic” that David Dinkins assembled to win the mayor’s office in 1990.

◊ ◊ ◊

A FORMER Housing and Urban Development official under President Clinton, he was for eight years a member of the New York City Council. With eloquence and fire, de Blasio frequently confronted Mayor Bloomberg on several policies, pushing back hard against Bloomberg policies that disproportionately affected the poor, low-income residents and the homeless.

De Blasio wins the rights to change the drapes at Gracie Mansion as someone with the apparent ability to bridge some of the city’s disparities; the smarts to entertain the importance of worlds and experiences outside his own; the savvy antennae to name-check an album by R.E.M. as a way of expressing his own embrace of life’s rich pageant.

He began his speech Tuesday night with an ancestral shoutout: “Tonight, I feel the deepest appreciation for generations of my family, including those no longer with us, and a special thank you to my Italian family and friends in Rome, and in my grandfather’s hometown of Sant’Agata dei Goti and my grandmother’s hometown of Grassano.”

Then it was clear why de Blasio’s insurgent, insistent campaign caught fire. It was even more clear why New Yorkers have a genuine progressive as their next mayor, the first in a generation.

◊ ◊ ◊

New York is now, and has always been, a city-as-meme. For generations, it has nurtured — by accident and on purpose — a binary scenario of existential possibilities usually defined in the chasm (or the road) between wealth and poverty, between rich and poor. Martin Scorsese’s lapidary “Gangs of New York” studied life in New York during the draft riots of the Civil War, examining the clash of cultures nativist and immigrant, black and white. Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel “Bonfire of the Vanities” took aim at more current divisions of race, class and culture, its citizen characters spanning the worlds between Wall Street and the innermost inner city.

Much of the city’s power — its mythos and its economics — derives from the energy of its strivers and the leverage of its most successful citizens. But the city’s more brutal traits — its capacity for indifference, its persistent embrace of the tribe — come from the friction that arises when strivers and successful compete for resources that are, ultimately, as limited in New York City as anywhere else.

On Tuesday, de Blasio made it clear that he understands this. “I’ve spoken often about a Tale of Two Cities,” he said. “That inequality – that feeling of a few doing very well, while so many slip further behind – that is the defining challenge of our time.

◊ ◊ ◊

BECAUSE INEQUALITY in New York is not something that only threatens those who are struggling. The stakes are so high for every New Yorker. And making sure no son or daughter of New York falls behind defines the very promise of our city.

“New York is the brightest embodiment of the idea behind American greatness: It doesn’t matter where you were born what you look like what your religion is, or who you love. If you have brains and heart and guts and faith, this city – more than any other in the world – will offer you a real chance at a better life.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Greetings from Asbury Park:
Christie wins, and warns, in New Jersey

I DID NOT seek a second term to do small things,” Chris Christie declared last night as he celebrated winning re-election as New Jersey’s governor, riding a centrist mien and a practical conservative agenda to a new four-year term in the statehouse in Trenton. If he stays at the statehouse in Trenton for four years.

Christie, who defeated Democratic challenger Barbara Buono by 22 points, solidified his hold on the political imagination by winning among cohorts that Republicans have come to ignore.

“Exit polls indicate that Christie performed strongly across demographic groups,” reported Alana Semuels of the Los Angeles Times. “Nearly half of Latinos voted for him, a 16-point increase from his 2009 win against incumbent Jon Corzine. Christie received 20% of the African American vote, double what he received in 2009. He also saw a bump in female supporters, winning 55% of women voters.”
◊ ◊ ◊

Taking a little something from the Obama Victory Songbook (Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” preceded his speech), Christie offered his own victory message delivered in a heartfelt, pugnacious address, a capstone on a robust coalition-style campaign that was a template of how Republicans can win and win again, and win convincingly, among voters they’re not supposed to appeal to at all.

At a victory rally in Asbury Park, he fired a warning shot at Capitol Hill. “We stand here tonight showing it is possible to put doing your job first, to put working together first, to fight for what you believe in, yet still stand by your principles and get something done for the people who elected you,” he said. “I know that if we can do this in Trenton, N.J., maybe the folks in Washington, D.C., should tune in their TVs right now, see how it’s done.”

And Christie offered a shoutout to a beleaguered nation. “Tonight, a dispirited America angry with their dysfunctional government in Washington looks to New Jersey to say, ‘Is what I think happening really happening? Are people really coming together, are we really working, African Americans and Hispanics, suburbanites and city dwellers, farmers and teachers, are we really all working together?' Let me give the answer to everyone who is watching tonight: Under this government, our first job is to get the job done, and as long as I’m governor, that job will always, always be finished.”

◊ ◊ ◊

BUT SUPERSTORM SANDY was Christie’s touchstone last night, its devastating impact on his state the animating force for what he described as “a mission,” one that would power his next four years in office.

“It’s no longer a job for me,” he said. “It’s a mission ... to make sure that everyone, everyone in New Jersey who was affected by Sandy is returned to normalcy in their life, and I want to promise you tonight that I will not let anyone, anything, any political party any governmental entity or any force get in between me and the completion of my mission.”

Last year’s storm was Christie’s unusual introduction to a national audience, and one that dovetails with his own bold, take-no-prisoners style. His win last night proves that for him, the path to a shot at the White House isn’t to follow the approaches of other conservatives, who’ll speak to their own constituencies in the primaries and then try to win in the general by talking among those faithful, and no one else. His coalition campaign shows he recognizes that a winning bid for the White House can’t be an either/or proposition, it’s both/and. And that’s his challenge.

◊ ◊ ◊

Christie’s dilemma is the same one facing any presumably-moderate Republican anywhere in the country. He can’t win the presidency if he can’t nail down the support of the base voters he’ll need to reach the deep-pocketed donors that a well-oiled national campaign requires.

And he can’t win the presidency if he fails to appeal to voters beyond the Republican base, the voters whose demographic breadth would give his campaign the credibility he needs. The same voters that the Republican base wants nothing to do with.

Both/and, not either/or.

Cracking that Enigma code of conservative American politics would make him at least theoretically viable. But some of Christie’s challenge will be in how well he exports his blustery, outsized personal style, and that ain’t nothing. What goes down well in Jersey may not work on the road.

◊ ◊ ◊

JOHN NICHOLS of The Nation commented on the tone of Christie’s victory speech last night on MSNBC: “It’s an OK introduction,” he said. “But I still don’t see how that plays in Iowa, coming from the Midwest, a rather self-deprecating part of the country, where people don’t overly blow their horn — here’s this guy saying, ‘I’m it, man, I’m the only thing that ever happened.”

And if the governor decides to test the presidential campaign waters, Christie can expect the media microscope will be in full effect, with the press and the public watching for how he follows through on a victory message that was so centrist in its intentions, so populist in its language, that it raises the question of where the brash, big-tent, pro-immigration Republican moderate ends and the rock-ribbed, anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, union-antagonistic conservative begins.

Last night, Christie performed the political equivalent of levitation, winning re-election as a Republican in a reliably Democratic state. That was the easier part, espeecially against a regrettably marginal challenger. Now comes the heavier lift: the balancing act of managing the state and managing expectations — from the right, left and center — of who and what he really is, and what he could be in 2016.

Image credits: Christie top: Mel Evans/Associated Press. Christie sign: Brent LoGiurato/Business Insider.
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