Friday, May 29, 2015

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 1)

SO WHEN the hell are you launching your presidential campaign? Got your PAC started yet? OK, maybe you won’t but you certainly could, or so it seems. Running for the American presidency is cooler than a mobile wallet. A dizzying number of aspirants to the Big Chair in the Oval Office have recently announced presidential aspirations no less far-fetched and impossibly quixotic than your own. The latest one happened on Thursday. There was one who announced a day before that. There’s another one coming a day or two from now. They can’t all win, of course, but they all think they can win. Democracy is a wonderful thing.

Since Hillary Clinton revealed the thoroughly open secret of her presidential campaign on April 12, no fewer than seven other political notables have announced the launch of their own campaigns. And since six candidates are on the Republican side (some declared before Clinton did) and other pols like Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie have formed exploratory committees, we’re moving beyond the previously ridiculous rhetorical vehicular yardstick.

The GOP clown-car metaphor isn’t big enough. We need a clown bus right now. Let’s look at three of the riders.

Pataki: Another governor heard from

The latest pol to formally announce a candidacy is making use of an impressive historical precedent. Like Thomas Dewey, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller before him, another former New York governor, George Pataki now seeks the presidency. The Republican announced on Thursday that he’s in the 2016 presidential race, and he did it with a surprisingly moving four-minute video.

In the video, we’ve caught Pataki on one of his mornings in America: dressing for some business engagement with the help of his wife, in the dawn’s early light. Pataki borrows from the intrinsically emotionally images of Freedom Tower and the 9/11 Memorial — incidental touchstones of a tenure in office that coincided with the worst terrorist incursion in American history. And he calls on the untied states to be, once more, the United States. “If we are to flourish as a people,” he says, “we have to fall in love with America again.”

Pataki’s campaign gets the patina of the new for a little while longer. He’s reportedly about to be eclipsed on the newness meter by former Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, whom several news sources say is about to jump into the White House game with an announcement from Baltimore on Saturday.

Santorum: Junior elder statesman maybe

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a son of coal country, announced his second bid for the White House on Wednesday, May 27. The Republican whose rise in 2012 was meteoric (he won primaries in 11 states) is back with a purportedly more populist economic message.

“As middle America is hollowing out, we can't sit idly by as big government politicians make it harder for our workers and then turn around and blame them for losing jobs overseas. American families don't need another president tied to big government or big money,” he said from Cabot, Pa. “And today is the day we are going to begin to fight back.”

For all the talk going on offense, Santorum in 2012 didn’t do that well. “Santorum has done a great job of making first downs on fourth and seventeen plays,” said Steve Schmidt, who managed McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, to The Washington Post. Sooner or later, that kind of football gets you in trouble.

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I wrote this not long before Santorum quit the race for the White House in 2012: “By bowing graciously from the field of battle, by making the dignified climbdown, Santorum will have strong cards to play in 2016. That’s when he could come roaring back, not exactly as an elder statesman but certainly not as a newcomer to the pursuit of the nomination. Having that on-the-road experience, that taste for campaign blood gets you points in the Republican Party.”

It’s time for Santorum to play those cards. If he’s ever again to be taken seriously as a candidate, 2016 may be his best year. Like Mitt Romney, he lays claim to having run a presidential campaign at a high level. The fact that he lost is almost inconsequential right now. In a field this crowded, previous campaign experience is its own gravitas. This year, way more than 2012, there are options the Republican electorate has, right now, and that conveys an emeritus status to someone who’s done this rodeo before. Among those with the highest and most viable profiles in the GOP, that means Romney and Santorum.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Best practices, worst appearances:
Jeb Bush’s boardroom troubles

JOHN ELLIS BUSH is a busy man. Not just slightly busy, not just can’t-take-your-call-right-now busy. We’re talking mad busy, busy enough to pass himself walking down the street in the opposite direction. That’s the takeaway from a Thursday story from The Associated Press, a story that suggests the possible 2016 presidential hopeful may have towering conflict-of-interest issues should he decide to run.

From The AP: “During his transition from Florida governor to likely presidential candidate, Jeb Bush served on the boards or as an adviser to at least 15 companies and nonprofits ...”

More recently, Bush (who left the governor’s office in 2007) appears to have cut back on his boardroom work. At least a little. “Bush served on the boards or as an adviser to 11 companies or nonprofits at a time each year from 2010 to 2013. ... Those ties were in addition to his own businesses, such as Jeb Bush & Associates, and the educational foundations he created.”

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Now it’s true enough that some people multitask better than others, handling a galaxy of responsibilities with aplomb. But corporate experts who spoke to The AP said being on the boards of that many companies defies good sense, to say nothing to opening him up to unsavory appearances when things go south.

The AP reports that the former Florida governor “joined the board of at least one company, InnoVida, despite signs that the CEO’s prior venture dissolved amid fraud allegations. The CEO, Claudio Osorio, is now serving 12.5 years in prison. At least five of the companies have faced class-action lawsuits.”

There’s nothing in any of that that washes up at Bush’s feet, of course. One of the advantages of being a board member is that, among other things, your role is a largely advisory one; you’re not part of the day-to-day operations that sometimes get people indicted.

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BUT STILL. When you’re considering a run for the White House, appearances are everything. And having a place in the boardrooms of that many companies raises the questions of where his real interests lie — and how effective he could be as a board member for any of them.

“Board of directors and advisory boards are in charge of high-level oversight,” law professor Elizabeth Nowicki told The AP. “You cannot possibly do that simultaneously for 10 or 15 entities. If somebody starts serving on more than three or four boards that's a problem,” said Nowicki, a former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer.

As you’d expect, Team Bush is pushing back against any hint of doing the wrong thing. “Gov. Bush has always conducted his business with the highest integrity and performance, just as he did when he served as Florida’s chief executive for eight successful years,” a Bush spokeswoman said in a statement.

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But there’s another way to look at this. Another advantage to being a board member of a company is that you’re compensated, a little or a lot, for basically sticking your head in the office and periodically casting a vote for this or that.

Bloomberg Business reported in May 2013 that the pay for board directors at Standard & Poor’s 500 Index companies “rose to a record average of $251,000 last year, the sixth straight year of increased compensation since federal rules began requiring disclosure.”

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Laughs the size of canned hams:
David Letterman signs off

WHEN DAVID MICHAEL LETTERMAN first went on the late-night air, in February 1982, Ronald Reagan was president, telephone behemoth AT&T agreed to slice and dice itself into nearly two dozen subdivisions, and the Commodore 64 debuted in Las Vegas, becoming for a short time the best-selling personal computer.

When Letterman signed off late-night on Wednesday (after 6,082 programs on two networks), Barack Obama was president, AT&T was known more for cell-phone service than anything else, the only commodore that matters is one in the navy ... and the medium Letterman worked in for more than 33 years both transformed him and was transformed by him. Just like us.

The host of CBS’ “The Late Show With David Letterman” and former host of NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” retired from the medium he ruled absolutely. Our culture celebrates continuity, the act of suiting up and taking the field, day in and day out. So, like it was with Cal Ripken’s record for consecutive games played or Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak, we take note of Letterman’s incredible run — tree-ring time in the fleeting teleculture.

We’ve watched his hair go from the goofy brown nimbus he wore in the 80’s to its current emeritus gray; we’ve seen him ditch the khakis and tennis shoes, changing over to impeccable tailored suits. But mostly we’ve watched him just being Dave. And for 33 years, that’s been more than enough.

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Tom Shales wrote Wednesday in The Daily Beast: “Have you noticed more of a fuss is being made over Dave’s departure than was made two decades earlier over the seemingly more epochal retirement of Johnny Carson, master of TV talk shows and Dave’s idol in the business? Traumatizing as it seemed, Johnny’s leaving was not as significant as Dave’s leaving. The stakes seem higher.”

Maybe. At best, that’s an apples-and-oranges comparison, one that overlooks the evolution of the medium of television itself. Shales says Dave’s retirement created “more of a fuss” than was made when Carson hung ‘em up in May 1992, but there’s really no way to know this. We’re talking about retirement from TV in two completely different eras, with two completely different audiences, in two wildly different broadcast environments.

When Carson retired after more than 4,500 appearances, television had scarcely begun the trajectory toward the digital, streaming, high-definition, super-stratified experience it is today. There are 65 million more Americans now than there were in 1992, and considerably more viewing options now than before. The “fuss” that the nation made over Carson was a big deal commensurate with the audience and the medium of that time.

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SHALES GIVES Letterman credit for creating (or at least being a midwife to) “anti-television — an antidote to all the phoniness, much of it carried over from radio, that had prevailed” on TV before Letterman. But that’s not quite right, either.

You don’t last for 33 years on television by being “anti-television.” What Letterman did was to push back against the prevailing rhythms and sleepy tropes of the medium, to resist the tired habits of TV with something that was (or certainly tried to be) original, dazzlingly silly and daringly fresh.

In other ways, Shales is spot-on. His grasp of the power of everyday people and their impact on Letterman, for example: “Under Dave’s stewardship, they democratized television, helped demythologize it, paved the way for a future (or a present) in which the whole idea of ‘being on television’ is no longer the province of an elite. Dave may have talked a lot about being ‘in show business’ and even may have snobbishly referred to the rest of us as ‘civilians,’ but the civilians are taking over. The professional lunatics are surrendering the asylum to the everyday lunatics. A 6-year-old kid can produce a ‘show’ on a laptop, as everybody knows.”

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In this respect, Letterman’s style of late-night TV may have been complicit in its own demise. When you have a hand in democratizing the medium you work in, when you help surrender the asylum to the junior lunatics, you can hardly complain about what they do with it when they take over.

In recent years, you got the sense that Dave knew his time was almost done. Toward the end of Letterman’s phenomenal run, you could see more than the slightest bit of change in the man himself. He was turning into Mr. Cranky. On a January 2014 taping, for example, he sat with Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor and frequent “Late Show” guest.

The two discussed the goings-on at their mutual networks, but Letterman never missed the chance to stick the knife in with comments about “Little Jimmy Fallon” — infantilizing asides about the soon-to-be host of “The Tonight Show” (the show that Letterman was passed over for). It wasn’t the first time Dave was so ... small, and it wouldn’t be the last.

I observed it then in a blogpost: “Letterman’s interview style, at times sour and cynical, can veer from the sporadically prosecutorial to the passive-aggressive conspiratorial (as though the guest is the object of a joke that only he and the audience are in on).”

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BUT DAVE never missed a chance to be what every good late-night talk-show host has to be, sooner or later: a reporter, someone unafraid to ask the questions nobody else will. In September 2008, he eviscerated Arizona Sen. John McCain for being a no-show on the program, after the Maverick® from the Grand Canyon State lied to Letterman’s staff about why he wouldn’t be there. When McCain finally showed up, about two weeks later, Dave pressed McCain on his cancellation, and asked pointed questions about McCain’s running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and her fitness to be on the McCain ticket.

His interrogative mein may or may not have dovetailed with journalistic practice, but Dave thoroughly absorbed the fundamental job of any good journalist: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted ... and tell the truth.

And Dave never missed the chance to be like us: Vulnerable. Who can forget his heartfelt reaction to the events of Sept. 11, 2001? Or the announcement of his heart problems? And then there was that colossaly Stupid Human Trick: “I have had sex with women who work on this show,” Letterman said on the air in October 2009, announcing infidelity and a breach of workplace decorum in breathtaking fashion.

But the two words that matter in all of that are “vulnerable” and “human.” That’s what we loved about Letterman. Dave ‘R’ Us. One way or another, that’s what was celebrated in recent weeks by everyone who visited the Ed Sullivan Theater to wish Dave farewell. Bill Murray (Dave’s first late-night guest years ago) came by. Tina Fey shed clothes for him.

Peyton Manning stopped by; so did Chris Rock, Steve Martin, Michael J. Fox, Tom Hanks, Julie Roberts, Howard Stern, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld and more. Foo Fighters, maybe Dave’s favorite band, showed up to perform “Everlong,” said to be Dave’s favorite song. Everyone who was anyone was there on Wednesday. And with good reason.

OVER THE years Dave dropped wedding cakes and six-packs of beer from a five-story tower, terminally overinflated various items with an air compressor, wiped out a car with bowling balls, flattened objects with a steamroller, crushed jelly donuts with a hydraulic press.

But these were just symbols and stunts. Everyone who was anyone really came to the Ed Sullivan Theater on Wednesday to offer best wishes to the reigning pyrotechnician of the late-night domain, a man who for 33 years regularly exploded our expectations of what a late-night TV show could be.

And we’re left to remember ... and to wonder if everything could ever feel this real forever ... if anything on late-night TV could ever be this good again.

Image credits: Letterman top: CBS/Worldwide Pants. Letterman in the 80’s: CBS. Letterman bottom: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS. Tweets by their respective creators.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Bottom rail on top:
Tyler Shields revises the racial equation

IN THE 1988 book “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” author James McPherson recounts how, at war’s end in 1865, an escaped slave guarding Confederate prisoners recognizes his former master among the rebel captives and says, “Howdy Massa. Bottom rail on top this time.”

That marvelous expression of underdogs becoming overlords, or something close to it, is at the heart of a series of provocative photographs by Tyler Shields, whose new work explores the ultimate what-if of American society and the racial dynamic. What if the current racial calculus was something completely different?

Shields, whose “Historical Fiction” exhibition opened Saturday at the Andrew Weiss Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., posits a reversal of the violence and bias that’s been historically visited on African Americans throughout our history. At the same time, he sees the extant paralells between the then and the now.

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“Right now we are going through a real racial issue in our country,” Shields told Justin Jones of The Daily Beast. “And, to me, these things that happened in the 20s and 30s, they’re just as poignant today as they were back then.”

“I’ve always loved the idea of seeing the opposite,” Shields told The Daily Beast. “Cops who are beating people up or white people who are hanging black people—what would they think if it was the other way around? What would the KKK say if this happened to them? It would potentially be the most famous photo of that entire generation.”

One of the more truly galvanizing images brings that issue home in 2015 terms like few things could. A white police officer is held down, face down on the ground, with the hands of two black men keeping him pinned there. In an era of numerous black male casualties of the police — Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and the list goes on and sadly on — an image like this speaks its own emotional truth to power.

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THIS DIFFERENT way of looking at African Americans in the broad overview of history isn’t new. In March 1999, “Re/Righting History: Counternarratives by Contemporary African-American Artists” upended expectations of the black artist when it opened at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, N.Y.

Artists such as Faith Ringgold, Camille Billops, Kara Walker, Michael Ray Charles, Kerry James Marshall, Robert Colescott and Betye Saar (among others) had a hand in artistically revisiting the impact of African Americans in the nation’s life.

Discussing the Katonah exhibition, Dr. Barbara Bloemink, the curator, told the museum that “we need to recognize that history is often quite subjective. It is not just a matter of what is reported, but what is left out.”

TRUE ENOUGH. But history is also a collection of interpretations, an array of viewpoints that couldn’t be more subjective, regardless of how they do or don’t dovetail with the acknowledged reality. History is about what’s contemporaneously perceived or emotionally experienced as well as what’s factually reported.

Two hundred-plus years of institutional imbalance and injustice, and the emotional and psychological damage that injustice created, is what provoked the “counternarrative” of the Katonah exhibition. It also helped make Shields’ work both possible and utterly necessary.

In 1999, Bloemink observed: “As the African proverb states, ‘Until the lions have their histories, tales of history will always glorify the hunter.’” We can consider Tyler Shields button-pushing images a lion’s shot across the bow of our historical complacency.

Image credits: All images © 2014, 2015 Tyler Shields.

You done lost your good thing now:
B.B. King (1925-2015)

DAYLONG PERIODS of rain visited Southern California on May 14, culminating in a brief but torrential downpour in Los Angeles that Thursday night. For a good twenty minutes or so after 9 o’clock, the sky was crying its eyes out. Later that night, we’d find out that the sky was just getting ahead of the rest of us. With good reason. B.B. King passed away at his home in Las Vegas, shortly before 10 p.m., after a decades-long battle with Type 2 diabetes. He was 89 years old and forever young.

Intellectually, of course, it doesn’t make any sense thinking that Riley B. King — B.B. to you, me and everyone else on the planet — would live forever. But you don’t approach the blues as an intellectual exercise. It’s all about feeling, about emotion, and as a long-time master of the emotional palette that makes the blues what it is, B.B. King created a sound that seems like it’s always been there, constantly in the ether, so long a component of the air we breathe, it’s hard to see where it really began.

For most of us, we’ve never known a world without him. He was always there, present, available. Even when we didn’t actively listen and pay attention — and if we’re honest, we know perfectly well that was most of the time — it was damn fine just knowing he was around, like oxygen and a woman’s smile and the blue blue blue of the sky above.

In his 2008 autobiography, Eric Clapton (who’s forgotten more about the blues than we will ever know) wrote this about B.B.: “He is without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced, and the most humble and genuine man you would ever wish to meet. In terms of scale or stature, I believe that if Robert Johnson was reincarnated, he is probably B.B. King.”

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A career that would last 65 years got its beginning not that long after he did, in September 1925, in the plantation town of Itta Bena, Miss. Raised by his maternal grandmother, he sang in the church choir in Kilmichael, Miss., and either bought his first guitar for $15 or was given a guitar by his cousin, blues great Bukka White. Whichever way it happened, it was an iconic  beginning, a powerful marriage that would change the course of American music.

Between 18 and 21, B.B. started the adventure of life on the road, circulating around Mississippi and traveling to Memphis, where he was mentored by Bukka White. He went back to Mississippi and later went to Arkansas, performing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on KWEM in West Memphis, Ark. (Albert King hailed from there).

His big break came in 1952, when B.B. recorded “3 O’Clock Blues,” which was No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts. A string of other hits followed — “You Know I Love You,” “Woke Up This Morning,” “Please Love Me,” “When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer” and “Whole Lotta Love,” as well as songs that would become more recognized staples of his playlist for decades (like “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “Please Accept My Love”).

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BY THE 1960’s, the ascendancy of the blues as a musical influence was well underway. Thanks to any number of young UK musicians eager to stake their claim on the British invasion, the blues was as big a full-on cultural influence as it would ever be. This worked to B.B.’s advantage. He toured constantly throughout the decade, opened for the Rolling Stones and had a crossover hit with “The Thrill Is Gone,” which took the R&B and pop charts by storm.

And by the late 60’s, and certainly the 70’s, the regimen of non-stop touring he started years before had taken hold for good. All due props to the one-time Hardest Working Man in Show Business, James Brown, but B.B. could rightly lay claim to that title too: A 1998 Rolling Stone story by Gerri Hirshey estimated that King had played more than 15,000 concerts. And that was 17 years ago.

Rolling Stone elsewhere reported that King “spent more than 65 years on the road, playing more than 300 shows a year until cutting back to around 100 during the last decade.”

It was proof of his recognition of blues as a universal sound, and his belief that the blues would always have an audience. B.B. recognized early the democratizing power of blues, its ability to blend with all kinds of music.

He turns up on a 1970 album working with Duke Ellington. He opened for the Rolling Stones at the 1969 Madison Square Garden show that led to the live Stones album “Get Your Ya-Yas Out.”

He worked with U2, recording “When Love Comes to Town,” a duet with Bono, on the band’s “Rattle and Hum” album.

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How strange it’s been, over the years, to see what’s become of that audience. I wrote this for back in 2003: “It’s one of the enduring ironies of popular culture that the blues — the music that figures so centrally in the very existence of rock — is so consistently ignored by the buying public. Sales of blues records have declined in recent years to under 4 percent of total recorded-music sales, according to 2001 data from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.”

A B.B. King discography

Since then, things haven’t gotten much better. Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2011 that “the blues exists on the margins of American cultural life, a quaint reminder of what once was, a sound with a colossal history, a diminished reality and a tenuous future.”
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