Friday, July 31, 2015

The 800-pound professor in the room

HILLARY CLINTON called today for Congress to end the 53-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. Her comments, made at a speech at the National Urban League conference in Miami, were more predictable than provocative; the Obama White House ordered restoration of diplomatic relations with Havana last year, so Clinton calling for an end to the formal trade embargo amounts to calling for the logical, eventual next step in what’s already underway.

Clinton did herself no harm in seeking an end to this national embarrassment. But other news about Clinton wasn’t predictable or provocative. Just problematical. McClatchy reported Thursday that classified emails stored on Clinton's private computer server held data from five U.S. intelligence orgs, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Clinton has denied ever knowingly sending anything that was classified. McClatchy said the email matter has put Clinton “in the crosshairs of a broadening inquiry.”

If the recent drip-drip-drip of such bad news, the optics around that news and the prospect for more of it don’t slow down or stop, the Democrats — from party leadership to rank and file — may have to get their heads around that which up to now would have been considered unthinkable: With Clinton hampered (if not actually wounded) in her bid for the White House, the time for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a candidate may be now, or certainly soon, more than ever.

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Rest assured, few or none of the party leaders can say that out loud, but they have to be concerned in the face of Clinton’s already poor traction with progressives and independents. Now the email mess. And of course, there’s the distaste felt by many Democrats and independents who see Clinton as another archetypal pol making a quarter million dollars for one speech, an insider tainted by the process in spite of herself. That distaste registers where it counts (or soon will count): opinion polls in Iowa.

In March, while the media and mainstream Dems focused on Clinton’s campaign, the Boston Globe threw its weight behind the idea of a Warren campaign, in an editorial that was striking in its urgency (hometown-girl motivations notwithstanding). But The Globe also paid homage to the Clinton resume, and played devil’s advocate to say why Warren shouldn’t run. From the piece: “Clinton’s deep reservoir of support, from her stints as first lady, New York senator, 2008 presidential candidate, and secretary of state, no doubt poses a formidable obstacle.”

True enough. But that runs both ways. That well of experience makes people view you as someone who knows the game by either playing it or running it. Hillary Clinton’s done both. But her big challenge, in this respect, is to reintroduce herself to the American people — and meet for the first time the millions of new voters, the ones who’ll being voting for the first time next year.

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FOR THESE millennials, half of the Clinton biography might as well be from the Peloponnesian War. She was first lady? First-time voters next year weren’t around for nearly all of that. New York senator? Great, if the millennial cohort all lived in New York 10 or so  years back. Oh those younger voters do remember her 2008 campaign, and her more recent period as secretary of state should certainly resonate for the globally inclined millennial.

But the problem with Hillary Clinton doesn’t stop with the millennials, who may be actually declining in their importance as a reliable voting cohort. For those voters who fully remember the Clinton era more commonly understood to be named for her husband, her candidacy is as much to be feared as celebrated.

Yes, she’s been at the forefront of the championing of the civil, reproductive and economic rights for all Americans, and, more widely in her role as secretary of state.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 2)

THE CLOWN WINNEBAGO required to contain the current field of Republican presidential candidates is mighty crowded, and the field just got bigger (Ohio Gov. John Kasich launched his presidential campaign on Tuesday). At this point, the campaigns of the 16 White House hopefuls amount to a full employment act for standup comics and late-night talk-show hosts.

One of those candidates — for years a reliable source of pop-culture comic relief — has managed to detonate his campaign, and threaten to implode the Republican brand, before the thing’s even started.

Donald Trump, trainwreck

There may be no more effectively immediate way to turn a public figure into a nonentity than by doing what was just done to Donald John Trump, one of the men who would be and will never be president. Hours ago, someone or someones performed a full-on takedown of Trump’s Wikipedia page, The Verge reported. Twice.

It didn’t last long, of course, but it couldn’t be more symbolic of the self-inflicted PR wounds of our reigning carnival barker on steroids, a man whose presidential campaign is nothing more or less than an advertisement for himself.

Trump reignited his never-ending campaign for relevance on June 16, when he formally declared. But the stage and the rhetorical tone were set in earlier speeches, in Phoenix and Las Vegas. We should have known what was coming.

Even before his announcement, the style and bombastic tendencies of The Donald had grievously wounded not just his own presidential bid, but also damaged the GOP’s still-tender hunt for a fresh message and identity. The probable end of the Trump campaign arrived before the certain beginning.

At his formal announcement, at Trump Tower in Manhattan. his longtime embrace of passive-aggressive rhetorical intolerance continued. In several breathtakingly tone-deaf statements, Trump managed to condemn the Mexican people en masse for a host of social ills common to modern times on the long border between the United States and Mexico.

“When do we beat Mexico at the border?” Trump said. “They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us.

“They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists, and some I assume are good people, but I speak to border guards, and they tell us what we are getting," he said. Doubling down on dumb, and stealing a page from the Herman Cain 2012 campaign playbook, Trump said he’d build a “great wall” between the United States and Mexico.

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THE REACTION was swift and visceral. Days later, NBC, responding to reaction from Hispanic groups, said the network would not air the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants co-owned by Trump. Univision, which broadcasts Spanish-language content to millions of U.S. Hispanics, had already pulled the plug on covering the pageants. Other companies bailed on him too.

“With one short speech about us,” Los Angeles advertising executive Roberto Orci said to NPR, “he tarred the entire Latino culture as being rapists and murderers and terrorists.”

Probably emboldened by a poll that showed him at the top of the early GOP leaderboard, Trump then went on to, well, trump himself. On Saturday, at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, Trump suggested that Arizona Sen. John McCain, imprisoned for five years at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, was something less than a veteran worthy of the respect accorded to everyone serving this nation in uniform.

“He's not a war hero,” Trump said. “He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured.”

The backing & filling began almost immediately, with Trump, forward gear temporarily stalled, trying to move in a kind of lateral gear, sticking to his guns while trying to play down the intensity of the reaction to his words as so much overreaction.

“I believe perhaps he is a war hero,” he said later, “but right now — he said some very bad things about a lot of people.”

But the damage was done. The Donald’s comments took a serious beatdown in the mainstream media and also among ops in the Republican National Committee.

“Senator McCain is an American hero because he served his country and sacrificed more than most can imagine. Period. There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably.“ said RNC communications director Sean Spicer in a statement.

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And if Trump’s slagging of Mexico and certain American veterans was meant to capitalize on a recent poll that suggested the GOP primary electorate is tired of professional politicians and ergo ready for a fresh breeze, like Trump — he was disabused of that notion by another, more important poll on Tuesday.

That’s when The Des Moines Register, flagship paper of the state of Iowa (that primary primary state next year), published an editorial that could be the first nail in the coffin, or the last, of the Trump 2016 presidential campaign.

It reads in part: “It's time for Donald Trump to drop out of the race for president of the United States.

“If he were merely a self-absorbed, B-list celebrity, his unchecked ego could be tolerated as a source of mild amusement. But he now wants to become president, which means that he aspires to be the leader of the free world and the keeper of our nuclear launch codes.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Striking the colors

YEARS AGO at a new job as an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, I met a colleague, a man proud of his Southern heritage, an otherwise centered, rational man of panoramic thinking.

Unless you crossed him on the reasons for the Civil War.

In one of my first days there, he volunteered his opinion, unprovoked and unsolicited, about the cause of the Civil War, pressing his point — with a certain congenial menace, if memory serves — that the conflict was solely a matter of a spirited regional resistance to tariffs and other economic meddling by the federal government, an attempt to prevent usurpation of states’ rights in matters of commerce, the region’s prevailing agriculture and its chosen means of ... acquiring menial labor.

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He apparently didn’t know who Alexander Stephens was, and at that moment he wouldn’t have cared. If he’d bothered to look into the history of the conflict, he’d have found the seeds of that conflict in the words of Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America, in the Cornerstone Address of March 21, 1861, spoken in Savannah, Ga., a few weeks before Fort Sumter:

“Our new Government is founded ... its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

That disconnect — between the Confederate cause of my colleague’s extravagant imagination and the Confederacy in fact — has been much in evidence lately. Its predominant visual symbol is closer now to being rightly relegated to history than at any other time in the last 150 years.

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YOU CAN ALMOST envision what’s happening now if it was written as one of those excited vertical headlines in newspapers common to that era:

In a cascade of events, we’ve come to and passed a tipping point about what to do with the Confederate flag:

The National Park Service is withdrawing merchandise bearing the Confederate flag, including materials in the gift shop at Fort Sumter, where it all began in April 1861. “We strive to tell the complete story of America,” National Park Director Jonathan Jarvis said in a statement, as reported in The Daily Beast “All sales items in parks are evaluated based on educational value and their connection to the park. Any stand-alone depictions of Confederate flags have no place in park stores.”

On Wednesday morning, June 24, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered a Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds. Immediately. “Two workers came out of the Capitol building about 8:20 a.m. and with no fanfare quickly and quietly took the flag down,” The Birmingham News reports. “Moments later, Gov. Bentley emerged from the Capitol on his way to an appearance in Hackleburg. Asked if he had ordered the flag taken down, the governor said, ‘Yes I did.’”

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On Sunday, June 21, Apple CEO Tim Cook weighed in on the issue, saying that people could effectively honor the nine black people murdered on June 17 at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by “eradicating racism & removing the symbols and words that feed it” — a direct shot at the Confederate flag.

Good as Cook’s word, Apple yanked Civil War-themed video games, including Ultimate General: Gettysburg and HexWar Games, from its popular App Store because of that flag’s appearance in their products.

The Clarion-Ledger reported that Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said that the Confederate part of his state’s flag “needs to be removed.” “We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn said June 22. "As a Christian, I believe our state's flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi's flag." A petition to remove the Confederate part of the Mississippi flag has racked up more than 4,500 signatures.

And CNN has reported that Wal-Mart, retailing’s holy of holies, will end sales of Confederate-themed merchandise — including T-shirts, belt buckles and the flag itself — throughout its 11,495 stores. “We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer,” said Walmart spokesman Brian Nick. “We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the Confederate flag from our assortment — whether in our stores or on our website.”

Better late than never.

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THE POWER of Southern identity is not an incidental thing. It runs through the art, food, literature, music and motion pictures of this nation like the Mississippi River runs through America itself. Indelible, undying, the American South is a wellspring of inspiration and has been for generations.

But insofar as any part of modern Southern identity has been forged in the fire of resentment a century and a half old, what’s just happened in Charleston, and the national reaction to it, will be some of that identity’s undoing. The South has long grappled with deciding whether to be a part of America or apart from America.

Without the unifying coordinating foundation of resentment, the states that formed the Confederacy have to find a new foundation — for want of a better phrase, a new business model for the future. An existential business model informed by naked contempt for the federal government and thinly-veiled historical rage at its black citizenry just isn’t working anymore. Fact is, it never worked.

Dylann Storm Roof, the young white supremacist who confessed to killing the nine Charleston worshippers, may have done more to undermine the fading defiance of the Confederate mindset than anything done by the civil rights movement or the federal government. His actions in the hopes of creating a race war have probably gone a long way to help preventing one.

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The phrase “business model” isn’t out of place. Historically, over at least the last 50 years, the Southern states comprising the Confederacy have consistently lagged behind the national average in a number of important categories, including education, college graduation rates, health care, broadband Internet access and other factors.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Holt, Noah and the liberation of TV news

HISTORICALLY, June 19th has been a day for recognition of the delayed liberation experienced at the end of the Civil War. That’s the day in 1865 when a Union Army officer read the Emancipation Proclamation to the black people of Galveston, Texas -- people who found out that day that slavery had been ended ... more than two years earlier.

Among other, uncharitable reactions they may have had, you can be sure that some of their number, students of cognitive dissonance, came to an anodyne conclusion: “Better late than never.”

Students of modern electronic media probably thought the same thing on Thursday, June 18 — another “teenth” in June — when NBC News formally announced that Lester Don Holt Jr. would be the new anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News, the first sole permanent African American anchor in the history of broadcast television news. It was just the latest example of television news of the present, and presumably the future, unshackling itself from the past.

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Holt, an NBC News reporter for 15 years and for 4 ½ months the interim anchor, took over for Brian Williams, who’s moved on to a new role — undetermined and under fire — at MSNBC, where he was for years while being groomed for his stint in the anchor chair. That ended in February, under unfortunate circumstances.

Holt, 56, called the promotion “an enormous honor.” "I’m very proud and grateful to be part of such an unflappable and dedicated team of professionals as we move forward together,” he said in a statement.

For years now, Holt has been the Swiss Army knife of NBC news programming. As co-anchor of the weekend “Today Show” for 12 years, Nightly News weekend anchor for eight years, and anchor of “Dateline NBC” for four years, Holt may well have passed themselves in the hallway at 30 Rock from time to time. His ubiquity at the Peacock Network and a straight-ahead, professional demeanor helped him gain a very favorable stature at the network, and it’s played a part in keeping NBC competitive against a resurgent ABC “World News Tonight” hosted by David Muir.

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DESPITE BROADCAST television’s slow erosion of viewers in the face of cable and streaming options, and time-shifting technology like TiVo, the news anchor chair has always held a singular fascination in the teleculture. The last-name-only status of these anchors — Cronkite, Reasoner, Chancellor, Rather, Brokaw — still conveys the idea of their being a mandarin presence in our daily TV lives.

Given the demographically monotonous history of those anchors, Holt’s elevation at NBC becomes even more of a standout event. His rise at the Peacock and the earlier epochal anchor-chair news — Trevor Noah, a relative comedy unknown, was tapped in March to replace Jon Stewart at “The Daily Show” on Sept. 28 — continues a process that’s been under way, bubbling just below the surface for a long time.

The years-long browning of the MSNBC lineup complexion; the growing diversity of field reporters at network and affiliate levels; and the steady emergence of Telemundo and Univision as formidable media brands targeting the Latino population, point to the inescapable: The white male stranglehold on television news is over, as out of date and behind the times as your grandmother’s DuMont.

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Ironically, the reach for the sustained credibility that NBC makes with Holt’s elevation is contradicted by what’s happening, or not happening, with Williams, the now-former Nightly News anchor. Williams, whose gift for telling tall tales related to his journalistic experience forced him off the air in February, now moves to MSNBC in August, there presumably to assume a breaking-news role not unlike the one he had there from 1996 to 2004.

That’s smart from a financial perspective, and maybe from a ratings viewpoint. Last December, Williams signed a five-year, $50 million contract with NBC; an outright dismissal would have meant NBC writing Williams a monster check (and no doubt watching him decamp immediately for another network).

From a ratings standpoint, moving Williams to his old stomping ground at MSNBC may provide viewers a sense of stability, returning to older, stronger lineup from earlier days. This matters because Andrew Lack has returned to NBC as chairman of NBC News and MSNBC. Lack’s returned to do something about MSNBC’s plummeting ratings. “MSNBC has been on a ratings slide for months; in February, it was down 48 percent in primetime in the 25-to-54 demo and 43 percent in total day compared with the same month last year,” The Hollywood Reporter noted in March.

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BUT THE viewers are weighing in. A commenter at The Huffington Post remarked: “Within MSNBC, there’s concern that management’s move may create a misperception that journalistic standards are lower at the cable news network. If Williams isn't credible enough to anchor the broadcast news, as the decision may be interpreted, is he credible enough to anchor breaking news on cable?”

Steve Burke, the CEO of NBCUniversal, told HuffPost that Williams' return to MSNBC gives him “the chance to earn back everyone’s trust ... his excellent work over twenty-two years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity.”

People who work at MSNBC aren’t mollified. One MSNBC insider told TheWrap that many at that network are ““dumbfounded how Williams’ 'lack of credibility squares ... with a network striving to be to be looked at more seriously for news coverage.”

Which doesn’t matter to Clay Cullum, who implicitly compared the ratings of MSNBC and NBC in a comment on the Williams situation in TheWrap: “He's in the federal witness protection program. No one will ever find him over on MSNBC.”

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Williams’ NBC loyalists will have to content themselves with Holt, who hit the ground running not long after his promotion. Holt took “Nightly News” in a new direction last week, anchoring a special one-hour edition of “Nightly” last week, in the face of events in Charleston, S.C., and the Supreme Court’s momentous decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriage.

He didn’t shoehorn everything into a half-hour and then hand off to the affiliates; that one-hour special broadcast was a break with the past, and certainly suggests a willingness on Holt’s part to break with tradition — or with habit — and follow major stories outside the 30-minute box (As Events Warrant, of course).

With NBC and MSNBC under Lack’s experienced hand, there’s justified confidence that the break with the past that Lester Holt represents won’t be the Peacock’s last.

Image credits: Holt: NBC News via Variety. Noah: Byron Leulemans/Comedy Central. Williams: NBC News.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Agony and grace in Charleston

THEY RANGED in age from 26 to 87. They were three men and six women gathered in the one place you’re supposed to be safe: the bosom sanctuary of the black American church.

But on June 17, Dylann Storm Roof pulled his 2000 Hyundai Elantra into the parking lot of the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., walked inside, pulled out a .45 Glock pistol an hour later, and took their nine lives.

For the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel Simmons Sr., Myra Thompson and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, that sanctuary on Calhoun Street vanished. For the rest of us, what vanished were any remaining well-nurtured illusions that pure, unalloyed, unapologetic racism doesn’t exist in the United States.

Bahari Sellers asked on MSNBC: “If you can’t be black in a church, where can you be black in this country?”

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With one act, Roof became a lightning rod in the periodically intersecting debates of race relations and gun violence. There’s of course the never-ending battle over gun rights; Roof’s access to a handgun and the way he used it are problematic for Big Gun, the National Rifle Association, and its pro-gun lobby on Capitol Hill.

But the other, deeper, more uniquely American tragedy is there as well. Roof had his reasons for doing what he did, but reason itself had nothing to do with any of them. We knew that once it was learned he hoped to start a race war. We knew that after two private citizens and part-time bloggers discovered Roof’s manifesto on another undisclosed web site. On that site, under the heading of “An explanation,” Roof offered his own cracked manifesto, explaining the actions to come:

“I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

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THE MURDERS in Charleston were swiftly followed by champions of the non-diagnosis, those who refused to see any causal connection between Roof’s meticulous, procedural plan of execution and the virulent bigotry that motivated him to follow through on that plan.

On June 19, Bill Maher cut to the chase on his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher “The Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, said, ‘We’ll never understand.’ Jeb Bush: ‘We can’t know.’ Jindal, Lindsay Graham, all of them said some version of, ‘It’s incomprehensible. There’s no way to know what motivated a racist to kill black people,’” Maher said. “Fellas, you know what? When a guy like this talks about, ‘The South will rise again,’ he’s not talking about IQ levels. This guy openly said he was trying to ‘start a race war,’ which is delusional ...

“There are words you can’t say on the right. One of them is taxes—as in we’re going to raise them—and one of them is racism. They hate being called ‘racists,’ conservatives, but isn’t denying racism in and of itself a form of racism?”

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Nothing’s created in a vacuum. In a piece published June 21 in The Daily Beast, Olivia Nuzzi and John Avlon turned over the rock of the Council of Conservative Citizens and discovered a sordid history squirming underneath. In their masterful report, Nuzzi and Avlon explain how the Council of Conservative Citizens bears “a dark lineage, descending from the White Citizens Councils that sprang up throughout the deep South as part of the “massive resistance” to desegregation, spurred by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.”

The reporters explore the history of the council from the heyday of the Jim Crow era up to the year 2007 — when a statement of principles made it clear that the Council opposed “all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action’ and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”

This in 2007. In such an environment, with such a relentless and poisonous history to motivate him, what Dylann Roof did on June 17 wasn’t just possible, it was almost inevitable.

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THE ZERO-sum-game mentality reflected in the thinking of the Council of Conservative Citizens is all of a piece with an older generation of white Southerners chronologically long removed from the Civil War but fully versed in the Jim Crow era and the years after.

It’s a matter of identity, in their case an identity that’s a product of both regional pride and racial hatred. The old wounds and slights from losing the Civil War, the outrage and resentments over social advances in the Jim Crow era — all have been handed down from one generation to the next; Dylann Roof is just one of the latest to brandish inheritance of this malignant heirloom.

The others are the various nightcrawlers who set fire to at least three mostly black churches in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee ... in the past week. Two other fires — one in South Carolina, one in Ohio — are being investigated as possible arson, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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