Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The trouble with Bernie Sanders

“A movement that wins is a movement that grows.”
— Faiz Shakir, Bernie Sanders campaign manager

THE COVID-19 pandemic made its brutal trajectory into our world and our lives with monstrous irony and equally monstrous bad timing, injecting itself into the 2020 Democratic nomination.

For the campaign of Vermont's Democratic socialist senator Bernie Sanders, it was the worst that could happen: a deadly viral outlier that short-circuits the retail populism of a candidate desperate to catch up to his opponent; a disease that, among other things, demands that an already cerebral aspirant for the White House must campaign at a serious remove from the crowds that have given his presidential bid oxygen since it started in early 2019.

Sanders and his campaign brain trust recently decamped to Burlington, “Burlington” being the shorthand for the home of Bernie and Jane O’Meara Sanders. I forget the shorthand word they used to explain it — “reassess” or “recalibrate” or some other mechanically therapeutic descriptor — but you know what it means. We all know what it means to a campaign that’s already in trouble.

◊ ◊ ◊

With serial primary losses on Super Tuesdays, March 3, 10 and 17, the derailing of the Sanders Inevitability Express accelerated. In breathtakingly swift fashion, his campaign for the Democratic nomination and the presidency has lost the illusion of momentum (maybe the only momentum it really had to begin with) and certainly that of inevitability.

One after another after another, unforced errors have hobbled the Sanders 2020 campaign, mistakes and blindsides you wouldn’t expect of such a well-oiled campaign operation — one that never completely went dark after 2016 — or such a presumably seasoned presidential contender. Let us count the ways:

Example: Despite an historically cool relationship with black voters, and an opportunity to improve that, Sanders, the presumptive leader of a multi-racial political movement, chose this year to forego an appearance at the Edmund Pettis Bridge, a site that spiritually resonates for black Americans, and an obligatory walk for any serious presidential candidate seeking black voter support.

◊ ◊ ◊

HE PAID the price for that diss this year. He otherwise paid a price among black voters in the primaries he needed to win.

The New York Times explains: “Instead of spending money on ads and ground operations to compete across the South, Mr. Sanders would all but give up on those states and would focus on winning states where he was more popular, like Colorado and Minnesota, which would at least give him some victories to claim.

“The reason: Mr. Sanders and his advisers and allies knew that black voters would be decisive in those Southern contests, but he had been unable to make significant inroads with them.”

Those two paragraphs weren’t written in 2020. They were written for The Times by Patrick Healy and Yamiche Alcindor in April 2016. It should therefore be alarming AF to Team Sanders how superimposable one election misfire has been over another. Those graphs might as well have been written yesterday, presaging another Sanders surrender of the vote-rich lode of African Americans in the South — the most reliable bedrock of the Democratic electorate.

◊ ◊ ◊

Bernie Sanders, the champion of campaign transparency, refused to release the full medical records related to his October 2019 heart attack — a decision that screams for Sanders to justify in comparison to Trump’s refusal to release his tax records, which Sanders called for last year. “I think we have released a detailed medical report, and I’m comfortable on what we have done,” he told CNN in February, not long after it was revealed that Sanders hid the heart attack from the media for days, and waited until the end of 2019 to release testimonials from three doctors attesting to his overall condition.

In April 2019, Sanders, friend of the working class, announced his participation in the moneyed class — the 1 percent of Americans he spent months slagging on the campaign trail. It was there in his tax returns for 2018: Sanders and his wife Jane earned $561,293 in adjusted gross income, largely from money from book sales.

Their income exceeded $1 million in 2016 and 2017, again from book sales. It wouldn’t be so ... unfortunate if Sanders hadn’t spent so much time trashing “billionaires and millionaires” on the stump. It’s just another disconnect, another disjunction of message and messenger. So was his response to a reporter’s observation of his fresh millionaire status — typical Sanders, tone-deaf and headstrong: “I wrote a best-selling book. If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too."

◊ ◊ ◊

BUT YOU know what? Something else isn’t right and you can see what it is. It’s in his campaign appearances, in his mien at the debates and TV interviews, in the picture of himself that he shows the world. This is a man whose private aspect is at odds, maybe even at war, with his avowed aspirations.

He’s not incapable of showing upscale emotion. Anand Giridharadas of Time magazine reported: “Along our 6,000-mile journey, when Sanders came upon a voter in an airport or on a sidewalk and the situation demanded a smile, he gave the smile my 4-year-old gives when he knows that greeting our dinner guests nicely is the price of staying up.”

For much of the time he’s visible, though, the senator from Vermont doesn’t look like he’s having an especially good time running for president. He often presents to the American people the countenance of a curmudgeon. He looks unhappy, not just situationally unhappy, but foundationally sour and cross, the neighbor always telling people to get off his lawn, even when they’re walking on the sidewalk across the street.

Look at his face as he moves around in public; observe the tension there, his generally unsmiling demeanor, the tightness in his jaw muscles. More recently, coincident with his rise to frontrunner status, he smiles in some smartly-produced campaign ads. But over the long arc of the campaign, Bernie looks like he swallowed some bad beef at the holiday table and he’s doing all he can to not embarrass his guests by bringing it back up. He looks like he’s holding something in. It looks as if he’s holding something back.

He looks like he’s trying not to explode. He looks like he’s hiding something.

◊ ◊ ◊

MAYBE. The heart-attack secrecy was bad enough. And don't forget February, when Sanders revealed that he was told — weeks to months earlier — that Russia was working to support his campaign for the nomination, this as one component of the Russians’ wider attempts to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Why'd Sanders keep that a secret for so long?

There’s another basic kind of withholding going on. In his Time profile of Sanders, Giridharadas writes of a candidate willing to deflect attention, “a candidate who is himself so emotionally inaccessible, reluctant to share more than the barest glimpses of his own history and inner life. “Not me. Us.” is his 2020 campaign slogan, and he means it.”

And that’s a problem. As egalitarian as that three-word creed seeks to be, it lets Sanders skip out on the personal revelations that have a way of endearing a candidate to an electorate. Coming clean about who and what you are, not as a politician but as a human being with a family and a history, is one of the most nakedly honest decisions you can make in presidential politics.

Some, like Barack Obama, make that leap in stunning fashion, as anyone who’s read Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance already knows. Sanders, though, has worked hard to play down that very back story that could wed him to more than his Bernie Bro legions. It’s a kind of, uh, social distancing he can ill afford if his campaign plans to soldier on.

◊ ◊ ◊

The campaign’s been plagued with other missteps, the latest and most likely terminal of these on March 18. CNN reporter Manu Raju had the audacity to ask Sanders about his likelihood of dropping out of the race for the White House, given the back-to-back-to-back cratering of the campaign's delegate hopes. Sanders, no doubt expecting the question (or tired of answering it before), didn’t hold back.

“I’m dealing with a fucking global crisis,” Sanders said. “You know, we’re dealing with … Well right now, right now I’m trying to do my best to make sure that we don’t have an economic meltdown and that people don’t die. Is that enough for you to keep me busy for today?”

Statements like that don’t leave a lot to the imagination. You don’t have to be the most avid student of political science to make sense of a campaign in the midst of imminent collapse. Sanders is clearly navigating his own political meltdown; his frustration with Raju was just a distillation of what’s been brewing, what’s been coming, for weeks.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Ghost-town world:
Coronavirus and the new abnormal

AS WE confront the velocity of the Wuhan novel coronavirus into modern life, there’s been a timed-release shutdown of the events and gathering places that are sites of our intersectionality as fans and worshippers and citizens — as human beings.

Health-care professionals have issued various pronouncements intended to give people the best possible advice to stay healthy in this time of contagion. Among the advisories is the imprecise advice to maintain “social distancing.”

In general terms, it means to create physical space between you and other people of at least six feet. Specifically, though, it’s meant creating the kind of space that’s forced the closure of any number of public events.

As COVID-19 rampages around the world, social distancing has meant postponement of the NBA and NHL seasons; a pushback to the start of the Major League Baseball season (mid-May at the earliest); a cancellation of the NCAA’s March Madness college hoops tournament; and a cancellation of MLB spring training games. Formula One canceled the Australian Grand Prix, and the Mormon Church has canceled services worldwide, as have mosques and synagogues.

For now there are no activities at landmarks, theme parks, casinos, classrooms, and other wide-scale venues; conferences, symposia and other events rescheduled; the networks have suspended live-studio production, rendering late-night a wasteland; K-12 public schools have been closed in at least 33 states; sports from soccer to golf have ended competitions ... and there’s darkness on Broadway — no live theater in the district that defines theater to the world.

The fact of social distancing is relative. Despite the epidemiological frisson currently surrounding the phrase, the experience behind the phrase is hardly new. ...

Read the full essay at Humans.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Roll away the stone:
Joe Biden bounces back

THE PINE BOX was tailored and ready for the 2020 presidential campaign of one Joseph Robinett Biden Jr. The campaign was on a respirator. The undertaker was ready. The padre was gonna read over it, directly. Everything was all arranged; the events of Super Tuesday would be a grand sendoff into the history books of political laughingstock events.

Except ... there was a slight problem: Nobody told the guest of honor he was supposed to be dead.

Thus misinformed about what was supposed to be happening to him, the former vice president wandered into the Super Tuesday Democratic primaries on March 3 and ran the table, rewriting the playbook of how to wage a presidential campaign that makes full and effective use of the vice-presidential brand -- and in the process conducting what is to this point, the most cost-efficient presidential campaign in American history.

◊ ◊ ◊

Biden’s bid for the White House was considered largely finished as recently as Feb. 28 or 29. The candidate’s serial lackluster showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and the Nevada caucuses made a Super Tuesday death knell for Obama’s vice president almost inevitable.

South Carolina, however, just turned out to be another matter entirely. The South Carolina primary, on Saturday, was considered the first real canvass of the national mood by people that looked like the national population. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the state’s revered Democratic congressman, publicly endorsed Biden in a 21st-century speech that resonated in a brilliantly old-school way.

With that speech, Clyburn wielded the defibrillator paddles that shocked a moribund Biden campaign back to life.

But Clyburn did more than that. He was the first in the 2020 campaign to wield the collective objectives and aspirations of African Americans on behalf of Biden. What Clyburn tapped into was bigger than South Carolina.

Coming before Super Tuesday, his speech was ready to be used for at least a regional objective, and it was. But it had a resonance whose reach for the homiletic rafters of the civil rights era (days after Black History Month) was undeniable.

◊ ◊ ◊

IT READS LIKE music. A dozen words, four measures of three notes each. “I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us,” he said. With those 12 words, Clyburn certainly set the stage for resetting the race for the Democratic nomination, and possibly relit a fire under the Obama-Clinton coalition of voters that prevailed in 2008 and 2012, and whose younger, more progressive cohort kicked ass in the 2018 midterms. His statement reflected a serious grasp of retail politics at its basic level.

The questions “Who do you trust?” and “who do you know?” have been asked and answered; they’re foundational to much of how politics works. Clyburn’s statement answered the questions we don’t ask often enough in our elections: “Who knows us, and how well?” “Who gets me, and my life, where I live?”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren had gone to lengths greater and lesser to yoke Biden and his campaign to rich donors, the billionaire class, and “the establishment” writ large. But that’s not what people took into the voting booths in 14 states and American Samoa on Super Tuesday, March 3. They remembered what Clyburn said. And they mostly remembered the best of the previous 11 years of their lives, and what Joe Biden had to do with those years, and what Joe Biden had to do with the last president they could get their hearts around.

◊ ◊ ◊

WHEN THE smoke cleared, Biden had cornered the Lazarus franchise. He was the comeback kid on steroids. Ten out of 14 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia — went for Biden over Sanders; former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg won American Samoa. Biden convincingly beat Warren in her home state, an embarrassing defeat.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Chris Matthews’ short goodbye

IT’S A STANDING truism of our lives: Things happen fast after taking forever to happen at all. Chris Matthews knows this firsthand. The longtime student of and reporter on American politics is, lately, an accidental victim of the evolution of our sexual politics, and the way men and women relate to each other — the way we live now. Not all those halcyon years ago.

Matthews’ political program, Hardball, was for 20 years a program that hard-wired Washington’s cutthroat political culture to the eyes and brains of a wide cable audience, first on CNBC, then later on MSNBC, where the program Matthews hosted was a mainstay of weekday programming. Matthews’ breathless, take-no-prisoners style was a fixture of the program, whose early iterations revealed his healthy bipartisan delight in skewering windbags and those with pre-packaged agendas.

Matthews’ show was suddenly, unceremoniously canceled on Monday, March 2, on the eve of what was expected to be his characteristically cranky, panoramic analysis of the Super Tuesday Democratic primaries. It was the swiftest fall from grace in recent television history, and its very suddenness was what made it so immediately, palpably surreal.

EVERYTHING on MSNBC programming seemed fine on Monday at 4 pm West Coast time (7 pm ET). Ari Melber had just signed off from his program, The Beat With Ari Melber, handing off to Matthews, as he’d done hundreds of times before. Matthews came on the screen ... and a minute and 50 seconds later, a career was over:

The whole thing thoroughly unsettled Steve Kornacki, MSNBC’s resident numbers guru, who was hastily thrown in to follow Matthews’ disappearing act right after it happened, with no warning at all:

The Matthews vanishing was the merciless nature of the digital age made instantly plain. Despite the speed of events, though, there were many signs that we should have seen all of this coming. Coming from a long way off. A story by veteran journalist Lloyd Grove and other reporters, in The Daily Beast on Monday, reveals how the Hardball host has been pushing the behavioral envelope for years.

◊ ◊ ◊

FROM THE Beast: “According to sources at MSNBC, Kathleen [Matthews, former Washington local news anchor and Chris Matthews’ wife] had communicated concerns over the past several months to network chief Phil Griffin, Chris’s long-ago Hardball executive producer when the show aired on CNBC. She expressed worry that her husband’s on-air controversies would become more frequent, more embarrassing, and more damaging to his legacy.

“For months, it was known to some inside the network that Kathleen had pushed for her husband, now 74, to have a more limited schedule. Instead, the MSNBC anchor found himself on TV during more major events than he had since the 2016 election cycle.

“And while acting as a fixture of MSNBC’s Democratic primary coverage, Matthews continually came under fire for on-air comments including likening Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Nevada caucus victory to Nazi Germany overtaking France during World War II, a comment for which Matthews later apologized; and asking Sen. Elizabeth Warren why she would believe a woman over Michael Bloomberg regarding accusations that the ex-mayor told a pregnant employee to “kill” her unborn child.”

Making matters worse, the Friday before he quit, Matthews managed to mix up the identities of Jaime Harrison, a South Carolina Democrat pursuing Lindsey Graham's seat in the Senate, and Sen. Tim Scott. Both Harrison and Scott are black men.

◊ ◊ ◊

But there’s been history more ancient than that, and more problematic. Matthews has been previously taken to task for making inappropriate comments about women. The Daily Beast reported that exposĂ©s of Matthews'  bad behavior, reported on The Daily Show and in GQ, finally forced the hand of MSNBC brass, which almost certainly gave Matthews a Hobson’s choice scenario: Jump or be pushed. Resign or be fired.

“After my conversation with MSNBC, I decided tonight will be my last Hardball,” Matthews said Monday. “So let me tell you why. The younger generations are ready to take the reins. We see them in politics, the media, and fighting for their causes. They’re improving the workplace.” Matthews then apologized for his history of making “compliments on a woman’s appearance some men, including me, might have once incorrectly thought were OK.”

Matthews' legacy precedes him. He volunteered for the Peace Corps at the age of 23, serving as a trade adviser in Swaziland. He later worked for House Speaker William P. (Tip) O’Neill, wrote speeches for President Jimmy Carter, and went on to be Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner. In 1988 he published the book “Hardball: How Politics is Played, Told by One Who Knows the Game,” his collected observations of the workings of Washington. He brought the title, and the free-wheeling perspective, to TV in 1997.

◊ ◊ ◊

BUT ANOTHER legacy precedes him too. Matthews has, over the years of Hardball, revealed a hardly-submerged reverence for the era of John F. Kennedy ascendant, its mores and mystique. His Peace Corps service can fairly be laid to his embrace of JFK’s ask-not social agenda.

In the repartee with numerous guests in years of TV interviews, he revealed (perhaps by accident) his own emotional subscription to the clubby, towel-snapping, boys-will-be-boys ethos of white males of the Camelot era and after, the denizens of the world of Mad Men, wannabe masters of the universe. But that indelible part of Matthews’ past wouldn’t stay in the past; that’s what led to the events of March 2.

Setting aside the controversies that lit a fire under his career implosion, Matthews has been a challenge to watch on television for a long, long time. On the air, his relative discomfort with the discourse of television comes through. Example: For some time now, before cutting to a news video, Matthews has moved from looking directly and naturally at the camera to squinting hard at ... something in front of him — in the same shot.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

LAAK (Los Angeles after Kobe)

I GREW UP with the man!”

Someone shouting on the Willowbrook-Rose Parks Blue Line train platform put the city’s loss into a personal perspective on Sunday, Jan. 26. The death of Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bean Bryant, along with his eldest daughter, Gianna, and seven others that day in a helicopter accident in Calabasas, Calif., was truly a generational event.

Never mind Kobe’s own tender age of 41. The ages of the others who perished in the crash — from 13 to 56 — made this an equal opportunity dasher of hopes. That accidental diversity of disaster had a happier parallel in the city itself.

Almost as soon as the news went up, all the day of the crash and every day in local media after that, you were pleasantly struck by the breadth of diversity reflected everywhere. In the streets of downtown, on the trains around the city, on buses in Gardena and storefronts in Compton, Angelenos paid their respects. Tributes to Kobe and friends even included a 24-second service hold by Metro light-rail trains on Feb. 24.

◊ ◊ ◊

The hours and days after Kobe and the others passed saw what amounted to a T-Shirt Silkscreeners Full Employment Act. Caps, shirts, sweatshirts and a wide range of other memorabilia showed up fast — almost distressingly fast — in a marketplace all too ready to receive them.

The championships and the accompanying swagger gave the people of the city vast pride, of course. It was always about more than money, but Kobe and the Lakers were hugely financially successful for the team, the city and its citizens. If you celebrate somebody, celebrate everything about them.

And no art celebrates somebody quite like a mural. The vast scale of the mural makes an image praiseworthy by definition; we tend to expand the contours of our heroes, reflecting the size of their accomplishments.

Los Angeles, a city long seduced by the power of the mural, was overwhelmed in the days after, with designs on vertical surfaces all over town: images derived from photos of Kobe in his high-scoring prime.

◊ ◊ ◊

HERE WE ARE in the Ecosystem of the Angels, sharing the subways and freeways, our common microbes and experiences. It took another overpowering social catalyst — the 1992 riots — to provoke a question that L.A. still hasn’t completely answered yet. “Can we all just get along?” Rodney King asked in the wake of vast civil unrest.

The ceremonies, tears and praisesongs of the last 45 days show that, at least in the short term, it’s possible to do just that. Remembrances of Kobe Bean Bryant have been heartfelt, powerful, plentiful and socially panoramic. But comradeship and the unity that tragedy engenders can be a short-lived thing. Can the City of Angels be as ecumenical and all-embracing about the future of the city Kobe loved as it’s been about the past public life that Kobe lived?

The untimely deaths of Kobe and Gianna and the others on Jan. 26 were an annealing event for the people of Los Angeles, something that welded the city together, at least in the short term. Now the hard work of being truly ecumenical begins.

Now — in the face of a persistent city history of informal housing bias, an ongoing existential crisis of homelessness, the emerging specter of typhus amid swarms of rats by the thousands, and the new anti-socializing scourge of the coronavirus — the urgency of the need for a unity of civic objective has never been greater than now.

Image credits: Gianna-Kobe mural: Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images. Other images: The author.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...