Monday, January 31, 2011

Out of Melody

Film composer John Barry died today at age 77. He is best known for his James Bond movie scores, "You Only Live Twice" and "Goldfinger" being among the most popular. He also wrote the Oscar-winning theme music for “Born Free” (1966) as well as the memorable scores for “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) and “Dances with Wolves” (1990).

In my view, however, Barry’s best composition is his haunting, symphonic poem for “Out of Africa,” the 1985 film based on the 1937 book by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) of the same name. He perfectly captured the mood evident in the lyrical opening lines of Blixen’s famous tome (listen here):
“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”
“I have a feeling that wherever I may be in the future, I will be wondering whether there is rain at Ngong,” Blixen wrote in a letter to her mother in 1919. Like Blixen’s Kenya, Barry’s poetry will linger in our musical imagination wherever we may be in the future. He will be missed.

As Egypt burns ...

"He who rides the sea of the Nile must have sails woven of patience." -- Sir William Golding (English novelist, poet and 1983 Nobel Prize winner for Literature)

Quote of the Day

"The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea." Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen, author of "Out of Africa")

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Skewed coverage of Egypt?

A thoughtful reader takes apart Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish coverage of the Egyptian unrest, calling it somewhat skewed and overly sentimental (bordering at times on naivety). But he makes his case civilly.

He argues that the Dish’s news coverage is analogous to how Hollywood bends historical reality in The King’s Speech to fit a crowd-pleasing narrative.

An excerpt:
"I saw a movie last night, The King's Speech, that allowed me to boil down what bothers me about your coverage of the events in Egypt and other countries where popular revolutions have tried to get off of the ground. ... There are two broad things happening in The King's Speech. On one hand, they're trying to describe things that actually happened to real people who actually lived through them. But on the other hand, they're trying to fit stuff into a narrative. And in the movie, the narrative always wins out when it collides with history."

"You guys are covering events in Egypt through the lens of a narrative. I absolutely don't think you do it dishonestly or deliberately, or even that you have any awareness that you're doing it. And I don't think that your narrative collides with reality in the same way the one in the movie does. But that story about people going out there and standing up for their freedom is almost like a Hollywood story, it has that same kind of appeal, and I think you guys get caught up in that. I think your affinity for that narrative damages your coverage."
The Dish is among the best political blogs out there. But the reader’s point is powerful. Moreover, his criticisms easily apply to the broader media coverage of Egypt. That is worth bearing in mind as events unfold amid the ancient pyramids. Read the entire critique here.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A monkey's uncle

On HBO's Real Time, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) told host Bill Maher flat out that he does not believe in evolution. "I believe I came from God not from a monkey," he said with a straight face. Evidently, the man has trouble grasping scientific facts. It proves once again that Darwinian evolution is an ongoing process, and that some of us (especially politicians of a certain conservative stripe) are still on the arduous journey from Cro-Magnon to Homo Sapien. Hopefully, the good congressman will catch up with the rest of us higher primates. We managed to diverge from the prehistoric great apes (the Nakalipithecus) some five million years ago. What’s taking Kingston so long? Having a highly developed brain capable of abstract reasoning, problem solving and introspection is fun. You’ll like it, congressman. I promise. Best of all, it will make all of those pesky facts make sense. So, dude, shake off that primordial ooze and pick up the pace.

Egyptian Craps

A reader on Talking Points Memo took umbrage with David Kurtz’s analysis of the tricky diplomatic line the Obama administration must walk as it deals with the unfolding unrest in Egypt.
Kurtz: "If this were a clear choice between an authoritarian regime and a western-style democracy, it'd be a no-brainer. But it's not. It's a problem to be managed, with the sober understanding that the real world offers potential outcomes that are worse than Mubarak."

Dissenting Reader: "[TPM] is peddling the idea that we need to be cautious about supporting an extraordinary uprising from all quarters of Egyptian society that is calling for the end to a 30-year dictatorship. The idea that we ought to reserve judgement because there might be something "worse than Mubarak" in store, strikes me as utterly cynical, playing into a kind of Kissengerian "realism" that entirely discounts the real nature of power while using a supposedly sober assessment of it to justify violence and repression and being cosy with dictators. The idea that something new will be worse is exactly the argument the British used against Gandhi's efforts in India ..."
Who’s right – Kurtz or the (spelling-challenged) reader?

Before answering, consider this: Suppose you are a parent. Suppose that saving the life of your child depends on taking Action X or Y. Suppose further that you don’t know which one is correct. But make the wrong choice and your child dies. Would you (a) roll the dice in an all or nothing gambit or (b) try to create some “third way” to mitigate the dire threat to the kid? The idealist would choose A.

My absurd little scenario is meant to dramatize the difference between idealism and realism in problem solving. A pragmatic approach can produce more options than the crapshoot that generally underpins idealism. And though realpolitik rarely produces ideal solutions, it often averts catastrophe in a world where all the choices are bad (See Afghanistan). Yes, the idealist approach championed by the TPM reader is morally satisfying. Under perfect conditions, it can even work. But you’re totally screwed if the dice throw come up snake eyes.

The stakes are huge in the current unrest. Egypt (and perhaps the region) faces political implosion if events spin out of control. The possibility of Egypt becoming another Mullah-run Iran is real. Though blithely dismissed by idealists, this is just one example of an outcome “worst than Mubarak.” And it is why rational American presidents like Obama don’t play dice with foreign policy.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ultimate Field Trip

In August 1985, Christa McAuliffe memorably told an audience, "I touch the future. I teach." In the fullness of time, she would touch many hearts as well. Having been selected for NASA’s “Teacher in Space” program, McAuliffe planned to lead a global classroom while floating in zero-gravity aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle. Praised by Time as a “startlingly normal American,” she was one of us.

Although hazard is the handmaiden of space travel, the risk didn’t faze the plucky history teacher. McAuliffe whimsically noted that she routinely put her “life on the line” when driving through certain, notorious street intersections back home in Concord, NH. “The shuttle can't be much worse than that," she joked. But just in case, McAuliffe would take aloft a stuffed toy frog for luck.

Calling her first lesson "The Ultimate Field Trip," McAuliffe planned to explore daily life in space. It was also an apt metaphor for her journey. But the trek ended 73 seconds after it began on January 28, 1986. "We have a major malfunction. The vehicle has exploded," said a NASA announcer, stunning the nation.

"Imagine a history teacher making history!" McAuliffe remarked excitedly during an interview weeks before the launch. She did so, and made us all proud.

Quote of the Day

"I have often said, and oftener think, that this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel – a solution of why Democritus laughed and Heraclitus wept." – Horatio Walpole (The Earl of Orford)
Horatio Walpole (1717-1797) was an English art historian and antiquarian. He is best known for coining the word “serendipity” (the accidental discovery of something of value) in 1754 in a letter to a friend. Per Wikipedia, Walpole said he derived the term after reading a "silly fairy tale," The Three Princes of Serendip.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

An offer they can't refuse

In a quick 7-0 ruling today, the Illinois Supreme Court said former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is eligible to run for mayor of Chicago. Case closed. Hallelujah – Maybe folks in the Land of Lincoln and the rest of America can get some sleep now. What a soap opera! The epic decision overturns an earlier appellate court ruling that knocked Emanuel off the ballot, reported the Chicago Sun-Times. Even a relieved President Obama called to congratulate him. "With less than 30 days to go until Election Day, there is no time to waste. Game on!" boasted Emanuel. For his political enemies, however, it’s more like “red alert.” Listen closely and you can hear the Godfather theme music playing in the background. If he becomes mayor (and he almost certainly will), the appellate judges who opposed Don Emanuel are going to find out why people in Washington call him "Rahmbo." (Those SNL skits showing him as a vengeful capo were not far off the mark.) Certain Chicagoans will know it’s time to clear out of town when dead fish wrapped in newspaper start arriving via Fedex after the vote count. Ha! Whadda town.

Gunsmoke, Utah-style

Per New York Times columnist Gail Collins, Utah is mulling a bill that will make the Browning M1911 pistol the official state firearm. You can be forgiven for asking, Forrest Gump-like, "Are they crazy or just plain stupid?" Since I have no idea what's in the Utahan drinking water, I won't attempt an answer. But to be fair, the bill didn't emerge out of thin gun smoke. The pistol's inventor, one John Moses Browning, is a native son. Also, the trusty .45 caliber Browning was a standard-issue side arm for US military officers from 1911 to 1985 (as a Marine, I was once an expert shot with the weapon). So, there's some legitimate history here. Besides, if an object isn't nailed down in Utah, the Beehive State will officially recognize it. That includes an official state star (Dubhe), cooking pot (Dutch oven) and snack food (Jell-O). Nevertheless, is it really a good idea to fetishisize a gun by official state proclamation? Given our propensity for violence (esp. after the Tucson massacre), common sense says no. But, as Collins drolly says, "It is generally not a good policy to dwell on the strange behavior of state legislators since it leads to bottomless despair." She's right. If you'll pardon the pun, just shoot me now.

The Princess Factory

In a terrific new book, "Cinderella Ate My Daughter," Peggy Orenstein documents her struggle to raise a daughter amid a warped culture in which little girls are falsely taught that beauty is as important as brains. Thanks to relentless mass marketing & media (and bad parenting), we put girls on a princess assembly line where they begin as gender-neutral (the innocent phase) then become Cinderella-obsessed (the pink, frilly phase) and then become Barbarella-obsessed (the stripper pole phase). I’m oversimplifying, but few girls will emerge from the American Princess Factory not being mixed up. "It's not that princesses can't expand girls' imaginations," Orenstein explained to the Daily Beast. "But in today's culture, princess starts to turn into something else. It's not just being the fairest of them all, it's being the hottest of them all, the most Paris Hilton of them all, the most Kim Kardashian of them all.” Yikes. A good buddy of mine and his wife have two of the sweetest, most precocious little girls you ever saw. I admire their mettle because raising two little princesses (and simultaneously staying sane) would be a bridge way too far for moi.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sounds of silence

You may have missed it. But something wonderful has happened. For the past 48 hours we’ve heard absolutely nothing about the Thrilla from Wasilla. Ain’t it grand, this respite? Sarah Palin infamously talks without speaking. The news media infamously hears without listening. Yet neither side dared disturb the “sound of silence.” The neon god that McCain made is missing, if only for now. For Simon & Garfunkel, “silence like a cancer grows.” Here’s hoping for a rapidly-spreading, metaphorical tumor.

Our 'salmon’ moment

YOU could almost hear the coast-to-coast guffaws when, midway through the State of the Union address, President Obama poked fun at how convoluted and brain dead federal agencies can sometimes be. Deftly shifting to his standup-comedian-in-chief mode, Obama related his favorite crazy-government story: “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water … but [laughter] the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in salt water. [Laughter] I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked. [Laughter and applause]” I suspect the American salmon population is wondering what the heck is going on, too. Heh.

She's back, oh Lord, kumbaya

THE wizened producers at ABC News think you need to hear the views of airhead and ex-Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell on SOTU: "I like when the Democrats sit on one side and the Republicans sit on another. It's supposed to be civil debate, you know, we're not all supposed to braid each other's hair and sing Kumbaya – not in Congress. … I think something was missing last night with that whole prom date." Yeah – that whole political comity thing is for losers. Death to Kumbaya. Sigh. Now, exactly why O'Donnell, the star of those infamous "I'm not a witch, I'm you" campaign ads, was invited to appear on "Good Morning America" alongside bona fide Dem strategist Donna Brazile remains an unsolved mystery. All I can say is, “Someone's crying, Lord, kumbaya …”

Quote of the Day

"Throughout his career, Barack Obama has benefited from having lame opponents, and that trend is clearly continuing thanks to the new leadership of the GOP. He looked presidential; Ryan and Bachmann looked small and lost." -- Joan Walsh (

A Tale of Two Rebuttals

Esquire (cleverly) takes apart the twin Republican responses to the State of the Union address so you don’t have to. When closely examined, the rebuttals given by Representatives Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann are two sides of the same coin.

To wit:
Make no mistake: Michele Bachmann is a howling loon — a woman with no compunction at all about lying through her not inconsiderable teeth about virtually everything — but Ryan, no matter what his reputation elsewhere as a "serious" economic thinker, is no less radical, if somewhat less nutty. Where Bachmann has her devotion to the Constitution written by the voices in her head, Ryan has his economic "roadmap," a Randian fever dream he produced a while back that so alarmed his fellow Republicans that they ran away as though Ryan had proposed the Affordable Cholera Act of 2009. ... The rest of his rebuttal was a masterpiece of Dystopia Porn.

Clearly, neither Ryan nor Bachmann has the foggiest notion of the role that the government of the United States of America — and the spending of public coin — played in making this country the world-historic power that you can read about in books. Ryan because his ideology won't allow him to acknowledge such things, and Bachmann because she's several bricks shy of a load.

But no matter how many times they mangle the story, our primacy in the world wasn't brought to you solely by the miracle of the unfettered marketplace, nor by a thousand points of light or by fairy dust sprinkled down by the benevolent rich. Rather, it was brought to you by risk takers who presumed to do big things partnered with a government that saw the wisdom of investing in said big things. And in small things, too. Like people. And these investments created the largest economic engine in history: the American middle class. Ignorance of this fact makes it no less a fact. Just because the Ryan-Bachmann axis seems utterly oblivious of basic American economic history will not change this fact.
‘Nough said. Read the entire Esquire editorial here.

Forest, meet the trees

Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. Behold the address President Obama delivered last night as seen through the eyes of the chattering class (brought to you by the august Columbia Journalism Review): “So the State of the Union played out something like a slowly deflating balloon—robust and shiny in the beginning, a shriveled afterthought by the end, all leaky air in the middle. After just minutes, the metaphors felt forced, the proposals felt old.” The rest of America saw a different speech. A CNN poll showed 85% of viewers had a positive reaction to the address. In a CBS poll, “91% of those who watched the speech approved of the proposals Mr. Obama put forth during his remarks.” It's a classic example of why you should beware of pundits bearing the conventional wisdom.

Rogue Rebuttal

Good morning, America. Guess what? Michele Bachmann is the new Sarah Palin. It’s beginning to look like the press has found a bright, new shiny object to cover -- relentlessly.

Best of the irreverent reax:
The Caucus Blog (NYT): “When Ms. Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, addressed the nation with her own, more alarmist assessment of its state, she seemed almost like the telekinetic high school heroine of ‘Carrie.’ It wasn’t just what she said ... [it] was the way Ms. Bachmann spoke, smiling and gesturing with an intensity that almost cracked the screen.”

Timothy Egan (NYT): “Representative Michele ‘Don’t-Know-Much-About-History’ Bachmann made fellow Republicans cringe with her insistence on a rogue rebuttal. After wiping slavery from the history books last weekend in her version of how America came to be, Bachmann showed she is as good at making stuff up from the past as she is at reconstituting the present. ... As a face of the opposition, she’s an answered prayer to the White House.” (Read his witty piece here.)

Dana Milbank (Washington Post): “Bachmann's Tea Party response had all the altitude of a punch to the gut.”

Steve Benen (Washington Monthly): “Watching the nearly seven minutes of blistering stupidity, it was hard to avoid the fact that Bachmann has created some bizarro world for herself, detached from the reality the rest of us live in. ... The importance of this is that Republicans seemed more than a little annoyed yesterday that Bachmann was muddling their message and making the GOP look bad with her wild-eyed craziness.”

Esquire: “Representative Michele Bachmann needs to work on not looking up and to the right of the camera lens, like she's waiting for the crew from the Nervous Hospital to bust in and drag her off. ... Make no mistake: Michele Bachmann is a howling loon — a woman with no compunction at all about lying through her not inconsiderable teeth about virtually everything.”

Andy Borowitz (Comedian): In her official Tea Party response to President Obama's [SOTU], Rep. Michele Bachmann offered a bold new policy initiative she called 'Don't Add, Don't Spell.' [She] called the proposal 'a reflection of core Tea Party values' and said it would 'deliver the American people from the tyranny of arithmetic, spelling, and punctuation.'"
And these were the nicer comments. Welcome to the media circus, Ms. Bachmann. You've earned it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

SOTU music

THE president clearly won over MSNBC Hardball host and political barometer Chris Matthews with his State of the Union address. That probably means Obama won over most of working- and middle-class America tonight. Forget the speech lyrics – the talk of innovation, jobs, debt ceilings and global trade. Focus instead, as Matthews suggested, on the “music.” Obama looked commanding, a determined man confident in himself and the boundless promise of the nation he leads. He was as regal as he was plainly human. He was as prudent as he was reassuring. He was as realistic as he was hopeful. In short, he cemented himself as the American President most of us can embrace with pride. In closing, he said, “We do big things.” But lest we forget, one of the “big things” this nation has already accomplished is produce an American called Barack Obama.

Talk news to me, baby

OK, OK – I couldn’t resist this one. A new Indiana University study finds when a female news anchor’s sexual attractiveness is played up, male viewers retain less information. You mean it took a couple of learned scholars to come up with that? “Males may be drawn to those alluring anchors,” the researchers said, “but they may not remember what they were talking about.” Right, the same thing tends to happen on first dates. Apparently, it’s all about evolutionary psychology. When we process info, visual cues trump verbal ones (because it’s faster). The piece also noted that it “confirms something women have long suspected: A sexually charged image can flood the male brain, stimulating its visual processing component ‘to levels that demand close to full cognitive capacity.’” No kidding. But, hey, it really is hard to stay focused on US-China bilateral relations when anchors like Fox News’ Megyn Kelly (pictured above) go all “come hither” on us. Heh.

Congresswoman ‘Balloon Head’

PRESUMABLY citing the voices in her head, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) recently said that the founding fathers "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." That’s breaking news to every American history expert, teacher or student on the planet.

To halt the impending train wreck, some staffer should have hoisted a red flag and waved the boss off. But nobody did, and over the cliff Bachmann went, caboose and all. “It didn't matter the color of their skin, it didn't matter their language, it didn't matter their economic status. ... Once you got here, we were all the same," she gushed cluelessly. Even scarier, I’m not taking Bachmann’s comments out of context.

There’s no need to revisit the actual history of slavery, the experiences of Irish and Japanese Americans or women in general before suffrage. And Portal readers surely know that John Quincy Adams (promoted to “founding father” by Bachmann) was an impish lad of nine in 1776. Bachmann’s lack of knowledge is stunningly obvious. She has done more than enough to earn the nickname Hardball host Chris Matthews just awarded her: "Balloon Head." Privately, even most Republicans think the congresswoman is a certified whack job.

But guess what? CNN proudly announced today that it will broadcast Bachmann’s speech in response to the GOP response to President Obama's SOTU address tonight. Not even Fox News is going there. So why on earth is CNN alone elevating “Balloon Head” by giving her a worldwide platform to speak? Just minutes ago on CNN’s “Situation Room,” Bill Maher wondered the same thing and asked Wolf Blitzer about it, point blank. The best answer Blitzer (clearly uncomfortable) could muster was, well, CNN coverage of the Bachmann Address would be, um, very short compared to the president's speech. Oh, man. That’s it? Somebody’s head at CNN needs to roll over this gathering fiasco.

History (dammit) is a killjoy

I saw The King's Speech over the weekend and loved it. In my humble opinion, it is deserving of an Oscar. Even hard to please Christopher Hitchens conceded that it's "an extremely well-made film with a seductive human interest plot, very prettily calculated to appeal to the smarter filmgoer."

But then Hitch lowers the boom. The movie, alas, is "riddled with gross falsifications of history" with respect to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (that’s Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter to us, as Hitch drolly puts it) and the true nature of Churchill's relationship with the Windsors. Hitch, of course, is right. The historical truth is neither soft-focused nor pretty.

Long story short: Winston Churchill was actually a fan of the "conceited, spoiled, Hitler-sympathizing Edward VIII" (played by Guy Pearce). The stammering King, a proponent of the policy of appeasement, was an unabashed fan of Neville Chamberlain and congratulated him on his infamous Munich sell-out. Read Hitch’s depressing but compelling correction of the historical record in its entirety here.

In the piece, Hitchens sums up thusly:
"In a few months, the British royal family will be yet again rebranded and relaunched in the panoply of a wedding. Terms like "national unity" and "people's monarchy" will be freely flung around. Almost the entire moral capital of this rather odd little German dynasty is invested in the post-fabricated myth of its participation in "Britain's finest hour." In fact, had it been up to them, the finest hour would never have taken place. So this is not a detail but a major desecration of the historical record—now apparently gliding unopposed toward a baptism by Oscar."
Ouch. I almost retrieved "The Last Lion" from my bookshelf to re-read Britain’s pre-WWII history prior to seeing the film. I glad I didn’t. The historical truth (fresh in mind) might have spoiled the movie experience.

Homeroom meets Congress

ALTHOUGH nobody in America cares which member of Congress sits next to whom during tonight's State of the Union address, the press -- giggling like 9th graders -- won't stop talking about it. The Washington Post (just to cite one example) tries to justify its sophomoric coverage by labeling the antics as an "added wrinkle" to SOTU. With a straight face, it reports: "Many legislators are abandoning the tradition sitting according to party, on opposite sides of the center aisle ... But, as veteran State of the Union watchers know, where you sit is only part of the equation. The other, equally pressing, question is when do you applaud?" Really, Washington Post? And yet, bewildered newspapers scratch their collective heads and wonder why circulation continues to decline. Amazing.

Monday, January 24, 2011

El Gringo Loco

Two weeks ago, NPR invited Daisy Hernandez, a young Latina, to share her reaction to the Tucson shooting from a Hispanic perspective.

"It's safe to say there was a collective sigh of relief when the Tucson killer turned out to be a gringo," Hernandez said during her first-person commentary on All Things Considered. "Had the shooter been Latino, media pundits wouldn't be discussing the impact of nasty politics … they'd be demanding an even more stringent anti-immigrant policy."

Sadly, I thought, she’s probably right. But there I go again, focusing on the substantive meaning of a smart commentary. Apparently my heart should have stopped and my brain should have emptied when Ms. Hernandez uttered the Spanish word “gringo.” Per Fox News, Glenn Beck and a riled up posse of conservative bloggers, Hernandez’s use of that word is simply beyond the pale. The bright lights of the right imply she should be burned in effigy for injecting “race” into the discussion – even though the term “gringo” is not race-specific. (The NPR ombudsman blog has a good summary of this pointless, content-free debate here.)

Most dictionaries and the Spanish Royal Academy (the folks who define the language) say “gringo,” which is slang for “foreigner,” has several, mostly benign meanings. Yes, the word can be flung like a stiletto at non-Hispanics. But it is usually used to identify someone as the proverbial “Ugly American.” You know, the drunken and/or clueless kind that used to shoot up Mexican cantinas in the Old West – or the modern variety that tend to trash said establishments during Spring Break today. Oh, by the way, “El Gringo” is also a trendy restaurant chain in Southern California that specializes in Mexican food. It’s also the name for a popular cowboy boot brand. So much for "gringo" insulting the masses, as the right would have you believe.

So, gringo can mean many things, but the N-word it ain’t. Evidently, the array of gutless wonders on the right has never heard real Spanish epithets. Trust me – having grown up with many Spanish-speaking friends in Los Angeles, I can think of several descriptive insults that would fit the bill nicely. By comparison, they make the G-word sound like angelic poetry. Only the fact that The Portal is rated PG-13 prevents me from hurling a few at the clowns on the right who really deserve it.

Politico fortune-telling is infamously known for its two-dimensional, who's up who's down coverage of politics. That’s how this Beltway outlet butters its bread. But I had no idea it was in the fortune-telling business, too. A day before the state of the union address, it declares: "When President Barack Obama steps into the House chamber Tuesday to deliver his second State of the Union address, ambience will trump substance." Reeelly. And what, pray tell, is this brazen assertion based on? Thin air, it turns out. The 3-page opus is an amalgam of speculation, leading-the-witness quotes and snippets of the same White House leaks that every other news outlet has. I hope whoever sold Politico its crystal ball has a refund policy.

More on Olbermann

The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf take on Keith Olbermann: "Watching gave me that anxious, vaguely pissed off feeling one gets sitting for an hour without air-conditioning in gridlocked freeway traffic, behind a semi and next to a guy blasting Eminem. It was all about the mood. I needed a mindless break before retiring to my room for some freelancing. Instead I came as close as I'll ever be to understanding what the audience felt during the debut of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring.'" And I thought it was just me.

Perils of pundit TV

The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf zeroes in on why cable news broadcasts (particularly the political variety) are bad for you:
"Yes, I know, television is a very popular medium (mostly because it demands so little from its audience). But it is the worst way to engage politics in America. Compared to reading it is a wildly inefficient time suck. The format itself often strips the issue at hand of all nuance. It rewards demagoguery, and the host's words disappear into the ether so fast that inaccuracies slip easily past and are seldom corrected for the people misled by them. Often as not, its producers and writers just take insights from the written medium and dumb them down."

"I suspect that if politics on television were to magically disappear tomorrow, we'd all be better off. ... With very few exceptions, the retirement of a popular political talking head is great news: it's likely to result in fewer people watching political television."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor." -- Sholom Aleichem, Russian author and playwright

Positively Jared

Personally, I don't have much use for celebrity gossip (I get all I need on each visit to HuffPo -- whether I want it or not) or the websites that relentlessly spew it. But if you're going to bend an ear to it, then bend it like Jared. That's Jared Eng, the 28-year-old who founded the celeb blog JustJared. It's a runaway hit that easily attracts over 3 million visitors a month. More amazing, it turns out that Jared is a nice guy with no interest in wallowing in the icky side of celebrity gossip. "His is a snark- and judgment-free zone that treats celebritydom as a kind of never-ending slumber party," reports the New York Times. And that is the key to his success. "I don’t throw anyone under the bus,” Eng told the Times. “It’s all objective and/or positive.” And it's working. He expects to pull in something way north of a million bucks this year in ad revenue. Talk about the power of positive thinking. Wow.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Olbermania II

I didn't pull any punches in my criticisms of Keith Olbermann. To me, he is/was part of what's wrong with our political discourse. But to be fair, here's the flip side from Steve Benen: "As the dust settles, it's worth emphasizing just how important Olbermann has been in American media in recent years. When he returned to prime time after a four-year absence, Olbermann offered news consumers something we couldn't find anywhere else: honest, sincere, unapologetic liberalism. Olbermann helped shine a light on important stories that were ignored by other shows and other networks, helped give a voice to a perspective that was discounted throughout the mainstream media, picked fights with those who too often went unchallenged, and featured guests who were frequently and needlessly left out of the larger broadcast conversation." I think Benen overstates Olbermann's importance, but I agree he did some useful pioneering work that successors like Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell are better equipped to exploit.


Joe Klein on Keith Olbermann vs. Glenn Beck: "[Beck] is an extraordinary liar, on matters large and small, as I've learned from personal experience with the man. That Beck remains on the air and Keith Olbermann--unpleasant and extreme at times, but no fantasist--isn't anymore is a travesty." Hmm. I hadn't thought about it that way. Good point.

Good night, and good luck

Well, that was abrupt. I had no idea Keith Olbermann had quit until Bill Maher mentioned it on HBO’s Real Time Friday night. A quick check on the iPad confirmed the news. Wow. Once upon a time, MSNBC’s “Countdown” was fresh, brash and witty – and a lot of fun to watch. Sadly, by the end of last year, the show had become a tiresome, shrill and meandering exercise in paint-by-the-numbers partisanship. The thrill was gone. Olbermann, once a charming and intelligent presence, had somehow become an angry parody of himself. His comportment at times was little better than a raving Howard Beale. In effect, Olbermann became his own “Worst Person in the World.” I imagine Bill O’Reilly, his Fox News archenemy, is laughing his head off. That’s gotta hurt. I wish Olbermann well, but I cannot say I’m sorry to see him go.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Birds of a feather

“Morbid Curiosity Lead Many Voters to Support Palin.” That’s the subject of a segment on the tongue in cheek Onion News Network. In the clip, an anchor and reporter discuss the political implications of a (faux) poll showing "62% of Americans say they don't want to vote for Palin, but kinda just have to see what would happen." It’s hilarious. Yet, the mimicry of cable news is so perfect that only by listening closely to the words do you know it is satire. And it’s a bit sobering to realize that the gap between parody and real news is so small.

Arsenal of freedom?

In Point Break (a very bad movie), two dim-witted surfers discuss the merits of aggression and territoriality that would do Beavis & Butthead proud:
Bodhi: "It's basic dog psychology, if you scare them and get them peeing down their leg, they submit. But if you project weakness, that promotes violence, and that's how people get hurt."
Roach: "Peace, through superior firepower."
This erudite exchange neatly encapsulates the faulty mindset of the NRA and those who espouse the “guns don’t kill people – people kill people” dogma. They typically ignore the fact that once armed, we enter a hair-trigger world where everybody thinks they’re Wyatt Earp (“You lookin’ at me?”). As each side goads the other into “peeing down their leg,” bloodletting is the inevitable result. Peace through superior firepower, like the gunslinger hero, is a myth. But don’t take my word for it. Multiple new studies now say that a better-armed population actually makes us less safe. The data backing them up is compelling.

I have no beef with legal, responsible gun ownership. But let’s face it. We’d be better off if the right to bear arms weren’t guaranteed by the Constitution, at least as written. I sorely wish the founders had thought this one through. It was bound to be misinterpreted to the nation’s detriment. And so it has.

Classical's Top Dog

It’s official. Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic for the New York Times, has declared Johann Sebastian Bach the greatest composer of all time. “My top spot goes to Bach, for his matchless combination of masterly musical engineering and profound expressivity,” he wrote. I just wonder why it took him so long to give Bach top dog status, the obvious choice.

The rest of Tommasini’s Top Ten: 1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). 2. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), 3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). 4. Franz Schubert (1797-1828). 5. Claude Debussy (1862-1918), 6. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), 7. Johannes Brahms (1833-97). 8. Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), 9. Richard Wagner (1813-83), 10. Bela Bartok (1881-1945).

Pipe dream

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank is declaring February a Palin-free month. "Sarah Palin's name will not cross my lips - or my keyboard - for the entire month of February," he pledged today.

Milbank writes:
Palin clearly isn't going away: "I am not going to sit down. I'm not going to shut up," she told Hannity on Monday. But if we treat her a little less like a major political figure and a little more like Ann Coulter - a calculating individual who says shocking things to attract media attention - it won't matter. Sure, we might lose some Web traffic or TV ratings, but we might also gain something. Remember the "Seinfeld" episode where George Costanza, by giving up sex, suddenly frees up brain power to learn Portuguese and Euclidean geometry, to teach Derek Jeter the physics of batting, to become a "Jeopardy" whiz and to solve a Rubik's cube? If we stop obsessing over Palin, we might suddenly become experts in the federal budget or Medicare reimbursement rates.
Could the media really reduce Palin to the statue of Snooki in terms of its coverage? Don't hold your breath.

Quote of the Day

"The way Palin portrayed herself as not only a popular champion but also a martyr reminded me - not for the first time - of Eva Peron. If she chooses this unpromising route to higher political office, I suggest she find a suitable balcony from which to deliver her next address to the nation. Or perhaps - solely in the interest of civil discourse - that there be no next address." -- Eugene Robinson (Washington Post)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

All hat, no caribou

Politico columnist Roger Simon says it's too early to count Sarah Palin out. Evidently he thinks America is potentially dumb enough to vote her into the White House. To wit:
“One should not overestimate how much the American voter values intelligence. Adlai Stevenson, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore (who won the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes) and John Kerry were probably hurt more than helped by their intelligence. Bill Clinton masked his intelligence during his first presidential campaign with his ‘Man From Hope’ video and his Bubba image, which were designed to make voters forget he was actually the man from Georgetown, Oxford and Yale Law. ... One should never underestimate the power of a candidate who can make an emotional connection to voters.”
Oddly, Simon is channeling H. L. Mencken who famously said, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." Granted, I am often cynical, but I give Americans more credit than Mencken or Simon do. People may be woefully uninformed and subject to seduction, but they’re not stupid. Nor am I convinced that the electorate would trade an erudite Nobel Prize winner for an incoherent hockey mom who thought "refudiate" was a word. Though long shots against Obama, one could make a rational case for Romney or Huckabee or Thune for president. But not Palin.

“She doesn’t know anything,” said Steve Schmidt, the man who ran the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign. He ought to know. Team Schmidt tried mightily to school “C” student Palin – and failed spectacularly. Given a new poll that says 56 percent of Americans now view Palin unfavorably, most folks know she’s all Alaska hat and no caribou. And, thank Providence, no amount of Reaganesque emoting on Palin’s part is going to change that reality.

Miles to go

From Beijing, Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg observed: "The BBC television report was airing a clip from Wednesday's Obama-Hu news conference at the White House, on the touchy topic of human rights. 'A lot still needs to be done . . .' Chinese President Hu Jintao started to say. And then the television report went black." Those of us watching in the West heard the complete sentence: "And a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights." Chinese President Hu Jintao also admitted that his country still faced "challenges" in social development. It was a rare but hopeful concession. It's a shame that the humans whose rights were being discussed never heard the message. To paraphrase Robert Frost, the Chinese people still have miles to go before they can sleep.

'Let us begin anew'

Today marks the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration. Despite the passage of a half century, Kennedy words still resonate:
"So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us."

"... And, if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor -- not a new balance of power, but a new world of law -- where the strong are just, and the weak secure, and the peace preserved."

"... In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe."

"... And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
Listen to the speech or read the full text here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Legislative Looney Tunes

“BREAKING: House Votes to Repeal Health Care Law!" Not that it matters, mind you. But that’s how most media outlets are trumpeting the news. Today, the House voted 245 to 189 to approve what Republicans ridiculously call "The Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." (I swear, every time I see this in print, I think of that dreadfully titled Brad Pitt movie: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But that’s just me.) The House vote is utterly symbolic. Even if the bill passed in the Senate (rest assured, it won’t), the president would veto it quicker than the average Republican blowhard could say “Obamacare.” If Hollywood decided to lampoon these shenanigans, they’d need to rehire Mr. Pitt and come up with a better title for the repeal bill and the movie: "The Attempted Assassination of the Sensible Democratic Health Care Law by the Republican Coward John Boehner and his Confused Tea Party Posse". Now, that sings.

Once upon a midnight dreary

Born this day in 1809, Edgar Allan Poe was a short story writer, poet and literary critic. Known as master of the macabre, Poe's life was a Hobbesian mess: poor, nasty, brutish, and short. He died broke and delirious at age 40 in 1849. And yet, his literary works continue to thrill millions of readers. Memorably quotes by Poe include: "All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry." "They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night." "Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality." Poe is best known for his famous poem, "The Raven," which begins: "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary / Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore / While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping / As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door." Good stuff.

Quote of the Day

"When he suffered that unpleasantness last November, he could have reacted rashly one way or another. He didn’t. He stayed within himself, as the saying goes. ... Through it all, the president’s approval ratings are up, and Republicans are more and more concerned that the guy has the wind at his back. Contempt has turned into fear and respect. All in all, kind of impressive." -- David Brooks (New York Times)
Just one more window into Obama being Obama.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Painting China as the Borg

In the run-up to Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit, the Economist offers some sobering thoughts:
”What so many Americans can't seem to accept, is that the Chinese mode of governance seems to be quite stable. There is no plausible threat to the political monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party. Eastern Europeans abandoned belief in Soviet Communism because its economic model was a pathetic shambles, and even so, it took decades to collapse. The Chinese economic model, meanwhile, is a productive powerhouse. As long as it maintains the confidence of its citizens, there's little reason to think that China's political system is going to change on any timescale subject to punditry.”

“... It's by no means clear that the United States or any other welfare-state capitalist liberal democracy is the goal. It's not clear where we're heading, and we should keep our wits about us and adapt; we can be left behind, just as others were before us.”
These points are well taken and worth pondering. It is true that in recent decades, China has been as disciplined, unremitting and seemingly unstoppable as the cybernetic Borg of Star Trek. There’s no denying its economic prowess. Yet, the West painted Japan and its vaunted “business is war” ethic in much the same way during the 1980s. But the “Rising Sun” overreached and ultimately sputtered.

I suspect we are similarly misreading China and its potential. Though mighty, its economic foundation rests on an unexploded political bomb. Unless it grants fundamental freedom to its peoples, an implosion seems all but inevitable at some future point. Moving toward democracy remains anathema to China’s communist Mandarins. But, as the Borg would say, resistance is futile.

Fox News reality

Esquire writes: "Of course, Roger Ailes was one of the first to come forward in the week following the Arizona shootings to say that he had told his anchors at Fox to "tone it down." But anyone who knows Roger Ailes — anyone who loves him, hates him, admires him, fears him, or, as is most often the case, does all those things at once — knows that Fox will do no such thing, because Fox is Roger Ailes, and Roger Ailes is temperamentally unable to tone it down. He's an extremist, by nature, and so his network is one of extremes. It's not so much that he has let the genie out of the bottle; it's that he is the genie, and his bottle makes a billion bucks a year for Rupert Murdoch. You just try getting him back in."

The pundit doth expect too much

Why, oh why, does President Obama refuse to follow President Bartlet's hallowed script? Why can't his every speech be the Gettysburg Address, preferably set to the theme music of the West Wing? That's basically the crux of Richard Cohen's silly critique of President Obama's remarks at a recent DC memorial for the late Richard Holbrook.

In full handwringing mode, Cohen writes that compared to Obama’s brilliant Tucson speech, this one "was flat, neither eloquent nor moving, nor the least bit personal. It was phoned in by a man who sat patiently on the stage as others praised a beloved figure, a leviathan of ideas and policies and vexing idiosyncrasies whom the president didn't much care about. It was a dutifully flat performance."

I, too, admired the highly problematic Holbrook. But a grand "leviathan of ideas and policies?" You'd think Cohen was describing former WWII Army Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize winner George Marshall. Holbrook was good, but not that good. Obama had the good sense to keep his remarks in proportion to the man being honored. Holbrook was not an Obama intimate (the president doesn't suffer "vexing idiosyncrasies" gladly). Pretending otherwise would have been foolish as even Cohen acknowledged in his piece.

But, alas, this is all a set up to Cohen's real beef: Obama doesn't measure up to what a Democratic president ought to be – Lincoln, FDR and JFK all rolled into one. In other words, Jed Bartlet. So out comes the gratuitous baseball bat swing upside Obama’s head:
"Obama's lack of artifice can be admirable, but it is almost never politic. For a while he even wouldn't wear that kitschy American flag lapel pin, 95 cents worth of patriotism. But blarney is as essential to politics as the evanescent lie is to seduction. I am referring now to convincing strangers that you understand their concerns, feel their pain, so that in the end you actually do. A good politician never speaks to a crowd. It is always a collection of friends. Obama speaks mostly to crowds. His hallmark has been his disconnect, a perplexing standoffishness that has hurt him politically."
Cohen's criticism is overwrought and misplaced. And importantly, he fails to mention that a good politician also knows who's in the audience and why. Obama’s speech before Washington's foreign policy elite was dignified, honest and appropriate. In terms of oratory, it didn't rank with the Tucson speech nor should it. The purpose of this event was remembrance not soul healing. This crowd did not need inspiration or insight into life's cruel ironies. Cohen's criticism, like so many on the elite left, stems from viewing politics through the lens of Aaron Sorkin and not reality. If there is a "disconnect," then it is only with members of the so-called professional left like Cohen. The American people get Obama. Cohen and his emotionally needy clique clearly do not.

Time's Joe Klein put it well today when he wrote, "One thing we should keep in mind in all this: Obama is Obama. He is not a rabble rouser, a big emoter or one who will stoop, for good or ill, to political tricks or postures that he considers cheap or demeaning." As a result, Klein says, "The public likes and respects him now. The Republicans are impressed and daunted by him."

It's time for well-meaning folks like Cohen to grow up and, at long last, behave like the adult they are so quick to criticize. Obama is Obama. Get over it.

Not ready, now or ever

Steve Benen's take on Sarah Palin's rambling interview on Hannity: "Last night's 'interview' -- I use the word loosely -- made Palin look even worse. Her rambling message was a rehash of the identical sentiments expressed in her widely-panned video statement, only this time, without the benefit of a teleprompter, Palin's language was clumsier. She went after those who attended the memorial service; she went after those who thought 'blood libel' was a poor choice of words; she went after liberals who she thinks want to 'destroy our republic.' Palin even tried to rehash the notion that the gunman in Tucson was 'perhaps even left leaning.' She proved last week that 'she has little interest -- or capacity -- in moving beyond her brand of grievance-based politics,' and then proved it again 12 hours ago." What? You were expecting a different result? Talk about digging a hole even deeper. Wow.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Well done, guv'nor

It seems Ricky Gervais is catching hell today for his humor last night.

One LA Times killjoy sniffed that he was "too nasty" and that the "host pulled no punches, but he should have knocked himself out." A sampling:
"It’s going to be a night of partying and heavy drinking. Or, as Charlie Sheen calls it, breakfast."
Bada Boom. (Nice one)
On Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp: “It seems like everything this year was three-dimensional – except the stars in ‘The Tourist.’”
Ouch! (But so deliciously true)
"Nothing for 'Sex and the City 2.' I was sure the Golden Globe for special effects would go to the team that airbrushed that poster. Girls, we know how old you are. I saw one of you in an episode of ‘Bonanza.’"
Double ouch! (And doubly hilarious)

Based on the above snippets, I'd say Gervais' performance was, as the Brits say, brilliant. On the morning after, the news media is breathlessly asking: Did Ricky Gervais go too far at the Golden Globes? The short answer is: Who cares? The longer answer is: So what if he did?

I mean after all, exactly how does one do inappropriate comedy at a function everyone in Hollywood derides as the "Drunk Oscars?" This is much ado about nothing -- with "nothing" defined as rich, self-absorbed celebrities behaving like, well, rich, self-absorbed celebrities.

Toxic marriage

Wittily playing the relationship counselor, Ross Douthat practically gets on his knees to beg Sarah Palin and the press to quit each other -- and attempt a trial separation.
"The press and Palin have been at war with each other almost from the first, but their mutual antipathy looks increasingly like co-dependency: they can’t get along, but they can’t live without each other either."

"For their part, the media manage to be consistently unfair to the former Alaska governor — gossipy and hostile in their reportage, hysterical and condescending in their commentary — even as they follow her every move with a fascination bordering on obsession. (MSNBC, in particular, should just change its name to “Palin 24/7” and get it over with.)"

"Palin, meanwhile, officially despises the “lamestream” media. But press coverage — good, bad, whatever — is clearly the oxygen she craves. She supposedly hates having her privacy invaded, yet her family keeps showing up on reality TV. She thinks the political class is clueless and out-of-touch, but she can’t resist responding to its every provocation."

"Breaking up is hard to do, of course. But for the majority of Americans who are neither Palinoiacs nor Palinistas, here’s the good news: If the press (including this columnist!) and Sarah Palin can’t quit each other, you can still quit us."
Douthat's piece is both smart and funny, and worth a read. As for Palin and the media quitting each other, dream on.

Quote of the Day II

"Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Quote of the Day

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

State of mind

Amy Silverman, managing editor of Phoenix New Times, has a terrific op-ed in the Washington Post today. Examining the Tucson shootings from a sociological perspective, she poses a straightforward question: “What's the matter with the 48th state?” She believes that a curious “culture of isolation” is at the root what ails Arizona. I can attest to Silverman’s observations. They’re spot on, and I suddenly understand this place much better than I did yesterday. I can depend upon both laughter and disbelief when I tell friends here that I consider myself a Californian living in Arizona, an expatriate, if you will. They don’t realize I’m being serious. Oddly, this place has never really felt like home (though it is a nice place to live). Thanks to Arizona native Silverman, I think I know why now.

Really, America?

DESPITE the bloodbath in Tucson last week, political experts say there is no chance Congress will enact serious gun control. Such is the power of the dark side – er, I mean the National Rifle Association. Even President Obama is silent on the issue. Given Jared Loughner’s actions (and the untold nutcases out there waiting to explode), it’s time to rethink our mental health care system. But that can’t happen as long as Republicans pursue their quixotic quest to repeal the health care law. Really, America? Is this the best we can do? At what point do we “man up” and demand that our leaders do the right thing?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Strange juxtaposition

Today in Tucson, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was taken off a ventilator (she is breathing on her own now). The Safeway where she was shot last Saturday reopened to shoppers. Simultaneously, thousands packed a gun show at the local fairgrounds. Both the Glock and the extended ammo clip (the types used by alleged killer Jared Loughner) were on sale -- a Blue Light Special, if you will. Is it just me, or there something seriously wrong with this picture?

A perfect vicious circle

A moment ago, I was logging off Twitter for the day when I spied the disturbing trending topic “RIP NELSON MANDELA.” Oh my gosh – Mandela is dead? I clicked over to the New York Times website. Nothing. I flipped on CNN. Nada. Hey, what’s going on? I clicked back to Twitter. Turns out it is a ghastly hoax. Mandela is alive and well. Some soulless twit-wit posted the fake news and off to the races it went. Naturally, the twitterverse is in a raucous uproar, thereby keeping “RIP NELSON MANDELA” a huge topic trending at a rate of about 2,400 tweets every 10 seconds. It is the perfect vicious circle, and probably just what the original author had in mind. This almost validates Henry David Thoreau’s fear that “men have become the tools of their tools.” Nelson Mandela once said that the death penalty was a “reflection of the animal instinct, still present in human beings." He could have said the same about slander on Twitter. Disgusting.

Havana Loco

President Obama plans to ease Cuba travel rules this week. His intent is to move the ball an inch or two toward rapprochement with the isolated communist regime. Placed into historical perspective, we have been stuck on our own 20-yardline for nearly half a century policy-wise, despite a carrot and stick approach that has mostly been stick.

Thinking that we probably ought to change up the playbook, Obama wants to try something new. You know, something that might actually work. Predictably, the dying (but still influential) clot of conservative Cuban-American expatriates in Florida howled at the move. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, condemned the White House action as “unthinkable.”

In a statement, Rubio said:
“I strongly oppose any new changes that weaken U.S. policy towards Cuba. I was opposed to the changes that have already been made by this administration and I oppose these new changes. I believe that what does need to change are the Cuban regime’s repressive policies towards the independent press and labor unions, its imprisonment of political prisoners and constant harassment of citizens with dissenting views, and its refusal to allow free multi-party elections.”
Rubio is wrong to oppose Obama’s approach but right about Cuba’s need to move toward democracy – or at least emulate China’s economic example. The trouble is our 45-year-old policy of isolating this island nation has utterly failed to nudge it toward moderation in any meaningful way.

Once upon a time, when the Soviet-enabled Fidel Castro government posed a genuine national security threat, this policy made more sense. Those days are long past. Today, the regime is as toothless and wobbly as the wheelchair brigade of expats in South Florida who oppose any form of rapprochement. Think what would happen if we normalized relations and allowed US businesses to pour in. Buried under an avalanche of McDonalds, Starbucks, Home Depots, Chevys and iPhones, the regime would probably fall in a week.

McCain abandons 'Gran Torino'

From Sen. John McCain's Washington Post op-ed yesterday on Obama's Tucson speech:
"I disagree with many of the president's policies, but I believe he is a patriot sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country's cause. I reject accusations that his policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America or opposed to its founding ideals."

"We are Americans and fellow human beings, and that shared distinction is so much more important than the disputes that invigorate our noisy, rough-and-tumble political culture. That is what I heard the president say on Wednesday evening. I commend and thank him for it."
These words echo the moderate, sane McCain of the distant past, a time before he became the angry "Gran Torino" guy capable of only shouting "get off my lawn!" Is the senior senator from Arizona finally walking back from the brink of political oblivion? I hope so.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Like moths to a flame

VERY few of us have the requisite talent, gumption, experience and divine luck to credibly run for president, let alone win the office. In the Age of Obama, any kid can grow up to be commander in chief. Of course the sun, the moon and all the stars in heaven have to align perfectly, too. So I marvel at ex-Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain intent to make a 2012 presidential run. He’s the first to do so. He is (of course) a radio talk show host. Hey, who needs political experience? Cain, a Republican, told ABC News that he’s “confident” he could defeat President Obama. But, as the old cliché goes, the self-branded “Hermanator” is clearly a legend in his own mind. His Oval Office prospects are precisely zero. Cain is probably a nice guy. Perhaps he is serious about his quixotic bid. But I’m genuinely mystified by folks so desperate for the limelight that they’ll jump off the nearest cliff in pursuit of it.

Tunisian flashpoint

The New York Times is reporting that President Ben Ali of Tunisia has fled his country. For two decades, his authoritarian government has ruled in a manner that would do Joseph Stalin proud. The Times notes that Ben Ali’s downfall “marks the first time in recent memory that widespread demonstrations have overthrown an Arab leader.” Though intriguing, Tunisia is decidedly secular. That makes it far different from most Arab nations. Still, the events in Tunisia could give Middle Eastern governments pause. Eyeing the protesters, the Times took note of Zied Mhirsi, a young doctor who carried a sign that said, in English, “Yes We Can.” It’s gratifying to know that the Obama Effect is alive and well, even in this chaotic corner of North Africa.

Please, please read me

A Daily Beast tweet today: "19 Signs Loughner Was About to Blow!" Or how to hype a tragic story for maximum page visits. The adjective vacuous best describes the article pointed to. There's no way to stop web-ploitation like this. Ranting about it won't help either. Still, I shudder to think what's inside the heads of editors who unblinkingly allow good journalism to unravel before their eyes, and ours.

When incivility is justified

I share David Corn's disgust over Rush Limbaugh's on-air remark that Tucson killer Jared Loughner "knows ... he has the full support of a major political party [read: Democrats] in this country."

Corn concludes that Limbaugh is either a "panderer-for-profit or nutcase." I'd argue that he is both.

Corn writes:
"Obama is correct: To advance the national interest, Americans must mount rigorous debates in the best terms possible. But you cannot have an honest debate with a mud-thrower. (My father used to tell me, there's no fair fight with a skunk.) Those who purposefully undermine reasonable and necessary discourse do not deserve a pass in the name of civility. Limbaugh, as he so often has done, resorted to extreme rhetoric and a big lie in an attempt to undercut or destroy a political adversary. He made a dark week even darker."
I couldn't agree more.