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September 11, 2007

William Jefferson Clinton: Watermellon Man

Ryan Lizza has an excellent piece in The New Yorker on Hillary's attempt to embrace the legacy of the Clinton years without being overshadowed by the ex-president and his mega-personality. It contains this little nugget of an anecdote that captures, I think, Bill's real political genius--his joy of campaigning.

Thirty-seven years later, on the Sunday before Labor Day, the ex-President and First Lady stood in a barn at the Hopkinton State Fair, in New Hampshire, and inspected the finalists in an annual pumpkin-growing contest—which inevitably led to talk about watermelons. Bill, in a pink checked shirt and white pants, reminisced about the enormous melons of his Arkansas youth as he admired the champion gourd, which, at a thousand and four pounds, sat triumphantly before them; he asked the grower, Bruce Whittier, detailed questions about the art and science of raising oversized fruit. Hillary smiled and chatted politely, but she seemed ready to move on to the cows and sheep.

Bill, now an expert, was asked how much water pumpkins need. “No, no, don’t tell them,” Hillary said. “It’s a trade secret.” Striking a pensive pose, arms folded across his chest, Bill paused for a second before overruling his wife. “Way over fifty gallons a day,” he said, with genuine astonishment. Then, as he began to talk about the differences between watermelon- and pumpkin-growing, Hillary turned away to talk to the governor of New Hampshire and eventually left her husband behind in the pumpkin stall.

She was halfway to Jeff Jordan’s Sheep Barn when Bill’s ruminations turned into a full-fledged press conference. “I don’t know what the latest record was, but the last record I saw was, like, two hundred and seventy-something pounds,” the former President explained, as reporters thrust recorders into his face. “So that’s like a quarter of the size of the winner here, a little more than a quarter. But that’s a huge watermelon.” Returning to the message of the day—that Hillary knows when to “stand her ground” and when to “find common ground”—he went on to offer a startling comparison between fruit competitions and serving in the White House: “When you grow a big pumpkin or you’re in a watermelon contest, if you give it too much water and the skin breaks, you’re eliminated. And if you give it too little somebody else beats you, because they got a bigger melon or a bigger pumpkin. So it’s like, at the end, and in very tense circumstances, there are these constant judgment calls. You know, it’s kind of like being President—you want to make it as big as you can without breaking the skin.” With that, Bill Clinton may have aptly described his role in his wife’s campaign.

You just don't fake a love of state fairs, watermellons--or the people who grow them.

Posted by stevemack at 05:02 AM | Comments (510) | TrackBack

September 05, 2007

Fighten' Larry

Craig may not quit after all if he's cleared of charges, spokesman says

A defense fund worth supporting.

Posted by stevemack at 08:55 PM | Comments (480) | TrackBack

August 28, 2007

Larry Craig

I have no patience for political hypocrites, especially those like Larry Craig who use demagogic anti-gay rhetoric not only to bolster their “family values” credentials, but to actually shield their own (gay) sexual practices from scrutiny. And, even absent the hypocrisy issue, I don’t have any patience for anti-gay politics. And, of course, I don’t have much interest in Larry Craig’s efforts to protect his reputation or career. But I am more than a little uneasy about dancing on his political grave, dug a little deeper this week by revelations of his arrest in June for trolling an airport men’s room soliciting sex.

It’s not that the hypocrisy charge isn’t a valid one—it certainly is, and charlatans like Craig surely do not deserve the public trust. The problem is that, in the final analysis, hypocrisy will not be the crime that defeats him. If the voters of Utah toss him out it will be because he’s gay; his failure to acknowledge it will have nothing to do with it.

Posted by stevemack at 01:57 PM | Comments (423) | TrackBack

June 13, 2007

The GOP Character Gap

Once upon a time Republicans were willing to bet the national farm on character. “Character counts” was the mantra, and they used it to beat up every “liberal” democrat from Clinton on down whose “moral relativism” was window dressing for an unprincipled, generally sinful, individual.

Judging from the 2008 Republican field, either that party has abandoned its confidence that personal values are the best measure of political virtue—or Democrats are stealing a page from their playbook. Consider the frontrunners:

First, there’s the “socially liberal” Rudy, whose apparent early success among some conservatives seems to bespeak a rather Machiavellian preference for power over principle. Then there’s the one true Goldwater conservative, McCain, a guy most Republicans will agree with on most issues—but who is just too damn independent to be trusted or liked. Of course there’s Romney. His father famously claimed to have been brainwashed into supporting the Vietnam War (Mort Saul said a “light rinse” would have been sufficient). Apparently, sterility—both intellectual and moral—runs in the family: Barney Frank has the rap on him. From TPM:

"The real Romney is clearly an extraordinarily ambitious man with no perceivable political principle whatsover. He is the most intellectually dishonest human being in the history of politics."
So, what virtuous knight does the GOP look to for salvation? Mike Huckabee, maybe, or the one authentic libertarian in the race, congressman what’s-his-name? No. According to the polls, it’s a man whose folksy ways and good ol’ American work ethic have earned him the affectionate nickname Lazy Fred.

Character may be king. But president?

Posted by stevemack at 06:11 AM | Comments (2341) | TrackBack

March 21, 2007

Blog Power: TPM Drove U.S. Attorney Scandal

It's nice to see a major Mainstream press outlet paying tribute to both the credibility of (some) blogs and their ability to move important stories missed by the MSM. Check out this piece in the LAT on Josh Marshall and the U.S. Attorney scandal. Money quote:

It's 20 or so blocks up town to the heart of the media establishment, the Midtown towers that house the big newspaper, magazine and book publishers. And yet it was here in a neighborhood of bodegas and floral wholesalers that, over the last two months, one of the biggest news stories in the country — the Bush administration's firing of a group of U.S. attorneys — was pieced together by the reporters of the blog Talking Points Memo.

The bloggers used the usual tools of good journalists everywhere — determination, insight, ingenuity — plus a powerful new force that was not available to reporters until blogging came along: the ability to communicate almost instantaneously with readers via the Internet and to deputize those readers as editorial researchers, in effect multiplying the reporting power by an order of magnitude.

For a political damage assessment, now take a look at today's WP article on how the story has impacted the Justice Department.

Posted by stevemack at 04:13 AM | Comments (1017) | TrackBack

February 08, 2007

Obama And The Polls

Are American's willing to vote for a Black presidential candidate? Pew Research says yes. I have my doubts, but take a look.

Posted by stevemack at 04:02 PM | Comments (1613) | TrackBack

February 01, 2007

I'll Vote For Mom

One measure of a healthy democracy is the degree to which women participate in public life, as both citizens and leaders. It’s no longer a question of a woman’s right to share political power; it’s a question of social need. But what about “mothers”? Or for that matter, “fathers”? Do the roles that those terms designate have any legitimate place in public life? Do we need Mommies in politics?

It’s a thorny question, one we are just now starting to wrestle with. In Western democracies, especially the United States, arguments for political inclusion have traditionally been grounded on assertions of political and metaphysical equality (often in contrast to social or economic equality). And the assertion of equality has generally been reduced to fictive assumptions of “sameness.” That is, the proposition that all people are equal and should thus enjoy equal rights is most rhetorically effective when real differences (of gender, ethnicity, or race) are reduced to insignificance. Conversely, arguments for political privilege always seem more persuasive when based on claims that “natural” differences have moral or intellectual meaning.

This is the anxiety that animates a recent critique of the way Clinton and Pelosi have used their motherhood to score political points. Dana Goldstein, in her essay "The Mommy Mantra," argues:

Pelosi and Clinton's pandering to outmoded gender stereotypes doesn't assuage doubts about women ascending to the highest reaches of power. It reinforces them. When Clinton and Pelosi claim political capital due to their experience as mothers and homemakers, they are selling their ambitious selves -- and, indeed, all women -- far short. Women don't deserve to be in politics because we're more compassionate or nurturing than men. We deserve to be there because we are human beings, and especially because we are human beings who, regardless of our choices about if and how to become mothers, continue to live under a social and political system that denies us many of the same options men have enjoyed for generations.

If women want to get out of the nursery and into public office, we ought not to have our leading female politicians sending the message that scrubbing dishes and changing diapers are prerequisites for politicking.

Fair point, but Goldstein has confused the issue here. In fact, she’s confused two overlapping but distinct sources of identity: living experience (the things we actually do in life that shape our understanding of the world and ourselves), and culturally constructed role models (inherited definitions of identity based on social expectations). Not surprisingly, “motherhood,” like most such terms, names both a cultural stereotype and a real experience. They need to be talked about separately because they mean different things. But they both need to be talked about “politically.”

To begin with, as a human experience, motherhood is just as valid a source of governing talent as other occupations, like small business owner, lawyer, doctor, or teacher. It’s not that any of those professions are essential for a political career. But it’s not unreasonable to make the claim that one’s experience in any of those vocations has equipped them in unique ways to be a useful public servant. Citizen democracy is not government by political experts; it is government by people who are representative of the variety of talents, interests, thinking and experiences of the larger society. So when Nancy Pelosi says that being a mother has been the best training for her job as Speaker of the House, I think I know what she means and have no trouble accepting it (after discounting as rhetorical flourish that “best”). Ditto being a father, orphan, monk, nun—anything, except maybe game show host. In this sense, politics needs mothers in the same way it needs accountants and carpenters.

But as a socially constructed role model, a gender-specific stereotype, it might be more appropriate to say that motherhood needs politics. One of Goldberg’s worries is that antiquated stereotypes of motherhood are a political poison pill: since nurturing mothers are, “by definition,” ill-equipped to be legislative hard-ballers or commanders-in-chief, nobody who cares about national defense is going to vote to put one in charge of the most lethal military in history. Hence, the best way a woman—indeed, a mother—can preserve her political viability is to distance herself from the motherhood brand. Unless, of course, the political meaning of that stereotype can be altered—changed by political experience itself.

Clinton and Pelosi may indeed be arguing that their motherhood is a special qualification for leadership—an argument that may or may not succeed. But the real point here is that those claims are doing important cultural work. By offering themselves as embodiments of that ancient label, they import it—and not just themselves—into the public political world that it had once been excluded from. They are in effect giving it political authority. In some small measure, they are making motherhood politically valid. That is, they are changing the meaning of the stereotype.

Altering stereotypes is tricky business. It’s even more tricky for those who would walk the delicate line between, on the one hand, protecting the freedom of real people to define themselves and, on the other hand, preserving something of value in the old stereotype. In her inaugural post, for example, the blogger behind Justice by Truth wrote of the importance of “Motherhood” as a political value:

Many women feel that they must adopt masculine qualities to be successful in our male dominant world of today, but I question the need for leaders seeking more power and money or policy based on toughness and reason. In my opinion, the world is in need of the so-called feminine qualities of empathy and caring.

This was a position that prompted one reader to comment “I think that the world needs PARENTS, not a mother. Also, what constitute male and female "qualities" are social constructions.” In her response, the original writer acknowledged the point, but argued that those values are important intrinsically, not because they are erroneously believed to be natural facts, qualities that naturally define--and limit--mothers. (For some other spirited comments, go here and here.)

I'll vote for that.

Posted by stevemack at 04:55 PM | Comments (793) | TrackBack

January 30, 2007

Clinton Polling Well In Ohio

Polls two months prior to an election generally don’t mean much. Polls nearly two years before one mean even less. But the new Quinnipiac poll showing Clinton beating her Democratic rivals in Ohio—as well as besting both McCain and Giuliani in trial heats is fairly impressive. First, it’s Ohio, a must win state for Democrats. Second, Clinton’s name recognition and her negatives are already built in—and presumably factored into the poll. It’s hard to imagine how any of her opponents can define her any more negatively than she is already defined by some in the political culture.

Posted by stevemack at 10:42 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 22, 2007

Peretz and Hillary

I’ve always rather liked Martin Peretz (whom I’ve never met), and am not particularly excited about the prospect of a Hillary Clinton nomination (I did briefly meet her once, and was surprised to be charmed, but still . . . ). But isn’t this a bit too churlish:

Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on Saturday that she was beginning a "conversation" with the American electorate. But her actual announcement was as far from a conversation as anyone can imagine. Or, as Susan Milligan reported in the Boston Globe on Sunday, it came "in an Internet video statement" without reporters or citizen questioners. OK, a conversation this campaign won't be. There was another little fib in the former first lady's explanation that "she would be forming an exploratory committee to determine whether she will become a formal candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008." This is so transparent that it cries out for ridicule. Is there even the tiniest chance that she won't race for the prize? Then why pretend? Because pretense is in her nature.

C'mon! Complaining that a presidential candidate is being somehow disingenuous just because she begins her candidacy with an "exploratory committee" is a little like attacking the local parish priest because his fashion sense never goes beyond basic black. Chris Dodd made news--and raised eyebrows--because he broke with tradition and didn't. And as far as I can tell, he's the only one who didn't. The critique cries out for ridicule.

Why not save the fire for things that matter?

Posted by stevemack at 10:16 PM | Comments (87) | TrackBack

January 19, 2007

John Edwards Sells Home: So Fucking What?

So, how stupid can political reporting get? Take a look at this hit piece on Edwards from John Solomon at The Washington Post. Solomon has discovered that Edwards sold his DC home for less than the asking price to people who have an unrelated dispute with unions that Edwards is courting in his presidential bid. A bit like being shocked to discover that there really wasn't any gambling going on.

Josh Marshall at TPM has the background on just what sort of idiot Solomon is.

Posted by stevemack at 01:18 PM | Comments (4327) | TrackBack

January 17, 2007

Obama's (Gary) Hart Problem

In politics, your biggest asset is often your biggest liability. Just ask Gary Hart, the upstart senator who challenged former vice President Walter Mondale for the 1988 Democratic Presidential nomination on the basis of his possession of “new ideas,” only to be ridiculed by Mondale when he couldn’t sum them up in bumper sticker phrases. Hart was fresh, and his ideas were new, but what drove his upset victory in the New Hampshire primary was his “aurora of newness”—not the complex ideas that voters didn’t really get anyway. So when Mondale chanted “Where’s the beef?” (a brilliant rip-off of a Wendy’s hamburger ad line), Hart withered. What had looked so new suddenly looked like just one more PR gimmick.

Obama is a talented and serious man who might make a great president. But he has a Gary Hart problem—only worse. While Hart’s chief selling point was concrete—but complex—ideas, Obama’s is an ethos, a style, a feeling. What he offers is the chance to transcend politics. It’s “not the magnitude of our problems,” he tells us:

It's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before. But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions.

This is a balloon asking to be popped. And even if the press never quite sobers up enough to do it, Clinton and/or Edwards will. (My guess is that Clinton, “Madam Deep Substance” will lead the charge.)They won’t even need to invent new lines; “Where’s the beef?” will do just fine, thank you. And if the attack sticks, there will be nothing Obama will be able to do to recover. No matter how smart, or wonkish, or “detailed,” he fashions his makeover, it won’t sell.

This irreversibility would be (and has been) true for any candidate on a meteoric rise, not just Obama. It’s a “structural” thing: The kind of response Obama is now getting is not unlike the experience of falling in love. When people fall in love their critical faculties become temporarily disabled. They either don’t see or they benignly reinterpret character warts that might threaten passion’s progress. But if those warts suddenly become visible (before time cultivates familiarity and tolerance), not only does the love object/candidate loose its luster, but often as not, their lovers become irrationally angry at themselves for being so gullible. And that’s the rub. If Hillary (or whomever) is able to make the “no beef” charge stick, Obama will not just have to prove that he really is a man of substance; he’ll have to prove to all his once adoring throngs that they really aren’t suckers. And even if they were willing to give Obama a second chance, most people are far too insecure to cut themselves that kind of break.

There’s one more dimension to this problem, an especially insidious one for Obama. The “all style, no substance” charge is just a hair’s breath away from the “flashy, slick conman” narrative. A con artist is one who seduces by false appearances and beguiling words. Now, as stereotypes go, the smiling, unctuous trickster is not an exclusively African American trope. But there is very distinct and recognizable black version of that stereotype in the long and ugly tradition of racist literature. And the conman charge—especially if it takes a racist cast in the minds of some—is even more impossible to defend against: After all, the only way to prove one has substance is to talk, and talking is what the con artist does for a living.

Obama’s only hope here is to be proactive, to insulate himself against the “where’s the beef?” narrative before the primaries begin and the other candidates start sniping. Can he do it? Sure! The key is to start boring the press. Not all the time. In fact, only once in awhile. But every now and then, on those late night bus rides through the Iowa cornfields, gather a few reporters around and start droning on and on. Talk tax policy; lecture them on monetarism; recite the names of foreign heads of state, accented with anecdotes about why they would or wouldn’t make a good American partner. Make them real sleepy—then keep them from dozing off by poking them with a finger to make “just one more point.” Get them to write stories that say, “boy that Obama gives an inspirational speech—but when he starts talking policy, hide in the bathroom. The guy’s obsessed!”

Posted by stevemack at 01:54 PM | Comments (220) | TrackBack

April 30, 2006

Are We Lost in Space?

“Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon” (in IMAX 3D) is a huge, glitzy, knock-your-socks-off special effects advertisement for the space program. And, boy does it work! As a child of the Sixties who remembers ditching church one evening in 1969 to sit transfixed as Neil Armstrong took his “small step,” I was already an easy mark. But this production would have sealed the deal in any event. It is the right mix of stunning visuals and vision: As the lunar module descends, we the audience stand on the surface, and watch, dodging the dust and rocks blasted our way. And as the Astronauts leap-walk through their chores, we reach out to help them pick up a stone or snap a picture. All the while, Mission Control cheers and chatters in our ear.

The real argument for funding the space program has always resided in the outer reaches of the strictly reasonable. It’s really about poetry—or the poetic exploration of what it means to be human. So when the spiritually earth-bound get you talking Tang and Teflon, you’re dead. This film, however, eschews all that in favor of authorities such as Socrates, Neil Armstrong himself, and a host of children testifying to the human capacity for wonder. Still, isn’t it all too damn expensive? Wasn’t such a grandiose vision of social purpose something that belonged to our (eh, more liberal) grandparents?

As a country, as a people, we can never be more than we imagine ourselves to be. When Kennedy spoke of going to the Moon and “doing the other things,” he was speaking of and to a people who believed their ability to create a better world was nearly infinite. It was the innocence of that belief that took us to the lunar surface over thirty years ago—surely, one of our finest hours. But that belief also has its foolish side. At the same time we were walking on the moon we were also wading through rice paddies, spending lives and billions on a tragic attempt to re-engineer a culture we didn’t understand in the least.

You would think that the proper lesson to be learned from this history is that it’s not resources that restrict us, but the intelligence and care we use to imagine the future we would create. Well, you’d think, anyway. Just for comparison: Iraq: $315 billion (through fiscal '06); NASA yearly budget: approx. $15 billion.

Posted by stevemack at 10:41 AM | Comments (5541)

April 28, 2006

George Allen's Six-Gun Soul

Ryan Lizza has written an absolutely unnerving portrait for TNR of presidential wannabe George Allen, the conservative’s great-white hope to unsaddle John McCain. Lizza’s Allen is a boot-wearin’, tobacci-chewin,’ Country-music thumpin’ cowboy-senator who has always cultivated a version of red-state cultural identity—even while attending high school on the rugged badlands of Palos Verde, California (an L.A. suburb much like Beverly Hills, only snobby). But Allen apparently has a checkered past. As a teen he drove around Southern California brandishing the Confederate flag (and wore one on his lapel for a school portrait); he was suspended for scribbling racist graffiti on a school wall; and as a young politician he was quite willing to advance his career by cozying up to constituents steeped in confederate nostalgia.

But oddly, the picture of Allen that comes through is not that of a closet racist, but something even worse. Left to tend his younger siblings while his famous coach-dad traveled the country, Allen dispensed a form of discipline that looked more like recreational violence. He was a bully. (Much of this—a broken collarbone, a broken nose, pulled hair, etc.—is detailed in a memoir penned by his sister.) Those who knew him when remember a troublemaker, one who seemed to delight in images of cruelty. He was, as he now boasts, a “rebel.” If Lizza’s picture is remotely accurate, it seems clear that what attracted Allen to confederate culture was not its racist core, but its iconography of violent rebellion to authority. Senator Allen has some issues.

Political psychology is, to be sure, a highly suspect art. And even if it were not, we’d still have to concede that some degree of adolescent “acting out” is more evidence of mental health than is a stainless record of do-gooder behavior. But most kids grow up, learn lessons, and confront (or disavow) their youthful antics. Allen, however, has seemed to buff them into a political personality. Senator Macho decorates his office with a hangman’s noose and his home with a confederate flag. He revels in the politics of shit-kicking. So we must at least wonder whether the childhood angst that drove him to identify with Southern rebels is the same impulse that would inform a hip-shootin’ presidency.

Posted by stevemack at 01:10 PM | Comments (10)

April 27, 2006

The Worst President in History

What could possibly qualify a president for the title of “worst in history”? The historian Sean Wilentz offers one answer in Rolling Stone. After painfully documenting Bush’s unpopularity with professional historians and general public alike, he puts the question:

"How does any president's reputation sink so low? The reasons are best understood as the reverse of those that produce presidential greatness. In almost every survey of historians dating back to the 1940s, three presidents have emerged as supreme successes: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. These were the men who guided the nation through what historians consider its greatest crises: the founding era after the ratification of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and Second World War. Presented with arduous, at times seemingly impossible circumstances, they rallied the nation, governed brilliantly and left the republic more secure than when they entered office."

Wilentz goes on to build an impressive case against Bush, from his failed war in Iraq to his inept domestic policies. He lays special stress on the notion that successful presidents “rally the nation” by reaching out across the ideological divide—unlike the man who farcically told us he was a “uniter, not a divider.” All of this is true, of course, but ist still does not quite explain Bush's uniquely dismal place in history.

Welintz is right that we honor the greats for the way they respond to crisis. Likewise, the forgettable failures: Buchanan and Hoover reside at the bottom because of their inability to act. But Bush has invented a whole new category of failure: He alone among the failed presidents is a visionary, an activist, a leader who radically changed policy in order to radically change the nation and the world.

This president has worked at being bad! A ravaged economy and a tinderbox world are his achievements, and his monstrous failure.

Posted by stevemack at 08:46 PM | Comments (801)

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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