Let’s Grow Up

In a nutshell, here’s the pathetic state of political rhetoric in America. We’re good, others are evil. Obama is the new Hitler. We Democrats are at war with Republicans. I’m the only true believer. I’m the only fair one. Presidents control gasoline prices. The right man in the White House could prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Judging by the emptiness and stupidity of our political speech, candidates and their highly-paid consultants must think the American electorate is made up almost entirely of know-nothings and simpletons.

Some examples, by no means the most egregious, follow.

Mitt Romney, GOP presidential candidate and former governor of Massachusetts:

“I believe America is an exceptional and unique nation. President Obama feels that we’re going to be a nation which has multipolar balancing militaries. I believe that American military superiority is the right course. President Obama says that we have people throughout the world with common interests. I just don’t agree with him. I think there are people in the world that want to oppress other people, that are evil.”

Anti-Obama website:

“Barack Obama, the first black president, proved to millions this year that he is either trying his best to lead the nation during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, or he is the modern-day incarnation of Adolph Hitler pushing his Socialistic agenda. One of the two.

In 2010, Barack Obama made a number of political compromises while still trying to pursue many of the reforms laid out during his 2008 campaign. Also, he was a totalitarian monster comparable to the perpetrator of one of the worst genocides in history…Barack is either a president who passed a comprehensive health care measure despite staunch opposition from powerful private interests, or a radical-Islamist sympathizer bent on systematically dismantling American democracy and eradicating all human liberty.”

James Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters:

“Everybody here has a vote…If we go back and we keep the eye on the prize, let’s take these sons of bitches out and give America back to America where we belong…We didn’t declare war on them, they declared war on us. We’re fighting back.”

Rick Santorum, GOP presidential candidate and former US Senator representing Pennsylvania:

“It really has to do with what your principles and what your core is. I have a core…. And that’s a sharp contrast with Mitt Romney, who was for RomneyCare…. this is someone who doesn’t have a core. He’s been on both sides of almost every single issue in the past ten years.”

Barack Obama, president

“Lot of the folks who are peddling these same trickle-down theories, including members of Congress and some people who are running for a certain office right now, who shall not be named, they’re doubling down on these old, broken down theories.”

Newt Gingrich, GOP presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House:

“We paid $1.13 on average during the four years that I was speaker. When Barack Obama became president, we paid $1.89 that week…That’s right, President Obama has taken us from $1.89 to the most expensive gasoline on average we have ever had.”

Mitt Romney, GOP presidential candidate and former governor of Massachusetts:

“Finally, the president should have built a credible threat of military action and made it very clear that the United States of America is willing, in the final analysis, if necessary, to take military action to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon. Look, one thing you can know and that is if we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon…And our current president has made it very clear that he’s not willing to do those things necessary to get Iran to be dissuaded from their nuclear folly.”

Newt or Newt?

[This isn’t a post about substantive policy positions.]

Newt Gingrich, as anyone who might possibly care knows by now, has withdrawn from the race for the Republican presidential nomination or, in current political speak, he has suspended his campaign.

I’ll miss him. Or, to be more accurate, I’ll miss half of him, because Newt Gingrich is really two Newts: there is the grandiose, didactic, more-conservative-than-thou joke who barely made a dent in the campaign, but there was also the old-school politician who visited zoos and shook hands and connected with people in a way his major competitor Mitt Romney can only dream of.

The first Newt acted like he was smarter than everyone else, floated bizarre ideas as if they were normal as walking across the street,  and never fully rose to the challenge of running for president. No one in their right mind would miss that Newt.

I met the second Newt a few years ago and was surprised at how much I liked him. He was friendly and accommodating when he had no self-interested reason to be. He spoke to my son, then 10 years old, about this country and its politics in an engaging way that few adults would have taken the time or energy to do. He was funny in an unstudied and understated way that few people of power and fame are.

As campaigns become more corporate and more directed toward electronic media and mass marketing, I’m sorry to see the old-style, human-scale and humane Newt leave.

Goodbye, Rick

I’m a dad myself, and I’m deeply sorry Rick Santorum is wrestling with all that comes with having a sick child. I sincerely wish his daughter a speedy and complete recovery. And I wish him well in his life.

That said, I hope he now goes to a dark and private place. I hope he is never offered a television soap box of the type given to Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and all of their ilk.  I hope American political life is never again required to deal with Santorum. He was a divisive candidate, deliberately so, because it served his personal political interests. He expressed the desire to run our country on the basis of his particular and peculiar interpretation of the Holy Bible, which I find to be both frightening and profoundly un-American.

He was both smart and capable enough to inflame his slice of the Republican electorate and unethical enough to actually do it. He made the venerable Republican Party teeter on the edge of a terminal abyss, from which it may yet never recover.

So, I’m sorry for the personal challenge your family is dealing with, Rick. Now, please do our country a favor and just disappear.

Now What, GOP?

Let’s lay some things on the table to start. I’m not a registered Republican. I’m not professionally involved in any political campaigns. I don’t expect to be offered a job come November, no matter who is elected. I have no skin in the game, except as an American.

I know a great many Republicans; I’ve worked for some, others are close friends, former classmates, neighbors, colleagues, and so on. Most of these are from what is called now the corporate wing, as opposed to the social conservative wing, of the party.

I value the Republican Party, its contributions, its historic leaders. Further, I believe, and I’m not afraid to say it out loud, that our country is better off with healthy political parties of diverse philosophical stripes.

Now, let me say, I am concerned for the Republican Party.

What’s become clear to me is a growing, unhealthy and emotional division in the party between (1) the good-government, main street and corporate, power elite, fiscal conservative party establishment, and (2) the evangelical, social-conservative, grass roots party rank-and-file. And this division is not only unhealthy for the Republican Party, but also unhealthy for the country.

Super Tuesday results show that it is increasingly unlikely there will be a first-ballot selection of a presidential nominee at the convention. This opens the door for all sorts of bad outcomes: back-room deals, drafting another candidate (e.g., Sarah Palin anyone?), swinging the party platform even farther to the right – especially on social issues.

There’s irony here: yesterday’s exit polls, cited in The Hill, showed that voters are most concerned with economic issues. In other words, by staying with what has been the successfully established Republican identity, the party could conduct a campaign with a reasonable probability of connecting with the issues that matter most to Americans. This could be an absolutely winnable election for Republicans.

Instead, Republicans are allowing their primaries to be swallowed up by inherently divisive candidates and the social issues they crow about, like the New Testament foundations of American government, contraception, same-sex marriage, etc.

Who benefits from any of that? Neither Republicans nor our republic.

A Super Tuesday? Not So Much.

Today, of course, is Super Tuesday, when Republican presidential primaries are being held in Ohio, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Oklahoma, Idaho, North Dakota and Alaska. We’ll know soon enough whether the eventual nomination of Mitt Romney will be again delayed by the fringe of his own party.

Let’s check in about that tomorrow.

Last night, I re-read Choose Me, a wonderful late-night book (lots of pictures, few words) by brilliant photographer Arthur Grace. Grace captures the major presidential candidates of 1988 – you may remember: Bush (senior), Dukakis, Gephardt, Dole, etc. – in searingly truthful and completely revealing portraits.

Look carefully at these photos and see precisely what candidates work so hard to hide: boredom, disdain, insecurity, surrender to the inevitability of loss, lack of focus, immaturity. Grace’s work is an eye-opener, all the better for a bit of chronological and emotional distance from the campaign and the candidates.

Especially in this era of over-produced events, pre-packaged candidates, and sound-bite communication, you can see that plain old still photography gives us a way to see inside someone’s character and intellect that we in the general population don’t often have; short of being on the inside of an actual campaign, this is as close as most people are ever likely to get.

What might unguarded photos of today’s candidates tell us? What do these tell you?

Newt Gingrich

Ron Paul

Mitt Romney

Rick Santorum

A March to Nowhere

Last night, Mitt Romney won the GOP’s Nevada Caucus. Someone else finished second. A completely different person finished third.

On February 7, Colorado and Minnesota will hold their caucuses and Missouri will hold its non-binding primary.

On February 28, both Arizona and Michigan will hold primaries.

On March 6, primaries or caucuses will be held in Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, and a whole bunch of other places.

Later in the year, there will be other primaries in different states that will mean about as much as the color of the housecoat my 86 year-old mother will wear today to clean up her kitchen.

Let’s be honest. The other candidates may cobble together enough resources to continue (or not) but the race for the Republican presidential nomination is over. We know who will win it. Why, then, are we all behaving as if any of this Kabuki theater had any relevance to anything? Why all the breathless TV punditry? Why the handwringing over misstatements and their effects on polls?

These questions are rhetorical, of course, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t answers. The problem isn’t that we don’t know the answers but rather that we can’t face them.

In American politics today, money wins – not just for candidates and officeholders (obvious – look at the data), but also for the politics industry (campaign managers, pollsters, advance people, speechwriters, lawyers) and for the political media (pundits, columnists, networks, advertising). And all these stakeholders, whose livelihood depends on the continuation of and interest in campaigns, will do everything they can to make sure this essentially meaningless march not only continues but does so in a way that is as entertaining as possible. Their incomes depend on the fact that you’ll continue to watch.

So, send out the memo:

  • Cue today’s gaffes…
  • Show new polls…
  • Make mountains out of molehills…
  • New hairstyle on the spouse…
  • Wicked-cool 3-D graphics…
  • Find scandal…must find scandal.

End of the day? Means nothing.

Money has already won. End of story.


Raging Against the Wrong Machine

“We need somebody who is engaged in sudden and relentless reform and isn’t afraid to shake it up. Shake up that establishment. So, if for no other reason, to rage against the machine. Vote for Newt…” Sarah Palin, 1/28/12

Hey, Sarah:

Don’t know if you’re aware that the Newt you’re talking about was a member of the United States House of Representatives for 20 years, serving 4 years as Speaker of the House, behind only the Vice President of the United States in succession to the Presidency. And since leaving the House, the Newt guy you talk about as if he were Spartacus has been a de facto, if not nominal lobbyist for some of America’s biggest establishment enterprises.

Hate to break it to you, Sarah, but Newt Gingrich IS the machine.

Your pal,

Brent

P.S. – That’s him in the photo, on the upper right.

The World’s Funniest Men, Alive

12. Alec Baldwin – The day after he goes violently and publicly insane (which will happen, mark my words), people will be on TV saying how surprised they are because, “He looked like such a nice man.” Don’t believe it; this handsomely normal looking man from 30 Rock is evil incarnate.

11. Ty Burrell – The first time I saw Burrell, he shot his daughter’s date in the neck with a BB gun, then got himself caught in a lie after crawling into the bedroom of a busty neighborhood divorcee. Then there was the time with the fake mustache and porta-potty. Ty is definitely in the hizzle.

10. Jason SudeikisSaturday Night Live has had more than its share of funny people; with his rubber face, amazing range of recurring characters, and writing chops, Sudeikis stands among the best ever. His uncle is George Wendt, Norm from the TV series Cheers. ‘Nuff said; talent is hereditary.

9. Maz Jobrani – Brilliant, fast, Berkeley-educated, politically aware, cross-cultural, eagle-eyed observer of human behavior. Here, Jobrani discusses the true nature of the Iranian people. See, the Axis of Evil can be funny too.

8. Will Ferrell – Few actors have demonstrated the comedic range of Ferrell, from Elf to Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby to madly funny characterizations of George W. Bush.

7. Jerry Seinfeld – Innocent-looking Seinfeld is nothing less than a revolutionary. His eponymous show about self-involved people without any redeeming characteristics radically changed what TV audiences see, laugh at, and love. His film, Comedian shows how hard it is to be funny.

6. Dave Chappelle – “I’m Rick James, bitch.” Chappelle conceived, wrote, created and starred in a groundbreaking TV show that presented a fearless array of observations and characters. His standup routines are renowned free-form epics.

5. Fred Armisen – Impersonation of Barack Obama? Nails it. Billy Smith’s bizarre joke-telling? Hilarious. The “singing” of Garth and Kat? Brilliantly twisted. But Armisen’s true range may be on its best display in Portlandia.

4. Steve Carell – Like comedy giant Bob Newhart, Carell looks like any accountant you might see on the morning train downtown. But inside, there’s a big screw loose and you can sense it. This guy can explode, and often in hilarious and unexpected ways. His scenes with Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement in Dinner for Schmucks are pure genius.

3. Ricky Gervais – Among the world’s most courageous comedians. Will look like an idiot. Will offend. Will appear sadistic. Will seemingly do anything for a laugh. Said to a predominantly American audience at an awards show: “I’m from a little place called England; we used to run the world before you.” All the other people speaking on the stage that night gave their self-serving insipid little speeches, then he came up and blew the doors off the place. His version of The Office was such a brutally honest critique of modern business, you sometimes had to turn away.

2. Jon Stewart – It’s inherently funny that his pretend comedy newscast is independently rated America’s most trusted source for news, seriously. In the ancient tradition of political satirists, Stewart creates the opportunity for us to look at the absurdity of our lives by making fun of the powerful and their bald stupidity. Here, of course, is his secret: he’s blindingly smart and he reads everything. Also, he’s not cowed by the real powerful people he talks about and hosts on his show. He asks what our real journalists ought to be asking but are too afraid to.

1. Newt Gingrich – Let me get this straight: Newt brought his first wife divorce papers in the hospital while she fought cancer. He started having an affair with his third wife while married to his second wife, who was then fighting MS. He led the fight to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying about an affair with a White House aide while Newt himself, then Speaker of the House, was having an affair with a Congressional aide.  Then, seemingly impervious to the sweet irony, criticized a debate moderator as “close to despicable,” for asking about any of this. Do I have that about right, Newt? Now, that’s funny.

The regression effect

In today’s Opening Shot article, “When a party flirts with suicide,” Salon’s Steve Kornacki supposes that the GOP is about to put a gun to its own head by moving former House Speaker Newt Gingrich forward in the primary process. Furthermore, Kornacki compares 2012 with 1964, the year Republican elites were unable to stop their party’s nomination of Barry Goldwater, who barely moved the electoral needle in the general election against incumbent Lyndon Johnson.

To be sure, this year has revealed significant changes in the Republican party. (Are they permanent? Who knows?) Constituencies on the fringes are again becoming the more vocal and visible in the party. The mainstream, corporate or main street Republicans, call them what you will, that have been mainstays of the party’s leadership, philosophical and otherwise, seem waning in energy and influence. But I wouldn’t say that’s the result of party elites’ action or inaction.

All institutions change over time but tend to return to their general character and purpose. Orbits aren’t circles, but ellipses; they may stray from the center but tend to veer back, stray then veer, in repetitive cycles. It’s natural and it’s happening again. Statisticians call it the regression effect, observations tend to move back toward the average, eventually.

Will Gingrich’s continuing and energetic candidacy kill the GOP? Time will tell but I wouldn’t bet on it, anymore than Goldwater’s did. Will it be as a result of a lethargic or impotent elite? More likely the result of routine statistics.