Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sweet Caroline

I don’t have an opinion on Caroline Kennedy as a person, a thinker, a political figure or a New Yorker. I simply don’t know her – and in that regard, I’m like pretty much everybody else, thanks to the deliberate way she has shielded her life from the world’s view. I certainly couldn’t care less that she isn’t a smooth, confident public speaker, or that she punctuates every phrase with “you know.”

I am, however, developing sympathy for her as a pawn. To be sure, she walked into the current shitstorm over her “candidacy” (or whatever it is) to fill Hillary’s soon-to-be-vacated New York Senate seat with her eyes open. She’s a responsible adult. But she’s also schlepping around more myth and history and family legacy than just about anybody else alive, and it seems as though that’s being wielded against her by the dying patriarch of American political royalty in ways that are manipulative and cruel. One thinks of the Marion Davies character in Citizen Kane.

The whole foofarah has been, not surprisingly, catnip for commentariat gossip during the interregnum (even more than Blagogate, though perhaps a tad less than Warrengate). God forbid the lions of the Village should talk about policy, or the global economic crisis. And by all means, we must keep Favreaugate off the front pages. I mean, the boy mustn’t be distracted – he has to write the most importantest speech ever. (N.B., It’s been nearly four weeks now, and still no word from our Vote-Present-Elect.)

But putting the pundits’ blatherings aside, what are we to make of this odd, asymmetrical drama surrounding Caroline? To me, the key question is the issue of her motivation. Here is someone who has assiduously avoided public visibility for her entire life. It was worth a lot to her to avoid it -- taking a $1 salary in order not to provide financial disclosure. Despite being born into American royalty and then into a fairy-tale narrative of beauty and hope and loss, she deliberately and consistently refused to play the part assigned to her. And now, all of a sudden, she's throwing her hat into the ring?

Isn’t it obvious that there’s something wrong with this picture? That something else is going on? And is it either a surprise or at all inappropriate for reporters to probe that? Although some have criticized the Times’ reporters for pressing her to describe her “moment of decision," aren’t they, in fact, acting out of a reasonable skepticism that such a moment actually occurred? Doesn’t it, in fact, seem probable that she is being pushed into this by Uncle Teddy? As new information comes to light, it looks more and more as though Caroline’s own motives, passions, interests and ideas are the farthest things from some people’s consideration.

Members of my generation felt heartbroken and protective of her from the moment of that iconic scene at her father’s funeral. And then she lost her uncle. Now, she’s about to lose her other uncle. None of these powerful men has ever given much evidence of interest or concern about women’s or girls’ feelings, or identity.

If she is the prime mover here, and is serious about it, then she's both arrogant and doing a lousy job of promoting herself. But to my eye, the whole spectacle is most dispiriting in the way Caroline Kennedy is being used, rather than in how she is using.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Hillary's Choice

Put aside the panting addicts of palace intrigue. Put aside the CDS-infected zombies, their solar system revolving around the object or objects of their obsession. Put aside the Village’s cluck-clucking over the proper balance of power in an Administration. Put aside our own feelings of hurt at the misogyny, lies and violations of democracy leading up to the nomination, as well as our sense of wasted possibility, of what might have been. Even put aside the question of Obama’s selection of Hillary as Secretary of State – whether you think it was bold or magnanimous or delusional or wonderful or awful. Indeed, put him aside entirely.

For the moment just think about what Hillary herself has done here, and what it tells us about her journey, about who she has become and is still becoming.

What was Hillary’s choice?

It was the choice of one of America’s – and the world’s – most experienced and knowledgeable thinkers and leaders to take direction from someone with vastly less knowledge, experience, proven judgment or credentials.

It was the choice of a woman to submit to a less qualified man. And of an older person to submit to a less qualified younger person.

It was a decision to take on an enormous burden, a huge task – with slim hope of visible, near-term success. Whatever else you can say about this position, it will be a shitload of work – and far more visible and accountable than remaining New York’s Senator. Indeed, Hillary’s seriousness about the work itself is obvious in her reported attempt to define the SoS role as extending significantly into global economic policy. This is, obviously, intellectually correct – how could world affairs possibly be tackled without putting global economic policy at their heart? But put that aside, and just consider what she’s signing up for. Despite the ‘bots’ snide dismissals of her experience as First Lady, she sure as hell ain’t planning tea parties. (It is, btw, risible to hear some tut-tut about how global economic policy is beyond the traditional purview of the State Department, claiming that it properly belongs to Treasury. Funny, but I can’t seem to recall the name of Truman’s Secretary of the Treasury. I can, however, remember his Secretary of State – you know, the one for whom the Marshall Plan was named.)

It was a choice to move past the hatred, misogyny and arrogance of the campaign and of the Obama “movement.” When Hillary decided to take this job, she knew full well with whom she would be dealing, probably on a daily basis. She knew what to expect from a culture that casually regards her as a “monster,” that hates her enough to project its own murderous rage onto her. Instead of staying in the Senate, where she would have retained far more freedom of action, and where the institutional walls dividing the branches of government would have stood between her and these toxic avengers, she decided to enter the den of vipers, the House of Favreau. Even more – she decided to devote her enormous talents to helping them succeed.

It was a choice to cede the cause dearest to her heart and soul – universal healthcare – to others. It was, in other words, a choice to forego historical redemption for her failure the first time around. If she had remained in the Senate, I don’t think there can be much doubt that Hillary Clinton would have remained the government’s and the country’s most widely respected thinker and arbiter on healthcare policy. And even if other pretenders to that throne had attempted to freeze her out, nothing would have prevented her from continuing to offer views, expertise and legislation on the topic. By accepting the job of SoS, however, she has accepted a division of labor in the Administration that will keep her positions on healthcare behind the scenes, at best.

It was a choice to continue being tough, rather than to take an emotional break. Whatever else we know about the internecine politics of a U.S. administration, we know that they are, indeed, internecine. Sure, the Senate and the general political scrum are rough-and-tumble – but not like this. Every administration in the past several decades has been a battlefield, whereas the Senate is, as everyone knows, a club. And because of Hillary’s national – and, indeed, global – constituency… because she became something quite unique in the course of this past year… she could have relaxed into that, probably could have ridden it for the rest of her public life. Instead, she chose to take on new challenges – political, historical, interpersonal. She looked unflinchingly at what the actual opportunities were for her to make a difference, and she marched straight up to the biggest one realistically available. She chose the path of most resistance.

Obviously, nobody – Hillary included – has the first idea how all this will turn out. But we can already say that her choice here was something remarkable, perhaps unprecedented.

This is one extraordinary person.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Bah! Humbug!

I know, I know… I can be a downer. Just ask people who go to the movies with me. You loved Forrest Gump – and its current, even emptier progeny, The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button? You thought Wall-E made a profound statement about consumer society? Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Rachel Getting Married were, by you, strong comebacks for famous directors? Your art-film-in-broad-release gratification reflex was triggered by Persepolis and Lust, Caution?

I’m here to spoil your evening.

And we won’t even start on such winning-or-nominated gems from the past decade as Gladiator, American Beauty, Chicago (beating The Pianist??), Lost in Translation, Million Dollar Baby, The Departed, The Queen, Michael Clayton, A History of Violence, Notes on a Scandal, Cars, Monster House, The Triplets of Belleville, The Straight Story, Shakespeare in Love or The Truman Show.

Similarly, in the realm of politics, I am proving to be a buzzkill for some of the nicest, sweetest, most thoughtful people I know. People for whom Barack Obama genuinely warms cockles. I wind up feeling downright churlish sometimes – in moments when I’m relaxing from righteous indignation – about my glass-half-empty pov on the guy. And I do honestly hope that he – or events – deliver The Greatest Presidency Ever. I do, I do, I do.

Anyway, at least we can agree on Eyes Wide Shut.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Favreau Watch

Two weeks. Still no word. Our President-Elect has held press conferences almost daily. This topic didn’t warrant a mention. Jon Date-Rape-Jester Favreau is still, as far as we know, writing the speeches for those daily press conferences. Hillary Clinton, whose breast he fantasy-groped (in public, to share with his fellow party-going Obamaphiles how funny it would be to humiliate her sexually - and then even more publicly by posting that witty jape on the World Wide Web, for the Web-wide world to see and enjoy), is still, as far as we know, slated to represent the United States of America to the other leaders and nations of the world. Americans still, as far as we know, hope that their prospective Secretary of State and the government she represents will be seen by those leaders and nations as an embodiment of her own and our collective dignity, integrity, intelligence, experience, seriousness, respect, wisdom and aspirations.

However, our President-Elect has found time to announce that Rick Warren, who opposes a woman’s right to choose and promoted California’s Prop 8 – denying gay humans the right to express their love in marriage – will deliver an invocation at his Inaugural.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Extremity Matters

Commentators I like – and to whom I link – often say that ideology matters. That’s true, but only to a point, as I argued here and here. Political frames – like any others – are not only about kind, but also degree. Size also matters. Extremity matters.

Another data point to this effect is the op-ed in today’s NY Times by Thomas Schweich. Like Comey, Goldsmith, Whitman, O’Neill and Powell, he was, it seems, nobody’s idea of a leftie. Nonetheless, he ran afoul of – or, more accurately, struggled with – the children’s crusaders of the Right who were the acolytes of the “hard” wing of the Bush Administration – the Cheneys, Yoos, Addingtons, et al. Schweich’s problem wasn’t his party affiliation, but his possession of expertise. Like millions of good, card-carrying Commies in Cambodia or China in a previous era, he was suspect precisely because he actually knew something.

America’s government in the last eight years became infested by a homegrown equivalent of the Khmer Rouge or the Red Guards. In a goofy stew that was equal parts ignorance and ideology, they ginned up their own sort of Cultural Revolution, sending down – or, at this comparatively early stage, simply freezing out – even the former revolutionaries (Reagan variety). You helped overthrow Chiang in 1949? That was then, this is now. Now, you wear glasses.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It's Already Too Late

It has now been a week since the Washington Post put up the picture of Jon Favreau and his bud acting out a hilarious joke about date-raping Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama has said nothing.

There can be no doubt that he is aware of this, the controversy over Gov. Blagojevich notwithstanding. It's been on CNN. Dee Dee Meyers has condemned it. It's been all over the blogosphere.

So he knows. And once he knows, there can be only one appropriate reaction -- moral outrage. And there can be only one action that demonstrates leadership -- firing Favreau, accompanied by a public statement that his behavior does not represent the beliefs and values of the American government or American society or the Obama Administration.

Failure to have that reaction and to take that action shows one of two things, neither of which is savory. Either Barack Obama simply doesn't see this as an important problem. or he and his people have been spending this time behind closed doors, figuring out how to spin it. Waiting to see whether there's enough of a stink about this that they have to respond in some way, or whether it'll just fade away.

Even if you don't believe it's important to send a signal to the women in his government -- and the women and girls of the world -- that misogyny is wrong (that is, even if you are a sexist pig), you still must, as a leader, defend your people. He apparently doesn't care enough to show the world that one of the key players on his team can't be treated with contempt.

Well, time has run out. The clock has finished ticking. All pens have been put down, and the blue books have been handed in. Our incoming president has flunked his first major test on values. That's a bummer.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Tangential Thought

Maybe the Blaggy Bottom scandal will have an ancillary (and salutary) impact here in my home state. Maybe it will put a little bit of pressure on N.Y.S. Governor David Patterson to appoint the most qualified person to replace Hillary Clinton -- say, Carolyn Maloney. To be sure, there's no pay-to-play going on here, as far as anyone knows. But the personal agency of one aged Senate Lion does smack of self-interest over public interest. In the light of the Illinois Shuffle, maybe a bit of Caesar's wifery will obtain.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Boys Will Be Boys

Once again, we get an unguarded peek into the mindset of Camp Obama. (And check out the comments, too.) This, like “monster,” will present a seemingly minor but nonetheless revealing test of how much Barack himself has put Animal House behind him.

I mean, Favreau should be fired anyway, as part of the shift from campaigning to governing, and the replacement of children’s crusade zombies with knowledgeable grown-ups – a shift that is evident in most of his appointments thus far, and most notably, of course, in Hillary’s. We need speeches from the leader of the free world that aren’t awash in abstract nouns, sentences without objects and intransitive verbs. We need sentences you could actually diagram – describing policies you could actually enact. But putting that aside, if this photo doesn’t prove to be at least a career-diverting move for Mr. Favreau, it doesn’t speak well for the culture of the incoming Administration.

And, to the "get-a-life"/"get-over-it" fratties in the comment threads – and in the many drinking rooms of the Kos frathouse – please spare us the lectures about how boys will be boys. We don’t need boys or girls, thank you. We need adults – preferably ones not infected by social diseases.