Monday, January 26, 2009

It Can Be Done

If they can get rid of this, they can get rid of this. It is actually permissable for this institution not to be the Paper of Broken Record. I'm sure it says so somewhere in the Geneva Conventions.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Good for You, Gov. Paterson - Updated

I think it's apparent that this was not Caroline's decision, but the governor's. She was allowed to withdraw with the standard pretext -- to spend more time with her family. Only, in her case, it was probably what she really wanted all along.

This show of decorous strength and independence helps Paterson's electoral chances in 2010, not weakens them, imo.

Update: Uh... okay. Thing is, one way or the other, it seems her "candidacy" is toast. If the report of her withdrawal came from Paterson, then she (or somebody near her) is playing a game of chicken with him -- not smart. And if the withdrawal report did come from her, and she's now changed her mind, she's just added an exclamation point to a "campaign" of remarkable ineptness. I mean, uh, you can't, you know, do this kind of thing in, like, public.

Update 2:
“The fiasco of the last 24 hours reinforced why the governor never intended to choose her." We dodged a bullet here. Talk about unreadiness for primetime.

Update 3: A good outcome to this Rashomon tale.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Big Pictures

The Matt Bai passage from today’s Times Magazine, which I parsed in yesterday’s post, was far less visible than the magazine’s cover story – announced in what looks like 500-point type on the cover: “OBAMA’S PEOPLE.” Must’ve been an exciting moment in the editorial planning session when that epiphany hit!

“I’ve got it! Remember that Avedon issue of Rolling Stone in 1976? How about we do it now? We devote all of the main editorial well of the pre-Inauguration issue to full-page portraits of ‘Obama’s People.' Say, 52 of them, for each week of the year. Don't let Vanity Fair beat us to this!

"After all, like many of our readers — like most Americans, it seems fair to say — we sense something eventful and potentially far-reaching about this election, and the challenges the new president and his team will immediately face. Why not take account of this with portraits of those whose character and temperament and bearing may well prove consequential in the coming months and years? (Note to self: Reference Roland Barthes in the intro.)

"Who are these new Powers-that-Be? Well, I think we do a mixed bag of his cabinet picks, his staff, a few Senators and members of Congress… a few miscellaneous hangers-on in Washington – just to, you know, loosen it up. Hip, surprising, but Important. It’s our own unique NY Times Magazine perspective on the new power elite. Not Diane Arbus or Annie Liebowitz. More, say, Madame Tussaud.”


One note: This gargantuan attempt at collector’s edition-creation conveys no discernible idea or point… but it does achieve one interesting result: full-page portraits of both Hillary Clinton and Jon Favreau, on a level playing field. Which is nice for him. After all, we know how much he enjoys being next to a full-size photograph of Hillary Clinton.

P.S. Six weeks, and counting.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Boom Boom Boom

It’s useless to protest, because the meme isn’t disappearing anytime soon. But it would be so salutary if we could figure out some way to put a stake in the heart of a particular piece of pervasive foolishness that infects commentary and gets schlepped around in political discourse generally.

I’m speaking about the idea of Boomer partisanship, fractiousness and culture wars.

It’s not just the strawman du jour for those seeking to defend Barack Obama against legitimate criticism – indeed, any criticism – on everything from FISA to tax cuts to Rick Warren to universal healthcare to Social Security. It goes deeper than that. It’s helping to dumb down our thinking more generally.

The idea is so silly and lazy that one would think it would be dismissed on its face. The notion that the Baby Boom generation was uniquely fractious or partisan reveals a narcissistic ignorance of history. Even high school Social Studies ought to have instilled awareness of the humans’ long narrative of conflict, tribalism, misogyny, racism, partisan struggle and general lack of evolution as a species. But if that was too much to pay attention to, what is one to make of people who have watched the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, or the rise of Islamic fundamentalism – all of them carried out not by Boomers but primarily by Xers and Yers – and who nonetheless attribute to my generation a puzzling clinging to our bitterness and battles? (In case it needs saying: Obviously, I’m not saying Gen X or Y is uniquely violent or crazy. In fact, the silliness of such characterizations in general is my point.)

This lamebrained idea isn’t just a crutch, a way to opine without actually learning or thinking. It’s also a vehicle for an age-old neural path that’s strongly etched into humans’ brains: generational conflict. The claim about Boomers isn’t empirical, but it’s not a “lie.” It expresses a genuine feeling – one of the mix of complex feelings children have had about their parents since time immemorial: You're not giving me room to breathe. Go away and let me live my life.

The examples of this nonsense are too numerous to mention here. Hardly a piece of punditry gets published these days without some trace of it. In tomorrow’s NY Times Magazine, for instance, there’s a representative ditty from Matt Bai. The article in which it occurs isn’t my focus here – it’s a typical mishmash of half-thoughts and Obama-cult musings. Some of the points are valid – such as the possibly dispositive nature of the current crisis for policy formation, and Obama’s “elusiveness” – and some are not. My point here is simply to use the following passage – annotated for your convenience – to demonstrate the self-contradiction, muddled thinking and prejudices of this generational meme:

“Already, in the weeks since the election, Obama has endured the moans of disgruntled constituencies in his own party whose idea of the outsider is difficult for any breathing politician to fulfill. Progressive activists online and inside the party have complained bitterly about Obama’s turning to so many pragmatic insiders – that is, public servants who ran Washington in the Clinton years – to populate his cabinet, rather than reaching out to more academics or state-level politicians whose political instincts have not yet been corroded by Washington’s penchant for incrementalism. [So… he didn’t reject the moaning, disgruntled Boomers, then? He hired them? And these old-timers are examples of… pragmatism, not identity politics or bitter partisanship? And yet, aren’t we told that partisanship was the defining characteristic of Washington and politics in general… until now? I’m confused…] Then, too, have come the inevitable protests from identity-based interest groups: Latinos and African-Americans in Congress who weren’t satisfied with the number of senior appointments, as well as gay activists lamenting the omission of a gay cabinet nominee. [I don’t know about you, but the chief complaint I’ve heard from gay activists wasn’t about a cabinet nominee, but about Rick Warren. And isn’t it interesting that the “interest group” he leaves out is the one most damaged by the Obama movement – women?] That sound you hear is the last wheezing gasp [It’s true. Old people are short of breath.] of boomer-age politics, the cataloging of individuals according to their areas of oppression [OMG, when will they get over it?], the endless process of tallying cultural differences rather than aggregating common objectives. [Okay, so ‘boomer-age politics’ was about cataloging oppressions and endlessly tallying cultural differences? As in the civil rights movement? As in the women’s movement? As in the anti-war movement? As in the environmental movement? As in the music and the culture that produced Woodstock? Those phenomena were not about, er, aggregating common objectives? And their legacy was an endless laundry list of complaints, and not a body of legislation, programs, laws -- and at least partially changed consciousness?] It is a political philosophy that probably made sense 30 years ago [“probably”? “made sense”? He can’t be bothered to learn about it? Or maybe he just doesn’t think it’s worth seriously characterizing.] but that seems sort of baffling [How puzzling we are to these new, rational beings, as we do our tribal Dance to Identity and Bitterness around the bonfire.] at the dawn of the Obama era, when such interest groups are among the most powerful in the Washington establishment [Right. Gays are running the place. Latinos are running the place. Women are running the place. And African-Americans have progressed so far that they really have nothing to complain about any more. Life’s good. Oh, and the presence of some representation in D.C. is sufficient demonstration of progress all around.] – and when the Man himself is black.”

See what I mean?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

And on the Other Hand...

... we have the continuing embarrassment of the Beltway's own pet schizophrenic. How long will the Times require us to endure this humiliating obsessive?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dramatic Criticism

The “No Drama Obama” meme is unintentionally revealing. It’s meant to suggest steadiness, but what it more truly reflects is disengagement, impersonality, lack of decision, lack of action – the lack, in other words, of all those qualities of which drama is the chief imaginative form. The literary genre this guy embodies isn’t drama, but lyric poetry – and of a prosaic, intransitive and convention-based, rather than personal, sort. There are a lot more adjectives and abstract nouns than verbs here. Not much speech-action goin’ down.

I am thinking of this because I just finished reading Dreams from My Father, and I’m not one whit closer to an understanding of who this person actually is than I was before I opened the book. As advertised, it is elegantly written, but detached, opaque, impersonal – despite being an autobiography. Its literary elegance disguises rather than reveals.

At first, we think we’re going to get some insight into his head and heart – and I went into it genuinely open to that. I want to love the one I’m (perforce) with. But what we get, instead of self-expression, is a series of reflections on race, mostly in the form of emblematic scenes from his life, each of which illustrates some political point, each of which has the same hedged, muted, multi-perspective aura. In what is by far the most engaging part of the book – its final section, describing his first trip to Kenya – Barack himself is largely absent. He steps aside to let the stage (or, rather, page) be filled by his relatives. The highlight of the section is an extended quote – a narrative putatively delivered by his aunt, covering the last couple of generations of the family’s history.

This is, I think, every bit as much of a campaign document as The Audacity of Hope – even if it was written ten years earlier. Barack Obama, it seems clear, set his mind on becoming President of the United States at an early age, and has been single-mindedly pursuing that goal for his entire adult life. It’s an impressive pursuit, and a successful one. Nothing wrong with that. Ambition comes with the territory. But there’s nothing very persuasive or reassuring about it, either, for anybody who wanted to elect an actual factual Democrat, a new FDR.

This is a man whose true genius is hiding in plain sight. (For anybody who is familiar with Sigurd Burckhardt’s famous essay on King Lear, “The Quality of Nothing,” Obama is the perfect anti-Lear, the antithesis of a figure constitutionally incapable of mediacy. He may vote “present,” but he can’t be present. He’s almost too post-modern, too Derridean, too palpably the presence of an absence.)

It doesn’t matter what he does. He can talk for hours, joke around, expose himself to the world’s media, be the focus object for millions of hungry souls… he can even write entire books on himself… and yet he recedes ever farther from actual view. Is this a skill, or a psychiatric condition? I don’t think it can be a sham. Nobody could pull that off. He really must be so terrified of what lies inside, must have sealed it up so tight, that he himself hasn’t the first idea who’s in there.

Thing is, he’s now in a place where there’s a better-than-even chance that it’ll be smoked out. He has walked out onto the stage, one of the biggest and barest of them all. It’s not easy to hide there, maybe impossible. And there's a fellow whispering in the cellarage -- only this ghost isn't saying, "Remember me." This one is saying, “Nothing will come of nothing.”

One can only wonder what play is going to be spawned by whoever this protagonist turns out to be.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Maybe this is bad reporting. Maybe it's accurate reporting, but his comments were just kabuki. Maybe it's accurate reporting, and the comments do prefigure his speech tomorrow, but the speech will be the kabuki. Maybe the reporting is good, the comments are intended, the speech will be serious, but the "plans" will be so long-term they'll wither on the vine.

Or maybe he actually intends to grab the Third Rail -- the one that killed W's second term before it began. Along with the "new New Deal," maybe our Vote-Present-Elect, the post-partisan Chauncey Gardner of the 21st century, feels compelled to balance it with an anti-New Deal. Maybe, instead of Medicare For All (i.e., single-payer healthcare), he's going to give us Medicare For Fewer. Maybe he really is Herbert Hoover in Wendell Wilkie clothing. Maybe this really will be the third Bush term.