August 29, 2008


Sam Smith

The confluence of Barack Obama's stadium acceptance extravaganza and John McCain's pick for vice president offers superfluous but final proof that Americans have been consigned to spend their lives as part of a crowd scene in an HBO special. Both Obama and Palin have come out of nowhere, rising to preeminence not on the basis of achievements, politics or service but by having all the qualities an ad executive looks for when trying to market a new product. What the Mad Men of the 1960s sought in cigarettes and cars, their 21st century equivalents now apply to candidates.

Of course, at some point reality enters and we find that the cigarettes bringing us springtime on one puff and the cars taking us to heaven weren't what they seemed. Or, as ad executive Jerry Della Famina once put it, "There is a great deal of advertising that is much better than the product. When that happens, all that the good advertising will do is put you out of business faster." Which is one reason why, as our marketing skills have improved, both our economy and politics have declined.

If you step way from the politics and reality, the marketing of Obama has been remarkable if not necessarily all productive. Dana Milbank gave the feel:

|||| Obama's everyman efforts are unlikely to be aided by accepting the nomination in front of Greek-style columns in the middle of a football stadium. Privately, Democrats cringed. . . Luckily, Democrats had the foresight to remove the Air Force One model, the presidential limousine, the full-size replica of the Oval Office and the inauguration gowns that had been on exhibit earlier in the week. . .

Instead of savoring the history-making, Obama aides found themselves answering questions about the columns and the stadium from anxious Democrats and from journalists . . .

After nightfall, the nominee emerged between the columns, walked out to the wedding cake and waved skyward. He delivered a speech that soared to the heights of Mount Olympus. . .

The speech ended, the nominee gazed heavenward, and red, white and blue fireworks poured from the tops of the columns. Streamers hung over the Doric frieze. Triumphant orchestral music played, and Obama, his running mate, and his family departed through the still-smoking Pillars of Hercules. ||||

It may seem stunning that an otoh botoh (on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand) unaccomplished centrist whose vaunted eloquence is so elusive that his only words regularly quoted are marketing slogans like "change we can believe in" and "yes we can" has made it so far so quickly. Yet if you study the other work of some of his major backers in Hollywood such as David Geffin it becomes less surprising. For example, as I watched the stadium oration, the trailer for Genghis Khan drifted into my head.

The marketing effort for Obama has been aided immensely by a media that no longer offers the relief of facts but functions as movie critics, applauding the skill or failure of fictions rather than comparing them to reality. Proof of this shift is that candidates have submerged positions or policies in favor of narratives, once the skill of novelists and playwrights rather than those engaged in the real. In the past month alone, the term narrative has been used along with the word campaign over 2200 times in new stories. And the Democratic convention speeches were as stuffed with appealing personal sagas as they were lacking in ideas or arguments.

The media commentary has also been hyperbolic in the extreme. Howard Fineman claimed that "If you know American history, you know that Obama's nomination is the social equivalent of landing a man on the moon." And Radar reported that " Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews kicked things off right with some unabashed rejoicing (replete with comparisons to Alexander the Great and Aaron Sorkin). . . Political analyst Michelle Bernard later tried to keep things in perspective by admitting that she watched the speech alone in the green room so she could weep and declaring that it was 'the greatest day in our nation's history.'"

In fact, the nomination of a bi-ethnic candidate for president was only a matter of time rather than of effort and it insults an entire civil rights era to give it such an overblown status. Obama has been trained, financed and comforted by the white establishment and while this is not his fault, neither does it compare with the pain and suffering of those who paved his way.

Further, in its groupie-like enthusiasm, the media has ignored major matters such as another speech Obama gave in Colorado some weeks before the convention. In it he made the extraordinarily frightening promise that "We cannot continue to rely on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives we've set. We've got to have a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded."

With Google's news search, one comes up with only two media citations of this comment, both by conservative journals.

Besides, before one assigns too much credit to Obama's purported intrinsic qualities, consider that Hillary Clinton came within inches of being successfully recreated as a sturdy defender of the working class as well as having all her past sins, lies and near indictment totally exorcised from public discussion. It's amazing what the Mad Men can do with enough money floating around.

And now, less than 24 hours after Obama departed the Albert Spearian stage in Denver a new product has been introduced: Sarah Palin.

Palin is where Obama was four years ago: overwhelmingly unknown and suddenly selected by powers that be for a leading role in another made for TV special. While Obama was young, bi-ethnic, smart and unthreatening, Palin also has plenty of meat for the Mad Men, witness this from Wikipedia:

|||| Palin was born as Sarah Louise Heath in Sandpoint, Idaho, the daughter of Charles and Sally (Sheeran) Heath. Her family moved to Alaska when she was an infant. Charles Heath was a popular science teacher and coached track. The Heaths were avid outdoors enthusiasts; Sarah and her father would sometimes wake at 3 a.m. to hunt moose before school, and the family would regularly run 5k and 10k races.

Palin was the point guard and captain for the Wasilla High School Warriors, in Wasilla, Alaska, when they won the Alaska small-school basketball championship in 1982; she earned the nickname "Sarah Barracuda" because of her intense play. She played the championship game despite a stress fracture in her ankle, hitting a critical free throw in the last seconds. Palin, who was also the head of the school Fellowship of Christian Athletes, would lead the team in prayer before games.

In 1984, Palin was second-place in the Miss Alaska beauty pageant after winning the Miss Wasilla contest earlier that year, winning a scholarship to help pay her way through college. In the Wasilla pageant, she played the flute and also won Miss Congeniality.

Palin holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Idaho where she also minored in politics.

Her husband, Todd, is a Native Yup'ik Eskimo. Outside the fishing season, Todd works for BP at an oil field on the North Slope and is a champion snowmobiler, winning the 2000-mile "Iron Dog" race four times. The two eloped shortly after Palin graduated college; when they learned they needed witnesses for the civil ceremony, they recruited two residents from the old-age home down the street.

She briefly worked as a sports reporter for local Anchorage television stations while also working as a commercial fisherman with her husband, Todd, her high school sweetheart. One summer when she was working on Todd's fishing boat, the boat collided with a tender while she was holding onto the railing; Palin broke several fingers.

On September 11, 2007, the Palins' son Track joined the Army. Eighteen years old at the time, he is the eldest of Palin's five children. Track now serves in an infantry brigade and will be deployed to Iraq in September. She also has three daughters: Bristol, 17, Willow, 13, and Piper, 7. On April 18, 2008, Palin gave birth to her second son, Trig Paxson Van Palin, who has Down syndrome. She returned to the office three days after giving birth. Palin refused to let the results of prenatal genetic testing change her decision to have the baby. "I'm looking at him right now, and I see perfection," Palin said. "Yeah, he has an extra chromosome. I keep thinking, in our world, what is normal and what is perfect?"

Details of Palin's personal life have contributed to her political image. She hunts, eats moose hamburger, ice fishes, rides snowmobiles, and owns a float plane. Palin holds a lifetime membership with the National Rifle Association. She admits that she used marijuana when it was legal in Alaska, but says that she did not like it. ||||

If you were looking for something to replace the Obama special on HBO, this wouldn't be a bad narrative. And just as irrelevant to what we should be talking and thinking about.

Some years ago the Green Party in Germany was divided into two groups known as the fundis and the realos. While the definitions aren't applicable - the fundis held to core Green priniciples while the realos wheeled and dealed with the other parties - the names seem to fit well what has happened to Democratic politics. The liberal fundis - like Christian fundamentalists - are content with an icon with whom to deposit not only their hope but any critical thought about what such a course might produce. Fundi liberals are not new; they first appeared in large numbers with the campaign of Bill Clinton, the most right wing Democratic presidential candidate in over 60 years. These liberals essentially gave up thinking about anything other that which the Clinton regime wanted and Clinton took full advantage of them. The same is going on with Obama, a jettisoning of any serious interest in policies and programs in favor of blind faith in a particular leader. History tells us that little good comes of this.

In fact, you need only check the lack of significant liberal activity in anti-war, anti-torture and efforts to preserve the constitution to see how incapable the fundi libs are of anything beyond adoration.

Realos are those who still believe in working on issues and understand that politicians play a complicated and often contradictory role in achieving their goals. They know Obama will be good about some things and awful about others. They know that his post-partisanship so far only appears to include outreach to conservatives. And while they know that he would be better than Bush or McCain, blind complicity in a phony political "narrative" that relieves him of all pressure to do right is a disaster waiting just a few months to happen.

It is truly scary to be a realo these days, to be told repeatedly that it is enough to have hope and faith and that , implicitly, everything politics is meant to be about really doesn't matter. It is sad to find how little liberal participation there has been in efforts to save the Constitution or to press for sanity in numerous other areas. It is painful to find those whose job description is the description of reality - that is to say, the media - enthralled by endless fictional manipulations.

But it is where we are and those who prefer reality to fiction are badly outnumbered on both the left and the right. In the end, as it always does, reality decides to speak for itself and, when it does, we then wonder why we hadn't thought about it sooner.

August 28, 2008


Sam Smith

There is one real reason to been concerned about Obama-Ayers flap: Obama is botching it.

The incident provides an unsettling insight into how Obama handles crises. What should have been a minor sidelight to the campaign is becoming more important in large part because a strange combination of misdirected caution and misguided aggression.

The caution of Obama's personal response has obscured a key point: if you're involved in urban politics, you're going to find yourself mixed up with the Bill Ayers of the world. Hell, if I were held personally responsible for every political crook or scoundrel I ever had in my house, met over lunch, or served on a board with, I couldn't get into a Starbucks, let alone public office.

This is a strange concept for those Americans who live in far less polyglot places and have no sense of what the diversity of urban politics is like.

Obama has handled the problem the way he does so many that make him uncomfortable - with attorney like parsimonious parsing that comes off as evasive and unresponsive. It isn't that he's really done anything wrong; he just makes it sound that way.

The best way to handle the truth is to tell it. And then explain it.

For example, it would have been interesting to know how many other strange people have shared board seats with Obama. Hell, I'm on a board with Christopher Hitchens and no one has ever accused me of being unduly influenced by that notorious intellectual terrorist.

It would also have been helpful if the Obama campaign had stressed that Ayers was brought into the Chicago school reform movement by that other radical activist, Mayor Richard Daley. If Daley has - from all accounts - survived the association, maybe Obama will as well. Further, the whole controversial schools project that Obama and Ayers were involved in was funded by decidedly unradical Annenberg money.

God knows why Daley named Ayers, but one thing you learn about urban politics is that you have to have been there to understand it. Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times tried to explain it last spring:

||||| For Obama, perhaps a problem, because of Ayers' extremist past -- which has never bothered anyone in Chicago. That's why back in the day when Obama was starting his political career -- making a visit to the Ayers home while running for a state Senate seat, and then agreeing to being on panels with him and serve on a foundation board together -- it was no big deal, or any deal, to any local political reporters or to the editorial boards of the Sun-Times or Tribune.

Once Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, and wife Bernardine Dohrn, also in the group -- surfaced after years on the lam, they settled easily in to the village known as Hyde Park-Kenwood in Chicago, fitting into the highly political, supremely philosophical community anchored by the University of Chicago. For outsiders, it's Cambridge, Berkeley and Evanston --without a lot of chain stores. It's also the place the Obamas call home.

But Ayers, who became a scholar at the University of Illinois-Chicago, was also eventually embraced by a pragmatic son of blue-collar Bridgeport desperately trying to upgrade Chicago's chronically troubled schools: Mayor Daley, whose father's legacy was tarnished because of anti-Vietnam War protesters getting clobbered in the 1968 convention and the Days of Rage the next year. . .

Obama made it seem at the debate he hardly knew Ayers. Besides serving on the Woods Fund board, in 1997 he and Ayers were to be on a University of Chicago panel organized by Michelle Obama, then an associate dean. And Ayers could reinforce Obama as an elitist: In 2002, Obama and Ayers were scheduled to be on a UIC panel with this lampoon-able title: "Intellectuals in Times of Crisis." |||||

Stunningly absent fron the whole debate has been the worthy original purpose that brought Ayers and Obama into contact: reforming public schools including an emphasis on local school councils. If someone is going to accuse Obama of being an Ayerhead, they should at least point to one campaign speech in which he has shown any real interest in public schools.

Obama's real problem is not that he knew Ayers but that Obama is such a pretentious prig about the myth he has created for himself that anything that threatens it becomes a capital crime.

He's not the first Democratic candidate with this problem. John Kerry masochistically got the swiftboaters going by his exaggerated and narcissistic references to his Vietnam experiences. As I noted at the time:

|||| John Kerry's hyping of his Vietnam tour has proved a huge disaster among voters who are veterans. According to a new CBS poll, only 37% of vets now support Kerry compared with 46% immediately after the convention. Bush, despite his AWOL status during the same war, has moved up from 46% to 55%. . .

In short, this has been one of the great political missteps of recent years, a candidate who goes out and makes a big deal of a few months in his life only to have it backfire on him among the very voters he is trying to reach. . .

If Kerry had let others speak of his Vietnam activities, all might have been well. Instead, the candidate engaged in version of the maritime barroom trait known as telling "sea stories." Some of these may be true, but typically they are embellished for the benefit of the listener. A "sea story" is by definition an exaggerated version of events, not considered malicious but also not to be taken as the verbatim truth.

When the sea story involves one's own alleged heroism, however, the reaction of other vets can turn decidedly sour. Bill Mauldin said you could tell the hero in a bar because he was the morose guy in the corner by himself. George McGovern described them as the ones who came home dead.

Kerry broke the rules of the game by his bragging and now is paying the price. It doesn't matter that some of his critics are also telling sea stories or real untruths. He should have been smart enough to see it coming and avoided the temptation. Now his campaign and the nation are paying the price as one of the dumbest campaign gimmicks of recent times falls part. |||||

Kerry, like Obama, was trying to control his own myth. Unfortunately, it seldom works.

Obama has created another problem. Instead of coming up with a reasonable explanation of his relationship with Ayers, he has sent his troops out to intimidate media outlets that offer their own. As with the Kerry affair, some of these alternative stories are wrong but presumably being wrong will still be a protected right under an Obama administration. Or will it?

Writes Time: "The Obama campaign is fighting back against National Review writer Stanley Kurtz and his research into Obama's association with Bill Ayers. Kurtz was on WGN Radio's Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg tonight to discuss what he's found in the files at the University of Chicago. The Politico's Ben Smith has an email the Obama campaign has sent out to supporters hours ago asking them to call into the show. Here are some excerpts:

"'Tonight, WGN radio is giving right-wing hatchet man Stanley Kurtz a forum to air his baseless, fear-mongering terrorist smears. He's currently scheduled to spend a solid two-hour block from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. pushing lies, distortions, and manipulations about Barack and University of Illinois professor William Ayers. Tell WGN that by providing Kurtz with airtime, they are legitimizing baseless attacks from a smear-merchant and lowering the standards of political discourse. . . It is absolutely unacceptable that WGN would give a slimy character assassin like Kurtz time for his divisive, destructive ranting on our public airwaves. At the very least, they should offer sane, honest rebuttal to every one of Kurtz's lies.'"

In fact, according to Rosenberg's producer, the Obama campaign was invited to appear on the show with Kurtz but hung up on him.

When you combine this with the letter the campaign wrote to the Justice Department trying to stomp out a group running ads on the Ayers issue and the pressure being put on national media to avoid such ads, one gets an uncomfortable hint of what life might be like over the next eight years. Next to evangelical Christians, evangelical liberals are among the nation's most intolerant constituencies.

Besides it's stupid. I listened to a portion of the Kurtz interview and while I think he could make much better and more honest use of his time on this earth, there was nothing so astounding or outrageous as to have deserved the tactics of the Obama campaign, which, as Rosenberg noted, he hasn't seen in three decades on the air.

In short, Obama's avoidance of the issue and aggression in dealing with those who raise it merely keeps the matter alive. It's dumb politics driven by a campaign's overwrought sense of its own role in the universe.

In fact, anyone who spends a few minutes watching Obama knows that you don't need a weatherman to know which way his wind is blowing. The only thing he would ever bomb is his own chances.

August 14, 2008


Sam Smith - Since a young boy, I've been fascinated by multi-masted schooners. As a teenager on several Maine coastal cruises, I ranked sightings of the three-masted Victory Chimes - the last of her ilk - as among the high points. The purpose of these ships: a final effort to compete with the rise of steam vessels, and later with diesel.

Now comes word that, thanks to the cost of fuel, multi-masted sailing vessels are again being used. Tree Hugger reports that the Kathleen & May pulled into Dublin with 22 pallets carrying 21,000 bottles of Fair Wind Wine. The vessel is one of those owned by the Compagnie de Transport Maritime a la Voile which says that such carriers have one-seventh the carbon emissions of a container ship. (They still use diesel to run navigational aids and help them into port). The trip takes up to twice as long as a fuel-powered vessel but the wine companies get to put "Carried by sailing ship' on the label.

I learned about the unimportance of speed while serving an eccentric tour with the Coast Guard in St. Louis. The principle was simple: as long as the stuff kept coming it didn't make any difference how long one piece of it took to get where it was going.

Thus lethargic tows of football field proportions - with each barge carrying the equivalent of ten freight car loads - would plough quietly along, some carrying more cargo than all the steamboats of Mark Twain's day put together.

But there's also an irony for me in the return of the multi-masted schooner. My grandfather was president of the Coastwise Transportation Company, involved in a last ditch effort to provide sailing competition to steamships. The idea was to use coastal schooners of simple design with multiple masts that could be cheaply operated. Although these vessels seem exotic today, quite a few were built, 41 four to six masted schooners in Maine's Percy & Small shipyard alone. The company owned nine multi-masted ships, the grandest being the seven-masted Thomas W. Lawson. The masts carried only a mainsail and a topsail above the gaff. There were no square sails requiring large crews and all rigging could be raised and lowered by steam winches. Seven men could run the Lawson. There has been argument as to the names of the sails on this unusual rig. Some have said they each had a nautical name such as fore, main, mizzen, pusher, jigger, driver and spanker. Others said they were numbered. Still others said they were called after the days of the week.

In any case, no sailing ship like it was ever built before or after the Lawson. There was good reason. The ships were a disaster. Unwieldy and of marginal seaworthiness, the vessels were wrecked one by one.

In 1908, the treasurer of the company wrote the stockholders that the "common stock is absolutely valueless. . . As you are well aware, the past year has been a disastrous one for this company, the loss of the schooner Thomas W. Lawson and other vessels has seriously crippled us at the present time."

And now, exactly 100 years later, the circle has closed.

August 09, 2008


Sam Smith

The Edwards affair helps to explain my reputation as a doubter; and it provides added support for one of my basic journalistic principles: the quickest way to get into trouble into say something nice about a politician. As one whom I had once admired, Marion Barry, put it to another reporter, "Sam's a cynical cat."

In fact, the overwhelming proportion of my journalistic misjudgments have been the product of excessive optimism. So obvious is this statistical bias that I never compliment a politician anymore without considering the risk involved, the letters I will receive and the ridicule I may endure.

One of the ways I try to protect myself is by not fudging the story. Thus, I have noted of another recipient of Smithian praise, "If I find Ralph Nader driving a Hummer, I'm going to report it."

Which is one reason why the Review was among a tiny number of journals that reported last December on the National Enquirer's claims about John Edwards, even though I believed - and still do - that Edwards was the best Democratic candidate who stood a chance. The other reason was that I figured since those readers who went to conventional supermarkets had at least read the headlines in the checkout line, those readers who preferred Whole Foods should be given equal status.

As for the actual adulterous act, there has been a rush among lazy liberals to defend Edwards by comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt, JFK and Bill Clinton. On the surface there are similarities. And then some. For example, I knew a guy who as a young man drove Kennedy during a key portion of the 1960 campaign and was specifically instructed to make sure that Kennedy remained in his assigned locations and didn't make a tryst-bound escape. On at least one occasion, he failed

But there are also striking differences. For example, a Huffington huffer writes:

"Some will claim, as they did with Bill Clinton, that it's not the affair but the lies that went along with it. Really? Did JFK come out and tell the American people - or his wife - 'by the way, while my wife was in the hospital I was having an affair with not one, but several women at the same time?' No, of course, he lied too. Every man that has ever cheated on his wife has lied (and so has every woman who has ever cheated). It is part and parcel of the affair."

What is not mentioned, of course, is that JFK did not lie under oath to a grand jury, deny a former sex partner a fair court hearing, and end up being legally punished not for casual sex but for being a legally contemptuous prevaricator.

Liberal denial notwithstanding, the Clinton story is different in a number of other ways:

- Although unreported, the Clinton sex escapades were so chronic they bordered on the pathological, as when - according to one of his police drivers - he had sex in car next to his daughter's school playground.

- The women - all of whom were later deserted, rejected or ridiculed by the women's movement - suffered more than the normal pangs of male sexual opportunism. They felt threatened, sometimes with good cause as with the skull found on the porch or a bullet laid on the front seat of their vehicle. One felt compelled to leave the country, another to another state.

- As I noted early in his presidency, Clinton's Don Juanish sexual behavior mirrored his political actions. He was no more to be trusted in one type of affair than in the other.

There is, on these grounds alone, a world of difference between Edwards, FDR and JFK on the one hand, and Clinton on the other.

There is another: his affair aside, Edwards was a clearly positive force in America. He was the first Democratic presidential candidate since the 1960s who had both a chance of winning and a program that would was in the best tradition of the most for the most. A liberal constituency absorbed with its own success (not to mention the socio-economic cleansing of our cities) wasn't interested.

I am sometimes criticized for being too priggish about politicians and how they should behave. Far from it. Two of the leading political scoundrels of modern time - Lyndon Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell - got more good legislation past in less time than anyone in American history. I was there to cover the story and I learned from the experience not to expect perfection but compensation. Here's how I explained in later in writing about DC mayor Marion Barry:

"When Barry ran for mayoral reelection the last time, I took the position that I was all in favor of redemption; I just didn't see why you had to do it the mayor's office. I broke up one talk show host by suggesting that Barry follow the example of a recently disgraced Irish bishop and go help the Indians of Guatemala.

"On another talk show, Barry said that the press was always blaming him for all the city's problems. I said that wasn't fair; I only blamed him for 26.7% of the city's problems. 'I'll buy that,' Marion replied. . .

Yet I also knew that Barry - like other urban ethnic politicians - had far more to blame than himself. Whatever his faults, he knew he had been granted dispensation because - like a feudal lord - he provided significant favors in return. Barry had lived in Memphis and I often suspected he had learned his politics from Boss Trump. For he understood the quid pro quo of traditional urban corruption that had helped the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Poles break down the worst corruption of all - that of an elite unwilling to share its power with others. It was far from a perfect deal but in the interim before the 'reformers' seized office again on behalf of their developer and other business buddies, more people would get closer to power than they ever had or would again. It happened in Chicago, in Boston as well as in Washington under Barry.

"And now the reformers are back. The young gentrifiers who think the greatest two moments in the city's history are when Barry went to jail and when they arrived in town. And their politicians, who don't feel it necessary to even tithe to the people."

That's where we found ourselves earlier this year. Two candidates - Obama and Clinton - running overwhelming for themselves and another, Edwards, at least tithing to the people.

Most politicians, when they fall, seek some safe haven to enjoy the rest of their lives. A few, and I suspect that Edwards may be one, are spurred to seek redemption through their acts. In which case the act that brought them down can fade and we see the wonder of humans recovering their soul.

He is blessed by still being married to Elizabeth Edwards, the finest spirit to show up on the national campaign trail this year. I was also struck by something Edwards said, "In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic. If you want to beat me up - feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself. I have been stripped bare and will now work with everything I have to help my family and others who need my help."

It brought to mind a TV show where I had questioned Barry about his failure to apologize to the people of Washington DC for the harm he had done them. He went into a little spiel about his redemption ending by saying he hoped I would someday think him redeemed as well.

Afterwards, in the green room, I explained that I wasn't talking about his redemption but about the harm he had done the rest of us in the city. Isn't one of the 12 steps, I asked, that you deal with the damage you have done to others? Barry nodded and said "So you think I should apologize to them?" I said I thought it would help. But he never really did.

Bill Clinton, of course, never apologizes to anyone for anything. But a corner of my heart still whispers that Edwards could be different and that we may not have seen the best of him yet.