April 20, 2010


Sam Smith

The following memo was discovered in the White House desk of Oliver G.Chortlelywell, former presidential public relations adviser, shortly after he had resigned his post in order, as he put it, "to spend more time with my family and pursue other interests."


1. Stop behaving like a movie actor and start acting like a politician. The actor shtick worked fine to get you elected, but once in office people want a leader, not a leading man.

2. Specifically, knock off the repeated displays of your finger pressed against your cheek and other corny efforts to appear deeply thoughtful. People will judge your thoughtfulness by the results not by the warm-up.

3. No more jogging down the last few steps getting off Air Force 1 or when going up to the podium. Not even champion marathon runners do that and when you do it, you look like the host of a third rate cable TV show.

4. My surveys found that the only person in your administration most Americans would want to have a beer with is Joe Biden. Act more like Biden and less like Bismarck and you'll do better in the polls.

5. My surveys also found that it's not your ethnicity that's the big problem but class. Too many Americans think you belong to an elite class that not only is not theirs but one they don't like that much.

6. Worse, you seem to celebrate your membership in this subculture. Unfortunately, the unintended effect is that you often seem stuck up and to be lecturing or speaking down to your audience. I read about a drama teacher who taught a chief financial officer how to speak better by reading aloud the works of Dr. Seuss. Maybe you should give it a try.

7. To the extent that ethnicity is a problem, it is largely due to the fact that you have ignored the first rule for minority politicians in America: lead the majority. The Irish understood this instinctively but among black leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the few who had a feeling for it. That's why he's one of America's few cross-ethnic heroes. He consciously led not just blacks, but whites, into the future. Jesse Jackson, in his memorable presidential run, was on the same track, picking up surprising support from white farmers and other non-blacks who were struggling. So far you've done virtually nothing for strugglers of any color.

8. I noticed that you listed yourself as black on the census form. This is suggests another problem. Here you are - a biologic and cultural symbol of the growing multiculturalism with which America is struggling and you don't even want to even put in writing, let alone talk about it. This is a great lost opportunity. You could have personalized a new America, but you took what appeared to be the easy route.

9. Most folks think lawyers are people you go to for legal advice, not to tell them how to run their lives. You approach issues like a lawyer and not like a politician, which is a major reason you're in so much trouble. Design your policy based on what's good for the country and the people, then check to see if there are any legal problems. Stop doing it the other way around.

10. Although most don't know the term, you and your administration come across as higher functioning autistics - people with command over data and other information but unable to integrate it into normal human existence.

11. While we're on the subject, dump Arne Duncan. He's the worst of the lot. I heard him the other day answering a teacher who was complaining about excessive test taking by saying we needed better assessments. In other words, more tests. If you don't want to fire him, maybe he could undergo Asperger's therapy to help him learn that the important choices in life do not all begin with A., B., C. D. and blank boxes.

12. Keep it simple, keep clear and get it down to the 'hood. The only visible sign I can find of the stimulus package in my community is one-eight mile of road improvement. I think of the remaining two miles of bumps and holes as the part Obama forgot.

13. About this shovel ready business: how come public works had to be shovel ready but major healthcare reforms don't have to come in until 2014 or 2019? The future isn't always shovel ready, but people still like to know it's coming.

14. Thirty percent into your first term, ordinary people are still out of work, still without decent health care, and still in danger of foreclosure. All that many of them can see is the size of the deficit and where it is going - to Wall Street and not to help them. This is a major cause of their anger. Can't your brilliant Harvard and Yale assistants come up with one or two plans that will really make people feel better?

15. Your most effective campaign organization consists of other Democratic politicians. But your programs have given them little to brag about, your funding fails to get down to a level where they can take credit for it, and your policies are on verge of ending many of their careers. This is not good politics. Get things to their level and let them have a piece of the action and the glory and you'll find it will make you look a lot better than if you try to hog it all for your self.

16. If things don't improve, resign and let Joe Biden take over and appoint you to the Supreme Court. I think you'd be much happier there and so would be the better part of the American public.

April 19, 2010


Sam Smith

Depending on whether you watch Fox or MSNBC, either Barack Obama or the Tea Party crowd may seem terminally insane.

There is, however, a third alternative: that we've all gone a little nuts. A dysfunctional family with 300 million siblings.

It is tempting to choose sides when you see a woman interviewed by Greg Kaufmann of the Nation claiming that Obama's parents and his grandparents were communists. I don't believe even Joe McCarthy went that far.

On the other hand, the man of such allegedly dubious descent is also the one who has spent more federal funds than anyone in our history bailing out the fattest cats in the country, not to mention supervising the most poorly assembled legislation of supposedly good intent of modern times.

Think of it this way. You have been wrongly mistreated by your boss. You come home and have six whiskeys and don't show up for work for a week. Not a wise move, but the fact is that your boss did mistreat you. In other words, your poor reaction is not exculpation for the cause. The same is true for the Tea Party and what's going on in Washington. Under stress, people do strange things.

I learned long ago that this is a hazardous argument to make. David Carr, then editor of Washington City Paper, called me up about something. In the course of the interview, I mentioned that I had begun in journalism covering national affairs and then had started a community newspaper. One of the things I had to learn was not to treat the activists in the neighborhood as roughly as I had senators or cabinet members. Carr, who is now with the NY Times, got furious with me, called me condescending, and ended the interview.

It was a sign that I was getting out of touch with the direction of journalism. I had joined it as a trade or a craft, at a time when over half the reporters in the country only had a high school education. One of the assumptions was that reporters identified with the little guys and helped defend them against the trouble caused by the big guys. But now journalism had joined the big guys and so the unpowerful had shifted from being journalism's main client to being just another of its targets.

I wasn't - and still aren’t - ready to join. And so despite my substantial differences with the Tea Party, they're far from the top of my complaint list, well under, say, journalists who never explained to them what was really going on and liberals who would put up with anything as long as Barack Obama did it.

A couple of decades ago I described it this way, "This writer proposes to serve not as an expert, but rather in the more modest and, I would argue, more constructive journalistic role of being the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. Consider me simply someone who has traveled this trail several times before and thus might remember where the clean water is to be found, the names of some of the rarer plants and possibly even a shortcut home."

You can’t get much further from Glenn Beck and Chris Matthews than that. It describes an intermediary role for the journalist - finding connections between the grandiosity of policy or public events and the quiet humanity of private life.

Something similar has happened to politicians. They, too, once saw their role as to help connect the individual to the collective, to translate the obscurities of policy, to represent the small before the grand, and to serve as an ambassador from their district to whatever larger group they had been chosen to join.

But much has changed: the rise of the mass media, the centralization of corporate power, the replacement of votes with dollars as the driving force in elections, and a general disintegration of both the reality of, and appreciation for, community.

The typical politician no longer represents a constituency, but contributors.

The typical constituency is not a community to serve, but just another market to sell.

And the model is not that of old machines but of new media.

For all practical purposes, the politician - as a true representative of a group of citizens - has largely vanished, just as has the reporter serving as a true intermediary for the public.

The public is thus left on its own, flailing about with little assistance from those who once aided them. It is small wonder that strange things happen.

Or that some find comfort in misdirected anger, just as in a dysfunctional family.

But the answer is not to trade more misdirected anger, but in public figures - in politics, the media and other places - who can help us all find again the trail we have lost. Those who speak truth to power, and common sense to those without it. And who save their anger for those with the most ability to do something about it all.

April 16, 2010


SAM SMITH - Thanks to over-anxious liberals and MSNBC talk hosts using him to try to boost their own poor ratings, Glenn Beck has a far greater place in the media mythology than logic would suggest.

For example, American Idol gets 12 times as many viewers as does Beck, and we suspect that not even Simon Cowell remotely shares many of Beck's views.

House and Grey's Anatomy have 11 times as many viewers and Desperate Housewives gets 8 times as many.

Extreme Makeover has 6 times as many viewers and World Wrestling Raw has twice as many. Beck is also beaten by Hannah Montana, I Love New York and Sponge Bob Squarepants.

Less you think this is just a matter of age demographics, consider that American Idol gets four times as many viewers over the age of 50 as does Beck.

Part of the problem is that talk isn't all that popular and while Beck currently leads that noisy cable subculture, even he only reaches about one percent of the American population.

So stop getting so upset about Glenn Beck. If he was on a talk version of American Idol, he probably wouldn't even make it down to the final 12 and Simon would send him packing as nothing but a bad karaoke version of George Wallace.

April 13, 2010


SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES - There was another story that wound its way across the pages of The Idler. . .  It was first expressed in a moving fashion in letters written from Mississippi in the summer of 1964 by my college roommate, ex-wrestler and ex-paratrooper Gren Whitman. From Biloxi on August 8 he wrote:

|||| Fear cannot be described, only felt. I have been frightened many times In my life in varying degrees, in varying circumstances. And courage is not the absence of fear. Fear is the essence of courage. What are your emotions now, driving with us along a lonely highway in rural Mississippi, in an integrated car? It you are frightened, you are with friends, and you are sane. If you are not afraid, you know nothing about Mississippi. You have never heard of the Freedom Rides and how they ended in Jack-son. You have never heard of Herbert Lee and Louis Allen, and countless oth-ers. You have not heard of Neshoba County. You have never talked with a Mississippi Negro or a civil rights veteran.

And if your fear has overcome your convictions, you have no business with us. Go home.

Our three colored companions are profoundly aware that two whites are in the car with them and what this will mean if we are stopped for any reason. The two of us, likewise, know that though we are white, we become as black as tar once we are known to be CR types. White Mississippians make no distinctions. There is a strange and wonderful and, for you, a new bond between us, compounded of fear, and dedication and brotherhood. . . .

Our final stop is a colored settlement near a planing mill owned by a Mr. Black. Most of these people are his, tenants and employees, We know that he has told them not to talk to us and that they inform him each time we come around. So we keep our visit short. We talk quickly and to the point: "Join the Freedom Party. You need It. It needs you." No one signs. Few talk. James, sensing that someone has already headed to tell 'Mr. Charlie' that we're talking to "his niggers" says "let's go" and we git. Fast. There is always the next time. Folks have seen us, some have talked, however briefly. The precious seed Is planted. The freedom seed. ||||

In January 1965, I got a chance to help plant the seed. The notorious DC Transit wanted to raise its fares and the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had organized to stop it. They urged citizens with cars to drive bus passengers during a one-day boycott.

I joined the volunteers. On the morning of January 24, 1966, I hauled myself out of bed, swallowed a cup of coffee, warmed up my '54 Chrysler, and made my way to Sixth and H Streets Northeast, one of the assembly points for volunteer jitneys. A boycott organizer filled my car with three high school girls and a middle- aged and rather fat woman.

A bus drove by and it was empty. "They're all empty," the woman said, It was the first bus I had seen that morning and I wondered if she was right.

If both the fat lady and her husband worked, the five cent fare increase Chalk was seeking would cost them two week's worth of groceries over the course of a year.

I let my passengers off and headed back to Sixth and H. At Florida and New York, I counted five empty or near-empty buses. It wasn't even nine o'clock in the morning and the boycott was working,

"It's beautiful," the man in the slightly frayed brown overcoat said after he told me he was headed for Seventeenth Street. "It's working and it's beautiful. Hey, you see those two there. Let's try and get them."

I pulled over to the right lane by a stop where two men stood.

"Hey man, why spend thirty cents? Get in," my rider called to the pair.

"You headed downtown?"

"Yeah, get in."

"Great. It's working, huh? Great!"

At the delicatessen at Twenty-fourth and Benning, one of the assembly points, a young black who worked with SNCC greeted me: "Been waiting all morning for a car to work from here; said they were going to have one, but they didn't send it. Want a cup of coffee?"


"I'm tired, man. Been up all night down at the office. We got some threats. One bunch said they were going to bomb us, but they didn't."

We got into my car and continued east on Benning. Lots of empty buses.

"We've got to live together, man. You're white and you can't help it. I'm Negro and I can't help it. But we still can get along. That's the way I feel about it." I agreed.

"You ever worked with SNCC before?" "Nope," I said.

'Well, I'll tell you man, you hear a lot of things. But they're a good group. They stick together. You know, like if you get in trouble, you know they're going to be in there with you. If you get threatened they'll have people around you all the time. They stick together. That's good, man."

Later, I picked up a man at a downtown bus stop. The woman in the back seat asked him, "You weren't waiting for a bus, were you?"

"No. I just figured someone would come along and pick me up."

"That's good, 'cause if you were waiting for a bus I was going to bop you upside your head."

We all laughed and the man reassured her again.

"You know," the woman in back continued, "there were some of the girls at work who said they were going to ride the bus and they really made me mad. I thought I'd go get a big stick and stand at the bus stop and bop 'em one if they got on Mr. Chalk's buses. Some people just don't know how to cooperate. And you know, you don't have nothing in this world until you get people together. Hey, lookit over there, let's see if that guy's going out northeast."

People stuck together that Monday, I carried seventy-one people, only five of them white. SNCC estimated that DC Transit lost 130,000 to 150,000 fares during the boycott. Two days later, the transit commission, in a unanimous but only temporary decision, denied DC Transit the fare hike. The commission's executive director dryly told reporters that the boycott played no part in the decision. He was probably right. The commission worried about such things as cash dividends, investor's equity, rate of return, depreciated value, and company base. The boycotters worried about a nickel more a ride. And in the end, the commission was to approve the fare hike and then more; a few years later the fare was up to forty cents.

But the boycott was important, anyway. Never had so many Washingtonians done anything so irregular and contrary to official wishes. The assumption that DC residents would passively accept the injustices of their city was shattered. SNCC and the Free DC Movement had laid the groundwork for future action.

After the bus boycott, I wrote a letter to its leader congratulating him and offering to help in the future. Not long after the leader, Marion S. Barry, and his colleague, L. D. Pratt, were sitting in my living room talking about how I could help in SNCC's public relations. I readily agreed; for the first time in my life I had joined a movement.

Three years earlier Barry had quit his $5,500 a-year post teaching chemistry at Knoxville College in Tennessee and joined the SNCC. He was the group's first chair. He then showed up in Washington to head the local office. Barry early formed an improbable and ultimately nearly explosive partnership with an erstwhile farm implements manufacturer, salesman, self-styled nutrition expert, and economic theoretician named L. D. Pratt. Barry was lean, black, soft-spoken, self-contained, and given to wearing a straw plantation style hat; Pratt was husky, white, excitable, demonstrative, and covered his baldness with a felt fedora that made him appear a character out of a one-column cut in a forties edition of Time magazine.

Together they designed the boycott and a drive to win self-government for the colony of Washington. Although the life of the Free DC Movement would be measured in months, it seemed like years, for so much was crammed into its short existence. Barry and Pratt both worked themselves to the marrow and it was during those months that Barry first gained a long-lingering reputation for always being late for appointments, news conferences, and actions. "I work on CPT-- colored people's time," explained Barry. Part of my job was to stand on the street-corner and convince the press that Marion really would show up if they just waited a bit longer. The reporters would bitch, but since Barry was shaking up the city, they mostly waited anyhow.

Barry's subsequent moves in his drive for passage of right-to-vote legislation in Congress included an effort to get businessmen in downtown stores and along H Street (a black shopping area second only to downtown in commercial importance) to support the movement by displaying its sticker in their windows. Hundreds of orange and black stickers with the slogan "Free DC" below a shattered chain went up in store windows; but the threat of a business boycott led other merchants to cry blackmail, and some of the more traditional civil rights and home rule leaders began to back away from Barry's tough tactics.

In the coming months, Barry and his organization would disrupt the calm of the city with increasing frequency. A number of Free DC supporters were arrested at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. By the following fall, Barry would have been arrested three times, for failing to "move on," for disorderly conduct, and for holding a Free DC block party without official sanction.

Barry used his arrests to make points. After being arrested for failing to move on at a policeman's order, Barry said, "It is a bad law that gives policemen the sole discretion in such matters. Especially in Washington where the cops are so uneducated and awful. They use the law as a harassing device against Negroes." And he warned, less than two years before the 1968 riot, that the attitude of police might lead to an outbreak of racial violence.

While Barry was on the streets, on the tube, in court, and in jail, his associate, L. D. Pratt, was developing a reputation as the mystery man behind the operation dis-turbing the tranquility of the colonial capital.

Pratt refused to be interviewed by reporters and, although it was known that he was closely involved in designing the bus boycott, few knew who be was or what he was up to.

In fact, by the time Pratt was sixteen, he had lived in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Virginia, and Hyattsville, Maryland, a suburb of DC. He worked for a bank in Maryland, selling farm implements in the mid-west and trying to pull bankrupt businesses out of hock. At the time of the bus boycott, the 39-year-old Pratt was unemployed. His wife was supporting the family along with what money L. D. could bring by running a car pool. Meanwhile, when he wasn't involved in Free DC and SNCC business, he was at the Library of Congress studying food nutrition.

Pratt was fascinated by agriculture and agricultural problems. He wanted to revise the whole system and I never saw him more excited as when he developed plans, ultimately futile, for a takeover by civil rights and antipoverty groups of the multimillion dollar Greenbelt Consumer Services, one of the nation's earliest and most financially successful cooperatives.

Pratt mixed street jargon with academic terms in a cacophonic lingo all of his own: "Look, man, those cats gotta implode their power base before they do anything." He was an activist and a thinker; a short-term planner and a long-term dreamer.

The pair belied their public images. In person. Barry, the mortal threat to peace and order, was personally a gentle and quiet individual and Pratt, the mystery man, was, out of range of the press, open and loquacious.

Marion was leading a movement, but it had some of the intensity, closeness and spirit of a rebellion. Barry enlisted into the cause anyone he could find. You would be talking on the phone and a friendly special operator would break in with an "emergency call" and it would be Barry or Pratt or someone else with the latest crisis or plan. There were black cops who had been spiritually seconded to the movement and ministers who served as a link between the radical Barry and the more moderate civil rights movement and friendly reporters who still believed there was an objective difference between justice and injustice,. And through it all was movement, excitement and hope, not even dampened by the thirtieth chorus of "We Shall Overcome" sung in a church hall while waiting for Marion finally to show up.

Pratt described his relationship with Barry this way: "I am the theoretician and Marion is the practitioner. I just give suggestions and he makes the decisions. I re-spect his opinions more than my own."

Barry and Pratt not only upset policemen and government officials; they perturbed the established civil rights and home rule leadership in the city. While a few such leaders, Walter Fauntroy prime among them, were careful not to undercut Barry and provided as much help as they felt they could, others were plainly annoyed by the upstarts.

Tensions grew when the Free DC Movement decided to take on the White House Conference on Civil Rights that had been scheduled for May 1966. Barry planned to raise the issue of home rule at the conference and, in announcing the plans, chastised the moderate Coalition for Conscience for "wavering" in its support of the plan. Two days later the Washington Post reported, "Washington civil rights leaders yesterday pondered the future of the campaign for home rule in light of the growing independence on the part of Free D.C. Movement leader Marion Barry Jr. One leader said it appears that the movement was at 'the end of its relationship with the Coalition of Conscience,' the city's loosely knit confederation of ministers and civil rights groups."

But it was not just the Free DC's militancy and independence that upset the old leaders. They also were profoundly disturbed by the rise of the black power idea; Coalition co-chairman Channing Phillips stated, "The black nationalist stand of SNCC is inconsistent with the Coalition's philosophy."

Still, while the 20-something Barry was an anathema to the white business leaders and considered a rogue by the local civil rights establishment, as early as 1966 a poll found him ranked fifth by black residents as the person who had done the most for blacks in DC.

In SNCC and elsewhere, the spirit of black nationalism was indeed awakening. Black power had its roots in the deep frustration of the civil rights movement with the progress towards some sustainable form of equality. In 1963, Howard Zinn, then a professor at Spellman College, told a SNCC conference that the ballot box would not give blacks much power. Zinn said SNCC should build up "centers of power outside the official political mechanism."

This was a time when the official symbol of the Alabama Democratic Party included a banner reading "White Supremacy -- For the Right." The SNCC-organized Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had attempted to be seated at the national Democratic convention and was rebuffed, offered only two non-voting at-large seats to represent not just Mississippi all American blacks. SNCC communications director Julian Bond twice won election to the Georgia legislature, and twice that body refused to seat him. Jerry Demuth, writing in The Idler in October 1966 asked: "After Julian Bond, Atlantic City and the Alabama Democratic Party with its proclamation of white supremacy, what is there except a Black Panther Party?"

The voices of black power of the time were varied. Two months after being replaced as SNCC chair by the more militant Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis explained:

"I support the concept of black power and I have tried repeatedly to articulate it to people in terms they can understand, so that they will know it is for civil rights, not against whites."

The National Committee of Negro Churchmen of the National Council of Churches tried to combine black power and integration in an August 1965 newspaper ad:

"A more equal sharing of power is precisely what is required as the precondition of authentic human interaction. We understand the growing demand of Negro and white youth for a more honest kind of integration: one which increases rather than decreases the capacity of the disinherited to participate with power in all the structures of our common life. Without this capacity to participate with power -- i.e. to have some organized political and economic strength to really influence people with whom one interacts -- integration is not meaningful. For the issue is not one of racial balance but of honest racial interaction."

But this was a hope far from current reality and many more blacks listened to the view of Carmichael: "Integration is an insidious subterfuge for white supremacy." He told a crowd in Greenwood, MS, "We been saying 'freedom' for six years and we ain't got nothing. What we're gonna start saying now is 'Black Power.'"

The most important white at SNCC, L. D. Pratt, continued to play a important role for some time, but his ability to work with Barry declined sharply and, and after receiving physical threats dropped out of the local scene. . .

But before it was over, Barry and Pratt had one more "good shot," as L.D. liked to call them. Hauling an odd assortment of black and white activists off to a weekend retreat, the pair organized a lecture, seminar, and planning sessions to pave the way for a massive push against slum housing. In fact, that's what it was going to be called - PUSH, People United against Slum Housing. It would be no ordinary effort. Barry theorized that the reason slumlords were invulnerable was because protests were usually directed against only a small portion of their holdings. If you could uncover the full economic interests of a slumlord, Including his commercial holdings, you could organize an effective boycott against him.

From L. D.'s theoretical charts and Marion's discourse, the action moved to strange places like a hall at a Catholic woman's college where volunteers sorted out thousands of paper slips containing important information about DC eviction cases over the past two years, and the basement of the Court of General Sessions, where a friendly judge had permitted the group space to do its research closer to the source material. The little slips of paper slowly built up information concerning slumlords, lawyers, front corporations, and their interconnections. From the long tables in the basement of the Court of General Sessions, the slips went to the Recorder of Deeds office where more volunteers began arduously sifting through official records. The project never got much beyond that. Perhaps it fell of its own weight; the task of organizing all those slips of paper without a computer was staggering, Perhaps the separate directions in which various participants were rapidly going was a factor, In any event, the days of the Free DC Movement were just about over.

And sometime later, I attended a meeting in the basemen to the SNCC office. There were only a handful of whites there. Stokely Carmichael arrived and announced that whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement. My time with SNCC was over

When people would write about Marion Barry years later, they wouldn't mention the good part because they had never seen it. All they saw was the cynical, corroded shell of a man they hadn't known and thought it had been that way all along. Like an old car rusting in a pasture.

As Barry moved into politics, first on the school board, then the city council, then the mayor's office I had moved my support and enthusiasm with him, and without apologies. Once in the top job, however, his weaknesses quickly lost their constraints and whatever greatness Marion might have possessed started to disintegrate.

And yet I still think of the good years. The years in which Barry was one of a handful of people who made self-determination for DC possible, the years in which he was the voice of progress and sanity on the school board and city council. I think of a man who was willing to risk his life for the freedom of others, who was willing to go to jail on the chance it would help others gain a measure of liberty. And like Jack Burden writing of Willie Stark, "I have to believe he was a great man. What happened to his greatness is not the question. Perhaps he spilled it on the ground the way you spill a liquid when the bottle breaks. Perhaps he piled up his greatness and burnt it in one great blaze in the dark like a bonfire and then there wasn't anything but dark and the embers winking. Perhaps he could not tell his greatness from ungreatness and so mixed them together that what was adulterated was lost. But he had it. I must believe that."

On the wall of my office is an autographed bumper sticker from Marion's first campaign for mayor. It reads: "Barry -- the way things ought to be." In his last words Willie Stark said, "It might have been all different, Jack. You got to believe that."

April 11, 2010


Sam Smith

Liberalism is dead.

It started going into its final throes when liberals jumped aboard the Clinton campaign, claiming that the toy boy of the Democratic Abandonship Council was really a one of them. Later on, even the anti-worker and anti-environmental trade deals, the assault on welfare, and the deep corruption didn't dissuade them. They were, if you asked, "being realistic."

But if you go back just four years earlier, it becomes clear that the motivation wasn't realism but cowardice. The right had so frightened liberals that they would take anyone with a hyphen and a capital D after their name.

Just four years earlier, the Democratic liberal everyone likes to ridicule - Michael Dukakis - had done something neither the media nor the liberals will even mention today: he got a higher percentage of the vote than Clinton - 46% vs. 43% - and he got better percentages in such heartland states as Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming.

In fact, Clinton wouldn't have even made it to the White House if there hadn't been a split on the right thanks to Ross Perot. And Clinton only got two percentage points more than a real liberal - Walter Mondale - had when he ran against the invincible Ronald Reagan.

With the surrender to Clinton it was already clear that liberals had lost their purpose in life, which had once been to do the most for the most. Now they were just part of a sycophantic crowd, not unlike the audience at a Tyra Banks show.

What had caused this collapse? A major, and sadly ironic, explanation is that the paleo-liberals of the New Deal and Great Society had been so successful in advancing the status of their constituencies - including blacks, labor, women, and Jews - that those who had advanced the most became increasingly separated from less successful members of their own ilk and of the less successful generally. Thus the gap in America that liberals had once tried to close now existed even within its own ranks.

The result was an unhinging of the liberal constituency with decreasing interest by the liberal elite in the concerns of those they had left behind.

Because I grew up in a paleo-liberal family, I am acutely aware of the change. My father had been in the New Deal almost from the start and lasted into the Truman years. What a liberal was about was part of my being.

These folks made plenty of mistakes - including failing to move fast enough on civil rights as well as hyping the Cold War and downgrading civil liberties after Joe McCarthy accused them of being soft on communism - but one thing they got right. With programs like the minimum wage, protection of unions, Social Security and later, under LBJ, Medicare, liberals looked after the average folk.

Now, not only do they not serve the greater part of America, they don't even seem to like it all that much. They offer few policies on its behalf and they scold, ridicule, patronize and insult the very constituency that FDR and LBJ were so successful at reaching. Not too surprisingly, that constituency has gone looking elsewhere for friends.

And today's liberals don't even seem to care that much that it's happened. As a child of earlier liberal values, I don't even have to read op ed columns to find this out. I just feel it listening to liberals talk and watching what they do. They are no longer group leaders of progress but just more groupies of power, and we're all paying a huge price for this shift.

The 2008 election offered the last big opportunity for liberals to show their worth. They found their candidate, elected him and then continued cheering as he escalated the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, created a weak and ineffective economic recovery program, failed to deal with soaring foreclosures, announced plans for offshore oil drilling and a return of nuclear power, supported Israeli apartheid, signed an extension of the Patriot Act, approved unconstitutional wiretapping, opposed the protection of gay marriage, and created a huge new subsidy for private health insurers in the false name of universal healthcare.

In short liberals sold themselves out with Clinton and now have sold us out with Obama.

At present there is nothing that liberals have to offer. In fact they serve a negative function, as a form of political pornography that gets the right all excited. They are the dirty pictures that the Tea Parties show each other.

To be sure, liberals will continue to exist, but if we hold any hope of ending this country's three decade slide to the right, they can not serve as the main alternative to disaster.

You can call this alternative what you want, but I like the term progressive populism, which is to say a politics that is both progressive and also appeals to the American mainstream.

Central to this politics are the economic conditions of ordinary lives, the issue liberals have so strongly abandoned. As just a few examples, a progressive populist platform might include:

- A return to the 40 hour week established by the New Deal six decades ago. One recent survey found that 63% of Americans work more than a 40 hour week, with 40% working more than 50 hours a week. One reason for this: it save employers money on the anti-liberal private health insurance system that Obama has just boosted.

- A limit on credit card usury, such as a return to the sub-10% levels of the 1980s.

- Court-supervised restructuring of mortgages in foreclosure cases.

- A real public works program - such as one aimed as returning our rail system to its late 19th century level - emphasizing jobs and visible improvements to the lives of communities.

- A big growth in support for small business, largely ignored by both major parties.

- A single payer healthcare system.

- Support of community and state banks, cooperatives and other alternatives to the economic institutions that almost destroyed our economy.

A progressive populist politics would be based on respect for all Americans, not just those who meet the cultural, class or ideological standards of an elite. Unconvinced voters - from Tea Party members to the apathetic - would be regarded as a market and not a menace. It would be the job of the progressive populist politics to change their minds. This means replacing the MSNBC model of 'aren't they stupid' with what the Quakers called the concept of "reciprocal liberty," i.e. you can't have your freedom unless I have mine. In other words, all sides need to rediscover the idea of tolerance towards those with whom we disagree.

There is nothing to be gained by simply being the mirror image of the Tea Parties, but a lot to be gained by changing the nature and tone of the debate. There is also absolutely nothing wrong with going after Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, but to declare all their fans terminally ill is the death knell for one's own politics.

Another key element of a progressive populist politics would be respect for the small. Because the liberal elite has been trained to work in large institutions it has come to think size is the best way to get things done. This bias can be felt strongly in the policies of the Obama administration and in the attacks on any who support the Tenth Amendment that accuses them essentially of being new age states rights segregationists. This is not only factually wrong, it is politically stupid, because people in this country strongly rate their state and local government better than the feds.

There was nothing in the historic liberal canon that require such contempt for distributing government to its most effective level. In fact, the best of old time liberal politics had as one of its key questions: how do we get this down to the street? One answer, of course, was to not make all the decisions at the federal level, but to let your party's mayors and governors strut their stuff.

There is further a huge difference between the protection of a universal right, properly a federal role, and the distribution of ordinary services, which is pragmatically done at various levels.

It is interesting to note that Obama appears headed for a mid-term election disaster similar to that of Bill Clinton's. By the end of Clinton's second term, the Democrats has lost 48 seats in the House, 8 seats in the Senate, 11 governorships, 1254 state legislative seats and 9 legislatures .439 elected Democrats had joined the Republican Party while only three Republican officeholders had gone the other way. And to this day, both liberals and other Democrats refuse to even notice that it happened. They like local lettuce - but not local politics.

Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that both Clinton and Obama suffer from a political narcissism that defines success as a personal possession rather than as a national benefit, which is not only bad for the country, it's terrible for their own party. Obama might well listen to the tapes of Lyndon Johnson, late in the evening after winning the 1964 election, calling politicians around the country to thank them for their help. After talking to a county chair in Texas, he asks - by name - for his wife. He then tells her how wonderful her husband has been. There was a politician who knew the importance of the small yet got more national progressive bills passed in less time than we may ever see again.

Economic improvement, treating voters decently, and respect for the small in government. Just three good principles to help get a new politics going.

And a lot of it has to do with style and tone. For example, ending imperial warfare may sound great in Manhattan but not so good in Butte. But what about a demand to return to the governors their control over the National Guard in their state? That would accomplish some of the same thing. In other words, progressive populism must speak United States, not PBS News Hour.

We also need to dump vetted ideology for pragmatic alliances based on issues. The media and our leaders want us to treat politics like a religion, but in real life one agrees with some people sometimes and not at other times. There is no reason why progressive populism can't have as allies at various moments - Greens, Libertarians, liberals and even Tea Party members.

We find this strange, but historically it isn't. Take for example the Socialist Party. From the beginning the Socialist Party was an ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of "reform vs. revolution," the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making "immediate demands" of a reformist nature. The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of "building the new society within the shell of the old."

Creating a new movement won't be easy. God knows, I know. Way back in 1965 I wrote an article headlined, "Where are the Gutbucket Liberals?" - back when I didn't even think Johnson was moving fast enough. I said:

|||| Perhaps the saddest of the lot is the professional Washington liberal. He is the most vocal in his claim of liberalism and quickest to accede to the whims of the illiberal. The professional Washington liberal attends White House conferences on this and that, writes articles for the press, testifies before congressional committees, and feels proud when he can help tack on fifty million dollars to a piece of constructive-sounding legislation. Yet give him a legislative placebo to salve his conscience and he will beat his reactionary compatriot to the Chevy Chase Club by a half hour every time.

Though his language is rife with intellectual cliches and jargon, he and his brothers throughout the land pride themselves on their intellectual command of the complexities of our society.

No mere men of action are they, no scummy populists or red-faced, raspy-voiced demagogues of the rabble, but deep-dish thinkers tackling the intricate philosophical and sociological problems of America.

Yet, on those uncomfortable occasions when the liberals are dragged down to reality, they suddenly forget their ideological commitments and rush to support third-rate programs in the interest of - as they say - "getting the camel's nose under the tent."

Then, when the wrong camel's nose gets under the wrong tent, they return to their seminars to wonder amongst themselves what it is that is wrong with society.

Among the things that are wrong with society are that the liberals have accepted the limited goals of a national front government: they suffer from the torpor of excessive intellectualism: and they seem congenitally unwilling to come out swinging for programs our country obviously requires.

What we need is more gutbucket liberalism: more down-to-earth struggles in the tradition of the best of the early Progressive movements: more liberal politicians willing to say "I'd rather be right than regular;" and more without embarrassment fighting in the interests of the little people of America. ||||

And then in 2002 after Bush had won:

|||| For the [Democratic] party to recover, it must divorce itself from the con men who have done it so much damage. It must find its way back to the gutbucket, pragmatic populism that gave this country Social Security, a minimum wage, veterans' programs, the FHA, civil rights, and the war on poverty. It must jettison its self-defeating snobbism towards Americans who go to church or own a gun. It needs to be as useful to the voter in the cubicle as it once was to the voter on the assembly line. It must find a soul, a passion, and a sense of itself. Most of all, it must get rid of those false prophets and phony friends who have not only done it so much damage but have left the country fully in the hands of the cruel, the selfish, the violent, the dumb, and the anti-democratic."||||
So, yes, I repeat myself. But time is running out so perhaps yet another plea in the dark may be forgiven. Are there any other progressive populists in the room?

April 07, 2010



IN READING some education gobbledygook, I came across abbreviations with which I was not familiar - LEA and PLC - that the writers presumed any intelligent person would know.

In pre-Duncan, pre-No Child America, it was generally thought that one should spell out a phrase before you used its initials. Then there came the legalistic technique of including both the phrase and the initials - as if the reader couldn't decipher which were the first letters of the relevant words - as in United States of America (USA).

Now we're just meant to know that LEA and PLC are. This, I suspect, is more than a minor metaphor for what has happened to public education: it's become a bureaucratic insiders' game and rest home instead of a gift to all humanity.

I first became aware of this when I began seeing school buses with the letters SAD on them. What I initially thought was a slander against the young occupants was only an unexplained abbreviation for School Administrative District. 

I figured out LEA with a little googling. In this case it was apparently not a law enforcement administration or the Lutheran Educational Association but a "local education authority."

PLC turned out to be a "professional learning community." What in God's name was this? An attempt to include charter schools and public schools under the same moniker? A place you went to become a lawyer or an accountant? An effort to distinguish such places from the growing number of insidious amateur learning communities?

I turned to that guru of the blackboard and other school-like matters, Susan Ohanian, who explained it this way:

"It's educationese for professional learning community. A school proves it's 'in the know' by having teachers form these small groups that plan together - 6 to 8 teachers working together. Or a whole school can declare itself a PLC, meaning they claim to take responsibility for student learning: "Members work together to clarify exactly what each student must learn, monitor each student's learning on a timely basis, provide systematic interventions that ensure students receive additional time and support for learning when they struggle, and extend and enrich learning when students have already mastered the intended outcomes."

And here I thought the word 'school' covered that pretty well. Oh well, WTF.

April 06, 2010


RADAR - Remember Elian Gonzalez? He was the kid at the center of an international controversy in November of 1999 when he was found floating off the Florida coast in an inner tube, and eventually taken from the custody of relatives in Miami only to be returned to his father in his homeland of Cuba in April of 2000.

A new picture released by Cuban officials [shows] Elian, now 16, clad in an olive-green military school uniform attending a Young Communist Union congress in Havana last weekend.

Since Elian was returned, his father Juan Miguel Gonzalez, a one-time restaurant employee, was elected to Cuba's parliament. Elian remains a popular political symbol in the Communist land, where his December 7 birthday is celebrated with annual parades

SAM SMITH, 2000 - Early in the Elian caper, your editor was asked whether he and his wife would be willing to rent their house to provide shelter for the Cuban tike and as many of his nuclear family, classmates, physicians and so forth as could squeeze in. My keen journalistic nose sniffed a possible story and besides the suggested rent intrigued me.

But I had married the virtue, good sense, and neighborly consideration that I lacked and so the notion was soon deflated. I did, however, suggest to my cut-out that Elian consider Rosedale, a nearby estate owned by Youth for Understanding. It was, I suggested, ideal for the purpose since it was probably already well wired to the Central Intelligence Agency.

In Washington, you develop a sense for such things. In individuals it is suggested by a certain vague and antiseptic charm, in organizations by a certain vague and antiseptic languor about matters of normal concern, such as public relations and fund-raising. Youth for Understanding, a well-endowed student exchange program, was started in the early 1950s during a time when the agency was being especially solicitous towards the young, co-opting the National Student Association, dragooning Europe-bound Ivy Leaguers and so forth. Among the rogue influences it presumably wished to counter was that of the Experiment in International Living, a progressive exchange program favored by students not all that interested in joining the establishment. YFU became an establishment alternative to the experiment.

If you go to the Youth for Understanding web site today you will find a list of corporate sponsors, a mission statement, and information for students and host families. Absent, however, is any indication of what this group really is and who runs it. Trustees and staff, for example, are not listed.

So why would your editor, of all people, propose such a locale? The story goes back 25 years when Rosedale was owned by the National Cathedral. It had been used as a boarding campus for wealthy southern Episcopalian girls attending the National Cathedral School. The DC riots of 1968, however, had dampened white southern enthusiasm for Washington and the Cathedral found itself with, so to speak, a very white elephant

At the time, I was one of 300 advisory neighborhood commissioners elected in the city. Since the commissioner idea had been one of my pet projects, I took my responsibilities seriously, never more so than when word came that the National Cathedral planned to sell beautiful Rosedale to the Bulgarians for an embassy and chancery. The neighbors were beside themselves, their favorite position, and I was more than willing to join the fray.

Although the sales price of houses in Cleveland Park in those days were one to two digits fewer than today, the neighborhood was already filling up with lawyers. Among their civic functions was developing a standard for membership in the neighborhood's small club, carefully crafted to exclude group rentals but not gays: "A member shall consist of an adult person and his or her spouse, or such other person acting substantially in the capacity of spouse. . . "

There were still plenty of non-lawyers, such as the man in the back of the room who, upon hearing the above at first reading, asked: "How can we tell?"

Whatever our skills, we set about with vigor to block the Cathedral's plan. A member of the family that had formerly owned the land spoke wistfully of it having been passed to the church "in Christian trust." Terry Lenzner's father-in-law provided counsel not only on commercial, but canonical, law. For my part, as a recovering Episcopalian turned navipasqua (one who goes to church only on Christmas and Easter), I was more than happy to take on the bishop. This was, after all, a religion that included among its sins acts of supererogation -- which is to say doing more good works than the lord demands of you -- clearly not a faith to be trusted in an planning dispute.

We finally bearded the bishop in a crowded meeting at St. Alban's school. Noting that the bishop was seated between his treasurer, a CIA official, and the head of his foundation, another agency man, I prefaced my remarks by telling Bishop William Creighton that it looked as if the score was Caesar 2, God 1. Creighton did not flinch but when it was his turn to speak, he pulled out the stops, suggesting an anti-Eastern European tenor to the community's opposition. When it was my turn, I looked Creighton right in the eye and told him what I thought of the charge, concluding that "on the whole, I have been treated better by Bulgarians than by Episcopalians."

And I wasn't the most vociferous. Still, the Cathedral held its ground until someone uncovered an ancient written agreement that the Cathedral would not act except upon consultation with the neighborhood. The moral hand passed to our side and it was not long before Ambassador Popov and his embassy were gone and Youth For Understanding was making an offer, encouraged -- I did not doubt -- by the two agency men at the head table, Robert Amory and Richard Drain.

I considered myself a practical pol, however, and had no objections to replacing high-rise diplomats with low-rise spooks. All we now wanted was the historic right of residents and their dogs to wander across the grounds. The easements were eventually signed and the neighborhood enjoyed 25 years of what amounted to a private park. It was the scene of touch football games and amorous assignments and floating frisbees. Our Labrador retriever, Chebeague, learned her brand identity at Rosedale, developing such misplaced skill that she once escaped early in the morning to retrieve not only our newspaper, but that of five neighbors as well.

With so much happy use, it would be wrong to begrudge Elian an opportunity to enjoy it as well. But he will not come alone, he will be accompanied by men in black vans, big guns, and bland faces whom we will be paying (for reasons that remain uncertain) to protect a Cuban kid the way they protect, say, a vice president or a cabinet official. They will undoubtedly tell the neighbors that they can no longer use Rosedale as they have in the past. And the same rules will apply to dogs. The day-glo green tennis balls will thus remain unmasticated behind bushes and in crevices until the administration and the courts figure out finally what to do about Elian.

I have already apologized to one neighbor for having ever suggested Rosedale, although it was probably far from a unique idea. As former commissioner of District 7C, however, I also strongly suggested a review by a dog-owning attorney of the relevant easements, particularly those sections relating to the rights of canines. Perhaps the park could be divided in two -- a dog walk and an Elian walk. In any event, it is only fair that Elian -- just like every other foreign visitor over the past two decades -- share Rosedale with the neighbors and their dogs. No issue is so important that it justifies denying a dog's place in the sun.

LATER: As suggested by the Review, the authorities have established separate dog and Elian runs at the Rosedale estate where Clinton's favorite Cuban is housed these days. Yellow police tape separate the two, and because dogs tend to ignore even automatic weapons, the dogs are required to be on a leash. . .

Now our special correspondent on the scene files this report: "The running dogs of Cleveland Park occasionally slip the leash and make a dash for freedom under the tape. So far, most if not all have been called back before agents could unhouse their weapons from the discreet pouches they carry to conceal the hardware.

BEFORE ELIAN left our hood, there was a party for he and his father, with the kids in the basement and adults upstairs. I had a pleasant talk with Sr. Gonzalez, and told him of my plan for Cuban economic success once the barriers between our countries were lowered: they should sell their magnificent collection of old cars for high prices. He understood exactly since he owned a classic 1950s vehicle .


Sam Smith

Chris Matthews and David Corn have gotten extremely upset about the use of the word "regime" to refer to the Obama administration. You might even call them regimaphobes or anti-regime extremists or regime conspiracy theorists - that is if you write like Chris Matthews and David Corn.

Corn thinks those who use the term "regime" are dangerous because "extreme rhetoric can lead to extreme action" and he adds,  "to those who accused Chris Matthews and me of being too tough on Republicans, I say: If you lie down with "Nazi"-chanters, you get up with a responsibility for what they might do."

Matthews was even more upset: "I've never seen language like this in the American press - referring to an elected representative government, elected in a totally fair, democratic, American election -- we will have another one in November, we'll have another one for president in a couple years -- fair, free, and wonderful democracy we have in this country. . . We know that word, 'regime.' It was used by George Bush, 'regime change.' You go to war with regimes. Regimes are tyrannies. They're juntas. They're military coups. The use of the word 'regime' in American political parlance is unacceptable, and someone should tell the walrus [Limbaugh] to stop using it."

Leaving aside the fact that Matthews is forgetful as well as inaccurate - he used the term "Bush regime" at least once - there are two reasons the pair strike me as extremists (albeit just dumb, not dangerous) on the topic.

The first is that I was either the first, or one of the first, to use the term to describe what was happening under Bill Clinton. I then followed the practice with George Bush.

It seemed that we needed a new term to describe administrations run by corrupt power hogs and, contrary to Chris Matthews' claim, there was nothing "totally fair" and democratic about American elections.

In 1997, I offered the notion of mob politics as having gained a foothold with Jack Kennedy and had been growing ever since. For example, the 1960 election, the Castro assassination attempts, the Bay of Pigs, and perhaps even Kennedy's assassination had mob connections.

Under Nixon, we had CHAOS, a massive covert program of spying on, and disruption of, progressive groups. Nixon conducted a secret illegal war in Cambodia and planned the demise of democracy in Chile along with the assassination of its president. Watergate was the biggest presidential scandal yet in American history

Under Reagan, we had the S&L and BCCI scandals. We had Iran-Contra, the flourishing of the western hemispheric drug trade, domestic spying and the "continuity in government" scheme.

Under Daddy Bush we had the Iran-Contra cover-up, BCCI cover-up and S&L cover-up. George Bush, the first ex-CIA operative and director to be elected president, presided during an extensive cover-up of the Iran-Contra affair. Also under Bush, the lid was kept on the more embarrassing aspects of the BCCI scandal. Most of those involved in the S&L scandals also went unpunished. Other individuals and corporations picked up distressed property at fire sale prices while the taxpayers footed the bill.

And with Clinton we had administration officials and close friends of the president involved in complex and sprawling scandals growing out of Arkansas mob politics. Allegations included financial misdeeds, drug running, abuse of FBI files and obstruction of justice.

Add to this the steady disappearance of constitutional protections and it all made "regime" seem like a pretty good word.

But if Corn and Matthews want to pretend that none of this happened, then they should at least check the dictionary. Here's how Wikipedia describes it:

"In politics, a regime is the form of government: the set of rules, cultural or social norms, etc. that regulate the operation of government and its interactions with society. For instance, the United States has one of the oldest regimes still active in the world, dating to the ratification of its Constitution in 1789. Although modern usage often gives the term a negative connotation, like an authoritarian one, Webster's definition clearly states that the word 'regime' refers simply to a form of government."

On one point, however, I agree with this pair of liberal scolds. Obama's operation does not yet deserve the title of regime. A regime implies order and discipline. Obama's administration is much to closer to what I have dubbed an "adhocracy," in which those in power play it all by ear - a particularly dangerous activity when, like Obama and his buddies, one is tone deaf.