Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Taming of the Shrew

We had front row center seats last night to see the Shakespeare Theater Company’s production of The Taming of the Shrew and to simply say it was good doesn’t do it justice.  It was the finest Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen.  The entire cast was brilliant, highlighted by Ian Merrill Peakes’s bravura performance as Petruchio, a performance that, had it been delivered in a big budget Broadway production, would have won him a Tony.  My facial muscles hurt by the final curtain because I’d spent the entire show grinning from ear to ear.  It was riotous, rip-roaring fun and it answered the question of why we (or anyway, I) go to the theater: to enjoy that feeling of giddy delight that only a live theatrical performance of this kind can deliver.  See it if you can.     

Can Obama move to the center?

There is now a common consensus among conservatives, independents, and even many liberals that if Barack Obama is to recover from his summer of discontent he will have to move to the center and forge a consensus that can be supported by a majority of Americans. In a post over at Contentions, Jennifer Rubin (who is fast becoming my favorite blogger) this morning references a column in the Washington Post which gathers advice for Obama on how he can recover his mojo. She excerpts from the Post column this advice from Newt Gingrich:

Obama faces a choice: He can attempt to run a left-wing government against the American people. Or he can govern from the center with a large majority of Americans supporting him. He can have either his left angry or the American people angry. We will know in September which choice he has made.

Ms. Rubin then observes correctly:

And that is really what it’s all about. Analysts and pollsters will give suggestions on rhetoric or strategy, but Obama’s dilemma is a philosophical one. He’s shown himself to be a far-Left liberal, and the country doesn’t like it. He can keep at it and try to muscle through the top agenda items on the liberal wish list, putting at risk his congressional majority and his own popularity (what remains of it). Or he can swing back to the center, start over on health care, put aside cap-and-trade, come up with a tax-reform and tax-relief plan, and get serious about spending control. That would require a heartfelt realization that his agenda is too radical and will, over time, erode his standing and potentially render him a one-term president.

But will Obama make the move to the center? Can he? I myself have mentioned a few times over the past couple of weeks that I’m not sure an individual as intellectually cloistered and morally arrogant as Obama can bring himself to compromise. Ms. Rubin harbors her own doubts:

I suspect that so long as there are allies and advisers whispering in his ear that all he needs is some rhetorical tweaking, we won’t see anything approaching a substantive revision of his agenda. If the president doesn’t correct course, the voters may do it for him in 2010. But for now, don’t get your hopes up for a swing to the center. After all, Obama is being told, and no doubt believes, that the mantle of liberalism has been passed to him from Ted Kennedy. He won’t give it up—unless the voters force him to.

As Newt Gingrich says, it won’t be long before we find out.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989

I received my copy of Steve Hayward’s The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989 from Amazon the other day and I’m 100 pages into it.  So far it is as good as the first volume, which I blogged about here.  Fascinating stuff.  We’re going to see The Taming of The Shrew at the Shakespeare Theater’s summer free-for-all tonight (front row seats!) but other than that, for the rest of the weekend, I’ll be the guy on the couch.   

Mad Men: Love Among the Ruins

“New York City is in decay” – Don Draper

New York City was indeed in decay in 1963, the year in which season three of Mad Men is set.  Liberal social and economic policies had begun to take its toll, sending the city into a downward spiral marked by two decades of rampant crime, disillusionment, and near bankruptcy.  Don utters the line during a conversation with the head of the organization that is about to tear down the old Pennsylvania Railroad Station and replace it with the new Madison Square Garden.  Now, New York has always been famous for its unsentimental attitude towards its historical architecture, tearing down and building back up at will, always in the name of progress, and nearly always with the approval of its denizens.  But no other episode in its history has shown the downside of this attitude as the tearing down of Penn Station.  This:

was replaced with this:

Is it any wonder the Penn Station episode caused such furor among the natives?  Recall architect Vincent Skully’s famous quote comparing the new and old buildings: “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” 

The grief over the loss of such a grand building is conveyed in last week’s episode of Mad Men by Paul Kinsey, the beatnik-wannabe in resident.  But Mad Men, as is its norm, refuses to come down on one side or the other.  For everyone else at Sterling-Cooper, if it means more business in the form of a relationship with the owners of the new Garden, tearing down Penn Station is a good thing.  The only hint that the producers may be sympathetic to the Paul Kinsey side of the argument is that the demolition plays such a large part of an episode entitled “Love Among the Ruins,” inspired by a Robert Browning poem of the same name whose subject is that of two lovers who meet in a turret of the last remaining tower of a once great city, now overrun with nature:

That a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair
Waits me there
In the turret whence the charioteers caught soul
For the goal,
When the king looked, where she looks now, breathless, dumb
Till I come….

But he looked upon the city, every side,
Far and wide,
All the mountains topped with temples, all the glades'
All the causeys, bridges, aqueducts,--and then,
All the men!
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
Either hand
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
Of my face,
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
Each on each.

Like the lovers in the poem, the characters in this episode of Mad Men are shown searching for love and fulfillment amidst a decaying city.  It does not come so easy for them as the poem’s narrator.

The largest part of the story, I think, was the sexual awakening of Peggy Olson.  The early Peggy was sexually naive to the point that she didn’t even know she was pregnant until she was about to give birth.  Her prudish nature otherwise has been well-documented through the series run, and it is reinforced in “Love Among the Ruins” in her reaction to Ann Margaret’s performance in the Bye, Bye, Birdie ad.  She seems threatened by both it and the men’s reaction to it, especially Don’s.  But when she notices how men react to Joan’s flirtations she goes home and sings Bye, Bye, Birdie in front of her mirror – she’s seeing if she can be that girl, the kind of girl Ann Margaret was portraying.  And she can.  Later on she picks up a young man at a bar.  She does the picking up as he seems almost incapable of it – she seems worlds more experienced than he.  Later at his apartment when he doesn’t have “a Trojan” and she refuses intercourse, he is ready to dismiss her (“It’s getting late”), but she is the one who suggests “there are other things we can do.”  As she leaves, he drops hints that he’d like to see her again, which she ignores.  On the way out the door, though, she turns back and says, “This was fun.”  While Peggy has grown and matured in front of our eyes the past few years, it is unimaginable that she would have said something like that, or acted like this, in season one or even season two.  She is a harbinger of the sexual revolution to come within the next few years.

But in 1963, some of the old attitudes still survive, even on Madison Avenue.  Roger Sterling’s divorce and remarriage to a girl young enough to be his daughter has cost him respect.  His daughter, Joan Holloway, Bert Cooper, and even Don all have new attitudes towards him – they see him as frivolous, or worse.  The most interesting part of this new attitude is how his relationship with Don will be affected.  At the restaurant meeting with the Madison Square Garden executive, Don’s contempt for Roger is barely disguised. 

Another aspect of how the episode shows “Love Among the Ruins” is the date set for Roger’s daughter’s wedding: November 23, 1963.  President Kennedy will be assassinated the day before her wedding and one has to think that, due to this, there might not even be a wedding.  Even if there is, it will be against the background of national grief and mourning.  Love among the ruins, indeed.   

As for Don, he continues his attempt to be a good husband.  He intercedes in the disagreement between Betty and her brother about what to do about their ailing father, telling the brother how it will be.  Don does the right thing, taking the old man into his home.  Don Draper, the serial adulterer, often does the right thing.  In many ways he is the most sympathetic and humane of all the characters on Mad Men.  Witness his reaction last season to the younger associate’s jokes about Freddy Rumsen and this season to his discovery of Sal Romano’s homosexuality.

Still, he struggles.  At the outdoor Maypole event, Don lapses into reverie about his daughter’s young teacher, a young pre-hippy type, watching her intently as she circles the pole.  Almost subconsciously, he reaches down with his hand to touch the grass, caressing it, getting in touch with the earth.  It’s a startling effective scene.  You can feel the summer heat, you can feel Don’s desire.  Mad Men does scenes like this, scenes with subtle, subliminal messages, told without words or with words that obscure the scene’s true meaning, better than any show in television history. 

The final scene is another example of this.  The show ends with a sort of rapprochement between Don and Peggy, as she comes to his office to discuss a Pampers ad.  They sit together, wordless, until the picture cuts away to black.  The two characters with the most to hide, with the most formidable facades, share a common bond, one that need not be spoken about or acknowledged, but one they are aware of nonetheless.  Every scene with these two alone together has echoes of the flashback scene is season two when Don visits a disoriented Peggy in the hospital and tells her to get up and get out of the hospital and get on with her life.  “This never happened.  You’ll be shocked how much it never happened.” 

Much, much more went on in this episode but since I have other things to do today I better end it here.  I wish I could get to these Mad Men reviews earlier in the week but having a full-time job gets in the way.  I’m a slow writer and I don’t have time to get to them during the week.  Anyhow, I’m enjoying writing them but they will necessarily have to wait until the following weekend. 

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ellie Greenwich, RIP

Had she done nothing else in life other than pen Be My Baby, Ellie Greenwich would still deserve a revered place in rock and roll history for it is, as Brian Wilson said long ago, “the perfect rock and roll song.”  If you’re a reader of this blog you already know that I agree with this opinion: I declared my own love for the song in this space long ago, and my wife and I considered it “our song” during the early years of our love affair. 

It was my beautiful bride who called me at work yesterday to break the sad news of Ms. Greenwich’s death earlier this week.  When I began to list off for her some of Ms. Greenwich’s other songs - “Chapel of Love,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Baby, I Love You,” and more, my wife, no great lover of rock and roll but one who has a native instinct for the beautiful, said, “There’s something pure about her melodies.”  Indeed.  Brian Wilson said something similar: “"She was the greatest melody writer of all time."  Wilson’s love for “Be My Baby” is well documented and he would spend his career as leader of the Beach Boys trying to match it.  He famously wrote the Beach Boys finest song, “Don’t Worry Baby,” as an answer, and tribute, to “Be My Baby.”  I’ve always thought The Beatles were also paying tribute to it in “What You’re Doing.”  Both songs are great; neither match “Be My Baby.”  Nothing could.   

Of all The Brill Building writers, only Carole King can be considered an equal.  Both Greenwich and King wrote with their then husbands, Jeff Barry and Gerry Goffin, respectively, the woman writing the tunes and the men the lyrics.  Ms. King is famous now, of course, because she went on to have a very successful solo career, releasing on of the most popular albums of all time, Tapestry.  Ms. Greenwich, while remaining successful in the music business after the Girl Group moment, never achieved anything like the fame Ms. King did.  It is nice to see that she is now being recognized for her supreme talent in so many obituary tributes over the past few days.  This one from the Washington Post sums up her career very nicely, and there are many others available through a simple Google of her name.

While the records ultimately had the names of the girl group or other singer on them (The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Righteous Brothers, The Shirelles, The Shangri-Las, Darlene Love, etc.,) though they were recognized, correctly, as the product of the great authoritarian producers of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s (George Goldner, Shadow Morton, Phil Spector), it was the Brill Building writers who gave them the raw material to craft some of the finest songs ever recorded, songs that would define an era.  As critic Greil Marcus said long ago, if you were looking for rock and roll between Elvis and The Beatles, you found it at the Brill Building.  And no one there did it better than Ellie Greenwich.  Gone, too young, at 69.  RIP.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Turning Point

For me it was 1987.  I’d been a conservative for some time but a naive one.  I had my views, the other side had theirs, let’s debate the issues and may the best man win.  Then came the Bork nomination.  Robert Bork was then, and may still be now, the finest legal thinker we have in this country.  A lifelong scholar, a brilliant mind, a long and distinguished career in the law - no one was more qualified to serve on the court.  The character assassination campaign he endured from the left, now widely believed to be one of the low points in modern American politics, was shocking to me.  It was the point in my political education when I realized the other side did not deal in good faith, was not interested in open and honest debate, and would stop at nothing to get what it wanted, even if it meant the destruction of a honorable man’s reputation.  Judge Bork’s nomination would, of course, ultimately go down to defeat in the Senate due to nothing more than the vitriolic lies spewed out by his enemies.  I’ve never viewed the left in this country the same since. 

And if the campaign to destroy Judge Bork had a leader, it was Ted Kennedy:

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit down at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of democracy.

Ted Kennedy has just passed so I will not elaborate now out of respect for the dead.  Before we all get caught up in the media’s adoring tributes to him, I would urge you to read the following:

And finally, this GQ expose from 1990 by the late Michael Kelly:

This is the man who slandered Robert Bork in order to keep him off the court. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mark This Moment?

I was confused and then incredulous this past Monday evening while watching the Fox News Special Report panel discuss the Obama administration’s decision to investigate CIA interrogators.  The discussion was whether or not politics played into it and some on the panel agreed that the decision was made, or at least announced that day, to deflect attention from Obama’s failing health care bill.  I nearly refused to believe it.  I’ve been arguing in this space for quite some time now that I believe Obama and the people that surround him are essentially amateurs in over their heads.  But could they really be this stupid?

The American people support the CIA interrogations by a wide margin.  They understand instinctively that the program has produced results over the years and has helped keep us safe.  Even those who may be uneasy over some of the methods being used understand the importance of the work, and they have little sympathy for terrorists getting smoke blown in their faces or bugs placed in their jail cells.  They further understand that to go after the people doing this difficult work will almost certainly put an end to the program.  Who, after all, would be willing to press hard during an interrogation if there exists a strong possibility that they may end up going to jail for doing so?  The investigators will mail it in from now on, and who can blame them?

Even if there is no terrorist attack on American soil during their tenure, I am convinced that the Obama administration will one day rue this decision.  For it reinforces the belief that they much more serious about going after former Bush officials than about fighting the war on terror.  Furthermore, it does so at a time when Obama’s poll numbers are diving and his domestic agenda is in complete disarray.  Americans have already begun to distrust his judgment.  And now this. How could they possibly think this decision would play well with the majority of Americans?

Charles Murray has an answer in this very interesting post.  Mr. Murray is one of the smartest men we have so he should be listened to.  (I would point out though, that Pauline Kael did not say that.  What she said was far less egregious.  When asked about her reaction to Nixon’s election she commented that she did not feel qualified to talk about it because no one she knew had voted for him. Conservatives have been using the story Mr. Murray tells for years to demonstrate liberal insularity.  While Ms. Kael was certainly a liberal, she was not stupid.  Having said that, I would not dispute that their is a “Pauline Kael syndrome” among liberals.  The syndrome simply needs another name.) 

Money quote:

But they’ve been in the bubble too long. They really think that the rest of America thinks as they do. Nothing but the Pauline Kael syndrome can explain the political idiocy of letting Attorney General Eric Holder go after the interrogators. 

Over at Commentary’s Contention blog, the marvelous Jennifer Rubin says something similar:

…the Obama team and its irritated left-wing supporters are acting like moths to a flame—they cannot pass up a chance to bash the Bush team. Even when it’s counterproductive, politically unpopular, lacking in factual support, or all three, they can’t help themselves. It is what motivates them, what gives them a sense of moral superiority. They are “un-Bush” and must perpetually remind us of their disdain for all things, people, policies, and events of the Bush years.

Over at Hot Air, Doctor Zero sums up my own thinking on the subject:

The Obama Administration, aware that everyone outside of union bosses, and interest groups looking for billion-dollar ribeye steaks of taxpayer money, is having trouble remembering why they voted for Obama, has decided to drag CIA interrogators and Bush Administration officials into court, where they will be persecuted for their role in defending America from terrorist attacks. Apparently Obama and his accomplices decided to distract their liberal base from the fiery Hindenburg crash of socialized medicine, by offering them a relaxing cruise on the Titanic of leftist foreign policy. As with everything else the current Administration does, it’s a remarkably foolish move: dangerous for America, and self-destructive as a strategy.

Finally, Jonah Goldberg over at The Corner, tells us to take note of this moment:

For years to come, this moment will resonate. Columnists will talk about how the deficit spiraled (even further) out of control in the summer of 2009 and the emasculation of the dollar became irreversible. Hawks will blame the castration of the CIA as the fons et origo of the next terror attack or the cause of the bureaucratic calcification of the CIA that led to some other intelligence catastrophe. Of course, there will be rebuttals to these contentions, there always are. And today's events are the children of yesterday's. The Church Committee didn't burst into existence ex nihilo and neither did the Holder inquisition. But this moment, it seems to me, will be the symbolic inflection point in conversations and arguments for years to come. So take notes, folks.

I couldn’t agree more. 

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Nuclear Option?

As Obama’s poll numbers continue to fall and bad news keep’s piling upon bad news, the administration has turned to desperation tactics and paranoia.  Talk has even begun about Obama being a one-termer, a consequence Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs says he’s comfortable with so long as he gets his agenda through.  Of course, the catch here is that Obama’s agenda is so unpopular with a majority of Americans that if he does implement it he’s guaranteed to be a one-termer.  If he doesn’t get it through, Obama’s presidency will be fatally damaged and he’ll wind up a caretaker president for whatever time he has left in the office.  It seems he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

So, with even his base in revolt, perhaps Obama and the Dems are ready to roll the dice and go it alone.  Beware the man with nothing to lose.  When the article first came out in the New York Times saying the go-it-alone strategy was being contemplated, most of us immediately saw it as a desperation tactic attempting to get the Republicans to play ball.  But Byron York’s column over at the Washington Examiner site is a troubling must-read.  Until I read it this morning go-it-alone seemed like a non-starter.  Passing radical, unpopular health care reform over the objections of a majority of Americans and without bipartisan support would be a Democratic death-wish.  Obama would be a guaranteed one-termer and the Democratic party would get slaughtered in the mid-term elections.  Even a party as dense as the Democrats wouldn’t risk it.   

York’s column, however, raises some points that might make go-it-alone seem attractive to the Democrats and Obama.  The so-called ‘reconciliation’ process in the Senate in which the Republicans could poke holes in the legislation, particularly the most egregious sections, might leave a bill in place that doesn’t seem so offensive to Americans.  It might also, through the long, drawn out process of debating each section, eventually paint the Republicans as obstructionists.  Most importantly for the left though, as York points out, it would put the infrastructure in place, one which could be filled in over time.  While massive, radical health care reform would not be the consequence of the initial legislation, it almost certainly would be in time, as it would expand naturally like any government program.  With the administration and the left-wingers who run Congress caught between a rock and a hard place, the so-called ‘nuclear option’, as York points out, may be their way out:

Veterans of the Senate tend to flinch from the sort of all-out warfare reconciliation could bring. But the fact is, reconciliation might in the end be the Democrats' best option. And it might work. Democrats wouldn't get everything they wanted, but they could create the structure for future growth. Later on, they'll add the plumbing. And the wiring. And maybe a chandelier.

Read the whole thing.   

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mad Men, Season Three, Episode One: Out of Town

Mad Men’s third season begins with Don Draper in the kitchen, standing at his stove late at night. He’s warming up some milk for his pregnant wife Betty, who can’t sleep. It’s the night before his birthday – not Don Draper’s, but Dick Whitman’s. Suddenly he is lost in thought, recalling the circumstances of his, Dick Whitman’s, birth by a common whore. His natural mother dies immediately after delivering him and the midwife brings the baby to Dick’s stepmother, who had miscarried in previous attempts to have a child. A musical motif is playing as we watch this scene. We’ll hear it twice more later in the episode.

The first time the music returns is when Don is with the stewardess in the hallway of the hotel in Baltimore. This time he’s the one being chased. While not quite reluctant, he’s certainly reserved and there's a question about whether he’s really going to go through with it. When the stewardess expresses doubts about whether they should sleep together Don tells her, “It’s my birthday.” Coming from anyone else this would seem like a sleazy plea offered to convince the stewardess to bed down with him - “please sleep with me, it’s my birthday.” Coming from Don Draper it’s a release. He can tell her, a stranger whom he’ll never see again, that it’s his birthday. No one else can know.

The final time the music is heard is in the episode’s final scene, when Don and Betty tell their daughter Sally the circumstances of her own birth. Sally has just found the stewardess’s airline pin in Don’s luggage and assumes it’s a gift. As his betrayed wife puts the pin on Sally, Don is stricken with guilt about his infidelity (a reaction we’ve seen Sally provoke before, in an episode last season when Sally is in the bathroom with Don while he shaves.) At this moment the man with the dual identity he knows exactly what he is – an utter fraud.

As the episode’s initial scene closes, Don scrapes off the skin that has formed on the warm milk and discards it. This is meaningful though I’m not sure in what way. Are the makers of Mad Men saying that Don Draper can shed Dick Whitman as easy as skimming the skin off some milk, or are they saying that the skin, the veneer, the persona that Don Draper has constructed to cover who he really is – Dick Whitman – is starting to come off? As always with Mad Men, they keep you guessing but by the end of the episode I was guessing the latter.

Thus begins Mad Men’s third season and I think I’m getting the overall theme now, if there is one. (Forgive me if this seems like old news to you but I’m a slow learner.) The show about a group of people in the advertising business, whose job it is to construct an identity for the products they sell, is really about the identity we construct for our own selves, the veneer we put on day by day to show the outside world. Don Draper, Betty Draper, Peggy Olsen, Pete Campbell, Sal Romano, now even Joan Holloway, all have built an identity that is at odds, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot, with who they truly are. And so it is with us all. We’ve all got something to hide.

It is, of course, the tension between the constructed identity and the truth that makes Mad Men so compelling. The bombshell this week was the outing of Sal as a homosexual. He is horrified, as well he should have been, that Don knows his secret. In 1963 such news made public would brand him a social outcast and could well cost him his job and his wife. But Don’s reaction is perfect. The man who has spent a lifetime hiding who he really is simply tells Sal, in the context of describing a new ad campaign for London Fog raincoats, “limit your exposure.”

The other main threads were all set ups for future shows. Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove are made co-heads of accounts at Sterling Cooper. Their reaction to the news tells us much about the both of them, and sets up some future conflict. The cockamamie decision to make them co-heads is made by the new folks from London who are running the show now at Sterling Cooper. I like it that they make Lane Pryce, the new finance officer, seem to be a decent and reasonable sort, even if the London people are clearly the enemy. The show did the same thing with Duck Philips last year. He was a nice guy, not a stock villain, whose demise came as a result of a character flaw, his problem with the booze. You knew it would end badly for him but it was hard not to feel badly for him once the end finally came.

That said, I don’t think this was one of the show’s more successful episodes, but then I thought the same thing about last year’s season opener and season two turned out to be excellent. We saw little of the woman of the show and I hope this is remedied over the next few episodes. Betty, Peggy, and Joan are in many ways more interesting than some of the male characters. We saw little of Roger Sterling too, another reason the show seemed a bit off. One can’t get enough of Roger Sterling. Otherwise, it took a second viewing before I started to appreciate some of the more subtle aspect of the episode - almost all the show’s episodes benefit from a second viewing. You become aware of things you missed the first time around, like the Dick Whitman musical motif I described above. There is no on-the-nose dialog on Mad Men. People never say what they really mean. It must be teased out and even then it leaves you with questions. That ambiguity is part of what makes the show so fascinating.

Monday, August 17, 2009

…this is not 1933 and Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt

The quote comes from Jay Cost’s excellent column over at RealClearPolitics.  Cost, one of the country’s great young thinkers about political matters, says Barack Obama misread his mandate by ceding the legislative agenda for health care and energy to the far left members of the House.  His election and mandate were much narrower than many on the left would like to believe – but they’re finding out now, aren’t they? 

Bismarck once commented that politics is the art of the possible. So far, the White House has not exhibited a good understanding of exactly what is possible in this political climate. It has been acting as though the President's election was a major change in the ideological orientation of the country.

A lot of liberals certainly saw it as such. All the strained comparisons of Obama to Franklin Roosevelt were a tipoff that many were talking themselves into the idea that the 2008 election created an opportunity for a substantial, leftward shift in policy. Yet the election of 2008 was not like the 1932 contest. It wasn't like 1952, 1956, 1964, 1972, 1980, 1984, or even 1988, either. Obama's election was narrower than all of these. FDR won 42 of 48 states. Eisenhower won 39, then 41. Johnson won 44 of 50. Nixon won 49. Reagan won 44, then 49. George H.W. Bush won 40. Obama won 28, three fewer than George W. Bush in his narrow 2004 reelection.

This makes a crucial difference when it comes to implementing policy. Our system of government depends not only on how many votes you win, but how broadly distributed those votes are….

….the map is what it is: that big swath of red that runs through the middle of the country then swings right through the South should have been a tipoff that the stage was not set for coastal governance.

The President should have realized what was possible and what wasn't, and he should have used his substantial influence to push the House toward the kind of centrist compromise the Senate will ultimately require. That's called building a consensus - something he promised he'd do but has not yet made a serious effort at.

As I’ve been arguing for the past few weeks, Obama has no choice any longer but to take a middle road and get some bi-partisan support for some less radical legislation.  That’s a tough pill to swallow for an ideologue like our president but any other course of action will be disastrous for him.  As I’ve suggested before, whether or not he has it in him to compromise is still to be seen. 

Like A Complete Unknown

"I don't think she was familiar with his entire body of work." - Long Branch business administrator Howard Woolley

The quote above is from this story, where two young police officers in New Jersey encountered Bob Dylan but had no idea who he was. I'm not surprised but I am disturbed. This isn't simply a story about the ignorance of two young kids. It's endemic among the kids' generation. The young today have no familiarity with traditional American music and no interest in learning about it. They have left behind many of the treasures of their cultural heritage - jazz, blues, standards, and now even the founding generation of rock and roll. It's been rejected, if only through ignorance, in lieu of the execrable tuneless over-emoting of modern day pop music. Call them the American Idol generation.

There are four American musical performers/artists whose works rise above everyone else, four men who could plausibly lay claim to the title of "Greatest American Musician." One of them is Bob Dylan. Can you guess the other three?

When my generation finally dies off, will there still be an audience for jazz or the blues? Probably not. There's something around today called "cool jazz" but what relationship does it have to traditional jazz? As for the blues, I'm not sure many kids today would be able to recognize it or enjoy it. Even if they encountered them, Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf would seem awfully exotic to a generation raised on synthesizers, lip-syncing, and light shows. As for classical music, it's as good as dead for the current youth generation; American standards ala Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, etal. are on life support too. These genres are all essentially niche markets in today's musical universe. Twenty years from now they'll probably exist only as revival material. Thus one of the great American cultural contributions of the twentieth century (along with the movies and the Broadway musical) dies out.

So who are the other three who could lay claim to the title “Greatest American Musician”? If you read this blog regularly you'll probably be able to guess. Here are two of them side by side, having a ball. Sinatra is jazzed be able to perform with Pops:

Here’s the other one, in an electrifying performance:

And, finally, here’s Dylan, at his peak:

I Love This... Normally during sporting events I switch the channel to some other event during commercials but not this one. It’s probably my favorite commercial ever. I think it's an absolutely brilliant concept and it's perfectly delivered. The dog is an absolute sweetheart and I wish he were mine.

As an aside, it also reminds me of my grandfather - "Papa". When the dog turns the corner near the end there is a sign in the background for "Pasquale's Pizzeria". Pasquale was Papa's name, though he often went by Pat when out in the world. The reminder of my beloved grandfather just adds to the pathos of the ad. I'm posting it here so I can get back to it whenever I need a tug at my heartstrings:

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dead Shark Songs

Yes, I’ve been more interested in the political lately, but can you blame me?  Things are interesting right now, by which I mean, of course, that the liberals are on the ropes.  It’s always fascinating to watch an administration go down the drain.  That’s not yet the case for the Obama administration but if it continues on it’s current path I have no doubt that’s where it’s headed.  Remember the series PBS did many years back on JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan?  Three hours per episode if I recall.  The episode on LBJ was, to me, the best one.  LBJ had the world on a string, liberalism was at it apex, and Congress was dominated by the Democratic Party The Great Society was upon us and LBJ was it’s leader and architect.  And it all came crashing down due to Vietnam and the excesses of liberalism.  The man who was elected in one of the largest landslides in history dropped his reelection bid four years later because he almost assuredly could not even gain his own party’s nomination.  Near the end of the episode they show a still photo of Johnson in the Oval Office, his face buried in his hands, a man bewildered. The moment was downright Shakespearean in its dramatic force, King Lear-like.  They rerun this series on occasion.  If you’ve never seen these shows, I highly recommend them.  Who knows, in about four years they may be updating the series to include Barack Obama.

But this post is to assure you that I still have things to say on subjects other than politics.

A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark – Alvy Singer, from the movie Annie Hall.

I thought of that scene this week while I was working out.  Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are on a plane back to New York from Los Angeles, a place she likes and he despises (Annie: It's so clean out here. Alvy: That's because they don't throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.)  Both are lost in thought and they come to the simultaneous realization that they’ve come to the end of their relationship.  It was great once but not any longer.  Allen sums up the problem with the “dead shark” quote.

What prompted my recollection of the scene during my workout were the songs I was listening to.  These days I’m more likely to listen to Beethoven or Sinatra or Pops than to pop-rock standards but I do still have a fondness for those standards from the early-to-mid 1970’s.  I’ve got a playlist of songs from that era and I shuffled it.  At one point during a span of five songs I realized there were three dead-shark songs in there, all three classics, and all three with the same subject, relationships that are coming to an end: Carole King’s “It’s Too Late”, Gladys Knight’s “Neither One Of Us”, and Jackson Browne’s “Late For The Sky”.  I’ve been listening to all three songs on a regular basis for about thirty-five years now but it was only when hearing them in such close proximity the other day that I made the connection.  They’re all dead sharks. 

From “It’s Too Late”:

Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time 

There’s something wrong here, there can be no denying…

It used to be so easy living here with you

You were light and breezy and I knew just what to do

Now you look so unhappy

And I feel like a fool…

They’ll be good times again for me and you

But we just can’t stay together, don’t you feel it too?

From “Neither One Of Us”:

It’s sad to think

we’re not going to make it

And it’s gotten to the point

Where we just can’t fake it

For some ungodly reason

We just won’t let it die

I guess neither one of us

Wants to be the first to say goodbye

From “Late For The Sky”:

Well the words had all been spoken

And somehow the feeling still wasn’t right

And still we continued on through the night…

Looking hard into your eyes

There was nobody I’d ever known

Such an empty surprise

To feel so alone…

I’m awake again I can’t pretend

And I know I’m alone

And close to the end

Of the feeling we’ve known.

They are all wonderful, beautifully-crafted songs, from the gorgeous first chord of “It’s Too Late”, to Gladys Knight’s high-pitched “ooh” during the final chorus of  “Neither One Of Us”, to the way Jackson Browne sings the words “and I know I’m alone” just past the 4 minutes mark of “Late For The Sky”, like he’s just realized the enormous and devastating truth of those words.

At any rate, here’s hoping your shark is still swimming – mine is.  I wanted to embed all three songs but I don't have "Late For The Sky" available. But here are the other two. Listen and enjoy:

Agreement II

Ed Morrissey has a terrific blog post over at his home at Hot Air.   He excerpts an interview from Politico with the man who should be the president now (if only they had listened to me), Rudy Giuliani.  Ed focuses on Giuliani’s assertion that the Obama administration has no one but themselves to blame for the current health care fiasco (Giuliani “They never really studied the legislation that has been proposed.”)  Ed then uses the interview as a basis for some terrific observations of his own, key among them:

It does demonstrate…the curious disengagement of a President who promised hope and change on the campaign trail.  He seems perfectly content to let Nancy Pelosi run his domestic policy with no interference or even any particular objection.  Of the big three agenda items Obama has pushed this year, one might have expected him to get most personally involved in health-care reform, the one issue that started with bipartisan support both in the Beltway and among the electorate.  Instead, he has floated above the fray and above the details and the hard work, and it shows.  When nuggets like Section 1233 come to light, the White House response has been late, incorrect, and usually more damaging than the initial criticisms.

Obama’s not leading.  He’s campaigning, and doing that on a float of ignorance about the very bill he touts.  Giuliani has it right — this is the President with no leadership clothes at all.

The italics above are mine for, to me, the section is key to understanding Obama.  He has no details because he’s never worked to learn them.  I wish I could remember who it was a few weeks ago who said Obama has never had to work hard at anything in his life.  Usually just showing up and making a speech was all that was asked of him.  It’s clear now that he thought he could get away with the same thing as president.  But politics is the art of persuasion and he lacks the information to properly persuade the nation. 

He’s never had to work hard.  He probably doesn’t have it in him.  I recall about two weeks after the inauguration an article in the paper whose main point was how exhausted Obama and the members of his staff were.  My wife and I were incredulous – two weeks!  There were similar stories earlier from the campaign, the Obama people boo-hooing about how tired they were.  Well, too bad.  This whole meme gets down to one of my long-time beliefs: what separates great men from the not-so-great is that the great possess a level of energy and dedication most of us mere mortals don’t.  Edison’s famous quote, “success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration,” is, in my view, true.  Of course, the perspiration must be combined with some true talent.  Tiger Woods was blessed with the talent to be the greatest golfer who ever lived, but he wouldn’t have been had he not dedicated himself to it with a lifetime of rigorous hard work, hard work most of us are incapable of. 

Obama too seems incapable of it, or anything even close to it.  Hillary said during the campaign that all Obama had ever done was make a speech in 2004.  He rode the buzz from that speech all the way to the White House but now he’s finding (or should be) that speech-making is not nearly enough, especially when those speeches are filled with platitudes, evasions, and downright falsehoods.  If he can’t reasonably explain to the American public why comprehensive health care reform is necessary; if he doesn’t master the details of those reforms; if he can’t win the argument about whether the planned reforms would benefit us, he’ll lose (the same goes for cap-and-trade energy policy and next year’s planned immigration reform.)  And that’s going to take hard work on his part, along with something else I’m not sure he’s capable of - compromise. Ramming legislation through Congress before anyone has a chance to read or understand it is a thing of the past for this administration.  From now on it’s going to take work, persuasion, and ability to realize what the American people really want.  Obama, if he is smart, will learn the limitations of the Chicago-way of politics, of the Saul Alinsky method.  His only hope of a successful administration now is to move to the middle ala Bill Clinton, persuading independents and some consrvatives to work with him to pass real bipartisan legislation that the majority of Americans favor.  All other roads lead to failure. 

Friday, August 14, 2009

Four Generations



Peggy Noonan seems to have come to her senses. Inexplicably, she was one of those conservatives who seemed to fall for the Obama Hope and Change nonsense during the campaign. Perhaps it was due to her anger at the Bush administration, or her disappointment with the McCain campaign. Perhaps she spent too much time with her colleagues on MSNBC or her neighbors on the Upper West Side in New York. Whatever the reason, this normally extremely sensible woman seemed to think Obama would be some sort of agent of change for the better. Maybe her essential decency fueled her hopes - she wanted badly for him to be the post-partisan, post-racial president he sold himself as. It's not a terrible thing hoping Obama would lived up to this billing. But to really believe in the possibility took a willful disregard of Obama's twenty years of radicalism prior to the campaign. While it is understandable that ordinary Americans were unaware of Obama's past during the campaign - after all the mainstream media went to great lengths not to report on it - it is inconceivable that Ms. Noonan was.

In her column yesterday she hit on some of the same point I did in my post last week, that distrust has crept into the public's opinion of Obama:
[The health care debate] has lessened the thing an admired president must have from the people, and that is trust.
that Obama is a political empty suit:
The president seemed like a man long celebrated as being very good at politics—the swift rise, the astute reading of a varied electorate—who is finding out day by day that he isn't actually all that good at it. In this sense he does seem reminiscent of Jimmy Carter, who was brilliant at becoming president but not being president.
and that the stimulus bill, seen as a victory at the time, was actually the point where things started to go bad for Obama:
Looking back, a key domestic moment in this presidency occurred only eight days after his inauguration, when Mr. Obama won House passage of his stimulus bill. It was a bad bill—off point, porky and philosophically incoherent. He won 244-188, a rousing victory for a new president. But he won without a single Republican vote. That was the moment the new division took hold. The Democrats of the House pushed it through, and not one Republican, even those from swing districts, even those eager to work with the administration, could support it.

This, of course, was politics as usual. But in 2008 people voted against politics as usual.

It was a real lost opportunity. It marked the moment congressional Republicans felt free to be in full opposition. It gave congressional Democrats the impression that they were in full control, that no one could stop their train. And it was the moment the president, looking at the lay of the land, seemed to reveal he would not govern in a vaguely center-left way, as a unifying figure even if a beset one being beaten 'round the head by the left, but in a left way, without the modifying "center." Or at least as one who happily cedes to the left in Congress each day.

Read the whole thing, as they say. Peggy Noonan is an important voice in the conservative community and her faith in Obama over the past year had left many of us shaking our heads. Seems she has finally concluded what most of us have seen as self-evident, that Barack Obama is a leftist, but one who comes to the fight armed with only a vague notion of policy, politics, history, and economics. He's in over his head.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mad Men - Season 3

Mad Men's third season starts a week from today. It's the best show on television. I had planned on blogging last year's entire season but only got through episode four before I lost the blogging bug. No promises but maybe I'll try again this year. Not that any of you care. If anyone out there reads this blog and has opinions on the show, or what I've written about the show, it might be fun to start a conversation in the comments section after each episode. Feel free.

The Age of Reagan

I recently finished a marvelous book, Steve Hayward's The Age of Reagan, 1964-1980: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order. Hayward, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, got a bad break with this book. It was published on or around September 11, 2001. I remember clearly the anticipation in the conservative community prior to its release - we were all waiting for Steve Hayward's Reagan book. Then the 9/11 attacks occurred and the book got lost. It was months after the attacks before I could think of anything else (I was working feverishly and nearly finished with my first screenplay when the attacks occurred but did not actually pick it up again until the following January.) I suspect the same thing occurred for a lot of people, particularly the politically-minded. The book was forgotten.

And it's a shame because it is brilliant. The book opens one week before the 1964 elections where LBJ would swamp Barry Goldwater for president and the Democrats would increase their margins in both houses of Congress to unprecedented levels. Liberalism was at its apex. The Republicans, in a last ditch effort to salvage something out of the election, persuaded Ronald Reagan to make a speech on Goldwater's behalf. He agreed and the speech, A Time For Choosing, was broadcast nationally on October 27. That night a star was born and the conservative order began to take shape. Hayward meticulously details the fall of liberalism, from its heights in 1964-65, when anything seemed possible, to its shameful depths during the Carter years. Along side of that story Hayward traces the rise of Reagan and the conservative coalition that would bring him to power. The book ends with Reagan's victory in the 1980 presidential election. If you are a political junkie such as myself you'll get this book and devour it - it's un-put-down-able. My wife knows by now when I'm totally lost in a book and she realized these past two weekends to simply leave the guy on the couch alone. Thank you baby.

My decision to read the book now has turned out serendipitously for I've just learned the Hayward second volume, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989, will be published at the end of the month. I've already pre-ordered on Amazon. You should too.

Another book I'm eagerly anticipating is John Derbyshire's We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, due out at the end of September. Derb, as he is known on The Corner and elsewhere, is one of my favorites. His writings and Corner posts are a constant reminder that human nature is constant and any program implemented in order to change it is money down the drain. An amateur mathematician and a promoter of scientific evidence over religious or social improvement schemes, he is more and more of the opinion that who we are is determined at birth and there is little the political or social order can do to change that. I have no idea what is contained in the book but he is apparently concerned that conservatives may be falling into the same trap as liberals, what with the "compassionate conservatism" and Huckabee-ism of the past decade. For all I know he may even take some shots at that famous optimist Ronald Reagan (or at least the Reaganists who misunderstand the true source of the great man's optimism: his faith in God and his faith in the individual to prosper, so long as government let him.) I expect the book is an attempt to combat those tendencies, and a call to reclaim the pessimism of the old conservatives who knew that limited government was the best government.

So my reading list for the next few months is all set. What's on your agenda?